Yesterday I went round to a baronet's back garden and rode on his steam railway to celebrate his wife's 70th birthday. Like you do. I should point out that you could have done so too, and still could today. For this is the Fawley Hill Vintage Extravaganza, the occasional opening up of the baronial estate (north of Henley) for a steam fair, country show, aerobatics display, camping festival and charity bash all rolled into one. It's all a bit nuts and rather over the top, if you stop to think about it too deeply, but also rather brilliant and very extremely British.
I took 25 photos to show you. They're mostly of the railway, because that's the unique bit the public doesn't get inside very often, but there are also camels and traction engines and the odd shire horse.
Lord McAlpine is the boss of the eponymous construction company, and has been an inveterate collector of railway memorabilia for years. Back in the 60s he acquired and preserved things when those around him were busy getting rid, including a 1913 vintage steam locomotive he rescued from scrap. He also tried to rescue the Euston Arch, and failed, but nabbed a station building from Cambs and a signal box from Staffs and a footbridge from the Isle of Wight. His home collection manifested as a steam railway, initially one brief run, since extended to a full mile within the grounds. The initial run down into the valley is the steepest gradient on a British railway - 1 in 13.4 - after which trains reverse to follow a separate track down to Pinewell Bottom. And if you were quick enough yesterday to grab a ticket, you could go for a ride.
The top station is Somersham, positioned at what looks like the entrance to a tunnel but which I suspect might be an underground engine shed. Nextdoor is a long shed which contains Lord McAlpine's railway museum, said to be the best collection of memorabilia outside the NRM in York. I can well believe it. Outside are tons of vintage metalled adverts, plus the original wooden departure board from Brighton station. Pay your five quid and you can see much more upstairs, mostly 'rescued' ephemera like signs and maps and a bit of wood that might just be the remains of a carriage from the Tay Bridge Disaster. I particularly liked the two cases given over to items from the British Empire Exhibition of 1925, and the original silver meat dish cover from the Grand Midland Hotel, and marvelled at the man's magpie-like tenacity for hoarding.
The train pulls a brake van and an open truck, the latter of which is obviously the place to be if you want a view and the smell of smoke. Your ten minute ride begins by passing beneath an appreciative audience on the footbridge, then passes some electricity coils cleverly reimagined as fountains. Yes, that is the badge of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway halfway up the slope to the side, this the sister to that still seen by Blackfriars Bridge on the South Bank. More of Sir William's spoils can be seen alongside the track on the way down, like the parapet from Ludgate Hill station and part of the façade from Broad Street, which if it wasn't here would probably be crumbled in some landfill somewhere. All the way down she rolls, to Bourne Again Junction (honest) and a tiny halt, where the drivers swiftly switch direction and head down the long straight.
The surrounding woodland and grassland is also a deer park, with herds clearly visible from the train, maybe even on the tracks, and blimey isn't that an ostrich? Further rail detritus litters the way, including the sign that once marked the border between England and Scotland, and various old carriages and trucks. But it's the run back up from the lower halt that's the most invigorating. The engine really gets some power up, even more so when it reverses and heads back to Somersham on the home run. Not for nothing is engine number 31 called The Fawley Mountaineer, because the climb back up is remarkably steep, and surprisingly fast. There's a real feeling of fairground ride, even rollercoaster, as you power headlong towards the station and it almost feels like you couldn't possibly stop in time. You do, obviously, but that's a baronet's plaything for you.
Meanwhile the large field below Lord and Lady McAlpine's house has been transformed into an arena surrounded by stalls and exhibitors. Within the ropes you might see sheepdogs, a gurkha band or a massed gathering of steam-poweredengines - the latter for some considerable time because it takes forever to shuffle them all back out into the showground. Inside the ring of columns borrowed from St Pancras - otherwise known as Ironhenge - there are camels awaiting their turn to race in the arena. Look up and there might be a Spitfire, or a formation of seven Tiger Moths, or some bloke waving as he performs aerial tricks with smoke. In the big top they might be performing amateur dramatics or strumming ukuleles for ale-swillers and diners. All around are food stalls and charity presences, be that the local air ambulance at a trestle table or the rather more professional presence of the fledgling Sierra Leone National Railway Museum. And everywhere there are vintage vehicles, including old Southdown buses, several Rolls Royces, and dinky tiny things powered by steam that men in dirty overalls can sit on and ride around.
The birthday girl and her husband were ever present somewhere or other, sometimes in the main ring watching the parades, or else wandering around their favourite exhibits. I'm told Lady Judy parachuted in from a helicopter, then rode off in her husband's Roller, but I missed that. Instead I caught her speech to the assembled crowds which ended in her getting very cross with four visitors who'd dared to park their cars down the slope to the station, and I wouldn't have liked to be on the receiving end of her tongue, or steamroller, if that had been me. I think you could describe her character as redoubtable, like a feared but favourite aunt... whereas I think I saw her husband emerging from a railway shed clutching two packs of shrink-wrapped bacon.
Great thanks to them both for opening up their grounds to allcomers - more normally it's smaller groups and invited guests only. And whilst it's a shame that so much railway heritage exists here mostly out of sight of the general public it's thanks to Sir William's tenacity that so much of it exists at all.