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 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.
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.
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.