There’s plenty to tickle the visual taste buds at East Sussex’s preserved Bluebell Railway, one of Britain’s oldest restored railway lines. While closed for 3 years after the savage ‘Beeching Cuts’ of the 1950s and 60s, where the nation’s rural lines were decimated in the pursuit of efficiency and ‘progress’, the battle to keep open the rail line between Lewes and East Grinstead raged in the courts and in the press. The Bluebell Railway Preservation Society was formed to buy the rail line properties and renovate the tracks; public ‘preservation’ train lines opened in 1960 – the first in the world.


How short sighted to have torn up the trackbed and sold the land. Never again would it be possible to build such an infrastructure. Our current pursuits of ‘green’ transport solutions always stumble when it comes to serving the rural communities; the fact is that these areas were well provided for at the turn of the 19th century, long before the motor car. Our interest here is in the oily rag nature of such an enterprise as The Bluebell. Oily rags are seen everywhere but particularly in the hands of drivers and firemen conducting the huge steam locomotives as they go about their business. They lovingly wipe the brass work and bare metal almost instinctively. It is seldom you see one of these men or women fail to give a rub to some part of the machinery as they pass it by. And they’re all volunteers – nurses, doctors, factory workers, airline pilots, computer geeks – a complete cross section.

As well as the locomotives and rolling stock (30 steam engines, the second largest in the world), The Bluebell has a wonderfully preserved infrastructure too – from the stations themselves to the ephemera of a working Victorian railway line, all is perfectly done. The semaphore signalling system works perfectly and warrants at least ten minutes study should you choose to visit. Sheffield Park, at the southernmost end of the line, houses the railway’s engineering works where mind-bogglingly complex heavy engineering overhauls take place. It is here too you will find some fine oily rag examples of the line’s steam locomotives – to be fair ALL locomotives receive the touch of the oily rag and thrive on it.

Easter 2013 marks a major development for The Bluebell Railway as the final link to the mainline British Rail network at East Grinstead will be re-opened, many years after work was started on its restoration. The benefits will be huge and visitors will be able to travel all the way to the Bluebell by rail, simply changing trains at East Grinstead. Equally exciting will be the loaning and transfer by rail of locomotives from other preserved lines throughout the British Isles.


The Bluebell line is the very incarnation of the oily rag principle. It’s fun to visit and if you half close your eyes you’re in a living version of ‘The Railway Children’ although you could really be there by visiting the Keighley and Worth Vally railway in Yorkshire which operates on similar lines (no pun intended). Next time you are in the sunny South of England, detour to the Bluebell for the full oily rag experience.

Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Architecture, Family Tradition, Museums, Trains, Travel 1 Comment


The Automobile magazine, father of the Oily Rag movement, recently celebrated its 30th Anniversary. Its publishers have produced a special 200 page Anniversary Edition, in addition to the regular monthly magazine. The Oily Rag’s website editor has written a paen to both the culture and celebration of ‘Oily Rag’. Available at all good news stands…commercial over!
To mark the occasion in a most suitable manner and also to launch a documentary film about one of Britain’s most respected and long-lived automobile journalists, Ronald (Steady) Barker, the event was held in what must surely be the Oiliest Rag location in the whole of London – Wilton’s Music Hall. Tucked away in the East End, just off historic Cable Street, Wilton’s is not easy to find. An extremely rare survivor, the building was once a public house (c.1828) becoming a Music Hall in the mid 1800′s. Once, the largest London pubs had ‘entertainment galleries’ but this is the only one left in its original state. Nearly lost to either re-development or neglect, it is a miracle that the fabric of the building and its unique interiors have survived. Wilton’s now has Grade 2 listed building status which affords it some protection, but it still requires huge sums of money to be spent on its restoration and stabilisation. The saucy, smoke-filled, beer-fuelled atmosphere of Wilton’s in its heyday is almost tangible when you enter, no wonder the Can-Can was first performed in London here…and promptly banned!. There is a bar and they also serve what looks like rather good food, so it’s no museum piece. There is also a full programme of shows throughout the year…to find out what’s on visit
If you’re visiting London, a visit to Wilton’s should be on your agenda. You can rent it for yourself just as The Automobile did. It’s unique – and Oily Rag in the extreme.
Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Architecture, Family Tradition Leave a comment


Do try Gordon’s. No not the famous London Gin, although with a tonic water and a slice of lime there’s nothing quite like it after a challenging day at the typewriter…but Gordon’s Wine Bar. Gordon’s is an institution for those in the know. Situated in Villiers Street next to London’s Charing Cross Station, this place is a temple to the Oily Rag. An unassuming door hard on the street and a disarmingly simple enamel sign give no clue to the delights within. It always looks closed – closed as in ‘not open for trade’ from this angle – try the handle and the door swings inwards to reveal some huge and tatty posters on the wall and a near vertical flight of stairs leading down to where the serious business takes place. Wow! This place is humming! Crushed with people from all walks of life but rumoured to have once been the favoured watering hole of the security services –

“Where’s Bond?” asked ‘M’ wearily,

“Oh probably down at Gordon’s with a floozie” replied a secretary…

well, it could have happened!

