Over The Points
l like trains. I remember when Mama used to put us on the train. I was about 10. And we'd go to Oklahoma City to visit Granny. The trains were really nice then. They had concession stands and they would sell, uh, magazines and candy bars and soda. Then, about six years later I rode the train again and the concession stands were gone. There weren't too many people on the train. There weren't any dining cars, and the seats were all shabby. It's a shame. I used to like trains.
Mary Lou. The Man Who Fell To Earth. Nicolas Roeg. 1976.
We were on Bedford Midland Road station in the summer of 1967, not long before the end of the school holidays. Jimmy Dunn saw it first. "Steam" he shouted. No one had seen one for ages.
The official figures would tell you that in 1953, the year before I was born, there were 18,600 steam engines in service on Britain’s railways. In January 1960 that number was still 14,453. By January 1968 it had dwindled to 362 and by the summer they’d been taken out of service altogether. But I need little recourse to statistics to confirm the rapidity with which steam locomotion was erased from my daily life. I trusted the evidence of my own eyes. What had once been ubiquitous became a taken for granted absence. By the summer of 1967 they were lining them up in sidings, shunting them off to scrapyards, and towards the end they didn't even bother cleaning the ones that did run. It was common to see weather stained engines coated in grease and grime wheezing by on borrowed time. I caught what seasoned enthusiasts call ‘the dirty end’ of steam. Alert to their imminent demise one of my more enterprising mates had already taken to visiting engine sheds armed with screwdrivers and other handy tools with which to prize off nameplates, shed plates and anything else that could be removed and hoarded (and later no doubt sold on) as souvenirs of an era that was coming to an end.
"Steam!" Disbelief in Jimmy’s voice and our sudden glances. And there it was, leaning into the mainline curve that bypassed Bedford station, hauling nothing but a tender and gone in seconds, heading southbound under the road bridge by WH Allen’s steelworks and leaving little but a silvery blue wisp of smoke lingering in the late summer air. Off to submit to the cutter’s flame somewhere. The last one I ever saw in active service.
Trains ghost by in the background of De Chirico paintings. Silence stillness and long shadows cast. The rendezvous of strangers in timeless arcades. Dream images of mystery and melancholy. Titles that evoke some long-lost Moody Blues album. Enigma of a Day. Nostalgia of The Infinite. The Double Dream of Spring. The Anxious Journey. Happiness of Returning.
A locomotive emerges from a drawing room fireplace in Rene Magritte’s Time Transfixed. Painted in the 1930s when everyone heated their houses with coal. Clock and candlesticks on the mantlepiece. The engine in suspended animation. Dreamsleep logic.
A friend showed me a photo taken on repeat exposure. A diesel engine emerging from another engine emerging from another in a Vorticist blur. Rapidity conveyed with the proficiency of an early century modernist. My mate the velocity king, finger trickster. Showing me a world like that. Me willing the world to be like that.
Train tunes on Children’s Favourites. The programme’s opening theme, Puffin’ Billy, Coronation Scot by Vivian Ellis, a steam engine as sleek as a Cunard liner coated in a decorative electric streak of icing. Freight Train by Nancy Whiskey. Michael Holiday singing The Runaway Train ran over the hill and she blew. The Railroad Comes Through The Middle of the House by Rosemary Clooney. Magritte made flesh in a hale and hearty murder ballad that used to terrify me.
Trains splitting the horizon between the big sky and the flat land when I was taken for Sunday evening walks as a child. Shuffling the dusty track that ran alongside a perimeter wire fence that bordered scrubland acquisitioned by the Ministry of Defense for an emergency rail link between the LNER main line and the Oxford to Cambridge branch line in case one or the other got bombed during WW2. Land that was still fenced off and festooned with Warning Keep Out signs in the late 1950s.
Steam chugging by on the branch line as we shivered in the outdoor pool at Newnham Baths in Bedford. Junior School children left to splash about with minimal supervision on Friday mornings in the bleak light of late January. The engine returning with empty coal trucks from Goldington Power Station. My school friend John Waller memorizing the number.
