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Tag Archives: Greg Morse

  • 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.

  • The Fifties Railway by Greg Morse

    No. 7037 Swindon at its namesake depot. It was the last Castle class to be built, though the Works which bore it would also produce the last steam locomotive to be built for British Railways, a Stndard class 9F, which would be releashed to traffic in March 1960. (The Fifties Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    A bit Janet and John.

     Just a museum leaflet.

     Little more than a Wiki entry.

    These are just three of the comments I’ve seen aimed at the short summary book like those that form Amberley’s Britain’s Heritage series. And I daresay the writers of those reviews felt themselves to have done a great job in alerting the world to what anyone could ascertain within a few moments of web surfing or bookshop browsing: that books of this type are short, and are intended as naught but a first step in a subject: the alpha, not the omega. As an author of a number of these “tome-ettes”, I think there are two things that need to be said. (Actually there are three, but this is a family blog.) First, just because a short book ‘adds nothing new’, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t add something new. There may not be enough room for footnoted first-hand scholarship, but the broad brush can often paint interesting juxtapositions that might not be made manifest by those authors blessed with more pages to fill. Secondly, there is an implication that no research can possibly have been undertaken. Not so.

    Early BR splendour as ex-LMS 'unrebuilt Scot' No. 46148 The Manchester Regiment takes a Carlisle-Glasgow service past Harthope in July 1953 (with a little help from a 2-6-4T at the rear). (The Fifties Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    Take my latest book (please – take as many copies as you like to the counter or basket). The Fifties Railway is about 12,000 words long. Like the rest of the Britain’s Heritage series, there’s a list of further reading at the back. All those books were re-read during the writing of it. More than this though – and it’s a technique I used in The Sixties Railway and The Seventies Railway too – are the insights that reading old magazines can evoke. We all know that later research can reveal the falsehoods that are sometimes unwittingly pervaded by contemporaneous journalism, but period periodicals are superb windows on what the world was like then, back before we “knew better”.

    What I want from a book like The Fifties Railway is what I want when I go to a heritage line: a time machine. This is why I will avert my gaze when my steam-hauled special passes its owner’s twenty-first century carriage shed. Glance upon the architect’s pet project and the illusion that I can party like its 1959 is gone forever. With a magazine, I can read what an enthusiast or railway employee might have read when the world was changing, but had not yet changed. The 1950s was a decade of great change on the railway, for it marked the beginning of a truly concerted effort to abolish steam – an effort that came so soon after the erection of so many new steam classes for Britain’s newly nationalised rail industry.

    Thus we can see the real, original, reaction not only to the coming of the Britainnias and 9Fs, but also the appearance of Deltic, the first of the ‘Pilot Scheme’ diesels and the apparent revolution offered by the diesel multiple units. This is to say nothing of what passengers thought of British Railways new carriages, the reactions to the Harrow & Wealdstone accident of 1952 and how the staff took to General Sir Brian Robertson when he took over at the British Transport Commission. I could go on of course… but I won’t, lest I run the risk of writing a blog that’s longer than the book!

    Greg Morse's new book The Fifties Railway is available for purchase now.

  • The Seventies Railway by Greg Morse

    A Class 46 on a 'parcels' in 1975, by which time Post Office traffic had dropped from its peak. (c. Colour-Rail, The Seventies Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    My earliest memory of the real railway is of the prototype High Speed Train plunging under a bridge near my Swindon home, but I got a much better look later in 1975 when a certain D1023 brought a long (long!) freight to a stand at the station while I was there with my Mum and Dad.

    I was completely rapt by the locomotive, which was long, blue and sleek, which seemed to block out the sky.  Though I was yet to start taking numbers, I did notice a long, black nameplate on the side. It said Western Fusilier.  I had no idea what a fusilier was, of course, but I knew I liked the word.

    All-too-soon the signal went green, the right of way was received and the big beast growled and moved forward. Before I knew it, the brake van's oil lamp was twinkling in the moonlight and it was gone.

    The end is nigh as Class 52s D1013 Western Ranger and D1023 Western Fusilier bring the 'Western Tribute' railtour into Bristol Temple Meads on 26 February 1977. (c. Rail Photoprints, The Seventies Railway, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

    I only saw one more ‘Western’ – though I didn’t know it – for I was witnessing an end and not a beginning. Anyone older (and wiser) than me would probably have been chasing the class on railtours like the ‘Westerns South Western’, ‘Western Talisman’ or ‘Western China Clay’, or making pilgrimages to the Graveyard – the Graveyard of the Diesels at Swindon Works, where many withdrawn examples sat forlorn, their fading paintwork peeling slowly in the sun.

    The writing had been on the wall not long after they’d started entering traffic in 1961, BR deeming their hydraulic transmission systems non-standard just four years later. Though the ‘Westerns’ and some of their five counterparts had been largely successful, all British Rail’s other regions were equipped to maintain diesel-electrics, which were also cheaper to build and maintain. Withdrawals were such that by April 1975, the ‘Westerns’ were the only type left in service. As they lacked the room to house the electric train heating equipment required by BR’s newer carriages, and as more of their work was taken (first by Class 50s usurped from Anglo-Scottish services by electrification, then by brand-new HST), their numbers ebbed and ebbed to the point that by February 1977 it was almost all over.

