WATCHING the trains has been a life-long past-time for me, ever since I first saw them from my mother's arms. One place that figured during my childhood years at the line side was Bradley Lane, Bilston.
When the Page family moved from All Saints Road, Darlaston to Wilkinson Road, Moxley at the end of 1946 I saw the old Great Western Railway for the first time.
Up until then, this four-year-old had only known the old London Midland and Scottish Railway, through holiday visits to Ireland and days out from Walsall to Sutton Park.
The LMS engines were usually a dirty black and the coaches a mostly sooty maroon. Then, from my parents' bedroom window in a new council house in Wilkinson Road, I could see trains, about a quarter of a mile away through a wide gap between the houses in Jubilee Road. Green engines with copper capped chimneys and bright brass work pulled smart-looking chocolate and cream coaches!
Auntie Annie and Uncle Fred and their daughter Beryl Partridge (now living in Ettingshall Park near Sedgley and active in 'bodging' at Bantock House) lived in Great Bridge Road and took me walks up Bradley Lane, out into the 'country' by the GWR main line. The line ran from Wolverhampton Low Level to Birmingham Snow Hill. By Bradley Lane in 1947 were the slag heaps and ruins of John Wilkinson's iron foundry on land bordered by the Great Bridge Road, Harroby Road, near an old area called the 'Fiery Holes', and the GWR.
Standing by Bradley Lane Bridge, you looked along the railway towards Wednesbury and on the west side was an area of old mine workings surrounding the 'Rocket' pool and covered in wild vegetation. It stretched as far as a still operational canal and Bradley Locks, which linked the Birmingham and Walsall Canal at Moorcroft Junction with an arm of the Birmingham and Wolverhampton Canal near Wednesbury Oak.
An old stony lane, partly covered with grass, led from the bridge down the west side of the GWR line towards the site of the Bradley and Moxley station. The GWR closed the station temporarily in 1915 and then permanently in 1917. One imagines that the mines had worked out and there was very little custom at the station. The GWR then later laid a third track for 'down' goods trains ('down', that is, from London; trains went 'up' towards London) between Wednesbury and Bilston.
On the east side of the line were the 1920s/30s bungalows and houses as seen today. New houses were being built along part of Great Bridge Road, opposite the Wilkinson site, and on the north side of Bradley Lane on the west side of the bridge. If you looked along the GWR towards Bilston, Lower Bradley on the west side of the line was mostly derelict land while by 1950, on the east side, the Wilkinson site had been levelled to form today's playing fields.
How things have changed! Now the Midland Metro trams whiz along the old GWR track bed through a mostly built-up area of new housing and factory estates – except for the playing fields. The Ocker Hill power station, once a prominent landmark when looking towards Wednesbury, has gone along with the Patent Shaft and Axletree steelworks, the ICI chemical works and the 'Elephant Rock', a slag heap formed by the former Willingsworth iron works, which closed down in the early 1940s.
Looking towards Bilston along the railway, the Phoenix glassworks are no more, as are the large derrick cranes of Arnott and Young scrapyard. And where today's trams run, there used to be quite a busy railway up until 1967.
Expresses ran past Bradley Lane between Birkenhead and London Paddington. There were some 'named' expresses too, such as the 'Inter-City', between Wolverhampton and Paddington, the 'Cornishman', between Wolverhampton and Penzance, and the 'Cambrian Coast Express', running between Paddington and Aberystwyth/Pwllheli.
The GWR's 'King' and 'Castle' 4-6-0s, developed in the 1920s, still hauled the expresses into 1962. Earlier engines, like the 'Saint' and 'Star' 4-6-0s of pre-World War I origin, were disappearing quickly during the early 1950s. These engines took the 'lesser' expresses or 'semi-fasts' from Wolverhampton to Oxford and Worcester (via Dudley). They shared the 'semi-fasts' and holiday 'extras', as well as holiday and football excursions, with the more modern mixed traffic 'County', 'Hall', 'Grange' and 'Manor' 4-6-0 engines.
The GWR had seen fit to put names on most tender engines that were likely to pull passenger trains. We children used to think that they could have named the smaller engines after town halls or local towns.
The 'pannier tank' engines had square tanks mounted on their boilers in much the same way as on a donkey, and so we used to nickname them 'matchboxes'. They carried their coal in a bunker on the back of the cab. The GWR built hundreds of them!
