Introduction by Mel Smith: Mike Ward has been along to a couple of our bi-annual meetings held in the Spring and Autumn at the Grantham Railway Club. Always on the lookout for a new story to add to the Tracks through Grantham website, I asked him if he would like to put down 'just a few brief notes' about his memories of trainspotting in and around the station. What a story it turned out to be! Read on to find out, amongst other things, how a loco was bought for threepence!
My Recollections of the Railway at Grantham
by Mike Ward
I had the great fortune to have lived my early life on Springfield Road, Grantham. No 82, near the Springfield Arms, just a few houses away from the head of the turning triangle. Some of my earliest infant memories involve being awake in a cot and listening to the sound of clattering wagon buffers in the goods yard. This was accompanied by the various sounds of engines, either shunting or moving around the shed. There was, of course, the unforgettable prolonged haunting whistle of the passing expresses as each one tore through the station.
The nearby railway seemed timeless but time, as it does, moved on for me. Out of the cot, then crawling and finally up on my two legs to explore the wider world around me. A set of wheels came next, in the form of my first bike. This was in fact a blue Tri-ang ‘Noddy’ three-wheeler, complete with a tin box on the back of it. With the almost absolute freedom that kids had back then (something that modern kids can perhaps only dream about) I had great fun pedalling my bike on Springfield Road.
A most enjoyable game was having a race with one of the mighty pacific locos; this would be along the top of the turning triangle from the shed to the other end near the allotment entrance gate. Pedalling as fast as I could would allow me to just about keep pace with the loco, as it carefully traversed the curve and points alongside Springfield Road!
As a toddler, another very early memory was sending off a family relative at Grantham station. I recall that we were awaiting a southbound train. Standing on the platform with my parents my ears picked up the characteristic chime of an A4’s whistle as it approached from the south. There was no let up with the whistle as the streamlined bulk of the locomotive came into view. The melodic whistle continued to sound. Getting ever closer, the tumultuous roar of the exhaust together with the sight of those flailing rods, connected to huge wheels, was pretty scary. In a flash the express was upon us and now passing through the station. Time slowed down and an indelible memory was etched in my young mind; I remember the gleaming green paintwork, the clean colour of the wheels and motion, the ‘blast’ from that wonderful smell, the ‘sweat’ that to me, was so characteristic and somehow unique to the ECML Pacifics. The cacophony of sound reverberated around the station buildings.
Time sped up again, and after a few seconds of watching the coaches whisk by, all was now relatively quiet. The A4 continued its journey northwards, unaware of the impression it had made on me. Although my description makes it sound very exciting (it was!), my mother later recounted that I was absolutely terrified by the whole experience and had clung to her leg as I watched this noisy, gleaming green and black monster storming through the station at speed. The memory of that day is now so imprinted in my mind that in these days it would be classed as a traumatic experience! Back then you just had to harden-up.
From a child’s perspective, standing on the platforms at Grantham station with a large express loco rapidly bearing down on me at speed, the smokebox door never failed to create a most fearsome expression.
I thought that I was alone in experiencing that. However Colin Walker, the renowned photographer of the Grantham railway scene in the late '50s, wrote that the Gresley Pacifics suddenly took on a ‘demonic countenance’ as they approached. He put it down to a trick of the light on the curvature of the smokebox door.
On a through express at Grantham, that effect was enhanced by the roar of the exhaust and the dramatic way that the smoke and steam was blasted under the footbridge, momentarily framing the engine. All of this generated a truly awesome presence of these mighty machines from my perspective as a young child!
I did occasionally visit other places in the local area, but this would be with a relative. Of course, Grantham was the place to be! As mentioned earlier, kids in those days enjoyed a wonderful freedom in making their own enjoyment. With my like-minded friends I was part of ‘the gang’ spending many happy carefree hours during those long sunny summer days, just simply trainspotting around the shed. A favourite vantage point was the top of the old air-raid shelter at the south-east corner of the shed. Another spot was the railway bridge over Springfield Road, where we would carefully climb to the top of the concrete retaining wall to get to the bridge railings. Although none of us showed it at the time, this was actually quite scary, as the retaining wall seemed very high back then. That spot by the railings was of course a highly prized location for local spotters, so it wasn’t very often that I could get right up to the top.
