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Railway Homelands

What’s the railway place you most relate to in your memories, and why?. . . . . .

LNER Class A1 No. 2547 Doncaster with The Flying Scotsman train in 1928.

We were chatting during a coffee break at a railway conference, as you do, and the subject of hobbies came up.

‘I’m an LNER man,’ he said ‘the old LNER that is.’ Then he corrected himself: ‘North of Doncaster, I mean.’

The conversation came back to me recently, watching the repeat of Simon Schama’s ‘The Romantics’ TV series on BBC4. What’s that got to do with railways? You might ask. Schama, a distinguished historian and broadcaster, has this theory that we all have a homeland we relate to, a ‘special place’. Often it’s a place we remember from our childhood, when our memory was still forming, so it’s a place of powerful memories and, with the memories, nostalgia. It’s a compelling idea and, as Schama points out, a ready cause of nationalism, sometimes with extreme results.

‘What’s my special place?’ I wondered, imagining my early years spent in NW Leicestershire, discovering railways and steam engines. My LNER man had a different railway homeland, as did many of the retired railway people I have interviewed whilst collecting railway histories. In Leicester, if you were based at the Midland shed, you considered the ex-Great Central route a bit of a one off, neither fish nor fowl. If you were a Central man looking across to the Midland, you would think their locomotives poor and under powered. Boring, in fact.

But it didn’t stop there. Footplate crews from Woodford Halse on ex-WD “Austerity’ locomotives sometimes thought they were entering a foreign country when they took the line to the ex-GWR at Banbury. ‘The clack valve would stick sometimes,’ remembered Albert, ‘but you could get out with a hammer and hit it – that sorted it out. Couldn’t do that on an ex-GW one though – they put cowls over the clack valves. Always had to be different.’ Clearly the GW men were worried about the sophisticated repair methods of Woodford crews.

The daily Bournemouth –York service in the 1960’s, was routed through Banbury to Woodford and on to Leicester where the ex-GW engine was changed and sent back on the balancing service south. Charlie remembered Banbury’s shedmaster shouting down the phone that he wanted his engine back. This was in response to an engine failure at Leicester with the GW ‘Hall’ then travelling on to Nottingham to cover and so missing the return service. GW Halls were ‘foreign stuff’ and quite exotic at Leicester as was an ex-LNER V2 at Banbury. It was all about homelands, about your place, your shed, your railway, and how others ‘did things differently’ and usually worse than you.

Sometimes it extended beyond those directly employed by the railways. James and I were chatting into the microphone at his home when he suddenly broke off and stared at the goldfish swimming around in the tank in his living room. He had tears in his eyes. ‘It (the Great Central) was a wonderful railway,’ he said and paused to compose himself. Loyalties, beliefs, that sense of place, run deep and still do – many years after the last train left.

It’s an obvious point, I suppose, that loyalty should be part of every railway man (and woman’s) life and we might suppose that the coming of British Railways might put an end to ‘special places’. Instead, the fierce almost tribal loyalties seemed to grow stronger with everyone having an opinion on ‘their’ railway, ‘their’ shed, ‘their’ station. But, then, things began to fade. Railways became a collection of ‘brands’ again but without that deeper loyalty, that sense of place, of where you came from. A Pacer was a Pacer, an Azuma is an Azuma, wherever you are. Is the railway industry now a rootless place? Just another job? What happened to the homeland? That sense of identity?

I don’t doubt that Professor Schama didn’t really have railways in mind when he explained his theory but I think it has resonance today. In some ways it lives on mostly in the memories of the retired and those with powerful reasons to recall strong memories, good and bad. But, then, nostalgia is part of this so your homeland on the railways was always the best, the good times remembered, the bad times forgotten. It’s often the oral historian’s job to capture the memories but then weave them into less emotional narratives about the past.

I came across my LNER enthusiast again recently, inside the NRM. We recognised each other immediately, despite our masks, because we had worked together too, done more than chat. ‘Still feel the same about the LNER?’ I asked him. ‘Yes,’ but it seems further away now. Maybe it was the pandemic but history’s thread seems fainter. I worry I am living in a fantasy world about the past.’ ‘Not to worry,’ I said bravely. ‘Let’s go and have another look at Mallard’.

And we walked off – into the sunset.


John Swanwick

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