The Coley Flyer is an extract from 'Reading Fireman' by Colin Churcher reprinted in Steam Days magazine in the September 1992 issue, and is also now on Colin Churcher's own website titled 'You didn't see a thing, did you?"
The Coley Flyer
In the summer holidays of 1962 (aged 20) I worked as an engine cleaner at the Reading Depot of the British Railways (Western Region) and because of my previous footplate experience I was soon made a 'passed cleaner', which allowed me to fire steam locos when the regular fireman was not available.
Shed turns were fun but they could not compare for interest with the firing turns. My first firing job was on the Coley (Reading goods) branch with No 3219, one of the ex GWR class '2251' 0-6-0 tender engines. This was a pleasant job which started at 5.30am. We would take our engine to Reading West Junction where we would pick up our train and run the three miles or so to Southcote Junction. The signalman would hand us the wooden tablet giving us sole possession of the three mile Coley branch to the Reading Central goods depot. After some shunting we would have a mid-morning break and then saunter back to West Junction where we would be relieved at around 1.00pm. My first day was uneventful but the next day was quite a different matter.
The following day we had No 2261 (also one of the '2251' class) which was painted green and which I had cleaned a few days earlier. We picked up our train at West Junction where the shunters were anxious to get rid of us.
No 2261 was in good shape and behaved well as we moved our train, tender first, through the deep cutting by Reading West station. We were moving relatively slowly because the only brakes on the train were the steam brake on the engine and the hand brake in the van. At Southcote Junction the signalman was waiting for us with the tablet. I was on the bottom step of the engine but the 'smart-alec' signalman pointed the tablet at me instead of holding it out so that I could take it properly. He thought it a huge joke that I could only just hang on to it. If it had been raining he would have made me go to the box to fetch it. I climbed back into the cab and as I called out the wording on the tablet (not that there was any chance of confusing it as it was the only one for miles around) I was thinking of ways of getting even with that 'bobby'.
Unidentified class '2251' 0-6-0 tender locomotive approaches
Southcote Junction from the Coley Branch in May 1964 (Photo courtesy Ian Nash)
It was a beautiful day and the sun was just burning off a slight mist hanging over the Kennet and Avon Canal. A water rat swam for cover as we passed over the a small stream and an owl looked on from its perch in a tall tree. The cows in the meadow were munching contentedly and the sun glistened off the morning dew while a couple of swans swam majestically along the quiet canal which was flanked by pollarded willow trees. It was a surprisingly peaceful and rural scene bearing in mind that within three miles we would have changed direction 180 degrees and would be back in the centre of Reading. With the fire in good shape and no signals to look for, all I had to do was to admire the scenery as we ambled towards the goods depot and the adjacent brewery.
A touch of the steam brake was enough to bunch up the wagons as we passed some large petrol storage tanks and came to a halt at the Central goods depot. These tanks form a part of this story and I had better explain their location. The line was on a gently falling grade all the way from Southcote Junction and the final stretch was quite straight leading directly towards the tanks. There was a sharp curve into the goods depot just in front of the tanks, the points and siding to which made a continuation of the main line.
After an hour or so of hitting the wagons around with gay abandon, peace descended on the yard as we adjourned to the 'toad' (the GWR term for brake van) for our break. We were joined by the guard, Jock. He had a long, bulbous nose and a very limited vocabulary as every other word was a swear word and even that was the same one. The conversation quickly developed into a monologue. My driver, who I will call Tim, was a morose type with a large bulbous nose and a permanent scowl, sat silently in a corner of the van. When he finished his sandwiches, he got up and said,
and walked out. I asked Jock where he was going, and in his usual manner said that he had gone to the pub.
'He'll be back before we have to leave this place.', he said. The monologue droned on and on as Jock put the world straight and I found myself day-dreaming I snapped out of my reverie, realising that the monologue had stopped and that No 2261 was being moved.
Running back to my engine I could see a bulbous nose pointing out from the driver's side and found that Jock wanted to do some more shunting. He quickly left me in charge so I could have some fun with No 2261 hitting some wagons around. This locomotive had a screw reverse and it took a long while every time I needed to change direction. I wound furiously to the shout:
'What the do you think you're doing up there?', he retorted in his usual explicit manner.