Memories multi-latticed with crisscross grids switch points long tunnels shallow cuttings curves gradients freight trucks marshalling yards down signals up signals sidings trees houses cooling towers signal boxes factory gates crossing gates gas works viaducts arches tenement blocks. A flicker flash of images hurtles by like that London Victoria to Brighton in four minutes film they used to show as filler between programmes in the days when tv schedules were less precise and there were 57 minutes in some hours and 62 in others.
After we’d been to the shops in the afternoon Mum would peddle to the top of the high street and sit me on the stone flagging of the railway bridge where I would watch the streamlined A4 Pacifics roar through at speeds in excess of 100 mph. That particular section of track at Sandy was the fastest on the London and North Eastern Railway. In 1938, only 60 miles north of where I grew up Mallard had broken the world speed record for a steam engine. Sir Nigel Gresley, another A4, broke the post-war record in May 1959. I might even have seen it going through. I never knew these streamlined engines as A4s and wasn’t familiar with the classification until much later. Everyone I knew referred to them as ‘streaks’ and that’s what they did, these awesome elegant beasts with their furious pistons and their smoke belch, they streaked through my town, thunderous and wondrous to watch. I saw them during their Indian summer in the last of their glory days before they were decommissioned from express passenger service, and the newly built Deltic diesels (equally awesome in their way) replaced them. I used to scrawl down their names and numbers on the back of Mum’s shopping list and discard the piece of paper as soon as I got home. Why would you want to keep a list of train numbers?
A4 60003 Andrew K. McCosh streaking under the bridge where I was held tightly
Slightly older, in my teens by now, I used to lay in bed listening to the diesels growling and purring through the clear night air. A far-off rumble away across the fields, it would grow louder then fade again. Every detail amplified by the stillness of the late hour in a quiet town, rattling over points, the full throttle of an engine opening up. The bit I liked best was when the noise grew fainter and dipped out of earshot before one last surge would seep into my half sleep. I always listened for that final surge and wondered how sound could carry like that, resounding across flat arable acres, rebounding off bridges and embankments, ricocheting through back alleys and the gaps between houses.
You should be able to see sound. Trace its path like light. They should invent a machine like those town guide grids in bus stations and shopping centres that show the local amenities with a series of tiny illuminated bulbs. You Are Here. You'd press G4 (train noise) and A1 (my house) and the guide would show you what route the sound took to reach you. You should be able to trace everything like that, all the way back to childhood.
December 1964. Snow on the Beano masthead. The last day of school before we broke up for Christmas. We lived in the basin confluence of two rivers and it was a typical winter’s morning of frost and fog. John Waller walked into the playground at nine o'clock and said ‘there's been a train crash’. Everyone chattered excitedly about it all morning. At 12 o'clock I went home for my dinner and it was on the news.
"At 5.45 this morning a goods train crashed at Sandy on the Kings Cross mainline to the North."
They mention the nowhere town where you live. It sounds strange coming out of the wireless on somebody else’s lips, who doesn’t speak with your accent, who sounds proper clipped and posh.
"An express train had passed through only moments before and a disaster was narrowly averted."
Mum said you're not to go up there after school.
"The cause of the crash is believed to have been frozen points."
Mum said you're to come home for your tea.
After school I pelted straight up there. All the wagons on the goods train had concertinaed into a smashed and battered stack of splintered wood and tangled bogie wheels that reached higher than the nearby alley bridge. Had the accident occurred ten yards sooner it would have brought it down. Cranes were working by arc light in the early dark. Mum was leaning on her handlebars talking to a neighbour leaning on hers. Gossip stance.
"What are you doing up here? I thought I told you to go straight home for your tea." An unattended backdoor key hanging from a nail in the shed. Half of Sandy seemed to be there.
The train was carrying frozen fish and on the Saturday morning the townsfolk made a human chain all the way down the steep embankment to the track. The fish boxes were passed to the top where it was sold for tuppence a piece. Mr. Edgar who ran the local chippie bought a van load and sold it in his shop, making a tidy profit no doubt tutted Mum who bought none. If anyone got a stale smelling piece of plaice for weeks afterwards they said "I bet he's still selling that old train crash fish."
