Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Holiday Trains by Greg Morse

I’m on a train, a train heading in the wrong direction. It’s heading in the wrong direction because it’s taking me to work. I got on at Swindon with the same faces I see every day – plus a few new ones (who, as all commuters know, have no right to be there – at least not in ‘your’ seat) – and now I’m trying to write to you. I’m doing it the old-fashioned way, and my pen is bouncing all over the page as the wheels bounce over points and joints and goodness knows what. My fellow travellers tuck in to muffins and pastries, sip their lattes, read their papers and prod their phones. It’s February, and it’s quieter this morning as many are joining their children on their half-term holidays. Their absences mean the cloud of yoghurt-breath, BO and flatulence is smaller than on some days, the chances of being trampled or tripped up just a little bit less. These peccadillos matter far more than they should, but it is alas the way of things when using trains to facilitate the daily grind.

GWR families wait in line at Swindon to board the trains for Trip Week, c. 1910. Destinations included Weymouth, Weston-Super-Mare and Cornwall. (Holiday Trains, Amberley Publishing)

As my train powers on to Paddington, I start to think about my return this evening, but muse more on the prospect of heading the ‘right way’ in the mornings too. Not to Bath or Bristol, but a little bit further to Weston-Super-Mare – a seaside town, and well known and loved by me since childhood. During that wonderful Whitsun week, there would be endless ice creams on the Grand Pier, endless sandcastles, countless visits to the old Model Railway. There would often be a train ride too – a day trip to Bristol behind a chugging diesel (a Class 33, for those – like me – who like to know such things). How wonderful it all was! But how wonderful too it must have been to have gone to Weston in the days of steam, waiting on the platform with raincoats over suitcases, buckets, spades and all the paraphernalia of the traditional British holiday. It’s a tradition that goes back a long way: when Swindon had a railway works, Weston – along with Tenby, Torquay, St Ives, Weymouth – was a favourite choice during ‘trip week’, during which thousands would down tools and leave the town virtually empty as trains took them away from it all for a short precious while.

The prized destination for many once the railways had come: Anchor Head, in Weston-Super-Mare, c. 1910. (Holiday Trains, Amberley Publishing)

Weston’s origins can be traced back to the Neolithic period, but it was the fashion for sea bathing – sampled by George III at Weymouth in 1789 – that set it on a course away from farming and fishing. Many of the first visitors came by coach from Bath and Bristol in numbers soon sufficient to warrant a hotel, Weston’s first opening in 1810.

As with Brighton, at first there were objections, local landowners being somewhat wary of this still-new technology; so much so, that when Parliament granted the Bristol & Exeter Railway powers to build a line between those two cities on 19 May 1836, Brunel – the company’s engineer – was obliged to bypass the town some 1½ miles to the south. As work progressed on this important broad gauge route, however, there was a change of heart (although fears about ‘noisy’, ‘smelly’ steam engines were such that when the first train arrived in the town on 14 June 1841, it was hauled by a team of horses).

Brunel’s original station was a small affair in Regent Street, but when the branch was doubled in 1866, a new facility was opened on the other side of the road – conveniently doing away with a decidedly inconvenient level crossing. Though modified for mixed-gauge working in 1875, it was also in this year that powers were acquired to lay a four-mile standard-gauge loop into the town, allowing a Weston stop to be added to certain through services. By the time it opened on 1 March 1884, branches had been built to serve 14 more seaside resorts, including Blackpool (1846), Southport (1848), Eastbourne (1849) and Torquay (1859). The railways were starting to become a key part of the nation’s holiday-making. Holiday Trains explains how that situation developed.

Greg Morse's new book Holiday Trains is available for purchase now.