To Battle by Dr. D. A. C. McNeil
To anyone reading this epic who has aspirations to become a rally driver, let me recommend the road running south from Heather towards Shackerstone. If you can drive this bit of road well at any speed at all, you may make it. If not, you are in the same boat as me.
Shackerstone? To any preserved railway enthusiast the title “The Battlefield Line” immediately springs to mind. It is that length of the old Midland and London North Western joint railway which runs through Market Bosworth and is so associated with the battle of Bosworth in which King Richard III died. As said king’s second funeral, which was clearly much more elaborate than his first, took place recently I thought I should give this remarkable line a visit.
Remarkable? On the face of it one could say that it is little more nor less like many other secondary lines which were victims of the Beeching axe. It is the history which gives it that title. In the normal run of preserved railways, a group of enthusiasts find a bit of line they want to save, raise the money and buy it, then look round for things to run on it. In this case the preservation group already had an industrial tank engine, housed in a siding at Market Bosworth, and were looking round for some railway to run it on. At that time, 1969 to 1970, British Railways were lifting the last track in the area of Market Bosworth, so the society decided to purchase the length between Shackerstone and Shenton which included Market Bosworth. Sadly the rails no longer went from Market Bosworth to Shenton – this section was re-opened in 1992 by a train hauled by an industrial tank locomotive appropriately named Richard III.
So, how did the line come into being in the first place? It was a joint venture. The main London North Western Railway line north from London to (ultimately) Glasgow ran through Nuneaton. The Midland Railway had a line connecting Nuneaton to Leicester, and, with a bit of timetable jiggling you could get to Moira and other places thereabouts. It would be nice to have a line which cut out the jiggling. The London North Western had its ideas set on the Midland Main line at Loughborough and the COAL traffic. COAL was the in fuel in the 19th century. To do that it needed a branch at Shackerstone through to Coalville and beyond. It never got to the Midland main line. The line never reached its ambition, despite “through carriages” running to London twice daily between 1900 and 1914, and King Edward VII using it in 1902. The L.M.S. closed it to passengers on 13th April 1931; the coal traffic lasted until about 1964, and it was lifted in 1969.
So it was that on May bank holiday Monday I settled into a seat on the train from Shackerstone to Shenton, pulled by a Great Western goods engine – class 38xx, 3803, 2-8-0 for the enthusiast. It was clearly the toddlers’ special. Every so often a toddler would rush past followed by its desperate father. My carriage was one of those open ones with 4 window seats instead of the compartmental 2, and I was sharing my side with a push chair. Opposite me was a family of 4, the little lad bent on denting his mother’s bangles by hammering them against the table, and his elder sister demanding to know, a) why aren’t we moving? and b) are we going home? Her greatest discovery was two ladybirds, which she related to her mother at length.
Despite the speed limit on one coach in a siding of 125 miles an hour, most of the line had limits of about 10 and even slower. We started out between two steep banks well mown and covered in yellow cowslips and dandelion, with bluebells, forget-me-nots, red campion and white jack-by-the-hedge scattered colourfully over them. Soon this opened out to the view of bright yellow oilseed rape alternating with high hedges. Market Bosworth station is sad – the main buildings and the goods shed are not part of the line and are decrepit. It is sad to see the platform covered in derelict cars. The other platform makes up for it, but the view of old rusting wagons on the far line is not a good one. And so to Humberstone Road...sorry, Shenton. The place is Shenton; the buildings are those from the old Humberstone Road station in Leicester.
Apart from the stations the railway is single track throughout. This can be dangerous, clearly, if two trains meet head on. To avoid this, railways had two general options; to run a token system, in which the train holding the token is the only one allowed on that line; a one engine in steam policy, clearly a very safe arrangement for it is not possible to run two trains at the same time with the same engine; or, as in this case a one engine policy, with no other engines. True there were decaying diesels in sidings, and the one diesel unit I saw may be able to run. But, I am told, there was only one steam engine on the line.
By the way, all trains must have a red lamp on the tail end by law. Just as the girl was asking “Why aren’t we moving yet?” a man came passed .... carrying the red lamp.