Freight trains were seen quite frequently passing Bradley Lane. In addition to the 'transfer freights' there were regular 'block' trains of iron ore running between quarries near Banbury and Stewarts and Lloyds iron and steel works at Spring Vale in Bilston. Trains of bogie bolsters would be heading for the Patent Shaft while trains of dusty dark green ICI tank wagons were on their way to Oldbury. Whole trainloads of bananas came up from Southampton. Steam from the engine was piped through the wagons to gently ripen the bananas while in transit.
The local 'pick-up' goods trains serving Bilston Central and Wednesbury Central carried all manner of things such as pig iron, sheet and plate steel, castings, mill rolls, pipe, foundry sand, tar, oil, acids in large greenish bottles held in wicker cages and packed with straw, road vehicles as well as, sawn wood, crates, boxes and barrels of 'stuff'. We used to sit on the parapet of the retaining wall by Bradley Lane Bridge and look down into the passing wagons. The guard in his van at the end of the goods train would either wave to us or tell us to get off the wall! Yes, most goods went by train up until the mid-1950s.
There were also the parcels trains carrying everything from packages and boxes, rolls of lino, carpets, fridges, and cookers – you name it! Those packages, parcels and mail bags – including bicycles, chickens, pigeons, muzzled dogs, cats yowling in cages, and even motorbikes, were carried in the guard's vans of the local 'stopping' passenger trains as well as the expresses. The railway also ran homing pigeon specials for racing pigeon enthusiasts. Thousands of 'wummers' would all be loaded in a special train to be taken miles away. At the destination the train staff would release them at an appointed time.
Less common were the cattle trains, horsebox specials (for Dunstall Park) and coal trains. The latter came from, say, the Welsh pits around Wrexham to serve industries and the gas works, for example at Swan Village.
Up until 1957, all the trains had steam engines. Groups of us from Moxley, including Michael Arblaster from Horace Partridge Road and some of our neighbour's children in Wilkinson Road such as Tony Pinchen, Frank Jenkins and Victor Pickering, would go over to the Great Bridge Road playing fields to play football and cricket and the train spotters among us would collect train numbers.
Until the first diesel trains took over most of the local stopping train workings between Wellington, Wolverhampton Low Level and Birmingham Snow Hill in the summer of 1957, the only diesels of any sort to be seen was one of two GWR 1930s-built 'express parcels' cars towing a parcels van and perhaps a new diesel shunter.
One early diesel newcomer was a three-coach unit built by British United Traction. Each coach had only two axles and was painted in a sort of bluey grey and pale yellow colour scheme. Local folk nicknamed it the 'Flying Brick'! It worked for one week in August 1953 running as a 'stopper' in the evenings for one week between Birmingham Snow Hill and Wolverhampton High Level. I travelled on it one evening with two other lads, Michael Kimber and Brian Murty, from our Holy Trinity School in Queen Street, Bilston. It was a novel, if bouncy experience!
My sister, Helen Page, who used to put her hands over her ears as a train approached a station (in case it let off steam) could relax more after the Summer of 1957, when the British Railways diesel units took over all the local services.
The reign of the 'Kings' and 'Castles' on the Paddington trains finished in September 1962 when the Western region's diesel-hydraulic 'Western' locomotives replaced them. They only ran for two years or so before being replaced in turn by the British Railways/Brush diesel-electric engines.
When the line from Wolverhampton High Level to London Euston was electrified in the summer of 1967, British Railways took away the expresses from Bradley Lane. The GWR engines had also been disappearing ever since British Railways London Midland Region (the old LMS) took over the Black Country's GWR lines in early 1963. As the GWR engines needed repair they were replaced by surplus ex-LMS engines. The last GWR ones, the very useful 'matchbox' pannier tank engines, went for scrap around November 1966.
As the local steelworks and some factories closed, and North Sea gas replaced coal and coal gas, so the goods trains gradually faded away. The local passenger service to Birmingham Snow Hill was reduced to one single coach railcar and finished in 1972. I remember in 1970 when mentioning to our next-door neighbour, Bert Pinchen, that I was catching a train from Bilston Central to Birmingham that he was quite surprised. He, like a lot of locals, had thought the local trains had finished in 1967!
Well, today we have the Midland Metro trams running past and stopping at Bradley Lane, which started service in May 1999. One is only left with memories, but at least one can experience train travel as it used to be by riding on the Severn Valley Railway or the Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Railway. A reminder of how the trains served industry and local coalmines can be had at the Chasewater Railway near Cannock.
What are your memories of the Black Country's old railways? Email editor@black countrybugle.co.uk, log on at www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.