A real winter: memories of 1981/82 in Cardiff

40 years ago today…

It was 40 years ago today that the snow came. It wasn’t unexpected: in my teenage years, winters featured regular heavy snowfalls. In 1978 rugby fans were stranded by a blizzard returning from an international in Cardiff. The winter of discontent, 1978/79 was characterised by blizzards as well as strikes. But 1981/82 was different: the snowiest winter since the great winter of 1962/63.

Little did I know, when I pleased myself by marking the date in snow on our greenhouse, that the winter of my A level year would be so special. My first diary noted that there had been a rail crash claiming four lives at Seer Green (Sear Green, as I spelt it) in Buckinghamshire. I had no idea that I’d commute from that village station for several years 20 years later.

The Seer Green rail crash, 11 December 1981
The accident report

We had further snow over the Christmas holidays. The photo below, taken on Boxing Day 1981, shows brother-in-law Julio, Siân, aged 14 months, sister Boo, Mum and me.

The serious snow arrived in the new year. It snowed continually for 36 hours. It’s hard now to imagine that kind of snowquake. Urban landscapes were transformed. The photo above of Heath Junction in Cardiff tells a story. No trains were running on the Coryton line, so you’d never know it was a junction were it not for the old GWR signal box and signals.

Heath Low Level station

The photo above shows the snow at Heath Low Level station untouched by trains or people as British Railways didn’t attempt to run any services on the Coryton line while the snow persisted.

I eventually cleared a path to the garage and drive as seen below. The 1960s Hillman Imp was Mum’s car.

I eventually helped clear a path to the garage – as seen above and below.

The sheer weight of snow changed the landscape for ever. The old Sophia Gardens pavilion, which was a venue for the 1958 British Empire & Commonwealth Games, collapsed under its weight, as did the bowling club in Rhydypenau.

Near Cardiff Castle

One day, I walked into town, past the scene near Cardiff Castle seen above. It was a great adventure.

Days later, we were due to go to London on a school trip for a series of history lectures, five months before our A levels. One of the star lecturers was GR Elton, who featured heavily in our A level Tudor history course, and was well known for his clash of theories about Henry VIII with rival historian JJ Scarisbrick. We were due to travel by train, but bizarrely the trains were blocked while the M4 to England was still open.

Dad, off to Majorca

Dad, Bob Skinner, was working flat out during the blizzards of early 1982. As public relations officer for South Glamorgan county council, he was the spokesman for the Welsh capital’s council as it kept people informed about how its services were affected by the great freeze. By early January, he was desperate for a break, and planned a rare holiday in Palma, Majorca. He was picked up by a Land Rover to get him on a train to Birmingham to get a flight to Spain. Dad recalls the delight of sinking into his seat on the plane.

Our house in the snow

You can see in this shot how high the drifts reached – over the wall between our front garden and the pavement.

Paths for Spot the cat

I was concerned that our eight year old cat, Spot, would be adrift. So I built paths (above) and a tunnel (below) for her. It’s fair to say she needed a bit of encouragement to use them!

Eventually, the snow melted and life got back to normal. We’ve never had a winter like 1981/82 in the intervening 40 years. Will the snow ever return in such a magical way?

January 11 and January 20, 1982

The path seemed clear to A levels. But none of us could have know that Britain would be at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands during those exams…

HS2: broken Tory promises

What a surprise. After countless promises to build a high speed rail line to Yorkshire, Boris Johnson confirmed that the Tory government was cancelling the eastern leg of the HS2 line to Leeds and Bradford.

It just shows you can never trust UK governments – especially Tory ones – to invest outside South East England.

If there had been any justice, construction of HS2 would have started in the north rather than London. The English capital gets a staggering £864 per person in transport spending compared with a pittance of £349 in the north of England. But when the government wanted to save money, it was the north that paid the sacrifice. Not the ever-spoilt money pit of the south east.

