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18 June 2014
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Myths and Legends
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Your Story: The Sarratt and Rickmansworth Light Railway

This narrow gauge railway was constructed in the late nineteenth century to run from the L & NWR sidings at Rickmansworth, Church Street to the newly discovered outcrop of treacle in Sarratt Bottom by archaeologists excavating the Roman Villa. The line did not prosper for reasons which will become apparent. It closed after operating for eighteen months only.

The company records have been lost, but it is known that it was an early enterprise of Tate & Lyle whose Golden Syrup was becoming much in demand. Commentators on the administration of the venture remarked that it might well have come under the influence of the comedian Harry Tate whose musical hall turn "Get Out and Get Under" was the hit of the decade. Only one locomotive was acquired and it proved very erratic in its running performance. The driver called the locomotive "Daysy" because "Some days she runs, and some days she don't". The line was opened at Sarratt with the help of clergy.

The Rector of Sarratt, Rev'd Neil Down, led the dedicatory service and was assisted by his grandfather, a previous Rector, Rev'd Ben Down, amid down-right comments on the tedious proceedings which held up the serving of refreshments. Laid down to very light standards, the line ran from the L & NWR sidings to the Town Wharf where there was a convenient halt for Salter's Brewery. It then passed under the Metropolitan Railway line through what now looks like a disused culvert but was, in fact, a tunnel with minimum clearance through the embankment. Continuing round Fortune Common, the line had a level crossing over the Queen's Highway to Scotsbridge Mill where there was another stop for the uptake of water from the River Chess and another intake of ale by the driver.

The rest of the track can still be traced along the pathway to Loudwater through the grounds of Chorley Wood House. Beyond Chorley Wood it went under the North Lane bridge and followed the course of the river to the mine workings at Sarratt Bottom. The reasons for the brevity for the line's viability require some technical explanation. The first problem was one of climate. Sarratt Bottom is a notorious frost hollow and this made the treacle very viscous and disinclined to flow through the delivery pipes of too small a bore. The problem was solved by the introduction of a process by which a gas was forced underground that would make the treacle flow to the collection point.

The Chess just below Loudwater
View of the country through which the train would have travelled
© Geoff Saul
The process is now current practice in the production of crude oil, but in the nineteenth century supply of a suitable gas was expensive and uncertain. This requirement was met by an approach to Messrs Barrett of Pontefract who had large stocks of sherbet for the dabbing of their confectionery products: Liquorice sticks, Liquorice all-sorts and Pontefract cakes. Tate & Lyle negotiated regular shipments of the effervescent powder from Pontefract on the canal network to Batchworth Wharf where they restored a derelict warehouse to hold the sherbet until it could be transferred to Sarratt in treacle wagons hauled by Daysy.

Disaster struck one consignment of sherbet when the bargee who had lashed the covers tightly over the volatile cargo at Pontefract failed to notice a slit in the tarpaulin. During the descent from Tring summit, driving rain penetrated the hold and started the effervescence of the sherbet. Volumes of fizzy gas rode towards the prow of the vessel and caused it to lift enough to foul the bridge at Cow Roast. The navigator, a man of considerable experience and weight, climbed to the front of the barge where his weight levelled it sufficiently to get it under the bridge and proceed to Berkhamsted. Fortunately he was a hearty eater of pub meals and a steady imbiber of Salter's Fine Ales. Nevertheless he lost control at Berkhamsted and allowed the barge to become firmly wedged under the Station Road bridge.

As the sherbet continued to rise, it lifted the road surface above. The bridge is still humped and a constant menace to the silencers and shock absorbers of cars speeding over it. The crowd that gathered soon realised that the barge would have to he unloaded to save the bridge. They fetched their spades and mattocks and began to shovel the sherbet on to the river bank. In their haste they misdirected a lot of it into the water with detrimental effects on the environment. The children of Berkhamsted had hiccups for weeks and inflated fish floated as far downstream as Cassiobury to the fury of the angling guests of Lord Essex. After that catastrophe Tate & Lyle employed on the sherbet run only bargees who were overweight, teetotal, prepared to travel night and day without rest and set off only when the evening sun was red.

Words: The Late Mr Wilfred Broughton

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