David Shepherd

An Introduction and a message of welcome from David Shepherd OBE FRSA, Chairman and Founder of the East Somerset Railway, written for the 1996 guidebook.

David Shepherd OBE FRSA
David Shepherd OBE FRSA
Credit: Unknown

There are many preserved steam railways in the United Kingdom, but the East Somerset Railway must be unique; it is surely the only one that owes its existence to the African elephant!

My life changed in many ways when I made that telephone call to British Rail in 1967. I had just returned from having had a sell-out one-man exhibition of my wildlife paintings in New York. At the time, Great Britain was throwing away her proud and great steam age in a premature rush to dieselisation; some steam locomotives were being cut up for scrap when less than two years old. It was all in the name of "progress" and the "the new image". Helplessly caught up in the great buying mania when enthusiasts all over the country were feverishly trying to raise the funds to buy "their" favourite locomotive, I picked up the telephone and bought two. For just ?3,000, number 92203, a British Railways standard class 9F 2-10-0, just eight years old, was mine. Moreover, she had just had an intermediate overhaul because she had been selected to run the last steam hauled iron ore train from Bidston Docks to the Shotton steelworks on the Wirral.

For a further ?2,000, I also purchased 75029, a standard class 4-6-0, just a few years older. I had purchased two almost brand new locomotives weighing collectively 275 tons, and they were both taken out of service for me shortly after that phone call - neither of them have ever been near a scrapyard and both were in full working order, with ample spares "thrown in" due to the good-natured cooperation of so many of my friends within British Railways! However, when I put the telephone down, I realised the enormity of what I had done; I had virtually no money left, no home to go to and no idea of what I was going to do with my newly acquired "train set". Such are the fruits of exuberant enthusiasm - some would say it was rashness bordering on madness, but 92203, which I subsequently name "Black Prince", and 75029, "The Green Knight", were saved, on the strength of that New York exhibition of my paintings.

There is no space here to tell the whole story, fraught so often with drama, despair, humour, frustration, not to mention near financial bankruptcy caused by my "hobby". In any case, the whole story is told in my book, "A Brush with Steam", which is for sale in our shop at Cranmore. Suffice to say that although we tried with great effort to save the Longmoor Military Railway in Hampshire, which was the locomotives first home, this scheme failed. My friends and I then looked at no less than 31 potential sites all over the South of England within motoring distance of my home in Surry, as possible places to set up a fully operational steam railway which have to be complete with all ancillary facilities for locomotives, coach and wagon restoration, and also all other amenities such as a shop, restaurant etc which would be necessary for out visiting public. While we were searching for a home, we were paying ?20 a week to British Rail for a rented siding near Southampton. Railway preservation could be expensive, even in those early days. Finally, a friend of mine telephoned me. "David, there's a place in Somerset. It might make a home for your locomotives. Why don't you go down there and have a look?" By now, apart from having worn out a great deal of shoe leather, we were desperate. I'd never heard of Cranmore. However, anything was worth a try.

My first view of Cranmore, on November 14th 1971, could not have been more depressing. The icy rain seemed to be coming straight for me horizontally as I struggled up the pot-holed lane to the little station in front of me. The site was derelict. There was no station house, and the lamps, seats and fencing on the platform had long since gone. Several windows of the little station were boarded up and weeds and rubbish were everywhere. It was all so typical of those many sleepy little country branch lines stations which were victims of the Beeching axe and which seemed to be so much a part of the tragic end to Great Britain's steam railway era.

The scene that confronted me as I fought my in what by now had become a howling gale, through knee-high nettles and dank grass up to a site where we might possibly build a loco shed, was even worse. There was a building here but it was just an old tin shed. One corner had rotted away completely, the roof was sagging dangerously and the corrugated iron sheets, those that were left, were flapping in the wind to the sound of tortured screeching metal, which in itself seemed to me to be a warning to go away once and for all.

The old tin shed
The old tin shed
Credit: David Shepherd, 1971

However, there was hope. First of all, I had noticed there were lengths of long disused railway track under the jungle of weeds. I knew they were there because I kept tripping over them. This meant there had been some sort of railway operation here at some time in the past. Furthermore, and much more important, Cranmore was still linked to British Rail and this would obviously be of inestimable value when or if we could bring our stock into its new home. So perhaps we could make something of this depressing place. We would go for it!

We purchased the field alongside the lane which is now our car park, and we also bought the platform and station building, the only one remaining in the entire branch line still in its original condition, and which dates from the original opening of the railway in 1858 (we have even discovered some Brunel broad gauge rail used as fence posts on the site). Most of the ?6,000 purchase price, I suspect, was for the splendid Victorian "Gents", the sort for which I feel Americans would pay a large amount of money to take down and put up again in San Francisco! Isambard Kingdom Brunel might even have used it himself!

