Great Western Echo – No.89. Spring 1985 pp, 4-6
‘The Frome North Project’ by Alan Price

© Great Western Society

One of the main reasons why signalling is not the most popular subject among those interested in railways is because of its scale. Often the distance between signalboxes is many miles and even the spread of signals under the control of one box can be measured in the same units. Added to this, signalboxes are ‘private’ places where officially nobody is allowed and you have all the ingredients for the look of complete bewilderment that covers the face of the average enthusiast when you mention ‘signalling’.

It has long been the aim of the Bristol Group to introduce as many people as possible to the ‘forbidden fruits’ that signalboxes can represent and to try to disseminate knowledge of the subject as widely as we can. At Didcot we have a unique opportunity to do this in that we have an area which is sufficiently large to get a complete signalling system into (just!) and yet small enough for the student to watch the entire operation of passing a train from one signalbox to another from just one vantage point.

The early stages of this ‘end product’ of the project are rather vague. Faced with the enormous task of rebuilding Radstock and the many other projects we have undertaken since 1975, it was not until 1980 that we started to think that maybe we might after all be able to think in terms of an ‘end’ to our work. In 1980 we finally sat down and thought about what we wanted to do. The result was our ‘Discussion Document’ where we set the whole thing out and accepted the need for a second signalbox with which Radstock could work.

Having done Radstock we had learned quite a bit and the first task to be set in hand was to provide the necessary cash which we estimated as being £1,500 at projected 1984 prices - in the event not a bad guess either! The two model exhibitions in Bath run by the Group in 1982 and 1983 were used to provide this but we knew our weaknesses only too well and so decided that we must invest this sum were we not to be tempted to spend it. With it stashed away in a deposit account we could then get on with planning the move.

Up until 1981 we had given the actual box to be bought very little thought. Clearly we wanted a typical G.W. box made at Reading but also it had to be relatively small and in a location that allowed us to get at it without the help of NASA. A number of locations were considered but one had to be fairly careful what you were doing before making a definite choice. Some of the boxes thought to be ‘typically G.W.’ turned out to be made by contractors like Saxby-Farmer or McKenzie and Holland. Others were too large (it is a pity we couldn't get Newton Abbot East through the subway) and of course we had always to consider whether B.R. were likely to let us have it when the time came. In early 1981 two events made the choice easier. Firstly we received representations from the Taunton Group that they would like to see a box of the broad-gauge period at their end of the site and B.R. announced their West of England resignalling which meant that most of the likely boxes were doomed eventually anyway. The first consideration led us to the few remaining Mk. II G.W. boxes and to Bruton in particular. It was the right size (tiny), built in 1875 and was in close proximity for the necessary preliminary work and subsequent lifting. It did have two things against it, however, and those were that it was mainly brick and contained a hybrid frame. None-the-less we pressed on and placed a reservation on the box early in 1983, judging that it would become available around October 1984 which was about the right time for starting something new.

During 1982 we began drawing Bruton in detail from measurements and photographs taken on site with the help of the local Area Manager, Westbury and the Stores Controller for B.R. (W.R.) in Reading. Bruton by this time was rarely opened for use even in the summer and the building was visibly suffering from never having the stove lit or somebody in attendance. The G.W.R. stud-locking frame of 25 levers it contained was most unusual in that it had 4" between the lever centres which was extremely rare. This was no doubt done to get a large lever frame within a small building since most of these frames were built with 51/4" centre frames soon after the start of the present century. Also common at this time and with this type of frame was the label board, a long brass strip set behind the levers which described their function. It has long been our wish to have a box not only with a stud-locking frame but also a label board. The label board could not be used with a 4" centre frame since you would not be able to read it between the gaps.

So the first stage in the downfall of Bruton as our choice came with the decision to not buy the frame and a search began for another frame. This ended at Stoneycombe Sidings during July 1984 when we reclaimed the 51/4" centre stud frame this box luckily still possessed, two years after closure. The second stage came when B.R. informed us that Bruton was closing on December 7th 1983. This was not a convenient time since we had only three weeks notice and were then in the throes of setting-out the level crossing at Didcot which was occupying all our time and manpower. At this point, therefore, we decided to let Bruton go and fell back onto Frome North which was an identical buildin and had the added advantages of being lived-in right to the end and being available in October 1984 when we felt we could do the job with proper planning instead of in a rush. Also it could not have been in a better position to recover being right next to the road.

