The History

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To understand the foundations, which led to the creation of the Downs Light Railway, an understanding of the school is required. Established as The Downs Preparatory School in 1900, the school was built on Quaker principles. The second Headmaster of the early 1900s, Geoffrey Hoyland, saw education as more than simply academics. His belief was that if you created a good community, you got well behaved and enthusiastic children who were keen to learn. He knew that not all children were suited to classroom-based academics and instead, he appreciated that many thrived on practical learning. His acquisition of a steam locomotive to the gauge of 7¼-inches in 1924, led to the creation of the Downs Light Railway in 1925. The miniature railway added a new dimension to the school, broadening the educational potential in-tune with the pupils of the day. Likewise, it significantly raised the profile of the school. By 1928, the Downs Light Railway stood at the forefront of private estate railways, and regularly featured in national magazines.

From conception into the 1930s

Between 1925 and 1927, the railway grew from its starting point at "Tubby-Town" (soon after renamed "Appleby"). Track was initially laid through the school’s meadow, briefly curving northwards towards Brock Hill. The northward route was quickly abandoned, and instead the railway extended up through a coppice adjacent to what is now Brockhill Road. By 1929, a 25 foot concrete tunnel had been built under the road. This allowed the railway to climb, within a deep cutting, up to a new terminus called "Windermere". Closer to the school, "Windermere" was provided with water and electricity allowing for an expansion of the terminus to accommodate the engine and carriage sheds previously kept at "Appleby".

The re-gauge

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Originally built in the late 1900s, "Tubby" was the first locomotive of its gauge to follow a narrow gauge outline. In 1931 it received its first modification; during which time, the Downs acquire a small GWR steam locomotive "Maud". "Maud" proved unsuitable for the railway, and was soon sold in 1937. Earlier in the same year, Geoffrey Hoyland had acquired a then famous 9½-inch gauge model called "Ranmore". The incompatibility of "Ranmore" with the Downs Light Railway instigated a complete two-year re-gauge of the railway, including a major rebuild of "Tubby".

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A southern extension commenced in 1938 to take the railway up to the school. This would utilise a concrete air-raid shelter, conveniently made as a railway tunnel, making the railway some 7/8ths of a mile in length. "Appleby" was soon abandoned after the extension began. The track uplifted was stored until the end of the Second World War, in order to continue the extension. Following Geoffrey Hoyland’s retirement in 1940, the railway continued to survive throughout the Second World War under the auspices of his brother Frazer. In 1941, the Downs acquired a GNR Atlantic steam locomotive named "George". By 1946 however, both "George" and "Tubby" were in an unusable state and had to be sent away for repair. For the next two decades the railway would suffer neglect, careless handling, inadequate supervision, and a progressively aging infrastructure. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Masters-in-charge had little "expert" knowledge of running a railway. It was during this period that the late James Boyd got involved, providing advice and help when he could afford the time. His involvement with the newly formed Talyllyn Preservation Society enabled several parties of volunteers to spend a couple days sorting out the track work on the school’s behalf. Invariably, work done in good will by various volunteers would frequently end up vandalised or reversed in no time.

Dereliction and revival

By the end of the 1960s, the railway was in an appalling and dangerous state. James’s retirement to Colwall in 1970, quickly resulted in a request from the Headmaster to restore the railway. While the Headmaster’s enthusiasm to have the railway back in a usable state was promising, the pupils and staff thought nothing of it. Similarly the Governors were not aware of the railway’s historical importance, nor its educational and marketing value to the school; thus little financial support was forthcoming. By 1973, almost two thirds of the restoration had been completed by the children, with help of outside volunteers. The positive momentum that had been built up rapidly came to a halt however, when the Headmaster announced that a new all-weather redgra pitch was to be laid across part of the school’s meadow. The pitch would encroach over the route of the railway, effectively cutting the line in two. Despite this setback, the railway was rerouted around what now remains of Brock Meadow and the restoration would continue. It would take another 20 years for the new line to be opened to passenger carrying trains. By the 1980s, the railway had three working steam locomotives and a usable stretch of track.