It surprised me how much effort there was to driving a locomotive and was glad when we were ready to depart. My driver rejoined me on the footplate wiping the beery froth from his mouth with his sleeve. The sun was now beating down on the cab and I had been shunting alongside a swimming pool full of happy youngsters.
As we pulled out past the petrol tanks I was busy repairing the damage I had done to my fire. It was not far to West Junction but there was a sharp pull up to Southcote Junction and, with a heavy train, my driver needed all the steam I could give him. The cows were still munching and the owl had a contented look about it (so far as it is possible for an owl to look contented) - perhaps it had eaten the water rat. At least I had thought of a way to get even with that 'bobby'. There was a net set out for the fireman to throw the tablet into. The signalman was then free to come out and retrieve it at his leisure so I decided to miss the net and throw the tablet into a bed of stinging nettles close by.
However, the signalman was standing outside waving for us to stop and took the tablet personally. There were some Engineering Department wagons on the other side of the main line and we had to cut off from our train, drop over the main line, pick up the wagons, come back to pick up the rest of our train and then make our way back to West Junction. This was a very simple move and our loquacious guard was even more so as he signalled the driver to ease up so that he could uncouple. No 2261 came back a bit hard and the train, minus engine, and therefore brakes, started to roll back down the grade. As we watched the train disappear in the distance Jock informed us that he had not pinned down a single hand-brake on the train. Suddenly, the thought of the petrol tanks came into our minds - unless we could stop the run away we could have a major conflagration on our hands. The only chance was for Jock to ride on the tender buffer beam while we gave chase and to hope that he could throw the coupling over with his shunting pole. The runaway was travelling at a good pace but we managed to stop the train before any damage was done. Jock was now visibly shaken, so much so that, for once he was silent, but I get a look which clearly says:
“You didn’t see a thing did you?”
The driver, imitating him sarcastically, said:
'Next time you should pin down a few brakes!'
The cows were now upset at this unaccustomed break in their routine and so was the signalman. He had already recovered the tablet and we didn't have authority to enter the branch a second time. By this time Jock had recovered sufficiently to tell him to mind his own business. Thinking that perhaps it was his business we left for West Junction in a hurry. Our relief was waiting for us when we arrived and it only took a 'What kept you?' to start a whole new tirade from the rear.
The next day I had No 3219 with the same crew. This time we approached Southcote Junction with some trepidation and were going faster than normal because we did not want to talk to the signalman. As it turned out there was a relief signalman on duty that morning. He was smiling to me as he held out the tablet. His expression turned to one of alarm when he realized how fast we were approaching and this changed to one of dismay as I nearly wrenched his arm from its socket making my grab for the tablet!
An unknown British Railways Class 08 Shunter waits patiently for departure from the Coley Goods Branch at Southcote Junction in 1968, whilst an unknown Beyer Peacock Class 35 'Hymek' rattles past on the UP main line towards Reading with a motley rake of empty coal wagons.
No 3219 was a good engine, although she did look a little strange being painted black but sporting a green tender! I had decided to try an experiment in housekeeping. Very few British firemen wore gloves because it was regarded as unmanly and the only ones who took care of their hands were those who were courting. Firing a locomotive was a dirty job but I was convinced that if I started with a clean engine I should be able to keep clean. With this in mind I cleaned everything that I was likely to touch. Backhead valves, injector water control handles, handrails, handbrake - they all came in for my attention. My mate was convinced that I had flipped when he saw me cleaning the coal shovel and coal pick with paraffin. When I explained my theory he joined in whole heartedly and helped to clean off the coal bucket. But for all my work the experiment only met with limited success. It is possible to fire a locomotive and stay clean but it is essential to keep everything clean and not to miss anything. I had overlooked the end of the pep pipe and dirtied my hands when I went to water down the coal.
After a few days on The 'Coley Flyer', I was given jobs on the two remaining steam-powered shunting jobs at Reading. These were the coal yard and the low level turns for which we had pannier tanks of both the '57xx' (Nos 3715 and 9763) and '94xx' (Nos 8496, 9404 and 9450) classes.
The last time I saw No 2261 she was in the Reading condemned loco siding with her whole front- caved in from a head-on collision. I never did find out how it happened. (Loco No. 2261 was withdrawn in September 1964. Ed)
Colin Churcher left British Railways at 26 and shortly after emigrated to Ottawa, Canada in 1968 (link to website below ...)