The town has had inhabitants for at least 9,000 years, although the earliest written record only dates from the 13th Century. Its main claim to fame is that it became a Great Western Railway junction in 1839, and continued to repair steam locomotives until these were replaced by electric power.
After we had disembarked from Queen Mary 2 at Southampton on a rainy Friday – and enjoyed London for a few days in our complimentary London Hotel in Hyde Park – we headed off to Wales to catch up with Rob’s family, and take a longboat ride up the Brecon Beacon Canal. Rob insisted we stop by at the Didcot Railway Centre in Oxfordshire, where there was so much to see. I suspect it has the makings of two posts.
The Didcot Railway Centre
In 1967, the Great Western Society leased the Didcot Railway Centre and has been restoring railway memorabilia there ever since. A modern railway network has completely surrounded it. The only way to get there is down a staircase, along a subway tunnel and back up again.
Steam Engines and Carriages
Historic treasures include a 1932 steam locomotive shed, the original loco repair shop and a 70 foot / 21 meter turntable with an inspection pit beneath. There are also three short stretches of railway track. The sights and sounds of a giant steam engine firing up and steaming off brought tears to my seasoned eyes.
In addition to the locomotives (I’ll save these until next week to keep you guessing) Didcot Railway Centre has over 40 carriages ranging from a Medical Officer’s Coach (built 1925 and converted during the Second World War) to a Bogie Milk Churn Van from 1937. Many are in original, much loved if slightly tatty condition as one might expect. If restoration is inevitable, this can take the loyal band of volunteers ten years and more. Some things are not worth rushing.
Some mobile exhibits go on regular outings on tow behind the ‘puffing billies’, while others are static displays in the carriage shed at Didcot Railway Centre. I found the items awaiting restoration the most interesting of all. If I lived in Didcot, and not in Umtentweni near Durban South Africa I would worm my way in, and help sort them out. Meanwhile they moulder on beneath layers of dust. Oh what stories they would tell!
The Great Western Society Railway Museum was under threat for many years, because the leaseholder Network Rail could serve a termination notice with six months grace. On 6 October 2011 they agreed a 50-year lease extension. Most visitors are oldies like me who grew up on steam and slept in tiny teak-lined compartments with six bunks. I wonder what youngsters will make of all this in 2061, when they come to visit Didcot Railway Centre.
Did I mention the possibility of going on a steam train ride at the Didcot Railway Centre? If you pop back some time next week – I am not saying exactly when – you can join me on one and I will tell you all about it. Meanwhile I will post a few pictures to keep you wondering. As they say, toot-toot and bon voyage.