Talking to people about Didcot Railway Centre sometimes has unexpected consequences.

At an event before Christmas a friend asked if we were interested in copies of some old documents he had found in Maidenhead and, of course, we said yes.

The papers are an 1838 'Specification for laying and fixing the Permanent Rails' and of course are written in a fine copperplate hand.

It is quite an insight into how the early Great Western Railway (GWR) worked.

The 'Mode of Proceeding' is set out in some detail, specifying that the ballast is to be rammed and then the longitudinal timbers laid.

Before laying the rails the length was checked and carefully adjusted 'both as to the line and levels'. Then the rails were laid on pieces of felt that had to be carefully laid end to end with no spaces and no overlapping, and kept clean. I wonder how difficult it was to keep the felt clean on a building site. A fascinating description.

The Great Western Railway supplied the materials and the tools with a note that if any were damaged, they would be charged to the contractor. The felt was charged at 2½d a yard, which is just over £1 in today’s money. The contractor had to find all the labour and tools, fire lights, etc., necessary for moving the materials. The GWR provided a temporary railway along the whole of the new line and waggons (spelt with a double ‘g’) although the contractor had to keep these in good repair. The contractors also had to put up security of £500 (over £50,000 today).

The document covers five sheets of paper that is a bit smaller than A3 size. I wonder how large a comparable document specifying the building of a modern railway would be? It would definitely be more than five sheets and more likely run into hundreds, if not thousands, of pages.

If you want to see the 180 year old permanent way, we have the only considerable length of broad gauge track on its longitudinal sleepers in the country (though technically ours in mixed gauge track so we can run today’s trains too). It runs from the Transfer Shed - a Victorian building that was moved to the Railway Centre from its original location where the new station car park is being built – alongside the Branch Line. Most of the original rails came from Burlescombe in Somerset, which is why we named the station in the Transfer Shed Burlescombe. Our Broad Gauge engines, Fire Fly and Iron Duke, aren’t working at the moment but the broad gauge carriages are open for visitors to imagine what it was like to travel 180 years ago.