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


Paul d'Orleans with a 1967 Bombardier B12 Snowcat in Yellowstone National Park

I’ve visited Yellowstone National Park 5 times in my life (including the team Oily Rag/Vintagent Cannonball Rally), and until last week, every time had been on a vintage motorcycle.  Wyoming winter weather precludes two-wheel transport, so if you’d like to see Yellowstone in all it’s snowy magnificence, you’ll arrive snug inside some kind of tracked vehicle.  The best option by far -from Oily Rag’s point of view- is to enter via Jackson, WY, as the few visitors who brave winter’s chill are herded from the southern park entrance to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge in magnificent vintage yellow Bombardier B12 Snowcats.

A trio of Snowcats outside Old Faithful Snow Lodge

In continuous use by Yellowstone Park since new, their fleet of 21 Snowcats is the world’s largest, and their drivers a dedicated and enthusiastic lot.  They love their machines, which are still about the swiftest people-carriers on snow, and the grooviest by a long shot.  The earliest Snowcat in their fleet is believed late 1950s, with most built between 1965 and 1974.  They use a Chevrolet 350cu” motor, with dual high-rise exhaust stacks, giving a ‘hotrod’ sound which, while not especially loud, gives a thrill to anyone with a touch of Gearhead in the soul.  Fuel mileage is thirsty at ~3mpg, but the little yellow bugs are darned fast over the unplowed roads of Yellowstone, even when speed-governed to 35mph…they are clearly capable of more!

While in the wilds of the Park, the primary goal is seeking wildlife (wolves, coyotes, foxes, river otters, trumpeter swans, elk, and bison were spotted at close range on my visit),  enjoying the thermal features which pump steam columns skyward, and the many icy waterfalls and snowy vistas; still, catching sight of a Snowcat flying past is also a thrill!  Better yet, catching a ride via Snowcat to view distant geysers or to a remote spot for cross-country skiing adds a certain panache to the experience; everyone loves them.

In it's element; a 1972 B12 Snowcat in Norris Geyser Basin

Joseph-Armand Bombardier, born in 1907, was obsessed with making winter travel as easy as summertime, and while he had no engineering training, invented and built his first snowmobile (propeller powered!) in the early 1920s.   By 1937, the first Snowcat was built, the B7 half-track with room for 6 passengers and a driver; this type of Snowcat was their first commercial proposition, introduced just before WW2, as a way to get children to school, and to keep essential services mobile in the far north of Canada.  Prior to tracked snow vehicles, horses and sleighs were the vehicle of choice, well into the 1940s.  In 1942, Bombardier’s business was incorporated as L’Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée, which began producing a larger Snowcat, the B12, as seen in these photos.

Armand-Joseph Bombardier, in his B12 Snowcat, identifiable by the porthole windows, later changed to a more open design, which reduced a slightly claustrophobic feeling!

 The postwar world brought modernization to the world’s roads, and a commitment from most Northern cities and towns to plow the roads free of snow in winters.  While this impacted Bombardier’s business, there were still obviously many areas which were too remote for frequent plowing, and the Snowcats were produced until the mid-1970s; around 3000 were built.

The original sketch for the B7 of 1936; definite aeroplane influence, albeit with an all-wood body

If you’re interested in visiting Yellowstone Park in Winter, you’ll have to make all the arrangements beforehand, as there’s only one hotel, with 102 rooms, and access is via a once-daily Snowcat ride from the South entrance.  Plan on two days to get to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge from wherever you are; one day to get to Jackson Wyoming, and another day to catch the Snowcat.  My stay was 4nights, which seemed about perfect; we fit in a full day of snowshoeing independently, a half day showshoe tour of wildlife spots, a 105-mile snowmobile tour (amazing!), and some night-time stargazing and geyser-visiting.  This was an ‘always wanted to’ holiday for me, and it fulfilled my expectations 100%.  The landscape is breathtaking in any season, but Winter is the only time you’re ever going to watch Old Faithful with your sweetie, some bison…and nobody else!

- Paul d’Orléans

You'll suffer an hour of the Teton Range as you travel from Jackson to the Yellowstone border…surely one of the most spectacular, and unspoiled/untravelled ranges in the US


Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Family Tradition, Travel, Uncategorized 2 Comments