The clean up continues the following day. Locals watch from the Alley Bridge
Momentum in the 6.5 Special theme tune ‘over the points over the points’ that I used to rock to in my high chair. The Welsh mountain peerchicoof of Ivor The Engine. The gentle poetic lilt of Oliver Postgate, the slate grey enchantment of Peter Firmin’s drawings, the childhood introduction to bleakness that was Vernon Elliot’s bassoon. Momentum in that first time I sat opposite my parents at Kings Cross station and watched adjacent coaches sliding by as our train pulled out, only to come to with a sudden start when confronted with a static brick wall and the realization it was the other train departing not mine. (Metaphor.) Momentum in the panic-stricken seconds when I sat behind the driver at the front of a two-car Multi. In the crisscross pattern of points I suddenly saw an oncoming engine apparently heading straight for us but in the switch flick of seconds it passed harmlessly by. (Another metaphor) Momentum in the meter of Larkin’s Saturday afternoon among the Whitsun Weddings and in the freight yard Sutras of Ginsberg and Kerouac. Momentum in Kevin Ayers’ Gurdjieff driven Stop This Train Again Doing It and The Pop Group’s Let Me Talk To The Driver (“he’s taking me somewhere/I don’t want to go”) Momentum in every schoolboy daytrip I made to London where the ride was more enjoyable than the arriving. (A third metaphor.) Green hills looming above an approaching tunnel, the endless spread of trucks at Hornsey goods yard, the briefly glimpsed splendor of Kings Cross shed with the A4s and Pullman cars lined up in regal rows. The gaping black edifice of Copenhagen tunnel about to swallow me whole. I still habitually look up to catch sight of where the bodies were dropped in The Lady Killers, a film that resounds to the hiss of steam noir, shunted trucks, clanking freight couplings.
I was a train spotter from about the age of ten to fourteen. It was primarily a social activity rather than an obsession and I was never fully dedicated to the task. Mostly I enjoyed being in the company of my mates. I didn’t have the funds to go away on three-day jaunts to York or Barry Docks like they did and my loco spotters book lacked the heavily underlined pages of the completist who had seen and logged entire engine classes in neatly ruled blue or black biro. Bedford, Bletchley, Cambridge, and the occasional negotiation of London by engine shed were about as far as I ever went in search of trains outside my region, but I did spend a significant portion of my school holidays lounging on station luggage trolleys, grassy embankments and bridges listening to the test match or the pop pirate stations and taking down engine numbers.
I developed all the necessary instincts of the loco spotter. Speedy reactions, rapid hand to eye co-ordination, the ability to while away the long empty moments where nothing much was happening. I learned the lingo too. A newly spotted train was a ‘cop’. Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) were ‘multis’ and were held in such low regard that it seemed hardly worth the effort to scribble their numbers down. If you had been inside an engine you had ‘cabbed’ it. A signal was a ‘peg’. ‘Double main peg’ meant that trains were signalled simultaneously to arrive from North (down) and South (up) on the express track rather than the slow one. Visiting engine sheds without permission was ‘bunking’. We did a lot of bunking. Our enthusiasms were accommodated in ways that would seem unthinkable now. We were frequently invited into train cabs ; at 13 years old I remember being allowed to drive a multi from one end of the branch line platform to the other after being shown how to operate the ‘deadman’s handle’. Another time, a group of us were allowed to enter a main line diesel engine, a Brush 4 I think, via the back cab and walk through the narrow corridor past the engine room to the front cab. As we edged along a narrow gangway past the roaring internal mechanism the driver’s assistant thought it amusing to flick the lights off for a moment. The signalman on the Oxford to Cambridge branch line often invited us into his box. We were given mugs of tea from a stove kettle that permanently simmered away, and shown how to operate the heavy signal levers which permitted train to pass. The health and safety future was a far off foreign country to us.
The signal box, a Multi and the luggage trolleys where we lounged entire summers away
When our enthusiasms weren’t being reciprocated we trespassed routinely. We never bought platform tickets. On the rare occasions we were challenged by an over officious jobsworth we simply moved from the station to another vantage point. We skimmed down embankments and put pennies on the line. Slow trains were best. An express train doing a ton would simply reduce your coin to shards of shrapnel, and jettison the pieces into the trackside shale never to be seen again. What you needed ideally was a long slow-moving line of freight trucks laden with coal or cement which might squish your copper into a token the size of your hand.
