Once so full of life, now so very dead – Monday March 14 2011.
Born and brought up in Burnley, my local Motive Power Depot was Rose Grove and as a student at the nearby Grammar School, it was but a short hop from classroom to platform. Well, it was a brisk 15-minute walk actually, but this nevertheless made it accessible during our 90-minute ‘lunch hour’ from 1215 to 1345. And we certainly made the most of this, most days, in our later years at the school.
The four of us (me, Howard Watson, Richard Wilby and Paul Halstead) would be out of the door before the bell had stopped ringing and off across the path between the playing fields and along Kiddrow Lane, past the girls High School with barely a second glance at its attractions, so great was the pull of watching shunting in the grids and heaping derision on the stabled Class 25 diesel electrics!
We made rude remarks about the ‘Sulzers’ (as we knew them) from the westbound face of the island platform, following closure of the MPD when all the diesels were stabled in the loop between the Preston-bound platform and the big yard which is now an industrial estate. We were well-behaved (we were in school uniform, and had to be) and so the staff (yes, RG had staff then – and buildings!) generally tolerated us sitting around watching the proceedings without ejecting us back into the street.
At this time, the MPD still stood, but it had been closed and abandoned to its ghosts; all the track had been ripped up and it was awaiting demolition. Some years later, the M65 motorway would come through part of the site but for the moment the LMS-design standard six-road shed stood in proud, splendid - and rather sad - isolation.
A couple of times, when I was on my own, I walked down Rose Grove Lane, past the row of terraced houses on the right and turned left through the shed gate, which breached a tall stone wall marking the railway boundary. It was a sombre experience but it always made me feel a connection with the history of the place.
As you drew level with the gate, there was a view straight across the concreted open outside pits, with the darkened mouth of the six-road shed looming to their right. The site was completely abandoned and unfenced then, as many railway depots habitually were back in those less paranoid, less controlled times. You could wander in unchallenged. There was never anyone about and you never saw that ghastly grey steel fencing back then. They were different, less complex times.
This view across the shed front was always highly evocative for me. I was just 11 years old in 1968 when steam went and so whilst being aware of what was going on, I wasn’t quite old enough to have garnered a treasure trove of personal memories (or photographs) of one of Britain’s last three steam sheds, which Rose Grove turned out to be.
But some years before – it must have been around 1964 or 1965 – we had had a family visit from Birmingham by my dad’s aunt and his family, one of whom, Roger Tallis, was a keen teenage trainspotter. Roger had no intention of missing out on ‘copping’ a load of London Midland ‘8Fs’, ‘Black Fives’ and ‘WDs’ and so on the Sunday afternoon had persuaded my dad to take him to the MPD to see if they’d ‘let him round.’
And so it was that as a seven or eight year old I’d tagged along and drawn level with that shed entrance in Rose Grove Lane for the first time - and been entranced by that evocative view across the shed front. Back then, of course, and it being a Sunday, there were several engines stood on the open pits and some clanging and banging as the staff got the engines ready for the next week’s work.
That image is still vividly in my mind even now, 45 years later. So, it was especially sad in the 1970s to stroll in to this abandoned depot where nothing moved, where it seemed nothing was alive other than me and where the un-natural (and occasionally un-nerving) silence seemed louder and more oppressive than the clanging and banging of that Sunday afternoon a decade before.
I’d walk into the dark, damp shed, down the right hand side, past the glassless bay window of the shedmaster’s office, the once busy signing-on point, the abandoned, lifeless smithy, the empty stores and the other darkened, damp abandoned rooms off to my right, whilst to the left stretched the six empty roads which once held the engines which worked so hard ferrying coal from the west Yorshire collieries, via Healey Mills Yard, to the east Lancashire power stations at Huncoat, Padiham, Whitebirk and, further west still, to Burn Naze, at Fleetwood.
The broken glass from the shed roof would crunch and clink beneath my feet and as I picked my way between the roof leaks and deepening puddles I’d imagine the hubbub, warmth, noise and bustle which, once upon a time, filled this building and which must have seemed like it would go on for ever.
I always found the whole experience actually rather moving and very sad and I mourned the loss of a way of life, even as I hurried from the damp gloom into the daylight to catch sight of a Class 40 whistling by on a westbound train of 100-ton oil tanks from Immingham to Preston. Now, the ‘Whistlers’ too are long gone although there’s still oil to the terminals of Preston dock.
I was powerfully reminded of this sad spectacle of a once busy-depot reduced to a sad and bothersome silence a week or three ago when London Transport Commissioner Peter Hendy, Crossrail’s Keith Berryman and I visited the once-mighty but now abandoned MPD at Old Oak Common, in West London.
Once a covered roundhouse housing no fewer than four turntables, this was the much more glamorous (than dear old Rose Grove!) depot which provided steam locomotives for all the traffic from Paddington to the west: it was once filled not only with humble carriage shunters and maids-of-all-work mixed traffic engines, but also the cream of the cream…crack express engines named after ‘Castles’ and ‘Kings.’ Latterly, it served out its last years as a freight locomotive depot for English Welsh & Scottish Railway. Now, it’s gone and, just like the much newer North Pole Eurostar depot right opposite which once served Waterloo, it’s empty, abandoned and silent.
The large building housing Old Oak’s four turntables was long gone, together with three of the turntables, but a single open turntable had survived to the very end with the original GWR ‘factory’ which was also used to the end. Another survivor was the 1960s broick buiult shed provided to house the one-time ‘Midland Pullman’ sets which worked out their days on the WR main line. A pity one of them didn’t survive! In 2000, RAIL worked with EWS to stage a massively successful open weekend at Old Oak to which tens of thousands flocked. The NRM sent ‘City of Truro,’ there was a DMU shuttle from Paddington right into the depot courtesy of Chiltern and Virgin named four locomotives over the two days. Happy times indeed at a very busy event attended buy tens of thousands of people.
Here’s a reminder:
Now the depot is closed. It will be flattened as part of the Crossrail project. Old Oak’s day is done. I’ll save the story of why Peter, Keith and I were there for another day. But as we trudged around in the snow on that cold winter day, the icy temperatures and the blanketing, dampening effect of the snow on sound all contributed to the eerie sadness of the mood.
I was instantly taken back to those solitary visits to Rose Grove, after the ‘Black Staniers’ had all gone. Dead sheds really are very eerily sad places. Doubtless those who know Old Oak more intimately than I will feel as did seeing Rose Grove denuded of life and vitality.
The regret is leavened by the knowledge that the site itself will live again as a railway location, as part of the Crossrail project.
Maybe the Old Oak name will yet live on in railway terms. I hope so.