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The Train Set

A model train set made as a Christmas present. . . . . . .

‘…… I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six….’ (‘Memories of Christmas’/Dylan Thomas)

This being winter now, though hardly as snowy as it seemed to be in the past, I thought I might dig into the archive for the memories of railwaymen in times of snow and ice. There always seem to be stories of footplate crews battling through the elements, sometimes in Scotland or Wales, or the high Pennines ‘when the snow was so heavy it blocked the cab windows and I had to keep sticking my head out of the side to see the signals through the snow….’ The comments came in one conversation as we were inspecting the ex-GCR/LNER O4 2-8-0 63601, now in the national collection. ‘Imagine taking a slow freight across the top of the Pennines in a snow storm with a cab like that.’ I couldn’t, I would be too numb with cold or else my hands would be clasping the controls, fingers unable to be prised off.

Many of the stories got embellished in the telling, I suspect, rather as Dylan Thomas implies, but there were plenty of accounts of the difficulty of coaxing a steam engine into life in intense cold. Water freezes, pipes burst, metal heats up, expands and contracts, problems occur despite draining down, warming fires, that sort of thing. There were slips too – on platforms, on icy steps up and down from the footplate, wading through snow in ‘the cess’ to call the signalman (winter curses over Rule 55). On the other hand, a snowball fight in the shed yard lightened the gloom. ‘We used to aim at the ‘cycling lion’ on the tender’, remembered John. (The ‘cycling lion’ was the first BR emblem used on locos and rolling stock). ‘You got points for a bull’s eye or a near miss (the wheel not the lion). Some of the young lads wrapped a bit of coal with snow and threw that, the b…..s!’

One story I found hard to believe at the start but, then, it became so poignant there had to be some truth in it. John again: ‘One year I had a real disaster. We were standing around a brazier under the water column in the shed yard. I went in my pocket for something and my pay packet flew out and into the fire. I got a few scorched fingers until Nigel found something to pull it out with. There weren’t much though – just chard bits of money. It weren’t the whole pay but the thing was I had it ready for my son’s Christmas present. I went to the pay office but they said they couldn’t do anything. Hard luck! So much for Christmas’.

‘Well, his present was going to be a train set. I’d managed to get a loco (BR Standard 4MT tank), 2 coaches, some track (Hornby OO with third rail and transformer) and a signal but that was it. I’d saved up all year. I was going to get some stuff to add to it ‘cos it looked pretty basic – even to a 5 year old’.

John and his mate, Len, set to work in the nights leading up to Christmas. Between shifts too. ‘The time we thought we had was a bit less because we never seemed to finish the shift properly because of the weather. Once or twice we worked through the night in my shed.’

‘We needed a station and we managed to build one out of bits of wood. It was an island platform job, painted nearly all red and we labelled it ‘Newark’. We were pleased with that sign because it was authentic blue – for Eastern, you know. We made a mound of earth, made two arches and then poured Plaster of Paris over it, and shaped it to look like a hill with a tunnel. It looked really good when we finished it, all painted like, too.’

‘We used to open presents in late morning then and Len came round for the grand opening. My boy was impressed, played with it all day, and long after. It were really good to have done that and him be obviously pleased, you know?’

John got up from his armchair and invited me to follow him out of the living room. As we walked through the kitchen to the back yard shed, he explained that his son now lived in Australia but he left something behind for safe keeping. Opening the shed door, there it was – a battered BR Standard tank, some track, a station with a few paint chips labelled ‘Newark’ and that Plaster of Paris hill (minus a chunk which might have passed for a quarry at a pinch).

Yes, I know, reader. This isn’t really a ‘Did you know?’ piece about railway history or museums but it’s a seasonal story which I like a lot. It reminds me of less commercial Christmases and those where it always seemed to snow for days on end, but probably never did. For footplate crews and, indeed, all railway staff, it was often a tough time but somehow, misfortune is followed by good deeds. Not everything is about bad luck and insurmountable difficulties. John thought it was probably his best Christmas ever and, if his wife had been still with us, he thinks she would have added how wonderful it was.

‘And I remember that on the afternoon of Christmas Day, when the others sat around the fire and told each other that this was nothing, no, nothing, to the great snowbound and turkey-proud, yule-log-cracking holly-berry-bedizined and kissing-under-the-mistletoe Christmases when they were children…..’ (Memories of Christmas’/Dylan Thomas)

Season’s greetings to you all


John Swanwick

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[H01, Q02]

63601 of the National Collection

‘Newark Station’ was intended to be Newark Castle;

Image: Wikipedia

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