Great Western Echo – No.55. Spring 1976 pp. 10-13
‘Radstock West Goes East’ by Kevin Evans

© Great Western Society

The idea of the Great Western Society's Bristol Group buying a signal box for Didcot originated from the successful removal of the signal posts and fittings from Radstock West in May 1972, due to the Signal and Telegraph equipment becoming redundant. The Management Council were informed of our interest, and gave us the go-ahead to investigate the possibilities. Various signal boxes were looked at within the Group area, the first being Frome South in October 1972. Others were also studied during the next year, one being Huish Crossing, but all drew a blank, either being of all-brick construction, or having rotted wooden corner posts. Only Radstock West fitted the bill.

At this time, November 1973, the box was not being used for its designed purpose, due to the removal of the S & T equipment earlier, but as an office for the local shunter. Radstock West had originally been Radstock North Signal Box, until 1948 [Sic. Not sure what this date is intended to relate to, but no significant changes are recorded as happening to the box in 1948, other than change of ownership, through nationalisation!] when it replaced a very early box of tall wooden and brick construction, dating back to about 1885 [Sic. Actually 1873], at Radstock West. It had a brick base eight feet high, six feet of this being once part of the earlier box. The upper structure was constructed of wood to GWR signal box design, and contained a 1900 vintage Double Twist locking frame, which is a museum piece in its own right. We found little wood rot in the structure, and as it would be comparatively easy to remove, transport and rebuild at Didcot, we decided to try to obtain it. Also this signal box was very dear to the heart of our Group treasurer Derek Fear, as he had lived in Radstock for most of his life, and started his railway career on the North Somerset branch. If the project had the treasurer's support, then money would be no object. We hoped!

The Management Council agreed to our proposal, and the Radstock West Signal Box project was under way. Our Group secretary, John Lakey, then began his letter writing to British Rail, receiving the favourable reply that our interest had been noted, and they would give us first refusal when the box became available.

All went fairly quiet for four months. Then we decided that it would be necessary to have some detailed photographs and structural drawings of the box. So, in March 1974 Robin Butterell, who designed David Shepherd's locomotive shed at Cranmore, was asked to make professional civil engineering drawings of the structure, and Rex Coffin, well known for his excellent photography, was asked to take a series of detailed photographs. Both agreed and their projects were completed in a reasonable time to a high standard, which proved most helpful in our future discussions.

Now began the serious thinking of how we were to remove and transport a wooden structure 18 ft x 12 ft by 10 ft high, weighing 6 tons. In May 1974 I presented a removal plan to the committee, which provoked a long discussion. At the end of it we had decided to lift the wooden structure in one complete unit of roof, four walls and floor, including the porch, and to lift the locking frame in one piece attached to the 18 ft wooden beams which supported it in the signal box. The thought of dismantling, then rebuilding, a Double Twist locking frame was too mind-boggling to contemplate!

We then had to find a company capable of lifting the two items for transport to Didcot. We chose Sparrows of Bath: they had successfully carried out the lift of 2818 for transportation from Avonmouth Docks to Durdham Downs and back in 1973 for the Bristol 600 charter celebrations, so our box should not present many problems for them - we hoped. John Lakey wrote to them asking for an estimate, which they supplied in June 1974. In view of the awkward position of the box on the corner of the level crossing the costing was very reasonable, and we were pleasantly surprised that they did not require the windows or roof slates to be removed.

In July 1974, therefore, John sent a progress report to the Management Council, giving costings and sizes of the low-loaders, to be certain that the structure and frame could be taken into Didcot's provender yard, for transfer to rail wagons and the journey across to the Society's depot. This was confirmed to be possible. We also made a list of thirty members who were prepared to help with work on the box.

Alas, all went quiet again for a year, despite John's regular letters to British Rail, and Derek's visits to the Area Manager at Westbury. In July 1975 we had a letter from the Management Council asking for the exact situation since they had been looking into the possibility of buying a box nearer to Didcot, as the Radstock project had now been dragging on for twenty months. We replied that we still wanted to complete the project, but that if another box became available first we would be prepared to buy that and put the remainder of the Group's money budgeted for the move into the 3822 fund. We also felt very strongly about the preservation of a 38xx class locomotive!

This satisfied the Management, and in August we wrote again to British Rail explaining the current situation. We also wrote to Avon County Council asking if any road improvements were going to take place at the Radstock level crossings, as various rumours had been doing the rounds for the past year.

These letters seemed to get the wheels on the move, as in September Derek Fear and John Lakey were invited to attend, as the Group's representatives, a meeting between British Rail and Avon County Council to discuss the future of the two level crossings at Radstock. The second level crossing was the former Somerset and Dorset Railway's, and both crossed the main Bath to Shepton Mallet road, which resulted in considerable congestion. The outcome of the meeting was that British Rail would release the box to us within two weeks, and the County Council would buy the land surrounding it to carry out their planned road improvements. This was great news, and put all of us in very high spirits. After nearly two years of waiting the box would soon ours.

