“It made us,” says France, who has been involved with the all-puffing, all-chuffing West Yorkshire heritage line (used as a location in the film) since it started 50 years ago.
“Visitors went from 60,000 a year to 150,000.”
In the run-up to the railway’s Golden Anniversary Gala Week (June 24 to July 1), we’re sitting in the waiting room at Keighley station, where the five-mile-long branch line starts its steady trundle up to the village of Oxenhope – via Haworth, global HQ of the Brontë industry.
It’s midweek and the steam trains have been replaced for the day by diesels. So there’ll be no thrusting pistons, no hissing steam, no plumes of smoke. This hasn’t, however, deterred the diesel enthusiasts who’ve turned out.
“Diesels draw people who grew up with them in the Seventies and Eighties,” says France, a retired town planner and one of the line’s 500 or so volunteers. Some travel here regularly from as far as London; many are - how to put this tactfully? - men of a certain age who aren’t averse to dressing up in uniform.
“But diesels don’t draw the public like steam engines,” adds France. “There’s something about a steam engine. It’s the nearest thing man has made to a living being. They’ve got such character. They can be inspiring; they can be annoying...”
He’s driven them; he’s shovelled coal on them; he’s known them all his life.
“My mother’s family were all railwaymen,” he says. “And we didn’t have a car; we went everywhere by train. So the demise of steam in 1968 hit me. The thing I was most passionate about just disappeared. I was 15 years old and I thought my life was finished.”
Six years earlier, British Railways had closed the KWVR line, but rail enthusiasts and local supporters bought it and reopened it on June 29 1968 as a heritage railway. Two years later, The Railway Children made it famous.
France handles “filming liaison”, dealing with production companies keen to use the line as a location for period dramas. Crossing Keighley station to the KWVR terminus is like stepping back 70 years.
The line is like a Fifties model railway set brought magically to life – the maroon and cream signs, the vintage railway posters (some showing places which, thanks to Dr Beeching’s massacre of Britain’s rail system, no longer have stations). It’s Ladybird land, distilling nostalgia, even among people too young to remember.
Time to board the olive-green 1950s diesel waiting at the platform for the 20-minute run. Today’s weekday quota of the line’s 110,000 or so annual passengers is naturally short on the family groups who are its mainstay and invariably give it a Bank Holiday atmosphere. But there’s a sizeable group on a tour of Yorkshire by Steam – though this morning it’s actually Yorkshire by Diesel. No-one seems too concerned.
With much creaking and squeaking, the train rumbles – der-dum-der-dum – out of the station and, with an accelerating chuff, climbs steadily past Hog Holes Brow and Hermit Hole, past Gingerbread Clough and Cackleshaw; over here is Cullingworth Moor, over there Cuckoo Park Lane.
Mossy dry stone walls snake over sloping fields, geese waddle round allotments, pheasants scuttle away from the line. A landscape of brown bracken is dotted with sturdy stone chapels, tall terraces of weavers’ cottages, the odd ruinous factory. It’s not pretty-pretty rural; it’s a working West Riding landscape; fresh air but no airs and graces.
The six stations are faultlessly picturesque. The most famous is Oakworth, which featured in That Film and preserves a strong Edwardian feel. Between porters’ trolleys stacked with well-travelled suitcases and trunks is a whole gallery of vintage tin-plate adverts: Venus Soap (“Saves rubbing”); Craven A cigarettes (“Will not affect your throat”); Virol, a malt extract (“Anaemic girls need it”); Melox (“The food of the dogs”).
“The beauty of this line is that there’s an awful lot in a short space,” says France. “It’s complete – all the original stations; there’s a good, interesting fleet of locomotives. You can have a day-trip or half-a-day trip.”
We have 15 minutes at Oxenhope station, where he shows me a Victorian “club carriage” in the Exhibition Shed. It was used by mill-owners to travel from their homes to their mills in armchair comfort (“You could read your newspaper and drink whiskies”) and was discovered in Derby, converted into a cricket pavilion.
A prize exhibit is an engine painted chocolate brown. “The Railway Children engine,” says France. “The one that Jenny Agutter stopped.” I nod respectfully.
I have an hour and a half in Haworth – long enough to stride up the steep cobbly road from the station and run the gauntlet of gift shops up to the Brontë Parsonage Museum (a vintage bus service sometimes links Haworth and Oxenhope stations with the village).
Once again I’m taken aback by the extraordinariness of standing next to the table where Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre were written, and the couch on which Emily died. In the gift shop, I resist buying a packet of Bron-tea.
The Brontës unknowingly played a part in the creation of the Worth Valley branch line in 1867. An engineer who was a fan of their novels was surprised to discover no line up to Haworth. So, supported by mill-owners who needed to transport coal to power their looms, one was duly built – only marginally delayed when a cow ate the original plans.
Back at Haworth station, Tom Kemp, the significantly bearded station master, looks the embodiment of heritage railways, despite being a volunteer for only three years. “I arrived in the area on my narrowboat and thought I ought to do something with my time,” he says, in a fine throwaway line.
“I was part of the Sixties train-spotting generation. I spent my teenage years on Slough station and spanned the changeover from steam to diesel. Steam engines were magnificent creatures; they had an aura about them.”
Does he feel a personal nostalgia? “I suppose I do – just to be around the smell of steam and hot oil.”
I browse the station gift shop’s DVDs. They include Seventies Spotting Days Around the West Country, North-East Engine Sheds in the Last Days of Steam and Signalling and Signal Boxes Along the NER Routes (Vol 2). Nothing, though, as alluring as a CD I came across here 20 years ago: Grantham Station on a Damp August Night in 1961.
On the way back to Keighley, I spend a pleasant hour in the Rail Story museums at Ingrow station, where a coal fire is burning in the booking office grate.
They’re packed with beautifully restored carriages and any amount of rail memorabilia, including some stern Victorian notices. “These closets are intended for the convenience of passengers only,” thunders one. “Workmen, cabmen, fish porters and idlers are not permitted to use them. By Order.”
And there’s a list of the KWVR’s many film and TV appearances – including Brideshead Revisited, Yanks, Swallows and Amazons, Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes series, and a TV commercial for Symbol biscuits made by Ronnie Corbett in 1966.
I’ve never seen that, either.
Keighley & Worth Valley Railway’s anniversary gala runs from June 24 to July 1 (01535 645214; www.kwvr.co.uk). See website for details, including guest appearances by the Royal Scot engine. Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth (01535 642323; www.bronte.org.uk) is currently celebrating Emily Brontë ’s bicentenary.