A Railway Child
Part of my childhood, spent growing up in a village with it’s own railway station, centered around trains. There was my annoying older brother who was (and still is on the quiet) a dedicated train spotter, filling glorious leather bound notebooks with numbers in an excitable fashion. He also had a huge table top train set with tunnels that disappeared into mountains, lakes, trains that made train noises, knobs to twiddle and mini bags of real coal. I would spend afternoons watching him play — not allowed to actually touch anything of course. The trains were packed away lovingly in their cardboard Hornby boxes. Each Birthday and Christmas brought new trains and signals and even more knobs to twiddle. I had a train set too, one that I could actually touch, it was a circle of track with a single engine that needed to be wound up with a big comedy key. I loved it.
I loved too the railway. It was an exciting and dangerous place. Emboldened by friends we would climb the steep embankment onto the tracks and listen ear-close to the cold metal rails to see if we could hear a distant humming. We didn’t ever have any close encounters with trains, we were very sensible, and they gave plenty of warning of their approach.
Just as these days people shake their heads at the suggestive nature of video games, so it was with me and the film The Railway Children. It should have come with a parental warning. Still one of my favourite films to this day. I loved everything about it.
The magic centered around the railway, and I wanted to recreate some of that in my sleepy little Oxfordshire village. I didn’t have a Father in prison to ask the train to send my love to, but still I used to wave and send various wishes along with it’s departing chuff chuff chuff.
The scene at the end of the movie when Bobbie is standing on the platform and the smoke clears and she sees her Father standing there, and she cries ‘Oh, my Daddy, my Daddy!” always has me in sobs of hot tears. There’s nothing so effectual than that scene.
So with this film deeply embedded in my childhood, I was very happy growing up in our village with it’s railway and Alf the friendly station manager. Our village was lucky enough to have amongst it’s residents the novelist Agatha Christie. She is buried in the village’s churchyard and my Father now pops up there like the Shop Keeper in Mr Benn, to ask tourists if they want to ask any questions or to sign the visitors book. He’s really after schmoozing with all the glamorous Russian women that come to pay homage to the great lady. Dad is just piggy-backing on her success and keeping well out of my Mother’s kitchen.
There is a high red-brick vicarage wall that starts near the church and follows the escarpment of the railway for quite some way, it meanders next to it like the pastry on a beef wellington. I was watching the film Murder, She Said, based on the book 4:50 From Paddington, with Margaret Rutherford as spectacle-sleuth Miss Marple. It’s a wonderful black and white who-dunnit, and amongst the sarcophaguses was something very familiar in the opening scenes of the film. A large brick wall running next to the railway. Could this brilliant story have been set in my childhood home? Almost certainly, I believed! So not just the captivating emotion of E. Nesbit, but also the murder of a glamorous blonde by the pen of Ms Christie. Fabulous! How evocative the railway was.
The railway brought many gifts. At Christmas we would collect a pink papered box with my Opa’s beautiful scripted handwriting on it. The box would contain the finest German lebkuchen, stollen, Milka bars, Manner wafers, Dalmyr coffee, kipferl biscuits, jellied fruit sweets, prettily coloured foil chocolates, and many other treats. We would collect it from the station and take it home and wait patiently while the string was cut and the box had been carefully opened. Then everything was unpacked as we all stood and watched, getting suddenly very hungry. One year, in the box we all got matching brown fur lined slippers with a big zip to keep them on your feet. They were quite easily the ugliest thing I had ever seen. These were the bane of my life, aged 13. I really didn’t like these huge monstrosities and would shove them in a cupboard or under my bed, seemingly lost so I wouldn’t have to wear them. My Dad proudly wore his, and my brother stomped around with his one. My mother wore out the kitchen lino in hers, but mine, in almost mint condition, always eluded the most military of searches.
One Christmas, we piled onto the platform at the station to take collection of something very exciting indeed. Rabbits! The crate was carefully lowered from the guards van into my Father’s hands. Through the air holes in the wood, you could see whiskers poking out tantalisingly. Sooty and Sue had arrived. I can’t remember a more exciting way to receive a present than on that platform on a cold December evening.
One of the benefits (apart from the food parcels) of having grandparents who were German, was our holidays to Munich to visit them. They were halcyon days. The winters were dry-cold with guaranteed powdery snow, and the summers were Julie Andrews on a mountainside. It was edelweiss all the way. Long lazy mountain walks, salamanders peppering the paths, a warm sun of childhood on your back. It was bliss.
