Archive | April, 2012

CONFESSIONS OF A TRAIN-SPOTTER.

16 Apr

OK, I admit it – I was a trainspotter! Yes, I was that “anorak”! Today the humble anorak is a source of amusement, even derision, supposedly symbolising sad people who hang around train stations recording numbers. However, when I wore one in the early 60’s, it was a practical and affortable garment for those of us who didn’t have a lot of money, and very adaptable too. It kept me warm and dry on wintry football terraces and draughty stations while  waiting for trains. Later it stood in for the more expensive parka when I was trying to be a Mod on my dad’s old Lambretta, and even served me during my “All You Need Is Love” phase through the ingenious rouse of attaching Hippie bells to its toggles! But it is with trainspotting that it was ( and is) most closely associated, and I am proud to confess that for a period in my early adolescence, I was an ardent spotter.

I might moan about getting old now, but I have to admit that I was born at a pretty fortuitous time. I missed the horrors of the war by just 4 years, belonged to the first generation to enjoy the considerable benefits of the National Health Service, was there at the birth of Rock ‘n Roll and was a young teen when The Beatles and Stones exploded on to the scene. I am a member of the much envied and criticised ” Baby- Boomer” generation, as if we can help when we were born. Unbelievably I was also lucky enough to be there at the start of the nationalised British Railways and was around to witness the final, spectacular hurrah of steam locomotion. By the time I was 18, steam had disappeared from our rails forever, but before that I was there — on the stations, in the sheds, on the bridges, experiencing it’s final, unforgettable flourish. After that it gave way to diesels and electrics — quieter, quicker, cleaner, safer — but infinitely more boring.

It is 1962 and I am about 12 or 13. It is early evening and school has finished for the day. I’m sitting on a high footbridge which straddles the main LMS railway line near Chesterfield, Derbyshire. I am with a few of my mates. We are all armed with pens and notebooks. We also clutch our trainspotters’ Bibles — the Ian Allen Combined Volume, which lists the number, name and technical details of every locomotive in the land. We called it a ten and sixer because it cost the princely sum of 10 shillings and six pence, a lot of money for schoolboys in 1962. Suddenly 2 signals on the nearby gantry clatter into the up-position. An important passenger train is due. It will be the Thames-Clyde Express from St Pancras. Stuck in a dead-end East Midlands town, we thought of London and Glasgow as impossibly remote and romantic destinations. The train arrives and stops at the station down the line. Passengers disembark and board in a flurry of greetings and farewells. Then a shrill whistle sounds, followed by the slow chug chug of the locomotive as it hauls its heavy load away from the platform. The sky fills with clouds of smoke pothering from the chimney. As the train picks up speed and nears our bridge, it is like an elemental force — noisy, dirty, powerful, a spectacular mechanical monster. It pounds our senses; we see it, smell it and hear it’s deafening roar. Maybe the Victorians should have called it the Iron Dragon rather than the Iron Horse. We narrow our eyes to focus in on the number and name. Will it be a “cop”? ( first time seen.) The noise reaches a resounding crescendo, then the whole bridge erupts into an inferno of smoke and steam as the train rushes beneath us. The passenger coaches clatter quickly and rhythmically over the rails and points. We are engulfed by the sound and the smell and are momentarily overwhelmed by the sheer thrill of it all. Then the sound fades, the steam dissapates and the train shrinks into the distance, getting smaller and smaller until it disappears altogether on its journey to places unknown to us. All is quiet on the bridge now except for the residual ringing in our ears.

That’s train-spotting!  It’s much more than merely ticking off numbers. It could be an all-consuming experience. In the days of steam it was a passionate and theatrical event, a brief escape from the comparative monotony of everyday existance.

I have deliberately over-written that section to try to get across the drama and spectacle that train-spotting in the steam age represented for young lads who had yet to discover girls. We couldn’t afford to travel much ourselves. We felt trapped in a boring, back-water town. We had yet to discover pop music and couldn’t afford the records anyway. So train-spotting was our escape. It was a valuable way of meeting and socialising with others. We could vicariously travel to all the places that the trains were going to. We journeyed in our imaginations and the seeds of future wanderlust were sown.

I had a head-start over my fellow train enthusiasts because my father, Maurice, actually worked on the railways. After delivering repaired shoes on a bike with a basket, he worked in a freezing factory making light bulbs ( 13 colds in 13 months!). He was then relieved and delighted to be taken on by British Rail as an engine cleaner at the tender age of 15. ( he had left school at just 13.) He progressed on to being a stoker or fireman, a tough, dirty but important job which he did for 17 years. Finally at the age of 35 he became a fully-fledged engine driver — which used to be every schoolboy’s dream before they switched to wanting to be Astronauts. Dad’s work was very hard with long hours and unsociable shifts but it was a career for life on the newly nationalised “Peoples’ Railway.”