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Preceding the 1970s, the railway had been looked after by whoever was available within the school. The funding for the railway was almost non-existent, and only limited ad-hoc funds could be afforded from the school's budget. Supervision was down to a nominated school master who may, or may not, have any knowledge. The nearby John Masefield High School in Ledbury, would later attempt to emulate the Downs with a railway of their own. Like the Downs however, they would soon discover that the railway would be impossible for the school to keep without continued interest, and the project would subsequently be abandoned. The financial insecurity and concerns over the Downs Light Railway’s historical preservation would eventually lead to the creation of the Downs Light Railway Trust. Despite initial opposition to the proposal, the Governors of the school agreed to relinquish their ownership of the railway. The Downs Light Railway Trust was therefore established in February 1983. The Trust was fortunate to receive significant support from various individuals, most notably from members of the Cadbury family who had links with the school as far back as the 1920s. Funds were made available for the acquisition of a petrol-hydraulic locomotive, and later with the sale of "George" for a new narrow gauge locomotive utilising parts from "Tubby". Despite ill health, James Boyd continued to take the railway into the Millennium with the backing of the Trust and the increasing support of the school.

Into the present era

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By 2006, the railway had four working locomotives for the railway’s 80th Birthday and an extremely enthusiastic school unmatched since the 1930s. With the railway moving healthily into the 21st Century, plans started to increase its potential. Foundations were laid for a second deviation around Brock Meadow, where the previously abandoned extension of the late 1920s had once started. Thoughts were also turning to the refurbishment of the workshops. Unfortunately, with the July floods of 2007, all projects had to be put on hold. The floods washed many tons of ballast into the nearby stream and subsidence had occurred on some of the embankments. Matters were made worse by the force of the water exposing new springs, typical of the Malvern Hills, within the railway cuttings. The extent of the damage was initially not fully evident. Despite much rectification work, the railway progressively became submerged in water from heavy rain falls and a jungle of weeds took hold in the summer months. With haunting visions of the 1960s, the Trust installed new drainage in January 2009 to recourse the influx of water away from the railway. For the children, much satisfaction was gained over several months clearing old drains and improving the water flow through them. By March 2009, the railway had successfully dried out. The legacy of this episode was a track bed consisting of ballast, mud and organic matter, and the significant deterioration of the buildings.

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Despite the problems experienced over the last several years, the Trust and the children remained positive with exciting prospects for the future. The Downs Light Railway featured in a show garden, submitted by the school, at the Royal Horticultural Society Malvern Spring Gardening Show 2008. With help from the school, the second deviation was completed in May 2009 enabling continuous running around the school’s meadow.

In 2010, the true extent of the flooding problems started to emerge. A noticeable shift in moisture levels accelerated the deterioration of the Trust’s locomotives. The firebox crown and stays on Brock had wasted below the acceptable thickness levels. Brock was withdrawn from service, and the lengthy process was started to redraw the technical drawings for the boiler. Only a year later, the regulator of James Boyd started leaking. Despite some remedial attempts, it was agreed with the boiler inspector to withdraw the locomotive from service. In the December of 2011, temperature and moisture shifts started deteriorating the locomotives themselves. Consequently, George returned to his owner and James Boyd was transferred to the workshops of one of the Trustees. Further examination of James Boyd’s boiler revealed deep pitting in various areas and areas of wastage. Repair attempts resulted in a twisted firebox. Due to the delay on legal approval with the technical drawings of Brock, a new boiler for James Boyd was ordered and a full overhaul of the chassis was completed.

Throughout 2010 to 2013, urgent restoration works were carried out to Hoyland Down. This included a temporary replacement of the locomotive shed, scraping the track bed of the yard, laying new drains and relaying the track work on new ballast. Bonfire night of 2013 saw trains running again on the new track. In early 2014, administrative complications with the insurance cover for the railway meant that the activity of the railway had to pause until the September.

A resurgence of interest within the school resulted in a significant amount of donations from across the breadth of the railway’s supporters. In May 2015, James Boyd returned back to the railway and received its boiler certificate following the final steam test and ran for the Downian Society weekend and summer ball for the first time. August 2015 saw the main line between Hoyland Down and Brock Meadow dismantled. Major earthworks followed by the parent body of the Railway Action Group.

© The Downs Light Railway Trust 2010-15. Registered Charity No. 513882
Last edited: 31 October 2015





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