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.