A girl was talking to me, a pretty black girl. She’s twenty, maybe a year or two younger.
“Hello,” she said again. I was trying to look at St. Pancras Station, from opposite on the Euston Road, by Camden Town Hall, and I was embarrassed to be caught by girls, my first day as a train enthusiast, and I wished she’d go away. But where I come from it would be rude not to say hello back.
“Hello,” I replied.
She smiled. She wasn’t wearing many clothes, I couldn’t help but notice.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m just looking.”
“You look all you want, love.”
“I will. Thank you.”
Her friend, younger still, a blonde in a pink mini-skirt, seeing that I had been engaged in conversation, came hurrying up.
“Hello, ” she said.
“Hello,” I replied again.
“We’ve got a place we can go,” said the blonde girl. “Hundred and fifty quid for both of us.”
“That seems reasonable,” I said.
The girls smiled, the black girl took my arm, and I realised what they are offering.
“Ah, no. Sorry. I thought you meant that you had a place which cost you both a hundred and fifty pounds… Sorry… I’m not interested in… I mean, obviously I am, but… when I said it seemed reasonable… I didn’t mean that you seemed reasonable. Though I’m sure you are. Very reasonable. But I like stations, you see. I’m here to look at the station.” I nodded towards St. Pancras.
The black girl let go of my arm.
“Wanker,” said the blonde.
I did not handle this well, and I scuttled down the subway to the safety of the Underground.
A fascination for railways, I have discovered, is one of those things almost guaranteed to put a woman off, like socks with sandals. They see themselves (not without some justification) spending weekends in engine sheds, or looking after the flask and sandwiches on the end of the platform at Crewe, or spending a fortnights holiday visiting the Great Little Trains of Wales. Women and trainspotting don’t mix, you might imagine. Mostly, you would be right.
But not entirely. Sometimes, you do meet lasses at platform’s end. I did. It was only when I started dating a lady trainspotter, a trainspotterette, that I became interested myself. At weekends when I came to London to visit her, we would set off for Steam on the Metropolitan open days, or travel on the newly opened Jubilee Line, getting off at all the new stations to admire the architecture. What red-blooded guy hasn’t dreamed of a girlfriend with a passionate interest in Underground trains? Just imagine – a girl with the same interest in hard facts and figures as yourself. So what if her facts and figures aren’t as interesting as yours? At least she won’t get at you for pointing out that Birmingham has more miles of canal than Venice, or tell you you’re boring just because you know the titles of all Elvis Costello’s B-sides. How can she, when she wants to talk about abandoned Underground stations, or about how the District Line used to go to Windsor?
I’d always known, secretly, that I had a train buff in me somewhere; it just needed awakening, nurturing, and when the relationship died, a soft spot for train spotting was one of the things that I took away with me.
And then – rail disaster piled on top of rail disaster, an astounding indifference from our political masters, corruption and gross mismanagement at the highest level of the rail industry, strikes and delay and breakdown. After Hatfield, rail travel became intolerable for several months. We all heard the stories; 19 hours from Nottingham to Sunderland, 14 from London to Exeter.
It was sitting on a post-Hatfield train from Manchester to London, a journey which would normally take a couple of hours, but which on this occasion took eight, that I realised all the trainspotters were still there, there on the end of the platform at Stafford and Crewe, still eating egg sandwiches from grease proof paper packages, still writing who knows what in their little black books. They didn’t care about a bit of horror, didn’t see it somehow. The passengers on the trains were full of righteous hatred, but the spotters hearts were still bursting with love. I began to think about the two railways; about how there is this railway that we use and hate, and about how there is this railway that we remember, or imagine we remember, and love.
The railway has been a national obsession since 1825.
For 175 years, the British have lived with the railway. For a long while, it was a love affair. For the first 100 years of its existence, the steam-hauled railway was the height of modernity. Steam traction at was the cutting edge of technological development in the 1820’s and 1830’s. The Railway Mania of the 1840’s was the dot.com bubble of the Victorian Age. In its time the railway has symbolised complacent mercantile prosperity, imperial power, architectural splendour and industrial innovation. It was seen to promote freedom of movement, the growth of the middle class, the mushrooming of the suburbs and the birth of mass leisure.
