Published 28th March 2013
The spring gala season offers a range of steam event choices around the country. Heritage lines have taken a relative breather after the hectic Christmas period Santa trains, forged ahead with projects inside the workshops and outdoors down the line. But, from around March to May, aim to produce attractive gala events to kick off the new season before settling in to regular peak season running.
The Mid-Hants Railway, undoubtedly one of Britain’s Premier League heritage railways, opted for a March 1-3 event and titled it not merely a Spring Gala, but the ‘Great Spring Gala’. And why shouldn’t they, few railways can present four prestige locomotives from the NRM collection at a single event, amid a fleet of seven locos in steam.
The star names from the national collection in action for the event were LSWR T9 No. 30120 (from the Bodmin & Wenford Railway), ‘King Arthur’ No. 777 Sir Lamiel (based at the Great Central Railway) and (both resident at the Mid-Hants) ‘Schools’ No. 925 Cheltenham and No. 850 Lord Nelson.
The T9 had made only one previous trip away from its Bodmin base since completion of the overhaul which returned it to steam in mid-2010, that being a September 2012 Autumn Gala visit to the Severn Valley Railway. It was also a homecoming for the ‘Greyhound’ having been returned to steam for its previous ticket at the MHR in 1983, where it remained resident until 1991.
Sir Lamiel had originally been booked to appear at the MHR’s ‘Maunsell Gala’ last September but as things turned out was not able to make it to Hampshire. These things can happen, but they also tend to come good in the end – an offer to visit for this gala was accepted with alacrity!
The MHR’s ‘Great Spring Gala’ originally anticipated presenting three 4-4-0s with the NRM’s No. 3717 City of Truro to join the T9 and Cheltenham. Alas, City of Truro developed problems and had to be withdrawn (see http://www.rail.co.uk/rail-news/2013/city-of-truro-withdrawn/) and a visit by Prairie No. 5164 from the Severn Valley Railway was arranged at short notice to keep the steam fleet at its projected strength.
The guest locos and NRM residents at Ropley were joined by the Mid-Hants line’s own ‘West Country’ No. 34007 Wadebridge and ‘Black Five’ No. 45379.
It is worth remembering two other operational MHR-based locos were away from home visiting other heritage lines during the gala, 9F No. 92212 being at the Bluebell Railway and SR U class 2-6-0 No. 31806 not at that stage back from a visit to the Churnet Valley Railway.
Gala events are not just about a steam feast on the running line, important as that is, but normally offer an opportunity to peek behind the scenes in ways not possible on normal running dates.
This event was no exception, with the new public viewing gallery (constructed as part of the extended shed) looking down on the workshops at Ropley opened to visitors for the first time, guided tours of the shed at ground level and the boiler shop at the far end of Ropley’s yard set up with displays open to the public.
Ten out of ten to the MHR on the engineering front then, and let’s applaud the staff and volunteers at the usually unheralded end of operations where getting it right often goes unnoticed but getting it wrong leaves a disproportionately unfavourable impression - another ten out of ten for the excellent service and value for money at the catering outlets, especially at Alresford, and another top score for the operating staff – even when they thought the ‘Black Five’ had developed a problem on the Sunday which was going to threaten the timetable, but it turned out to be a false alarm and was quickly back in service!
Downsides? Well, we all know what the weather has been like as winter steadfastly refuses to give way to spring. The weekend was cold and little sun was in evidence, but the promised good show deservedly attracted the visitors with attendance 33% up on last year’s equivalent event.
The Mid-Hants Railway has a lot going for it, not least sharing a main line station at Alton enabling easy access from the national network. Check it out for yourself.