Back before Christmas, myself and my brother were looking for a present to get our Dad, very much of a train buff. The suggestion of a driver footplate experience had come up so we started to look around.
Looking at the various preserved railways you’re looking at quite a lot of money – for example the Watercress Line charges £250 for a three hour introductory footplate experience that lasts three hours and is shared with two others. Then my brother took a look at the Pecorama experience. Although it’s on their miniature steam railway, it’s a 1:1 course, is seven hours, but is still cheaper than a full size engine. Given that we used to make an almost religious pilgrimage to Peco every year when we were in Devon, we thought we’d go for that.
It proved to be an excellent choice. We went down for the first week in May, coincidentally when my Dad’s birthday falls, and the driver experience course was booked on the Wednesday. At 9:30am Dad turned up for his briefing, when he was taken around the track, talked through the signals and line procedures. He was then taken by the instructor up to get the engine ready – this is right from cold with all the preparation. By lunchtime they were going through the basics of how to drive, and by the end of the day Dad was able to drive the train with a set of coaches around the whole route that the professional drivers use.
The staff at Peco were excellent and really friendly. We took the children down, who had a fantastic time in the exhibition, but once Dad had progressed to hauling coaches they allowed us all to ride the line with him driving – great fun riding on Grandpa’s train! Certainly if you’re looking for a driving experience course I can certainly recommend the Peco experience, the locomotives are miniature steam engines, and operate in exactly the same way as a full size locomotive, and you’ll see the whole process right from starting the locomotive in the morning through to putting it to bed at the end of the day.
I had my little video camera with me, and I’ve got two videos. The first is just Dad’s final circuit and taking the locomotive back to the depot – something you wouldn’t normally see. The other video is rather longer, and is effectively all the footage I took edited together as a memento of the day for Dad. It includes several runs around the line, one with the professional driver, the rest with Dad driving, plus various other bits with Dad learning to drive, and travelling around the line in several variations you wouldn’t usually see. Be warned, there is ninety minutes of it!
As part of Beth’s parents visit last week, we spent a few days down staying with family down in Devon. Whilst in my childhood trips to Devon were to see my grandparents in Dawlish, now it is my aunt and uncle who live a bit further along the coast in Exmouth. It is a good few years since I’ve been down for a holiday, so it was interesting to see how the place had changed.
On our first afternoon, Eileen and Geoff took us down to the sea front at Exmouth. Until recently, the town was a working port, but now in common with a number of other port towns and cities around the country, the port has closed, and been replaced with a marina, and flats. Also in common with another of other places, the smart looking ‘docklands’ style properties are expensive, and beyond the means of many locals.
The next day, we undertook what used to be an annual pilgrimage when I was a child, to Pecorama at Beer. Pecorama started life as essentially a large demonstration area for the Peco range of track and model railway accessories, alongside their factory. However over the years it has grown, thanks to the panoramic views of Lyme Bay from the factory, they have build an extensive miniature railway network on top of the hill behind the factory, and large gardens. As a family we’ve been visiting since the early days of the exhibition and a short length of track for the miniature railway – and it’s interesting to see how it has changed.
The first impression I got was how small the exhibition was – although I think that is perhaps because I remember it as a child, so in fact I’ve got bigger, rather than the exhibition smaller! The clientele seemed much the same, with lots of train enthusiasts big and small – and still loads of buttons for small fingers to push to make a selection of trains, boats and even a hot air balloon move around on the layouts. The miniature railway has seen a significant extension from the last visit, and massively more than the days when it used to be a five minute run along the length of the factory. One amusing thing to note was that nowadays the train drivers don’t have to turn their own locomotive on the turntable – now a fit young teenager takes the strain of turning the locomotive around on the turntable after each journey. The gardens have also grown considerably, with a big investment having been made for the millennium. All in all, it’s still a great day out for train fanatics, but whilst Mum used to spend the whole day sat in the gardens reading the newspaper in the past, there is now a lot more for those who aren’t quite so enthusiastic about trains too.