HS2 works, Chalfont St Giles, 2020

Yes, many in the south protested against HS2. But rather than cancelling the project, the Conservatives blew extra billions on a tunnel for HS2 under the Chilterns, including our village of Chalfont St Giles.

Leeds and Bradford are rightly outraged. (Bradford has the worst rail services of any major English city.) But spare a thought for Wales. Despite HS2 being billed as Britain’s railway, it will go nowhere near Wales, or Scotland. A cynical Tory move led to HS2 being treated as an ‘England and Wales’ project. So no extra money will flow to Wales under the Barnett formula.

Work begins, Chalfont St Giles, August 2020

There’s a sensible debate to be had about how to invest in green transport for the 21st century. HS2 may not be the right, or only, answer. But why is Britain, the country that invented railways, the nation with the fewest miles of high speed railways in western Europe? As I blogged when HS2 was first proposed, Britain’s Victorian rail network is hopelessly ill-suited to high speed trains. British Railways conceived the tilting Advanced Passenger Train in the 1970s to overcome the limitations of the West Coast Mainline, built in the 1830s and 1840s. By contrast BR chose Brunel’s Great Western mainline for its InterCity 125 high speed services because it was so level and straight, unlike its rivals.

The moral of the saga of HS2’s cancelled easter leg is that London politicians – especially one as cynical as Boris Johnson – will always favour the south east. Talk of levelling up is all bullshit. They simply don’t care about the north, Wales or Scotland. But as long as English voters keep reelecting London-biased governments, nothing will change. The case for Welsh and Scottish independence just grew stronger. Perhaps a Yorkshire National Party will follow…

PS: I reported on the HS2 works in Chalfont St Giles in August 2020 here.

Taking the train in the age of coronavirus

Have mask, will travel

I took a train for the first time in over five months this week. What a contrast to that last journey in March, before Britain’s coronavirus lockdown began.

Our short (eight minute) journey from Tenby to Saundersfoot was simple enough. We remembered to take our masks. The Transport for Wales guard challenged passengers who weren’t wearing masks, although the man sitting opposite us remained unmasked as we got off.

Social distancing on board

Many of the seats were out of use to ensure social distancing. Fortunately this two carriage train was not busy.

Sign of the times

To give Transport for Wales credit, the information signs on the train and the platforms were very clear.

The masked travellers

As we alighted at Saundersfoot station, it struck me that the town was likely to be a decent walk away. So it proved. I was reminded of tales of Victorian travellers leaving their trains at stations with the ‘Road’ suffix on a wild Welsh night not realising they were miles from the town in the station name. A practice followed by budget airlines 125 years later…

Remember Tryweryn…

I was intrigued to come across this sign on our two kilometre walk to Saundersfoot . ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ (Remember Tryweryn’) recalls the infamous flooding of Capel Celyn in North Wales to provide a reservoir for the English city of Liverpool. Parliament voted for the project, but not a single Welsh MP voted for it. The scandal was a major boost to Welsh nationalism and Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh language society) in the 1960s and afterwards.

Saundersfoot

We finally reached the sea at Saundersfoot. This peaceful town was once a major port, exporting coal from the Pembrokeshire coalfield. We walked through a tunnel that was built for the narrow gauge coal tramway. A lovely mix of industrial history and rural beauty – not uncommon in Wales.

The making of a railway: watching the birth of HS2

Cutting through the Chilterns: Looking towards High Wycombe from Loudwater tunnel: SWA Newton

At the end of the 19th century, a photographer called SWA Newton documented a unique event: the creation of a new mainline railway from Sheffield to London. The Great Central Railway tore through the medieval heart of Leicester and Nottingham, and as a student in 1980s Leicester I was fascinated to find Newton’s photos of familiar sights being built just over 80 years earlier. Sadly, almost all that magnificent line was closed in the 1960s.