With the aim in mind of planning the lift of the box and its removal to Didcot, the Bristol Group Committee formed a sub-committee of three members to plan the operation. Graham Drew was to handle engineering and movement, myself to organise staffing and administrative chores and Kevin Evans was to act as B.R. liaison since he worked for the railway in Bristol.

The lift was planned for October 28th three weeks after the box closed at 08.00 on Saturday October 6th. In the intervening four weekends the box had to be prepared for movement by demolition of the bulk of the brick base and the erection of a huge timber girdle around the wooden top which was only 3/4 of a box when the brick back is removed. Other details to be covered were the closure of the road for 3 hours, and the switching off of electricity cables nearby to the lifting site. Sparrows Crane Hire were asked to do the lift offering us a complete package deal including movement and off-loading at Didcot. The only major hiccup came with obtaining the correct wagon at Didcot to transfer the box to the site and the problems associated with out-of-gauge loads. We are deeply indebted to Alan Jones and Roy Matthews for their help with both of these problems, which but for their assistance and goodwill may well have proved insurmountable.

After the closure of the box by B.R. on the 6th our plans materialised very rapidly and with the help of a willing and enthusiastic workforce the box was prepared for loading on schedule. Under the supervision of Graham Drew the girdle was in position by the weekend before, having been pre-fabricated out of huge baulks from the post-office demolition in Bath. The roof had been stripped to save weight and it had been creosoted to provide temporary protection from the elements. This was something our Radstock experience had taught us when with the roof slates still in situ we caused consternation on the M4 when several decided to leave the box in the 60 m.p.h. wind.

Sunday October 28th is one of the most strenuous days I have ever experienced. It began at 6.00 a.m. with collecting all the concrete blocks we had bought in the area together and loading some of them onto a 3-ton hire wagon that was being used to bring all the ‘extras’ up to Didcot. This was mainly bits off Frome North and a load of useful items collected in the area over the previous few months. The crane arrived on location at 9 a.m. and the lifting operation began in front of a huge crowd of local people who had been gathering since dawn. With the stretchers in place the lift proved no problem and the box was very soon on the lorry. It was only then we fully realised how little of the structure we had actually saved. It was very small in comparison with what we had imagined and seemed very little to go to all that trouble and expense over. However, we knew that we would never have been able to build new, such a roof and that at least what we had was a solid position from which we could work. With the remaining concrete blocks and items like the steps loaded it was then away to Didcot leaving the wrecking-gang behind to level and clear the site.

The next time we saw Frome North it was in the Membury Services on the M4. We pressed on to the first overbridge on the A34 to photograph it as it lumbered through the Autumnal mists and then we guided the driver to the Provender Yard for its stop over night. That evening we loaded the extras onto a rail wagon and retired to the pub for a break. Chris Burden, Graham Drew, Richard Sweet and myself stayed overnight at Chez Rance and Chez Beacham. On the morning of Monday 29th confusion seemed to be the order of the day. We had rail wagon, signalbox, workers and loading inspector but no crane. After a three hour wait it finally turned-up just after we had adjourned to the station for tea and the loading went very smoothly though not quite quickly enough to prevent the shunters going for lunch and so another 1 1/2 hour wait began. Finally at about 2.30 we began our journey onto the Didcot site via some very unusual goods lines and at about 5 m.p.h. The need for critical measurement of the load being more than justified by a gentle scrape past one signal. With the help of Mick Dean, Pete Gransden and Gerry Woods the box was in its temporary resting place alongside the Branch by dusk and then followed a frantic period of unloading to get the other items stacked away before we all left to come home. Personally it took me a whole week to recover from that exhausting weekend.

We now have everything to rebuild the box at Didcot except for the new brick base. It will probably be about two years before we start to think seriously about putting it back together. In the mean time we have to finish Radstock and that end of the Branch. Brian Thompson is assisting us with drawings for the rebuilding and covering planning applications for which we are grateful. The new facia will take a lot of work to build when we eventually do get round to doing the job. Also new windows have to be fabricated since the old ones were rotten and the wrong style for the period we require. One other thing will also require alteration of course - the name. In 1876 Frome North was called Frome Mineral Junction [Sic: More recent research suggests that this was not the case!] and this is what we intend it to be.

 

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