Into The Valley

All the best trips start from this bus stop….

To say that this year has been disorientating is an understatement of some size. It’s been like finding out that Black Country glam rockers Slade used to cover The Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Darling Be Home Soon’ live in concert, thereby forever ruining one of John Sebastian’s greatest songs for the rest of your life. Then waking up the next day and finding out it wasn’t a bad dream, that Noddy really did go up an octave and several decibels on the last verse. So the opportunity to bring a little normality back into a strange and unfamiliar world was one to be gratefully accepted, and how better to do that than take a day trip on the Severn Valley Railway.

Things being as they are, you can’t just rock up and buy a ticket for a ride on The Valley at the moment, an online booking service has to be negotiated. And rather than paying per person, the SVR is selling their trains by the compartment – you pay your money and you can stuff up to six people in your exclusive compo. Three seemed enough to us, well three and a dog, so dates were booked off from work, payment was made, train times to Kidderminster discovered, and a rendezvous on the Up platform at Smethwick Galton Bridge arranged. Come the day, everything went to plan, and with fortification in the form of a couple of bacon baps from a coffeehouse across the road from Shrewsbury railway station on board and a cloth bag full of bottles to hand, we were fair set. Rather than hang around for a through train to Kidderminster from Smethwick, we took a short working to Stourbridge Junction and had a quick look at the local curiosity, one of a pair of Parry People Movers that work the short branch to Stourbridge Town.

The thing is powered by a small Ford van engine running up a flywheel, the prime mover being so modest there was no visible exhaust pipe, or indeed any sign of an exhaust, when it moved down the platform a few minutes late to take up service. One for completists only – at least it never wanders far so is easy to track down and ‘cop’, if you still like that kind of thing.

We swiftly moved on through the Worcestershire countryside to the large market town of Kidderminster, once well known for it’s carpet-making industry, now better known as the southern terminus of the Severn Valley Railway, one of the country’s premier preserved lines, if not the best of the lot. It was a glorious morning, we had the whole day ahead of us and a dog called Jasper, life was good and we hadn’t even started drinking yet. Official advice had been to turn up 45 minutes before departure to exchange our email booking for actual physical travel documents, but 30 minutes had seemed adequate and the modest queue we joined snaking out of the station building only took ten minutes or so to advance through. Said documents proved to be wristbands, colour coded according to the service you had booked on to. We had red bands for ‘The Explorer’, one of three trains the SVR was running each day during August and the one with the most mileage on offer for your money. One of the bands had our coach number and compartment letter written on too – Coach 6, Compartment A. As we walked up the platform we found we were the in the third coach from the front, a very freshly painted ex-Great Western Railway vehicle that turned out to be Nondescript Saloon 9055, to give it it’s proper title.

Cor, it’s like a palace in here…

When built (at Swindon in 1912) it was basically a private hire coach, with two large saloons connected with a side corridor – the stretch limo of it’s day. And far from being just big enough to hold just six people (and a dog), our saloon, with bench seats on all four sides and droplight windows in two corners could easily have seated fourteen or so. We stretched out, as did Jasper on the freshly-fitted lino floor. The saloon had just returned to service after a two year overhaul, we were honour-bound to look after it for the day and not let things get too messy.

Our carriage awaits – GWR Nondescript Saloon 9055, Kidderminster

After a quick trip to the front to view photograph our motive power for the day (another Great Western machine, 0-6-0 ‘Pannier Tank’ 7714 in 1960s British Railway black livery), we got settled in to our saloon and were soon northbound, bang on time. One of our number was a number collector so we helped him out with identifying the dozen or so locos on the diesel depot visible on the right hand side of the train immediately after leaving Kidderminster station. About half of them were Class 50s, but there were some items of interest too – a couple of diesel hydraulics, another Parry People Mover (the unofficial 139-000) which had been running trials on the line just before lockdown, small lumps of ballast, all of them more interesting than Fifties…

One of Swindon’s finest designs, built in Stoke on Trent for reasons we don’t need to go into here

It takes a few minutes to escape the small-town urban sprawl of Kidderminster, past industrial estates and long-closed junctions to other small towns (Stourport, as a matter of fact). And whilst passing the West Midlands Budget Safari Park may be interesting from the point of view you get to see some rhinos and elephants, it doesn’t add anything to the sensation that you are journeying back to the Edwardian era at all. It gets better after Bewdley though, a very pretty town on the River Severn that usually only makes the news when it gets flooded. Which seems like several times a year these days, unfortunately. On a normal day out on the SVR you might well decide to get out here here for an hour or so, to take in the atmosphere of a country junction station, sleepy most of the time then a hive of activity for a few minutes every two or three hours as trains arrive and depart from Kidderminster, Worcester via Stourport, Shrewsbury via Bridgnorth and Cleobury Mortimer. Only two of those lines are open now of course though, and as if to illustrate the fact we most unusually ran non-stop, slowing down only to pick up the token from the signalman at the north end of the platfrom. No train to pass of course, and no break of journey allowed, so no need to stop. It had just gone eleven. The bottle opener came out.