In the mid-afternoon lull between trains we stood on the alley bridge and lobbed carrots and marrows from a nearby field onto the narrow gantry of the main signal. We called it our selection box. The rotting vegetables would sit there for weeks, decaying in the summer sun. If we were really bored we clambered down the embankment and pressed our ears to the track native American Indian style. Instead of listening for horse’s hooves we detected in the minute vibrations of the steel an approaching engine. We never thought this irresponsible. We didn’t play chicken, put heavy obstacles on the line or steal from unattended ticket offices or workman’s huts, although we had endless opportunities to do so. Had there been trackside CCTV in those days we would have appeared on the footage and the local news.
On their long distance jaunts my mates often skipped fares and on one occasion, stranded in York on the return journey home they simply bought a fourpenny ticket to the next station and hid in the toilets all the way back to Bedfordshire. In all other respects they adhered to the obsessive priorities of the loco spotter. In July 1966 when half the nation was watching the World Cup Final they went to Bletchley trainspotting and listened to the commentary on the radio. On another occasion, a day excursion to Skegness with my family, those same mates showed me how easy it was to steal from the seaside market. We filled our pockets with gaudy baubles and worthless trinkets most of which were jettisoned long before the return journey. Word went around on the train going home that the Showbiz Football XI were on board. Several of the women scurried off to have a look while the men affected coolness and indifference. “I saw Jim Dale” said my mum, visibly flushed when she returned to her seat.
The sheer crucifying ennui of being an adolescent in a small town. You can dream your teen dreams but it’s never enough. I watched a TV programme about sugar cane cutting in the West Indies, and intrigued by the freight engine that made its way through the fields of an unfamiliar landscape I began imagining rail tracks superimposed upon everything. On boredom driven bike rides or morning paper round I replaced the travelworn contours of my journey with arterial routes and imagined I was navigating in the engine of my choosing. Side roads became sidings or branch lines. Parked cars became freight wagons. An intersection of main roads was the conjoining of routes at a major junction. I overtook old ladies on bicycles as a Deltic would a shunter. In one of Jack Kerouac’s novels he mentions that as a child he imagined his bus having side fins and scything through roadside vegetation and parked cars. I used to do that do too. I’ve yet to find a writer who paved their childhood imagination and their daily dull routine with train tracks, parallel lines, crisscross grids, as I did.
I realize now that I was nostalgic for steam engines long before I was yearnful about anything else, certainly before I was nostalgic about music. I didn’t start raiding junk shops for old pop records until I was in my twenties, and even then, initially at least, it was only an occasional almost novel impulse. It was different with steam. Steam had been consigned to the past by the time I was fourteen but the memory scent lingered long after those trails of smoke dissipated that day on Bedford Midland Road station.
In May 1968, when Alan Peglar ran his specially chartered Flying Scotsman from Kings Cross to Edinburgh half of our town turned out to watch. It was a sunny Sunday morning and the embankments and railway bridges were lined with people. Me and my mates headed north out of town to a favoured spot by an iron bridge surrounded by flat fields of wheat. We tried to gauge the wind direction so that we might ensure standing on the smoky side (we miscalculated as I recall) and suddenly there it was in the distance and here it came gleaming in green, livery all clean and shiny, and soon enough, too soon, it was upon us, and when it was gone I just felt sad. Like Peggy Lee at the circus. Is that all there is to a steam excursion? Is that all there is?
Almost exactly a year earlier, on the morning of the FA Cup Final between Spurs and Chelsea we’d taken the branch line from Sandy to Cambridge to go and see the Flying Scotsman on another of its charter runs. Children and adults alike swarmed in a way that they no longer can, spilling onto the tracks, clambering aboard the already overcrowded footplate, all benignly overseen by the patrician Mr. Pegler who two years later, with spectacularly misjudged acumen shipped the Flying Scotsman over to the USA. The privately financed venture was supposed to be part of the I’m Backing Britain campaign to boost exports. All it attracted was a little desultory sponsorship which didn’t cover the costs and left Pegler to return home bankrupt without his engine which was impounded for non-payment of taxes.
