Ruislip Lido was built in 1811 as a reservoir to supply drinking water for London via the newly built Grand Junction Canal. It was unsuccessful in this form and sold to the Regents Canal, eventually coming into the ownership of the Grand Union Canal Company by amalgamation in 1929. The reservoir was always popular locally for boating, fishing and skating in winter, and the Grand Union began to develop the reservoir as a health spa with the building of the Lido building on the northern shore in 1936.
After World War II, the company wished to develop the Lido as a general tourist attraction, providing a tonic to war-torn Londoners and taking advantage on the restrictions on travel then still prevalent. Numerous attractions, such as an artificial beach, were added, including (in 1946) a miniature railway. This used an ‘Atlantic’ type locomotive called ‘Prince Edward’, built by George Flooks of Watford before the war, and the railway and rolling stock were built to match the engine, using a gauge of 12 inches between the rails. A station was provided at ‘Woody Bay’ on the southern shore of the Lido, allowing patrons to board the train for a ‘round trip of 1000 yards along the edge of the reservoir and back.
With nationalisation of the canals, responsibility for the Lido passed to Ruislip Northwood Urban District Council (and later, to Hillingdon Council). The lido continued in popularity, and also featured in a number of feature films, including ‘A Night to Remember’ (1958) and Cliff Richard vehicle ‘The Young Ones’ (1961). By 1960, however, the original steam locomotive was getting worn out, and this was replaced by a Petrol Electric locomotive built by Geoffrey Hunt of Bristol, based on an American prototype. This in its turn lasted until 1973, when it was replaced by a Petrol Hydraulic locomotive ‘Robert’, built by Severn Lamb to the designs of David Curwen. This had an outline similar to the mainline ‘Western’ locomotives of British Rail.
In 1978, an accident occurred– the train took the loop at the far end of the line too fast and derailed, injuring several of the passengers. The railway was immediately closed, pending a decision on its future. At one point, it was considered getting rid of the railway altogether, and replacing it with a much cheaper ‘tractor-train’, but the council found the money to pay for safety improvements to allow the line to reopen, and appealed for volunteers to assist in running, and to later take over the service. In answer to the call, the Ruislip Lido Railway Society was formed, and after an initial year of supporting the council to operate the service, took over the running of the railway from 1980.
The society had grand plans for the railway. Starting in 1986, the original loop was extended, first from Wellington Junction to a new station at Eleanor’s Loop, then to Haste Hill station (1992) and finally to Ruislip Lido station (1997), now renamed Willow Lawn, for a total round trip length of over 2 miles. To join Robert new, more powerful, diesel locomotives were built, First, two (Lady of the Lakes (1986) and Graham Alexander (1990)) Diesel Mechanical locomotives were built by the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway and Severn Lamb respectively. These were followed by two (Bayhurst (2003) and John Rennie (2004)) Diesel Hydraulics by Severn Lamb, recently rebuilt to a similar drive system as the earlier locomotives by Alan Keef Ltd. In addition, a new steam locomotive, ‘Mad Bess’, was built in the society’s workshops at Woody Bay, being completed in 1998. This is a half-size version of the Hunslet locomotive ‘Blanche’ from the Penrhyn (and later the Festiniog) narrow gauge railway in Wales.
New passenger carriages and maintenance vehicles were also built, ultimately allowing two trains of 120 passenger capacity to be run on busy days, as well as the sheds and ancillary buildings to house and maintain the fleet. In order to support the greater weight of trains and more intensive service, the track has been significantly upgraded, the whole line being relaid in progressively heavier rail and sleepers. All in all, the railway has changed beyond all recognition over the last thirty years, and is all set to continue this tradition of excellence and service to the public.