Sitting at Cheltenham Racecourse station at the head of the ‘Northern Belle’ (well the GWSR continuation of it), we saw all the sights of racegoers leaving the course. Ladies hobbling across the track in front of us bare foot and slightly tipsy. The gentlemen stopping in their tracks to look up and marvel at the big green machine silently simmering away. At this point I went around with an oil can to top up the oil pots meanwhile in the background I can hear my fireman starting to build up the fire for our nonstop return leg.

With 15 minutes to go the GWSR ‘Northern Belle’ is beginning to load up with race goers climbing aboard the steam heated train. Steam enveloping them as they embark to have another drink or two on the return trip. In the cab the pressure is rising and the realisation that we had to get to Broadway on time was setting in. We had an important job to do this evening. Could we do it; could we be the first nonstop train from Cheltenham to Broadway since British Rail days?  The cleaner was busily pulling coal forward in the tender so the fireman had plenty for the journey, the fireman, Aaron Smith,  still building up the fire and I started to create vacuum all in preparation for a right time departure.

Number 7903 FOREMARKE HALL stood silent ready to depart, the paraffin headlamps flickering in the breeze. Steam pressure was just below the red line, water level at ¾ of a glass and the brakes blown up ready to go. Clunk went the signal, a glowing green aspect from the starting signal. Gates closed and hundreds of racegoers waiting for us to depart. The Signalman passes us the token, I read it out loud to the fireman ‘Cheltenham to Gotherington’ and then hang it up. That’s it, everything is in place for a right time departure.

Departure time comes, I look at the fireman and shrug my shoulders, there is no sign of a green from the guard, through the steam I could still see doors open. We must meet the main line connection, there was no option but to make it. With 7903 ready to go, I walk back to ask the guard what is happening. He replies we are still waiting for passengers. Two minutes then three minutes pass. Back on the engine I see some activity, doors closing and station staff getting into position. Then my fireman looks back, green flag, right away. That’s it we’re off, 5 minutes late.

With a loud whistle we leave in a cloud of steam to cheers from the queues of racegoers waiting for us to depart. But five minutes down, we have quite a task to pull those minutes back. I looked across at my fireman and just said two words….. ‘alright mate’? He knew exactly what I meant. As we gently steamed over the crossovers and out onto the main line. In the distance I can see the ‘section signal’ showing a green. With cars queuing up next to the track FOREMARKE HAll slowly starts to bark louder and accelerate our speed. As we speed past the cars waiting to leave, horns are beeping, and hands are waving, we give them a cheery wave and blast on the whistle. Were on our way. Building up speed towards the permitted 25mph, cracking 7903 into second valve she starts to shout from the chimney. We were on a mission. The fireman picked up the shovel and began to feed the red-hot fire. Pressure gauge on the red line, water filling the boiler. Bishops Cleve came and went, charging up the gradient to Gotherington, this could be the first stumbling point of our nonstop run. But yes, a green light in the distance that’s us into Gotherington.

As I ease the regulator shut, I look across at the fireman, everything is spot on and he is stood next to me ready to change tokens. The signalman is seen, a small lone figure stood on his platform with a token ready. As we approach the signalman, gently does it, we can’t afford to drop this. The fireman swings out to exchange tokens and I hear the clatter of the token, that’s it we have it on board, Gotherington to Winchcombe’. The moment I hear these words I begin to wind 7903 up to permitted line speed again. If I can accelerate quickly then I can gain a few seconds back. Accelerating out of Gotherington, three arch bridge, Gretton, Greet go sailing by. Another green signal at the tunnel mouth was pleasing to the eye. As I eased the regulator open some more to power up the gradient into the tunnel. A blast on the whistle and we are plunged into darkness, only the bright fire to give us light. I begin to slow FOREMARKE down ready for the next token exchange. So far so good, clawing back a minute or so here. The dim station lights at Winchcombe pick up the dark figure of the signalman standing on the platform. As we slow down for the next exchange my fireman is there ready. ‘Winchcombe to Toddington’ is shouted from across the cab.

‘Section green’ shouts the fireman, that’s us clear to Toddington. As we power off the 10 mph of Chicken curve in my mind I am re thinking over the instructions given earlier. Hoping each person has remembered their role. I was booked to collect the train staff for Broadway from the hut on Toddington platform, this means having to stop.  I had arranged with the signalman to have collected the staff and to hand it to us from the signal box. Fingers crossed, this was make or break for a nonstop historical run.

As we run through Hayles Abbey Halt, I have my fingers crossed.  I see greens all through Toddington. Driving on the right the fireman will see these signals first. After a tense moment I hear ‘right one, two and three’ from across the cab. That’s us clear into Toddington. Slowing down for the signal box I’m hoping we have a token exchange, as we edge closer I can see the signalman is hanging out of his box. The fireman is standing behind me, nice and slow he says. At the box the signalman shouts ‘steady, steady’, I steady her down and as planned there was the red train staff. ‘Toddington to Broadway’ the fireman shouted.

Over the points and straight through Toddington we go, green signals all the way. This was it, a nonstop run was in the bag. Grabbing the whistle as we sailed though Toddington and out the other side, journeys end was in sight. Surely this was it, back on time. The racegoers will make their main line connection. Dropping down over the viaduct I begin to accelerate again. 7903 getting into her stride for the final part of the journey to Broadway. Shuffling along the long straights I can see the lights of Broadway. That’s it we’re here, I shut off and start to slow the old girl down, giving a long blast on the whistle as we enter the platform. Slowly and smoothly bringing the train to at the stop board. I looked across at the fireman with a big smile on my face and said, ‘well done’  mate, good job. FOREMARKE stood simmering in the dimly lit station. I looked at my watch and we had done it, 3 minutes early……. An early arrival for the first ever nonstop run since British Rail days. Top link Fireman Aaron Smith and Main line driver Ben Evason, What a team.

Our grateful thanks to Ben Evason for such a brilliant article and for safely guiding our locomotive to such a successful achievement