Marinetti, in the Futurist Manifesto of 1909, claimed that the railway was the living breathing apotheosis of futurity and hence of aesthetic possibility. Marinetti would rather watch an engine enter a great metropolitan terminus, steam and sparks flaring from its smoke stack, than see any amount of old master paintings, and for him the gargantuan breath of boilers, the gasping pistons and the screech of brakes was the authentic symphonic music of its time.
The railway was it.
Until it became the killing engine of the Western Front, the most effective weapon of war yet devised by man, as millions of soldiers entrained for the Somme. The love affair turned sour.
We’ve never forgiven it; but nor have we ever forgotten what it was. Now there are two railways: the real railway, and the railway of our dreams.
The first is just shit.
Your wallet £75 lighter, you are sitting outside the bog on an Intercity 125 (125 refers to the speed the engine travels – one mile every twenty five minutes) with Rod and Doug from Motherwell, they cheerily talking about what they’d like to do to the English and sipping Tennants from tins with pictures on them of girls called ‘Shona’ or ‘Fiona’, they’re paps oot fe th’lads; you trying not to laugh, or whimper, trying to focus on your book, but having to get up everytime someone wants a piss.
The seat of your trousers clammy and cold, you lurch through carriages stuffed with those bastards who actually got a seat for their money, stopping only to press your groin into old ladies ears to allow the Train Manager to squeeze past. You make your way to the buffet for a plastic cup of hot water, an enfeebled teabag clinging inside like a wee brown limpet with a silver foil foot, and two plastic containers of ‘Tastes Like Real Milk’, a bag of peanuts and a whortleberry jam doughnut. £6 the poorer, you rejoin Rod and Doug.
Doug has been sick.
There are leaves on the line, the wrong kind of snow, and the emergency services have been called to scene after scene of horrific injury and death: King’s Cross, Clapham, Paddington, Hatfield, Selby, Potters Bar.
In the good old days, Two Jags would come on the news in a hard hat and express his sympathy for the bereaved in his special sympathy for the bereaved voice. He would promise a Public Enquiry.
Then we got Stephen Byers. He would come on and say it wasn’t his fault, he wasn’t there, and anyway, it was the civil service, they just briefed him wrong, so it’s nothing to do with him at all. He refused to take responsibility, and felt that a public enquiry would be a mistake, at a time like this when we should be thinking about the preservation of his career.
Now we’ve got Alaistair Darling, so everything is going to be fine.
And on the station the staff would be just as happy to kill you as you would be to kill them.
I’ve sat on stations for what must by now be a measurable percentage of my life. I’ve cried on stations, fought on stations, cursed and sworn and yawned and slept on stations. I’ve waited on stations for girls who didn’t come almost as often as I’ve waited for cancelled trains. When I was a child, I would travel across the country by train to be met by my Father for his access weekends, at Didcot, Southampton, Paddington. Now wait I anxiously for my daughter at Victoria, Preston, Exeter.
I can never decide which is the worse kind of station: the termini, thousands of anxious travellers staring up at the information board for news which never comes about trains which never leave, or the suburban stations, sitting in an open-sided shelter in a howling gale with a crying girl, staring up the deserted track for a glimpse of a lighted headboard, destination a home which seems further away every minute.
All human life passes through the station. What’s not to be fascinated by?
But we feel contemptuous of trainspotters, pitying at best.
In America, train buffs are cool. You can still hear Woody Guthrie singing in the rails. Neil Young has his own locomotive and Whoopi Goldberg travels everywhere in her own private rail-car. The guy who told me this, an American, works in one of London’s top railway bookshops. He’s written a book himself, about a line in Texas which mostly carried apricots.
“Can you tell me why railway buffs are considered nerds here, and cool over there?” he asked, somewhat defensively.
“No idea,” I said.
His voice sunk to a whisper, presumably to avoid offending his customers.
“I tell you what,” he said, “if you saw the weirdos we get in here, you’d begin to understand.”
The other railway, the railway of our dreams, is beautiful, romantic, brim full of nostalgic promise. This is the railway that trainspotters like.
Those same stations, the packed terminus, the lonely suburban platform, still have something about them of Marinetti’s futurist amphitheatres. Modern trains snake under the great Victorian arches, passengers disgorge, lovers meet. Trevor Howard takes coal dust from Celia Johnson’s eye. There are spies on the Night Train.
