This delightful spot has changed considerably since those Saturday afternoons when I’d come running up Splott Road and down Pearl Place to press my face against these same green railings, so many years ago. And the railings are still there! Thanks, Google Street View …
There was no Oksin Autos, no wooden fence back then: just a clear, uninterrupted view of the mainline railway tracks, laid out like part of a gigantic train set right in front of me. The precision-engineered rails gleamed, worn bright by the constant buffing they received from the enormous weight of express trains accelerating away from Cardiff General Station – as it was known in those days – before heading full pelt for the west coast of Wales, or maybe to some other part of the GWR network, via Cheltenham to the south west, through glorious Devon to Penzance in Cornwall.
From the depths of my memory I’ve dredged up 1.19. I think that was the departure time for Grampy‘s train on a Saturday …
I’m sure Grampy, as I called my paternal grandfather, would have found the current controversy about Volkswagen‘s cynical cheating of the controls on air pollution very ironic. One of the reasons quoted at the time for the wholesale replacement of steam locomotives by diesel-powered engines was that diesel was a less polluting alternative. Running in parallel with the switch to diesel, the savaging of Britain’s railway network by Dr Beeching was also in full swing at the end of the 1960s. So much for the expression “the permanent way”. Steam was described by some as dirty, smelly and inefficient; diesel was seen as more cost-effective, particularly in terms of the level of manpower required. The jobs of railwaymen were regarded as no less expendable than the stations and railway lines that interconnected so many of the smaller country towns and counties across the land; fifteen or so years later, it was the turn of the mining communities who had fuelled much of Britain’s industrial revolution to be tossed on the scrap heap.
I watched the second hand of my Timex gradually ticking round to 1.19pm. I could picture the station master making his final checks, ensuring that all the doors were closed and that the guard was happy for the packed train to move away. He’d blow three shrill blasts on his whistle, wave his flag, and, assuming the signal was at green, Grampy, his George Fox driver’s nameplate suitably slotted into position on the side of the cab, would ease off the brake and adjust the regulator, allowing the giant engine to take up the slack and begin hauling the 12-car set of carriages slowly at first, but with increasing power, out of the station on its way, perhaps, to Fishguard, taking holidaymakers to the ferry for Ireland. (Sometimes he’d drive the same train back via Cardiff to Paddington, stay overnight in London, and drive the Cornish Riviera Express down to Penzance next morning).
As one of GWR’s top drivers, Grampy drove the full range of King, Castle, Hall and other classes of loco. They’re illustrated in this precious film produced by British Railway TV.
He had to re-learn how to drive a train very late in his career – diesel came in only about two years before he retired. You could see what had happened straight away. Instead of arriving back home with his face smeared with grime, he’d walk in looking almost like an office worker. He’d spent months poring over thick instructional manuals, learning completely new skills, memorising controls, maintenance procedures and troubleshooting protocols. Quite a task for someone who’d clocked up hundreds of thousands of miles driving magnificent steam locomotives, like the Caerphilly Castle pictured below, the length and breadth of South Wales and the West Country.
He only went off the rails once. After my Nana died, I used to go and visit him in his retirement and we’d play cribbage, prior to a fish and chip supper. He’d often reminisce about things that had happened during his time on the railway. Early on in his career as a driver, he was shunting some trucks outside Bristol Temple Meads. It was all the signalman’s fault, apparently, but he somehow reversed the loco off the end of a piece of incomplete track. I gather such an incident was not that rare among inexperienced drivers. More dramatic was a tale he told about deliberately disobeying a signal because he was certain that an express train was about to use a line that he was being allowed onto. At the last minute, the signalman realised his error and changed the points back to their original position, thus avoiding a disaster.
1.21pm. Suddenly there was a huge rumble and then a mighty, hissing roar as the 1.19 from Cardiff flashed into my field of view. Yes, it was Grampy’s train! And to prove it, there he was, visible for just two or three seconds as he waved energetically and gave me a big, beaming smile, whilst pulling the cord that operated the speeding train’s whistle, the steam and smoke frothing from its chimney like some huge grey and white scarf, flailing in the wind the whole length of the train. The sheer power and speed of the locomotive, under the control of my hero, was a sight to see.
It’s difficult to convey in words the excitement that I felt at that moment. But take a look at this wonderful video, and tell me I was wasting my time, waiting for the passing of the 1.19 out of Cardiff General …
Caerphilly Castle loco
By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Caerphilly Castle Uploaded by oxyman) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Steam Trains at Speed
By Let Madness Begin – see https://www.youtube.com/user/letmadnessbegin