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The History Of Heatherslaw Light Railway


Written by Cameron E. Smith, grandchild of Neville Smith.


The Heatherslaw Light Railway was the brainchild of Mr. Neville Smith. He was an engineer who had built locomotives in both 5 and 7 1/4 inch gauge, but harboured the ambition of building a passenger carrying railway in 15 inch narrow gauge. It was obviously meant to be, as the late Lord Joicey was looking for a project to enhance tourism on Ford and Etal Estates. Plans were submitted and a route was chosen. The locomotive “Lady Augusta” (0-4-2 Tender Engine) was commissioned from the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, while the diesel locomotive” Clive” and the six original coaches were manufactured on site by Mr. Neville Smith and his business partner Mr. Sid Ford.


The Build.


The station at Heatherslaw is built on the site of the old Ford and Etal sawmill which suffered a fire in the mid 1980’s, before being moved to a new site at Letham Hill. The site was cleared and new buildings, a turntable and station track work was laid. The track bed was dug and levelled by a contractor, but the ballast and track was laid using a track gang made up of local labour who worked every weekend for six months to enable the railway to start running in the summer of 1989. The original track was 1 1/4 miles long and cut directly across the Letham Haugh to Etal village. The track was then later lengthened to its present length of 2 miles in the winter of 2003-2004, and now follows the course of the river Till around the outside of the Letham Haugh. The original stock of six coaches was also expanded to thirteen coaches.

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Following the successful extension of 2004, Neville Smith began to plan the building of a new steam locomotive in 2005. He started on the production of various components and over the next few years, as finances would allow, he built up many of the major parts necessary for the project. Sadly, Neville was unable to complete his dream as having suffered from ill health for many years, his condition worsened and he passed away in February 2009, aged 69. Neville’s younger son, Paul Smith, took over in a temporary management position in late August 2008. 


The 2008 Flood.


On the first of September 2008, the railway was struck with the biggest flood on record. After a week of continuous torrential rain, the river Till burst its banks and water swept through the yard. Water poured over the top of Heatherslaw Bridge, carriages were swept off their tracks, some areas of the railway track were submerged by over 10 feet of water, and the only part of the railway line not submerged was the turntable at Etal Station. When the water subsided, we were left with devastation.

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The diesel locomotive had been totally immersed in water, the “ Lady Augusta” was left covered in silt, and two of the coaches had been washed off the track, left on their side. The rest of the coaches were in a sorry state, covered in mud, to say nothing of the flooded ticket office and buildings. The railway had reached the lowest point in its history and the business would not have survived without the tireless efforts of the management, staff and friends who pitched in to help. When the river level had dropped sufficiently, the track was examined only to reveal that a large chunk of the bank had been washed away, leaving the track dangling six feet in the air. A new section of track needed to be laid a further ten metres away from the river bank at that point. However, after only a month of downtime, the railway resumed full service.


Building Bunty and Binky.


After the passing of his father in February 2009, Paul Smith took over as managing director on a full time basis. With much work to repair the flood damage still to do, he set about completely restructuring the business. The need to refurbish the existing stock was evident as much of the bodywork of the old coaches had become shoddy, accelerated by the flood damage. The new management team realised how important it was to complete the new steam engine and add new coaches to the existing stock. Alan Keef Ltd was invited to tender a design that could incorporate many of the existing components started by Neville Smith. The design of a 2-6-0 tender tank was approved by the H.L.R board, and “Bunty”, named after Neville’s wife, was manufactured and introduced into service in July 2010, along with two new coaches in matching smart blue livery. These new coaches were built on site in the HLR’S own workshops and were to set the standard for any further coach refurbishment. 

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“Lady Augusta” was out of service for the 2012 season, undergoing essential boiler repairs, but returned to service in 2013. A new diesel locomotive, “Binky”, was built by Paul on site throughout 2014, with a Perkins diesel and hydraulics unit from Alan Keef ltd. Binky was launched in Easter 2015 and is usually in service on wet weather days, when it is quiet or if the steam engines are undertaking repairs. 


The railway saw its 30th Birthday in 2019, and has continued to grow as a business, employing seven staff full time. Though running the Heatherslaw Light Railway is not without its challenges, be it mechanical or weather related, we hope you agree that there is something magical about the place as you travel through the stunning countryside behind a steam engine!


Track Maintenance. 


The railway also has a constant schedule of track maintenance, replacing old sleepers and removing cattle grids that are no longer necessary. New sections of track are laid where flooding contaminates the ballast with river silt over the years. In 2019, railway maintenance concentrated on riverbank repairs below Heatherslaw bridge, where we needed to stop the erosion of the line. Luckily, we were able to prevent any further erosion in an environmentally friendly manner. As river erosion and meandering is an inevitable natural process, areas of track are moved and reinforced where necessary. The railway manages riverbank erosion through ensuring vegetation is not unnecessarily cut down, and if areas of riverbank are eroded due to large floods, Ford and Etal Estates reinforce the earthworks through planting native willow trees. 

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The 2020 Pandemic and 2021 Floods. 


As with many in the tourism industry, 2020 and the Coronavirus pandemic put great financial strain on the railway. Close to bankruptcy, we set up a crowdfunder appeal to save the Heatherslaw Light Railway Company. To our amazement, our loyal customers and friends of the railway were able to raise over £13,000, meaning we were able to keep afloat throughout the first lockdown. We cannot thank you enough for saving the business.


In the Summer of 2020, Paul Smith stepped down as managing director, and Neville’s elder son Darrell took over. The railway is now managed by Darrell, Bernice, Christine and Cameron Smith, Sid Ford and Martyn Redfearn.


As if the 2020 season was not stressful enough, January 2021 started with another significant period of rainfall and flooding. From previous experience, the railway has flood preparation strategies in place where we are able to measure live river levels and rainfall, and decide if we should move carriages and machinery to higher ground. Luckily our rolling stock was not affected, though the railway track suffered extensive damage due to a landslip at the Heatherslaw cutting.


Repair works concentrated throughout January and February to remove tons of earthworks and reinforce the embankment, and we were able to reopen in time for the easing of the third coronavirus lockdown. Thankfully, the 2021 season was our most successful ever due to the sheer number of visitors having a ‘staycation’ in Britain. Things are finally looking back to normal after a turbulent few years at the railway. 

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The future?


The railway continues to develop as we look at new ventures and projects. We have recently invested in railway sleepers made out of recycled plastic, aimed as a longer lasting but sustainable approach for track maintenance. We're also looking at alternatives to coal (and recently purchased an electric van!). The railway continues to hurdle over challenges throughout its history; we have survived potential financial collapse due to the Coronavirus Pandemic and many damaging floods, but we keep on track! It is hoped that with the support of all our customers we can continue to work hard to make the Heatherslaw Light Railway a place that children and their families will want to return to, time after time, and for everyone to enjoy.