Tracking the history of a rail attraction

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ON June 1 this year the Nene Valley Railway celebrates its 30th anniversary. Features writer Maria Thompson takes a look at the history of the famous track.

ON June 1 this year the Nene Valley Railway celebrates its 30th anniversary. Features writer Maria Thompson takes a look at the history of the famous track.IT’S incredible to think that a few men with a passion for trains would end up creating one of the biggest tourist attractions in the East Midlands and the home of a famous children’s storybook character that would be recognised all over the world.

Yet that’s just how the Nene Valley Railway (NVR) at Wansford started out, exactly 30 years ago.

It all began when Richard Paten, a clergyman, engineer and currently chairman of Peterborough Civic Society, decided to buy a train as a memento of the steam era, when it was coming to an end in the 1960s.

As an engineer student he had been taken by the way Americans kept locomotives as sculptures and decided one day he would do the same in his home town.

In 1968, he paid 3,000 for a train to be delivered to him in Peterborough. Having no idea about where he was going to put it, he had even less of a clue of what he was getting himself into.

But his fate it would seem, was already sealed.

Richard said: “British Rail was selling off a lot of their trains and I decided to buy a locomotive.

“It was quite funny really. It had to be delivered at night because British Rail thought it would be bad publicity to have a steam train on the track in the daytime.

“I then had the problem of where it was going to go.”

Peterborough Regional College initially agreed to have the train mounted as a sculpture outside their building.

But certain members of the community heard what Richard wanted to do.

Seeing it as a terrible waste to put a working steam engine on a plinth they convinced Richard to reconsider.

At the same time, and completely by chance, a development corporation was given the task of doubling the size of the city in 20 years and were ready to invest money building houses and improving the infrastructure.

Ferry Meadows park land was being developed as part of the improvements, and the corporation purchased a stretch of track running through it from Yarwell to Orton Mere.

With the track ready to go but no steam engine to put on it, it wasn’t long before they were put in touch with Richard.

Chaired by Richard for some five years, the corporation and a handful of rail enthusiasts immediately formed a society and nine years later, in 1977, the NVR was born.

Richard said: “Of course, I had no idea how things were going to work out, I just believed strongly in what I wanted to do – because railways had been such a big part of my life since I was a young boy.

“I was very conscious, as a clergyman, that we should have an engine in Peterborough and that it was something that was worthwhile doing, and I had the money because I wasn’t married.

“As it turned out, the engine was not a good thing to have really. Every time you looked at it, another bill was waiting for you.

“Eventually I gave it to the city as a gift and it was named the City of Peterborough in 1972 by the mayor.”

Around the same time, a blue locomotive that had worked hard for British Sugar and was in need of some restoration was offered to the society for 100.

The engine, which was built in 1947, had worked hard and was no longer important to the company.

Significantly for the NVR, a few years later the author of the Thomas the Tank Engine books agreed to name the train “Thomas” and a star was born.

Since that time, the little engine has been attracting children from all over the world to the Wansford station where it lives.

Thomas has even been known to attract more than 8,000 visitors to the area in one weekend alone.

But the story doesn’t end there.

By chance an encounter with another rail enthusiast a few years later would secure the future of the railway forever.

A Suffolk farmer was looking for somewhere to run a train he had bought in Sweden and approached the society about it.

Richard said: “This was the catalyst for building an international track in Peterborough.

“The train was too tall and too wide to run on our track. We made the historic decision, with the permission of the railway inspectorate, and re-built the railway to make it wide enough to take the continental train.

“This was the success of the NVR, because all the filming that takes place now is due to the continental trains they can use.”

More than 150 films and television programmes have since been filmed on the track, including James Bond’s Octopussy, Doctor Zhivago, and even the rock band Queen has made a video there.

Over the past 30 years, the heritage railway has grown from strength to strength.

Most notable was a donation made in the ’90s by Geoff Humphries.

The Peterborough man left half his estate to the railway when he died, on the condition a second platform was built in Orton Mere.

His wishes were dutifully carried out and with the remaining funds the Wansford Station building was built and opened in 1997.

Today, NVR is run by some 14 full-time staff, over 200 volunteers and has more than 2,000 members.

It is visited by more than 60,000 people every year and heralded as one of the biggest tourist attractions in the East Midlands.