The abandoned railway hotels still ring with the memory of grandees; of the Directors of the line, sucking cigars; of the Queen and Albert, racing up to Balmoral; of leather bound luggage and the traffic of Empire. The modern train leaps across great bridges, dives into tunnels, thunders through towns, just like it does in Every Boys Big Book Of Trains. The countryside glides by; through pastoral England, mysterious Wales, and magnificent Scotland, the best view is still to be found from the window of a train.
In the Railway Arms there are photographs of railwaymen, watches in hand, whistle in mouth, waving away a steam engine that always runs on time.
You can still ride steam trains, on beautifully preserved lines. You can still buy tea in a china cup and a scone and jam in the buffet from smiling matrons in smocked aprons. The fireman still wears a shiny peaked cap, his cheerful face streaked with coal dust and sweat, the porter still has his watch on a chain, and apple-cheeked children still chat with the driver, who leans from his cab with a grin.
But the line only goes three miles; the porter is really your dentist, the fireman your Independent Financial Adviser, and the driver is Ron from the pub. Their Mum’s are serving the teas.
And isn’t there something odd about the apple-cheeked children?
What will they turn into?
Model railway enthusiasts,
Capital A anoraks.
The railway for which we might feel mild nostalgia is for them the very stuff of life. It wants looking into.
St. Pancras again, the day after the working girls chased me off, and the day after the release of the Cullen report on the Ladbroke Grove rail disaster.
I kept getting drawn back to this station in particular. Everyone knows the Gothic front on the Euston Road, or the view of the great clock tower as you come down Pentonville Hill. When I first moved to London, most days I took the North London Line from Canonbury to Gospel Oak, and was thrilled by the view of St. Pancras from the northern heights. It looks like one of mad King Ludwig’s fairytale castles from up there, or a bloated Hotel de Ville. It is one of the great buildings of London; or rather, two of the great buildings, for that is what it is; two remarkable buildings stuck together; the trainshed, and the hotel.
Along the Euston Road there are some of the great London stations: Euston, Kings Cross, and St. Pancras. Marylebone is hidden away along there, too. Euston was the first to be opened, the London terminus of the London and Birmingham Railway, which, while it was being built, was the largest engineering endeavour since the construction of the pyramids. Such a vast undertaking needed a suitably grand station, and Euston was built with a Doric facade, fake Greek 1830’s neo-classicism designed to reflect the grandeur of the project. This temple in praise of progress was swept away in the 1960’s, and replaced with the current functional modern station, which resembles nothing so much as an airport terminal.
King’s Cross, the next to arrive, impressed by the scale of it’s engineering. I still think it impressive now. Built in the 1840’s, to me it looks as though it were built in the 1930’s – it is a very modern building, function and form indivisible.
St. Pancras was the last of the three to be built, by the Midland Railway Company. The Midland in the 1850’s was the greatest and grandest of train companies. It’s headquarters were in Derby, and it’s directors, prototypes of the complacent fat-cattery that we see almost as de rigeur in the people who run our railway system today, decided that their London terminus should be the grandest and most up-to-date of all.
It had been hard for them to get an entry into London. Their trains had been sharing the metals of the Great Northern, running into Kings Cross. For a company with such grand notions of self-importance, this would not do at all, so they resolved that they must have their own terminus, despite the attendant difficulties, not least of which was the St. Pancras burial ground, from which hundreds of bodies would have to be moved to allow the line through. As the work started, onlookers were scandalised to see fragments of bone and locks of hair lying about in the old graveyard. The architects, to prevent further outrage, sent an assistant to supervise the removal of the dead. His name was Thomas Hardy, and he wrote several poems about the event.
O Passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones.
We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
‘I know not which I am!
