One of the unexpected perks of having older children is that, increasingly, I am surplus to requirements. Today I am providing transport there and back, and have been awarded the time in between to kick my heels and twiddle my thumbs.
As luck would have it, my freedom comes with the added bonus of a rover ticket on the Nene Valley Railway. Now, whilst no connoisseur, I do love a steam train and I am very happy to sink back into the deep upholstery of an old slam door carriage and watch the world pass by my window. It is unexpectedly beautiful too – despite being hemmed in by the A1 and the confusing mash of Peterborough’s myriad bypasses, the train follows a verdant corridor of water meadows. The Nene twists and turns whilst cattle graze, buzzards drift and willows weep – it is green and lush and just looking at it puts me into a calm and better place. The rhythmic chuntering of the carriages are conducive to quiet contemplation. And in that respect, the deep upholstery is also proving helpful. Eric Wark is relaxed.
Arriving in Wansford, I am presented with an array of choices – traction engines in the car park, ice cream in the station cafe, or over the footbridge to a bookshop in a railway carriage. I choose all three, with the bookshop first. I rummage happily, avoiding all manner of temptation (an Edwardian pamphlet catches my eye, “George Stephenson’s Rocket, the First Day, and Those That Followed”) until I come across a box of old photographs.
Almost all are black and white and, mostly featuring shots of passing locomotives, are meticulously catalogued – date, time, location, line (up line or down line), class and wheel arrangement, all neatly written out on the back. The careful photographers, a disproportionate number of whom seem to be Reverends, have left us in no doubt as to what it is we are looking at. But these aren’t for me – I like a bit of mystery and three of the photographs have exactly that.
The first wouldn’t represent much mystery at all for the true railway buff – we can see the loco’s name and number: 30911 Dover. And in British Railway colours too! The cognoscenti would have it nailed in seconds. But it is the man leaning out of the cab that has captured my imagination. He has a proprietorial air – the driver perhaps? He’s dressed up, that’s for sure – clean white shirt, tie, smart jacket and cap, and not the slightest suggestion of grease or coal dust. Not unlike a find from a previous foraging expedition, it seems that he has dressed for the occasion. No random snap this!
The second photo is wonderful – taken by somebody in the fourth carriage behind a steam engine, there is clearly something special going on. Out of every window men are leaning, almost all of them clutching cameras (with the strong possibility that many of them are Reverends) feeling the wind in their faces as they watch the loco in front. Like our driver, they are wearing jackets and, although we can’t see them, there is no doubt they will be wearing ties as well. But the hair is getting long, encroaching over collars, and the sixties are beginning to swing. Is this a picture from the last days of steam? A final trip before a diesel gets the gig? Whatever it is, the steam aficionados are out in force.
The last is my favourite, for the simple reason that it is beautiful. It is an artsy picture, taken of rusting wagons sitting in front of an even rustier loco. The browns and reds of the wood and the metal are quite lovely, and give a certain elegance to the decay, whilst plants are beginning to climb and weave their way through the wheels and rods and chains. Nature is reclaiming them! Otherwise, no clues whatsoever – the picture could have been taken in any rail yard at any point in the last 50 years. For all I know, the wagons are still sitting there, and it would seem that I am not the only thing that is surplus to requirements.