Crowds lined the platforms and the bridge at Melton station on Sunday afternoon to welcome a special steam train honouring a man who nurtured a love for the railways while growing up in the town before going on to become a leading figure in the industry.
Nigel Dobbing, who passed away in October aged 66, established The Railway Touring Company, which organises mainline steam trips in the UK and across the world and has done so for more than 20 years.
And at the weekend his colleagues organised a poignant memorial steam train to chug off from King’s Lynn, where the business is based, and head for his home town, Melton.
The private train carried 84 members of Nigel’s family, his friends, colleagues and people who supported him over the years, on a steam journey which celebrated his life and achievements.
In a rare appearance so far south, the 1945-built steam loco 35018 British India Line hauled the train in what was an emotional tribute to Nigel.
It arrived in Melton shortly after 1.45pm, when passengers disembarked for an hour and a memorial plaque was unveiled in the station waiting room, by kind permission of Network Rail and East Midlands Trains with the help of their stakeholder and community rail manager Donna Adams.
Reflecting on the memorial journey this week, Kelly Osborne, who is now managing director of The Railway Touring Company, said: “It was an incredible honour for us to be able to pay tribute to Nigel in such a public way.
“We were so pleased with the amount of public support we received along the route with lots of people waving at us.
“It’s lovely that a plaque will now be in a visible position in a station which Nigel always regarded as his home station.
“It was a very emotional day for all of us who were on the train and it gave us time to reflect back and appreciate all the hard work he put into building our company.”
Nigel had been eagerly awaiting the completion of the restoration of the British India Line engine and he had arranged for the historic locomotive to haul a leg of The Railway Touring Company’s annual Great Britain steam tour in April 2018 and he planned to travel on it.
Ill health prevented him from taking the journey, unfortunately, and after he passed away it was thought to be fitting that number 35018 should haul a memorial train for him. David Smith, of West Coast Railways, made the loco available to enable the special journey to happen.
Kelly added: “Nigel’s passion and determination has given so many people the opportunity to experience steam travel through the steam charters he devised, so Sunday’s train was one of the best ways for us all at the company to say goodbye and pay our respects to him.”
Nigel grew up in a farming family and lived his early life at 3 Firwood Road in Melton.
His home was very near the former London North Western and Great Northern joint line, which ran from Market Harborough to Bottesford and Bingham, and he and his friend, Roger Ingram, loved watching steam-hauled freight trains chugging past.
John Holwell, another childhood friend of Nigel’s in Melton, shared his enthusiasm, watching steam freight trains in action, train-spotting and visiting loco sheds together.
He recalled: “I first met Nigel at Melton Mowbray town station where he and I, and a number of other boys, used to train-spot.
“The highlight of any evening was the 19.39 departure for Nottingham, which often had a Jubilee 4-6-0 working back from Kettering to Nottingham.
“In fact we were allowed by our parents to wait to see this train and peered over the fence to see the approaching train to see if it was a ‘Jube’.
“In 1965, the joint line was closed and the track was lifted.
“This gave the three of us much opportunity to view the steam worked demolition trains and on one wonderful occasion we had a footplate ride on an O4 2-8-0 from Eastwell to Scalford.
“This was on a beautiful spring evening and we saw the gentle low-lying evening mist on the fields as we rocked along for a ‘never again’ ride through that beautiful countryside.”
Nigel collected railway relics from the steam age - old chairs, fishplates, heavy bits of rail and even a signal arm - and kept them at the bottom of his garden.
He left school aged 16 and had the opportunity to join the Ordnance Survey but opted instead to become assistant manager at the Harboro Hotel.
Nigel went on to work at hotels in Dunblane, Scotland, and then King’s Lynn, where as part of his duties he organised a special train from London.
His entrepreneurial spirit was ignited and he decided to leave and set up The Railway Touring Company, taking with him his colleague Kelly, who is now MD.
His friend, John, added: “Nigel is sorely missed but his legacy will survive and generations to come will be grateful for his pioneering work in running steam-hauled rail services.”