Middy still shut to visitors – but volunteers work hard to bring it back better than ever
PUBLISHED: 08:00 16 August 2020
When lockdown restrictions were imposed in March the heritage sector was badly hit with museums, art galleries and stately homes forced to close their doors.
Among the organisations worst-hit in the sector were heritage railways – across the country steam lines have been forced to launch major fundraising appeals to stay on track.
But Suffolk’s only standard-gauge heritage line was quick to point out that it was not facing an immediate cash crisis. Now the Mid Suffolk Light Railway is starting to look ahead to reopening for business with its popular Santa Special services in December.
Although the public has not been able to visit the railway since its New Year’s Day Oil Lamp Display, teams of volunteers have been working at its site at Brockford near Mendlesham – and have been preparing for a new era that should be awaiting the railway once it does reopen.
There are two major new developments on the horizon. Firstly the railway’s own steam locomotive is nearing completion after a long restoration. The 1928-built Hudswell Clarke tank engine worked at a British Sugar plant in Lincolnshire – but is very similar to some of the locomotives that worked on the Middy before it closed in 1952. None of them survived.
The locomotive has been at the museum since Brockford station opened – but its restoration only started a few years ago. The railway has relied on visiting locomotives to power its trains but now the restoration work is nearing its final stages.
Meanwhile work to extend the line from Dovebrook to Aspall Halt – doubling its length and giving visitors a better idea of what a journey on the original Middy was like is progressing well.
The locomotive restoration has neared a critical point – and the team carrying out the work are awaiting the return of the boiler to allow the last stage to be completed.
Steve Grayston has been a key volunteer on the project and is looking forward to seeing the locomotive steaming again. He said: “The boiler is being repaired at Yaxham in Norfolk (at a workshop beside the Mid Norfolk Railway, another heritage line) and the work there is nearing completion. They’re doing a great job.
“Once we’ve got that back, with the firebox, we can then put everything back together again and then look to get the locomotive steaming again.”
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Mr Grayston would not be drawn on when the work would be completed – but 2022 is going to be a big year for the Middy because it is the 70th anniversary of the closure of the original line and the railway would love to have its own engine for those celebrations.
It’s the same with the extension. Publicity officer John Reeve said much of the heavy work had been completed and now the volunteers would be working to lay the track and complete the reconstruction of a typical Middy halt at the other end of the line.
Brian Scott has already started on this: “We were given this old building which we think was originally at Haughley but which had been used as a garden shed for years – now it’s being restored ready to be re-erected at Aspall Halt.”
But as well as the major restoration and expansion projects, teams of volunteers are also busy on general maintenance. Rose Weller leads the team that is keeping the Middy’s historic coaches in perfect condition.
Every Wednesday there are more than 20 volunteers working on different projects on the railway – there are also teams out on a Saturday and some volunteers come on other days as well to get on with specific projects.
Railway chairman John Stark said: “We had to arrange people to work in bubbles for social distancing. We started off by bringing back some of the younger volunteers and then the over-70s were able to come back as well so we are all working within social distancing and doing a lot of work.”
The Middy had hoped to open to the public during the summer with social distancing, but found it difficult to find visiting attractions to make a day trip worthwhile. Mr Stark said: “When we reopen people will have to book their place on a train and we will then have to clean carriages after each trip – and as our track isn’t very long at the moment we have to be able to offer something else as well.
“We can’t open in the summer, but we will be back in December for Christmas events which have to be pre-booked. And we’ll be having the New Year’s Day Oil Lamps display again – they’re very keen to come back again.”
This year has proved very challenging for the Middy, but as an all-volunteer organisation and with government support for the heritage sector it has not faced the financial crisis some larger railways have been dealing with.
But everyone connected with the rail museum is looking forward to the day when people can once again return for a journey back to the past.
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