We spent quite a bit of time wandering in the train shed, looking at the various locomotives and reading placards about their history. We saw everything from little steam engines to huge diesel trains. There were quite a few groups and families there, among the contingent of solo (mostly mail) train geeks. One little girl was delightedly cataloguing the trains she “recognized” — Thomas, and Edward, and Gordon, but “where’s Henry, Daddy?” I was happy to be able to give her somewhat bewildered father directions to a longish green steam engine that answered the general description of Henry.
We got to see this engine run all around the yard, including taking on coal and being turned around on the turntable.
The highlight of our visit, though, was the experience of riding two of the newer trains at the centre. From Didcot Halt, a reconstructed local station, we rode a mid-20th century diesel train to the Transfer Shed, a building necessary in the early years of the Great Western because its lines were built to a broad gauge of track (about 7 feet between the rails) and goods needed to be transfered to other railways that build a narrow gauge (4 feet 8 1/2 inches between the rails). [By act of Parliament in the mid-19th century, narrow gauge became the standard gauge, and all track and locomotives were eventually converted.] In the transfer shed, we were herded into a reconstructed livestock truck and (after a lively explanation of the realities of passenger rail travel in the 1840s) pulled up and pushed down a short section of actual broad gauge track by Firefly, a replica of a broad-gauge steam locomotive from 1840 that was built to operate at the centre in 2005.
We spent the rest of that weekend with friends in Romsey; our traveling companions headed back to work and home in Scotland, and we did some walking in mixed sunshine and rain and searched futilely for a cream tea on a Sunday afternoon.
We were also served a fabulous homemade Indian meal.
On Monday we were off to explore; we drove up into Wiltshire to Devizes, where we visited another old brewery, Wadworth’s. It’s a much bigger and more modernized operation than Hook Norton, but it also still delivers kegs of beer to local pubs using a horse-drawn dray. (Our guide at Hook Norton said there were only three breweries still operating horse deliveries, and we visited two of them.) The big Shire horses are quite impressive up close, as is their collection of gear for both day-to-day work and competitive shows.
We spent the night in picturesque Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire, in a 500-year-old coaching in that once housed Charles I. We love staying in places like this, with the narrow stairs, uneven floors, and rooms where nothing is quite level or square.
It’s hard to believe that this was seven weeks ago (and that I’m just now getting around to posting about it). There’s still almost a whole week of the holiday to share, too.