Images slow reveal through a haze, like Jenny Agutter’s Daddy my Daddy moment in The Railway Children. Verification hangs tenuous from a memory thread. Saturday morning mist. Late Autumn. A boy of seven, maybe eight. I stood alone on the railway embankment and looked down to where a steam train was lying on its side on the branch line just north of the station. Silent immobilized it looked like a toy engine does when it topples off the tracks. There was no one else around. Just me and the train, cushioned by a bed of wet bracken. No rescue crane. No crew. No tender. No coaches. Just the dirty black engine in the early quiet. When I came back later that day it had gone and there was nothing to suggest it had ever been there.
Another day on the alley bridge. A long haul of freight trucks went through on the slow line heading north, and at the back a guard’s van, its rear right side back wheel derailed and detached, scraping and screeching along on the wrong side of the track. Again, just me alone to witness this, no one to call out to or phone for help. Who would you ring anyway? It’s the old wasp joke. I got stung. Have you put anything on it? No, it’s probably miles away by now.
Another day down by the A1. The traffic going by. And there on the back of a north bound low loader, a steam engine, one of the few that was spared, no doubt on its way to one of the numerous preservation societies that were set up to save these magnificent feats of mechanical engineering, some of which were less than two decades old and had fifty years of working life left in them. As a kid I saw many things go up and down that road. The aftermath of the great winter white out of 1962/63 when cars and lorries were left abandoned where they had jackknifed or skidded into ditches. Entire military convoys off on maneuvers, camouflaged fleets of tanks and trucks. Coachloads of Sheffield Wednesday supporters kitted out in hats, scarves and club colours, on their way down to Wembley for the 1966 FA Cup Final against Everton. But no sight was ever more surreal than that steam engine on a low loader on a bright summer’s morning, red flags fluttering, overtake with caution sign flashing, being slowly hauled somewhere to begin life anew.
The hot summer of 69. I was dangling off the rec-swings in the early evening thinking where is everybody? Anybody. A boy went running by, the panic run, probably late for his tea. I didn't know him. He shouted across the road. It must have been to me. There was no one else to hear, but he was drowned out by a passing fire engine. In the distance another bell was clanging. Must be the tire yard gone up again. Where was everybody?
I run to all the way to my friend Will’s at the other end of town. His back door is ajar. His Mum sits in the kitchen smoking. Black paper confetti on the floor where she’s lit another fag on the gas stove.
- Is Will in?
- He's not here. They've gone to look at the train crash.
Five years earlier it was frozen points, smelly fish and trucks piled higher than a bridge. Five forty-five AM in dismal dark December. This time it happened at the height of summer, early evening, an eighty-degree day that refused to cool down, mirage shimmer off the tracks and rails buckling in the heat. An express train leaned into the curve just south of the station. And by the time I got there, panting, having Alf Tuppered the length of the town it was a derailed engine and a twisted line of uncoupled coaches strewn about the embankment. It's a miracle no one was killed says the Daily Express the next morning. It's a miracle no one was killed says all the town as it gathers once again to gawp. It’s a miracle no one was killed says the news presenter to the BBC cameras. “I saw Richard Whitmore” said Mum.
All that first week of the school holidays that seemed to stretch out endlessly we gathered to watch the cranes lifting tangled wreckage, till eventually the sun stopped shining and the rail tracks melted back into shape.
Everybody has their escapist ideal, their Arcady, their Utopia, their Hacienda that shall be built in the mind if nowhere else. My fantasy is that Britain is still riddled with railways. Not just the abundance of linkage that existed before Beeching’s axe came down in the early 1960s. I want the full 1907 Bradshaw’s Map when the railway age was at its height and train lines seemed as abundant as rivers, when services and routes were the vascular lifeblood of these isles and a rail map bulged with ventricles. Every one of these Edwardian era lines would still be in operation and not a single turf from an embankment cutting would have been hacked out in vain. The railways would be as sacrosanct as the NHS. The 1963 Beeching cuts would not have been implemented. Barbara Castle’s 1968 plans for a fully integrated transport system would. The language of unprofitability and unsustainability would not have infected the vernacular. The vested interests of the motorway builders and the haulage companies would have been thwarted. Our trunk roads and motorways would not be choked with rush hour cars and pantechnicons.
