WAIT ages for a steam train book - and then two come along at once.
The first is 'Somerset Railways' by Somerset man Colin Maggs, awarded the MBE in 1993 for services to railway history.
This book shows the early history of the railway in the county, in black and white format that would have been the norm for photography at that time.
And Somerset's is an exceedingly rich railway history with one of the first in the world being opened in 1731, taking quarried stone for Ralph Allen's Bath developments. The railway descended on a 1 in 10 incline with oak timber rails, wagons costing over £30 each also of oak, the precursors of the modern low-side goods wagons. They were pulled by two horses and in 1739 there was a problem: Allen was now building the North and South Parades in Bath, on the other side of the River Avon. So he took rail to the water, loaded the wagons onto barges and took them across the river - he had invented the first train ferry!
A diagram of the wagons used, and photos of the arches built along the route show how major this project was for its time.
In 1815 a new rail road from Radstock the seven miles to the canal at Midford was opened, using locomotive haulage to provide "a constant supply of the very best Somersetshire coal".
Bath later featured again, with the first main line in the county between the city the ten miles to Bristol, with Isambard Kingdom Brunel as its engineer in 1840. Some of the pictures from this period are amazing, with one showing a visit by Princess Helena in 1889, arriving in Bath at Sydney Gardens where a special temporary station had to be built because the city station was in such bad repair! One of my favourite photographs also appears in this section with the mighty Dragon giant of a locomotive in Taunton Station on May 20, 1892.
The Great Western Railway section includes a photo of work on the cutting at Limpley Stoke, and the Bristol and Exeter Railway, with one train passing through floods at Creech St Michael. There are two photos of the passenger staff at Taunton Station in 1885 - at least 32 men - and another showing work on extending the platform ten years later with well over 100 workmen on show!
The Wilts Somerset and Weymouth Railway chapter shows a fantastic scene of the halt at Wanstrow in 1895, the days when the train was due to stop to pick up half a dozen milk churns! Another excavation shot shows workmen digging foundations for a bridge at Somerton in 1904 - and not a piece of machinery in sight - and another shows the completed bridge.
Other areas covered are the London and South Western Railway the Somerset and Dorset and other minor lines.
We don't need reminding that the narrative is excellent because the author is the foremost writer on everything that is railway in Somerset and many of the superb old pictures and photos come from his own unrivalled collection.
This book is not just for the train enthusiast, for this is also an important historical record and will be a great addition for local historians, but it will also make excellent reading for anyone to see how our railways developed and helped to shape the county.
It is a fascinating book.
'Somerset Railways', by Colin Maggs, published by Somerset Books / Halsgrove, price £19.99.
THE second book is 'Steam Trails: The Withered Arm' by Mchael Clemens. The phrase The Withered Arm, he explains, relates to the Southern Railway lines of Devon and North Cornwall and seems to have come about due to SR management concentrating their efforts on the electrification of lines around London. There was not so much money to be spent on the west which had to soldier on as best it could - left to wither away!
The arm starts at Salisbury and continues to Exeter and the outspread fingers are the secondary and branch routes. And there was certainly a lot of old stock being used there, not just the locos but coaching stock for the local services was made from demoted main line stock.
The book takes us on a trip around the area: locomotives dating from 1917 but still working more than 40 years later in the West Country; where the Atlantic Coast Express served stations all over the withered arm, first running in 1926, by 1927 it became one of the two most multi-portioned trains in the country. Starting in London, coaches were progressively detached as the train headed westwards, providing links to most of the routes along the way.
Such was the demand that in the summer of 1938 the ACE ran as four separate trains to distant Devon and Cornwall, continuing even as late as 1961 despite the 50s boom in the popularity of the car.
The author says that in a 1965 book on locomotives the opening sentence said 'When will the well run dry?' in relation to books about railway history. Forty-two years later and there are still as many books being published. What distinguishes this book to others are the photographs; although he says little of the written detail will probably be new, most of the photographs have never been seen before .
The glossy format is packed with colour and black and white photos showing giants of steam, beautiful West Country scenes, long disappeared stations, giant viaducts that seem to defy gravity, seaside resort trains, coastal trains, isolated halts, the train with industry such as china clay, engines taking on water, all conjuring a picture of another era and even more majestic locomotives.
This is a truly evocative pictorial history of The Withered Arm with highly readable narrative that will appeal immensely to train enthusiasts.
'Steam Trails: The Withered Arm', by Michael Clemens, published by Ian Allan Publishing, price £16.99.