(The Levelled Churchyard)
The first part to be built, by W.H. Barlow, was the vast trainshed. Finished in 1868, its great arcing cast iron roof, 100 feet high and two hundred and forty feet wide was for almost a hundred years the largest structure of it’s kind in the world. Supported on almost seven hundred columns, the space of a beer barrel apart, the uninterrupted sweep of the roof sheltered seven platforms. Under the platforms, the beer from Burton was unloaded and stored – so important were the Burton brewers as customers to the Midland Railway, that the trainshed was purpose built for the handling of beer. The trainshed is still impressive now; look at the cast iron ribs, each with its blue and white painted Butterley Company of Derbyshire 1868 makers mark, or at the remarkable station clock as you walk up the platform towards the hotel, looking like a huge inverted saucer, the hours marked with lozenges, the edges decorated with the kind of faux Indian patterning so beloved of designers after The Great Exhibition of 1851.
The second building, the huge Gothic hotel, is the one that we first think of when we think of St. Pancras. When it was finished in 1872, it was as up-to-date and contemporary as the Lloyds building or the Guggenheim in Bilbao are today. The architect Gilbert Scott was a follower of John Ruskin, the most important architectural theorist of his time. It was Ruskin who advocated the Gothic as the most appropriate building style for northern climates and northern lights. If you catch the westbound North London Line train at sundown, and watch out after Caledonian Road station, you may see what he meant, get a feel for his aesthetic.
Difficult to imagine the directors of the Midland worrying too much about aesthetics. What they wanted was a terminus to symbolise their power and wealth, and in the trainshed and its attendant hotel they felt that they had got it. The Midland Grand Hotel was the most modern and luxurious on earth. It was the biggest building ever to have been built featuring hydraulic lifts, or ‘lifting rooms’. It had over five hundred bedrooms, each sumptuously decorated, each warmed by it’s own coal fire and lit by gas. There is a sea of chimneys up there on the roof.
And it was almost immediately obsolete. When it was built, running water was not available in that part of London, so the people who could afford to stay there preferred to continue their journey into town and stay at a place with taps. Gas lighting was just about to be replaced by electricity; central heating boilers were beginning to be installed. The hundreds of chambermaids needed to supply hot water and to keep the fires alight were redundant right from the onset. Even the plutocratic Midland couldn’t afford to run this white elephant, the Centre Point of its time, and it quickly became the problem that, to some extent, it still remains.
John Betjeman, remembered as everyone’s favourite Poet Laureate, was also one of the most influential architectural writers of the twentieth century, and we owe him a debt as the foremost advocate of Victorian architecture. He helped to shape our idea of St. Pancras as beautiful, worth preserving, a problem worth solving. The problem is, what to do with so impractical a building? It is a building of the imaginary railway that the English so adore; its tragedy is that it is of no use to the real railway that it is forced to accommodate, the railway that we hate.
On the day of my second visit, the old hotel (hotel no longer of course; it stands largely empty) was fenced around with netting, and access was denied. They are in the process of renovating the station so that it will be ready to act as the new terminus for Eurostar. Inside the trainshed the green and white Midland Mainline trains looked like malevolent toads; dirty toads at that. There was a food shop, a buffet, the Shires Bar, a Smiths and a couple of food outlets, each accommodated in a shabby hut erected under the high roof. There was no great arrivals and departures board; instead, at the end of each of the platforms, tawdry monitors flickered with what passed for information about the trains. In yet another temporary hut, a grim faced woman in a green hat sat telling passengers the time of the next train to Wellingborough.
The ticket hall is splendid, lined with linen-fold panelling, and the huge tiles on the ceiling are wonderful, but when you get to the front of the queue, you still face a bureaucratic nightmare and the prospect of taking out a second mortgage before you can buy a ticket, just as in less impressive ticket offices.
I couldn’t help feeling that the destinations were anti-climactic. The trains ran to Sheffield, Barnsley, Matlock, Derby, Leicester, and Kettering. In such imperial surroundings only great engines pulling elegant cars to Istanbul, Paris, Tehran or Moscow would be fitting. I like Kettering, I love Sheffield, but St. Pancras is too overpowering for them. It makes them seem silly. Calling the trains ‘The Robin Hood’ (for Nottingham) or ‘The Master Cutler’ (for Sheffield) does not help. I hope that when the fast link to the Channel Tunnel arrives in St. Pancras, the station will get the trains it deserves, and that the Trans-Siberian will start from there.
Brighton station, another of the glories of Victorian railway architecture, has just been restored and renovated, and it is a triumph. The glass in the roof has been replaced, the columns repainted in Brighton blue, and the whole station shows what can be done with these termini. They needn’t be unloved liabilities.
