Full steam ahead for twin-track beer and trains on superb Midlands preserved line
Added: Tuesday, September 17th 2013
So far in the Rail Ale series we've visited several rural, single track brach lines, as most preserved line in Britain are of this type. But this time we visit the Great Central Railway, Britain's only double track mainline heritage railway that connects the urban centres of Loughborough and Leicester. Why is it so rare for a double track mainline to run steam trains? The answer lies in the unusual history of the line.
It was built long before the Grouping Act of 1921 that merged Britain’s railways into the Big Four companies, and many years before nationalisation. It was in the Victorian era when new railways and railway companies were springing up everywhere in the spirit of free enterprise, where utility took a back seat to profit. It’s little wonder that Dr Richard Beeching ordered the dismantling of so many of these railways in the 1960s, but these tended to be small branch lines serving small communities. The Great Central, the last mainline built until High Speed 1, was different.
It seems remarkable that a line serving Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester and London Marylebone would be deemed unnecessary by the 1960s government, but Beeching’s report declared the line to be a duplicate of the Midland Mainline, which served the same cities but at different stations. Great Central closed in 1966, but a group of train devotees was formed the same year with the hope of preserving the line. Trains were running again by 1973, and in the 90s large parts of the line were made double track, allowing for the sight of two steam trains passing each other outside a station, the only place in the country where this can be seen.
The line runs west of the Midland Mainline and to the east of another preserved line of the same name that runs to Nottingham. There isn’t too much distance between the lines, and only a few obstacles lie between there being an 18-mile run of mainline track operating steam between Leicester and Nottingham. A bridge would have to be built over the Midland Mainline before it is electrified later this decade, but if this were achieved it would create one of the finest preserved lines in the world.
We start our journey at Loughborough Central, a short and pleasant walk along the Grand Union Canal from the Network Rail station connected to London, Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield. A short walk away from this station in the centre of town is the Organ Grinder , above,(www.bluemonkeybrewery.com/pubs/organ-grinder-loughborough, 4 Woodgate), a former coaching inn taken over by local brewer Blue Monkey. With a blue exterior and interior, a wacky image on the sign and inescapable chimpanzee images it certainly makes for a quirky experience. There’s a full book shelf that customers can help themselves to as they sup a pint and take in all the ape images. The bar is beautifully kept and serves Blue Monkey’s own BG Sips, Guerrilla and Infinity as well as guest ales.
Loughborough station, along with Quorn & Woodhouse and Rothley, has an island platform with steps up to the main station building that sits on a road bridge, typical on this part of the line known as the London Extension. Initially named the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, it only became the Great Central after the extension to London in 1899. The station accurately portrays how the line would have looked in the 1950s, with period newspaper stands and Ladies waiting rooms, as well as a book shop.
Having a preserved station in the middle of a large urban centre is a rare sight and it offers the opportunity to ride in a carriage hauled by a steam engine, slowly watching the town and its buildings reduce and disappear into the countryside. It isn’t long before Quorn & Woodhouse is reached, a rural station between two villages. The station recreates the wartime 1940s, including line-side vegetables and Dig for Victory signs. Just 200 yards from the station is the Manor House (www.restauranteatingoutloughborough.co.uk ,Woodhouse Road), a hotel built by the Great Central Railway Company to serve passengers. There’s little reason not to leave the train and grab a pint, sitting in the large and pleasant garden, watching the trains goes by. It serves Bateman’s XB, Draught Bass and Taylor Landlord as well as a changing selection of guest ales.
The most spectacular part of the line comes next. The train proceeds through stunning woodlands before swinging out over Swithland reservoir. This is an enormous body of water on either side of the train that makes a memorable sight, shortly before reaching Rothley station, which is well worth visiting, with its gas-lit Edwardian architecture. The signalling is of Great Western origin, representing the former Great Western & Great Central Joint Railway.
The line ends at Leicester North. There was formerly a station at Belgrave and Birstall, but vandalism prevented it being reopened for preservation, so a new station was built slightly further down the line, serving the city of Leicester. The station is some distance out of the city but it’s lofty position allows for fine views of Leicester. You could jump off to watch the locomotive run round its carriages or if you were feeling thirsty the Tom Hoskins, 131 Beaumanor Road, isn’t too far away. Exiting the station take a left on Red Hill Way (A563), at the roundabout take Abbey Lane, turn left down Wade Street and a second left takes you to the pub where you can order from a choice of Banks’s Mild, Brains Bitter, Greene King IPA and a choice of guest beers.
If you’re able to make it into the city centre (perhaps on the mainline back from Loughborough), a short walk from the main station is the Pub (www.thepubleicester.co.uk) at 12 New Walk, an attractive building situated on the historic New Walk that dates from 1785. The Walk is a pedestrian-only passage that runs through the heart of the city, lined with trees, iron fences, old lamps and Georgian buildings. Regular beers at the Pub include Beowulf Dragon Smoke Stout and Oakham Inferno. There are 15 handpulls in operation leaving room for plenty of guests. There are also several Czech lagers, making it a good venue for beer lovers of all types.
Other recommended Leicester pubs include the Ale Wagon (above), another Hoskins’ outlet (27 Rutland Street), King’s Head (36 King Street), Slug & Lettuce (Market Street), Swan & Rushes (Infirmary Square) and Western (70 Western Road). Don’t miss the fascinating Richard III exhibition in the Guildhall that includes an image of the demolished Leicester inn where he stayed before the Battle of Bosworth.
For more information on the preserved mainline railway, visit http://www.gcrailway.co.uk/, which includes details of the beer festival,