“Seven Donkey Tails” & “The Timetable That Never Was” by Dave Henwood

Donkey Tales : 5-7

Donkey Tales 5: Those ruddy school kids….

The timeline for this Donkey Tale is 1990, some five years after I left the hallowed halls of Deyncourt Secondary and three years after I started work on the railway. The year 1990 will be remembered as the year the first Gulf war started and on the railways of the Thames Valley was a fascinating year in many ways. For the passenger there was talk of new trains being delivered with air suspension, power-operated doors and a fresh bright feel. For the crews that worked the regions rail services, the second half of the decade was one of training courses and getting used to new ways of doing things; new trains were coming and they were going to be quite different from the accepted norm. It really was going to be ‘all change’ at Bourne End.

Those new trains were known as the Thames Turbos, they’re the ones we have today except that after several applications of new vinyl, the exterior livery has changed and no longer advertises the fact that you are riding in a Thames Turbo. I’ll say this for them, they did do exactly what it said on the tin; the ride was smooth, they were bright and the ambience was good, and it so happened that they were very quick at climbing the bank between Cookham and Bourne End.

The Turbo body is constructed of lightweight aluminium making it only half as heavy, perhaps less, than the old slam-door DMUs they replaced. They also had the advantage of having hydraulic two-stage transmission compared with their predecessors that had mechanical gear boxes.

The ‘slammers’ as some referred to the original trains were both heavy and slow in their acceleration but the two things they had in their favour were comfortable seats and a Guards Van where you could store your bike, pushchair or pram!

Have you ever thought how unforgiving the present day seats are? There is no spring in them whatsoever, similar to modern bus seats really, it’s a bit of one type fits all idea these days. Prior to their replacement between 1991 and 1993, the old diesel trains had a heady aroma of diesel fumes, painted wood and linoleum flooring.

Now, there were many combinations of these old trains, you could practically attach anything to anything in those days, a flexibility that sadly wasn’t built into the current fleet which can only couple to another of the same type. Anyway, towards the end of their operation it wasn’t uncommon for a pair of ‘Single Units’ to be attached to one another on the Marlow Branch, two entirely self contained diesel railcars with no means of the Guard getting from one to the other except when at a station.

The local school kids that travelled between Marlow and Furze Platt or Maidenhead soon cottoned onto this arrangement. They noticed also that the two railcars each had a Guards Van and most importantly that the Guard could only ever be in one of them at a time…. They also noticed that it was ‘’2’’ on the buzzer that indicated to the Driver it was safe to depart!

I had just completed my 6-2 shift at Maidenhead and was travelling back to Bourne End, bleary eyed and looking forward to being at home when most other folk were still at work. I chose on this occasion to travel with the Guard, in the van of the rear Single Unit. We had arrived at Cookham and the Guard was doing what he had to do, standing on the platform, a good distance from the train, looking both ways to ensure all the slam-doors were closed. It was at that very moment when the Guard was at least 6ft distant from his van, that the Driver got ‘’2’’ on the buzzer and the train started to move!

By pure chance, I was stood right be the inward-opening van door, within touching distance of the second buzzer and in a moment of split second thinking, which doesn’t seem to happen these days according to my wife, I deployed ‘’1’’ on the buzzer, bringing the train to a stop with the front coach part way over Cookham Level Crossing!

‘Did you give two on the buzzer?’ asked the Guard. ‘Not me, I gave ‘’1’’ on the buzzer hence why we are now partially blocking the level crossing. ’It was those ruddy kids. I know it, I bet those buggers have got into the other van and given two!’.

And they had! Looking back it was very funny but I don’t think the Guard saw it that way, and to think, had I not been there, the train would have been at Bourne End and the Guard would have been at Cookham!


 Donkey Tales 6: Accused of being a real life Train Spotter!

A scorching summer on the Great Western has I am sure, taken a few of us on a trip down memory lane, back to the time when we all heard our parents say, ‘this is a proper summer, the way summer’s used to be’. Well, whether that’s true or not, I’m certainly enjoying this one. Cookham Station was my chosen staring point for a walk that would take me across the fields to Bourne End where I would rejoin the Train through to Marlow. The second part of the day would be to walk back from Marlow along the River bank, cross the railway at Vineyards Crossing, walk along one side of the Nature Reserve and emerge at the Spade Oak Public House. A cold pint of Aspells Suffolk Cider being the order of the day followed by the continuation of the walk along Upper Thames Way, back across the railway at Coldmoorholme Lane Crossing and on past the Sailing Club to the station.

