LMS Ivatt 2-6-0 43106 and GWR 2-6-2T 4566 at Bewdley, SVR, March 2010. Photo KJEvans.
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A last minute change of plans, and an invite from some friends who also visit Wolsztyn, gave me the opportunity to visit the Severn Valley Railway for its steam gala weekend. I’d not been to a UK gala for many years, so comparing it with the annual parade in Wolsztyn was interesting.
For those not familiar with the Severn Valley Railway, the 16-mile heritage line, is one of the best established in the UK. With a connection to the national network at Kidderminster, the line meanders up the scenic valley of the River Severn to Bridgnorth, the line’s northern terminus. Following closure of the line in 1963, it was reopened by preservationists in 1970 (between Bridgnorth and Hampton Loade) and eventually extended to Kidderminster in 1984.
Arriving on the Friday evening, I had chosen to camp at the Unicorn Inn, adjacent to Hampton Loade station. The campsite backs on to the river, and the pub handles the bookings (as well as serving very refreshing beer.)
Throughout the gala weekend, train services were scheduled continuously, including throughout the night, the clanking of buffers and the sharp bark of the exhaust easily heard from under the canvas.
With visiting engines complementing the SVR’s home fleet, a good selection of motive power was on offer, with locos rostered for turns for several hours at a time before servicing.
Like Wolsztyn, the Severn Valley draws the crowds for its gala. Unlike Wolsztyn, the crowds have to pay for the privilege. It is a small price to pay for preserving the heritage, and Polish operations could do with learning from it (although it is pleasing to hear that the recent gala day at Jaworzyna attracted about 6000 paying guests.)
The SVR is far stricter on access to shed areas than Poland. No free run of the shed back in the UK, and certainly no wandering off up the line to get that lineside shot unless you hold a trackside permit. It is a balance. In some respects, the health and safety legislation has made it necessary to stop people wandering around the shed (I remember doing it as a 12 year old), but at the same time, it does mean that you do have a chance to see the locos without hoards of people around them, something that is impossible at Wolsztyn during the parade day.
Sitting on the train on the Sunday afternoon, I had time to reflect. What can Poland learn from all this? The UK has a well established steam heritage movement, and societies co-operate and support one another well. People will pay to see steam, and travel behind it, and the money is brought into the local economy. Additionally, the SVR has invested heavily in storing its locomotive collection and carriages under cover.
The Engine House at Highley is a superb example of thinking big. Whilst not in the architectural style of the railway, it keeps the locos that are not currently “in ticket” protected from the elements, whilst providing an informative visitor centre complete with an income stream from refreshments and souvenirs. It is a stark contrast to Poland where engines stand outdoors rusting away, waiting for their next overhaul.
Poland does have a grass roots preservation movement. With the right support, and the right level of leadership, it may grow to thrive. Poland’s railways are facing the same cuts that Beeching imposed 50 years ago. Will Poland’s societies take over the mantle in the same way the UK’s preservationists did? Only time will tell.