Thursday, 19 November 2009

train spotting

I’m not embarrassed to admit it. I’m an ex-train spotter. I can understand why this pastime has had such a bad press though, but growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it did seem quite adventurous. Of course, I scorn with the rest of you the popular stereotype of the train spotter, although I assume that they do what they do because they have nothing more exciting to do.

Anyway, the incredibly banal object of train spotting is to see every single locomotive in the entire country and note down its unique number, but the idea of sitting on a windy station platform, waiting for those locomotives to come to you, does sound pointless. I think we can agree on that. However, we reversed the process. In other words, we spent a lot of time visiting the sheds, the depots where the locomotives were maintained, repaired and prepared for their next assignment. And we’d plan days away in cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle to a tight timetable to get to as many of these engine sheds as we possibly could. We occasionally had official permits, but more often than not we were, in the ubiquitous slang of the time, ‘bunking’.

Bunking was fun, if occasionally dangerous, but you quickly found out which was which. I spent a fortnight in London in the summers of both 1960 and 1961, and for someone from the north, the sheds of the Southern and Western Regions of what was then British Railways were the main target. Armed with my Ian Allan shed directory, I found my way to Nine Elms, code number 70A. Now, I’d been informed by our local expert before I came to London for the first time that the sheds on the Southern had official gatekeepers. No problem. Just pretend not to notice.

“Hoi! Where d'you think you’re going?”

“In there,” I replied politely.

“No you’re not! Clear off!”

There was something about the smug, spoilsport expression that the gatekeeper leered in my direction that made me determine to get him back. Accordingly, I turned left as I came back out of the gateway. I kept on walking, always visualizing where the railway was behind the rows of houses that quickly blocked my direct view. I walked for perhaps fifteen minutes, taking every possible left turn to maintain proximity, before I saw an opportunity to get on to the railway. All I had to do then was to backtrack leftwards and I should be inside Nine Elms. Well, it turned out that I did have to cross a fairly busy double-track line and find my way through a large freight yard, but I finally reached the shed, where I excitedly wrote down the numbers of all the unfamiliar locomotives I found there.

Well, I’d accomplished the main objective, but now for the grand exit. Not the way I came, naturally, but by the main gate. The gatekeeper’s expression (where the bloody hell did he come from?) lingers still in my memory.

When I was growing up, although I didn’t realize at the time how quickly it would all disappear, we were still in the age of steam. We were excited by the new diesel and electric locomotives, mostly for their novelty value, but we never suspected that within a decade that would be it. British Railways was still building steam locomotives up to 1960, for heaven’s sake. Trying to explain the attraction of steam to someone who wasn’t there may be akin to trying to explain Lourdes to a non-Catholic, but I still remember a trip to Glasgow with a classmate in about 1959 or 1960. Although we didn’t know it, our shed directory was out of date, in that Glasgow had started to shut down its tram network, and we had only the old tram numbers with which to plan our itinerary. Anyway, everyone was incredibly helpful to two country boys just trying to get around. So helpful, in fact, that we received no more than a friendly warning from two members of the British Transport Police—we’d have been lucky to escape without a fine in some places—who encountered us walking carefully and methodically around Polmadie, 66A, the main shed for trains to the south out of Glasgow Central station. You always walked around a shed in a particular way, ostentatiously looking in both directions whenever you crossed a line, and making sure with your body language—we didn’t have the term then, but we had the language—that you were aware of the potential hazards, like the ash pits and the coaling tower. That was enough in most sheds for those working there to leave you alone.

And we did get to experience the trams, although I believe that the last of them were withdrawn no more than a few months after our visit. But the highlight of the trip was finding scores of tank and light goods engines, and even a few light passenger locomotives, built originally by the Caledonian Railway as long ago as the 1880s. To find examples of routine late Victorian engineering still doing an honest day’s work well into the second half of the twentieth century is something that I’m kind of pleased to have been around to catch a small glimpse of.

I once took my younger brother, Ian, around Gateshead (52A) on a Sunday afternoon during one of our family’s frequent day trips around that time to visit my grandmother in Newcastle. I was often detailed to look after him, but a gap of five and a half years did make it difficult to find common ground. Anyway, Gateshead was the main shed housing locomotives for the express passenger trains to Edinburgh and London out of Newcastle station. Its large complement of locomotives, most of which were normally resting on a Sunday, included several of Sir Nigel Gresley’s redoubtable A4 pacifics of the old London and North Eastern Railway, or ‘streaks’ as we used to call them, for obvious reasons if you’ve ever seen one. All were home that day. If your only experience of a locomotive is from platform level, you may not have tried to imagine what that same locomotive would look like from ground level. Shed level. Impressive, especially when you’re only nine years old, or possibly even younger, which is how old Ian would have been at the time. This is the only time I took him around an engine shed, but I believe that he still remembers the occasion. Rather vividly, as it happens.

One of my own earliest memories is of a visit to Carlisle in 1958, and my introduction to engine sheds. We’d heard about such places, specifically Kingmoor (12A), the old Caledonian Railway shed in Carlisle. We’d also heard about engine numbers beginning with a ‘5’. Well, we did find those semi-mythic engines with numbers beginning with ‘5’, six or seven of them, old CR locomotives but now with hessian sacks tied around their funnels, the universal symbol that they were condemned and would never again raise steam. Discovering, a year or two later, that others of their brethren were still being used in Glasgow was more than adequate compensation.

Anyway, one of Sir William Stanier’s pacifics, Duchess of Montrose, was coaling up for action, and the driver invited my companion and I up to the footplate as they worked the engine up and down the yard. But more was to follow. Without asking whether we wanted to or not, the driver then took us the mile or so to Carlisle’s Citadel Station, where he was scheduled to pick up a northbound express. That was the first and also the longest ride I ever had in the cab of a steam locomotive, and I was eleven years old.

It all seemed adventurous back then, but everything should be viewed in context. I wouldn’t want to try some of the things that people do for excitement nowadays, and I certainly wouldn’t advocate trespassing on the railway either, but things were different then. Now, even when there is no train, light engine or other moving part of the system in view, there is still a high likelihood that you will kill yourself. High-voltage electricity doesn’t ask you for identification. Back then, if there were no trains in sight, the only thing on the railway that could kill you was your own stupidity. We had some of that too.


  1. Ah, trainspotting. Ian remembers the Gateshead shed trip but thinks it more likely it took place during the summer holidays.

  2. Hi Ian. I think you're wrong. It was definitely a Sunday, or the shed wouldn't have been full, and during the summer holidays we wouldn't have done anything without Dave and Ron, and they definitely weren't with us on the Gateshead visit. It took place when Gran was still living in George's Road, although I don't remember when she moved to Cowgate.

    When I was around ten or eleven I to go down to the nearby village of Ecclesfield with a couple of mates to do a bit of train spotting on or near the 'Basket Bridge' which can be seen in the linked video.
    We would often see another guy there from a neighbouring housing estate. We often asked him his name but he would never tell us. It was all in jest and nothing sinister. For the want f anything better, we called him 'Mystery Man'.
    This must have gone on for 6-9 months then one day he asked to borrow my notebook in which I recorded train numbers.
    As he opened the book and saw my name on the inside cover he exclaimed 'Bloody Hell you have the same name as me'. I had too, our first and family names were identical. He is still the only person I have met with the same name as myself. Quite a coincidence

    1. No Google back then Keith. You probably have quite a few namesakes around the world. I certainly do.


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