CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Surrey Life today CLICK HERE

50 years of the Great Cockrow Railway in Chertsey

PUBLISHED: 10:43 16 October 2018 | UPDATED: 10:47 16 October 2018

The ticket office at Great Cockrow Railway

The ticket office at Great Cockrow Railway

Archant

Chertsey’s best-kept secret, the Great Cockcrow Railway, steamed into a half-century this year

Pausing at a red signal, our driver scoops a handful of chestnuts into the firebox of his little engine. With a wink at my small son he says: “You’ll understand when we reach the tunnel.” We do: with a toot of his whistle he swirls the darkness with the sweet aroma of chestnut steam.

It’s touches like these that define the multi-generational, yet childlike appeal of the Great Cockcrow Railway (GCR). I was introduced as a child and have recently started returning the favour to my own. Driving this pilgrimage was the rediscovery of a forgotten memento: my family made it onto an official GCR postcard from 1990.

Three decades (and generations) from my first visit and now cocooned by mature woodland, it still feels both public treat and well-tended secret. There are around 40 miniature railways in Britain, but what makes the GCR so special and how did it start?


Half century of steam

In 1946, Walton-on-Thames resident John Samuel began work on an unusual garden project. His realistic, ¾ mile, labour of love in miniature was known as the Greywood Central Railway. Upon his death in 1962, the project resonated with Ian Allan, who as a 20-year-old railway clerk in 1942, published his ABC of Southern Locomotives. The one-shilling guide capitalised upon our post-war steam fascination, fuelling the Ian Allan Publishing group. Both group and guide survive to this day, Allan receiving an OBE in 1995. With the help of Samuel’s original team, some of whom still remain aboard, Allan rebuilt the railway on a larger site at Cockcrow Hill on the outskirts of Chertsey.

The acronym GCR remained, becoming the Great Cockcrow Railway. In tribute, the aforementioned tunnel is named the ‘Greywood Tunnel’. There are further historical clues too: the highest point, Piggery Summit, alludes to the former use of the site. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the reopening of the station in September 1968 and six years ago, on his 90th birthday, Allan opened the new station building that serves as our entrance back to the heady heyday of 1950s steam.

General manager Richard Mallett helps humorously direct the operation. A volunteer for 12 years, he juggles a fleet of engines that carry thousands of visitors annually. He coordinates his team with a nod towards the junior travellers: “I always talk to the kids,” he says “I enjoy the banter.” Indicating the next engine to depart, he jokes: “It’ll be the cleanest we’ve had, the amount of polishing it’s getting.”

I show him my postcard, explaining that the third generation of my family (who periodically and excitably interrupt) are returning to Cockcrow. “That’s a fabulous, timeless thing,” he declares. Steam seems to be a potent force and Richard gives a surprising example: he recognises our driver from that day in 1990: “That’s Jamie Lester, one of our longest-serving members. He was selected as the fireman on Winston Churchill’s funeral engine in 1965,” he says.

Richard explains that this history extends beyond the staff: “We have a few of the original Greywood engines, some easily over 75 years old.” They’re painstakingly handcrafted: “It could take 10 years to build one of these engines in spare time, a huge commitment.” It isn’t purely a male preserve either. “Our oldest engine we can date back to 1913 from picture evidence of the time. It’s just been repainted and is owned by one of our female drivers.”

Some first saw these engines in the pages of Allan’s initial ABC guide; Richard considers this proof of the enduring legacy of steam. “For those from that era, there’s something special, a romance and adventure about it – and they look and smell wonderful,” he says. As diesel engines pushed their predecessors onto the sidings, miniature rail became an outlet for the skills and enthusiasm. He explains: “Cockcrow was always constituted as a British Railway of the 1950s. The engines are faithful replicas of mainline engines of the time and all our procedures and signalling are still in period style.”

The site has been carefully managed, with only subtle additions over the last few decades. Two different, mile-and-a-quarter loops mean you might spend more time riding than waiting. This allows the GCR to retain an unhurried character. “We don’t advertise and we’re all about the quality of the experience,” says Richard.


