Mug of tea in hand, John Sadler is musing about customers his Bridlington station buffet may once have served. Just imagine, he says. Lawrence of Arabia... Amy Johnson... all sorts of famous people. And why not? TE Lawrence did indeed live for a while in Brid in the 1930s. The great aviator Amy Johnson was born just down the line in Hull and may – who knows? – have had a cup of coffee here on a seaside jaunt (between flights).
You could also make a case for Winifred Holtby, the South Riding author born five miles away in the village of Rudston. Or David Hockney, the sometime-Brid-based artist. Hockney, Holtby, Johnson, Lawrence... the East Riding world’s your oyster. Well, your jacket potato.
John Sadler is a dry, wry sort of man. We’re sharing a table in the almost-unique buffet, which he owns and which has just celebrated its centenary. Raise a mug of Horlicks! Splash out on a Tunnock’s teacake!
It’s one of only two station buffets in the country – the other is at Stalybridge, near Manchester – that still have their original fittings. The walls are covered with loco nameplates and tin-plate advertisements, creating a warm wonderland of railway nostalgia.
“People come in and say it’s just like Brief Encounter,” says John. And, yes, it’s not hard, in the 70th anniversary year of the great wartime weepie, to imagine Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard palpitating with repressed passion as they sip their tea and wait for trains to Driffield, Hutton Cranswick or Filey.
Around the buffet this chilly morning are a handful of stalwart-looking passengers, well-wrapped-up and stoically setting out on winter journeys. Lucy, the station cat, brushes their legs. That’s Lucy II, successor to Lucy I, who died last year after 26 years’ dedicated service.
The buffet is famous. Scouts on the lookout for period locations for the new Dad’s Army film, partly shot in Brid and due for release on February 5, came to assess its potential. “But it was no good for filming because there was so much stuff on the walls,” says John.
Even so, Captain Mainwaring and his gallant lads in wartime Walmington-on-Sea would feel at home here, though they might be a bit flummoxed by the choice of mocha, cappuccino or latte.
John is used to media attention. He was interviewed by Michael Portillo for his Great British Rail Journeys. “First series,” he says. “He reckons it’s the best station in the country.” I look quizzical; York, St Pancras and Edinburgh Waverley flash through my mind. But John insists: “He told me it was the finest railway station in the country.”
Whether or not you agree, it’s a definite charmer, with an imposing Booking Office frontage and a spacious concourse famous for its award-winning displays of flowers. In summer, they’re a riot of blooms, burgeoning with begonias, up to 200 tubs of them, a sort of Kew Gardens for the East Riding.
Even now, when the summer surge of holidaymakers has subsided, there are still a few tubs of primulas and, enterprisingly, two tin baths of flowers flanking the buffet entrance. Step inside and be dazzled. Not here the utilitarian tables and canteen-like atmosphere of so many modern buffets. There are two cosy rooms – one the cafe, the other the bar – with dark wood decor, maroon-tiled fireplaces and marble-topped counters.
“The only thing that’s changed is that the original gas lights are now electric and the coal fires are gas,” says John.
Sit down and take in the walls... covered with nameplates for the Flying Scotsman and the Dame Vera Lynn, the Sir Nigel Gresley, the Thunderer and the Bittern.
Scattered among them are railway signs. Some are no-nonsense-straightforwa rd: “Crossing: No Gates”, “Hail railway bus here”, ‘Through the subway for trains to Newcastle and intermediate stations”.
Others have a strange lineside poetry about them: “Mishap Controller”, “Out – Scoop – In”, “Tender Braked to Suit”. Collected by John, some bought, others donated.
There are vintage vending machines for Woodbine cigarettes and Beech Nut chewing gum, ancient railway teapots, Edwardian vacuum cleaners, coal scuttles, a pole for unlocking carriages chained to each other, a military periscope.
There are tin-plate advertisements for Veno’s Lightning Cough Cure, Gossages Dry Soap, Eclipse Table Waters, Lyons coffee and chicory extract, Nectar tea and Palethorpes Royal Cambridge sausages.
And there are two or three adverts, says John, that might not have got through in our more innuendo-conscious times: Churchman’s Noted Counter Shag (tobacco); Spratt’s Puts Pussy into Fine Form (cat food); Ask Your Bootmaker for Cock (a brand of shoe leather).
“People come to the station just to have a look at all this,” he says. “Some think it’s a museum. They just look; they don’t buy anything.”
He bought the buffet business 13 years ago from Madeline Crook, who had run it with her late husband Bryan. Madeline still works there – “I was going to be here for six months, but I’m still here after 13 years,” she says, surveying the customers from beside a cabinet of sausage rolls, Eccles cakes and scones.
As for the flowers... John encouraged his friend Chris Hanson – who died in September – to create the vast displays.
“Chris was into gardening; my favourite plant was concrete,” he says.
“A couple came in once and said there’s a big picture of these displays at Sharm el-Sheikh airport.”
TE Lawrence, incidentally, once wrote to a friend: “Bridlington in winter is a silent place, where cats and landladies’ husbands walk gently down the middle of the streets.”
Towns change, it seems, even if station buffets don’t.