Recently, I contacted Pete Briddon, an industrial railway engineering specialist, regarding a quotation for fitting a vacuum train brake system to an English Electric diesel hydraulic locomotive. The locomotive is kept on the old Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway at Midsomer Norton. During this process I became aware that Pete had written a book titled ‘The Railway to Merhead’. Being a railwayman I wondered ‘Where is Merhead?’ Close to Midsomer Norton are the Merehead quarries and the East Somerset railway. I decided that the railway story could be about either of these railways.
It transpired that the railway story is about the establishment of a fictitious heritage railway based in the early 1960’s during the infamous Beeching era. Although the subject of the book is the fictitious Merhead branch line, Pete shows the many frustrations as well as the highlights of heritage railway preservation.
One of the leading characters is a local businessman, George Haskett. Many of you involved in railway preservation will identify with the same heart break and euphoria that befall George in this story.
Pete’s clearly written prose describes both the operational complexities and the engineering side of running a railway. He makes reference to the lack of a vacuum brake train control braking system on one of the locomotives – the very aspect I had consulted Pete on!
The book also covers the human side including interactions between volunteers and the way they tend to migrate towards their own particular pet projects. I like the fact that Pete mentions not everyone wants to drive a locomotive. He also covers the tensions between those who are for and against the railway: The narrow mindedness of those who cannot see the economic advantages of having a heritage railway in their community. The positive well-being effects that involvement in a heritage railway brings. All of this is brought out in this enjoyable book.
In the main, Pete cleverly steers clear of the partisan path when it comes to railway companies. Thus the book appeals to more people than just railway enthusiasts.
However, he does make one small detour by introducing a ficticious GWR preservation group whose leader comes across as a pompous character. Some would say this attitude is typical of a small minority of GWR followers who believe the GWR was superior to other railway companies.