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History of the Downs Light Railway

Geoffrey Hoyland, along with his wife Elsie Dorothea Cadbury, joined The Downs school in 1920 and he became the second Headmaster. He a was a educational pioneer and he saw the importance of practical education. In 1923, his brother Frazer Hoyland acquired a miniature steam locomotive by the name of STANTOR (later to become TUBBY) to the gauge of 7¼ inches. Involving the children, construction of a light railway started in 1924 and the Downs Light Railway emerged in 1925.

Between 1925 and 1927, the railway grew across the school’s meadow, briefly curving northwards towards Brock Hill before being routed through a coppice adjacent to a discussed quarry line (now Brockhill Road). A 25-feet long concrete tunnel complemented the railway in 1929 allowing it to climb back towards the school within a deep cutting. With water and electricity services available, a new terminus was built with sheds.
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Geoffrey Hoyland, education pioneer and creator of the Downs Light Railway

The railway’s first locomotive TUBBY was also the first of its gauge to follow a narrow-gauge outline. Enhanced in 1931, it was accompanied by a small scaled steam locomotive MAUD. Six years later MAUD was sold after its delicate size proved unsuitable. Earlier in the same year, Geoffrey Hoyland acquired a famous model called RANMORE built by Robert Morse. A consequence of RANMORE's larger gauge of 9 1/2 inches, TUBBY and the whole railway were regauged over a two-year period.

The children operating Tubby (1928)
Brockhill Road Tunnel (1949)
A child sweeping the tubes of Ranmore (1940)
The locomotive shed with George outside (1948)

A southern extension commenced in 1938 to take the railway up to another part of the school. A new concrete tunnel was built. With the outbreak of the Second World War it was repurposed as an air-raid shelter for the school. During this era the railway had reached some 7/8ths of a mile in length end-to-end. Following Geoffrey Hoyland’s retirement in 1940, the railway continued to survive throughout the Second World War under the supervision of his brother Frazer until his retirement in 1952. In 1941 another locomotive called GEORGE arrived. The locomotives were sent away for repair during the 1950s, however during the 1950s and 1960s, the railway declined.

A timely intervention by a former pupil James Boyd occurred in 1970, following his retirement to Colwall. A well-respected railway historian and author, James progressively restored the railway and reinvigorated its purpose as an educational tool. James recruited a dedicated group of children and enthusiasts and dealt with the setback of a new sports pitch which cut across the track. The railway was eventually re-routed around Brock Meadow.

In 1983, the Downs Light Railway Trust was formed with an independent Board of Trustees to look after the railway and promote its educational purpose. Throughout the 1980s to 1990s, a more formal structure to the extra-curricular activities developed. Activities centred around practical education exercises and project work.

New frames arrive for the children to build carriages from (1978)
Discovering the turntable from the 1930s turned into a restoration project (1984)
Signalling was introduced for the children to setup and operate (1987)

In 1986 the Board of Trustees had a new petrol-hydraulic locomotive built to offer younger children greater exposure to operating the railway. The locomotive TIM was named after George Timothy Elwood Cadbury for his services to the Trust. In 1987 they retired the locomotives TUBBY and GEORGE, and purchased a new locomotive through Milner Engineering (Chester). TUBBY 2 arrived in 1991 and was renamed to JAMES BOYD in 1992. James Boyd himself donated his own locomotive BROCK to the Trust in 1995. The three locomotives were a significant transformation from what existed before. Larger and more robust, the locomotives provided a better environment conducive to driver training.

In the early 2000s, the railway was complemented with new carriages. By 2007 the railway had been extended to turn the meadow circuit into a continuous running loop. This enabled the children to operate the railway more effectively in support of local community events.  During the first decade of the new millennia, the railway’s educational role was embraced and there was greater involvement from the local community. However, maintenance activities by the children could not keep pace with deteriorating track drainage.  In 2015, a major restoration project was implemented with the help of the local community. Major sections of the railway were relayed with substantial drainage and earthworks to remediate some major legacy infrastructure issues.

Locomotives BROCK and JAMES BOYD with the children and James Boyd himself (1991)
Substantial new drains and earthworks sees a large proportion of the railway relayed (2015)
Each track panel is reconditioned and fitted with new sleepers before relaying (2016)
The meadow junction is restablished with foundations for the ballast platform (2017)

For forty years the Downs Light Railway Trust has made progressive steps to conserve the railway heritage and advance the educational role the railway provides for young people. In 2018, the Board of Trustees commenced a planning project to enhance how the railway and the Trust executes its provision of education. This focused on the sustainability and resilience of the railway and how the Trust's educational activities could support the national need for encouraging more young people entering careers relating to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The Trust, working with the Heritage Railway Association, also identified the need to support youth engagement in heritage railways across the UK. In 2020 the Trust obtained planning permission to build two new buildings, a Railway Maintenance Building for education and a Railway Storage Building to house the locomotives and rolling stock. In 2020, the Board of Trustees approved the transition of the charitable Trust to a foundation Charity Incorporated Organisation.

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