Our Jolly Holiday, Part II

1857 Steam Loco “Shannon”

After our canal boat week, we spent a Saturday at the Didcot Railway Center, “the home of the Great Western Society.” The Great Western, also known as “God’s Wonderful Railway,” was one of Britain’s major rail companies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was engineered by I. K. Brunel (my partner’s favorite Victorian engineer — everybody has one of those, right?) and it eventually expanded (both by building and by acquiring smaller local lines) to cover the country west of London all the way north to Manchester, throughout Wales, and all the way to Penzance in the southwest. (There’s a map here.) The centre is a fabulous place to learn about the history of the Great Western and of the rail industry in Britain, but it’s much more than a museum. It is a working preservation yard, with many beautifully restored trains and coaches, and work ongoing to restore more. We were there on a “running day,” which meant that actual trains were operating, including more than one steam engine.

Little Pufferbellies!

Sections of Coach Restoration

King Edward II, 1930

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.

1931 Steam Loco

Bonnie Prince Charlie

1917 Steam Loco

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.


You probably have to be a train geek and/or an avid student of industrial archeology (my partner is both) to understand what a great experience this was.

Steam locomotive controls

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.

Wadworth’s brewery entrance

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.)

Beer drays

The big Shire horses are quite impressive up close, as is their collection of gear for both day-to-day work and competitive shows.

Everyday tack

Show tack

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.

Kings Arms, Stow

Stairs to our room

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.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Liz Mc2
    Aug 21, 2012 @ 09:31:34

    What a great holiday! My son was obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine for a couple of years, so I was absolutely looking at these pictures thinking, “Oh look, Percy!” We have a community centre that’s a restored roundhouse, with the turntable still visible, and he loved going to visit that.

    I don’t know a lot about Brunel, but he does have such fabulous Victorian names. Did your partner enjoy seeing Branagh play him in the Olympic opening ceremonies?


    • SonomaLass
      Aug 21, 2012 @ 22:59:46

      Liz, the Industrialization segment of the London 2012 opening ceremony was the highlight of the Olympics for him, followed by the equestrian events. We agree that Branagh, a family favorite, did Brunel proud.


  2. quilterphyl
    Aug 21, 2012 @ 10:12:21

    I think it’s neat how iconic those Thomas the Tank Engine stories are. It was the first thing I thought of when I saw the train yard picture. My son was another one obsessed with Thomas. For years he rarely went anywhere without clutching at least one of those trains in his hand. The things we did to track down a Gordon!

    Once again, great pictures. Such a nice holiday.


  3. SonomaLass
    Aug 21, 2012 @ 22:57:34

    My partner grew up with the Reverend Awdry books, long before the videos. We have the whole set, some with his name scribbled in a very childish hand. I can’t wait until my grandson is old enough for them. My two younger children loved the videos, too.

    Industrial archeology is one of R’s hobbies, plus he’s a writer of alternative history that often features trains. I’m currently editing his latest book, an alternate history romance, where a train is front and center in the plot. This was in part a research trip, as was our visit to the National Train Museum in York two years ago. Research for me, not him; he knows this stuff, but it helps me to visualize scenes better having seen the trains in action.

    Glad you enjoyed the pictures!


  4. Trackback: Our Jolly Holiday, Part III | Sonomalass's Blog

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