The Great Central was the creation of Sir Edward Watkin, who dreamed of a high speed railway linking the north of England with France through a channel tunnel. Ironically, the politicians who pushed HS2 scrapped a link between HS2 and HS1 – the channel tunnel rail link – to save money. How desperately short sighted.

I thought of SWA Newton and the birth of the Great Central in 2010 when I learned that the new High Speed 2 (HS2) railway would pass through our village. As you’d expect, there are few supporters of the line here. That’s partly because of the disruption that the construction will cause (though for me that’s been minimal so far) but also because people in Buckinghamshire won’t get any benefit from the line. It will still be quicker for us to get to Birmingham via the Chiltern line than going to London to get a train on HS2.

The line will pass through our village in a 10 mile long tunnel. That will spare the Misbourne valley although part of me thinks it’s a shame that travellers won’t be able to enjoy the beauty of the southern Chilterns. Railways blend in to the landscape unlike airports or 12-lane motorways.

I’ll never be a 21st century SWA Newton, but I do want to witness and record the work being carried out on HS2 around our village. So over the past couple of weekends, I’ve been to see the two main sites: ventilation shafts for the Chiltern tunnel.

It’s official….
On Bottom House Farm Lane, between Chalfont St Giles and Amersham

To get to the Chalfont St Giles site, I cycled down a lane for the first time, even though it’s barely a mile from our front door. I wouldn’t like to drive down Bottom House Farm Lane in a big car (it’s very narrow and badly potholed) but it was wonderful on a mountain bike. In the photo above, you can see spoil from the works. I was captivated by the forgotten valley, with its handsome farm buildings and classic Chiltern rounded hills and woodland – and with now ubiquitous red kites circling overhead.

The site on a map
The route of HS2 (in tunnel), Misbourne valley
Ready for action, Bottom House Farm Lane

HS2 has published a lot of information about the project and its impacts on its website. See HS2 in Bucks and Oxon. Ironically, some of the places mentioned such as Calvert, Twyford, Finmere and Brackley were on the route of the Great Central Railway. I blogged about this irony in 2012 here.

The access road, Bottom House Farm Lane

The contractors are building an access road alongside Bottom House Farm lane to take the construction lorries to the site of the shaft. You can see that it’s like a dual carriageway alongside the narrow country lane, although it will be restored to nature after work is finished.

Bottom House Farm Lane sights

I had no idea that this tiny lane and valley were so picturesque. This is a few hundred metres from the main London to Amersham road.

The view from the London road
Warning: railway works ahead
HS2 travellers won’t see this: the route passes under Chalfont St Giles village centre here

As I said earlier, the HS2 route passes under the heart of our village, Chalfont St Giles. This is the Misbourne in the centre of the village; the tunnel passes under here.

The access road to the Chalfont St Peter tunnel site

This is the other major site near our village. The HS2 contractors have built an access road for construction traffic to the the Chalfont St Peter tunnel shaft.

Closer to London, HS2 is forcing the closure of Hillingdon Outdoor Activity Centre (HOAC). Our son Owen has just enjoyed a wonderful summer water sports course at HOAC, and previously camped at HOAC with Chalfont St Giles Scouts. Owen and Karen were distressed to see the destruction that HS2 is causing at HOAC. We hope HOAC will move to a new site, as seems to be the case. Meanwhile, this is what the HS2 viaduct in the area will look like.

Back to where I began. The remaining parts of the Great Central (and the Great Central and Great Western Joint line through Beaconsfield and High Wycombe) blend beautifully into the countryside. Admittedly, electric lines with their overhead wires aren’t quite so unobtrusive. But I recall my view of the West Coast Mainline in the fells of northern England last year, contrasting with the eyesore of the parallel M6. True, it was better looking in the days of steam, but I knew which I preferred.

The northern fells. Spot the West Coast mainline…

I’ll end as I began, with a couple of wonderful SWA Newton images from the birth of the older high speed rail line, the Great Central and associated joint line with the Great Western. Those construction workers – navvies as they were called in the past, recalling the men who built the canals – were photographed at Wilton Park, Beaconsfield.

