Life in the Train Lane at Swindon and Didcot
Having traveled God’s Wonderful Railway for many years to the West Country, Bath and South Wales, I was much inspired by Sandra Lawrence’s April feature on the GWR (and my own visit to York’s National Railway Museum in the same issue). It prompted me to roam behind the curtain of the modern Great Western Railway to its legendary past at two major rail museums just down the track from each other at Swindon and Didcot. It’s easy enough the take the GWR to both destinations from London Paddington. Both are just a short drive off the M4.
Swindon is a town best known as a place for passing by on the M4 in transit to Wales, Bath or the West Country. Just a nondescript industrial town of 200,000 people. The industry that built it, however, was the railroad—specifically the Great Western. The ancient Anglo-Saxon settlement and small Wiltshire market town exploded rapidly after Swindon was chosen as the site of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s new GWR Locomotive Repair Facility in 1841. The worksite’s mandate grew rapidly, as did the town. Soon, the Swindon Works was building engines as well as repairing them, and added a Carriage & Wagon Works in quick succession.
Through the latter 19th century, the GWR facility expanded to contain a village for its growing workforce and their families. The compound came to include gas works, a complex of offices, general stores, pubs, schools, medical facilities and a fire station. What became one of the world’s largest railroad works, in the early 20th century, the Works covered more than 300 acres and employed 14,000 men and women. The Locomotive Department could build 100 engines a year and repair more than 1,000. The Carriage Works could build 250 coaches and repair more than 12,000 carriages and wagons a year. It was a mammoth output fueled as Brunel’s rail network expanded through the West Country and Wales.
Following rail nationalization in 1948 and the end of steam locomotive production in 1960, Swindon Works went into swift decline. British Rail Engineering closed the Works in 1986 after 145 years.
Today, the site’s huge complex of buildings has been rejuvenated into a multi-use complex including a shopping center, eateries and the headquarters of the National Trust, all surrounded by the streets and terraces of housing built for GWR workers and their families. At its center is STEAM, the Museum of the Great Western Railway. It could hardly be in a more fitting location.
Every aspect of the works at Swindon is re-created and explained in order, from the stores of raw materials and the foundry to the finished product—a state-of-the-art steam locomotive. Needless to say, “state-of-the-art” changed a lot between the 1840s and the mid-20th century, when they were supplanted by cleaner and more powerful diesel engines.
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The advances in locomotive engineering, of course, came with the building of the railroad itself. How the GWR grew, operated, carried goods, created an enthusiastic passenger trade and promoted the seaside as a holiday destination are all part of the STEAM story. Of course, there is a shop and rail-themed café as well.
About 20 miles east of Swindon, the Didcot Railway Centre is a rather grittier visit. Home of the Great Western Society, the center is located in the huge rail yards of Didcot Parkway Station on the GWR mainline west. While Swindon built the steam locomotives, at a midpoint between London and the West, Didcot was perfectly positioned to become a depot and service center for maintenance and stabling engines.
Describing itself as the “Living Museum of the Great Western Railway,” Didcot is really the playground for serious rail enthusiasts, and particularly fans of the steam trains of yesteryear.
Living, the Didcot Centre is. The spring day I was there, there were four different steam locomotives under power, two of which visitors could hop aboard for brief rides around the complex. This is a working railyard, with sheds full of vintage steam locomotives spanning almost 100 years, many of them notorious in the annals of British rail history for the routes they ran, the people they carried or the records they set.
Next to the engine shed stand the active locomotive workshops. Here, knowledgeable volunteers rebuild, repair, refurbish and keep running these dramatic icons of industrial and social history. As importantly, they pass on to younger enthusiasts their knowledge and skills.
Yes, this is both working railyard and museum—some three-quarters of a mile long, laced with tracks and sprinkled with coal dust. All these steam engines are fired with coal. For a century at Didcot, the coal came by train in wagons and was loaded into the locomotive tenders via the huge brick Coal Stage. Another shed houses a carriage display, and there are signal boxes, water tanks, vintage stations and a working turntable.
Visitor amenities have certainly not been forgotten. There are plenty of grassy spots and a lovely picnic area. At what was once the station platform, the station houses an interesting GWR museum, shops and a cafeteria-style restaurant for refreshments.
Didcot’s usefulness as a working depot ceased with British Rail’s conversion from steam to diesel, and the Didcot sheds were closed in 1965. The Great Western Society was offered the site and moved in with three locomotives in 1967.
Visits to STEAM and the Didcot Railway Centre provide quite a comprehensive picture of the Great Western Railway’s history and operation from the building and repairing of its engines and rolling stock to the people who built those great steam trains and those who traveled on them. They also provide an insight into how the iconic GWR became fondly remembered as God’s Wonderful Railway. It is a cherished scene in the colorful tapestry of Britain’s history.
Both STEAM and the Didcot Railway Centre are open throughout the year. If you arrive, appropriately enough, by train. The entrance to Didcot is right at the station. In Swindon, STEAM is a five-minute taxi ride from the station. steam-museum.org.uk didcotrailwaycentre.org.uk
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