After an overnight in a Hotel on the site of extensive Midland Railway goods sidings, we took the first train at 09.01 to Clifton Down, walking via the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Its road was closed for works but the south footpath was open, so we traversed Brunel's impressive bridge to reach Ashton Court Estate, the site of our first visit, Ashton Court Miniature Railway. This Estate has had a Manor House since the 11th Century, but it fell into disrepair until purchased in 1959 by today's owners, Bristol City Council. This was part of the reason for our visit, as the railway was under threat due to a rent dispute with the Council. Fortunately the dispute was very close to resolution and a film http://bit.ly/2K3bItc (2 min) was being made for TV during our visit - spot the BLS members! The crew seemed uninterested in us covering rare track...
The impressive railway opened here in 1973, owned and operated by the Bristol Society of Model and Experimental Engineers (BSM&EE), founded in 1909. On first appearances, the site seemed quite constrained but the amount of track crammed in was very impressive, with long ground level (7¼" some with 5" dual gauge) and elevated (5" with some 3½" dual gauge) lines partly through woodland. Ground level lines look and act more authentic, like an actual railway, while elevated 'race tracks' allow higher speeds safely due to the relatively low centre of gravity. The lines are largely single track; the ground level line is operated clockwise and the elevated anticlockwise, so trains pass frequently.
Like many Society miniature railway trips, there were too many of us for one train, but this suited those also interested in photography. The first train ready to run was ground level, hauled by the impressive 7¼" petrol electric replica of 67014 'Thomas Telford' in Wrexham & Shropshire (RIP) livery. This was built by the BSM&EE in 2012, using a Honda GX240 engine, 24V alternator, and two Parkside 1500W bogies. The carriages were labelled with British Rail-like designations, such as 'BSO'! We made two basic full clockwise circuits. We noted many new and substantial structures, like the brick tunnels built in 2009 and brick sheds constructed in 2002 and 2014; two ageless signalboxes - Ashton Junction (controlling the mix of colour light/electro mechanical semaphores), and Ashton Sidings (storage?).
While others had trips on the ground level line, we tried the elevated one, basically a loop with sidings accessible only via a traverser. Haulage was 5" steam locomotive 'Maisie Louise', a blue 0-4-2ST engine. Due to poor railhead conditions from the previous night's wet weather, this struggled a little, and the other train on this line caught up (this line is driven on sight) and its driver assisted us from behind!
We noted the Class 67 doing 'Quail-level' track in and out of sidings but opted for 7¼" 0-4-2T maroon steam locomotive 'Ann'. The greater ease of precision driving with the petrol Class 67 led to its choice for the 'rare track' runs to buffer stops and sidings. So 'Ann' soon took us around the track again, but this time using the loop line through the station, as well as the through line in the club house, running two circuits and thus completing all through lines and crossovers on this railway. But we still weren't done! Back on the elevated line where the only locomotive we had yet to ride behind, 'Ajax' (no nameplate but very clean!), a very small 5" 0-4-0T steam engine in BR Mixed Traffic livery with 'Cycling Lion' logo, was waiting. It made light work of the now dry line, circuiting in just three minutes.
Now for the 'main event' from a Branch Line Society perspective. A trip behind 67014 to complete all available 7¼" track! We proceeded clockwise around the line to the turntable by the club house, where we ran onto the turntable itself. Track (non-) alignment made it impossible to go beyond the end of the turntable except on a loco, but we certainly made it that far! Reversing down to the points we then ran onto the north road of the shed as far as clearances allowed, and back onto the turntable from another direction, again stopping at the end of the turntable with overlap. We reversed back into the siding and out onto the main line, then completed the middle road within the club house. The train reversed back out and onto the through road, reversing in the 'departure' platform (otherwise unused during the day) to each of the two sidings towards Ashton Sidings Signal Box. Many point levers are cast metal with their number embossed in Roman numerals. Despite needing frequent point changes, our driver, BSM&EE's (female) Chairperson no less, willingly made a number of similar trips to cover all of our members' wishes and as a Society we completed all the track around the clubhouse area.
But we still weren't done! Elevated line operations ceased, allowing the (signalling interlocked) swing bridge carrying that line over our ground level line to be swung clear. We then proceeded onto the Workshop road up to the workshop door. The workshop was built in 2014 but has seen little use as it was constructed in solid concrete, without an inspection pit or a raised line making it awkward to work on locomotives. We were also told that this was actually the first train of any sort to go down this line but, allowing for testing etc, it is certainly safe to say that we were on the first ever passenger train to use it! After visiting the workshop road we then went up to the shed door (but not inside due to tight clearance - not built for passengers!) of each road in the 2002 carriage shed. Even going up to the door the clearance was tight, and I had to squeeze my feet right in to avoid lineside equipment. After this our train returned to the station for the next group, finally completing all available ground level track.
But still more! BSM&EE's ability and willingness to deliver track was further demonstrated when, after a quiet suggestion from our organiser, they activated the elevated line's traverser, which connects up the new carriage shed branch. With warning bells around the site to alert drivers of its use, 'Ajax' took us over this movable section to the door of the 2002 shed's elevated section and back. So we had now completed all available track and, after thanks and a few refreshments in their clubhouse, our group moved on. As the weather was changeable (from sun to hail!), and Ashton Park had far exceeded our expectations, we opted not to check if the nearby Clevedon Miniature Railway was operating and went directly to the second visit of the day somewhere near the delightfully named village of Temple Cloud.
The Woodfield Light Railway was a smaller, private line, ideal to combine with another visit. This was likely to be its final running day due to changing personal circumstances. It was a 7¼" gauge ground level line, renovated especially for our visit, running a decent length from the owner's garage to the bottom of his garden, straight but on a hefty gradient, and so a good test for the owner's locomotives.
We arrived (guided by a model semaphore signal temporarily outside), to be instantly met with great hospitality, copious quantities of tea and homemade flapjacks, while the steam loco built up enough pressure to tackle the fierce gradient. This was such that it was decided only one member would travel at a time at first, after some manual realignment of the track to clear any obstacles. (We joked that we could keep doing this at various points throughout the day and thus get more alignments to tick off!). One at a time, we had a trip down to the bottom of the garden and back to the garage, behind 2-4-2T
'Tinkerbell' Sara, built by Eric Walker in 1999 as used at our 2018 Ketton Cement Works visits. The trip was difficult, but we reached line limits; carefully so the owner retained his garage - the buffer stops! The day was great fun. The first railway showed just what can be done with a relatively small site, and was certainly one of the most comprehensive miniature railway trips we've done with the Society.
The second was a great final opportunity, with the difficult gradient allowing this railway to go out in style behind the impressive Sara, the largest locomotive of the day. Many thanks to all involved in the arrangements, particularly our GS Tim Wallis, a local member, who organised this excellent day.