To mark the 30th anniversary on June 1, Prince Edward will be the guest of honour at the steam railway’s headquarters in Wansford.

And the railway is expected to grow further.

Investments are being made all the time and new attractions are constantly being sought.

And it all started with one man’s dream and a love affair for trains that only those that share it can truly understand.

The scene is set for big movies and TV shows

Since 1978, well over 150 films, commercials and episodes for television have been made with the help of scenes shot on the Nene Valley Railway.

Some have been major productions such as Octopussy, and Dirty Dozen – Next Mission, while television companies have based episodes of series such as Secret Army, Reilly, Ace of Spies and Hannay.

The railway lends itself naturally to filming by having a number of features which, when combined, provide a host of alternatives for film companies.

The railway has seven and a half miles of track running over and alongside a river, traverses meadowland, cuttings, urban areas, passes an industrial complex and runs through a country park.

It has been used for, amongst others, the making of the following productions:

n1978: TV drama: Secret Army, TV series: Bygones

n1979: BBC documentary: Airey Neave, Granada TV Film: Gossip from the Forest

n1981: BBC series: Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, TV Series: Jim’ll Fix It).

n1982: Film: Q.E.D. 4.10 to Zurich, TV series Jim’ll Fix It (Pump trolley); film: Octopussy

n1983: TV drama Reilly – Ace of Spies.

n1984: Film: Space, TV drama: Jenny’s War, RSC Film Royal Shakespeare Company, TV film: Occupation Democrat; film: Dirty Dozen – Next Mission, Compact Yellow film: Biggles

n1985: film: Last Days of Paten, TV film Minder on the Orient Express.

n1988: TV drama: Christabel, TV Documentary: On the trains, TV film: Piece of Cake, TV drama: Hannay

n1989: TV drama: London’s Burning Nuclear flask, pop video Queen Breakthrough.

n1990: TV drama: London’s Burning.

n1991: Pop video: Bomb the Bass, film: Bye Bye Baby

n1992: film: Peter’s Friend.

n1993: TV drama: Middlemarch, TV series Blind Date, TV comedy: The Day Today.

n1994: TV drama: Into the Fire.

n1995: film: Goldeneye, TV show: How We Used to Live, TV drama: The Secret Agent.

n1997: Carlton TV drama: Into the Blue, TV drama: London’s Burning, TV drama: Woman in White, pop video: The Levellers – “Dog Train”.

n1999: TV series: The Bill.

n2000: TV series: Band of Brothers.

n2001: TV series: Riddles of the River Nene.

n2002: TV drama: Murder in Mind, TV drama: Copenhagen.

n2003: TV drama series: Casualty

n2004: TV drama series: Silent Witness.

The popular blue engine

Although the Nene Valley Railway (NVR) has bigger and more impressive steam engines, to most visitors, especially children, the Railway is the home of “Thomas”.

Thomas is the NVR’s most famous engine and one of its biggest attractions.

Few of his friends, however, know how and why “Thomas” received his name.

Hudswell Clarke engine 0-6-0T No.1800, built in 1947, spent all its working life at the British Sugar Corporation’s Peterborough factory.

By 1970, when the Peterborough Locomotive Society built its compound within the factory sidings, No.1800 was the regular standby locomotive.

Thanks to its immaculate blue livery, it soon became known as “Thomas” to society members.

At the BBC National Sports and Family Day in 1971 and 1972, No.1800 was used to give people short brake van rides.

In 1971 the Rev W Awdry, author of the “Thomas” books came to one of the open days and agreed to name No.1800 “Thomas”.

In 1973 “Thomas” was in need of major repairs and was sold to the Peterborough Railway Society who stored it out of use until 1977 when parts from a similar locomotive were used in his repair.

By 1979, “Thomas” was back in action again.

In the past “Thomas” has visited Didcot, Leicester and Cambridge promoting the NVR, and has even switched on the Christmas Lights in Peterborough.

During 1990 to 1992 Thomas received a major overhaul, costing in excess of 80,000 and again in 2003 IT underwent another essential major overhaul costing nearly 100,000 – partially covered by a grant of 50,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

In 2004, Thomas returned to service pulling trains to Yarwell Junction and other duties around the loco yard at Wansford.