STANDING in a locomotive shed at Porthmadog, in North Wales, the North Oxfordshire village of Hook Norton seems a world away, writes William Crossley.

But resting on the narrow-gauge rails in the shed is the carefully restored chassis of a 105-year-old steam locomotive, which owes its survival to the Second World War and Oxfordshire’s iron ore reserves.

In another shed, a boiler waits to be reunited with the chassis, while the locomotive’s water tanks sit in a wagon outside, awaiting repairs and a coat of paint before being refitted.

This is Russell, the last surviving engine of the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway and its successor, the Welsh Highland Railway. Neither was a commercial success and, by 1937, the WHR was closed down and its rolling stock left to rust.

Much of the WHR’s equipment was cut up for scrap during the war, but Russell found a new role hauling iron ore on the Brymbo Ironworks quarry railway at Hook Norton.

After a post-war career at clay pits in Dorset, Russell was bought by railway enthusiasts for the scrap price of £70 in 1955.

A decade later, the engine passed to a group formed to rebuild the Welsh Highland Railway, but lack of funds for restoration meant Russell would not steam again until 1986.

The locomotive was temporarily retired in 2005 for an overhaul but hopes are it will be ready this year, to mark the 50th anniversary of what is today known as the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway.

WHHR spokesman Chris Deardean said: “Russell has had an amazing run of good luck. Had the war not been on, and locomotives needed, it would probably have been cut up.

“After the railway at Hook Norton closed, it was again potential scrap, but went to Dorset, where Fayles Tramway needed a new locomotive and even regauged its line to accommodate Russell. It was then saved by accident in 1955, when the Birmingham Locomotive Club was negotiating to buy another engine and was offered Russell as well.”

He added: “Although Russell was worked hard at times, there is much more of the original locomotive left than on other engines of similar vintage.

"The frames are original and lots of the parts of the motion as well, with the Hunslet Engine Company’s works number for Russell – 901 – stamped on them.”

For more information about the restoration work and how to donate to the project, click on the link below.

  • The Welsh Highland Heritage Railway runs a short demonstration line from its headquarters, which are across the road from Porthmadog’s main line station.

Many trains this summer will be hauled by another locomotive with Oxfordshire connections, called Gertrude, which was built to work at the Sydenham Ironstone Quarry, near Adderbury, in 1918.

The WHHR also runs a museum telling the story of the Porthmadog area’s narrow gauge railways and tramways.

Among the museum’s collection are such curiosities as the country’s first narrow-gauge railway buffet car, built by the old Welsh Highland Railway in 1927.

This historic coach has been carefully restored after its body, which had been cut in two, was recovered from a field in the village of Waunfawr, where it was used as a summerhouse.

For more information about the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway and the museum, click on the link below.

  • The Welsh Highland Railway line from Porthmadog to Caernarfon, via Beddgelert and Rhyd Ddu, has recently been reopened by the neighbouring Ffestiniog Railway. For details of its services, click on the link below