Let me take you back to the start of that walk. As I left Cookham Station and proceeded, down Station Hill, I turned left to follow the path that leads to Terry’s Lane and Winter Hill Golf Course. I love it up here, I love the peace; the views of the River as it flows towards Cookham Bridge and all these years later, I even love looking at Deyncourt, sat in its elevated position part way up New Road. I have a particular memory about wanting to escape the clutches of Miss Webb, the English teacher and a burning desire to head for the location that I am now approaching – the small bridge that links the two sides of the Golf Course and curiously has a ‘5 Ton’ weight limit sign positioned at either end! Now I know these golf caddies are heavy but no way do they weigh that much so I wondered what the signs are for? The sun was high in the sky and its heat on this July afternoon was all encompassing barring the odd interval when a cloud passed beneath it. The air was filled with the scent of recently mown grass; a tractor and bailer were working on the rough, creating a familiar, yet for a golf course, unfamiliar scene.

With no Golfers in the vicinity and a row of trees obscuring my presence from the Tractor, I decided to get an up close look at one of these bales. Furthermore, with no one around to utter those enthusiasm-shattering words, ‘oh look at that chap over there, he’s taking a photograph of a hay bale’, I figured I could get away with doing just that.

It’s a strange place that bridge, I remember a day, last summer when I happened to be in the exact same place, just stood on the top, admiring the view along the cutting, wrestling with those all consuming thoughts that just won’t go away, like, I wonder what time the chip shop opens! It was about then that three golfing Gentlement passed my way. ‘Good morning’ I said. ‘Hello’ says one, ‘Oh look, a real life train spotter’ says the other!

I beg your pardon, a real life train spotter, the cheek of the man! Honestly, did I really look like I was stood on top of a railway bridge waiting to jot down the number of the 11:06 Up from Marlow? Well, apparently so, and whatever I might have thought, the observation had been made and it was rather amusing. As it happens, in a round about sort of way, he wasn’t so far from the truth on this particular day. A phrase that I have heared over the years is ‘but they all look the same though don’t they’? Similar yes, and I would imagine it’s a fair bet most users of the branch line wouldn’t realise that some poor sole has to choose which one of the 20 is going to work the route each day! Actually it’s not really down to personal choice but simply which one is ready after its overnight wash and brush up at the Reading Depot. Anyway, the real reason I had paused on top of that bridge on that glorious July afternoon was to observe a rapidly dwindling aspect of the railway scene, the bitumen-soaked timber sleeper!

If we were to travel back to the 1960s, we would have found concrete sleepers being laid on the Marlow Branch, between Brooksby and Calcot Lane Crossings , modernisation, if you want to call it that has been going on for decades and yet, there are just a few places left in Britain where time has literally stood still. With regard to the Marlow Branch, I am so familiar with it that I can tell you some really geeky stuff, facts that even a ‘real life train spotter’ would never know. These facts are the technical details that interest only a few of us.

I acquired this specialist interest from Peter Lugg, a retired Permanent Way Engineer. Peter was getting on in years when I wrote this but I still found him an engaging man. Peter was, as he put it, ‘Great Western through and through’, and it was Peter’s guidance and wealth of knowledge that led me to notice many of the things I notice today.

The hot sun baked a tinder dry landscape, Two pair of Red Kites circled overhead, the distant rumble of the bailer chattered and clattered as it prepared to release another large monstrosity from its mechanised interior’. I peered over the bridge, perhaps waiting for those same three Golfers to reappear but they didn’t. I was looking at a number of recently replaced sleepers, Norwegian Spruce most likely, and I could identify them easily as they glistened in the sun. They had been soaked in bitumen to preserve them.

Soaked and dried, it is only on hot summer days that the sun draws this bitumen to the surface of the wood and softens it sufficiently to return it to liquid form, and in so doing, releases the peculiar aroma that bitumen has. Branch Lines have these special features and they are reminders of times now almost forgotten. Long may they continue!



When British Rail published its timetable for the Western Region during April 1970, its commencement date was May 4th and scheduled to run until May 2nd of the following year. As timetable publications go, this one was of particular interest as it showed on Table 18, the full service scheduled to operate between Maidenhead, Marlow and High Wycombe.

The timetable department is complex, even today and depends on many bodies supplying information until the finished article is produced, enabling as it does, an ever increasing volume of trains to operate on a network that is just a shadow of what it once was. It was all very different in 1970, we had just witnessed the wrath of Dr Beeching’s Axe with many routes and hundreds of rail miles being closed; with the towns and villages along their length being left without a railway, and often, many miles from an alternative route.