The Management Council was told the good news, and plans were made to prepare the box for movement as we had to clear the site by the end of November, which gave us eight weeks. By the time our next Committee meeting was held at the end of September we had received a letter from British Rail offering the box and one level crossing gate with post for £53 [Sic. Actually £54, but the deal included two gate posts]. Who could complain at that? So a cheque was sent off, and about a week later the sale was confirmed.

Sparrows were asked to re-cost the job, after a year's inflation, and Committee members were made responsible for specific aspects of the project. Derek Fear, as the one person who lived locally, was on the telephone, and knew exactly what stage the box was in, was appointed communications officer and held a set of keys. John Lakey was to investigate the foundations and other details on the structure. Among Andy Hook's jobs was removal of the steps in one piece from the porch. I was to organise the mechanical engineering aspect.

So, when our first working party took place on Sunday 12th October, each Committee member had a particular job to do, and all were started. From then working parties were organised each Sunday until the actual lift on 23rd November, with some working Saturdays as well. Four of us who were more crazy than the rest also spent a cold damp night of November 5, not watching the fireworks but drilling a series of holes for bolts and screws to secure strengthening brackets for the four corners of the structure. We worked by the light of a Tilley lamp, using a portable generator and electric drill.

During the working weekends the jobs carried out to make the structure fit to move included disconnection and preparation of the locking frame and gate wheel for lifting. The locking frame was bolted to its supporting wooden beams with sixteen 6 inch coach screws. The inner and outer leading-off beds were disconnected and removed. All the point and gate rodding, together with the cranks, was recovered, and the telegraph pole was removed. We now have a limited quantity of GWR telegraph insulators for sale - a bargain at only 50p each!

The inside of the structure was reinforced with scaffolding, for which we are indebted to Martin Gosney who arranged its loan. The guttering and bottom row of slates were removed and other slates made secure. The vent on the roof was also removed, as the overall height had to be less than 14 ft. for us to travel without a special movement order. Old gas pipes were removed, as were the two lengths of bridge rail supporting the porch. These would no longer give support when the structure was lifted from its brick base, but would cause extra stress by hanging on the porch beams. Finally the steps to box were removed, as were the level crossing gates to be replaced by a wire mesh fence.

While these preparations were being made we also investigated the design of the foundations, and the way the wooden structure was secured to the brickwork below. To help the jobs progress our chairman, Ken Evans, came down to Radstock on Sunday afternoons offering advice and solving any problems which might have arisen, while his wife, Jean, and daughter, Sharon, provided well-appreciated cups of tea and coffee for our faithful band of workers. One evening Frank Banyard came for a Committee meeting to discuss what plant would be needed at Didcot for unloading, and what rail transport was available. By now we were averaging one Committee meeting a week, in addition to various site meetings with Sparrows and Combe Down Transport, who were providing the two low-loaders.

Finally on Sunday 23rd November we were standing by the box at 6.30 a.m., illuminated by the sodium street lamps and wondering if by the same time that evening we would have a signal box at Didcot - or a pile of firewood! About 7 a.m. the 22 ton crane arrived, and was positioned on the track bed, slightly to one side of the box. By 7.30 the first low-loader - the one to carry the structure - had arrived.

It was positioned in front of the box, adjacent to the crane. The 14 ft. long lifting beams of tubular steel, 6 inches in diameter, were positioned under the structure to support the main 5x4 inch timbers each side. The crane's jib was extended to about 35 ft, the overhead stretcher bar, chains and shackles connected to the lifting beams, and the slack taken up.

By now, to our pleasure, a Harlech Television cameraman, Radio Bristol interviewer and various newspaper reporters had arrived, to be looked after by our publicity officer, Richard Sweet. We were now in the public eye, and would soon know if our preparations of the past six weeks had been sufficient.

John Lakey, Derek Fear and myself were up in the box ready to knock out the four spacing blocks, two at each end, between the floorboard beams and the locking frame. The weight of the box was taken by the crane and the blocks hammered out, then we got out - fast! The structure was gently lifted off its brick base and, as we had expected, there were no bolts or securing devices of any kind. Once clear of the brickwork, the structure was lifted a further five feet to clear the levers and, with it hanging twelve feet above the ground we all said: "We knew it would lift in one piece", took some photographs, and it was guided onto the low-loader. The steps, gate wheel assembly, wicket gates and porch-supporting rails also found space on this low-loader which was then parked outside the Waldegrave Hotel - which had provided us with liquid lunches for the past six weeks - awaiting police escort. Our own escort drove off to Dunkerton Hill to check clearances, as roadworks were blocking one lane.