When I was little, dad sometimes took me down to the shed where he worked and I saw the huge locomotives arranged in a circle around a giant turntable. It was like the one in the National Rail Museum in York except much dirtier and smellier. The locos were covered in layers of grease and grime and dripping with oil. Men worked on them constantly — cleaning, lubricating, checking, repairing. Steam locomotives were high maintenance and soaked up a lot of man hours. Dad would lift me into a cab — the Holy grail for every trainspotter, and I would stand on the foot-plate, mesmerised by the complex array of: knobs, levers and gauges and pretending to be the driver. My father mainly worked on unglamorous good trains, taking long loads of coal trucks from the pits to the power-stations. However, he occasionally drove passenger trains, especially holiday specials to places like Blackpool. These were very popular once holidays with pay came in and before the inexorable rise of the private motor car.

So railways were in my blood, so to speak. My family travelled on them at least 3 times a year, taking advantage of dad’s free passes, one of the few perks of the job. We travelled to a different seaside resort every summer and also went to Blackpool in the autumn to catch the Illuminations.( a family tradition.) We annually visited friends in Liverpool, where we took the ferry ‘cross the Mersey before Gerry and the Pacemakers immortalised it. All this was done on exciting steam trains, puffing and snorting their way across the land.

Steam trains were relics from a bygone era. They were invented in pre-Victorian times and had been going for over 150 years by the time I was born in 1949. To all intents and purposes, their job was done by the end of the Second World War. They had served the country well and now it was time for them to gracefully retire. The day of the diesel had arrived. On the continent, in France, Germany and Italy, the war-wrecked railways were rebuilt on the basis of modern electrification. However, in Britain the railways had not been destroyed outright and it was possible to patch them up and keep them running with steam. At the time ( late 40’s) coal was plentiful and cheap whereas oil for diesels was expensive and would have to be imported. This was before the discovery of North Sea oil. Also, diesel locomotives were at first unreliable and electrification was deemed too expensive by the post-war Labour government, which has higher priorities such as: bringing in the National Health Service, housing bombed out families and rebuilding the shattered steel industry. Thus, steam defied and out-lived its sell-by date and 2500 new locomotives were built between 1948  and 1960. It was a miracle for history buffs and railway enthusiasts alike — a rare example of the PAST living on into the FUTURE. The great variety of locomotives ranging from small, fussy tank engines to majestic, mainline giants, made for an endlessly fascinating spectacle. The drama and romance even attracted the film industry, which immortalised the steam trains running through Carnforth station in David Lean’s classic: “Brief Encounter.” This in turn had powerful echoes of the unforgettable, steam-drenched final drama of Leo Tolstoy’s great novel: “Anna Karenina”, a century earlier.

All the history, spectacle and glamour of steam travel created a powerful and magnetic spell that held sway over thousands of enthusiasts ( and still does.) As I got older, I travelled further afield to spot locomotives from different regions. I went to London to see Southern Region trains at Waterloo and the Western Region at Paddington. We went to Tamworth, Crewe and Carlisle for the West Coast Mainline. Best of all, my mates and I would go to Retford and Doncaster to see the spectacular Kings Cross to Edinburgh expresses on the east coast mainline ( the old LNER), including the legendary “Flying Scotsman.” They were pulled by huge, immensely powerful “Pacific” locomotives — the A1’s, A2’s and A3’s. The undoubted highlights however were the “iconic” A4 Pacifics, designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, looking like sleek rockets in their resplendent stream-lined, aero-dynamic casing. We nicknamed them the “Streaks” because they went so fast. The most famous “streak” of all was The Mallard, 6022, holder of the World speed record for a steam locomotive. In 1938 it reached a top speed of 126 mph, to smash the record of 124.5 held by a German loco since 1936. Mallard’s record remains unbroken.

The trainspotting craze took such a hold over us that we started to take risks and even flirt with danger. We risked arrest and prosecution by sneaking into railway sheds, leaping over the lines and dodging amongst the locos, to scribble down as many numbers as possible before being spotted and chucked out. Once I even scaled a high wall under cover of darkness to gain access to the engines in York’s prized sheds. We darted between the resting giants until a searchlight suddenly picked us out and a loud voice over the tannoy ordered us out. It was like a scene from Dr No! ( you know — the bit when James Bond and his companions are discovered to be on the sinister Doctor’s secret island and are caught in dazzling spotlights.) Alright, I exaggerate, but I you know what I’m getting at.

