Those who have been with me for a while on this blog know it involves a broad church of interests, from comedy and football (two subjects sometimes inter-linked, I admit) to music.
There are other passions highlighted too, including nostalgia for the steam railway era, no doubt heavily influenced by my Dad’s formative years as a loco fireman.
Bob Wyatt moved on in his working life after a few happy years scratching a living ‘on the shovel’, but never lost his childhood love of steam and all things railways.
Meanwhile, others stuck with that world as a career option long after the diesels and electrics took over, including one of Dad’s workmates at the Guildford loco depot.
Geoff Burch was only just getting started when Bob jacked it in to become a postman, but kept at it, and 30 years later had progressed from loco cleaner to fireman then secondman and driver, before taking on training duties.
And while Geoff left the industry after John Major’s 1993 Railway Act led to a major overhaul – barely 25 years after Dr Beeching’s cuts proved fatal to much of the old network – he was back a few years later to pass on his expertise again.
So while my Dad’s passion for railways in time became a spare-time hobby (maybe obsession’s a better word), Geoff devoted his working hours to that noble profession too. And even when Geoff retired in 2009, he kept his hand in, chronicling his own journey from those initial days in my old hometown onwards.
The first part of that story, his 2011 publishing debut The Ramblings of a Railwayman, covered Geoff’s steam days from April 1961 to July 1967, while part two, Further Ramblings of Railwaymen (2012) looked in more depth at some of the stories and characters who worked at his side.
If you missed this blog’s subsequent review, there’s a link here. It’s fair to say I recommended both though, and now Geoff’s back in print with another epic tome, this time covering the next 40-plus years – in the process shedding light on an often-neglected chapter in our recent social history.
Rambling Railwayman’s Recollections – Secondman, Driver and Instructor Days 1967-2009 is another heavyweight success in its field – a large format 300-plus page hardback. I’d add ‘A4 size’, but it’s not quite the size of one of Gresley’s much-loved Pacific locos.
While the cover price is a formidable £25, that makes sense when you pick up this colossal tome and look at some of the evocative photography inside. It’s certainly not easy to read propped up in bed last thing at night, but I’m glad he’s taken the trouble.
Geoff, a youthful 68, was a fireman on one of the last working steam locos out of Guildford in the summer of ’67 – barely four months before my arrival at the nearby maternity home. And I reckon I can gauge (sorry) a few of my own milestone moments over the next 45-plus years while following his career journey.
The day after that emotional steam farewell, Geoff switched to nearby Woking’s mixed traction depot as a secondman, having already put in the hours to get to grips with the newer technology.
After successfully passing his rules, regs and various exams over that next couple of years he became a passed secondman, then successfully applied for a driver vacancy at Effingham Junction in late 1972 – by which time I was completing my first full school term.
Barely a year later, he was back at Woking, remaining at the Surrey town’s mixed traction depot until 1987, when he made his first foray into instructing at Waterloo’s operations training centre, something that became permanent in late ’88.
I didn’t know him then – despite the fact that somewhere down the line we’re loosely related on my Nan’s side of the family. But Geoff’s duties will have regularly seen him in contact with my Dad, at that time on alternate-week shifts loading mail bags onto trains at Guildford. What’s more, I was finding my own feet in the working world then, financing a hectic social life, based within a mile of the station, just up the line.
A month later, when I started five years of weekend commutes between Surrey and Lancashire, brandishing my young person’s railcard, Geoff reached senior instructor status, a post he held until 1994 – the year I finally moved to the North-West.
Then came that Tory Government BR business split and privatisation, Geoff taking voluntary redundancy after a railway career spanning 33 years, more or less the same period of time my Dad spent in his post-railway working days as a postie.
Clearly he wasn’t ready for the scrapheap though, and ever eager to learn new skills he put his newly-cultivated computer skills to use with Surrey Police, staying for 11 years in various training roles.
He never lost touch with his old railway colleagues though, and in 2004 rejoined the industry as an operations trainer at South West Trains’ Basingstoke base, with more posts following before Geoff finally ended his railway career in early 2009.
It was only at that point – just when I was finding my way into self-employment – that he threw himself heart and soul into writing and talking about his busy working life, bravely carving out a new career of sorts.
I have to say I didn’t think his latest work was ever as likely to interest me as its predecessors. The diesels and electrics just didn’t have the nostalgic power those steam locos had. But as Eurostar operations standards manager Ian Verrinder puts it in his foreword, he ‘always felt there was another important chapter to be written’ so pestered Geoff to write it, and ‘the array of previously-unpublished photographs alone should make the book a must-have’.
And as Ian adds, ‘It is the description of a time that’s now passed which will endear it to railwaymen and enthusiasts alike. The post-steam period is often neglected in favour of the more aesthetically-pleasing era that preceded it. Personally, I’m glad Geoff has produced a book that is able to redress this imbalance’.
I quite agree with that sentiment, and I was soon won over. That’s not to say it’s all to my taste, and at times Geoff’s latest epic is clearly aimed at the real railway buffs and might even be mistaken for a training manual. But for all the generations that grew up (or arguably didn’t) wanting to be train drivers, there’s an opportunity here to live your fantasies through osmosis.
I’d have preferred to have heard more about the man behind the controls and manuals – Geoff the family man, Geoff the amateur photographer and Geoff the motorbike nut and music lover. In fact, it’s that latter link that drew us together, with Geoff a fellow regular at Ben’s Collectors Records in Guildford, where both of us have been known to talk railways with the boss, Ben Darnton – whose father Leigh is among his photographic contributors.
