Balloon Repair Station

Got a card from a Good Friend

A wedding invitation with a picture of a steam train and Rewley Road Station on it? In decidedly Art Nouveau style? That doesn’t happen very often. This was clearly going to be something very special indeed. The RSVP was duly acknowledged, post-ockta-proctor.

Years and eons ago we were travelling to Devon to have a holiday with my Uncle John. He was a BOAC senior captain at the time, flying VC10s. Anyway my dad had borrowed a car and we headed for sunny Sidmouth for the annual holiday. We would leave at crack o’sparrow’s and ply our way down the A303 headin’ for the seaside. One year, somewhere along the route, the inevitable break was needed. Now, as I recall we stopped at a station, two canopied platforms, probably somewhere in Dorset or early Devon. It wouldn’t have been any later than five in morning. My brother and I jumped out the car and walked (briskly) through the booking hall (remember them) and stopped briefly at the at the top of the steps leading down to the platform. In front and below me was a huge, long, stationary train. The vision is still clear to this day. I was looking down on a huge parcel van. The place was all steam, noise and commotion with stuff, including pigeons, being loaded. I can’t recall which way it was going, probably London, as trains generally drive on the left. Under the canopy the steam from the heating pipes crawled over the platform edge and meandered upwards creating an air of mystique. We reached the bottom step, spotted the Gents and I dragged me younger brother onwards. Well relieved we dashed back onto the platform. We looked towards the engine through the glimmering light-bulbs. It appeared encapsulated in the gloom, barely in the platform, steam swirling around it, the firebox glowing. We set off at a canter as all small boys did lest it left before we got there. The driver leant out and gave us a very white toothed grin.
“You’re out late boys?”
“Going on holiday, sir.” We respectfully replied.
“We’re about to go as well so watch out.” and gave us the thumbs up, vanishing back into the cab.
A whistle shrilled. The driver leant out again and looked back, then down and winked at us as his arm eased the regulator over.
An enormous amount of steam stormed over the platform, the cylinders took that wonderful first induction of steam followed by a hearty chuff and momentary slip of the driving wheels and the Castle Class engine took the strain and started moving. It was wonderful. The exhaust barked, silencing the dawn chorus, throwing a thick vertical column of smoke up, dark against the early dawn light, and the Night Mail, plus sleeper, gently eased out on the next leg of her journey. The driver leant right back out of the cab and raised his hand in a salute, as mainly they did. We waved back enthusiastically as the coaches, first slowly then with a clickaclickly clack rumbled past. The last carriage passed us by, now travelling at some speed, the corridor connector blanked off, and we stood in awe as the twinkling red light tail lights finally vanished into the distance.
Me dad came up behind us.
“You OK boys? That was great don’t you reckon?”
Of course we were, and it had been. Couldn’t have been better. He’d been watching from a few feet away too, he loved trains as well. I’ve never found the station but the train was possibly the Penzance Sleeper complete with Mobile Sorting Office.

We enjoyed a similar experience, on the flip side of the coin, the following year, when we went to St Davids Bay on a camping holiday aboard the Boat Train, so we were told. An inspection of the engine before boarding, at around midnight on Paddington Station, made our day. It was to be hauled by none other than King George V. Being a sleeper it stopped mostly everywhere on its way to Fishguard, eventually, to pick up mail and luggage and accordingly my brother and I remained awake throughout, jumping off at each stop and dashing down the platform to chat to the driver then rushing back to our carriage when the whistle went, waving to the odd straggler on the platform as we puffed away. Eventually, after the third stop, the driver explained that we only need to clamber through the first carriage door as it was a corridor train, that made it a whole lot easier! Our neighbour had set off the day before with the tents and most of our luggage crammed in their estate car. We had half an idea we’d overtake them!! Somewhere along the line, probably Swansea, the engine was changed. That was a spectacular sight at night! With all our dashing about we ended up being hurriedly awoken by the guard, just short of Fishguard! I seem to remember that a lot of passengers, including us, enjoyed bacon sandwiches in the restaurant car whilst in the platform before getting off. A week later we found out that the Boat Train we were going home on was stopping at a tiny station called Wolfs Castle to pick up a wedding party, so that is where we caught it. The stationmaster told us to pretend we were with the Wedding Party. It seemed that the platform was only long enough to take a couple of coaches! Great adventure.

So….here we were back in 2012 at Quainton Railway Centre celebrating the wedding of famous balloonist and Concorde pilot Tim Orchard’s daughter Marie to equally very nice fellow Nick. When the invitation arrived we decided it would be nice to take the balloon along and hopefully fly a couple of guests. Despite Marie being an accomplished Bristol-based balloon pilot herself flying guests in a wedding dress could have proved tricky and anyway there was lots to do! As the event date neared a few more balloons had been promised so now it was up to the weather.