We set about demolishing the brick walls as soon as the structure was lifted, since these were now unsafe. The locking room door, window frames and specially shaped blue engineering bricks were recovered during demolition.

The crane now swung into position above the locking frame, while the second low-loader backed onto the trackbed. Because of its forty feet long bed, however, the power unit partially blocked the main road, and a very co-operative police officer had to guide the increasing volume of traffic around it.

We believe that the Somerset and Dorset Railway made its own protest at our taking all the attention by guiding a car coming down Radstock Hill into its own gates. Unfortunately for the driver the police were on the scene in seconds, and the car was more damaged than the gates! Meanwhile the lifting chains were attached to the end brackets of the frame, which was lifted complete with its wooden supporting beams, giving a total weight of two tons. It was swung across and laid on its side on the long bed of the low-loader.

]Soon after, at about 10.30, the low- loader carrying the structure set off, with an Avon and Somerset Police escort, on its four hour journey to Didcot at a speed of 15—20 mph. Three cars with Bristol Group members inside also accompanied it, while the party who were going to stay at Radstock to clear up the site carried on loading the second vehicle. The four level crossing gates and one post, leading-off beds with associated rodding and cranks, and the various timbers from inside and outside the now demolished box were lifted onto it. This load was tarpaulined down to prevent items falling off, as the vehicle did not have any speed restrictions.

The first rendezvous for all of us together was Membury Service Station on the M4, east of Swindon, where the Wiltshire Police escort handed over to Thames Valley Police. We had 45 minutes here to check the state of the load, which was all in order, and have a bit of lunch. When we left Membury it was decided that Andy Hook, his wife and myself would be in the lead car to Didcot, with the others following the low-loader. We drove straight to the provender yard, where Mike Williams and Frank Banyard were waiting. As it would be some time before the low-loaders arrived, they decided to go back to the engine shed and round up some helpers for us, and we returned to Harwell to direct the drivers. While we were waiting a motorway patrol car drew up by us, the driver asking where the load had to be taken as he had been told to escort it to Didcot railway station. After trying to explain where the provender yard was, he said one of us had better jump in and direct him. As I was the only one not attached to a female, car or camera, I was volunteered by the others, and I believe there were some suitably captioned candid photographs taken when I arrived back at Harwell in a police car!

The rest of the Bristol Group escort had now assembled in Harwell, having found it impossible to follow the low-loader at its slow speed. Soon the vehicle carrying the frame passed us, so we knew the Didcot lads would have plenty to unload for a while. After about 30 minutes the signal box structure passed on its low-loader with the motorway patrol car leading and a panda car trailing, causing very little inconvenience. By the time it arrived in the provender yard at about 2.30 p.m., the first low-loader to arrive was half finished, with the locking frame about to be lifted off onto the rail wagon, together with all the lengths of point rodding. The four crossing gates were left until later, however, since we wanted to finish the delicate task of unloading the main signal box structure before dark.

Suitable packing was put onto the other rail wagon and the lifting bars, which Sparrows had loaned us, were positioned for the locally-hired crane to lift the structure. It overhung the rail wagon by two feet either side when loaded, but British Rail had been alerted for an out of gauge load.

The steps and crossing gate wheel assembly were loaded into the Asmo and Siphon G respectively, together with other small items, and finally the four gates were secured to a rail wagon. It was 5.30, dark and drizzling, so with a last quick check around the area we retired to the engine shed for a wash before we set off back to Bristol, feeling very tired, but happy and proud.

That just about concludes the story except for the credits. So, besides those mentioned, thanks also goes to the other Group Committee members John Hodgetts and Alan Price, and to the following Group members who helped at Radstock: Roy Ball, Brian Chappel, John Potter, Malcolm Tong, Keith Sharman, Bob Vivash, Eric Gould, John Baggot, Bob Talboys, Martin Baker,Peter Goodman, Derek Birks, Stewart Birks, Dave Hackling, A. Field, Ken Richards, Dave Winter, Terry Croittendon, Bob Gooding, Mick Jones, Graham White, R. Intone, N. Bickingson, and not forgetting our ladies, Jean Evans, Sharon Evans and Sylvia Fear who supplied us with tea and coffee; also to Frank Banyard and his colleagues at Didcot, who in addition unloaded the structure the following weekend.

Our special thanks go to British Rail, Avon County and Wansdyke District Councils, Sparrows Plant Hire, Combe Down Transport, and to those patient men in blue who guided us through the three counties. Together they made this project successful.

The question to ask now is, "What about the rebuilding?" Well, this can be answered after we have discussed our ideas with the Management Council and I am sure, although the Bristol Group may not rebuild the box single-handed, we will play an important part in its reconstruction.

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