I respect the protests of those who object to HS2. (Do read the comment below from Janey, who lives on Bottom House Farm Lane, about the impact the work is having on her family and other residents.) And the claims that this is Britain’s new railway are strained – it will do nothing for Wales. But I think it’s time that the country that invented railways moved beyond the Georgian and Victorian network that shaped and the constrained the nation. It’s almost 60 years since Japan introduced the Shinkansen bullet train, and 40 years since France began TGV services. Great Britain is catching up.

I love my Brompton Electric bike

Have [electric] bike, will travel. Teddington Lock

I didn’t plan to get an electric bike. I had thought of upgrading my 16 year old Brompton. But an impulse test ride on the Brompton Electric at the Brompton Junction store in London’s Covent Garden had me smitten. A week later, I collected my own Brompton Electric from Cycle Surgery and began my electric dream.

Go with the fold… Richmond Park lunchtime ride

As a Brompton owner since 2002, I was familiar with the clever design. The electric version is a classic Brompton, with the same simple fold, which is perfect for journeys when you use the train for part of your commute. But the powered Brompton is even heavier, so you’ll won’t want to carry this bike very far. (I’m now far more familiar with the lift at Gerrards Cross station!)

I got the bike in February, when we had an unseasonal heatwave, with temperatures over 20C! I took advantage by going for lunchtime rides along the Thames from Richmond to Teddington and through Richmond Park.

Brompton’s natural habitat

But this is a bike designed for commuting. I have meetings in London at least once a week, and have loved cycling to the station to get the train from Gerrards Cross, and then completing the journey from Marylebone to Victoria or Tottenham Court Road. The Brompton is a perfect city bike: I can weave in and out of traffic and the electric boost gives me an unfair advantage as the lights turn green. (My favourite moment was beating a Porsche away from the lights!)

Is it perfect? No. There are times when the power seems slow to kick in, although most of the time this isn’t a problem. I’ve experienced a few rattles and a part fell off (from the City bag In think) today and I have no idea how to put it back on. There are also times when I change gear and nothing happens but applying more force to the gear lever tends to sort things out. But these are minor niggles. I love this bike. For many people, the biggest problem will be the price. You’ll be saying goodbye to at least £2,500 for this bike. I think it’s worth it if your commute includes a train journey. You might disagree, even if you can afford to spend that kind of money on a bike.

Bags of room…

The Brompton Electric comes with a clever essentials bag that contains the removable battery. You can pop the charger, your phone and other essentials in it. I splashed out on the City Bag for commuting – you’ll need it if you don’t want to carry a laptop on a backpack. It’s cleverly designed with the two pockets at the back and side pockets as well. The battery fits in the middle and clips into place. It’s not as big as it looks inside because the battery takes up a chunk of space but I’ve not found this a problem. The bag and laptop are heavy, so you will be grateful for that electric motor!

Bromptons have small wheels, which means you have to be careful to avoid potholes and other obstacles. I learnt a lesson early on: take care not to charge curbs as you may get a puncture, as I did in High Wycombe. I also discovered that you need a spanner to take the wheel off to mend a puncture.

Brompton has adopted these three icons showing the famous fold. You’ll find it on various components on the bike, which is a nice touch. I first saw them displayed on the old Brompton factory in Brentford, west London, on my (car) commute. I used to enjoy seeing Brompton employees cycling home as I drove past. I was sorry when the company moved, although it’s heart-warming that Brompton still makes its bikes in London.

My Brompton in Horse Guards Road, with 10 Downing Street behind

I love cycling, and was thrilled this year to complete Land’s End to John O’Groats on my Cannondale Synapse road bike. But there’s something very special about flying around the city on a Brompton Electric. It gives me a lot of pleasure, especially as I know I’m avoiding the crowds yet getting to my destination faster than on the tube.