But there’s no denying that the more technology-heavy sections are key to our railway heritage and industrial history. And the weight of responsibility Geoff and his workmates carried with regards to passenger and public safety often leaves me astounded.
Here and there, he tells us of accidents, incidents and near-misses that happened on his watch or those of his colleagues. What went wrong and what thankfully didn’t makes you realise how important it is to have such professionals involved, dedicated to ensuring this industry continues to operate safely.
Like the last two books, it’s the vignettes of everyday life at the depots and out on the track that make for the best reading, bolstered by Geoff’s choice of wonderfully-evocative images and brief biogs of colleagues and the engines they handled.
Ian Verrinder tells us he joined the industry in ‘the days of Margaret Thatcher, the Falkland Islands war and national strikes’, finding an industry ‘still coming to terms with the end of steam’, where the ‘steam men tolerated the diesel age but their memories were tied to coal and water’.
But he also remembers discussions with men without academic qualifications who ‘had more about them than many of the managers I subsequently met later in my career’. And he remembered how Geoff, 18 years his senior, would ‘treat the younger secondmen with friendliness’.
Geoff too mentions the animosity between some of the original ‘motormen’ and the mixed traction men, not least because of pay differentials. But despite all the internal politics, he was clearly eager to successfully serve his apprenticeship.
He talks of his first day at Woking, travelling in from Guildford on his 500cc Triumph Tiger 100 motorbike, already with a few hours behind him as a secondman between steam firing duties.
Between freight, ballast and stone turns across London and the South-East down to Salisbury, the South Coast and back, he clearly put in the hard graft too, keeping a diary of his notable experiences en route.
Along the way, he traded up his 35mm Ilford Sportsman camera to a Practica 1B SLR with a 50mm 2.8 Tessar lens and various attachments, even taking to the air for his hobby, the results on show here including a superb aerial shot of the old Guildford loco depot.
And it’s clear from his photographic stock – from various sources and in colour as well as black and white – just how many types of motive power needed mastering.
We get a flavour of how much associated technical gadgetry he had to get his head around too – from complicated electric/diesel controllers to short-circuiting bars, switch poles and wooden paddles for emergencies, through to an array of cab controls and switches.
Then there are the scribbled crib-notes and drawings from his notebooks, detailing workings of high voltage conductor rail supplies and fuse configurations, again leaving this reader in no doubt as to the gravity of the task.
You can factor into that the difficulties associated with learning routes and overcoming signalling, wiring and braking conundrums as Geoff switched between depots, turns and routes. He also tells first-hand of occasional driver errors and accidents – sometimes down to the operator, sometimes down to the equipment, engineering works and deviations, and sometimes through passengers crossing live rails. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
But Geoff was clearly born for the job, and in May 1969 was handed his EP key (electro-pneumatic, for us heathens) – marking the passing of his driving exams. Then there were the commendations and awards for swift reactions in such emergencies too.
Much changed in Geoff’s life en route, and we see his look change towards the era of the droopy moustache and beyond, our rambling railwayman trading up to a mighty Norton Commando 750cc before finally succumbing to four wheels, shelling out on a classy teal blue MGB GT in the mid-’70s.
There are light and dramatic moments recounted, like the tale of the indignant woman who waved her brolly at him when he forgot to stop at Hersham, or the secret deal with a colleague to get a couple of hours off that rebounded on him – an act of bravery and good practise to avoid a potential disaster overlooked through his honesty, leading to disciplinary punishment instead.
Then there was the time Geoff decided to avoid a cold, lonely night on Basingstoke station before a 5.30am ballast shift, catching a few more hours’ kip before catching the 4.30am paper train from Woking. That rebounded on him when the train was diverted, Geoff forced to decamp at Farncombe and walk back to Guildford, having to explain himself to his guv’nor.
He tells the stories in far better detail of course, and many more are shared too, perfectly accompanied by that vast stock of great images that take you back to the various scenes.
Geoff continued to take on more and more diverse roles as he got to know his way around the various classes – from 33/2 to 47s and 50s, 73s, and 4VEPs, to name but a few. And his driving skills and knowledge clearly made an impression on the training staff as he was invited to join them.
He went on to travel all over the region to instruct – even on the old Tube stock on the Isle of Wight – on his way to managing a team of six trainers, ‘a dream I would have never thought possible when I joined the railway as a 15-year-old engine cleaner at Guildford 30 years earlier’.
Times were changing, however, and by early 1994 his face didn’t seem to fit with some of the bosses. He was soon officially out of a job, saying no to a sideways move and instead taking his newly-honed computer skills to help deliver IT courses with Surrey Police.
But Geoff kept his ear to the ground when it came to the railways, even realising a fresh dream when he got to ride in the cab on a Eurostar return run from Waterloo to Paris, following that the next year with a Brussels trip.
A decade after leaving, he returned to his beloved industry, joining SWT at Basingstoke as a trainer in late 2005, carrying on in various roles across the region until early 2009, when a further economic slump and restructure saw his job cease to exist – ruling out a possible return to a five-day week role in favour of early retirement.
But that proved to be the catalyst for Geoff to embark on his next great adventure – his subsequent writing sideline. And consequently, this distinguished and committed railwayman – and one of life’s good guys, I might add – has documented through first-hand experience over these past six years a key part of a story that deserves to be told – from the steam era onwards.
Rambling Railwayman’s Recollections – Secondman, Driver and Instructor Days 1967-2009 by Geoff Burch is priced £25 plus £5 p&p and available from the author’s website here.
Geoff’s first book has completely sold out and is now only available in e-book format, but follow-up Further Ramblings of Railwaymen is still available in hardback and e-book format. To order either, and for details of Geoff’s forthcoming talks and presentations and much more, follow the same link.