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Granite to Granite!

One hundred years ago this month, for the first time you could get a through train – actually a through coach or coaches – for the 785 miles from Aberdeen to Penzance and vice versa. This was the initiative of the Great Western Railway (GWR) working with the Eastern group of railway companies – several were involved. There were demonstration runs for around 80 journalists from London and the cities served for four days before the official launch in October 1921.

They were accompanied by officials from the participating railway companies. There was much press attention along the route of the new service. Invited journalists were given lunch at the GWR’s luxurious Tregenna Castle Hotel near St Ives, Cornwall (which boasted of 100 acres of grounds with its own herd of pedigree Guernsey cattle) followed by charabanc tours of Lands’ End and the Lizard before travelling north the following morning. Similarly, some journalists started in Aberdeen to work their way south. An Aberdonian journalist from the “Granite City” noted that buildings in Penzance were made of granite, too. He reported that he tried to mystify a Cornish girl with his accent, but she understood him perfectly! He had left a cold and rainy Aberdeen at 9.45 a.m. and arrived at Penzance the next day at 7.40 a.m. to find it “warm and balmy” – just the publicity the GWR needed. Another journalist reported that the journey was so luxurious that only the addition of a hair salon and a library would be necessary to make it into a travelling hotel.

Granite City. Print of original painting of Aberdeen, on premium matt fine art paper. SL Scott Art work from Manchester & beyond by Sue Scott.

The coach carriage board read ‘ABERDEEN AND PENZANCE VIA EDINBURGH, YORK, SHEFFIELD, LEICESTER, SWINDON AND PLYMOUTH’ and vice versa. It left Penzance at 11.00 a.m. attached to a Paddington train and worked as far as Westbury where it was detached. It was then taken to Swindon where it was coupled to a restaurant car train working as far as York. Then from York it was attached to the 7.00 p.m. sleeping car express from Kings Cross to Aberdeen. This last leg of the journey was completed when Aberdeen was reached at 7.40 a.m. the following morning. The return working left Aberdeen attached to an “ordinary” express for Kings Cross at 9.45 a.m. At York, it was attached to a dining car train heading for Bristol via Didcot. At the stop at Swindon a sleeping car was attached to the 10.00 p.m. train from Paddington to Penzance for the remainder of the journey south-west, reaching there at 7.40 a.m.

During the journey, breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner were all available. Coaching stock from the GWR, North British, Great Central and North Eastern companies was used. The GWR provided brake composites and a composite dining car and open thirds for the service. The route from Penzance took in stops at Plymouth (North Road), Exeter (St David’s), Taunton, Swindon, Oxford, Banbury, Leicester, Nottingham (Victoria), Sheffield (Victoria) to York (via Swinton and Knottingley), Newcastle, Edinburgh (Waverley), Dundee (Tay Bridge) and Aberdeen. Views of the English Channel and North Sea were part of the attraction. It was a pioneering service – nowadays we take cross-country rail travel for granted.

Mike Peart

About the author: Mike Peart is the co-author of Volumes 3 (Freight Marshalling Yards), 4 (Level Crossings) and 5 (Train Detection and Control) of the “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” series, and Trains of Hope”, all published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994 and was a founder member of the Great Western Society in 1961.

Read about Friends of the NRM contributions to the museum here

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