Many is the little boy who grew up wanting to be an engine driver, but the young Richard Knott had a bigger ambition. From the age of twelve, when he was given his first model steam locomotive, Maisie, he wanted his own railway. It took him the best part of thirty years, including a 25-year separation from Maisie, but he realised his dream and, following a near two-year closure for essential works, his Luscombe Valley Steam Collection will re-open to the public next year at his Canford Cliffs home to once again raise money for charity.
As well as several steam locos in various gauges and two electric engines, the collection also encompasses a fully rebuilt 1909 Stanley Model R steam car, a Likamobile replica steam car based on a design from 1898 with tiller steering (both licensed for road use), a one-third scale Foster crane steam engine, a 4.5-inch Foden showman’s wagon (the only one of its kind) and Annabelle, a magnificent 30-foot coal-fired Edwardian steam launch.
All of them vie for their owner’s attention on a daily basis and it’s difficult to say which enjoys pride of place, although the Model R makes perhaps the strongest case as the most recent acquisition. The wooden body was coach-built from scratch, the mechanical parts were re-made from original parts salvaged by the Stanley museum in the United States, the button-back pleated leather seats are fully sprung, not foam-filled. Richard even had to attend a fitting: it’s that bespoke. ‘It was fitted to make sure the seat was the correct distance from the steering wheel to accommodate me properly,’ he smiles, patting his tummy. ‘She’ll do a good sixty miles per hour, although you’d more usually steam her at about forty.’
Both steam cars are zero-rated for road tax and don’t have to pass the MOT test, although each requires a valid boiler licence and insurance, not to mention a surfeit of patience on the part of the driver to manage public curiosity. ‘I can have the Lika up to steam in about five minutes,’ says Richard, ‘ready to run up to Canford Cliffs village. I’m regarded as something of an eccentric around here, but I don’t mind being seen as eccentric. I like being different.’
Richard worked as a professional DJ from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, was a theatre technician at the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth, helped establish hospital radio at Boscombe, Poole and the Royal Bournemouth hospitals, worked at Wireless Supplies Unlimited in Old Christchurch Road and latterly imported Windy luxury power boats from Norway to the UK in the 1980s and early 1990s before retiring in 1994, eight years after acquiring his father’s former house at Canford Cliffs.
‘Although I suddenly had all this time on my hands, I already knew what I wanted to do with it – the railway.’
As a child, Richard had lain awake at night, imagining what it would be like to drive an engine around the Poole Park train track he loved so much. As a grown-up he had a house that included half an acre divided between a kitchen garden and the site of a planned guest bungalow – just the right size for a miniature railway. Having enlisted the enthusiastic help of friends from the Bournemouth & District Model Engineering Society, in particular his old pal, John Biss, Richard began careful planning of what was to become Luscombe Valley Steam Railway. ‘The problem with the railway in Poole Park is that it gets a bit boring driving the same circuit. We worked out that by building on ground level rather than on a raised circuit we could get a more interesting track with diversionary routes, over-bridges and under-bridges.’
After a year of planning, work began digging out the plot in 1989. ‘We started with shovels and lasted about forty minutes,’ laughs Richard, ‘before deciding to get a mechanical digger. I dug out most of the soil with the digger myself. We went down six feet at one end and had to build a four-foot embankment at the other. That’s a lot of soil to shift.’
The railway has 850 feet of track and an eighteen-foot tunnel. The points and twelve different routes are all computer-controlled, although they can be operated manually. There’s a clubhouse, workshop and engine shed named Crow Crossing after the railway crossing near Ringwood where Richard’s great-grandfather was the keeper. ‘There were fourteen of them in that family, on my mother’s side, and every one of them worked on the railways,’ he says.
There are also two stations: Luscombe Central and Horder Halt, named after Jack Horder, one of the band of brothers who built Luscombe Valley Steam Railway with Richard. Two more originals – Ray Warren and John Constantine – are remembered in tributes above the door to the workshop where they spent so much time. Jack’s son, Neil, now looks after the electronics and makes the circuit boards for the railway.
‘There’s a core of about six of us, then about another twelve that come along not so regularly and any number of others that drift in and out,’ says Richard. Everyone comes over on a Tuesday and it’s a real hive of activity here. We have very exacting standards so it needs quite a team to take care of it all properly and keep it running. I suppose I have been incredibly fortunate in life, but none of it would give me any pleasure if it was only for me. The real joy is being able to share it. I’m quite a gregarious person and love having lots of people around, so I’ll find any excuse to fire it up for family and friends.’
Soon after the railway officially opened in December 1996, Richard found out that one of his fellow-enthusiasts needed money for medical treatment and decided to raise it by opening Luscombe Valley Steam to the public. It’s a tradition that has been kept up ever since with three charity open weekends a year when up to 1500 visitors enjoy rides and refreshments. Next year it’s hoped they’ll top £100,000 in total donations to local charities including the Lewis-Manning Hospice in nearby Crichel Mount Road, the Youth Cancer Trust, which has a house in Westbourne, and PCaSO, a charity that supports local men with prostrate cancer.
Luscombe Valley Steam railway also opens for engineers’ days as well as private sessions for friends, family and a raft of enthusiasts and collectors’ clubs. They’re welcome to run their locos on the track and it doesn’t take a great deal to persuade Richard to dust off his beloved Maisie, the 3½-inch engine that started it all, to run it up and down a short section of track just as he did at the house in Elms Avenue where he grew up. It also runs on a much longer circuit at Littledown Park in Bournemouth.
‘I can’t say what it meant to get Maisie back. I had her fully restored, re-lined and re-painted recently and she looks better now than ever. I’ve also got a 5-inch ‘Schools’ class model and the Speedy that my mother commissioned for me in 1968 after the loss of Maisie. Like a lot of these things, they’ll be with me until the day I die. Keeping things and looking after them well is a big part of all this.’
Indoors are two model railway dioramas – a multi-gauge circuit for some of the larger stock and the main attraction, the stunning Averton Hammer layout. Modelled on an imagined section of the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway, it is fourteen years in the making so far and includes two stations – Averton Hammer and Boiland – that take their names from a 1956 British Rail training film shot on the S&D with trains running from the fictitiously named Averton Hammer, A, to B, Boiland.
‘We’ve still got some super-detailing to do, making sure the correct crews are in place, checking the loco numbers are right for the period, adding some weathering, it’s that kind of level, but we have some great times in here and the kids love it. As on the railway outside, we have a manual signal lever frame as it feels more real to physically change the points and signals, but this is just about as I want it now.’
Richard Knott is that rare thing – a collector who knows when to stop. It’s not a universal science, there is no absolute definition and he may yet change his mind, but for now, he’s sure. Enough is enough. ‘The Stanley car, being the newest arrival, is bound to command my attention and a lot of the smaller stuff will inevitably be used less. So yes, there is such a thing as enough and for me, this is what it looks like. I have no religious beliefs, this is it, there is no rehearsal, we only get the one chance and it’s my intention to live life to the full!
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.