Friday, 27 February 2015

slow train coming

When the train comes in the morning
I'll be waiting, how about you?
I'll be standing at the station with my ticket
How about you?
When the train comes . . . 

For a while I've been thinking about how different train journeys are nowadays - time really has changed our expectations and experiences.

It seems that steam trains still raise some form of romantic notion in many people. Memories of seeing the beautiful Mallard or the Flying Scotsman come rumbling through Stevenage when I was a child are still vivid. Looking down on them as they thundered through the Old Town station from the bridge outside the ESA factory filling the air with smoke brings a tear to the old eye – and it wasn't just the grit thrown up alongside the smoke.
The opening shots of the Time Shift programme The Nation’s Railway: The Golden Age of British Rail brought back the same memories. The programme looked at Britain’s railways during the era of nationalisation. It showed how the decayed, Victorian transport network that had clung on but eventually became tired after WWII had been transformed into a modern system fit for the twentieth century and laid the foundations into the twenty first. As steam gave way to diesel and electric, the architects of the railways looked ahead far into the future. Now things are knee-jerk reactions, built for a quick profit and have built-in obsolescence. New stations like Euston were built as cathedrals to Modernity and the first British high speed trains were introduced.
During these exciting times when the disparate companies were brought together as a nationalised industry, British Transport Films was set up to keep a record, educate and advertise. The archives for the BTF (1949-1982) can be found here and they’re well worth a look.
The programme itself was an enjoyable hour watching some great clips – see the well-behaved football fans! Watch the debauched sweaty vicars playing chess! – and realising what was going on whilst I was getting on with my life. I hadn't realised how history was being made in 1978 with the first high speed trains. In 1978 I used trains a lot to travel between Kings Cross and Stevenage to go shopping in London or to gigs. Or to wander around the West End looking in awe at beautiful guitars and go to the Nelly Dean for a few pints. A bit like nowadays, really.
During the years of British Rail’s “unified and efficient transformation” as they mention in the programme, I travelled on the trains quite a lot. Somewhere in the past when I was about twelve, I journeyed up to RAF Lossiemouth near the top of Scotland. At that time, it was the furthest I'd ever travelled away from home. Not only that but it was certainly the furthest I'd ever been away from home without any  parental presence. Some of my fellow travellers were those that taught me all I knew (sic) about matters of an intimate nature but a week away amongst bullies and sailors was an eye opener. To say the least.

Old Stevenage Station
The train journey itself was wonderful - we left Stevenage station and journeyed up through the night to Edinburgh and beyond passing through such exotic places as Derby and Leeds et al. This would have been about 1968/9. No adults were involved until we got to HMS Lossiemouth and we were kept in order by one Able Seaman Tony Evans, himself not much older than us little oiks. Sleeping in a carriage and sharing a dormitory with bigger boys who all seemed to know the ways of the world, was an eye opener (no - nothing happened, it really was very innocent). When we got up to the wilds of Scotland, we had to very quickly accept that we were in the Navy now. As we had to leave by the following Friday, I never got a turn in the barrel, in case you wondered*. However, spending the week being driven around that part of Scotland in a speed boat and lifted up into a hovering helicopter helped make me the person I became. Still, moving on . . .

A few years later I went on holiday to St Ives in Cornwall with some friends. As they all went down a few days earlier than me because I went to the Reading Festival, I followed down on the train. I actually did this two years running due to Reading and I must say that I really enjoyed the experience of travelling alone with a pocket full of money and the freedom to do as I liked.  Long quiet train trips through fabulous changing countryside with the time to sit and read (most likely science fiction or a Penguin Classic) sipping beer and occasionally chatting to fellow passengers.

The BBC4 programme informed me that British Rail served Whitbread Tankard keg beer in those days so I assume that's what I was drinking - remember folks, no ID needed in those halcyon days! I also remember one of the trips quite fondly because a rather lovely young lady took a shine to me and talked to me all the way from London to Exeter. We drank a few beers and she told me all about her trip to Exeter to get married the following day. A sweet old lady opposite for a while listened in and assumed that I was to be the Groom. Given that I was a scruffy seventeen year old with a remarkable resemblance to Catweazle’s skinnier brother and must have been one of the least likely passengers on the train to be getting married the next day, this was a bit of a surprise. That was nowhere near as surprising as the fact that the charming young lady decided to continue with the conceit. It was a lovely journey and still brings back pleasant memories of innocent travelling. What was that line by Mark Knopfler? I got a keepsake and a kiss.

It just so happens that I'm currently reading Tiny Stations by Dixe Wills - a man terminally incapable of spelling his own improbable name - which is a sort of travelogue about travelling around Britain by rail and stopping at request stop stations. Up until about two years ago I didn't realise these little stations still existed let alone realise that there were so many still clinging on. I found out by having to request a stop on an emergency dash to get to our car somewhere in Wales. Anyway, Mr Wills does write about his pathetic attempt at a pub crawl on the "Real Ale Rail Trail" (also known as the Tarka Trail ) in the West Country was quite amusing. It also reminds me of an attempt a friend and I made last summer at walking part of the Mayflower Line between Harwich and Manningtree. A few pubs were visited as we wandered along not surprisingly. Manningtree has a rather good bar if you ever get stuck between London and Norwich. Which happens a lot actually.

So, all in all, trains still seem to feature in my life. Maybe they're not so romantic nowadays but I do usually enjoy the experience. And of course if you get really fed up with everyone yakking on their phones or the sound of a distant Ed Sheeren's tinny voice whining on, you can always sit back with a good book or crossword listening to your own choice of tinny digital background noise.
* an old joke but you should check out the po-faced attempts at explaining the phrase online!
** having re-found that bit in the film it seems that was just the 125, so I'm probably wrong.


Andy Wright said...

Excellent post Dave. Your description of steam trains thundering under the bridge adjacent to the old Stevenage Railway station is spot on.
Ah......St.Ives in 1972/73. What tales we could tell!

Dave Leeke said...

Hi Andy, good to hear from you. Thank you.

Yes, St Ives was a great experience - we didn't need to travel to Ibiza or Crete in those days! Mind you, in truth they were quite innocent times.

I even won the raffle in the Folk Club one year.