    It's around 21.15 on 26 February 1977, and with the suitably adorned D1023 now leading, the 'Western Tribute' tour prepares to leave Taunton for the final run back to Paddington. (c. Rail Photoprints, The Seventies Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    Imagine it’s Saturday 26 February, it’s half-eight, it’s sunny, it’s cold and you’re at Paddington for BR’s ‘Western Tribute’ tour. The action’s all on Platform 2, where a phalanx of spotters, rail fans and enthusiasts vie for a view of Westerns Ranger and Fusilier at the country end. Cameras click, microphones rise, rubbings are taken – you’d think the nameplates were seventeenth-century church brasses.

    Departure comes with an almighty roar, as the mighty duo draw the train over the points and on towards Westbourne Park. By the time they return – having taken in Swindon, Bristol, Bridgend, Swansea, Plymouth, Taunton and Reading – it will be twenty-to-midnight. Fusilier will return to its birthplace to be preserved for the nation; Ranger will make for Plymouth Laira, where it’ll shunt a few wagons on the Monday morning, before towing the ‘Tribute’s’ two understudies – Campaigner and Lady – to Newton Abbot. When the driver powers down, takes out the master key and climbs from the cab, that’ll be it…Ranger will range on BR no more.

    The End was covered on the local television news, it was covered in The Guardian too. No one had shed many tears when BR’s early diesel failures had been withdrawn, but those had died in the days of steam. The ‘Westerns’ might have seen off the Great Western’s mighty ‘Castles’ and ‘Kings’, but for younger believers, they were a favourite and their loss was much mourned. Of course it all made perfect sense if you were trying to run a railway, but still... thank goodness for memories. Thank goodness for preservation.

    Greg Morse's new book The Seventies Railway is aviable for purchase now.

  • The Sixties Railway by Greg Morse

    For the public at large, ‘the Sixties’ were all about the pill, Profumo, the Beatles, the Summer of Love, student unrest, LSD and Vietnam. Though the railway was an inherent part of that society, its own list would probably include Beeching, line closures, electrification, modernisation, Inter-City and the end of steam.

    The Sixties Railway 1 Delivered to BR in 1959 and put into service on the Western and London Midland Regions over the next two years, the Blue Pullmans - though luxurious and beautiful - were also prone to poor riding at speed. (The Sixties Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    These are the markers of history, and The Sixties Railway takes a look at them all. But what was it actually like to be a passenger back then? Maybe you’d be a commuter, squeezed into a fusty carriage, bumping over the points into Liverpool Street. Maybe you’d find yourself travelling from Paddington to Bristol on the beautiful Blue Pullman, enjoying bacon and eggs as Berks became Wilts. Imagine instead catching a train from London to Glasgow. It’s a crisp January morning in 1960 and you step out of a black cab onto the cold surface of Drummond Street. You walk beneath the Doric Arch, so beloved of John Betjeman, cross the courtyard and enter the cathedral-like Great Hall. The place is packed, but once you made your way to the platforms, a smoky gloominess falls like a pall.

    On the platform, young boys note the numbers of the great locomotives – the ‘Coronations’, the ‘Scots’, the ‘Princess Royals’. You board your maroon Mark I, and make your way down the corridor, hoping for an empty compartment. Your luck’s in – at least for now – and you settle yourself, dropping the blind, turning up the heat, opening the toplight a touch. You feel warm and comfortable as you sit back in the soft, inviting upholstery.

    Departure time comes and you hear the guard’s whistle blow. The engine breathes low and the climb up Camden Bank begins...

    The Sixties Railway 2 Modernisation could mean destruction. From some, this was typified by the demolition of the Doric Arch at Euston from the end of 1961. (The Sixties Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    Within two years, the Doric Arch had been demolished; within ten steam had gone from Euston – from everywhere – and electrification meant you could travel in smooth, sleek silence from the capital to Manchester and the north-west.

    To some – like John Betjeman – the new Euston that went with the New Railway was a cold place that seemed to ignore passengers. To others – like BR itself – it was the flagship station on a flagship modern main line.

    Pulling up in a cab in 1969, you’d find yourself below ground, seeking the escalators to raise you from the exhaust fumes of the basement to the bright, airy concourse above. Your next stop is the shiny Travel Centre for a ticket, after which you glance up at the huge departures board, before heading for the Sprig Buffet. Sitting at a table, you sip at a coffee, light up another Embassy and meditate on the sculpture of Britannia that used to be in the old Great Hall. Does it make you sad? Or do you think she looks more at home here against the rich green felt?

    On the platform, boys still survey the scene, though the older ones recall the majesty of steam and can’t feel impressed by the rhythmless electrics that now hold court.

    You show your ticket and head down the concrete slope to the platform. Stepping into open-plan comfort, you find a window seat and settle down to your newspaper.

    Departure time comes and you hear the guard’s whistle blow. The locomotive wails into life and the train sails up Camden Bank. It feels like flying...

    9781445665764

    Greg Morse's new book The Sixties Railway is available for purchase now.

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