Beeches Light Railway says it's goodbye's!
Report written by Colin Crowther
Photography by Julie Raworth of Spectrumexpresion.com
We arrive at the home of Beeches Light Railway. A private steam railway owned by Adrian Shooter which runs around his sizeable garden, set in the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside.
It was a somewhat overcast day for what was to be the BLR’s swansong but the wheels of industry are already in motion; ladies preparing soft drinks in the amusingly named Rinkingpong Road station, a large scale BBQ is being prepared in a very large shed and a team of volunteers dressed in overalls and flat caps, already covered in a mixture of coal dust, oil and sweat, busily polishing, oiling and checking that all is in tip top condition and ready for their guests.
One of the first people we meet is a silver haired and smiling Chris Raworth who was wearing his bright green dungarees and a flat cap, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Fred Dibnah (without the accompanying profanities which Fred was renowned for).
Chris, like many of the others here today,has been volunteering at BLR for a number of years. Chris is a man with steam coursing through his veins and one of the original founding members of the sadly, now defunct, Oxfordshire Old Steamers.
His enthusiasm for all things steam is infectious, a passion that he has passed on to his eldest grandson, Luke, whose knowledge belies his young years and is regularly to be seen working on a variety of traction engines and steam rollers in and around his home town of Swindon as well as being one of the originators (and main contributors) of the rapidly growing (in size and respect) Regeneration Steamers Facebook page.
The next person we meet is Adrian Shooter himself. A tall, well-spoken man with a dignified and calm demeanour , whose career is steeped in the railway industry. He comes across as a serious man who wouldn’t suffer fools gladly but also has a wicked glint in his eyes. He is rightly proud of ”Number 19” and is keen to greet his public, a public who share his passion.
Number 19 is a 2ft gauge, 15 ton steam locomotive that Adrian rescued from a private steam museum in the United States. It had spent it’s working life, predominately on the Darjeeling and Himalayan railway. It has both air and vacuum brakes and has Ffestiniog Railway style chopper couplings. It is largely original, retaining it’s 1889 boiler and copper firebox.
After undergoing substantial renovation by Bob Meanley and his team at the Tyseley works in the Midlands, it eventually arrived at it’s new home in Steeple Aston
It runs on a 1.6km double loop track (resembling a figure of eight) with an elevation of 107m above sea level.
On the day we visit, Number 19 is pulling two modern replica carriages: furnished with pine seating, both of which stand resplendent with their mid blue paint matching the locomotive and glistening as the sun makes a brief appearance.
Rather surprisingly, a black (yes, you all know the story by now) Model T Ford which has been converted to run on the track, and starts making it’s way on a test run with a smiling Adrian at the helm.
All this talking and writing has now made me thirsty so we paid a visit to Rinkinpong Road station. It is designed to look like it had been transported from Darjeeling itself. It is painted in beige which sets off the brightly coloured Asian bunting and pictures of people from Number 19’s original homeland, interspersed with Chiltern Railways memorabilia, including a poster of a young and very dapper Mr Shooter himself.
We were greeted by the ever smiling 'char' ladies Gill and Jayne, who seemed vaguely familiar…… We took our teas, after a friendly chat and a biscuit, and carried on our tour of Adrian’s garden.
At the end of the platform are two toilets. Nothing unusual there, I hear you say, but there is. One is a standard European cubicle, the other is an Asian style, hole in floor with porcelain footplates, not for those unstable on their feet!
Walking around the freshly mown paddock, the smell of freshly cut grass blends with the smell of steam and petrol, yes petrol. This is coming from a Bamford static engine and is being manned by an ever smiling Mike. This is accentuated by the smell of the now well under way BBQ.
Being nosey (and hungry), I decided that we would take a look inside the large shed , where the food was being cooked and bumped in to our very own Fred Dibnah doppelganger, (Chris), again. This time, he is stood next to his hand made and incredibly realistic 1”:1ft scale working gallopers. It consists of individually hand carved (and painted) galloping horses and riding cocks all of which are named and carry individual stories, some of which I cannot possibly post here.
These resplendent gallopers are accentuated by steam emitting from the chimney and the sound of a Gavioli organ. This is a labour of love that Chris happily admits is still a work in progress. The quality is superb and drags you (kicking and screaming) back to a more innocent bygone time.
Raising such a mighty erection would be beyond most 70 year olds. It takes 6 hours to put his pride and joy on display to the public but he does it with great pride and vigour.
By this time, Number 19 is about to take it’s second group of patrons on their journey around Adrian’s 'back yard'. With a short toot of her whistle, off she goes with her packed carriages of smiling passengers. The familiar sound of the old girl puffing away and her plumes of smoke emitting from her chimney enthral the ever growing crowd and evoke happy memories for all who watch her on one of her last journeys around the grounds of The Beeches.
There are several groups who have come far and wide for this experience, one group coming from the Ffestiniog Railway
During a short interval, we meet Jeremy, the loco driver. He is a very experienced and respected fireman on steam locomotives from far and wide. At first meeting you can detect more than a hint of ex-military: organised, efficient and somewhat dour personality, but this is a positive when you consider the responsibility that hangs around his shoulders. However, scratch below the serious persona and you soon find a man with a very dry sense of humour that is somewhat Python-esque. Indeed, he reminds me of the Black Night in the Holy Grail and fully expect him to belligerently stand in front of you with only one limb, protesting that is only a flesh wound and that you should call it a draw.
Back in the paddock is now a magnificent array of old cars including a Jaguar, 3 Morgan Plus 4's and my personal favourite, a glorious Alfa Romeo.
The sun, once again, pokes it’s head through the clouds as Adrian makes his speech to the masses, who are hanging on his every word whilst he mixes history with humour and information regarding his wife (Barbara’s) charity which raises money for underprivileged children.
We decided to move on towards the front of the house where we find a Burrell agricultural traction engine (number 3763 for those who want to know) which is owned by Robert Herring and is in full steam whilst being ably manned by a certain Luke Crowther ( yes, him again!!).
When you speak to Luke, even after a short space of time, you realise just how knowledgeable and passionate about steam he actually is. Unusual for a 17 year old lad in the fact that he is far happier being covered in soot, oil and grease than with an Xbox controller in hand. He is currently taking over his dad’s garage and wiping out his gramp’s (yep Regeneration Steamer’s Chris Raworth) pension fund, building a 4” scale Burell traction engine.
You will be able to meet Chris and Luke at the forthcoming Bloxam Steam Rally, where they will be available for a chat and selfies and see how far Luke’s project has moved on; the more cider you buy them, the more they will talk to you….
The last carriage load of visitors traverse around Beeches Light Railway as the crowds start to dissipate, Number 19 returns to her shed for the last time. A tiring, fun day has been had by all. It has been a day tinged with some sadness but also one of looking towards a bright future in Number 19's new home near Wantage. A new, larger track set up awaits and will re-open in Spring 2020.
All the very best of luck to Adrian, Number 19 and her crew of dedicated volunteers from all of us at Regeneration Steamers. Your hospitality has been very much appreciated.