I had scheduled my summer holiday this year in two parts. The first week was me alone with a Britrail Pass, and I had little idea of where it would take me. The second was to be spent with three of my sons, in Paris and England.
Both became a journey through the past.
Trains, football, boarding school and the Beatles were the odd collection of past themes running through time spent alone and with the boys. I and we dropped in on friends and family, of course, and enjoyed excursions like every other holiday maker, but these themes just kept popping up.
Trains came first. As soon as United Airlines disgorged me at Heathrow, I jumped on the Heathrow Express train to London Paddington. A tube ride to Euston station was the next step, where I watched the World Cup semifinal between Germany and Spain, and then on to the Caledonian Sleeper overnight to Inverness. The Caledonian Sleeper comprised coaches destined for Aberdeen and Fort William as well as Inverness, a total of 16 coaches between London and Edinburgh Waverly, where the train is separated into three while its passengers sleep on. Until then, it is over a quarter of a mile long.
The incessant clackety-clack of childhood trains had been replaced by the more consistent metallic drone of welded rails, and I left the window blind open to feel the countryside whipping by and hear the sounds of greeting and work at the occasional station stops as we travelled on through the short night. Dawn rose with a greying sky at about 3 am, and courtesy of jetlag I was privileged to see it!
Forty minutes in Inverness, and on to another train taking the Highland Line across northwest Scotland to Kyle of Lochalsh. One of the most beautiful lines in the United Kingdom, it comes to a fitting end within sight of the Isle of Skye. The ferry that I remember here has gone, replaced by the Skye Bridge, which I duly traversed on a local bus. The intended destination was Armadale, where a ferry departs the island for Mallaig on the mainland, but plans unraveled a little at this point. I was planning on taking the ferry to catch a steam train from Mallaig to Fort William. This is the line popularized by Harry Potter films, which feature its Glenfinnan Viaduct. But the ferry had broken down, and would not operate again today.
“Hard to say. Didn’t run yesterday either.”
“Discretion is the better part of valour,” as dad used to say. I returned to Inverness from Kyle, putting my faith in ScotRail. With the ferry, Kyle to Mallaig takes about an hour, according to Google Maps. Without it, the trip takes two and a half hours if you have a car. I did not. I hitchhiked easily back across Skye to Kyle (it’s been a while, but the thumb still worked!), and ScotRail took me back in Inverness before the Caledonian Sleeper left for England.
Plans are made as fast as they unravel when you travel alone, and my new destination was the York Railway Museum. If I couldn’t travel on a steam train, I could at least go and admire them standing still.
Which I duly did. Look at these beauties!
Trainspotting was my first hobby, at its zenith when I was between 10 and 12 years old. The locomotives never looked this good back then, covered with layers of dirt and grime and soot, steam spitting or belching out every which way. The National Railway Museum at York is thus a monument more than a museum, improving and glamorizing what it houses, a monument to steam locomotives.
I focused on the Great Western Railway, referred to in the vernacular as “God’s Wonderful Railway,” (same initials, see?) which it was.
The GWR employed eight or ten of my ancestors for upwards of 250 years in aggregate, and was a very good employer. Three of these ancestors are buried in Swindon, within sight of the GWR main line to Bristol, South Wales and the Southwest.
They all worked at Swindon Works, the giant factory for the GWR’s locomotives and rolling stock (yeah, I get it!).
Plans again unraveled a little. I had planned to find a B&B in York, but the horse races were scheduled for that weekend, making accommodation both hard to find and expensive. I didn’t much fancy moving on to a new city and starting to look there at the end of the afternoon.
Illumination! I could take a train up to Edinburgh, and arrive there in time to take the Caledonian Sleeper south! This was a classic example of the strange economics of BritRail passes. Apart from the cost of the berth, less than the average B&B, it cost me nothing to go hundreds of miles north and south again to sleep. So I did!
After several days of immersion in trains and the countryside they passed by, it was time for a tentative return to the land of the living. I started with the dead!
Mum is buried in Birmingham, with her parents as she had requested in her will. (She lost her mother when only twelve or so, and her father when she was seventeen; perhaps she felt that she would no longer be alone.)
I wanted to pay my respects before seeing the boys, and so made my way from the Caledonian Sleeper in Euston to Birmingham New Street and on to Erdington.
After arranging fresh flowers in the vases on the grave, I took another three trains to south Devon, christened the English Riviera by a GWR eager to drum up holiday business! There are times when the area can be a little warmer than the rest of the country, but at about 700 miles north of the Mediterranean, the French Riviera it ain’t!
But it does have a railway line along the sea front before Teignmouth, which I duly traversed in a local train from Exeter. One of the high spots of our family visits to South Devon in the 1960s and ‘70s was this amazing railway.
At less than ten feet above high tide, pieces sometimes washed out in storms, and the GWR’s engineers must have regretted the choice of route more than once, but it made for some seriously scenic trainspotting!
Teignmouth is the home of Margaret and Arthur Day, friends of mum and dad’s. Arthur and dad attended Slough Grammar School for years, playing on the same football and cricket teams together.
Arthur went on to captain Slough Town, the local amateur football team and, unusually in my experience in the UK, to spend his whole career building a variety of businesses. As a Daf dealer (a small Dutch car), he sold mum and dad her first car in the early 1970s. He was also a dealer for Volkswagen and Audi at other times.
They were in fine fettle for the visit, showing off their beautiful home, a large portion of which Arthur had pretty much built himself. The sun room, with its panoramic views of the town and the sea, was a particular pleasure to chat in.
Teignmouth is near Paignton, where the Stocks holidayed several times during the 1960s and early ‘70s. And Paignton is one end of a small steam railway going to Kingswear. Enough said! Arthur and Margaret were kind enough to drive me there, and I finally had my steam train trip!
It came packaged with a boat trip from Dartmouth (across the Dart from Kingswear) up the river to Totnes, a stop on the old GWR main line to Cornwall. In Totnes, I was back in BritRail Pass territory.
But first a quick detour to view another steam train in Totnes. South Devon is spoilt for steamers! This railway is called the South Devon Railway and runs from Totnes to Buckfastleigh. Like the Dartmouth Railway, it uses a branch line abandoned by the big railway companies of the UK.
I was heading to Paris next to visit Tom, and had been unable to reserve a seat on any Eurostar on July 12, the day that I had promised to arrive there. But I guessed that I would be able to find a seat early on the morning of the 12th. So I needed to arrive in London early that Monday morning (that’s the only bricks and mortar ticket office for Eurostar), which suggested taking the First Great Western sleeper service from Penzance to London on the Sunday night. But the World Cup Final was scheduled at 7.30 pm that evening. So I perused the train schedule, and calculated that I should take the train west to Truro to watch the world cup final in Cornwall, and pick up the sleeper train for London there after it was done. That would give me the longest time to sleep.
The best laid plans . . . ! The timing was so tight that I could not stay for the end of extra time in the final, and missed the only goal. But I did arrive in Paddington early in the morning after a decent night, and Eurostar did have seats available. On to Paris!
Five of my first six nights in the UK were enjoyably and comfortably spent in a bed in a private cabin on a sleeper train. I took the train to Scotland three times, and Devon and Cornwall once. Principal excursions were a railway museum and a steam train ride. There was definitely a theme to the week!