Is the romance of the railway dead? Apparently not. Sarah Freeman reports on the real life Brief Encounters.
It was in Howards End that EM Forster wrote “station termini are gates to the glorious and the unknown, through them we pass out into adventure.”
That was in 1910 when railways offered new exciting possibilities to those who had never been much further than the end of their own road, when carriages boasted plush velvet seats and when stations basked in the gentle glow of oil lamps. Back then, railways promised escape and trains were a byword for romance
The gentle chug of steam trains inspired poetry, they provided the backdrop for countless novels from Charles Dickens to Tolstoy and few murder mysteries were complete without some reference to railways.
Agatha Christie famously opted for luxury for her own Murder on the Orient Express while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was happy to slum it with the regular passengers. A copy of Bradshaw’s guide always close at hand, the detective’s knowledge of the rail network was such that he should have worn an anorak rather than a cape and more than once this knowledge proved vital in solving some devious crime.
Later, filmmakers followed the exact same lead and when Brief Encounter arrived on the big screen in 1945, romantic notions of the railways were immortalised on celluloid. In the months that followed its release it was possible to spot bored housewives up and down the country making like Celia Johnson, glancing furtively across station platforms in the hope of catching the eye of their own Trevor Howard.
These days we are a much more cynical lot. Railways now are about announcements of the wrong kind of snow, cappuccinos which taste more of plastic cups than they do of coffee beans and few would fancy even the briefest encounter with those who frequent the average waiting room.
So is the era of the railway romance over? Well, not according to Ruth Leach, interpretation developer at the National Railway Museum in York who a few months ago launched a public appeal for stories from the tracks. The project was part of a wider nostalgic transformation of the museum’s Station Hall, but as the emails and letters began to flood in Ruth noticed there was a definite romantic theme emerging.
In all the museum received 700 stories and anecdotes with many of them tales of falling in love and at least a few featuring the archetypal tall, dark handsome stranger.
“I’m an old romantic, so I still like to think the railways still have those Brief Encounter possibilities,” says Ruth. “Obviously in the early days of the railway they revolutionised travel and that in itself was incredibly exciting. Of course now most of us have cars, but you don’t tend to get people waxing lyrical about a drive down the M1.
“We might be more mobile than we ever have been, but railways still offer the possibility of a chance encounter. Stations can throw you together with a complete stranger, on trains you can find yourself sharing stories with complete strangers. Most of the time it ends as soon as the train pulls into the station and you go your separate ways, but every so often it can lead to something much more permanent.
Take the story of Margaret Blythe, who went to meet her boyfriend at the station and found a husband.
“It was 1947 and my boyfriend at the time worked as a porter at Ferry Hill Station in County Durham. One evening I went to meet him from work and while I was waiting for him to finish his shift, this handsome young man passed me and gave me a lovely smile.
“A little while later I saw him again in the queue for the cinema and I made sure that I sat near him. It turned out he was a signalman at Ferry Hill and from that day on love blossomed.”
When she contacted the National Media Museum, Margaret didn’t say what happened to her first boyfriend, but her romance with the signalman was far from fleeting. The couple married in 1953, are still very much in love, still mad about trains and last year their son followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming an engine driver.
While British Rail was the butt of countless jokes, Michael Selby has nothing put praise for the organisation, which half a century ago was responsible for introducing him to his future wife.
“In 1956 I was in London on a business visit to a motor show and a girl called Mary, who also happened to live in Manchester like me, was down for a job interview. I had intended to catch a show before getting a train back home, but it turned out not to be possible, so instead I found myself in the waiting room of Euston station much earlier than planned.
“While I was staring out of the window, I saw this very attractive young lady walk by. I can still remember what she was wearing. She passed me by and I thought no more about it until 10 minutes later when I heard a young lady’s voice beside me saying, ‘is this seat taken?’ It was her. Well, what could I say but ‘No, please sit down’.”
A whirlwind romance followed and when Michael got in contact with the museum, he and his wife had celebrated 55 years of marriage. Throughout last year, visitors to the museum were asked to write down short railway anecdotes on the back of luggage labels and again the romantic theme continued.
“I met my wife,” began one man. “She sat next to me all the way from London to Edinburgh. It was Durham before I plucked up the courage to talk.” While another admitted to proposing to his girlfriend through the PA system at Waterloo station.
Others talked of romantic honeymoon rail tours, with former station master Norman Kemp donating a photograph of him and his wife Pam leaving Hull Paragon station on the 16.55 express to King’s Cross, the faces of their friends and family waving them off reflected in the carriage windows.
“This train was really popular with newlyweds,” he told the museum. “So much so it earned the nickname the Honeymoon Special.”
And while many of the anecdotes and very personal stories which feature in the Station Hall’s new exhibition space date back decades, there is evidence that railway romance didn’t die with the dining cart.
Take the story of Tom Adams, for example, who emailed the museum with details of a much more recent romance.
“Waterloo Station has many special memories for me,” he began. “I had been on a first date with Lillian Henley. We had been for a drink and then walked along the South Bank. You know when someone is right for you, you can just walk around talking about anything. Lily had to catch her train from Waterloo and it was the last train of the evening.
“As we had first met ballroom dancing, we decided to have a little dance on the platform. Her train was about to leave and that’s where we had our first kiss. The love of my life.
“Then she had to go off to New York for a month. I hoped that we would still be all right and that a month away would not change what we had. It didn’t. On our second date, we kissed again at Waterloo Station, on our third date we met under the big clock and now we live together 20 minutes walk away from our favourite station.”
As Ruth says, the tales which the National Railway Museum has are enough to soften the heart of even the hardest cynic.
“One tale in particular always makes me smile. A newly married couple from York had an awful row and the husband left and went back to his parents. The wife told us that she soon realised that she missed him so much that she decided to catch a train to her in-laws with the hope of patching things up.
“As she got to the station she saw a familiar figure in the distance. It was her husband. He’d been missing her just as much and had decided to come home.
“What’s not to love about a story which has that kind of happy ending?”
Celebrating the railways
Two years ago, the National Railway Museum began a major redevelopment of Station Hall costing £1.3m.
The idea was to transform the exhibition space inside the former goods depot, which first opened to the public in 1990.
It will reopen fully this Friday and as well as improved lighting and access it will now feature more personal stories and anecdotes of those whose lives have been touched by the railways.
The new look Station Hall will also allow visitors to explore 24 hours in the life of a large station and make the most of the museum’s collection which includes more than 300 locomotives.
For more details visit www.nrm.org.uk.