FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Great Western

Posted in Didcot, England, Swindon by folkestonejack on July 19, 2015

Our trip to RIAT had brought us to Swindon, a railway town if ever there was one, so it seemed worth finding out more about the story of the Great Western Railway. This is easily achieved by dropping in to two attractions that are just fifteen minutes apart by train – Didcot Railway Centre and Steam: Museum of the Great Western Railway at Swindon itself.

The original GWR engine shed (1932) at the Didcot Railway Centre

The original GWR engine shed (1932) at the Didcot Railway Centre

The name of the Great Western Railway (or God’s Wonderful Railway as it was often known) evokes images of the railways at their peak and still carries an incredible cachet to this day. Indeed, First Group will be rebranding their services in the western region as GWR before the start of the new franchise in September.

The history behind the name is wonderfully explained at Steam: Museum of the Great Western Railway with a walkthrough of the old works building and the story of locomotive construction on the site. It does a good job of talking you through the stages from the foundry to the boiler shop, before presenting the finished product in the form of ‘Caerphilly Castle’ which was constructed at Swindon Works in 1923.

I found it particularly fascinating to learn that the works closed for 10 days each year and that all the employees and their families were transported by train to their chosen holiday destinations. The logistical nightmare of moving around 25,000 people overnight must have caused many a headache for the planners – even today that would be the equivalent of the heaviest metropolitan morning rush hour outside of Birmingham and London. It was said that the volume of visitors to Weymouth was so great that it became known as Swindon by the sea!

Throughout 2015 the museum is displaying a variety of additional exhibits to illustrate the role of the GWR and its employees during the First World War, ranging from the establishment of units formed largely of GWR men to the construction of 256 specialist carriages for ambulance trains. Added poignancy can be found in the many war memorials displayed on the walls, including one with a personal connection. The war memorial for 19 and 20 shops (of the Locomotive and Carriage Department) included one T. W. Bailey, my great grandfather’s cousin, who died at the Somme aged 42 on 13th March 1917.

All engines must stop...

A sign preserved at Didcot Railway Centre

Our second stop for the day, Didcot Railway Centre, has helped preserve a little of the everyday infrastructure that has disappeared from across the GWR network. At the heart of the site is the original GWR engine shed (1932) which houses a collection of GWR locomotives. It is a delightful complex with a couple of short running lines that allow visitors to see locomotives or railcars in motion.

On the day we visited the locomotives rostered for duty were GWR 0-6-0 Pannier Tank 3650 and GWR 2-6-2 Prairie Tank 4144, with the latter giving us some great morning freight movements before switching to passenger carrying duties. Other fascinating exhibits include a prototype gas turbine locomotive, one of only three diesel GWR railcars to survive into preservation and a Steam Railmotor.

Both museums do a terrific job of telling the Great Western story in a compelling fashion, ably assisted by enthusiastic teams of staff and volunteers. I can’t recommend a visit highly enough!