We meandered on upstream, crossing over the river before Arley then again passing non-stop through the single platform at Highley – we would be back here before too long anyway. The river was on our right hand side now, and the views across the broad valley were pastoral plus. Hard to believe this was once coal mining country, part of the Wyre Forest Coalfield. Coal was mined until early 1969, the last colliery to close being Alveley, well after the preservationists had moved into Bridgnorth station in 1965 in fact. The large museum called The Engine House at Highley stands on the site of former colliery sidings, and what is actually an ex-LNER 4 wheel coal wagon is painted in the colours of the Highley Mining Company within.

We carried on up the Valley, passing Hampton Loade then the long-closed though thoroughly restored station building at Erdington before charging the bank here with the small loco bringing it’s heavy train up the gradient in fine style. We ran into Bridgnorth and noted with pleasure that The Railwayman’s Arms pub on the platform was open and doing ‘carry outs’. The opportunity was taken to refresh ourselves further whilst 7714 was coaled and watered on the adjacent engine shed before taking us back south to Highley.

Beats coaling by hand…

On arrival at Highley everyone had to get off the train whilst it was taken forward to Bewdley, given an intermediate clean-up and the train crew had their break no doubt. Most of the passengers headed across to the afore-mentioned Engine House to check out the museum pieces in there but we had other plans – namely, The Ship pub a scant two minute walk away on the banks of the Severn. The menu was studied, a table secured on the beer garden terrace, food and drink ordered and a pleasant hour whiled away in the sunshine, ignoring Jasper’s silent pleading eyes as we got stuck into steak and chips – Ade assured us any meaty titbits would result in disastrous digestive consequences the next morning. Although once he’d had a fair bit more to drink Ade would forget that and share a giant pork & Stilton pie with his dog on the platform back at Galton Bridge.

Robinsons cider all round at The Ship, Highley

The Robinsons was the pint of the day for me, looking for all the world like orange squash but extremely drinkable. The dinner wasn’t too shabby either – we watched the world go by on the river where there seemed to be some sort of canoe event going on. Pairs of black-clad teenagers would drift past every few minutes, the current doing more to take them closer to Bewdley than any effort they were making with their paddles. There was evidence that Trying Too Hard to Win was maybe not a good idea when a pair turned up at the pub minus their canoe – an overheard phone call revealed they had managed to sink and lose their vessel in the river. The advice of the voice on the other end of the line was to walk to wherever the finish line was. They were still hanging around when we left, doubtless hoping for a lift that had failed to materialise – at least the warm day had dried them out…

The walk back up to Highley station, although it could easily have been measured in inches rather than miles, was hard work after all that lovely food and drink. Luckily our ample saloon was almost perfectly lined up with the station entrance so we simply collapsed back onto the plump cushions and enjoyed the return to Bridgnorth through the sunny Shropshire afternoon. We arrived in Platform 2 this time, which meant the footbridge had been reopened, the Up platform being occupied by the earlier return service to Kidderminster headed up by another ex-GWR loco, 6960 ‘Raveningham Hall’. The demands of social distancing denied anyone the chance to take the usual shots from the top of the footbridge of the shed yard though, a couple of quick shots of the ‘Hall’ being all that could be managed.

There was a longer recess at Bridgnorth on this occasion so we took a walk into the town itself. Bridgnorth is a town of two halves – Low Town and High Town, the former lying next to the River Severn and connected to the latter by a shedload of steps whichever way you go or the very conveniently provided Cliff Railway. That was certainly the way to go so we bought our tickets (only returns were on sale, we would not be using the other half..) and settled into the Art Deco cabin to await the short ride up the funicular.

High Town was busy on a sunny August afternoon, so we quickly gravitated to another regular haunt, Beaman’s Butchers on High Street. A traditional meat shop with an outside display of wares, the pie counter is at the back of the shop so we visited it one by one. Ade went for the afore mentioned giant Stilton & Pork Pie, Derek for a sausage roll and myself a traditional Scotch egg, hiding my disappointment that the pork scratchings were obviously long since sold out. It was time to head for the pub again, the White Lion this time where the contact tracing was completed via a QR Code, whatever the hell that means. Cider all round, and a bag of pork scratchings in a plain plastic bag – no token nod to traceable provenance here, although I did have to resist the Reg May’s pork pies also on sale, already being in possession of a Scotch egg with intent of course. May’s pork pies are made in Bridgnorth and their first shop in Ditton Priors also, and are the finest example of that heavily processed pork product I have ever tasted, and I have tried a great many combinations of what is at heart just salt and fat.

Beer garden at the White Lion – pork scratchings of unknown origin

Suitably refreshed (even Jasper had a pork scratching or two) we wandered downhill to the station, bought a final round from the Railwayman’s Arms, managed to avoid spilling most of it on the recently refreshed upholstery in our private saloon and enjoyed a final hour rolling at a leisurely pace back to Kidderminster. Thereafter it was the Big Railway back to Galton Bridge where Ade fed himself and his dog, then a change again at Wolverhampton as we went our separate ways back home.

It had been a Good Day all round, very well organised by the SVR and we had felt safe at all times. We saw next to no one on the train itself apart from the guard just once, no constant stream of passengers walking up and down the corridors, and we were only vaguely aware of the other people in the saloon next to our own. It was so good in fact that the next trip has already been booked when a select few will enjoy three full round trips from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth at the end of September, adding 96 miles of Class 17 haulage into their virtual moves books in the process. Dreadful!

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