Later, with our spotting session over, sliding back down the sloping retaining wall would often result in wearing holes in our trousers! That would cause trouble at home…
Sneaking into the shed was the biggest thrill of all. The dark gloom and the characteristic smell of the cold engines, with their huge wheels and motion rods, caked in oil and grime all added to the eerie atmosphere and our excitement. Well, we all knew that we shouldn’t be there (which added to the excitement) so there was always the fear of being caught by staff and told to get out! Occasionally we would climb down into the inspection pits under the engines. Sometimes we would climb up onto the footplates; quite a challenge as the steps and handrails were not designed for small people!
There was an entrance to the Goods Yard off Springfield Road. Through this entrance on the right-hand side there was a loading bay which was almost level with the top of some wagons filled with metal ‘swarf’, a term used for the cuttings formed from lathe machining.
I think the swarf came from the nearby Ruston’s or Barford’s works. The machining process had created swarf coils and shavings of thin steel, just like springs. Incredibly, we thought it was really great fun to jump into full wagons of the stuff, as the coiled swarf shavings were like a readymade trampoline! We must have been completely nuts – the swarf coils were razor sharp, so how we avoided being cut to ribbons by the gently rusting extremely sharp metal I’ll never know!
Another amusing incident for us kids back then resulted in an amazing recent coincidence. I recall that on one of our many shed-bashes, my brother Nigel ‘bought’ an engine! After striking up a conversation with one of the maintenance fitters working on the engine, a price of threepence was finally agreed and the deal was done. The fitter probably thought that was the end of it and as we walked off he turned to carry on with his work. However, it was not the end of it for us as we (so naïvely) were thrilled! All we had to do was just go home and somehow persuade our mum to give us the threepence, what a bargain. Lunchtime arrived so we did go home. Amazingly mum gave Nigel the threepence – she probably thought we would just buy some sweets with it.
On our return to the shed the fitter was just finishing working on the same engine. Our part of the bargain (3d) was offered to him, but of course he wouldn’t take the money, much to our disappointment!
The coincidental twist to the story came around 2012. My brother Nigel was working on renovating a property and was chatting to a joiner who was also working there. The conversation moved on to where they both grew up and the boyhood interests they had. Incredibly, the joiner went on to tell a story about being on Grantham shed with his father who was a fitter. His dad was working on an engine and was getting quite frustrated by the particular maintenance task he was involved with. Some young kids approached him and in his frustration, he told the kids that they could buy this particular engine for threepence! The kids were amazed and agreed to the price of threepence and went off. His dad probably thought no more about it, but soon the kids turned up again with the threepence! You can imagine the joiner’s surprise when my brother Nigel informed him that it was in fact ‘our gang’ trying to buy the engine on that day! They had a real laugh about such an amazing coincidence!
A characteristic smell upon entering a wonderful steam railway environment like Grantham shed and yard was the slightly acidic acrid aroma hanging in the air. Every time I approached the railway that particular aroma always created an excitement in me. I have long suspected that for so many people the enduring appeal of the steam locomotive is that (distinctive) combination of size and rhythmic movement synchronised with the sound, all with the unique bouquet of different aromas blended from the smoke, oil, coal and hot metal.
The synchronisation of that ‘railway sound’ with the mesmerising sight of the whirling motion of rods and wheels is very therapeutic to the human psyche, in much the same way that music stirs the emotions. Modern pop music videos, I suppose, attempt to recreate a similar thing by enhancing the experience of the listener with sound and moving images. With the steam locomotive, however, the observer has the added sensory advantage of smell. The steam locomotive harnesses natural primeval forces of nature, fire, water and steam, producing powerful, impressive sights, sounds and aromas that are quite unique amongst individual engines, whether at work or rest. The sum totality of all these elements creates a ‘life-force’ of power and energy. I can’t think of another invention by mankind that has forged all of these elements together to make such a living, synchronised package.
