diamond geezer

 Monday, April 28, 2014

There's one Metropolitan railway all Londoners know - the purple line on the tube map heading out towards Amersham. But there is another London railway with the Metropolitan title, some considerable distance away, and it's a steam railway to boot. You've probably never been, it's not yet been open a year, but it is still a railway with a fine history and with considerable plans for growth.

The Metropolitan Water Board Railway runs in the southwestern corner of London in the general vicinity of Sunbury, Hanworth and Kempton. More precisely it runs in the grounds of the Kempton Park Water Works, a massive engineering feat built to pump water into London in the 1920s. The engine house required coal to power it, and this was unloaded at a Thameside wharf in Hampton. From here a three mile narrow gauge railway transported the fuel via a meandering route through a collection of reservoirs, across the Upper Sunbury Road and around Kempton Park racecourse. The line closed after the war when road replaced rail, with the pumping station finally taken out of action in 1980. Thankfully the engine house was restored about ten years ago, and is now the most amazing museum. And the railway kicked back into action last spring, thanks to the hard work of a body of volunteers, and is open every Sunday (and certain Saturdays) between now and November.

I say railway, whereas what I really mean is a brief loop of track in a field of horses. The engine shed is a metal container of the kind transported on lorries, and the ticket office is a hut with an awning out front. More to the point there's only one station, Hanworth Halt, and that's little more than a bench on some patio tiles at the end of a gravel path. But mock not, it's a professionally run affair, with hats and uniforms and everything, and even a level crossing part way round. Plus there's a proper vintage steam engine circa 1903 by the name of Darent, pulling a Large Devon Coach for the comfort of passengers. Every miniature railway with big dreams has to start somewhere.

Saturday was a steaming weekend at the Kempton Steam Museum, so the railway was open to paying customers. Most tacked their rail journey onto to a much longer trip round the museum, but it was hard to miss the friendly volunteers waiting to encourage you aboard. Tickets cost £2 for adults and £1 for children, sold by an extremely keen young girl playing her full part in proceedings, and who didn't try too hard to sell any of the other railway-related souvenirs laid out close by. At least four further volunteers were down on the platform, who along with the train crew pretty much filled the place up. Tickets were duly checked and clipped, and doors secured, and off we hurtled at a fairly sedate pace.

For the best view you need to sit on the right hand side of the train. On the left you get up close to the nettles and the other undergrowth round the edge of the field, plus the occasional engine shed, but the curvature of the train means you'll never see the loco. On the right you'll also get to enjoy the field, or more likely its horses, plus watch the steam billow across the tracks as each Whistle point passes. One of these is by the big yellow signal on the approach to the station, where there might be someone to wave at you from the fledgling 'picnic site'. You should catch sight of the tall twin chimneys of the power station through the trees, they're unmissable hereabouts. And I won't reveal how many times round the loop you get for your two quid, but rest assured it's more than two.

The Metropolitan Water Board Railway has some extremely ambitious expansion plans, and why not, because it pays to think big. They want to extend the railway along its original route, or at least as far as they can before hitting the impenetrable Thames Water treatment works in Hampton. The extension's not going to be in any way easy. Permission will be required to cross roads, lanes, paths and aqueducts, and the old trackbed will need to be cleared up to allow new tracks to pass. Most awkwardly where the old railway dipped below the main line to Shepperton there's now only seven feet of headroom, so the tracks will probably need to be lowered. But if all goes to plan then trains should (eventually) be able to reach a new station to be created inside Kempton Nature Reserve, and the current demonstration loop can be dismantled.

The main attraction round here is the Kempton Steam Museum, one of London's less well known engineering marvels. The Art Deco engine house contains the largest working triple-expansion steam engine in the world, a multi-level monster over 60 feet high, plus another identical model not in working order. The latter is used for guided tours, if you have a head for heights, and provides an amazing perspective as the great beast opposite powers up. I wrote a full report on KSM back in 2007 (see here) but never had time for the full guided tour and that turned out to be excellent. If you like big greasy machines, or just want to go somewhere with true wow factor, be sure to stick Kempton Steam Museum on your must-visit list. If you need tempting further, Andrew was also there this weekend and took some rather splendid photos. You've seen nothing like it, I assure you.

» Kempton Steam Museum (visiting times) (audio tour)
» Kempton Steam Railway (2014 timetable & brochure) (history video)

Steaming weekends at Kempton take place roughly once a month from March to November, with the next being on May 24th and 25th. They're definitely the best time to come, because you get to see the engine house in full operation and the railway running. To view the museum's engines in static mode, come along any Tuesday or Thursday from 10.30am to 4pm. The railway meanwhile is open every Sunday, but be warned you'll have to contact them in advance else you'll never get through the locked entrance gate. That's not going to help visitor numbers this coming Sunday, so your presence would be more welcome than ever. Or maybe step up and join Kempton's volunteers yourself, because several dozen smiling faces can't be wrong.

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