On trail of the red petticoat

The Railway Children starring Peter ( Gary Warren), Bobbie (Jenny Agutter) and Phyliss (Sally Thomsett).
The Railway Children starring Peter ( Gary Warren), Bobbie (Jenny Agutter) and Phyliss (Sally Thomsett).
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Sebastian Oake visits the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway with Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children

It is surely one of the most emotional moments in British cinema. The thick cloud of steam slowly clears on an Edwardian station platform to reveal a gentleman coming home to his family, a family he was not expecting to see again for a long time. “Oh, my Daddy! My Daddy!” screams his daughter Bobbie, played by Jenny Agutter, as she clings to him as tightly as she can.

It is the climax of the beautiful film version of The Railway Children made in 1970 by Lionel Jeffries. The film places events in Yorkshire around the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway.

The book by Edith Nesbit, right, was published in the early 1900s, following three children forced to move from their comfortable London house when their father, who works in the Foreign Office, is imprisoned after being wrongly accused of selling state secrets to Russia.

Their new home is Three Chimneys, a cottage deep in the country but close to a railway. Thrown into poverty, their mother (played in the film by Dinah Sheridan) tells the children: “Jam or butter, Dear – not jam and butter. We can’t afford that sort of reckless luxury nowadays.”

Mother spends much of her time desperately writing stories and poems to earn money, buying buns for tea as a treat each time she has a story accepted. Meanwhile, the children – Bobbie, torn between childhood and the responsibilities that come with being the eldest; Peter (Gary Warren), who dreams of becoming an engineer; and Phyllis (Sally Thomsett), who means “extremely well” but almost invariably has her shoe laces undone – are left to enjoy a summer of freedom.

They wave to the trains from the foot of their garden, imploring them to “Take our love to Father”, whom they believe to be away working in London. An old gentleman returns their waves and becomes central in their lives, ultimately setting in motion a process that will see them reunited with their father.

They also make friends with down-to-earth but proud station porter, Albert Perks, played in the film by Bernard Cribbins. When they discover his birthday is approaching and that he doesn’t keep birthdays, they gather presents from well meaning villagers. Initially Perks is angry but he soon softens and their friendship is cemented.

Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis take home a Russian dissident writer, who has fled his country after being imprisoned in Siberia for “writing a beautiful book about poor people”. He has come to England to search for his family and the children enlist the help of the old gentleman to find them for him. They also rescue an injured runner taking part in paper chase through a railway tunnel.

But the most dramatic turn of events comes when they witness a landslip onto the railway tracks and, waving red flannel petticoats, they manage to stop the oncoming train and prevent disaster. In recognition, they are presented with gold watches by their old gentleman, who turns out to be a director of the railway company.

There are many touching moments in the book but the underlying theme of the unexplained absence of the children’s father is the most poignant. Bobbie, in particular, senses her mother’s deep unhappiness and when she by chance sees a newspaper giving details of her father’s trial and prison sentence, she is forced to confront reality. Once again, she asks the old gentleman for help and finds him only too keen to help prove her father’s innocence, which finally he is able to do.

The Railway Children may present a rather idealised view of childhood in which children play all day and adults are generally wise and kindly, but it is undeniably a beautifully soft story, full of warmth, innocence and reminders of a lost era.

The original setting for the book is likely drawn from several places. One connection must be with Halstead near Sevenoaks in Kent, where the author lived close to a railway line as a teenager. The town of Maidbridge (perhaps taken from Maidstone/Tonbridge) is mentioned several times. Otherwise, descriptions of the surrounding countryside with its “moors and rocks and great hills” do seem to point more to the north of England and ever since the children waved the red petticoats on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway line, it is a story that has become forever Yorkshire. And this setting sees Yorkshire in all its elements from the busy former mill town of Keighley to the villages in the foothills of the Pennines with the bleak moors beyond.

