THERE could hardly be a more atmospheric little station than Chinnor, on the old GWR branch line to Watlington, especially with the steam mingling with the drizzle of a foul wet Sunday.
But it takes more than a little bad weather to dampen the spirits of railway enthusiasts, and the little branch line was bustling with activity as we arrived to take our seats in the buffet car for a birthday cream tea celebration.
This was a day out booked before Christmas, but the limited winter timetable delayed the opportunity to sample the delights of what is now known as the Chinnor and Princes Risborough Railway.
Originally the Watlington and Princes Risborough Railway Company, the eight-mile light railway was largely promoted by local land owners and authorised by parliament in 1869. It opened in 1872 with two intermediate stations at Chinnor and Aston Rowant.
But the company immediately ran into difficulties and the Great Western Railway acquired it in 1883. Under GWR ownership the track was re-laid, with rail level halts being opened at Bledlow Bridge, Kingston Crossing and Lewknor Bridge in 1906 and Wainhill Crossing in 1925.
After the Second World War passenger traffic on the branch started to drop and by the mid-1950s had fallen to such a level that on July 1, 1957 the line was closed to passenger traffic.
From a personal perspective, the date is a little ironic, since the birthday we are celebrating is my own – just six months later in December, 60 years ago.
And talking of birthdays, this is also a special year for the engine now backing on to the train, No 5526, one of a series of small ‘Prairie’ steam engines built at Swindon in May 1928.
The ‘4575’ class engine has been loaned to Chinnor for her 90th birthday year courtesy of the South Devon Railway, another former GWR branch line which runs along the stunning valley of the River Dart between Buckfastleigh and Totnes.
There’s another small irony here, although not one I become aware of until researching the history of the engine, which will be hauling all steam services on the Chinnor line throughout 2018. This is not the first time we have met, it seems – although on the last occasion the engine was in a pretty sorry state and it would have been hard to visualise it ever being in steam again.
It’s one of 100 small mixed traffic locomotives designed by Charles Collett and mainly used on branch lines. A development of Churchward’s 4500 class, they were numbered 4575–4599 and 5500–5574; this one was apparently built at Swindon Works as part of Lot 251 and cost the princely sum of £3,602.
For 30 years the engine was almost exclusively based in the West Country, much of the time at Truro, where workings would have included branch line services to places like Falmouth and Newquay.
These are the sorts of routes which get enthusiasts all misty-eyed because they were often so atmospheric – and in many cases long gone, especially once Dr Beeching got to grips with the loss-making network in the early 1960s.
In my pre-grouping atlas showing the old Great Western lines which existed before the war, these little spurs on the map always smacked of tiny stations like this one at Chinnor, condensation on the windows and steam and smuts in the air. And the branches down in Cornwall and Devon always counted among the most intriguing because of their picturesque seaside and moorland locations.
But there were plenty closer to home too, like this one to Watlington and those nearby, like Wallingford, Abingdon, Blenheim & Woodstock and Henley-on-Thames.
By March 1959 5526 had moved from Truro to Westbury and its final years in British Railways days were spent on local passenger and goods workings to destinations like Swindon and Bristol.
It was withdrawn from service in 1962 after travelling almost a million miles in 34 years, and sold for scrap to Woodham Brothers in South Wales on August 28, 1962.
And that’s when I last saw this particular engine, it transpires, because Dai Woodham’s famous Barry scrapyard became a place of pilgrimage for railway enthusiasts as the last resting place of almost 300 steam locomotives.
The story of the scrapyard is an extraordinary one, told on the Great Western Archive. Dai Woodham admitted having to travel to Swindon Works for a week in 1959 to “learn” how to scrap a steam locomotive, with old engines lining up in their hundreds in sidings around the country following BR’s 1955 modernisation plan decision to scrap some 16,000 of them.
By the end of steam in August 1968 there were still some 217 engines remaining at Barry, with the realisation dawning on enthusiasts and preservationists that this was now the only remaining source of steam locomotives which might be rescued for future generations.
5526 languished for 23 years in the corrosive sea air of Barry, and it was there that I stumbled across it as a teenager in June 1971, one of 70 former GWR engines in those grim sidings on that summer’s day, stripped to rusting shells but many reserved for posterity by different groups of enthusiasts desperately raising funds to rescue the locomotive of their choice.
And so it was for 5526, it seems, which was finally reprieved in July 1985 when it became the 166th locomotive to be saved from the cutter’s torch at Barry Island, moving initially to the Gloucester and Warwickshire Railway before finally arriving at Buckfastleigh on the South Devon Railway, to be fully restored.
Looking at the engine today, it’s hard to believe the transformation from that rusting hulk at Barry – and it’s quite an emotional reunion.
Back on the station platform at Chinnor, passengers are beginning to mill around in the drizzle while volunteers prepare the buffet car ahead of the 3pm departure to Princes Risborough.
These days that’s all that’s left of the branch, and the volunteers are currently working on restoring a platform at Princes Risborough so that the preserved line can link up with Chiltern Railways main line there.
Back in 1957 when the line closed, the various halts were shut immediately, but the stations remained open for goods and parcel traffic until January 1961, after which the section from Chinnor to Watlington was closed completely and the track lifted.
The line from Chinnor to Princes Risborough was retained to serve the cement works and the wood yard in the village, with the final freight train to the cement works running in 1989 and maintenance of the branch being handed over to the Chinnor and Princes Risborough Railway Association the following year.
