Yes, I remember Thunderbox …



Bob and Thunderbox … please overlook Thunderbox’s impression of an extended range fuel tank loco .

Most, if not all, of the LMLR memorabilia featured a certain locomotive: Thunderbox.


You remember Thunderbox, don’t you? How could you forget?! It looked like a hut with a kennel attached, it had a balustrade on the cab roof (where it was easy to forget you’d left the fuel can, or your cap), and a motor car horn of some vintage. If you don’t remember that, you will remember hearing Thunderbox before seeing it: the engine roared, the bell clanged and the horn parp-parped before departure and at crossings and stations.

tbox for Santa

Thunderbox ready for Santa Specials.

You would remember Thunderbox.

Thunderbox was wooden bodied, metal chassised, and had a petrol engine with a mechanical transmission. The loco was carried by one powered two axle bogie underneath the bonnet, and one unpowered two-axle trailer bogie, underneath the cab. These seemed to hold the track quite well. If you want the technical details, you can visit the site of Thunderbox’s current home, the Ashmanhaugh Light Railway and read about the engine, the transmission and the builder.

We at the LMLR tribute site wishes to tell you about what Thunderbox meant and what it was like to drive.

Thunderbox was Bob’s loco. You could consider that they were one and the same on running days, but, as Bob’s illness progressed, there were times when Bob took a break, or was guard. Nevertheless Bob and Thunderbox were inseparable: perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but most people will understand the sentiment.


Tbox Santa special

Thunderbox on one of the many Santa Specials

Thunderbox roared: perhaps that’s why Thunderbox was a doubly apt name. Maybe one day we’ll work out how to add audio to this tribute site, so you could appreciate the ‘thrash’ as Thunderbox lifted a fully laden train from the tunnel up to Point Cottage. Occasionally Thunderbox would struggle on that gradient, particularly in wet, leafy conditions on aluminium rail, and then the more athletic or enthusiastic guard would dismount and act as a banker. When you’re pushing a train uphill to keep time, possibly in the wet, the attraction of a loud engine struggling for grip loses its appeal, but revives with nostalgia with the passing of the years.

Thunderbox required strength to drive, or at least wrist stamina. To engage drive, the joystick needed to be pushed forward and held, or pulled backwards and held, and to apply power, the twist grip – like a motorcycle throttle – had to be twisted and held. There were two gears in each direction, as well as neutral. Engage, twist and hold was fine on the downhill stretch when the Old Piggeries line met the main circuit, but required endurance on lifting the train from the bend towards the long climb to and through the tunnel and beyond, and then again once clearing Point Cottage.


tbox backwards

Thunderbox in reverse, downhill – Bob in charge. Notice the leaves on the line.

On every second trip on the Old Piggeries route, Thunderbox hauled the train cab first: this meant backwards. There was a mirror, but this was mainly for checking the train behind during forward running, but for a reasonable look-out, you had to lean out and turn your neck, whilst engaging gear and keeping that throttle twisted. Furthermore, the long descent from the junction to the bend leading to the tunnel could be exciting as we had no continuous brake: Thunderbox had a handbrake and careful drivers. After the long coast down to the curve, Thunderbox would ‘open up’, and roar towards the tunnel, clanging, parping, and then roaring away up towards Point Cottage, maybe exchanging engine greetings with Hotspur in the later years, as the Romulus passed by in the opposite direction where the Paddock line came close to the main circuit.


Thunderbox lifts another Old Piggeries train from Point Cottage.

Point Cottage had the train operated points: Thunderbox took the ‘Lost Line’, which meant pushing the point lever forwards. A practiced or skilled driver could do this under motion, although this was a more awkward procedure in reverse, and the Lost Line curved to the right and continued to rise briefly. The Vine Cottage route required drawing the lever backwards, all fine if you had power to spare, as had Sir Mathew Pilgrim or Ben, although maybe those crews would wish to disagree.

Occasionally Thunderbox was sick. Sometimes the bigger locos were required for traffic levels. Sometimes Bob wasn’t there. Much as Ben, Sir Mathew, The General and Hotspur were all LMLR locos, as were the crews, Thunderbox was the LMLR’s talisman, the LMLR’s symbol.