Steam locomotives continued to be built up to 1960, but as coal became more and more expensive, the rail system began to lose a lot of money. People and freight then started to desert the railways for the roads, including the newly built motorways. The days of steam were now increasingly numbered. A modernisation plan in the mid 1950’s recommended diesels and electrics. The last loco to be constructed was the evocatively named “Evening Star”. The launch ceremony at the famous Swindon works established by Brunel a century before, was a sombre and serious affair. Everyone present knew it was the end of an era.

One of the final nails in the coffin of steam was hammered in by the infamous Beeching cuts in the early 60’s. The railways were now to be regarded as a profit seeking ( or loss avoiding) industry rather than a public service. ( An early example of Thatcherism) Unprofitable branch lines were closed en masse, leaving remote, rural communities even more isolated. Suddenly, lots of locomotives were surplus to requirements and there was an unseemly headlong rush to scrap steam. Sidings up and down the country started to pile up with redundant steam locomotives that had literally reached “the end of the line.” These final resting places were like the graveyards of steam. In one year, 500 locomotives were scrapped without sentiment. Even Evening Star only lasted until 1965, although after its withdrawel it was preserved rather than destroyed. It wasn’t just the locos. All the coking plants, watering points, firemen and many of the smaller stations suddenly became redundant. My dad had to re-train to learn how to drive the new diesels. Actually he didn’t view the end of steam through misty eyes like me. When I recently asked him what he felt about the end of steam locomotives, his reply was : ” they couldn’t get rid of them quick enough.” He told me that the steam locos he drove were getting increasingly unreliable and were always breaking down. The last steam pulled passenger train ran from Liverpool to Manchester and on to Carlisle in August, 1968.

Except for a select band of engines to be preserved for posterity, most steam locomotives now lay corroding in scrapyards, waiting to be dismantled. To me, ( if not my dad) it was a sad and pathetic sight. My friends and I visited line after line of pitiful, rusting hulks in our local sidings. Even my younger sister, Glenys, got caught up with the emotion and accompanied me down to the shed to catch a last glimpse of a vanishing age. We climbed into the silent, empty cabs. A sad, eerie atmosphere pervaded as we wandered amongst the ghosts of this poignant graveyard. Our voices were hushed as if we were attending a funeral.

My trainspotting days faded with the steam. Other interests and pursuits crowded in and took over my life. However, my love of steam trains has never completely died. Thanks to the many Heritage Railways which rescued and restored numerous locomotives, I can still go back and relive the sights, sounds and smells of the last glorious days of steam. The fabulous North York Moors Railway is nearby and only last week I went on a short steam train ride at Beamish Museum, County Durham with my daughter Joanna and grand-daughters Esme and Nina. I still cling on to my prized Ian Allen’s “ten and sixer”, but I regret to report that the anorak is long gone!

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF BRUNEL.

4 Apr

I’ve just ticked off two of the sights I’ve wanted to see for a very long time — the great iron, Trans-Atlantic steamship: The SS Great Britain and the truly spectacular Clifton Suspension Bridge. Both are in Bristol and both were designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of our greatest ever engineers. When I studied my favourite subject of History at school in the 1960’s, it seemed to largely consist of the lives and achievements of great men and women, our country’s heroes and heroines. So I learnt about Clive of India, Gordon of Khartoum, Lawrence of Arabia, Elizabeth Fry and Florence Nightingale  — The Lady With the Lamp, to name but a few. Two names that stood out in the Victorian era were the railway engineers : George Stephenson  and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Stephenson was a working class engineer from a poor family, who worked in the coalmines of North Tyneside before becoming the “Father of the Railways”, helped by his equally famous son Robert. Stephenson had been born in a tiny, clay-floored cottage in Wylam and could not read or write when he started work in his teens. That did not prevent him from progressing from mending steam-pumping engines in the mines to building steam locomotives such as The Rocket and then the world’s first passenger railways. Brunel, in stark contrast, was the son of a distinguished French emigre, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, who had come to Britain to escape the Revolution. Despite money problems Sir Marc made sure his talented son got a good education in Caen and Paris. Sir Marc was so talented that his debts were eventually paid for him by the British government in exchange for his agreement to stay in England. Young Isambard, born in Portsmouth, was to grow up to surpass even the achievements of his eminent father. He built: tunnels, bridges, a whole railway ( The Great Western), ships, dockyards and even pre-fabricated hospitals for the Crimean War. Both Stephenson and Brunel were great engineers and were never really direct rivals, but at school, my mates and I felt we had to choose our favourite. So just as I preferred John to Paul in The Beatles or Keith to Mick in The Stones, I ended up opting for Brunel over Stephenson in the “Great engineers” stakes. This was a strange choice for me, as Stephenson retired and eventually died in Chesterfield where I grew up, and had had a shopping arcade named after him in the town. Even today his life size statue holding a model of one his early steam locomotives, stands outside Chesterfield’s mainline railway station. Coincidentally, I also lived many years in Wallsend and near Killingworth on Tyneside where Stephenson started his pioneering work in the local coal pits. However I have always been lured towards the more exotic name of Brunel, and seduced by the  dizzying array and sheer audacity of his enterprises. Sorry George!