As Chairman and Founder of our railway at Cranmore, I must confess to a feeling of satisfaction and pride when, on driving the 98 miles back to my home in Surrey from Cranmore on one of my now all to infrequent visits, I realise what we have achieved. But an organisation such as the East Somerset Railway, which is a registered charity, cannot be built up by one man alone. It is a team effort and I believe that in fact we have achieved much more than simply saving locomotives and coaches from the scrapman. We have created a wonderfully dedicated and cohesive workforce of volunteers, some of whom have been with me right from the early days we tried to save the Longmoor Military Railway. These volunteers come from all walks of life and professions and their dedication to such a diversity of tasks, all of which they believe in so passionately as I do, is something to be seen to be believed - after all, there is a very great deal indeed that goes on behind the scenes that the public do not see.

In terms of bricks and mortar, our visitors can see the transformation from the early days by looking at the photographs which I took on my first visit to Cranmore. For example, on the site of the old tin shed (which collapsed in a gale just after I too the photograph!) we have built our "Victorian style" locomotive shed, based on the fine traditions of the great railway builders of the last century who created those great "monuments to the age of steam". We turned the derelict signal box into an art gallery and although the location has now been changed to the new station building, this was without doubt one of the most sensible things we have done as it is now a major source of income, so desperately needed for our railway, selling as it does probably the largest selection in the country of my wildlife, landscape and railway limited and ordinary prints. At the time of the conversion of the signal box, one of our volunteer members who was perhaps a little more inward looking in his fanatical enthusiasm for the preservation of steam than he might have been, was in despair at the thought of the building being converted from its original purpose. However, a couple of years later he said to me "I hope we never turn it back into a signal box". That same member complained in a light-hearted fashion about the very large amount of money we were spending on building the ladies loo at Cranmore, the facilities for which did not exist when I first arrived. "We could have bought three locomotives from a scrapyard for that money". I pointed out to him that rusting locomotives under a tarpaulin, waiting for money to restore them does not impress the public. Clean toilets do and I know we made the right decision because we have a visitor's book in that very same ladies toilet. One lovely lady who was using the facility wrote in the book, "The best pee south of Wigan"!

In the earliest days, we ran brake van rides up and down past the shed. We tried to save the line from the shed up and over the hill and towards Shepton Mallet, but we failed to raise the money. The track was all torn up and sold as scrap by British Rail. We could not blame them - it was a realisable asset. Eventually, we managed to raise the money and we put back all the track again. So every yard of the railway represents to us a great deal of dedication, and often, blood, sweat and tears. But this is what railway preservation is all about - achieving something worthwhile.

Jinty 47493 at Maesdown bridge
Jinty 47493 at Maesdown bridge
Credit: Martin Manship,

We have also built a wildlife centre on our railway. It is appropriate to realise that lengths of closed or little used ex-British Rail branch line immediately became nature reserves where the landscape is left to return to nature with no farming, pollution or pesticides. Indeed, a length of the East Somerset Railway in our magnificent cutting is a site of Special Scientific Interest and a complete list of birds, animals and plant life is graphically illustrated in our little wildlife centre which gives so much pleasure and interest to our visitors.

His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands opened our railway for us in 1975 and all the funds raised on that day were donated to the World Wildlife Fund, of which he was then International President. All the money went to save elephants, which seemed thoroughly appropriate bearing in mind, my opening remark. It is also a source of great satisfaction to me personally to know that many of our visitors who come to Cranmore talk to me as much about wildlife conservation as they do steam trains and they are pleased to know all of us on the East Somerset Railway are very much aware of environmental issues.

We believe passionately that we are no longer in the business of "playing trains". We are now in the leisure business and we have to diversify, and offer as much in terms of interest to our visiting public as possible - after all, not every has to be interested in steam trains, and, to me, our greatest success story of all now is that all our team of volunteers, some of whom in the earliest days thought that steam railway were the only thing that mattered, now realise this.

So, what does the future hold for the East Somerset Railway, and indeed all the other preserved lines now proliferating throughout the country? More and more preserved lines trying to start up - when times are getting harder and harder. Indeed we seem to be going through a period of proliferation which reminds me of the railway building mania of the last century, and we all know what happened then; so many of them went bankrupt. We are now living in a different world from that of the mid-sixties when the preservation mania began. There are no longer sugar daddies who are willing to part with their money, or a seemingly endless reservoir of volunteers on whom we all depend. I know because of what I paid for Black Prince 29 years ago as I write (it is a sobering thought that I have owned her for almost four times her working life on British Rail), her major overhaul that she is undergoing at this time is costing over ten times what I paid for her, complete and in working order.

We depend totally on you, our visitors, for our success. If there is anything you do not like about us, tell us. We are doing our best and remember, we are almost all volunteers. If you have enjoyed your visit then do tell your friends! Meanwhile, have an enjoyable day and thank you for coming to see us.

David Shepherd