Perrygrove Railway was built privately and is operated by an enthusiastic team. It has been designed to appeal to the public – particularly families with young children and those who like narrow gauge railways. Without the support of those who come to ride on the little trains the railway would not be able to keep going. Michael Crofts describes how Perrygrove was built:
The story started in 1990. My wife and I were living in Surbiton, working for large corporations and beginning to hate it. We wanted to live in the country and I thought we could build a railway and earn a living running it. My knowledge of railways came from working as a guard for British Railways and as a volunteer on preserved railways, and I had built a 10¼” gauge miniature railway in Suffolk back in the ‘sixties. But the idea of earning a living from a small railway was daft. Everyone is entitled to indulge one daft idea in their lifetime and this was mine. Why daft? Because I now know that the effort and cost required to build one of these things and turn it into a viable business is astonishing. Absolutely amazing. Almost beyond belief.
But we didn’t know this in 1990, so we started looking for a place to build a railway. We wanted a site where we could get planning permission to open to the public. It had to be in an area which appealed to us and which was a recognised tourism destination. The freehold had to be available at a price we could afford because I am a surveyor and I had seen what life is like when you operate a small business as a tenant. We needed a minimum of 20 acres and we rejected several sites which were too flat and boring to have any potential. We thought it would be nice to have a house as well as the land, although as the years drifted by and our search grew more desperate we would have settled for a caravan. We drove thousands of miles across England from Northumbria to the Dorset coast in pursuit of wild geese let loose by estate agents. At last, in May 1993, we found Perrygrove. It was the remains of a farm which had been whittled away by road widening and housing development until there was just 22 acres left. The whole place was in a dreadful state. Every fence was rotten and every building was in disrepair – one of them blew down shortly after we arrived. But it was the best we could afford, so we bought it and set up a company, Treasure Train Ltd., to build and operate the railway.
In 1994 we obtained planning permission. In 1995 my wife and I replaced our full-time jobs with London salaries with part-time posts, and we cut the first sod at Easter. The railway opened to the public 16 months later on 1 August 1996. It wasn’t really finished because we had run out of money. Every liquid asset we owned apart from Perrygrove had been sold, we had a second mortgage, and we had to borrow money from my Uncle to pay for the final delivery of rolling stock. If you got off the train at Oakiron there was no shelter and no way of getting back to the station at Perrygrove, so if it rained you got wet. We were offering what you might call a “basic” service. Of course there is now shelter and a footbridge over the line, and we have improved all the facilities since that first year.
The line starts at Perrygrove station. A branch runs south to the farmyard and workshops, and the main line runs north. It begins with a long straight followed by a drop down to the Rookwood loop and a climb up to Rookwood station. Here we are installing a passing loop and sidings to provide facilities for this miniature estate. Next stop is the halt at Heywood, followed by a climb of 1:30 through the wood and under a footbridge. The line emerges on a bluff giving views over the works and then moves out into the fields where some of our livestock can often be seen. Finally it climbs another 1:30 gradient to Oakiron, 3/4 mile from Perrygrove. We hope to extend a further 1/4 mile in the future.
Our rails are second hand from 4 sources – a waterworks, 2 ammunition dumps, and the local Park Hill drift mine. Sleepers are mainly from local timber and stone comes from the local quarry. We do try to buy locally as much as we possibly can. Locomotives, carriages, and rolling stock come from a wide variety of sources which are described on other pages – we are immensely grateful to all those who have provided equipment for the railway.
In 2011 we appointed our first Operations Manager and with his new enthusiasm and energy we took the plunge to start running the railway every weekend throughout the year, as well as every day in school holidays. Christmas is one of our most successful seasons because we have a unique event when Father Christmas actually comes down our chimney (by magic!) to meet the children and give them presents.
When we are running steam trains there are usually four people on duty:- a driver and guard on the train and two people in the main station with its booking office, café and shop. Most of the people who operate the railway are doing it as a job and for many of them it is their first job, providing valuable experience of dealing with the public. But we have a growing team of volunteers who are helping us add to the “estate railway” character which is described in these pages.
A lot of young people have started their experience of working life at Perrygrove, either in the cafe or on the trains. They often stay with us until they leave to go to full-time work or university. Some of them continue to come back during university vacations. Guards have to be a minimum age of 14 when they start training and can qualify at 16. Drivers have to be at least 18. The ideal arrangement on the railway side is for someone to join as a volunteer at 14 or 15, become a guard at 16, and then start driving at 18. By then they have absorbed enough of the railwayman’s basic knowledge to be capable of taking control of a train carrying over 70 people on a challenging route. We are still looking forward to having our first female driver, and I am sure she will turn up one day.
We have found that those who come to the railway with experience of driving full-size locomotives frequently find it very difficult to cope with having to be both driver and fireman. Not all of them have managed to get up the hills!
We try to present an air of calm efficiency to the public when we are operating. Life behind the scenes is sometimes not quite so relaxed.
We are conscious that the project is unfinished. My wife and I still live here, and every time we walk out of our back door we are faced by incomplete works and a long list of “things that need doing”. Sometimes the prospect of the work lying ahead is daunting, but a glance at the photograph album reminds us that even tasks which seem impossible are eventually accomplished, and as each year goes by a little more gets done. It is also very encouraging when regular visitors remark on the improvements we have made since they last came here.
Written 2003, revised 2010 and 2012