Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Bluebell Railway: Through the Cutting

When I was young, a visit to a steam railway was always a special treat - a great family day out. Trying to capture something of the sight, sound, smell and evocative pathos of the preserved locos on camera was an added enjoyable feature of the day. Of course, in those pre-digital days, every shot had to count, and it could be many weeks before a full film was used up and taken to Boots in the High Street for developing and collecting the next day. There were, naturally, many disappointments at the photo-counter when prints emerged looking blurred, or lacking much colour...

One of the days out I used to enjoy like this was to the Bluebell Railway in Sussex - a particularly fine preserved railway; recreating different eras of the line's one and a half centuries of existence at different points along its eleven mile length.

Unlike "The Watercress Line" in Hampshire which connected to British Rail at Alton, The Bluebell Line was harder to get to, impossible without a car, in fact. As a result, my camera and I went to Ropley far more often than to Sheffield Park. 

Originally, of course, The Bluebell Line was part of the national rail network, but was one of many lines "Beeching'd" into submission after WWII. Dr Beeching cannot be held directly responsible for this closure however, as it pre-dated his contentious reign at BR. Since its closure, the volunteers who re-opened a section of it, had long hoped to reconnect it to national rail, at East Grinstead where the tracks had been severed. What lay between Bluebell metals and the town was a major obstacle - The Imberhorne Cutting. In the decades without rail, the local council had used the redundant rail cutting as a landfill site, containing almost 100,000 tons of domestic waste, stores under layers of clay and top-soil. The cutting was completely full.

Decades of fundraising have led to the recent completion of the £11m job of digging out the waste, rebuilding the sides of the cutting and returning the railway to East Grinstead. The staff and volunteers managed this in March 2013.

I haven't been to the Bluebell for years, but have watched their website with interest as they have carried away train load after train load of waste - and rebuilt the railway. It was great, last week, to be able to catch a train from Clapham Junction, and change at East Grinstead for The Bluebell Railway. It was fascinating to be steam hauled across the Imberhorne Viaduct, and into the cutting before winding our way out across the Sussex countryside.

Work is still clearly underway deep down in the cutting. A diesel loco was working all day, taking heavy clay out of the cutting , while teams of engineers continued to construct retaining walls to add strength to the very steeply sided banks.

There's a bit of a climb in the cutting, but the great 9F eased its way up and over the incline, leaving the engineers to continue their work.

Having seen it so many times on the screen, it was good to be able to visit and see it for real. The only disappointment was the very limited timetable, which meant that from the train connection it was only possible to stop off at one station. I chose Sheffield Park with the engines sheds and museum but was therefore prevented from exploring Horsted Keynes, probably the finest station on the line and the star of countless TV and film appearances. Connection with London trains before midday would have made the visit even better - but I suppose it was midweek, during school termtime!

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