Taking the opportunity to celebrate an event on a Leap day may not be that unusual but this year on the North Downs Line the day was somewhat different. We chose to commemorate a railway accident that occurred on Leap Day in 1892, between Chilworth and Gomshall stations, which claimed the life of train guard, Henry Wicks.
A special train left Reading with around 60 people, the majority having worked on the railway and including Ian Bell, an ex-driver who had spent 43 years on the line and returned to celebrate his 65th birthday, complete with a cake! Other passengers joined at Guildford and Chilworth.
The train was running between scheduled services and made a stop at Jessie’s Seat, the topiary memorial to Henry Wicks, so named after his daughter-in-law who was one of the main instigators of the planting of the memorial bush in March 1892. Sir Peter Hendy, Chairman of Network Rail, thanked the trip organisers and members of the ‘railway family’, who, over the years had maintained the topiary. A minute’s silence was observed for Henry Wicks and for all railway workers who had lost their lives over the years.
On the return journey from Redhill, as refreshments were served, David Daniels, the Community Rail Line Officer, splendidly attired as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, spoke about the North Downs Line and Community Rail in general. Once again the train slowed and the driver was able to throw a bunch of daffodils on to the Seat.
Paul Kemp, a relief signalman from Guildford with 40 years service and a prime mover in the commemoration, explained : ‘the topiary is box (bucus balearica), an incredibly hardy plant able to withstand 128 years of weather, railway weedkiller and train brake dust. The memorial is in the shape of a large seat for Guard Wicks’s spirit to sit upon for tranquil eternity, facing down the quiet North Downs valley; and perched on the seat back is a country pheasant sitting quietly with no fear’.
As some passengers left at Chilworth they were remined that Wick’s body had been taken to the Percy Arms opposite the station. Four days later an inquest was held in the pub dining room where a verdict of ‘accidental death through a railway accident’ was recorded.
February 29th 2020 proved to be a fine commemoration on an interesting and unusual day for all the participants.