Certainly, no music video can compete with a steam locomotive in making a co-ordinated impression on all of the human senses! Thinking more about that theme, way before Beatlemania had arrived the A4s or ‘Streaks’ were the rock-stars of the era. In ‘our gang’ of young lineside spotters there was the usual excited shout of ‘Streak!’ by the first lad to spot an approaching A4. Peter Handford’s Argo Transacord recordings provide a few examples of this frisson of excitement on the appearance of an A4 hauled express, with lineside kids heard wildly cheering as it passes by.
After Grantham shed had finally closed we found out that a day had been set for the coaling tower to be demolished. It was on a Sunday afternoon and this meant that we had to go to Sunday school. My parents thought that Sunday school was more important than watching this happen, but I certainly didn’t. I was very disappointed to be missing out on the spectacle of this important but somewhat sad event of losing what to me was such an iconic landmark of my early surroundings.
My parents said that the Police were clearing the public from Springfield Road due to the risk of flying debris. (That didn’t convince or console me!) However, I sneaked into the rear bedroom of no. 82 Springfield Road, just in time to hear the explosion, and then I saw the tower topple, followed by the huge ground-shaking thump as it crashed ‘face’ down but intact onto the ground.
The impact cracked the plaster in the living room ceiling of the house. I remember thinking at the time that it served my dad right for not allowing me to watch the event!
Soon other parts of my favourite haunt would gradually disappear too.
Bit by bit other areas of the shed and yard were demolished and cleared away, until all that remained were memories...….
A little piece about my dad, Geoffrey Ward.
Although my dad Geoffrey did not work on the railway he would often tell us stories that were both amusing and alarming. He actually worked as a TV service technician (when TVs were rented rather than bought) for Rentaset, in Grantham High Street. Rentaset became Radio Rentals, which was then bought out by Thorn.
Prior to this, dad was in the Army and later the Air Force. During those years he did travel quite a bit by train. Mainly around Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Norwich, Kings Lynn, Manchester and Blackpool, where his family were based. So he had fond memories of those areas. When we lived in Springfield Road, from 1955 onwards, he often said that he could tell what kind of engine was using the triangle turning track and which way the engine was travelling, by the clatter of wheels across the diamond crossing. I would have been too young to have worked out anything like that! Dad also talked about the overloaded troop trains, often up to 25 carriages long, worked by a single pacific (usually a bit run-down due to war-time maintenance). Often, they would be assisted to start from a station, but only to get the train moving, then the pacific was on its own.
Away from Grantham, dad once related a story about an incident at King’s Cross. This incident concerned a friend of his who was a fireman on the ECML. One time, their engine was climbing out of Kings Cross and was half way through Gasworks tunnel when a passenger pulled the communication cord and brought the train to a very quick halt in the middle of the tunnel. The engine was very soon burning up the air in the tunnel and replacing it with smoke and steam, but the fireman got down and felt his way ahead to the nearest signal telephone, situated at the north end of Gasworks tunnel. Meanwhile the driver and guard frantically tried to release the brakes, before everyone was suffocated by the smoke and steam.
The fireman was carefully making his way back into the smoke and steam-filled tunnel towards the train, when he heard the engine start up and proceed towards him. He pressed himself against the sooty tunnel wall and realised he had only one chance to grab the cab handrail and jump up onto the cab steps. Unable to see anything at all, he felt the heat as the cylinders passed close by him. He tried to estimate where the cab would be and reached out, only to feel the movement of a connecting rod he had tried to grab! Quickly withdrawing his hand and trying again, in a state of absolute fear, he managed to grab the handrail and jump up into the cab – to the great relief of the driver, who was glad to have him safely aboard! The whole incident was caused by a passenger who had suddenly realised that he had got onto the wrong train and so had pulled the communication cord…!!