My fantasy is one-part William Morris artisanship adapted to the industrial age, one part Reithian BBC, one part Bolshevism. Community would speak unto community by being able to get there by rail. From the busiest metropolitan centre to the far-flung Scottish croft, everyone would have a common vested interest in the same standard gauge system. All would be served equally by a network that would have been nationalized on October 26th 1917 and never sold back into private ownership. Successive innovations in rail transport, steam, diesel, electric, rail bus, tram would all share the same multiplicity of routes. To each according to their ability and their usefulness to the common good.
Beeching’s savage erosion of 12,000 miles of track and the selling off of valuable land assets to developers in the 1960s would never have transpired. Stations would retain their station masters, gardens and gardeners, as well as their architectural flavor, ornate glass, iron canopies, neo-classical pedimenta. John Betjeman would have gone to meet his maker content in the knowledge that his beloved station buildings were not being vandalized. This is a dream wish for conservation not conservativism. Newly built stations could be as Brutalist, Avant-Garde, Art Deco or Kitsch as their designers wished. There would be an annual Turner Prize style award for services to railway design aesthetics. The railways would have ridden out industrial and technological changes without hardship or the destruction of entire communities. The inevitable decline in industries such as coal and steel would have been managed and gradual. The new manufacturing bases, silicon valleys, out of town supermarkets, retail warehouses, business parks, could all have been served by and thrived on the railways, on infrastructure that was built to last and if properly managed would still cost no more to maintain than our permanently coned off motorways. The rise in new population centres (something Beeching took no account of) would have fed off and fed into the railway network. The shopping temples of commerce would still have come but they would have been built on railway land with a park and ride and an integrated railway station instead of what we have now, gridlocked feeder roads. A percentage of profits from these ventures would be paid into the exchequer and ploughed back into the system. The nationalized fully subsidized British Rail, like the Church of England, would be a benign landlord.
Railways would still thread throughout these isles, embedded in the contours of the land, curving past woodland glades, traversing chalk pits and slate quarries, manifesting in unbroken parallel lines of continuity all the way back to when we splashed happily in open air pools in the faraway and long ago of my childhood.
I dream my dreams and stand on the sunlit platform of one of Britain’s hundred or so privately-owned heritage railways. Engines that once cruised at 80 miles an hour now chug sedately along eight or ten or twelve miles of track for tourists, railway devotees and day trippers. They pull a patchwork of coaches in pick and mix liveries purloined from whichever breakers yard spared them. The engines too have been wrenched from the region they once served, via Woodhams scrap yard at Barry, and now put on a workmanlike display for whoever will come to watch and wave. Some of these restored locomotives are numbered according to their pre-1948 nationalization ranking. Others bear their British Rail classification. Some have names that didn’t have names previously. On the stations that serve them, freshly painted picket fencing is lined with tin plate advertising. Promotional clutter that never existed in such abundance when the steam age was at its height. All is simulacra.
None more so than the fabled Flying Scotsman of my youth, which was saved from ignominy by Sir William McAlpine in 1973 and, after a moribund decade or three, steams once more on specially chartered runs to the delight of all who cherish the sight of such things. The Flying Scotsman was initially a London to Edinburgh service called the Flying Scotchman, and at one point was pulled by three different A3 or A4 locomotives. Only later did it become synonymous with one engine. And that engine has become the epitome of invented tradition. Since it was built The Flying Scotsman has been allocated three different classes, three different styles of chimney, four liveries, six numbers, nine tenders and fifteen new boilers.  It is Trigger’s broom from Only Fools And Horses (17 new heads and 14 new handles) the 66 members of Mark E Smith’s Fall (if it’s me and yer granny on bongos it’s still The Fall.) In the sum of those disparate parts we assemble the myth of an age that has well and truly vanished. The engine is the embodiment of our collective dreams and desires, a mirage we see through the heat that shimmers from sunlit tracks. It is no more real than those restored farmhouses where the structure has been gutted but some original timbering has been retained. There is just enough authenticity to bear witness to past glories. The rest is nostalgia answering to a powerful calling.