A Gordon’s, it’s not only tourists who are beginning to discover its delights, but couples who probably shouldn’t be there and lone drinkers thoughtfully toying with bottles of something red – and French. And men whom it might be better if you didn’t speak to, unless you want a tip for the 4.30 at Kempton Park…or need someone ‘taking care of’.

You see Gordon’s is a wine bar. It sells wine and port and sherry and not a lot else. By the glass, by the bottle, by the magnum. You feel as if you really are drinking in a ‘cave’ too, for after you’ve bought your bottle and received the requisite number of glasses you pass from the bar area to a series of inter-connected low-vaulted chambers and if you’re lucky, find a seat. There you can people watch and so the hours pass with no sense of time whatsover. The place is candle-lit, not in some hugely romantic way but in the practical sense, augmented by some very low powered electric light bulbs. There are no windows and thus no reference to time of day. The peeling emulsion paint on the brick vaults has long since rejected its substrate and has developed a rather pleasing patina of gentle decay. Intriguing paintings and ancient advertising posters adorn the walls, some so stained from years of being exposed to cigar, cigarette and pipe tobacco fumes, that their images are barely discernable. This place has an atmosphere unlike any other drinking establishment in London.

Gordon’s decays delightfully – and positively, because it is kept vibrant by the passage of human beings with their conversations, their trysts and their indiscretions.

If you’re in London, and if ever you have an afternoon – or even an hour to kill, try Gordon’s

- John Dudley

Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Architecture, Family Tradition, Good Bars! Leave a comment


Jeff Epps and his ca. 1956 Ford F350 flatbed truck…

We’d been looking for a suitable Desert Racer, planning on some fun in the Southwest in two weeks.  I already have my original-paint ’73 Triumph TR5T ‘Adventurer’ purchased at the Bonhams Las Vegas auction last January, part of the du Pont family estate motorcycle liquidation.  Conrad wanted something similar, as he’s planning to spend a little time in Cali next year.  Whole container loads of Britbikes have been poached from California garages since the 1980s, and we don’t see many pre-unit Triumphs or much from the 50s and earlier, but ‘overlooked’ machinery is still to be found, in abundance, and fairly cheap.  BSA A65s, B50Ts, Triumphs post 1970, etc…derided in their day, but with modern eyes, well designed and fun machines.  Since we’re not seeking high performance or drag-racing with Kawasakis at every stoplight,  such motorcycles provide spirited riding indefinitely, and are easy to maintain, with parts readily available.

Conrad Leach seals the deal with Jeff Epps on the '71 Triumph TR6R

A scan of Craigslist revealed a likely candidate; a ’71 Triumph TR6R ‘Trophy’ with high pipes, looking complete and in decent shape, in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains, in Sonora, CA.  I have family in Sonora, the 2.5 hour drive isn’t daunting, and I had a feeling it would be worth the trip, as the area is full of ‘mountain men’ and eccentrics.  An empty van, a full tank, a few tie-straps, and a wad of cash; we were en route.

A neighbor's 1963 Willys Wagon, which has been sitting a long time, but is rust-free. We are inquiring!

Jeff, the vendor, was shocked that Tom Tom brought us right to his door, on the dirt road with no signs, in the hamlet of Soulsbyville.  His compound, one /fifth acre of dry dirt, a few trees, two wooden shacks, and a couple of old trucks, was clean-swept, with neatly stacked cordwood, a pile of which formed a tall curved wall keeping his home from view of the world.  Clearly, the man is organized and tidy, even if the grounds are humble dirt and wood.  Sonora is dry, with Scrub Pines and Manzanita dominating the foliage, and little grass; I knew the Triumph would be rust-free, at least.

The single male is prone to keeping a motorcycle in the kitchen…

Jeff’s home is entirely hand-built of plywood and studs, and he keeps a BSA Victor in his kitchen – it’s his pride and joy, shiny as a new apple.  A stack of Classic Motorcycle magazines decorated his den table…clearly he’s an old biker, and a real enthusiast.  The Triumph looked good, we did the deal, and shot some Wet Plates (our official ‘oily rag’ photo technique) of the man and his world.

Wet Plate photo of Jeff Epps, with BSA flat-cap, and his 'new', 1960s, Ford truck…

He’s thinking of selling up the whole place – yours for $55,000 – and moving higher up the mountain, so he can ski daily in winter. Sonora is slowly changing, with miles of anonymous strip malls and chain stores, looking like every other boring suburb on the planet.  We’ll have to drive a little farther to find the likes of Jeff in the future…

Wet Plate image of Jeff and his Ford F350; he's built a wooden pent-roof house on the flatbed, for toting snowmobiles and cordwood…

Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Architecture, Cars, Family Tradition, Hand Made, Motorcycles Leave a comment