Another of dad’s stories was about a late running train from Peterborough to Grantham, hauled by an A4. Again, this was from the same friend who was the fireman on duty. The driver turned to my dad’s friend and said, “well mate, are you up to it?” With the fireman’s agreement, the driver then really opened up the A4 and they were storming along the ECML when the exasperated guard burst through the corridor tender door onto the footplate and shouted: “for God’s sake, slow down – the carriages are bouncing about all over the place, really shaking the passengers about – drinks and food going everywhere…”.
The guard added “I’ll have to make a report about this.” The driver calmly replied: “OK, but I’m retiring today!” What a tribute to the legendary smooth riding of the A4’s!
Flying Scotsman makes a return.
In 1968, there was the 40th Anniversary of the first non-stop run of Flying Scotsman way back in 1928. This was on a school day and I was a pupil of The Boy’s Central School on the corner of Hill Avenue and Sandon Road. I had a dilemma; should I bunk-off school for the day or do the decent thing and take the risk of requesting permission from the school to go and see it pass through Grantham. After much agonising, just two days before it was due to pass through I chose the latter course. The headmaster however, did not give an immediate answer.
In the morning assembly on the day before Scotsman’s anniversary journey, the headmaster announced the event to the assembled school and asked if anyone was interested in going to see Flying Scotsman pass through Grantham. Of course, all the hands shot up! Clearly, the staff had anticipated this; the headmaster then added: “however, each of you that go to see it will have to write a two-page essay about the event. So, how many of you would still like to go?” Only about half a dozen hands went up (mine was probably the quickest!). So, that was all agreed and I eagerly anticipated the great event ahead, so glad that I had done ‘the right thing’ and not blotted my copybook by bunking-off school. As fate would have it though, on the big day it was raining and permission to go out of school was rescinded. I was so very disappointed to have missed such a momentous event! What made it worse and to add insult to injury was that my brother Nigel, who attended a different school, was still allowed to go and watch Scotsman pass through Grantham!
At that time he was at the National Junior School on Castlegate. He recalls that he had been given permission from the headmaster (Mr Bryant) to go and view the passing of this historic locomotive and train. Nigel’s class teacher though, was reluctant to let him out of school over the lunch-time break and refused to let him leave. However, the Headmaster had previously agreed, so not wanting to break his word, the teacher was overruled! Lunchtime came and with a few other colleagues Nigel cycled from Castlegate to a vantage point at the South Parade bridge. They made it in good time and were very excited to see Flying Scotsman pass by. Again, this episode provides another example of the fairly relaxed environment back then, allowing junior school children the freedom to cycle across town from Castlegate to South Parade without a teacher accompanying them!
The Scotsman’s 40th Anniversary run got major BBC TV coverage that evening and newspaper coverage the next morning.
Later the BBC released a 30-minute documentary covering the run. My dad worked for Radio Rentals and so a small party made up of him and a couple of his work colleagues, ‘Ginger’ Rawlins (a friend of my dad who was a police officer at Grantham, and was formerly a fireman on the ex-LMS Coronation Pacifics) and myself had a private back-room workshop viewing of this film on a brand-new colour TV.
What made this even more special and amazing was that it was the first time I had ever seen a colour TV! It more than made up for my disappointment of missing the actual event.
During a recent visit to a Steam Gala at the GCR in Loughborough I got chatting with an elderly gentleman standing quite close by me. During our conversation he told me that he had grown up in Nottinghamshire, but used to regularly visit Grantham for the railway scene. He mentioned a 'wish' that I found quite intriguing as I have sometimes had the very same thought.
“If I could go back in time for just one day, then it would be in the days of steam at Grantham station and shed”.
How many of us would agree with that thought!
Mike Ward - October 2023.
Note from TTG: Have you got a potential story for the website? Please do get in touch.