The Branch Line Society


The Royal Garden Party,
Saturday 8th September 2018

Report by Duncan Finch.

11 Months after Bill Davis's excellent 'Animal Tracker' and 'Along Lilliput Lines' came the sequel. Again it was in Hertfordshire and Essex. The Saturday 'Party' began with 15 Members (a full fixture and incredibly no one turned away) meeting at Van Hage Garden Centre, Great Amwell - where? - Yes that's right near Ware. It's home to the East Herts Miniature Railway, a 580yd (public run) 7¼" gauge complex railway around the rear of the Centre run by volunteers raising money for local charities. They carried their 1,000,000th passenger on 3 Jun 2016 and the railway is nearing the end of its 40th year. This was marked by a simple headboard on our steam tank engine 'Ettie Faith', a black 0-4-4.


We began about 10.30, all on one (full) train before public running, by traversing the normal run of two full signalled circuits, firstly the outer (with an impressive tunnel) and then via the station avoider to the inner circuit. Its main feature is a bridge over a pond with a water fountain that misses passing trains (just!). Back at Great Amwell station single platform the train reversed to the shed doors of the two carriage sidings (but not inside, even the best limbo dancers would struggle with only just enough clearance for the sit astride riding vehicles). Then it was forwards via the rare connection from the station avoider to the outer running line. Several circuits covered the through connections before running via the platform to ascend the turntable road to short of the end of the Loading Line, for now.

After more circuits the tour set back to the Loco Shed traversing each of the three roads there, across the Ash Pits to the stabled locos - some inside the shed. Unusually Road 3 is nearest the running line and Road 1 is furthest away. The shed headshunt and the single inner circuit (other) Carriage Shed line were also covered, the latter once off a long lifted reversing diagonal return loop across the circuit.

East Herts MES, Amwell Jn and signal box showing the interesting layout (all covered) - the branch to the two carriage sidings is on the left.

The three road engine shed (and yes, all three were covered on our tour).
[© Stuart Hicks, 2018]

The rarest bit of track and the final reversal in to the siding off the centre of the circuit. Left is a 'bidirectional' signal - there are quite a few of these on the railway. The head and ladder can each be swiveled round by 180o for running in the opposite direction on the circuit. As for that '40' (mph) speed restriction sign - no chance!
[© Stuart Hicks, 2018]

While all of this was going on the diesel hauled public service had started. A goodly number of passengers young and old were circulating round looking on in perplexity/bemusement/amazement at our antics! We then moved on to the finale, managing to traverse the turntable road to the very end of the Loading Line. Here a carriage was detached and 'people power' used for full 360o 'spinnage' on the turntable, as well as five steaming bays, each in their entirety. Thanks are due to the very friendly enthusiastic volunteers here, for understanding our requests and allowing us to gatecrash their normal running day. This meant extra work for them on top of normal service (usually signalled automatically from the Impressive signal box). With all of this, track coverage here stood at some 99.9%!

After the garden the 'Party' continued apace as members moved on to the 570yd 10¼" Hatfield House Miniature Railway. This is adjacent to the farm in the grounds of the house which King James I visited in 1611 (the 'Royal' bit of the day). The railway opened 30 Mar 2013, the driver, loco, rolling stock and track came, lock stock and barrel, from nearby Knebworth House when that railway closed. It is a fairly simple inner/outer circuit from a single platform station Salisbury Halt. We were met by the two man crew who appeared with petrol loco 'Rhuddlan Castle' and train. Public running after their official lunch break was yet to begin but would do fairly soon so we set out and covered the normal run twice for the vital 'overlap'. Then it was over to the two long open ended corrugated iron shed structures. One of the shed branch roads had to be traversed by 'people power' and the whole coaching set as it is articulated. The other (with the single road Loco Shed) was covered one person at a time, again with human assistance, riding on Loco 'Midget'. The Loading Line, through the Loco Shed beyond was on quite a steep gradient with only 'delicately' supported track so was unavailable. However, again this was almost total coverage, in the convivial friendly atmosphere on a very mild if cloudy afternoon.

Hatfield House Miniature Railway - Salisbury Halt.
[© Stuart Hicks, 2018]

The open ended Engine Shed which continues on as a 'ski jump' - the loading line. They are very trusting in this part of Hertfordshire; that is a public footpath in the background.
[© Stuart Hicks, 2018]

So our merry Party proceeded with confidence to Vanstones Woodland Railway at Vanstones Garden Centre, Codicote, near Stevenage. This is a 10¼" gauge, 550yd balloon loop mainly through woodland, like many minor railways. An unusual feature is that the station is at the end of a branch off the main circuit. Trains propel out from the station and reverse to then run around the loop, usually twice and lead back to the station. Our train was waiting with 'Borough of Buxton'. This is one of four identical late 1960's vintage 'Meteor' locos based here; it is red. The others present are 'Meteor IV' (bright green), 'V' (darker green) and 'IX' (bright yellow). In your reporter's opinion, they look rather odd and angular, rather like Class 74s for those old enough to remember these, not me, I hasten to add! The Woodland Area has quite a sharp steeply graded curve and our loco initially struggled but made it on the second attempt. Pulling up alongside the very long overgrown loco and carriage shed, deep in the woods, we stopped for the other three locos to be removed from the shed, stabled for inspection/photos and then moved clear so our entire train could be hauled to the end of the shed. It was pitch black inside and our BLN Editor could be heard commenting that it would make a great Ghost Train for kids/adults - cobwebs and all!

The participants on the second trip were happy to enter the ghostly shed, on the basis that the first lot had actually all emerged again.
[© Stuart Hicks, 2018]

The station, although one is left wondering from the sign what 'other' sort/s of 'station/s' might be found at a garden centre…?
[© Stuart Hicks, 2018]

The other shorter shed line was occupied by stock. 'Meteor IX' then took over for very rare haulage around the whole circuit (it is not very powerful) and back to the shed. 'Borough of Buxton' returned us back to the station to complete the trip here.

It was now 15.45 and Day 1 (incredible value at just £10 all inclusive) was complete with thanks to those involved for a great day, particularly Bill Davis for his meticulous planning and execution. Members were able to make for their accommodation or return home in sociable hours. With several hours of daylight remaining two keen peripatetic members drove to Hatfield and walked the 6½ mile St Alban Way, unsurprisingly to … St Albans. CP 1951 this former Great Northern Railway trackbed is mostly intact with much of interest to see at each station and halt. Nast Hyde Halt has recently been smartened up with many replica, but authentic, looking features. Passing Hill End station (once for Hertfordshire Mental Hospital!) they wondered if any of our ticket collecting members might own a single to here from Old Hill. Next was the famous 'Salvation Army Halt' - actually west of the location shown on the 'Disused Stations' website. The name derives from that organisation's nearby printing works. After passing beneath the spectacular brick built underbridge carrying the Midland Main Line high above the track bed and the GNR St Albans London Road station, the St Albans Abbey branch was reached. Return to Hatfield was from St Albans City via Thameslink (running well and busy late on a Saturday evening) then north from King's Cross; a bargain at £10.05 with railcard for 37¼ miles by rail and enabling the whole 6½ mile trackbed to be covered without having to walk back in the dark.

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