Preserving Britain’s remarkable signalling heritage

IMG_9044Finding new uses for redundant Signal boxes is often no easy matter. While some do find a new lease of life – cafes at York and Totnes being good examples – many other fine structures are simply boarded up and left unloved, where the years inevitably take their toll, or they eventually succumb to fire damage.

Happily that was not the case with the 1913-vintage Exeter West box, a fine wooden structure, with a 131-lever frame (only installed in 1959), that was made redundant by re-signalling in 1985.

It was painstakingly re-built at the Crewe Heritage Centre, after failing to find a home on the Severn Valley Railway, at Bristol Temple Meads and then at Swindon’s new STEAM museum, and was ceremonially re-opened almost exactly 25 years ago, on May Day 1993.

Credit for its remarkable survival and re-commissioning goes to a team led by Peter Jordan, a one-time volunteer in the Severn Valley Railway’s signalling and telegraph (S&T) department, who formed a group in 1982 with the objective of preserving a large and busy GWR box.

IMG_9035Exeter West made an ideal candidate for relocation and preservation because it is an all-wooden structure so, once the working equipment had been carefully removed, the structure could be disassembled, like a rather large garden shed.

It was formerly located south of Exeter St. David’s station in the fork made by the GWR main line to Cornwall passing in front of the box and the Southern route to Salisbury and London Waterloo curving away behind the box on its steep ascent to Exeter Central.

It was built entirely of timber because its proximity to the River Exe meant flooding was a recurrent problem and would have made building a masonry structure at this location rather difficult.

IMG_9039Jordan (pictured) and his group agreed a price for the box of just £1,150 (+VAT) and, after occupying the box on the night of its closure (3 May 1985) to secure its equipment from theft, it was then taken down, removed to Bristol then, when rebuilding there proved a no-go, to the new museum being established on the site of the former Swindon Works.

But recession in the late 1980s meant developer Tarmac was unwilling to see re-built it on that site and it was moved once again, this time to its final home in Crewe. Here its new life even saw it used for the training of signallers on Absolute Block working, at a time when the former Railtrack had a training facility nearby.

Today its lever frame is fully synchronised with the instruments above it to allow Jordan and his team of signallers to re-create exactly the workings of the box on a busy summer Saturday (23 July) in 1960, as well as other simulations of a weekday and a summer Sunday in 1960.

Signalling interest at Crewe is not limited to the magnificent Exeter West box. At the southern end of the heritage centre site, Crewe North Junction Box remains exactly as it too looked in 1985, the year it closed as part of the remodelling of Crewe station.

IMG_9048Here again, another team of dedicated and highly experienced volunteers will let you “play trains” and signal services from the Chester, Preston and Manchester lines into the station, using its two banks of miniature levers.

Crewe Heritage Centre is a brisk 15 minute walk from Crewe railway station and is open at weekends and Bank Holidays from April until the end of September – more details at http://www.creweheritagecentre.org . For more background on Exeter West Signal Box, go to http://www.exeterwest.org.uk

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