At some point during 1968 – 1969, the wheels would have been put in motion for the closure of the railway between Bourne End and High Wycombe, it had after all seen a general run down of service for some years prior to the final nail in the coffin which occurred on May 5th 1970.

Why then, did BR publish a timetable commencing just a day earlier advertising to the prospective passenger that they would be able to travel by train to Wooburn Green, Loudwater and High Wycombe for the rest of that year, when the reality would be very different?

The service was indeed sparse, with Wooburn Green scheduled to see northbound departures, Monday to Friday at 6:56, 8:09, 9:59, 12:56. 14:56, 16:32, 18:05, 18:41, 19:03, 20:00 and 20:33. Saturday would see just nine trains a day compared to the eleven on weekdays. This compared with the eighteen trains shown Monday through Friday between Maidenhead and Bourne End, with nineteen on a Saturday!

Southbound, Wooburn Green should have seen trains at 7:33, 8:00, 8:33, 11:08, 14:08, 15:45, 17:24, 18:32, 19:46 and 20:56. The three hour gap in the morning, northbound and after lunch southbound being remarkable! Saturdays were similar with southbound departures from Wooburn scheduled to be at 7:08, 8:08, 9:08, 11:08 then 14:08 16:08, 18:08, 20:08 and finally 21:43. So you see, it was going to be far from busy north of Bourne End in the year of closure but in the event, it transpired to be even worse, with the line succumbing to final closure the day after the timetable was published!


 Donkey Tales 7:  The Marlow Donkey and the Travelling Safe.

Bullion Vans? You know the ones I mean, they used to be Securicor prior to 2004 but these days it’s Loomis or Group 4 that tend to be the dominating names we see whilst out and about in our daily lives, but what has that got to do with the Marlow Donkey? Here in this next instalment of my occasional series providing an insight into the world of the railway, I will take you back to the year 1987 or thereabouts for even I can’t quite remember when all this came to an end. You’ll have to take my word for it when I say some aspects of the local branch line scene were a lot more interesting in times gone by than they are now.

Security Vans or Bullion vans as they used to be known will visit shops and businesses on selected pre-determined dates and using the little knowledge I have of such matters will often collect and drop off cash on differing days, or use alternative routes, all with the aim of preventing any attempted crime. Railway stations are no exception these days but they used to be and the reason was that the takings from Booking Offices across the country would often be placed in a Travelling Safe!

Right now you are probably picturing your average cash safe, of either medium or large proportions but in either case, hardly a portable object and for good reason of course. So what did a portable safe look like? Well, portable or travelling safes on the railway were quite unlike anything you would find about nowadays, they were metal on the inside with a polished wood exterior. Upon this would be found sign writing of the type I believe can still be found above Colias Butchers on the Parade in Bourne End. It was quite ornate and would detail the two stations that a particular safe would travel between.

In light of that, you can now imagine that there must have been a great many of these contraptions and there was although I personally only ever saw three. The most familiar was the Bourne End safe which was a battered and scabby looking artefact throughout the period that I knew it. It was lettered ‘To travel between Bourne End and Maidenhead’ in large font with ‘BR ( W )’ in much smaller font in the bottom of one corner. BR was of course the abbreviation for British Rail and the ( W ) denoted Western Region of which the Marlow Branch was once a part.

On the top was a flap which looked a little like a bank deposit slot which you could lift, insert either envelopes or leather money pouches, and push down, with the contents falling into the box. Each safe was approximately 3.5 ft square and weighed a fair bit, so much so that a sack truck was needed to push it along the platform. Today, H&S regulations would not only discourage the use of such an item but almost certainly dictate that two people should be available to lift it. But back in the day, it was the booking clerk or the station staff that would man handle the safe into the confines of the Guards Van.

And there it would sit, in full view of everyone including Joe Bloggs and his bike travelling between Cookham and Furze Platt! Most staff would enlist the help of the Guard in the lifting of the safe but the exception was good old Bernie Wheeler, Bourne End’s resident giant in railway circles who was built of stronger stuff. At over 6ft in height and with hands the size of shovels, Bernie would embrace the safe as if launching himself into a classical tango and throw the thing aboard with such force, had the door on the opposite side been open, it would most likely have shot straight through onto the track.

Come 1992, new trains appeared and with them disappeared the old Guards Van and of course, the means to convey such commodities. This was the ideal time to review the carriage of cash by rail and as we now know today, road haulage became the preferred method of operation.


165 165136 approaches Bourne End from Marlow




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