Tbox tableau

Screen shot tableau – clockwise from to left: Thunderbox cab  first with a well loaded train on the Trestle Bridge, Thunderbox departs The Old Piggeries, Thunderbox passing the model railway shed heading back to The Old Piggeries, Thunderbox passing the colour llight protecting the junction just before Melton Wood Junction.

I drove Thunderbox on occasion, I think at least once – memory fades or becomes obscured with time. I can vouch for engaging the gear, and keeping the throttle twisted, and the fast descent, and the roar of the engine! Bob might have been my guard that day, and it was good for Bob and the public to meet when clipping tickets, as with Bob driving (and an efficient guard, or so we brag) there was little time during a busy running day to chat.

tbox ashman

Thunderbox resting at Ashmanhaugh. Notice the ALR number.

After closure, Thunderbox found a new home. Eventually we went to see it. We gave Thunderbox a big hug; it was just like seeing an old friend. We doubt that there are any gradients for some ‘thrash’, for some audio delight from the power unit, but perhaps that’s for the best – Thunderbox gave everything on those climbs, and maybe a relatively flat track would be a better place to enjoy Thunderbox as a machine, and prolong its chance to bring pleasure to rail fans of all ages.

To conclude this tribute to Thunderbox, there is just one last thing: one day Bob said to me, and you’ll have to imagine Bob’s gentle Norfolk accent here, “do you know why it’s called Thunderbox?” On saying no, Bob lifted the driver’s seat cushion to reveal a wooden seat with a hole in it. Underneath the hole, was a white, probably porcelain bowl, about the size of a soup plate, and the depth of a basin. “That’s why it’s Thunderbox” chuckled Bob, although we can’t remember if Bob called Thunderbox he, she or it.


Lest it be unclear, Thunderbox’s structure incorporated a commode. Or did it? Was this an impish sense of humour to include the pot or, although thankfully never used (we hope), perhaps it was unique: unlike most, maybe all, 7¼” railways, at least one of our trains had a toilet. If only we’d thought of an at seat trolley service… .



“The Piggeries” route


Marked in red on the map is the route of “The Piggeries Return” route. There are a few thumbnail pictures to show what you might see on the route. All images on this page and this blog, unless marked otherwise, are copyright ‘recreational railways’.


Thunderbox returns to the shed, day’s work over, with empty stock, heading back to the carriage sheds, over the Trestle Bridge. Bob drives.


Do you remember those wet days, brollies up, as Thunderbox charged towards Point Cottage, sometimes running parallel with Hotspur on the adjacent route? Can you remember the ‘parp parp’ of Thunderbox’s antique motor horn, the clang of the bell, the roar of the engine, the wait on those busy busy days when the charity attending really marketed the event to their members, and when our regular visitors came out in their numbers, particularly on the days when the sun shone? Does anyone remember Meg? Do you remember the sound as Ben drew a packed train over the Trestle bridge, or the thrilling descent from the junction down through the wood? Did anyone use ‘The Bug’ to chase the train? Does the LMLR remind you of childhood in Norfolk? Wasn’t Thunderbox a funny looking thing, and did you ever ask why he was named ‘Thunderbox’?

If you do, then you remember “The Piggeries” route on the now long closed LMLR.


The route:

The nearest car park to the entrance would lead you to the out and back run of ‘The Piggeries’. This was usually Thunderbox’s run, although Ben, the huge yellow hydraulic, would occasionally substitute. There were times when we were so busy, two trains would operate the route, The General and his shorter train arriving to assist.


Thunderbox arrives at The Old Piggeries.

The first train of the day would be empty stock from the sheds, past Melton Wood Junction and taking the left hand route underneath the footbridge. Thunderbox would be run round the stock, the guard would chock the wheels of the coaches, move the cushion, guard’s seat notice and, as I always tried to do, tail-lamp to the correct end. Bob, or the driver that day, would shackle the loco to the train, and unchock the wheels.

Thunderbox could drive in either direction, similarly ‘The General’ or ‘Ben’, although Ben’s revering visibility didn’t appear to be great, although I never ever drove it. These three engines worked the Piggeries route, but it is always Thunderbox’s route to me.


Thunderbox runs round: Ticket Office for the route is to the right.