None of these preserved railway lines has ever gone bust. They rely on the goodwill of volunteer labour and an economic model that has more to do with Victorian philanthropy than modern day financial realities. And one day, when the spare parts and the ability to maintain the hardware runs out, when those skilled enough to fix and weld and indeed drive have dwindled to the numbers of thatchers and blacksmiths the steam engines will be immobilised once more, this time for good. And in the age of global warming from where will they
obtain their supply of fossil fuels? In the meantime, those who still come to gaze
do so in fascinate contemplation. Many of them are younger than me. They can’t
possibly have witnessed the original steam age but like me they enjoy being in
close proximity to these wheezing hissing remnants of a time when we built things.
Like a sensory imprint of memory some facsimile of the original infrastructure is
retained even though the world itself has changed utterly. I have little truck with that
‘vanished way of life’ steam nostalgia supposedly represents. I’m glad that a lot of
that life has vanished along with outdoor plumbing, diphtheria, German measles
and smoke kippered fleapit cinemas. But still I dream my dreams.
I am the bystanders you see gathered in the glow, breathing in the aroma, still hoping
to be on the right side for the smoke drift when the engine goes by. I don’t seek out
these heritage lines or plan holidays around them, but I will always find an excuse to
look and a linger if I happen to be near one. I’m no more obsessive than I was as a
trainspotting kid. I carry no camera or log book, just memories of a time I lived
through. I hold my small daughter up to gaze at the spectacle of these wonderous
beasts like my Mum once held me. My child looks in wide eyed wonder as I surely did. She only flinches when the shrill whistle blows. We wave the engine off and go and buy an ice cream.
My steam age memories slip into the realms of psychogeography and hauntology. The hosts of lost time beckon me into a long dark Copenhagen tunnel of the mind. The ripped-out guts of the industrial age manifest in a dream derive, a past laden present, a revisited London Victoria to Brighton, in real time this time, a multisensory amble along muddied tracks, cycle paths, dog walks. Traces of old branch lines fade into autumn mist and coppice meads. The people’s archivists of You Tube film with pin point precision the trajectories of former rail routes including my own Cambridge to Bedford soul map. My virtual tour guide leads me through an ordnance survey of ghost grids and burial grounds. Here a weather worn gradient post, there an abandoned plateman’s hut. Traversing open meadows and causeways where remnants of the lines remain untouched and one distant day will be pondered and puzzled over like the ancient earth mounds of our ancestors.
Sporadically along the way a goods wagon or guard’s van has been left to rot just as the farmers often left their rusted implements to rot when I was young. Field-side ploughs and seed drills returning to nature, nestling in weed beds, thistles thrusting up between grounded spikes. The remains of station platforms exposed as if at low tide, the undulations of grassy embankments where the line was laid, the stunted abutments of bridges long gone, the track bed overgrown with self-seeded trees and brambled thickets, a spectral topography as resilient as memory but prone to time’s interventions, familiar routes rudely violated by newly built leisure centres, heritage trails, by passes, and housing estates which disrupt the psycho acoustic properties of the night and whose inhabitants will never hear the late night engine surge as I once heard it in my half sleep.
Alan Peglar, the man who saved The Flying Scotsman from the scrapyard in 1963 but failed to stave off bankruptcy in the United States in 1972, had to work his passage back to England as a ship’s entertainer. He subsequently spent several years at sea on the SS Canberra as a heritage raconteur before becoming a fancy-dress Beefeater in mutton chops and full Tudor rig at themed Medieval ceremonial banquets for London tourists. He never lost his love for the engine he saved but which almost ruined him. In the 1930s he had read law at Cambridge and often used to ride on the footplate of local trains with compliant drivers who cared as little for rules and regulation as we did 30 year later. In an interview with Steam Railway magazine in 1983 he said this. “Once, we came round the curve from Cambridge and alongside the East Coast mainline at Sandy on the left I saw the Coronation going North, beaver tail observation car, the lot. The finest view I ever had of an A4 going flat out.”
It stays with you.
(1) Flying Scotsman : Modernity, nostalgia, and Britain’s ‘cult of the past’. Science Museum Group Journal. 15.3.2016
1. Michael Mensing
2. John Crawley
3. Michael Mensing
4. Caroline Chapman
5,6,7 Screengrab. Rediscovering the Varsity Line. www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrzM8cj0QG8