At this point, it is probably worth mentioning one of the places that we often went as a child, that we didn’t go to this time – being Bicton Park. In the past, it used to have the double attraction of nice gardens, but also the Woodland Railway. It still is the only 18-inch narrow gauge line in Britain. However when I was a child it was run by a steam locomotive and diesel locomotive that used to haul trains in the works at the Woolwich Arsenal. However in 2000 both locomotives were sold to the Royal Gunpowder Mills museum at Waltham Abbey, and Bicton replaced them with a brand new locomotive. However, whilst the outline may look like a steam tank engine, it isn’t – so from a railway enthusiasts point of view the attraction is somewhat lost. Sadly, you can’t ride the old Bicton trains at the Royal Gunpowder Mills as yet either. 🙁
Anyway, back to our trip to Devon. After our trip to Peco we went on a bit of a tour of old haunts, driving around to see how things had changed in Dawlish. In some ways things were much as they had always been. Heading down the A379, there was still the unused and listed porch in Starcross causing traffic queues as always. There wasn’t that much more housing on the edge of town than when I last visited, and the town centre was much as before. We also drove past my grandparents old house, which has seen a lot of refurbishment in recent years. Having said that, the town was still much as I remembered it.
On the last day, we took a trip down to Dartmouth, which is now possible entirely by train, as the local services from Exmouth now alternate between running to Barnstaple, and running to the start of the Paignton and Dartmouth railway at Paignton. Although the journey takes a bit of time, partly due to a couple of long waits in some of the Exeter stations, it does give you an opportunity to see much more of the scenery, especially on the scenic section along the sea wall between Dawlish and Teignmouth. However it also allows you to see the sad results of railway privatisation. While some of the stations appear to have been maintained, Paignton mainline station is a sad decaying shadow of it’s former self. Over the footbridge, there is no window that is not either smashed, gone, or boarded up. There is more graffiti than I’ve seen on most London stations, and whilst other stations are decorated with hanging baskets, the only healthy plant display is actually the wildflowers growing in the track-bed in platform 1!
Anyway, I’m pleased to say that the Paignton and Dartmouth railway is still going strong. We paid the supplement and rode in the observation car both ways, taking the opportunity to soak up the scenery, and period atmosphere on the line. We travelled down on the second train of the day, which got us to Dartmouth just in time for lunch. On the basis of a recommendation from my aunt, and also my parents, we had lunch at the Cherub Inn. A little away from the tourist hubbub down by the river, it is the oldest building in Dartmouth, dating from 1380. You can read more about the history of the building on their site. The food is great, we all had traditional fish and chips, with fresh fish of course. If you are in Dartmouth it is well worth seeking out. From there we took a stroll around the town centre, stopping in at various of the shops, and also paying a visit to the local parish church which includes a number of features such as a painted screen and pulpit that have been long since lost at many other churches elsewhere.
After that we headed back over the river to the station at Kingswear, and boarded the last steam train of the day for home. We even managed to get the four seats at the front of the observation car, with a great view of the locomotive. The connection at Paignton was nicely timed too, giving me time to browse in the railway shop, and pick up a book on the line – â€œBranch Line to Kingswearâ€? by Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith – and then pick up the train back to Exmouth.
Back in Exmouth, as a last night treat, Eileen and Geoff took us out to their favourite restaurant, The Seafood Restaurant in the centre of town. The restaurant is described in more detail in this article from the Exmouth Journal – suffice to say that this isn’t a fish and chip shop! The majority of the fish is caught locally, and is prepared by the owners who trained as chefs, worked in London and across France, before returning to their home in Devon to open the restaurant. If you are looking for freshly prepared seafood, I can certainly recommend a visit.
Anyway, after that whirlwind tour for the benefit of Beth’s parents, we finished up with another British holiday tradition – sitting in the holiday traffic trying to get home – it seems some things never change! You can see pictures from our trip in our photo gallery.
Thoughts from, and the lives of a Canadian and a Brit living in Southern England.