"The Bristolian"

Nostalgia's not what it used to be, we frequently hear, but that didn't stop over 300 people taking a special train on a mid-March Saturday for a nostalgic trip to the West Country in the supposed manner of the 1960s. With departure points starting from Colchester in Essex, "The Bristolian" had acquired 321 passengers by the time it left Stratford. We boarded at Brentwood with many others, taking the excursion organised by Steamy Affairs in conjunction with the Essex Chronicle newspaper group.

Three classes of travel were available; Club Class, Saloon and Silver Service, depending on the level of accommodation required. We went the Full Monty and chose the luxury of Silver Service. Shortly after joining the train, coffee was served and complementary daily newspapers were distributed. Soon after picking up the last passengers at Stratford, breakfast was served with a choice of Full English or continental styles. In patriotic fashion we chose the former. This substantial meal was well cooked and expertly served, not always the case during the era the excursion sought to emulate!

C1 carriage - interior

From Stratford the train made its way around the North London Line to connect with the Great Western tracks at Acton. For some time it was held on the "slow" road, taking its turn in the local traffic before being transferred to the "fast" road and gathering speed. The diesel-hauled train was 14 carriages long, including the two kitchen cars. At least 5 of those were First Class, showing the demand for the upper two service options.

For those wishing to participate, a prize draw was held, based on the day's race meeting at Sandown. Another prize draw was held for a signed and framed print of a Hall Class locomotive. Regrettably, our luck was out in both competitions!

At Foxhall Junction, just past Didcot, the train was sidelined and the diesel locomotive was uncoupled. Taking its place were the stars of the trip - two 4-6-0 Hall Class steam locomotives, nos. 4936 "Kinlett Hall" and 4965 "Rood Ashton Hall", both built at the Great Western Railway's Swindon works in 1929, accompanied by their tender carriage. With billows of steam and shrieks from the whistles, the train departed and built up speed for the journey westward.

Kinlett Hall - nameplate C1 carriage - exterior Kinlett Hall - RHS view Rood Ashton Hall - nameplate

At around the time of the engine change, a light lunch of a Cheese Ploughman's was served. Barely had this been finished and was being cleared away, we were arriving at Bristol Parkway station where buses were waiting to transport those passengers wishing to visit the Roman city of Bath.

Given the difficulty of scheduling a special train on three systems and fitting in with local traffic, it was a wonder that our train arrived at Bristol's Temple Meads station five minutes before the scheduled time. Steam trains are a rare sight on British main line railways and there had been many spectators awaiting us along the route, giving us lots of opportunities to practise our regal waves! Not surprisingly, there was a tremendous amount of interest in the pristine locos and many yards of still and video film were taken of the two old ladies and their proud crews by photographers who spilled off the platforms onto the tracks, much to the consternation of the station staff.

The Bristolian

A choice awaited us; a complimentary sightseeing tour or a visit to Harvey's (of Bristol Cream fame) at an extra charge. To transport us to our chosen destination a fleet of vintage buses awaited us alongside Brunel's original terminus station. The weather was dry (then) so we chose the sightseeing tour. A journey through the city centre and into the suburbs brought us to another Brunel masterpiece - the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Work commenced in 1836 but completion was to wait 28 years, five years after Brunel's death. Spectacular views of the Severn valley may be seen from the bridge but it has its darker side; The Samaritans have installed a telephone at both ends.

Clifton Suspension Bridge

As befits a seafaring city that was once the second richest in the realm, Bristol has an excellent Maritime Heritage Centre. Moored alongside is a replica of John Cabot's ship the "Matthew", built to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the discoverer of Newfoundland's great voyage. This cockleshell of a vessel replicated Cabot's voyage in 1995 and is scheduled to repeat it. As part of the preparation the mainmast was being re-oiled and was surrounded by scaffolding.

The Matthew

In dry dock on the other side of the heritage centre lies Brunel's S.S. "Great Britain", the world's first iron-clad passenger ocean liner. Launched at Bristol in 1843, she entered service in 1845 on the transatlantic route, proving the reliability of propeller-driven steamships. Her good fortune did not hold. Five years later, after running aground off Northern Ireland, she was sold and transferred to carrying emigrants to Australia.

She suffered further indignity in 1882 when her engine was removed and she was converted to a cargo-carrying sailing ship. After storm damage whilst rounding Cape Horn on her third voyage to San Francisco the "Great Britain" sought shelter in the Falkland Islands. There she spent many years as a storage vessel for coal and wool. Uneconomical even for this ignominious use she was towed out of harbour, holed and abandoned to decay. The late 1950s and the 1960s saw efforts gather pace to recover the "Great Britain" and on 5 July 1970 she was towed up the River Avon on a pontoon, back to Bristol. Over 30 years later, restoration work continues, dependent on the availability of the vast sums of money needed for a project like this.

SS Great Britain

It's possible to stroll the decks and view some of the first-class cabins restored to their original design, cramped by present-day standards but the height of shipboard luxury in 1845. Fund-raising is aided by lettings of the restored First Class Dining Saloon for conferences and banquets. For those so inclined, the "Great Britain" is licensed for civil marriages.

SS Great Britain - Ladies' Boudoir

On our return to the station we passed a pleasant half-hour in the recently refurbished station buffet, though the way they serve Guinness would raise some eyebrows in Ireland. We made our way back to Platform 12 in preparation for rejoining our train and were in time to see it thundering into the station.

At precisely 5.05pm "The Bristolian" left Temple Meads station to begin the return journey. Almost immediately, pre-dinner drinks were served and, not long after, our four-course dinner commenced. On such a typically British outing, what else but roast beef and Yorkshire pudding followed by steamed syrup pudding and custard?

At Wantage Road the train stopped to replenish the locomotives' water. Our meal was over and we settled down to finish our wine. There occurred the only disaster of the trip. Two jolts upset our equilibrium, the second sending our neighbours' wine flying into their laps. The damage was done but Judy, our hostess, took responsibility, offered to accept their dry cleaning bills and ordered a replacement bottle of wine for them. This went a long way to smoothing their ruffled feathers!

We went on our way and enjoyed complimentary chocolates with our coffee. It didn't seem long before we were stopping at Acton to effect a locomotive change back to the diesel unit that had hauled us to Foxhall Junction that morning. We came close to another disaster when a signalling error put our train onto the wrong road for the North London Line. For a while it looked as though the only way out would be to haul the train into London Paddington station and back out again. At best this would probably have added two hours to our journey, at worst it would have been anyone's guess.

Somehow the problem was overcome and we made our way back in an arc around the capital to Stratford. There the disembarkation process started and our magical journey began to draw to a close; a stop at Romford, then it was time for swift goodbyes as we made our way forward four carriages ready for leaving. Why? Brentwood station can't accommodate 14-car trains!

Steamy Affairs - boarding pass

Brian and Eileen Smith travelled with Steamy Affairs, telephone 01553 828107.  If you are calling from outside the UK, use country code 44 then the number without the initial 0.