by Phil Marsh

Thousands flock to celebrate anniversaries at the South Devon Railway

Published: 28th February 2015

South Devon Railway starts the 2015 season in style.

The South Devon Railway’s season kicked off to a brilliant start with its February 14-22 Western Branch Line gala event attracting 2,500 passengers. These figures are around 20% greater than achieved by the SDR’s February 2014 equivalent event.

Two Great Western locomotives vied for top-billing, one a home-grown debutant, the other a star guest attraction. As hoped, the SDR’s own Pannier No. 6412 made its entry into traffic on the first weekend of the event following a 7-year long overhaul which included a £300,000 virtual reconstruction of the boiler.

Local GWR icon

The GWR 0-6-0PT has something of an iconic status for the SDR, being the locomotive which hauled the first opening day trains in 1969 over the branch when it was run under the auspices of the Dart Valley Railway. Today’s SDR purchased it, in dismantled form, from the West Somerset Railway Association in late 2008 and its overhaul at Buckfastleigh has been a long and difficult effort.

Almost inevitably, teething problems were encountered and after appearing on the first weekend it was taken out of service during the midweek period to receive attention which enabled its return for the second weekend. A few 'snagging' problems are still to be ironed out, but No. 6412 – at long last – is about to take its place as a valuable addition to the SDR loco fleet.

Visiting guest provides two for the price of one!

The visiting attraction was BR black liveried Small Prairie No. 4566 from the Severn Valley Railway. Visitors could be forgiven if they rubbed their eyes on February 14 since, for that day only, the 45xx appeared as sister-loco No. 4555. The masquerade was in commemoration of the first two locomotives and stock arriving at Totnes half a century ago. It seems astonishing that 50 years have passed since No. 4555 and GWR 2251 class 0-6-0 No. 3205 (based at the SDR today) ventured up the branch through the weeds to Buckfastleigh. Having been a regular on the branch during BR days, No. 4555 then became a popular performer on the line during its Dart Valley Railway era. The No. 4555 plates were loaned to SDR by The Dartmouth Steam Railway.

Initial disappointment that taking Pannier No. 6412 out of service for a few days meant it could not work midweek auto trains with newly repainted auto saloons W225W and W228W turned out to have some compensations. The Monday to Thursday operations were shared between GWR 0-6-0PT No. 1369 hauling three and four coaches and Bubblecar No. 55000W – with passenger numbers suggesting the two auto coaches would have been stretched to capacity.

Surprise anniversary

It transpired No. 1369 was the subject of an almost forgotten anniversary mid-event. On looking at an old family railway photograph SDR director, David Lemar of Torquay, suddenly realised that February 20 was the 50th anniversary to the day of when his father, the late Peter Lemar, took delivery of the loco for the Great Western Society at the former Quay branch in Totnes.

The outside cylinder Pannier, at the time the last steam engine to see work at Bodmin in Cornwall, had been purchased from BR by a small group of enthusiasts with the aim of running it on a proposed tourist line between Ashburton and Totnes. That project did not come to fruition, but the concept did – initially as the Dart Valley Railway and now the South Devon Railway!

House mortgaged to purchase steam locomotive

David Lemar recalls that the original appeal fund didn't raise the necessary cash to secure No. 1369 anywhere near quickly enough to meet British Railway's deadline. His family were forced to mortgage their house to raise the necessary money, although the loan was repaid!

Ownership of the loco has changed a number of times over the subsequent years, but it is now owned by the South Devon Railway Association and based at Buckfastleigh, although it does make hire visits to other heritage lines and has been a regular at The Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway where it will be returning to this month.

The 13xx celebrated this 50th anniversary in company with 64xx No. 6412 and 57xx No. 5786 (currently running in London Transport livery as No. L92) on February 20 in the form of a 'Panniers & Pints' day. No. 1369 received a present as well, a new brass warning bell to replace the original Weymouth bell which was sadly stolen last year and never recovered.

Other highlights

The Devon Diesel Society's beer festival at Staverton on the second weekend was rated a great success with 12 different ales and cider on offer and around 1,000 pints of beer and cider sold over three days. Funds raised will boost restoration of the Society's diesel locos.

Steam by night photoshoot

The SDR's first ever Friday evening 'steam shed photo-shoot' on 20 February was a near sell-out, offering stunning photographic opportunities of five steam locos being serviced at Buckfastleigh’s running shed.

There were over 100 different passenger and goods train workings and intensive timetables on the weekends during the event.

SDR's Expressway Models & gift shop did a roaring trade through the week with record sales at the weekends. Advance orders for the forthcoming Bachmann OO scale model of Pannier No. 6412 in BR lined green livery, as outshopped for the gala following its overhaul, also kept the tills ringing.

What about 2016?

SDR spokesman, Dick Wood, confirmed a February gala was now a fixture on the SDR calendar. “We have firmly established our February half-term gala in the minds of both family visitors and enthusiasts alike,” he commented. “They love the quintessential GWR and British Railways Western Region branch line feel of the place and running genuine auto trains is a key feature of this attraction.”

Prairie No. 5526 and GWR 0-4-2T No. 1420 are next in the queue for overhaul at Buckfastleigh, which Dick pointed out would both form a big draw to the line beside the River Dart. “They are both auto fitted engines - and we might yet be able to run a three or four coach auto service again, which would be a first since the 1960s” he mused!

How to get there

Main line services run to Totnes, providing access by foot (including a pedestrian bridge over the River Dart) to SDR’s Totnes Littlehempston station.

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