Here be Dragons

A Journey with Steam to the End of the World
by Phil Girdlestone.


Phil Girdlestone, who died in April 2016, was well known within the “modern steam” fraternity as one of a small band of latter-day adventurers who pursued steam as a vocation.  Girdlestone’s engineering career began in the late 1970s on the Festiniog Railway in Wales and went on to encompass Sudan, South Africa and Russia. In the late 1980s he began working for the Alfred County Railway in South Africa, settling near Durban where he spent the rest of his life.

“Here be Dragon” is more an “autotechnography” than autobiography in that it reveals almost nothing about the author himself.  It focusses instead on the locomotives that he worked on, ranging in size from a diminutive 2-4-0 on the Festiniog, to a massive 4-8-4 express locomotive in Russia.

In 1980, Phil read an article describing the work that David Wardale was then doing in South Africa culminating in the rebuilding his iconic Red Devil.  Phil quickly became a disciple of Porta, beginning a correspondence with both him and Wardale from which he learned the mysteries of GPCS, Lempors and other “modern steam” developments.  These he was quick to put into effect on the Festiniog’s Linda.

In the mid-1980s, Phil was offered a position on an EEC project to alleviate famine in Sudan, in which it was planned to rehabilitate a limited number of steam locomotives to haul food supplies to remote locations.  The opportunity was taken to fit a Lempor exhaust to one locomotive that resulted in a 12% reduction in (oil) fuel consumption.

in 1988, after a brief sojourn in Brazil, Phil moved to South Africa to take up the role of Locomotive Engineer on the newly privatised 610mm gauge Alfred County Railway which operated a fleet of ex-SAR Garratts.  Two of these were modified with GPCS fireboxes and Lempor exhausts, one (NGG 16A No 141) being painted red and becoming known as the Red Dragon.

After leaving the ACR in 1990, Phil became a free-lance engineer, working briefly for Spoortnet (as SAR had become) on the trial conversion of a 15F 4-8-2 to oil-burning.  This was followed by commissions to design modifications to an R-Class 4-6-4 in Australia and a P36 4-8-4 in Russia.  Then in 2004 he undertook the design, construction and export of a 500mm gauge Garratt for use on the Ferrocaril Austral Fuegino (FCAF) railway in Argentina.

Weeks before he died, Phil sent the manuscript of this book to David Wardale with a request that he did his best to get it published.  After a prolonged period of work, formatting the text and incorporating photographs into its pages, David completed his work in April 2017 and it is expected that the book will come out in print in October 2017.

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