Let’s Wend Over to Wendover
by John Hinson
During my spell as a relief signalman on the London Division of the then London Midland Region of British Railways, I had cause to train and work boxes that had, at one time, been managed by all of the “big four” railway companies. These boxes all had retained much of their owner’s flavour in the way of fittings and equipment, and always gave an enjoyable insight into each company’s way of doing things.
But none had as much atmosphere and fascination as a handful of boxes I worked that had never been part of the “big four”. One of these was Wendover.
Wendover was situated on the former Great Central & Metropolitan Joint Line between Amersham and Aylesbury. Whilst technically “joint”, the signalling on the line was provided entirely by the Metropolitan, and the line subsequently fell to the control of the London Transport Passenger Board, later becoming London Transport.
For many years, the electrification from Baker Street only reached Rickmansworth, where an engine change would be made for a steam locomotive. However, when in 1959 the electrification and colour light signalling was extended to Amersham, London Transport decided this was quite far enough into the country to electrify, and recast their train service to terminate there. The stations north of Amersham were left for British Railways to serve with their half of the old GC & Met practice – the steam and diesel service from Marylebone. The signal boxes and track north of Amersham were handed over by London Transport to British Railways.
I found the box at Wendover situated on the Down side of the line, some three hundred yards north of the station. Immediately opposite was a goods shed that must have been larger than a country village ever needed; inside, the derricks now idled their life away, gently rusting. The vast goods yard was technically now a car park, although only a small part of it was used and the rest was grassed or overgrown. On the far side of the yard, new housing from the nearby village had just reached the railway boundary.
Behind the box was nothing but fields; sometimes you could stand on the balcony and chat to a black and white heifer that had decided to pop its head over the fence and say hello. The only thing to mar this tranquil scene was a row of pylons that hummed steadily in dry weather, and crackled like frying eggs in the damp. Listening to a transistor radio in the box was out of the question.
At the foot of the stairs was a small vegetable garden maintained on and off by the signalmen, and there was always something to be found there to make the morning fry-up a little more exciting.
The box itself had no running water (you had to collect that from the station) and a paltry gas supply that would run a small gas fire or the cooker, but not both at once. Lighting was by oil.
Doesn’t a summers day here sound idyllic? Yes, but it wasn’t quite the same in the winter. Draughts came up the frame, through the walls and from goodness knows where else. It was a toss-up as to whether the cooker or the fire generated most heat. I can remember doing a week of “twelve hour days” (0600-1800) there one winter and I never took my great coat off all week, and never stopped breathing out condensation, so cold was it.
The box, opened in 1889, was of an extraordinary ornate design which became the trademark of the Metropolitan. In basic shape and style, it compared well with Saxby and Farmer’s design of 1876 (like Edenbridge Town) but had so many frills that it looked more like a pagoda than a signal box. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but the diagonal boarding and grand overhanging roof certainly provided an ornateness that isn’t seen elsewhere.
On entering the box, there were many trademarks of London Transport ownership to be seen. The most striking was the presence of dark green lino instead of the ubiquitous shade of buff. But there was much, much, more.
Behind the levers, which were of a crude and clumsy design and must have been manufactured by the Metropolitan themselves, was a board which had originally carried hand-painted descriptions of the function of each lever. Twenty four of the thirty levers were out of use by the time I came to work there, but behind the remaining six were black plates screwed to the original board inscribed “N.B. HOME”, “N.B. DISTANT” etc.
Please note this is a home signal? North British Railway home signal? No, surely not. A look at the other end, where “S.B. HOME” can be found gives the answer. London Transport had stamped its identity by renaming the Up and Down Lines Southbound and Northbound.
Above the levers was an impressive block shelf with (unusually) much chromework on plungers and fittings where you would expect to find burnished brass. Three Spagnoletti Lock and Block instruments and two block bells adorned the shelf. The fourth instrument had been removed when automatic signalling was installed on the Southbound Line from Aylesbury South when Stoke Mandeville box closed in the early sixties.
Spagnoletti Lock and Block was a distinct improvement over the GWR’s instruments crude Spagnoletti pegging instruments, not least because the latches to hold the pegging keys down were spring-loaded. After giving “Line Clear” it was impossible to accept a second train as the instrument was locked until either a treadle outside the signal box was activated by a train leaving the section, or by a sealed release plunger being operated. There were no cancelling facilities, the complications caused by this are discussed later in this article.
A brass-cased track circuit indicator:
Above the shelf was the diagram, which was drawn to London Transport style, though they obviously had the decency to pass the negative to British Railways as the diagram was stamped BR (LMR) Nottingham and was coloured in accordance with LMR practice.
The diagram showed the simple remaining layout; there were no points at all. On the Southbound Line, the first signals were the automatic signals at Stoke Mandeville (U36) which were standard London Transport two aspect home and repeater signals with auxiliary red and yellow aspects mounted below in case of bulb failure. The first track circuit indicated was ahead of U36, so there would be no indication of a train detained there to the Wendover signalman. At Wendover itself, there were Southbound Distant (lever 1), Southbound Home (2) and Southbound Starter (3) while on the opposite line were Northbound Distant (30), Northbound Home (28) and Northbound Starter (27). All controlled signals were mechanical except the Northbound Distant, which was colour light.
With an hourly service (fifteen minutes in the peaks) of DMUs you might consider the box the have been thoroughly boring to work, but not so. Special trains were rare, and always notified because you had the right to “go walkabouts” for water and decent toilet facilities. So, if you were bored, you could go and chat with the porter, wash your car or even go shopping.