To get to Munich, the journeying, was the best bit. My Mother would not get on an airplane, so instead we took a ferry across the English Channel. Then from Brugge got the nightsleeper train. This was the bit that I loved. The excitement of sleeping on a train in a little bunk bed, peeking out of the blind to see people waiting to board the train in the darkness of late evening. The thrill of voices, foreign, exciting. Then once the morning had come, and the beds had been folded back into the walls, and the sink had been hidden by it’s wooden cover and become a table, and our breakfast trays were perched on our knees, we watched the countryside whipping by the window. All the wonderful place names, the mountains, the countryside. All the while munching on French toast slavered with pate or apricot jam and the cold morning air saturated with fresh coffee. This was right out of Agatha Christie’s Murder on The Orient Express. It was thrilling. There were significantly less murders (none), but still my imagination would go into overdrive on every journey. I’d think of a villain dispatching his hapless victim through an open door while the train was hurtling across some towering viaduct, falling to a certain grisly end. Or train carriages being decoupled and people falling onto the tracks and rolling down the railways steep sides, again, to almost certain death.
And this was just the beginning of the adventure. We were still to arrive at the cavernous Munich train station to my waiting grandparents wearing their Sunday best and worrying about where they’d parked their car. Once Deutsche-side it was doughnuts, hot chocolate, snow or sun depending on the season and as much apfelsaft my brother and I could drink. And don’t even get me started on my Grandmother’s bread dumplings. Wow.
My Grandparents and I communicated through two volumes of books. One a German:English dictionary, and the other an English:German dictionary. It made for quite long conversational exchanges where there was quite significant open air between words. If you weren’t paying attention you might miss the point entirely. One particular time, to explain where I was about to go to the swimming pool with my brother, it took a good half an hour of furious page-turning, physical actions and rigorous pointing to get the message across that we were going out. If she knew where we were going exactly, is a mystery. But not one with a gory end. So that’s good.
I do remember the swimming pool there in Munich. It was an olympic size one, built when Munich hosted the olympic games in 1972. It had an outdoor pool and a giant chess set and frosted cubicle doors. What I remember most though was seeing, what I know now to be, so many war-wounded men. I suppose it was only 30 years previously that the war had ended. But I don’t remember seeing the equivalent on our side of the Channel.
It really is all about the journey. You remember the excitement of travelling somewhere you are desperate to get to in a hurry. Usually, for a someone you are desperate to get to in a hurry. The romance of travel. The departing train taking your lover away. The advancing one bringing them back, and waiting on the platform prickling with the anticipation of the soon-to-be embrace. Smells and sensations flooding your body. A coming home.
For home is where the heart is.
The trains I get now are no less fun, but the styling has changed. No longer the individual compartments joined together by a narrow strip of corridor. Wooden door and handles that never opened from the inside, you had to push the window down and turn the flat cold knob from the outside, and the correct timing of opening the door was paramount not to end up a statistic.
The compartments themselves contained two plush seat benches both abutting the window on either side. Above each seat was a mirror and luggage rack, and on the wall, dainty wall light sconces. All a far cry from the moulded plastic and hammer-behind-a-glass-case of now. Break in an emergency. I don’t know what Agatha would have made of the whole thing.
The train tickets themselves were something special. Small candy-coloured chewing gum sized pieces of thick cardboard, that would have a hole punched in them by the conductor. I remember my brother and I had our own hole puncher and tickets in a little pouch that we played with and pretended we were taking great journeys. Nothing quite so satisfying as punching a ticket. You were going somewhere. It was exciting.
I also remember my first sojourn from our local station on my own. I was about 13 and hadn’t told anyone I was going. I got to the ticket office and asked the ever-cheerful Alf for a one way return to Reading. He laughed and asked me which one it was, because it couldn’t be both. Busted as a novice. I got the train, wandered about a bit, and then came back again, thrilled by the illicit adventure no one knew I’d had. Not a massive act of rebellion, but you’ve got to start somewhere!
One day I’d like to take the sleeper train from Brugge again. Maybe I’ll travel to Munich, it’s been decades since I’ve been there. I’d love to see it’s clockwork town hall clock again and wander the streets around my family’s old neighbourhood. But also I’d love to do a trip I’ve not done before by train. I’d like to visit capital cities I love. Like Paris, Vienna, Rome. For example. That sounds like a plan. Just need to find a companion who loves the romance of train travel as much as me, and who maybe speaks one of the languages of our destinations. That would be wonderful. I might even write about it.
So, dear travel-weary reader, I hope I have ignited some memories or maybe even some future plans. Take a step back in time, to a time of long passionate meanderings and buffet cars where you can sip prosecco by candlelight. Let’s keep the flame burning.