Tales of the trainspotters: Reminiscences from the grand age of steam

 

Calling all trainspotters. The National Railway Museum is looking for tales from the trackside to build a social history of close encounters of the railway kind. From the age of steam to the advent of high speed rail, it is hoped their stories will dispel the myths about this most misunderstood of pursuits and instead reveal the true life drama, romance and passion of a life spent watching the permanent way.

Michael Williams, 65, London, author of ‘On The Slow Train’

As a boy in the UK in the 1950s and 60s, the most exciting thing you could do was stand at the end of the platform at Kings Cross station. It still looks the same today but you won’t find many trainspotters. Back then, you had to queue for a place. Every trainspotter had to have Ian Allan’s book with all the train numbers in his pocket – and a vacuum flask and Marmite sandwiches made by your mum. One day, when I was stood near the entrance to the gasworks tunnel, I saw the Mallard. It was sleek: the most streamlined locomotive in its class. Later on that same day, along came the grand, mighty, burnished green express locomotive The Flying Scotsman. Could you want, in those glory days, anything more? It was a bit like getting Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez autographs - on the same day. Proudly, with my ballpoint pen, I underlined both the numbers in my book.

Julia Bradbury, 43, presenter of Railway Walks, Rutland

There’s one particular journey that stands out for me, and it was aboard the Earl Of Merioneth II locomotive on the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways. It’s quite magical. I grew up with a dad who was obsessed with steam engines and first went on it as a child. It’s a lovely little journey. It starts from the harbour in Porthmadog, which they say is like a little slice of Italy in Wales, then to Blaenau, an old slate town. It’s all underneath the shadow of Snowdonia and is only about 12 to 13 miles. The train climbs hundreds of feet, up into mountains, through forests, past lakes and waterfalls, and there’s one bit when you look out of window, and you are running alongside a stream. All on this little steam train. It’s a step back in time; very evocative. I went as an adult and sent my dad a picture of me on the train, which gave him steam envy.

Nick Beilby, 58, civil engineer, York.

In 1985 two pals and I went to East Germany to see the last remaining steam locomotives still operating in Europe. We smuggled in some illegal ostmarks stuffed inside our shoes because the exchange rate at the border was so bad. At the other end the Stasi were waiting for us but we ran and we lost them in the crowd although they were on our tails for the next 10 days. They followed us out to Falkenberg to see some narrow gauge steam locos so we jumped off at a station in the middle of nowhere and they jumped off too. They hid behind a wall but we saw them and jumped back on the train and waved at them as we went by. Their faces were a picture. We had to pretend to be normal tourists but they knew we were there to look at the dampflok (steam trains). It was like stepping back into the 1940s. The world hadn’t changed at all. We met other railwaymen out there. There was no talk of politics. The railway was a great bond between us.

Trevor Ermel, 72, retired photographer, Whitley Bay

I became interested in trains when I was 13 and I caught the last five years of steam. One summer Saturday in 1967 I had gone with some friends in cars from Gateshead to Shap Summit in Westmoreland. The engines would always be working hard going up the bank with 10 to 11 carriages on and there would be lots of exhaust and smoke. I was using a Kodak Retinette 35mm. We’d spent the day in the field and going up and down the line. Trains were still being pulled by steam engines between Crewe and Carlisle. This one was being pulled by a Britannia (70025) called Western Star. Three quarters of the way up was a place called Photographer’s Mound. The drivers knew we were taking pictures because when the engine went past the driver and the fireman were standing their grinning. They were pleased to have the picture taken. There was a real sense of excitement. These engines were going to the scrapheap every day then. You never knew whether you would see them again.

Andrew Cross, 53, artist, London

It was Modesto, California 1997. I arrived in this town that I had never been to before and discovered that there was still a line running right down the main street. I realised there was a train coming in a few moments so I jumped out of the car. Everything became a blur and I was almost wetting myself with excitement. It was precisely that thing you don’t get in this country and you still get in America – just. It was a full-blown freight train running down the high street. These were days before Google Earth and I had no idea particularly where I was. I was on my way to San Francisco, pulled off the road and there it was. It only ran once every day or every two days. It is that kind of karma which trainspotting is all about.

Richard Foster, 33, editor of Model Rail Magazine, Peterborough, Cambs

One evening, when I was staying with my nan in Twyford, near Reading, in the late 90s, I went out late to walk the dog. It was dark and cold and I looked up and saw smoke rising over the railway building. I thought it a claggy diesel coming through. But then I saw a Great Western steam engine 6024 King Edward 1st. It was on the western regional mainline, where they used to work from 1927-62. Now, there are only three of them left. All Great Western engines have a brass safety valve bonnet halfway along the top of the boiler. From that and the chimney, I worked out what it was. It must have been on a light engine move. The mist and smoke mingling was very eery. When I got back, my Dad said I looked like I’d seen a ghost. And it was such an unusual thing to see: to be there, at that point as it steamed through was quite cool.

David Rice, 67, retired engineer, York

Back in 1959 I was a member of the Stevenage Locomotive Society and my favourite trip was when we used to go overnight from London to the Manchester area to look at the engine sheds. We were coming into Piccadilly station in the early hours and the first time we saw the electric locomotive Aurora 27002. We pulled up alongside it. At the time it was the first electric loco we had ever seen. We saw steam engines every day through Stevenage but nothing like this and here we were, we had just arrived and here was an electric. It used to haul passenger trains over the Pennines between Manchester and Sheffield through the Woodhead Tunnel. When we decided to have a club magazine we call it the Aurora. We adopted it as our lucky mascot.

Natalie Marsh, 18, student, Doncaster, South Yorks

My dad used to trainspot so for me it’s like a second home – it’s what I can relate to. In 2011 there was the Deltic Gathering on the East Lancs Railway. All five remaining Deltics were there. Two are privately owned and the other is in the NRM the other two are held by preservation societies. We were celebrating 50 years of the Deltics and there were loads and loads of people taking photographs of the five – everyone had come to have a look. They were used to replace steam locomotives and operated between 1961-81 when they needed something powerful to pull passenger trains. Although they meant the end for the steam age everyone seems to like them in some way. The Deltics were gradually replaced by the InterCity (HST) 125 on fast routes in the late 70s.  

David Percival, 71, retired railway publisher, Knebworth, Herts

A few years ago I took my first trip behind the rebuilt Tornado (the last of the Peppercorn class 'A1' steam locomotives scrapped in 1966 but rebuilt by enthusiasts at a cost of £3 million and completed in 2008) out from Kings Cross to York returning on the A4 Pacific Class Sir Nigel Gresley named after its designer. At Stoke Bank, south of Grantham on the East Coast mainline it romped up there. You don’t notice the gradient today but with steam it could be quite a slow climb. Both engines worked hard and their crews knew how to get the best out of them; one going north one going south. The railway tells the country’s industrial history and its technological development – you can see that in many countries around the world.

Those with trainspotting tales should contact Amy at amy.banks@nrm.org.uk or post pictures and stories on the museum’s website. Images can be submitted via twitter using #trainspotting @railwaymuseum

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