Bristol has several of Brunel’s most famous achievements. As well as the aforementioned suspension bridge and iron steamship, there is the World’s first railway passenger terminal next to the modern  railway station of Temple Meads ( now the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum) and the remains of his large South Entrance Lock at the entrance to the Floating Harbour, built to deal with Bristol dock’s recurrent silting problem in the first half of the 19th century. However the bridge and the ship are the big draws and so it was that my long-suffering wife, Chris, had to forgo her shops, to be dragged along the quayside to see the world famous SS Great Britain, now restored and located in the same dry dock in which it was built. The whole operation has been given maximum publicity and one has to battle droves of school children and foreign students to get round it, but the experience is still fascinating and exhilerating in my opinion. I actually exaggerate about Chris, as I know she was really very interested and enjoyed it as well.

The approach to the ship is through a mock up of an “historic” dockyard, which is like a mini version of the one created at Hartlepool, up here on the north-east coast. Then the visitor descends winding steps to examine the hull of the great old ship. This involves going beneath the amazing glass sea which encloses the Great Britain at the water-line. Water floats on top of the sheet of glass but below it is completely dry. In fact the glass creates a completely air-tight space with automatic temperature and humidity control in order to prevent further rusting of the iron. The ship was constructed from large panels of iron riveted together. As iron is stronger than timber, Brunel could use thinner material to get the same strength and so was able to create a much bigger ship than its wooden equivalent would have been. In fact, when it was launched in 1843, the SS Gt Britain was the biggest ship ever to be built. It was built initially for the trans-Atlantic crossing to New York. Brunel had astonished Britain when he had announced that he wanted to extend the Great Western railway route — WESTWARDS! He did this by building three steam powered iron-hulled ships which surprassed all previous standards of:   naval engineering, speed, reliability and oceangoing comfort. The first was the Great Western, then came the Great Britain, and finally The Great Eastern. SS Great Britain was the first  propeller-driven, ocean-going, iron ship in the World. Its maiden voyage was from Liverpool to New York in 1845 and later it went from Bristol to North America. However it ran aground in Northern Ireland in the following year and after being salvaged and re-floated, was switched to the Australian route to Melbourne. It was the time of the Australian Gold Rush and its new owners had an eye for the main chance!. It made 32 voyages Down-Under from 1852 to 1876 carrying emigrants of all classes ( from steerage to First Class) and also the England Cricket team! ( The Poms beat the Aussies in the subsequent Test series.) All in all, it’s thought that Brunel’s Great Britain transported the ancestors of around 250,000 modern day Australian citizens. Later the ship was converted to sail and used to transport enormous cargoes of coal. Its luxury liner days were over!

The hull today is  flaky and corroded. It is coloured rusty red. A replica of the 6 blade giant propeller has been fitted on the back along with a very large red rudder. It is wierd walking round the part of a ship that is usually beneath the waves. Shafts of watery , dappled sunlight filter through the glass plate above and strange shadowy figures walk around the ship at ground level on the other side of the false sea. It was a very unusual sensation being down there and was almost as if we were walking around in a watery grave.It is also a miracle that we could walk round it at all. It  The ship was badly damaged in a ferocious storm off Cape Horn and suffered from a serious fire while trying to round South America in 1886. Consequently, it had to limp to the Falkland Islands for shelter and repairs. It was in fact beyond repair and ended up being used, in turn, as: an enormous warehouse, a quarantine hospital and a coal hulk, before being holed and scuttled by the islanders in 1937. As one walks around it today one can see the crude iron patching put over the gash where it was holed. This was applied after the ship was expertly and miraculously salvaged in 1970. It was floated back to Bristol on a specially built pontoon in a blaze of publicity. It now aptly rests in its birthplace.

Up above the visitor can go on deck and  visit recreated passenger cabins, lounges and dining saloons. Ghostly mannequins sleep in the tiny bunks, visit the ship’s barber, exercise in the saloons or are violently sick into buckets! Informative audio guides explain what a long voyage was like for all the different class of passengers. I was reminded of the early sections of Peter Carey’s famous novel “Oscar and Lucinda” which takes place on a voyage from England to Australia. I wonder whether Carey was thinking of the SS Great Britain?