Every signal box has a set of “Special Instructions”, variations on the standard Rules and Regulations according to local circumstances. There really was so little in the way of layout at Wendover that it is remarkable that the authorities managed to produce an instruction card measuring about three feet by four feet! Some of the more interesting instructions are discussed below.
During fog or falling snow, it was necessary to work the Southbound automatic section from Aylesbury under the Absolute Block system using the block bell, unless a fogsignalman was provided at the Southbound Distant. A train could not be accepted unless the line was clear to the Southbound Starter. This last part is really the variation – under normal regulations it would have been necessary for the line to be clear to the next box. This was avoided by instructing the signalman to place a detonator on the rail before accepting every train. It does not say whether or when he should remove it!
Southbound trains had to be offered to Great Missenden when they passed signal U35 at Stoke Mandeville. This was nothing more than a sign of pedanticity on the part of management in ensuring Great Missenden did not receive “Is Line Clear” any earlier than in the days when Stoke Mandeville existed. In practice this instruction was a pain, because other than watching the diagram for five or six minutes, waiting for the track circuit to light up, you had to keep your ears pinned back for the soft click of the relay dropping.
If the power supply failed at U36/RU36. the Stoke Mandeville Porter was to be instructed to switch on the generator.
There was a Northbound automatic signal south of Great Missenden and there were some seemingly unnecessary instructions on dealing with drivers that report the signal as failed. The normal rules allowed drivers to pass an automatic signal cautiously if red and no telephone contact; the complications of connecting the telephone through to Wendover when Great Missenden was closed seems unnecessary. As an aside, we had a couple of unlabelled telephones at Wendover, and nobody knew where they connected to. Only when writing this article, did I realise that this must have been one of them.
If the Southbound automatic signals A983/R983 (south of Great Missenden) failed when Great Missenden was closed, the Amersham signalman would advise of instructions to give drivers. There would have been no need for this under BR Rulesbecause the signal had a telephone to Amersham box, so this instruction must have been provided to comply with London Transport’s methods.
Vagaries of the Spagnoletti Lock and Block system required the following:
If the cancelling signal was sent when the signals hadn’t been cleared, the instructions decreed that the lever catch must be “worked”. This was out of date, because the “Line Clear Release” locks were of the conventional LMR underfloor type, but at least gave a clue as to how the original Metropolitan locks had worked. The catch rods of the levers still had little bars clamped to them, which must have been locked or released by some pretty heavy-duty electrical equipment behind the levers.
The box was not to be opened unless all sections were clear and no train had been signalled. Great Missenden was also restricted to the same conditions.
The starting signals were to be left “off” after the last trains before closing the box. This instruction was out of date – obviously at one time sequential locking of the signals did not exist, but in practice it was necessary to leave all signals off. You would then close the box using a 7-5-5 rather than a 5-5-7. This was an astonishing exemption to one of the strictest rules in the Rule Book. And should you instinctively replace one in error, you were stuck for another hour to wait for the next train.
This also appeared on Great Missenden’s instructions, although as that box’s Northbound “Automatic” signal (which was controlled from a lever – but that’s another story . . .) was self-replacing, the only way to clear all signals was to close by means of a 5-5-7. Aylesbury South box had a Welwyn release installed in place of the sealed release specially to allow this, although the instructions were never amended to reflect the fact. The reason I mention this is that it was therefore crucial for Wendover box to switch out before Great Missenden (both were scheduled to close at 2200) although this was not laid down anywhere and left to local initiative.
Talking of occasions when Great Missenden was switched out, some of the most amusing (or alarming) moments could be had when signalling trains to the London Transport signalmen at Amersham. All of the regular staff there had worked in the old, manual, box and were familiar with the absolute block that only applied when Great Missenden was closed. But when a relief-man worked there it was a different story. You would offer a train on the bell, and it would be acknowledged. You would wait for the “Line Clear, and wait, and wait. You went on the blower “Are you going to peg up then?” The reply usually was “Er, yes, er, which way do I point it?”
So Wendover was a simple job, but had plenty to keep you interested. Unfortunately, it only qualified for the lowest grade of signalman, and in such an affluent area recruitment of low paid staff was very difficult. The box began to be switched out for longer and longer spells, although this had a drastic effect on train service in the peak hours.
Eventually management decided enough was enough and reduced the peak hour service to run every twenty minutes, so the box could be permanently switched out. It was abolished on the 1st of July, 1984.
Recently, a new bypass has been driven through the field that was behind the box. I made a point of driving that way one day to see how the transformed landscape looked. I expected to see no sign of the box, as the bypass is right next to the railway at that point. Astonishingly, the new railway boundary fence suddenly moves nearer the bypass for a few yards, skirting the foundations of the box which for some reason still remain.
The memories live on . . .
Norman Proud of Ryder Consulting in Aylesbury wrote to say:
I was the Resident Engineer for the construction of the A413 Wendover Bypass.
The original survey for the bypass was produced by aerial photography and photogrammetric survey. The signal box foundations are shown in the original survey check plots but not included in the digital data produced for road design.
When the bypass route was fenced, in advance of road construction, the foundation was not detailed on the contract drawings. Discovery of the obstruction led to a pragmatic decision to simply divert the fence around the foundations on the bypass side. The alternative of removing the signal box foundation would have involved a lengthy period of negotiations with Railtrack to agree access, working methods and possession dates. This was at a time when construction of the bypass was imminent and any delays would have been very disruptive to the overall programme.
Many thanks for the information, Norman, which explains this little curiosity.
More photographs and history of Wendover box can be found in the Photo Gallery section