The Heatherslaw Light Railway was the brainchild of Mr. Neville Smith. He was an engineer who had built locomotives in both 5 and 7 1/4 inch gauge, but harboured the ambition of building a passenger carrying railway in 15 inch narrow gauge. It was obviously meant to be, as the late Lord Joicey was looking for a project to enhance tourism on Ford and Etal Estates. Plans were submitted and a route was chosen.
The locomotive “Lady Augusta” ( 0-4-2 Tender Engine) was commissioned from the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, while the diesel locomotive” Clive” and the six original coaches were manufactured on site by Mr Neville Smith and his business partner Mr Sid Ford.
The station at Heatherslaw is built on the site of the old Ford and Etal sawmill which suffered a fire in the mid 1980’s, before it was moved to a new site at Letham Hill. The site was cleared and new buildings, a turntable and station track work was laid. The track bed was dug and levelled by a contractor, but the ballast and track was laid using a track gang made up of local labour. They worked every weekend for six months to enable the railway to start running in the summer of 1989. The original track was 1 1/4 miles long and cut directly across the Letham Haugh to Etal village. The track was later lengthened to its present length of 2 1/4 miles in the winter of 2003-2004, and now follows the course of the river Till azround the outside of the Letham Haugh. The original stock of six coaches has been expanded to thirteen coaches, although some are out of service at the present time while they are being re-furbished.
In 2005, Neville Smith began to plan the building of a new steam locomotive. He started on the production of various components and over the next few years, as finances would allow, he built up many of the major parts necessary for the project. Sadly he was unable to complete his dream as having suffered from ill health for many years, his condition worsened and he passed away in February 2009, aged 69.
Neville’s younger son, Paul Smith, took over in a temporary management position in late August 2008. On the first of September 2008, the railway was struck with the biggest flood on record. After a week of continuous torrential rain, the river Till burst its banks and water swept through the yard to a depth of over a metre at its shallowest point. The only part of the railway not submerged was the turntable at Etal Station. When the water subsided, we were left with devastation.
The diesel locomotive had been totally immersed in water, the “ Lady Augusta” was left covered in silt, and two of the coaches had been washed off the track. The rest of the coaches were in a sorry state, covered in mud, to say nothing of the flooded ticket office and buildings. The railway had reached the lowest point in its history and the business would not have survived without the tireless efforts of the management, staff and friends who pitched in to help. When the river level had dropped sufficiently, the track was examined only to reveal that a large chunk of the bank had been washed away, leaving the track dangling six feet in the air. A new section of track needed to be laid a further ten metres away from the river bank at that point. However after only a month out of service, the railway resumed a full service.
With the passing of his father in February 2009, Paul Smith took over as managing director on a full time basis. With much work to repair the flood damage still to do, he set about completely restructuring the business. The need to refurbish the existing stock was evident as much of the bodywork of the old coaches had become shoddy, accelerated by the flood damage. The new management team realised how important it was to complete the new steam engine and add two new coaches to the existing stock. Alan Keef Ltd was invited to come up with a design that could incorporate many of the existing components started by Neville Smith. The design of a 2-6-0 tender tank was approved by the H.L.R board, and “Bunty” was manufactured and introduced into service in July 2010, along with two new coaches in matching smart blue livery.
These two new coaches were built on site in the HLR’S own workshops and were to set the standard for any further coach refurbishment. Over the next few years, the railway has improved the rolling stock with a further three coaches completely refurbished in blue livery to match the new ones. Over the next five year period it is planned to complete the whole stock of thirteen coaches up to the same high standard.
“Lady Augusta” was out of service for the 2012 season, undergoing essential boiler repairs, but returned to service in 2013. The new diesel locomotive “Binky” was launched at Easter 2015. “Binky” will be used on wet weather days when it is quiet and when the steam engines are undertaking repairs.
The railway also has a constant schedule of track maintenance. We are replacing old sleepers and removing old cattle grids that are no longer necessary. New sections of track are being laid where flooding has contaminated the ballast with river silt over the years.
Running the Heatherslaw Light Railway is not without its challenges, be it mechanical or weather related, but we hope you agree that there is something magical about the place as you travel through the stunning countryside behind a steam engine! Our reward is seeing the delight on children’s faces as “Bunty” steams her way into the station with comments like “Hoorah! It’s blue!!”
It is hoped that with the support of all our customers we can continue to work hard to make the Heatherslaw Light Railway a place that children and their families will want to return to, time after time, and for everyone to enjoy.