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Holiday Trains – The Inside Story

Holiday tours by train in the East Midlands including Mystery Tours and Starlight Specials. . . . . . .

Jigsaw photograph depicts (Sir) Nigel Gresley's class 'A1' (later 'A10' and 'A3') 4-6-2, No.4472 Flying Scotsman, also the title of the jigsaw. The locomotive has been immortalised in many forms, not least in jigsaw puzzles. Most jigsaw manufacturers / retailers pictured Flying Scotsman in pre-1960 form, without smoke deflectors - Falcon, Ravensburger, Arrow, Victory, Hope, W. H. Smith and Tower Press for example. The NRM issued the puzzle replicating a photograph of the locomotive with German-style smoke deflectors (affectionately known as 'blinkers') attached. The icon of UK railways became part of the National Collection in 2004, purchased for the nation with private, public and Heritage Lottery funding.

Rather like you, I imagine, I have been reading various historical accounts of holiday train movements during summers past. Perhaps editors think of this as a seasonal thing but they are also fascinating stories of the jig saw puzzles that had to be solved to get paths through the traffic, often along cross country routes to the south and west. The puzzles also included available locomotives and crews, not to mention holiday makers themselves.

The East Midlands stories usually feature holiday trains from Nottingham, often to the Lincolnshire coast and from Leicester (Belgrave Road) along the tortuous ex-Midland and Great Northern Joint route(M&GNR) to the Norfolk coast, typically Cromer, Sheringham and maybe Lowestoft.

Don recalled the route when I recorded his memories: ‘Nottingham to Skegness or Cleethorpes via Mansfield and/or Worksop, Shirebrook, Barnaby, but not through Lincoln. Immingham men relieved us and we used to go into Cleethorpes for fish and chips before signing on again at 5 pm for the return. We had Black 5’s and ‘Crabs’ usually.’ It sounded like a fun day out. Well, maybe, unless you were in the coaches. It was a long journey sometimes in battered coaches and a wheezing engine that the local depot had managed to press into service. ‘They’d be getting restless by Mansfield already, especially if there was non-corridor stock. I saw one or two climbing between coaches when we were slow or stopped. I remember it because I had an unusual L1 (tank) that day.’

Other trips were organised by individual collieries. ‘Lindby went to Blackpool one year. We were in a tunnel near Rochdale, I think, and my mate said to put the scoop down. What? I said. ‘There’s troughs in the tunnel,’ he said. Nobody told me! There was a klaxon and a bell to warn of the approaching troughs and I just made it.’ (The klaxon and bell system started life on the London Underground in Edwardian times as a way of alerting permanent way workers. The train triggered the sound.)

‘Specials for ‘works weeks’ were organised by Boots (5 trains), Raleigh (5 trains), and Players. Raleigh always tipped us - £5 each.’

Don remembered a ‘mystery trip’, also very popular in the 1950’s. ‘It were a round trip from Leicester to Birmingham and back. This bloke got on at Leicester and sat down. We were inside and so he looked me up and down and asked when we would get to London. A porter had put him on the train. I explained we weren’t going to London. So he said ‘well. where are you going?’ I don’t know, sir…’ ‘Are you taking the Mickey?....’ An explanation followed and I pointed out that in some ways he was fortunate because he could go to Birmingham New Street and change there.’

Image: Parrish Paintings. New Street Station in Birmingham 1957. A 4P Fowler tank locomotive 2-6-2T (no 42395) is waiting to depart

Trains, privately hired, seaside specials or ‘mystery trips’ were always popular then. Cars were expensive and slow compared to today. Most footplate crews would be dealing with 10-12 coach trains. ‘Seats were bookable and allocated the week before – two coaches per pick up station. For the Saturday, they were all sold by Wednesday.’

For Leicester types the more usual destinations were the Norfolk coast and many a childhood holiday started from Leicester Belgrave Road, now a supermarket car park. The M&GNR route took the line up to Melton Mowbray through the quaintly named John O’Gaunt station, the scene of many an embarrassing incident on the footplate. Ken: ‘Basically, it was poor quality coal, loaded on in Norfolk, so eventually we took enough to get us there and back. Coming back, we often stopped at John O’Gaunt for a blow up and I remember two young lads leaning out of the front carriage and shouting ‘Can you go a bit faster, Mister?’’

‘We had some Starlight Specials later. These were for overnight travel at cheap rates and they were often referred to by that name even though the originals went up and down the old GC route. Some went right into St Pancras or Marylebone and you had to get yourself across London.’ I was amazed that some Starlight Special tickets were sold as ‘mystery trips’, like a sort of lottery ticket. Ken explained: ‘Some of them took on a mystery trip, not knowing where they would end up for their holidays. Just took pot luck. Loved it, some of them.’ A bit like Easyjet, then?

These stories all belong to an age before road travel really took over and they remind us what a huge undertaking it was every summer, to get holidays underway, by train. Such trips live long in the memory of East Midlanders, railwaymen and passengers alike. I tracked down Sue, a traveller with 3 kids and a husband on the train to Cleethorpes, one year in the 1950’s. ‘You were really pleased when you got there. Of course, you would get there but we had no idea when. We could stop for a long time at different places along the way. I had to organise kids to pee out of the window or open door. The guard turned a blind eye. The high point was the kids getting on the engine at the end (or was it the start) to see how it worked. The crew were very kind.’

Girl on a Train – graphite pencil drawing. © Miroslav Šunjkić

‘Yes, it really was a holiday and very special. But I wish would could have got there quicker.’

This sounds familiar, reader, but, then, they were golden days in the memory with the trials and tribulations of the journey often forgotten. After all, it was fish and chips, fairground rides, sand castles, the works, when you got there.

And a pint in the nearby pub for the hard working footplate crew.


John Swanwick

About the author: John Swanwick has a lifetime interest in railways, beginning with trainspotting days in the East Midlands in the early 1960’s. In 2016 John began collecting oral histories for a proposed railway museum at Birstall on the former Great Central route through Leicestershire. The oral histories contain the recollections of many who worked on, or used, the Great Central route prior to its closure in the 1960’s. The recordings are now held in the National Railway Museum archives and the East Midlands Oral History group at Leicester.

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