Dave Knowling Interwiew 5th March 2016 (Matt Bentley) Driver Dave Knowling of South Devon /
Dart Valley fame, one of the longest serving steam engineman in the country with 62 continuous years of service, had mentioned to his long term Mate & Best man Colin Harmes (Ex Nine Elms Fireman) that he would love to have another go on a West Country class Locomotive if he had the chance. On the 5th March 2016, after a few years in the planning and 52 years since he was last on one, with grateful thanks to the Mid Hants Railway his wish was fulfilled Firing and driving 34007 Wadebridge, on her last scheduled day of normal passenger duties before her 10-year overhaul. To mark this occasion, arrangements were made to specially produce a Devon Belle Headboard to honor Dave’s career.
Dave at the age of 15 Joined British Rail in 1954 as a cleaner at Laira Steam shed in Plymouth Devon. In 1956 at the age of 16 he became a passed Cleaner his first turn being a shunting turn at Tavistock Junction with a 94xx Pannier Tank, other regular duties included Hemerdon Banking duties with engines 31XX, numbers 3186 and 3187. In 1956 due to the length of the seniority list at Laira, Dave applied for the position of Fireman at Slough shed (81B), this saw regular work on Steam suburban routes out of Paddington, 61XX 2-6-2 Prairie tanks, 6115 and 6117 being regular engines, his work also took him regularly out to Princess Risborough and along the Watlington Branch, one such working was with a 57XX with 16 -20 wagons for the Chinnor Cement works. In 1959 Dave was looking to head back West, but the seniority list for Laira Shed still had over 100 people in front of him, so he applied for Plymouth Friary 83H (was 72D up till February 1958) and its Sub Shed Callington, as a Fireman. During this time his regular locos were T9, M7, Ivatt 2 tanks, West Country Class & Battle of Britain Class. Regular freight work included the Fruit & Flower traffic on the Callington Branch which then made its way to Nine Elms via Brighton & Portsmouth, which would be worked by Friary men as far Exeter Central. Passenger work included the Callington Branch, and Waterloo Trains as far as Exmouth Junction. 30th September 1960 near Newton St Cyres after heavy rain bridge No:548 and the embankment were completely washed away by the river Yeo leaving the line hanging over the gap (astonishingly it was all up and running again in 12 days!) all goods trains and the through Brighton were worked over the Western Line. Dave fired the down the Nine Elms to Tavistock goods twice via this route. On the run to Plymouth with an Un-rebuilt West Country. Each time we took on a banker at Aller for the climb to Dainton, and at Totnes for the trip up Rattery, and each time the banker was a D63XX (Baby Warship Class 22) . On the second trip up Rattery we felt a big snatch, on looking back along the train I could see the diesel had stopped. My driver opened the sanders and the regulator fully and we made it to the top. During this period whilst on Friary Shed, Dave was involved in an accident whilst on a West Country Class, his Driver knocked into a Stationary locomotive, the impact threw Dave out over the top of the closed door onto the Ballast below, breaking both his arms, so one of the shed Cleaners was summoned to take Dave to hospital on the back of his Motorbike! On the 26th November 1960 the Old signal boxes at Plymouth closed and moved into the new Panel box Dave and his driver were booked on a Rebuilt Battle of Britain with seven coaches, by the time they finally departed Plymouth they were over 60 minutes late, both were keen to make up some of the lost time. After the station stop at Tavistock climbing the 1-75 Gradient they managed to achieve 45 MPH before reaching the Down Tavistock Distant signal! During the rest of the memorable trip they managed to clock 98mph! During 1961 he was involved in a rare move which involved taking the Exmouth Junction Crane (Dave was also reunited with the same crane DS1580 which is now based at the Mid Hants Railway) with a West Country Class over the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash (Sadly the number of the loco is not known) an event that only ever happened 3 or 4 times in steam days. Like a lot of sheds in 1962 volunteers were requested for Old Oak Common shed (81A) so Dave headed North again. During that summer his work at 81A involved regular workings with Kings & Castles travelling as far as Birmingham and Wolverhampton. A couple examples of the duties included: Booking on at 15:00 working the Paddington to Cheltenham Spa Express with a Castle class, relief at Cheltenham Spa then work a stopping service back to Swindon, relief at Swindon then relieve a South Wales Milk train and work it to Kensington then return Light engine to Old Oak Common booking of at 00:00. Another duty consisted of booking on at 06:10 travelling Pass to Wolverhampton and working a Milk Train back to Old Oak Common. There were also some workings to Bristol and Westbury with D7000s (Class 35 Hymeks.). Returning back to Plymouth Friary in September 1962, until the 5th May 1963 when Friary shed closed and Dave moved to Laira shed, this involved much the same work that was carried out previously by Friary crews with the addition of some Diesel Secondman turns over the South Western route. In 1964 with Laira becoming more of a Diesel shed, Dave was made redundant so applied and got the position of Fireman/Secondman at Old Oak Common, in the two years that had passed a lot had changed two of the steam sheds had been demolished and they were starting to build the New Diesel servicing area. During one nightshift working the Night Trader (Bristol to London) with a Class 52 Western, with 60 box vans, the loco started to shut down on the approach to Didcot, the reason turned out to be a defective fuel gauge and was in fact almost empty, we managed to limp into Didcot where we were told a 9F was sitting on shed. When we got there it only had 80 lb. on the clock but with the help of a couple of Didcot men we got her all prepped and were soon on our way to London again. An interesting note during this time due to a high failure rate with steam generator boilers on the diesels 3 Castles were always kept on standby duty at Old Oak Common and 1 at Ranelagh Bridge (Paddington). Another interesting turn, although not steam still a part of history, was to travel on the Cushions (As a Passenger) up to Loughborough Brush's Falcon Works, to collect a brand new Brush 47 and bring it back to Old Oak Common. If further proof were needed that times were changing In the beginning of 1965 a new but sad, regular night turn at Old Oak Common, involved 3 fully coaled up locos each with a second man on board, were dragged by a Hymek to Seven Tunnel Junction, to await destination of scrap yard. In Late 1965 Dave returned back to Laira which had also seen a great change Following the withdrawal of steam from the area in 1964, the roundhouse had been closed on 13 June 1965 and the area used for additional siding space. The main turns shed turning duties and general work on the diesel link. In the beginning of 1966 Dave was again made redundant from British Rail, and started working for English China Clay at Lee Moor, for most this would be the end of the connection with Railways and steam. Not for Dave… He started Volunteering at the newly formed Dart Valley Railway (South Devon Railway), which led him to being offered a full time position 1968. The first passenger trains ran on the Dart Valley Railway on 5th April 1969, hauled by GWR pannier tank locomotive 6412, the official opening, undertaken by no less than Dr Beeching, with Dave on the footplate followed on 21st May 1969. Where he has remained ever since, even becoming one of the first people in the country to have a steam hauled wedding Reception on the line Top & tailed by 4555 Dart Ocean Saloon, Car 54, Ibis and a 64XX, the even made page 2 of the Sun. Thank you to Richard Bentley, Matt Ellis, Colin Harmes and Chris Bowden and the Watercress Line for making this day happen. Matt Bentley