As a heritage line regularly running steam trains, it’s not hard for the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway to transport you back a full 100 years. Trains run at weekends and daily during the summer from Keighley calling at Ingrow (for the Museum of Rail Travel), Damems, Oakworth, Haworth (for the locomotive viewing area) and Oxenhope. It is the last three of these stations that followers of The Railway Children will want to visit most.

You can pick up the Railway Children Walks leaflet at the stations. It guides you round many of the locations used in the film with the full walk extending 6 miles (10 kilometres) and starting at Haworth Station. After following the railway almost to Oxenhope, the first landmark from the film that you encounter is Three Chimneys, or Bents House to give it its real name.

This was the home of Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis and their mother. In the film the children run from the house each morning to wave to the trains, although the actual waving was filmed near Mytholmes Tunnel between Haworth and Oakworth.

The trail then takes you to the Parsonage at Haworth, the centre point of that other great literary connection for this part of Yorkshire.

The shops and houses on Haworth Main Street, Church Street and Lodge Street are seen in the film as the children go from door to door gathering gifts for Perks. Also on Main Street is the Fleece, used as the base for the production company during filming. It’s worth taking extra time to explore Haworth with its steep main street lined with setts and fine old buildings of Pennine stone.

From Haworth, it’s not far to Oakworth Station. On the way, views through the trees permitting, you can glimpse the entrance to the tunnel where the paper chase runner injures his leg in the film, the bank where the landslip occurs and the section of line where the children wave their red petticoats.

Oakworth Station features throughout the film and the porter’s cottage will be quickly spotted opposite the main building. The station platform is where the children are presented with their gold watches by the train company and it is here also where the wonderful end scene between Bobbie and her father takes place.

Forty years after Lionel Jeffries’ classic film, a made-for-TV film was produced, again starring Jenny Agutter, but this time in the role of mother, this version was based around the Bluebell Railway in Sussex. But it is to the stone villages of the Pennine fringe, charming and austere in equal measure, that most people instinctively look to experience the world of Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis. It’s almost impossible to imagine them anywhere else.


Information at your fingertips

Getting there

Keighley Station, where the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway begins, is on the mainline from Leeds or Bradford to Skipton

Stay, eat or drink at...

Fleece Inn, Main Street, Haworth; 01535 642172 or www.fleece-inn.co.uk

Haworth Old Hall, Sun Street, Haworth; 01535 642709 or www.hawortholdhall.co.uk

Old White Lion Hotel, Main Street, Haworth; 01535 642313 or www.oldwhitelionhotel.com

Dining Trains and Cream Teas in the Old Gentleman’s Saloon; 01535 645214 or www.kwvr.co.uk

Oxenhope Station Buffet

Haworth Youth Hostel; 0845 371 9520 or www.yha.org.uk


Keighley and Worth Valley Railway and Railway Children Weekend 5-7 May 2012; 01535 645214/647777 or www.kwvr.co.uk

The Railway Children Walks leaflet; available from Keighley, Haworth and Oxenhope Stations or at www.visitbradford.com/Bronte_Country/inspiration/the-railway-children-film.asp or on 01535 646838

Haworth Tourist Information Centre; 01535 642329

Haworth 1940s Weekend 19-20 May 2012; www.haworth1940sweekend.co.uk

Brontë Parsonage; www.bronte.info

Pathfinder: The author who blazed the way for Blyton

The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit was first published in book form in 1906. It’s been said that she was the first author to speak directly to children and she set a path for others to follow, including Enid Blyton. A fine story book for children, it was also a serious reflection of the times. For instance, it reveals the fixed class system of the day. Its theme, in which the children’s father is falsely accused of being a traitor, could well have been borrowed from the Dreyfus Affair, a scandal that had hit France a few years before.

The Russian fugitive punished for writing about the poor was probably based on real-life dissident friends of the author. Nesbit herself was unconventional, helping found the left-of-centre Fabian Society and wearing her hair short and chain smoking at a time when both were unusual for women.

The Wordsworth Classics edition of The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit, published by Wordsworth in 1993, is available for £1.79 at www.amazon.co.uk