Small scale, big character

The engines run on a 7¼in rail, an eighth of the 4ft 8½in standard devised by George Stephenson. This makes children universally delighted; everything is their size. Driver David Grant, in oily blue coverall and battered leather cap, strolls down the platform to greet his passengers: “Are you ready team?” There’s some cheeky platform banter: “It’s the best engine…and the grimiest driver,” some say. Puffing along to the click-clack of rails, even the engine seems to be enjoying itself.

The signaler appears from his box to wave: children, big and small, reply in kind. A field away is the buzz of the M25, disconnected drivers unaware of our slow-time travel. David shows us his miniature cab with tiny levers, operated by fingertip. He pushes diddy lumps of coal into the firebox on a long-handled spoon. A small space behind his seat serves as a shelf for the tools that sustain driver and engine: an oilcan and sooty mug.

The GCR is seasonal prior to opening in May and the volunteer team works through a winter maintenance programme to keep the engines at their best. This year, the 50th anniversary event (held in summer) expanded beyond the site for the occasion, with visitors arriving by vintage bus and entertained by period sideshows. 


More…

10 things to see and do in East and West Horsley - Home to outstanding architecture, ambitious community projects and arts ventures that are putting these villages firmly on the map, East and West Horsley are among our county’s most desirable addresses

More from Surrey Life

16:05

The new hotel is set to open in spring 2019 and will be located in the heart of the vineyard, offering sweeping views over the North Downs Way.

Read more
Yesterday, 10:53

From Santa’s Grottos, to Victorian Christmas markets and late-night shopping, we’ve covered what’s on in Surrey this season

Read more
Yesterday, 10:47

Whether you're looking for fine dining, pub grub or exotic dishes, eating out in Surrey has something for everyone. Here's our guide to the best local restaurants and pubs

Read more
Yesterday, 10:41

Having bloomed in Brighton’s restaurant scene over the past decade, The Chilli Pickle opened its second site in Guildford this summer

Read more
Mon, 14:32

Historic Royal Palaces and IMG have announced that Kylie Minogue is the first headliner confirmed for Hampton Court Palace Festival 2019. These will be her only London shows of summer 2019. Here’s how you can get tickets

Read more
Mon, 12:56

Enjoy this linear rail to ramble section of the Thames Down Link route taking the short train-ride from Box Hill & Westhumble to Ashtead before walking back

Read more
Mon, 12:13

Great things to do in Surrey this weekend (16, 17 and 18 November): art exhibitions, walks, concerts, theatre, places to visit and other events and ideas.

Read more
Friday, November 9, 2018

We round up 10 of the most beautiful photos of Surrey shared on Instagram this week…

Read more
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

It’s that time of year when our beautiful countryside is alight with the colours of autumn. Here, we pick out some of her favourite spots to enjoy the seasonal splendour – as well as some perfect places for a post-walk refresher

Read more
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Found on the stretch of the River Thames between Weybridge and East Molesey, Sunbury-on-Thames is blessed with a village feel where it meets the water. From antique hunts to the joys of river life, here are a few of our favourite reasons to visit

Read more
Monday, November 5, 2018

Verity & Violet are Loui and Jess – a singing duo from Surrey who specialise in blending vintage classics with modern favourites. The two have achieved success in the capital, but are now hoping to attract an audience closer to home

Read more
Friday, November 2, 2018

With the Christmas celebrations seemingly starting earlier every year, it all feels a little too ‘soon’ sometimes, but what if you want to look your best for Christmas & New year celebrations and are considering having cosmetic non-surgical procedures? The Bella Vou Pantiles Clinic offers surgical and non-surgical cosmetic procedures and treatments from a purpose-built private clinic in the heart of Royal Tunbridge Wells

Read more
Thursday, November 1, 2018

Living in England’s most densely wooded county, it’s always a pleasure to witness Surrey donning its autumn finery. Here’s some of the best places to do just that - plus a few pub pit stops to enjoy on route!

Read more
Wednesday, October 31, 2018

We are regularly reminded of the high cost of housing with statistics revealing that only one in three millennials will be able to afford their own home during their lifetime and that most will remain in the category known as Generation Rent

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest


Follow us on Twitter


Like us on Facebook

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search