NIGEL DOBBING MAY BE GONE, BUT ‘GREAT BRITAIN’ WILL GO ON
One of main line steam’s great characters has left a remarkable legacy for the charter scene.
HIS DETERMINATION DROVE HIM TO ACHIEVE WHAT MANY SAID WAS IMPOSSIBLE KELLY OSBORNE
Nigel Dobbing must have known something we didn’t. At least that’s how we felt, at Tegel Airport one snowy December night, after he’d failed to make the plane to Berlin.
‘We’ were a bunch of Steam Railway readers, plus Nick Brodrick – now the magazine’s editor, but then not long out of school and on his first big overseas trip. Our main tour leader was stuck, somewhere in Europe, with the other group that had decided to travel by train. She – and they – arrived the next morning. Nigel, meanwhile, didn’t make it out of the UK.
It was the winter of 2010. An extraordinary dumping of snow had just swept across much of the Continent. It carried on too… bringing chaos to country after country.
It wasn’t that Nigel wasn’t interested. ‘How’s it going?’, he would ask by phone – as our tour operator dealt with fallen trees, frozen points and failed engines.
Nigel Martin Dobbing, who died on October 14 aged 66 after complications following surgery, was one of a kind. Born in 1952, childhood for him meant blagging a ride on the engines that shunted the yard in Melton Mowbray, where he grew up. Another favourite, according to platform-end friend John Howell, was watching the 7.39pm to Nottingham – which would often offer up a ‘Jubilee’. As for so many, the passion that was started then stayed with him for life.
Promoting railway trips came along, if not by chance, then as an add-on to a previous career. Managing the Duke’s Head hotel in King’s Lynn, he realised he could fill rooms at quiet times of the year if he combined them with an organised spin on a train.
Out of that came the Railway Touring Company. Although born in 1997, it would be a while before RTC caught people’s attention, before gradually developing perhaps the biggest gricer offering of any promoter. As well as its overseas tours to exotic places, the East Anglian organisation soon became a major name in the promotion of UK main line steam.
‘Dobbo’ – an irreverent nickname he accepted – wasn’t scared of big things. RTC’s palette would grow to include tours to Mozambique, Peru, Sri Lanka and charters on almost the entire Hedjaz Railway. At home though, there was no doubt which was the largest: Nigel launched the ‘Great Britain’ in 2007. With eight days of steam starting in London and covering the miles between Penzance and Thurso, that first trip still seems a belter, even now.
The ‘GB’ has run almost every year since then – sometimes more successfully, sometimes less so – always a staple, and always ambitious, though perhaps never with quite the impact that first one had. It was almost certainly the most ambitious tour ever run to that point.
If it were only the ‘GB’ we were thankful to Nigel for, it would be enough. But there is much more, for with its programme of around 70 trips a season RTC has, over the years,
racked up many hundreds. Regular territory includes the Settle-Carlisle, East Coast, North Wales Coast, the Cotswolds, Scarborough, Swanage… and among the one-offs were a farewell to Folkestone Harbour, and the first train over Sheringham level crossing.
Through RTC, Nigel brought back regular ‘Cumbrian Mountain Expresses’ in winter, gave gricers the chance of frequent steam over the South Devon Banks to Par, and brought in banking on trips out of Weymouth. Often, a suggestion for a train would be met by a pause… then: ‘I think we can do that’.
RTC didn’t eschew supporting locomotives directly either. As part of the first trip to put the first ‘Britannia’ over Shap since 1967 – ‘The Roaring Monster’ with Oliver Cromwell in March 2010 – RTC presented 10,000 euros to No. 70013’s partner ‘Pacific’, East Germanbased No. 03.1010.
Through all of it, he had a dry, wicked sense of humour – as those lucky enough to have spent time with him in an out-of-theway bar on one of his trips would confirm. There was a sense of it too in the shortskirted hostesses – the ‘Dobbinettes’ – who welcomed passengers to his trains.
Yes, some of the trips were hugely ambitious. No, not everything always went to plan – but then what does in this world? One thing is certain – main line steam in Britain would have been a tamer and smaller affair if Nigel Dobbing had never come along.
So, what now? Well, the good news is that RTC carries on, as Managing Director Kelly Osborne makes clear. So too will the ‘GB’.
In a tribute to her boss, penned for this column, Kelly says that Nigel’s “untimely and unexpected passing has shocked all who knew him, and none more than the team at the Railway Touring Company office.
“Personally, I have known and worked with Nigel for over 23 years, I classed him as family and will miss him dearly – and from all the telephone calls, emails and messages he will be missed by many within the industry, too.
“He paved the way for so many with his passion for steam. His determination drove him to achieve what many said was impossible – for example our ‘Great Britain’ tours which will now continue as his legacy.
“Nigel’s wish was for RTC to continue and I will ensure that we remain true to his vision, with the full support of his family and a very dedicated team.”
Those sentiments, I’m sure, will resonate with many whose lives RTC and its trains have touched.
Oh… and Nigel, that time you failed to make the plane to Berlin? You actually lost out on a great trip. You were missed then, and you’ll be missed now.
●● Nigel Dobbing’s funeral was to be held on November 2 in King’s Lynn. Married twice, he leaves three sons.
Nigel Dobbing (right) with the No. 03.1010 team at Carlisle in 2010, in the company of Oliver Cromwell, former NRM director Steve Davies (second right), 5305LA Chairman Tom Tighe (just visible behind the ‘Dobbinettes’) and Tony Streeter (third left).