By Phil Marsh

Chance conversation leads to South Devon Railway trip via Old Oak Common down memory lane

Published: 19th October 2016

Railway family history re-enacted two generations later at Buckfastleigh

A chance conversation with her new neighbour took Renee Holman for a railway trip down memory lane on September 26. Renee’s new neighbour in Bovey Tracey was Alan Taylor, former Chairman of the South Devon Railway Trust. It transpired railway’s figured significantly in Renee’s family background.

Childhood trips to Old Oak Common

Her late father, Jim Daniels, was railway fitter who worked for many years at London’s Old Oak Common shed in London built in 1905. It was the biggest steam locomotive shed on the old Great Western Railway, and subsequently British Railways (Western Region) and home at one time to almost all of their crack express passenger locomotives.

As a child, Renee was regularly taken to see her father at work at Old Oak Common shed and grew up knowing about locomotives and their repairs. She even has a copy of the British Railways (WR) staff magazine for June 1954 which has a picture of her father assembling piston valve rings – see accompanying picture, her father Jim is the man at work on the left of the image.

Driver of The Great Bear

But there was more. Renee’s grandfather, David (Dave) Daniels, was a Great Western driver and she has an article from a different issue of the same staff magazine in which he is mentioned as “...going on to be one of the drivers of the 'Great Bear' locomotive." Renee also has a picture of her grandfather and a copy of the book written by J W Street published in 1951 which mentions him driving The Great Bear.

The Great Bear was the most prestigious GWR locomotive of the time. Built in 1908 it was the first 'Pacific' to be constructed in Britain and the only 4-6-2 ever built by the GWR. With a very heavy axle loading it was restricted to running only on the relatively straight and level line between Paddington and Bristol. In 1924 it was withdrawn and components used in building ‘Castle’ No. 111 Viscount Churchill - see .

Authentic GWR at South Devon Railway

Given these strong railway connections, Alan Taylor suggested Renee visited South Devon Railway, which takes pride in operating an authentic former GWR branch line. The September 26 visit Alan organised for Renee included a footplate ride on an SDR steam loco and a tour of the South Devon Railway Engineering workshops – which included viewing a set of loco piston valves similar to those in the magazine photo of her father taken over 60 years ago at Old Oak Common.

Getting to SDR

South Devon Railway’s HQ is at Buckfastleigh between Exeter and Plymouth on the A38. However, the heritage line is easily reached from Totnes main line station, served by Great Western Railway and Cross Country Trains. There is a footpath link (less than 500 yards) including a pedestrian bridge over the River Dart to SDR’s Totnes Littlehempston terminus.

Old Oak Common decline and fall now rising from the rubble

The GWR part of Old Oak Common was demolished two years ago and is now being rebuilt for the Crossrail trains. The British Rail part of Old Oak Common is used by Great Western but this will close in two or three years’ time when the IEP trains are introduced. Then the site will become a huge transport hub with Crossrail and HS2 meeting there.

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