Happiness is a Brompton on a sunny day

I’ll end with a photo that sums up the joy of this special bike. This was on an early lunchtime ride in that February heatwave. I can’t wait for my next Brompton Electric ride!

In praise of LNER Flying Scotsman

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Flying Scotsman: on the footplate of 93 year old legend

Owen and I today had a priceless experience – stepping onto the footplate of the world’s most famous railway engine, Flying Scotsman, at York’s magnificent National Railway Museum.  The 93 year old engine has just been restored to mainline working after a multi-million pound overhaul.

We have got accustomed to footplate visits to famous LNER engines – we visited all six surviving A4 pacifics during NRM’s unforgettable Great Gathering reunion in 2013. And I confess that Flying Scotsman has never inspired me in the same way as Mallard and her sister A4s. But I didn’t think it was right to spend time at the museum this weekend without queueing to stand on the Scotsman’s footplate. I’m so glad we did.

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Scotsman, BR-vintage

This, as NRM’s marvellous Return of the Scotsman exhibition explains, was the world’s first superstar locomotive. It was a film star from its earliest days. It was the first engine to exceed 100 miles an hour officially. It began the non-stop London to Edinburgh Flying Scostman service in 1928, beating its own 392 mile achievement by recording the world’s longest non-stop steam run – 429 miles – in Australia in 1989.

I think the engine looks wonderful in its British Railways livery, with smoke defectors. I may be biased – this was how it looked the year I was born, when it was withdrawn from everyday service.

The National Railway Museum is a wonderful place to visit – and it’s free to enter. I first visited in 1979, and now love taking Owen whenever we visit York, one of our favourite cities.

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Posing with an icon

It’s amazing to think that when we first took Owen to the NRM in September 2009, aged one, the Scotsman was in pieces at an early stage of the overhaul. Here are a few photos I took on that visit.

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Remembering LTC Rolt

Nant Gwernol station, Talyllyn Railway

LTC Rolt’s legacy: the Talyllyn at Nant Gwernol

Few people did more to save Britain’s old railways and canals than LTC Rolt, who died 40 years ago this month. He was one of the founders of the Inland Waterways Association and the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society, and ran the Talyllyn in its early summers as the world’s first preserved railway.

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In praise of the new Routemaster bus

TfL's new Routemaster London bus

Ticket to ride: London’s new Routemaster

I thought I’d missed my bus in London today. But I was in luck. It was a new Routemaster, the new version of the classic London bus. So I was able to jump onboard while it was halted in traffic.

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50,000 miles in my Mini

50,000 miles up

50,000 miles up

I love my Mini Cooper. I blogged affectionately about it when it proved brilliant in a blizzard a month after I bought it in 2009. Today, it passed the milestone of 50,000 miles on my drive home from work.

These milestones are trivial yet memorable. I remember where I was when I completed the first 10,000 miles. (Passing Swindon on the M4 on the way to Penarth in November 2010.)

I was keen to capture tonight’s moment, and fortunately I had just left the M40 and could park to take the photo. Yes, I know I should get out more….

The Mini has always been great fun to drive. I can weave in and out of traffic – which always makes me smile. Here’s to the next 10,000 miles!

My lost iPad: Chiltern Railways come up trumps again

I left my iPad on a train last week. I had a very busy day and didn’t get the chance to report the loss to Chiltern Railways until I got to Dublin that evening.

The online lost property page suggested it would be at least 10 days before I heard whether it had been handed in. So imagine my delight when Kala from Chiltern called me ten minutes later to tell me they had it.

It was just the latest example of Chiltern Railways’ outstanding customer service culture. Kala told me her day finished at 7pm, but she decided to call me (at 7.30) when she saw my online report to give me the good news.

Thank you so much, Kala!

iPad

The iPad that Chiltern Railways found – the day I got it in 2010