Back in 1999 Quainton Road acquired Oxford’s old station, Rewley Road. Yes, they acquired another station. Rewley Road, or as described in Bradshaw’s, Rooley Road, was the terminus of the Bletchley to Oxford line operated by the Buckinghamshire Railway. Now, for you non-architectural, types this was built in cast iron kit form by Fox, Henderson using a similar method to that which William Paxton had employed to build The Crystal Palace which they were building at the same time. Paxton did the greenhouse at Chatsworth (balloony link there I think!), as it happens and later Mentmore Towers near us. Good bloke. It is an unusual station having only one central platform and being, for the most part, fully enclosed its dimensions being restricted by its location between the River Thames and the Oxford Canal. Built in 1851, Rewley Road is impressive by any stretch of the imagination and its reconstruction at Quainton has been true to every detail. Re-opened in 2002 it is a joy to behold, add to this that it also has a Wedding Licence makes it a grand abode for all sorts of events.

Marie chose to have the lot. Get married, have a scrummy lunch and later a live band and the reception. Brilliant. As seems to be the norm, the planned balloon launch was scuppered earlier in the week by the weather but with the promise of champagne and steam trains we could not resist and it meant we could call by Alice’s best friends birthday on the way so come eightish we bade our farewells to Weston Turville Village Hall and set forth.

We entered the celebrations to a brilliant band playing Mott the Hoople’s ‘Roll away the Stone’. Instant party mode and it just got better. A beaming Tim Orchard greeted us, magnificently dressed as the Fat Controller, the father-in-law resplendent in a hot-air-balloon-bedecked waistcoat and shorts (comfy shoes mind, very sensible). A host of small people, all face-painted and ‘should’ve know betters’ were all bopping and rocking to a, what turned out to be, truly good blues band. Over the top of the throng, gently suspended from the ironwork, was a parachute from a balloon, and in the platform, its running lights quietly glowing, was Defiant, buffers on, coupled up to Churchill’s war-time coach. Cripes! This was fantastic.

Pay attention now, please. Best to get this bit over quickly lest we are distracted. The bride looked stunning in a quietly ruffled white dress with nice embroidered detail edged in gold. Lovely. The groom was very smart in a suit that seemed to have a collar from hell but he carried it off very well. Nice one Nick. The Fat Controller needed a couple of stone more to be convincing but his missus looked very summery in a fine hat. The groom’s party were most resplendent and exuded an air of confidence, some having journeyed from the antipodes to be there.

Onwards. I, of course, having had a rock to Mott and a few more equally sing-along numbers including Mustang Sally, was off down the platform to inspect the steam contingent. So, prepare for a sad moment or two as Defiant and Churchill’s coach get a mention. Despite its name, Defiant is a Castle Class engine, built in 1939, originally named Ogmore Castle (Hmmm Welsh border place) and renamed by the Great Western Railway in 1941 in honour of the aircraft that took part in the Battle of Britain. It was withdrawn from service in 1963 ending up in Barry Scrapyard. It was saved by the Standard Gauge Steam Trust, initially as spares for Clun Castle in 1974, which still runs. It was however restored and was running for a while on the mainline until its boiler certificate expired. It ended its days on mainline service at the Carmarthen depot so could well have been the very engine my brother and I saw all those years ago, quietly steaming away waiting to heave its load onwards to London or may have even pulled the Boat Train. The music rocked on, we rather naughtily clambered over the barrier and wandered down Churchill’s coach discovering a cigar butt in a drawer. Then we made for the engine and removed the barrier. I momentarily had this idea of climbing onto the boiler casing and posing behind the famous GWR copper-clad funnel but thought better of it, clearly a result of a traditional 6.30 G&T that was on offer in the Oxford Room, where we normally hold our 7200 Trust meetings (another story) and to which we adjourned before going back to the dancing and singing.

The time finally came to head back to reality and so we sought out our hosts to bid them all the best for the future and thank them so much for a lovely time and, naturally, to compliment Marie on her most perfect choice of venue. Marie and her, now, better half were going AWOL in a camper, heading north, we were told. Concorde Tim and his better half had already left, it had been a long day bless, so sadly no pics of him as the Fat Controller! The in-laws plodged through the mud to their tents in the carpark and we popped back into the Oxford Room for a carry out. That the balloons didn’t happen, in the end, didn’t actually matter. It was a fantastic reception held in the most atmospheric of places. Huge thanks for the invite. Our congratulations to bride and groom. G&T in hand we sauntered over to Quainton Road’s dark platform and waited for the newspaper train. Prize for the first to spot the smoke. It would probably be awhile!

Rewley Road Station can be found at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre, Quainton, Bucks.

Bit of history on Oxford Rewley Road Station: