Fish Belly Rail

This is a blog post that is very much for the true nerd. Those readers who like the family history and are prepared to put up with some trains may find this one stage too far. It’s about rails – the track that trains run on and that, surely, is a bit of a specialised area. But I will get a bit of family history into the post so maybe you’d better read on.


I took this photo back in about 1972. The location was alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal, which was then very much derelict and at its junction with the (at the time) totally defunct Wilts and Berks Canal. This was at Semington and if you want to see more about this canal then look at the Wilts and Berks Canal trust web site at .

But canals, lovely as they can be and fascinating as they always are, are not the main topic for this post.  The canal boundary is marked by a white painted metal rail which is made of old fish belly rail. Any kid’s sketch of a fish will tell you where the name came from but most folks won’t realise the ancient history of this type of rail. Early examples of its use date from the 18th century, before anyone had thought of having steam locomotives. The rails were short – about 4 feet long and made of cast iron. Actually, the steam loco was probably always too heavy for this kind of track and so it went out of use, or found secondary usage as at Semington. Apparently fish belly rail could still be found on very lightly used wagon ways until the 1940s.

Now the family history part. I’ll introduce Uncle Bill. In many ways my mum’s brother was a lucky chap, for his work was also a passion. He was a track engineer on the railways. He thought track was far more interesting than mere trains or locos. As he got older and less mobile, Uncle Bill loved it if I had taken photos of track. He’d make pertinent comments about the state of track and the style of track. But Uncle Bill was also a family man and he and his daughter, my cousin, did much to sort out the slightly shambolic past of parts of the family. Sadly, Uncle Bill is now part of that past. We miss him.

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