Despite operating its most successful Santa & Steam Specials in the line's 25 Year existence, the volunteers of the Churnet Valley Railway are not resting on their laurels as they plan ahead for their traditional season opener in February 2018 with the annual Winter Steam Gala. With a slightly earlier date of 3/4 February, the event has been brought forward to say farewell to what has been a popular visitor to the line over the autumn & winter - former GWR 42XX no. 4277 "Hercules". The locomotive arrived on the line in October to feature in the 25th Anniversary Gala, before staying on to assist with the Santa season. With the locomotives' 10-Year boiler certificate due to expire in February, a final weekend of service has been booked in order to allow the locomotive to haul visitors through Staffordshire's Little Switzerland one more time before she is withdrawn for an overhaul and returned to her home line The Dartmouth Steam Railway.
Built in 1920 at the Great Western Railway Company's Swindon Headquarters, the 42XX's were designed to haul the heavy Mineral traffic in South Wales being generated by the Coal and Steel industries. They became the UK's first 2-8-0 Tank locomotive, a smaller version of the GWR's 2800 heavy freight locomotive with modifications to allow the locomotive to go round tighter curves than its bigger cousin.
4277 entered service at Newport Shed but was transferred to Aberbeeg less than a year later. Further transfers would see her move to Duffryn Yard, Swansea East Dock, Llanelli and Severn Tunnel Junction before a return to Aberbeeg. In June 1963 she returned to Severn Tunnel Junction, from where British Railways would withdraw her after a service life of 44 Years that saw her cover 718,637 miles.
Sold for scrap, the locomotive was rescued in June 1986 from Barry Scrapyard by the Cotswold Steam Preservation Limited and moved to their Toddington base for restoration. However their time was occupied with their other locomotive, bigger cousin no. 2807, and so 4277 was sold on in 1992 to Peter Best who was able to return the locomotive to service for the first time in preservation on 21st March 1996. After operating on various preserved railways, she was withdrawn for another overhaul in 2003, which upon completion saw her sold to the Dartmouth Steam Railway in 2008 – where she has solely operated ever since.
In addition to the final operation of 4277, the line's resident USATC S160s will make a welcome return to service in Staffordshire. 5197 has recently been away operating the UK version of the Polar Express in Shropshire, whilst 6046 has recently returned to service after undergoing repairs to her bearings. This weekend will be the only chance in 2018 to see these two locomotives operate alongside one another, as 5197 is making a reciprocal visit to Dartmouth upon the completion of the gala whilst 6046 will be visiting Somerset for the majority of 2018 from March.
A variety of services will be operating between Froghall and Leekbrook, with some services venturing up on to the steeply graded Cauldon Lowe branch to Ipstones Loop. The section of line from Leekbrook Junction to Ipstones Loop offers 5 miles of 1 in 40 – 1 in 59 gradients that presents one of the stiffest of climbs for locomotives on any heritage railway in the UK.
The gala sees the railway kick off the 40th Anniversary Year of its supporting charity The North Staffordshire Railway Company (1978) Ltd, who first saved Cheddleton station from demolition and which was the embryonic moment that started what would become one of North Staffordshire's biggest tourist attractions come the 21st Century.
Elsewhere on the railway, the locomotive workshops will be open during the weekend, along with the machine shops and carriage shed which you can look in to see what goes on behind the scenes.
Full catering facilities are available at Froghall and Cheddleton with light refreshments also available at Consall.
The timetable for the event and advanced tickets will be available online
Photo credit: Dave Gibson Photography