Drinking a couple of pints and reading the Cullen Report in the Shires Bar, I was thrilled at the idea that Railtrack executives might face prosecution for their part in the systematic run-down of our railway. They should all be locked up; hung, better yet. Cars should be illegal for politicians and Railtrack management. No single piece of legislation would improve the railway more efficiently, or more readily.
Beer in the day, no longer from Burton, does not suit me. I was becoming aggressive, and I walked up the platform to look back into the trainshed. There was a spotter at the end of the platform. He was about forty, quite sharp dressed, with shades. He was muttering numbers into a tape recorder, and there was an open notebook on his lap, full of still more numbers.
“Hello,” I said brightly. He looked up with no great enthusiasm. Perhaps in view of my earlier experience, I should have been wary of saying hello to strangers at St. Pancras.
“Hello,” I continued. “I’m thinking about becoming a trainspotter. Er… have you seen any today? Trains… and that? Well… trains, obviously… but interesting ones?”
He shrugged, and pointed to his notebook. I leant over his shoulder, looked at the numbers, and nodded sagely.
“I’ve been reading The Cullen Report. Awful, isn’t it?” I said.
“The Cullen Report.”
“I dunno.” He turned back to his notebook, and I slunk away from St. Pancras with my tail between my legs for the second time in two days.
But the dormant fascination with trains, that slumbers within the breasts of all big boys, had come to life. I knew that I wanted to ride some trains, and hang with some spotters, and visit some stations, and try and track down the romantic railway, the railway of dreams. It would be the equivalent of the aborigine’s walkabout, I imagined, except not walking, but on trains. And not sleeping in an improvised bivouac under the stars, but in two star hotels with tea making facilities and a trouser press.
I would not be travelling alone. I would take, as friend and philosopher, a book published in 1862, called ‘The Railway Traveller’s Handy Book.
No one has ever been able to find out who wrote this wonderful book, ostensibly written as a ‘How To’ guide for railway travellers but actually an unsung classic of High Victorian comedy. It is divided into short sections, one each on the perils that face the traveller, such as ‘Fixing the Time of Departure’, ‘Travelling Costume’, and ‘Procuring Ticket’.
All of these issues worry us still; as might the authors view of going through tunnels:
“Male passengers have sometimes been assaulted and robbed, and females insulted in passing through tunnels. And this has been most frequently the case when there have been only two occupants in the carriage. In going through a tunnel, therefore, it is always as well to have the hands and arms ready disposed for defence, so that in the event of an attack, the assailant may be instantly held back or restrained.”
I have some sympathy with the authors feelings about talking to strangers to trains, as well;
“Why should half a dozen persons, each with minds to think, and tongues to express those thoughts, sit looking at each other mumchance as though they were afraid of employing the faculty of speech? Why should an Englishman ever be like a ghost, in not speaking until he is spoken to?”
‘The Railway Traveller’s Handy Book’ is a link between the two railways. It speaks to us of the Victorian railway of lost content, of porters and Bradshaw’s and locomotives steaming in to the station; but it is hard nosed and cynical, always expecting the worst, always alive to the reality of the state of the trains. I shall refer to it at need.
A note on what Victorian railway writers would call ‘this present volume’.
Although the railway would not exist without steam engines, I think people are put off railway books by the way they go on about ‘GNR Gresley 2-6-0 1000 Class’ locomotives, or whatever. I’m going on a lot of journeys by rail, and I’m not going to care what sort of locomotive is pulling the train. Most especially, I’m not going to record their numbers. I hope that the enthusiasts will forgive me, and in return, that they will gain the understanding of a hostile public, and will henceforth will be left in peace to watch the trains go by!
Oh, and the bloopers thing! Railway books use lots of bloopers!! Lots and lots of them!!! I hope that railway enthusiasts will forgive me their absence too!!!!
Other conventions of railway literature, I’m happy to conform to. The first chapter, or introduction, of any self respecting railway book is always called something along the lines of ‘Departures’, or ‘The train now standing…’ The last chapter is always always always called ‘All Change,’ and is invariably about Beeching. Fans of the genre will find this aspect of my book, at least, reassuringly familiar.