Tickets for the route were sold on a per journey basis form the ticket office. When the train was ready, after the guard had clipped the tickets and advised keeping seated and hands within the train, the guard informed the signal box by pressing the start button on the ticket office wall. This set the light on the bug’s shelter to green. The guard gave the right-away, Bob gave Thunderbox’s horn a good ‘parp’, or tugged the chord to the bell, engaged forward gear, perhaps a touch of throttle, released the handbrake and the engine roared away.


“All fares and tickets please.” A yellow Piggeries ticket from 1997. 

On the left was the hand pumped ‘bug’ – a 20p-a-go hand cranked trolley on a separate isolated track, mainly for children (or when I had a camera for tracking shots of Thunderbox) to be their own driver. The main line bore to the right, and over the Trestle bridge, where the observant could see the gnomes fishing. The track turned left, and joined the main circuit, shared with the Melton Wood Junction trains.


Thunderbox, tool box first, with a well-loaded train, starts the descent.

The main circuit was one way, track-circuited and mainly signal controlled. After joining the main circuit, the line descended quite quickly, so sensible drivers chose to coast through the woods as there was a sharp right hand curve at the culmination of the descent.


The approach to the tunnel.

The driver would open the throttle on the bend, as the line started the climb again, passing through the tunnel. ‘Moinde yaar hid!” was really a storage shed for timber, but was once an intermediate block section during Santa Specials where there was musical entertainment, but more on that in later blogs.


Thunderbox heads away from the tunnel and towards Point Cottage.

The line continued to climb, coming within sight of Green Lane, and then up to Point Cottage. This was the junction where the Piggeries line took the “Lost Line” short cut back, whereas the Melton Wood “First Class Circular Tour” headed higher, past Vine Cottage, through the carriage shed and re-joined the “Lost Line” just before the signal box. “Point Cottage” housed the driver operated point, which was biased against the Vine Cottage route: the “Lost Line” meant pushing the lever forwards, so Thunderbox which, let’s be honest, sometimes struggled with a full, heavy train in poor rail conditions, could take the rising right hand exit of the turnout whilst moving: Sir Mathew Pilgrim, with power to spare, often had to stop, draw back the shaft operating the point, and then romp away – or that’s how it sounded – up hill towards Vine Cottage.


Thunderbox takes the Lost Line away from Point Cottage.


One of the gnomes stands sentinel at the junction post beyond Point Cottage.

The signalman knew what was coming, and had a signal to hold either line as it approached Melton Wood Junction. The “Lost Line” had a photo-electric sensor, which ran a bell as a train approached, and there was a colour light signal protecting the approach junction: “Vine Cottage” line had a cable operated semaphore signal just after the Santa Special excursion platform.


The view from the signal box: Ben is held at the signal on the Lost Line, the bell continuing to ring in the signal box.

Depending on if there was a train in Melton Wood Junction, and sometimes when there wasn’t, the Piggeries train used the loop line next to the fence. This re-joined the platform road immediately before the junction. The left hand signal on the footbridge had a route indicator to show whether the train took the left hand curve for the Piggeries line, or the main circuit.


Ben has the signal and the route indicator for Piggeries, and takes the loop around Sir Mathew Pilgrim at Melton Wood Junction.

The Piggeries train passed behind the exhibition shed, then bore right to a colour light signal controlled junction at the Trestle bridge: as there were times when The Piggeries had two trains in action, this signal protected anything between the bridge and The Old Piggeries, operated on a one strain in steam principle, and track circuited.


“All change please.” The Bug route is on the right.

The train stopped just before the station on most occasions, to allow passengers to disembark, rather than cause congestion of The Old Piggeries station itself. I recall on many occasions that the station was packed, so allowing families off first was a very sensible decision. A sensible guard moved the cushion, guard seat notice. As if it was the first train of the day, but with greater haste, we’d draw to a halt alongside the platform, chock the wheels and prepare to load, quickly, as some of those normal running days were very popular.


It’s Saturday morning: track walk the day before a running day. Memory says it is the Alex at the controls of Ben for the track checking run.

We had fun on some of those hills! True modern railway fans would love the ‘thrash’ as Thunderbox charged that hill, revving away in that high pitch, struggling for grip, particularly on days when the weather was against us. All that, and it was a decent length of ride, for 50p per passenger.

Long closed, the Little Melton Light Railway. But there were other routes too.