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Railway memories

Some years ago the newsletter editor of the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line foscl.org.uk/  asked us for railway related memories. These were mine.

I grew up in the North Midlands in Kirkby in Ashfield , a small town with four different railway lines, three of which had stations. Most crossed the roads by bridges (or tunnels) with a few level crossings, notably the one next to the Midland station.

One of my earliest memories of the railway was lying in bed at night hearing goods trains struggling up the incline from Pye Bridge on the Midland line. It went on endlessly - a few slow cautious chuffs, followed by the staccato chatter as the wheels spun - repeated over and over. I don’t know whether it was leaves on the line, frost, snow or what, but it became ingrained on my consciousness.

From about the age of eleven I cycled everywhere, and often had to wait at the level crossing as a train slowly came into the station or as the loco sat part way across the level crossing waiting to depart. From platform level, a loco is big but from ground level it seems huge as I stood a few feet from wheels taller than me, with connecting rods and everything else that seemed massive.

What I remember most of all was the fear that the cylinders might explode. I know it’s irrational, but the power involved was very much in evidence, with steam under pressure emerging from various places. It was a bit like making a first flight. Rationally there is negligible risk, but something inside grips you with a fear of what might happen, because you would be able to do nothing to avoid it if it did.

I didn’t use the train a lot as a child. My first trip was at the age of about 12 in the late '50s when the Scouts went on a walk through Thrumpton and Barton in Fabis to Attenborough. I remember two things about the journey. One was that we were rowed across the river by a local man in a rowing boat. The other was the coin in the slot machine on Nottingham Midland station for printing name tags – embossed letters on metal strips – not the sort of thing you see on stations nowadays.

Like most children who went to grammar school, I used the bus. One of my friends went by train because his father was a railwayman and he got a free pass. I only used the train if there were no buses, since it would have been a half mile walk to the station, rather than catching a bus at the end of the street.

Every year the whole school, around 500 people, went on a day outing. I remember Blenheim, York, Fountains Abbey & London. The school hired a train for the main journey. It picked up at a few stations either side of Mansfield, and I joined it at Kirkby, and which station in Kirkby depended on where we were going. I wonder how many schools hire trains today.

During each Easter holiday, the school took a group to France, and I went in 1959. I forget the cost, but it was a significant outlay for my parents. We went by train and ferry, but with a party of dozens rather than hundreds we used service trains in England and France. We thought that French trains were faster than English ones, and I remember on the long run from Calais to Paris we tried to work out how fast by timing the clickety clacks.

We were in a corridor train, with a group of us slightly separated from the rest. It was late and we were tired. We all had our legs up on the opposite seat, or on someone else's legs. It grew dark and we turned out the light so we could doze. We pulled down the blind to keep out the corridor light. So there we were, a mixed bunch of girls and boys, dozing in the gloom with our legs all criss-crossed, when the head, a formidable man, opened the compartment door. These days we would not have batted an eyelid, but I remember jumping up to switch on the light. I need not have bothered. He was obviously more human than we gave him credit for, and just passed on.

We stayed in Tours, and made several day excursions by train. The trains were DMUs (Diesel Multiple Units) which I had not seen in England. The end cars had rounded ends with windows, but the thing I particularly remember was that some of the middle cars had a driver's cab with a sort of cockpit sticking up at one side of the train so the driver could see out. I have never seen anything similar.

The final drama came on the return trip. We crossed London by tube and at St Marylebone we only just caught the train. At least, most of us did. My friend who went to school by train didn’t quite make it, but the staff only discovered this after the train left. They managed to make contact with the station and established that he would be on a later train. I got off the train at Kirkby Bentinck, and the headmaster, who would not normally have got off there, was on the platform asking me to point out the missing boy's mother so he could break the news. Of course, several of us had already told her that he got left behind in London but she thought we were pulling her leg.

In 1961 while at school, I went on a one week course in Buxton, hosted by the CEGB (the national electricity generating and transmission organisation at that time). It was my first unaccompanied train trip. It took several hours and involved three changes – at Nottingham, Derby and Millers Dale. The outward journey was uneventful, but coming back the train stopped for a long time somewhere near Derby, with no light in the carriage. It was not a corridor train, so there were about eight of us stuck together in the gloom with no scenery to watch. One man broke the ice. He had a copy of what I think was then a new publication called Private Eye, and he proceeded to read us snippets from it.

It’s odd how such inconsequential things stick in one's mind after so many years.

  John Harrison (2020 + minor amendments 2023)

Article was published in the winter 2020 edition of the Wokingham U3A newsletter.

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