You might think I was Brunelled out after all this but 2 days later we were approaching his great Suspension Bridge after exploring the lovely area of Clifton, up on the hill above Bristol city centre. Clifton village is full of beautiful Georgian terraces with ornate, canopied, wrought iron balconies. They are built around leafy squares or in long, elegant curves. It’s as beautiful as Bath but without the tourist crowds. We didn’t see even a single open-topped bus tour! One stunning curving terrace — Royal York Crescent — is reputed to be the longest in Europe. Clifton is the area where the rich merchants and industrialists built their grand homes and other gracious buildings accommodated visitors who came to take the waters at nearby Hotwell Spa. It is still a delightful area to wander around but the undoubted star attraction is Brunel’s bridge. At the top of the village is a big green and this merges into the lovely Clifton Downs. But the gentle sloping green ends suddenly and abruptly as a near sheer cliff plunges down to the River Avon far below. This is the famous Avon Gorge and spanning it is the equally famous suspension bridge. Its twin towers  and the huge curve of the cables supporting the road between them make for a dramatic spectacle as you approach the gorge from Clifton Green.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge was designed by Brunel in 1831 at the tender age of 23. A competition had been held to find the best design and Isambard was so keen to win, that he submitted 4 entries. All plans were rejected by the chief judge, the eminent Scottish engineer, Thomas Telford, who then cheekily chose one of his own designs! There was such an uproar that Telford was sacked, a second round of the competition was held and Brunel declared the winner. His plan was grandiose with Egyptian style towers topped by sphinxes .  However financial constraints meant that the design had to be simplified. Then came the Bristol riots in the early 1830’s which frightened away the main investers in the project, so the construction work had to be abandoned and the bridge lay unfinished for the rest of Brunel’s lifetime. It must have been frustrating for him. He had lovingly referred to the bridge as “my first child, my darling.”

Brunel’s darling was finally completed in 1864, five years after his death, as a memorial to him by colleagues and friends at the Institute of Civil Engineers. The chains were acquired from another Brunel suspension bridge at Hungerford, that had been replaced by a rail bridge. The bridge across the Avon Gorge was originally designed for horse-drawn carriages but now carries 4 million motor vehicles a year. The roadway hangs a scary 75 metres( 245 feet) above the high water mark of the Avon. It seemed even higher when we were there because the river was pretty low following a prolonged drought. Before crossing it, Chris and I looked at it from all angles and tried to take photos despite the high sun being in exactly the wrong place! ( It always is when I’m around!) We climbed up a grassy slope to an Observatory, at the top of which is a small working camera obscura. This one is like the poor cousin of the big Camera Obscura that sits at the top of The Royal Mile in Edinburgh next to the castle. There you get an extended explanation and tour of the city via the magic of the camera which projects live images of the area on to a large, white, concave screen which is like a big shallow bowl. The Clifton camera obscura is smaller and is a do-it-yourself job but is no less unusual and fascinating. We entered a small dark room and pushed a handle round to see a live picture of the gorge and the bridge spanning it in a single sweep.

I have never had much of a head for heights. As we finally approached the great bridge, I had the proverbial butterflies in my stomach. Despite safety fencing alongside the pedestrian walkway it still felt pretty scary. My nerves were hardly settled by the Samaritons’ signs on prominant display at the bottom of the towers. But on it we went. Chris went first and I followed, pretending to be nonchalent about the whole thing. It was  a case of 700 feet ( 210 metres) of looking steadfastly forward and hardly daring to look down. When it was built this was the longest span of any bridge in the world. I did actually glance down a couple of times in order to maximise the experience. Just for a split second I imagined myself plunging into the void below. It was not a comforting thought. At last we were over and I got Chris to take a picture of me to prove that I had been there, despite the sun being in the wrong place again. I momentarily relaxed, proud of my achievement in conquering all those fears. But then I remembered that we had to do the return trip over the same vertiginous chasm! As we walked back I couldn’t help noticing birds soaring high on the thermals — below us!

So we had followed in the footsteps of Brunel, even though he sadly never got to walk across his most famous bridge himself. For a Brunel fan like myself it had been a very exciting week . If Isambard himself could have come back to life I think he would have been amazed that people were walking and driving across the bridge that he never saw finished and that thousands were touring his great steam ship that used to lie on the bed of the South Atlantic Ocean. He might also have been surprised but pleased to learn that in 2002 , in a BBC poll, he was voted the second greatest Briton of all time. Not bad for the son of a Frenchman!