The first passenger service ran in 1994 and was extended to Thame Junction in 1996, although the battle to run trains into Princes Risborough was to take another two decades, as the railway’s website explains.
For now, though, all attention is beginning to turn to afternoon tea as we are ushered to our seats and get ready for the seven-mile round trip.
Our end of the carriage has been cheerfully decorated in honour of the various birthdays being celebrated by diners – I’m one of three, it seems, and feel a bit of a fraud as four months have passed since the milestone in question, but the buffet team are determined not to let the occasion go unnoticed. There’s even a birthday card on the table from the staff.
This is one of the old British Railways Mark I coaches built in the 1950s and early 1960s and once to be found on locomotive-hauled trains pretty much everywhere across the system.
They were long-lived too, gradually disappearing during the 1970s and 80s as new coaching stock was introduced, although remarkably some stayed in use until 2005, with many subsequently turning up on preserved railways like this one.
Reinvigorating these old carriages doesn’t come cheap, though – and there’s an envelope on the table for contributions as a reminder of the high price of our plush-looking seats and the long slow progress of restoration generally.
This particular 1959 carriage (a “restaurant miniature buffet” in formal railway parlance) was off the rails for 10 months in 2010 for a make-over that cost more than £42,000.
This carriage earns its keep, though. It’s used to serve up cream teas and ploughman’s lunches on services throughout the year and the volunteers are already hovering with teapots of boiling water to make sure that these scones and cream won’t be too easily forgotten.
Outside, the signal clangs, the guard shows a green flag and our driver gently eases the regulator open. Because the engine is running behind the train, there’s little obvious sign of steam or smoke, but in any event all eyes are on the scones and refreshing cups of tea being poured into authentic GWR cups and saucers.
The lineside guide on the railway’s website tells us we are heading for the outskirts of Chinnor and Keens Lane Crossing, where the driver may give a warning toot to walkers waiting to cross the line.
This crossing is known locally as Donkey Lane, harking back to the time when the furniture industry was in full swing and chair legs fashioned by ‘bodgers’ (itinerant wood-turners) on the beechwood slopes above, would be brought down from the hills by pack animals to be taken by train to High Wycombe.
Although the windows are beginning to steam up with the hot tea and convivial conversation, it’s still possible to return the waves of walkers on a footpath which runs parallel to the ancient Upper Icknield Way.
What is it that makes it impossible to see a steam traing without waving at it? Looking across the open fields and returning the walkers’ cheery waves, it feels like a scene from the 1970 classic film of E Nesbit’s celebrated novel, The Railway Children. It also reminds me just how evocative the idea of enjoying a meal on a train actually is.
As a young boy in short trousers I always remember standing on the platform at South Croydon station watching the legendary Brighton Belle thundering through. The iconic 1930s luxury pullman train was electric, not steam, but with its beautiful art deco interiors and distinctive table lamps it seemed to be the epitome of fine dining to the envious eyes of a 10-year-old.
The mythology was only increased by reading articles about the train – reminiscences by the actress Dora Bryan, for example, recording the extraordinary atmosphere of breakfast on board the one-hour journey from Brighton to London.
Our meal may not quite capture the exoticism of the Brighton Belle or the Orient Express, but the stewards are avidly refilling the metal teapots and the scones are going down a treat as we slow down for Wainhill Crossing Halt.
We cross the road at a sedate pace and head on towards Bledlow Cricket Club, the overgrown watercress beds which once provided many boxes of produce to the London markets, and Thame Junction at Princes Risborough, where we pause for a few minutes before tackling the return journey.
Eventually there will be an interchange with the main line here, but for the moment volunteers are busy restoring the platform and passengers are not able to alight.
Of course the incorrigible volunteers can’t let those birthdays pass without a formal announcement, a ‘Happy Birthday’ singalong and a celebratory cake and candle for the lucky trio.
John and Sue look similarly embarrassed by all the attention, but at least it’s actually John’s birthday…it’s a sweet touch, though, and their efforts and enthusiasm are much appreciated. After all, this isn’t how I remember buffet car service in British Railways days.
A few minutes later and we are back on the move, this time with the engine in front and authentic wafts of steam and smoke floating past the window. It’s a picturesque trip along the foot of the Chilterns escarpment but although the weather is closing in and the windows are steamed up, in some ways that just makes the journey seem even more atmospheric.
It’s not long before we are back in Chinnor and saying our farewells to the buffet staff. It’s been a lovely outing, despite the drizzle: not exactly cheap at £18 a head (the normal adult fare for a round trip without the cream tea is £12), but you can’t grudge the outlay given the energy of the volunteers and the eye-watering costs involved in trying to bring the past back to life.
The railway is open on Sundays from mid-March to the end of October, with occasional other dates, including Thursdays in August and Santa specials in the run-up to Christmas.
There are diesel days and special galas, Hallowe’en ghost trains, fish and chip quiz nights and even murder mystery evenings, so there’s certainly no shortage of ingenuity when it comes to attracting different types of visitors, and not only those who mourn the passing of steam.
Facilities at the station include a small bookshop and an 1895 Cambrian Railway coach which has been converted to a tearoom. There’s disabled access and toilets too.
Without doubt it’s a labour of love for the regulars who give up their spare time doing everything from cleaning the trains to maintaining the station gardens. There are no paid staff on the railway, so there’s always an appeal for newcomers to join the team working behind the scenes to make the venture a success.
And all credit to them, say I. Everyone went out of their way to make us feel welcome – and we’ll certainly be back.