Adrian is one of the UK’s foremost railway historians. He has had over 30 book titles published in a writing career which spans almost 50 years and continues to write from his home in Norfolk.
“I was born in Reading in January 1941. I grew up on the Reading stations, mainly the GWR one but also the Southern. Reading (General) station had ten platforms and in 1947-53 was a paradise of a place for watching steam engines, GWR and Southern. The latter engines came into the Western station from Portsmouth, many of them ex-works from Eastliegh. I was often allowed to ride on the Station Pilot and gained a good idea of how the engine was operated – and how the driver and fireman worked as a team. I did not then realise that they working according to a Rule Book but I absorbed the proper way to behave when working on a locomotive. I gained my early training in signalling in 1950 or ’51 spending regular evenings in the 8-lever Woodley Bridge signal box, in Sonning Cutting. I had no idea that everything the signalman did was laid down in a Book of Regulations but simply absorbed his method of operating as being the correct thing to do. Of course the signalman and the footplatemen were breaking their rules letting me into their world but I was obtaining a very useful apprenticeship.
In May 1953 our family moved to Childrey near Wantage and I moved into honorary membership of the station crew at Challow whose signal box had 51 levers! At Challow I was soon riding on the daily shunting engine and one driver in particular started to coach me in driving and shunting. I became quite competent. I also fitted in a schoolboy career as groom to a couple of show jumping ponies. I was given a pony of my own and was taught to ride and enjoyed three seasons out foxhunting with the Old Berks Hunt.
In March 1956 I joined the Regular Army at Plumer Barrack, Plymouth to be trained as a weapon and drill instructor for the Royal Berkshire Regiment. In August 1960 I was medically discharged from the Duke of Edinburgh’s Royal Regiment (as the Royal Berkshire Regt. had become) and re-joined Challow station crew – for wages this time. I was a porter at Challow, then a signalman at Uffington in 1961. The branch to Faringdon was still open with an early morning freight train from Swindon. When my shift began at 2 p.m at Uffington I would get there at 7 a.m and ride the pannier tank to Faringdon. Sometimes I was allowed to drive and my early shunting training soon convinced the footplate crews that I was surprisingly competent for a signalman and many a round trip I drove on the branch, shunting the yard at Faringdon and Uffington.
I moved to Challow box in March 1962 and met Driver Kingdom. I rode thousands of miles on the footplate as an amateur fireman with him. In April 1965 Reading ‘Panel’ signal box made Challow box redundant and I became signalman at the new Uffington box – the old box with a new lever frame and new layout. Western Region had lost most of its steam engines by then and a Swindon fireman, Peter Martin, introduced me to the Festiniog Railway. I made almost weekly visits to the Festiniog Railway for firing work until they oil fired the engines in 1970. Also in 1965 I ‘discovered’ the Oxenholme – Shap and the Ribblehead to Ais Gill lines. Thanks to Signalman John Gardener, I was able to spend time, from 1965 to 1968, photographing the Oxenholme-Shap and the Ribblehead-Ais Gill routes and also to work Grayrigg box and obtain the experience of a memorable night shift in Ais Gill box in a storm of rain while the steam engines went by.
Also in 1965 I met a Swindon fireman, Pete Martin who was firing a 92xxx on a goods that I put into the Loop at Uffington and because of his advice I began volunteering as a fireman on the Festiniog Railway. I was firing very frequently and even taking several days off BR work to go firing. In 1968 Uffington signal box was abolished by Swindon Panel control room and I went to Kennington Junction, Oxford. The following year I was working probably the busiest box at Oxford – Hinksey North: 69 levers with a goods yard one side of the line, a storage yard on the other side and 80+ trains a shift going through between the two. In 1970 the FR had oil fired their engines so I lost interest and a few months later, not being enveloped in the steam world any more, I met a wonderful, young half-Irish woman, Susan O’Sullivan, and I also met a man called Colin Judge who wanted to become a railway book publisher. He founded the Oxford Publishing Company and my first book ‘Great Western Portrait 1913-1921 was the second book he brought out. Susan and Colin Judge turned my life in a new direction. Susan and I married in June 1972 and by then I had had my second book – ‘Kenning Collection’ – published by the OPC and I was working on the third, a much more ambitious project – ‘A Pictorial Record of Great Western Signalling’.
In September 1973 a modern ‘Panel’ control centre was about to take over from the mechanical signalling of Oxford so I took off to find a decent place to work and found the delightful little box at Clink Road Junction, Frome. Susan and I went to live in ‘The Old Chapel’, Midford Castle. She was looking after properties rented out in the City of Bath in return for this tied cottage. We saved up the money we would otherwise have paid in rent and bought a ruined cottage standing on 1/4 acre in Co. Kerry, Ireland. I had a year at Clink Road and then moved to the very splendid Witham box a few miles further west.
In September 1975 I resigned from the railway and we moved to the ruinous cottage in Kerry and set out to rebuild it. I had never sawn a plank of wood in my life but we renovated the cottage and lived a free and frugal self-sufficient lifestyle for several years. We had two children, Rebecca and Constance and I wrote several more railway books including ‘Signalman’s Morning’, the first of a trilogy on my life on the railway. Eventually, the cottage being too small for our family, and needing to be closer to my research sources in London, we sold up and came back to England in December 1982. Four years later we had another baby – Beatrice. The children are all grown up now with children of their own. Susan and I have lived in Norfolk for a full 38 years. In that time I have written 21 books including three biographies of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and contributed a chapter to ‘Conserving the Railway Heritage’ for the Institute of Advanced Railway Studies at York University. For 20 years I have written a quarterly history article for the M&GN Society’s ‘Joint Line’ glossy magazine. Between 1987 and 2019 I worked very regularly as a volunteer signalman on the North Norfolk Railway. Now I am long ‘retired’ but continue to write for the ‘Joint Line’ and for two new Great Western Railway magazines since the start of 2021. Susan and I have just completed our joint memoir of the time we lived in Ireland.