Robin Higgs OBE (left) stands alongside another legendary railway enthusiast, the late Sir William McAlpine, at Alton station on Saturday, 20 November 2010. McAlpine had been invited to unveil a plaque marking completion of the station re-signalling project.
Five years ago I took my first step towards becoming a regular volunteer on the Mid-Hants Railway when I attended an introductory event at Alresford. Along with a group of other would-be volunteers, I was then taken by train to Ropley, where a sprightly gentleman in his 80s introduced himself to me and enthused about the Watercress Line.
Unbeknown to me, Robin Higgs OBE had a remarkable history in the worlds of railway and canal preservation, stretching back some 60 years. It is a matter of regret that I had not made his acquaintance sooner, but I am honoured to have known him and been able to share our passion for railways over the past five years.
Robin radiated enthusiasm and bonhomie – at Mid-Hants Society branch meetings in Guildford he was unfailingly welcoming, cajoled me into giving talks to members about my two railway books, tried to persuade me to help with a narrow gauge restoration project in Romania and, on the last occasion I met him there, gave a fascinating off-the-cuff talk about his international railway adventures.
He deservedly won at OBE in 2003 after 40 years of voluntary work, and commenting about receiving his award at Buckingham Palace from the Queen he said, in typically modest fashion: “It was magic, a bit of a dream come true.
“They try not to make it too daunting for you and you don’t really have time to be nervous. It is a reflection on all the volunteers with whom I have worked over the years and I really receive the OBE on their behalf as well.”
What I had not fully appreciated was his involvement in two other remarkable and successful restoration projects that I am very familiar with, the Welsh Highland Railway and the Basingstoke Canal.
He had joined the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society committee in 1968, which had been formed to restore the Basingstoke Canal, and later became its vice president. With the Basingstoke Canal re-opened in 1991, four years later he became Chairman of the Inland Waterways’ national restoration committee, promoting the cause of waterways restoration to government authorities, agencies and public.
Among his many involvements at the Mid-Hants Railway, one that remained dear to his heart was the annual “walk the line” event, held in November each year to raise funds for specific restoration projects.
I have only done the walk once, but on that occasion remember Robin cheerfully waiting in the West Country Buffet at Alresford on a rather wet and dismal day to congratulate every finisher and sign their completion certificates.
Robin’s final “walk the line” event was on 10 November last year, when a remarkable total of over 950 walkers took part and raised more than £14,750 that is being used to pay for the re-ballasting of a 1,000 yard section of track between Medstead & Four Marks and Ropley. RIP Robin – you are sadly missed.