Railways, nostalgia, memories and time travel.

I am sure I am not alone when I say stations and trains hold countless evocative memories for me. Many of these recollections are from my childhood, others from my adolescence and beyond. But most are essentially pure nostalgic longing.

I say nostalgic longing rather than reminiscent memory because most of the evocative scenes which play within my mind, when I contemplate railway carriages and station platforms, are false recollections. They are simply wistful yearnings for a time and place I have never been privy to.

Those of you who do not have a creative bent, those who are not writers, poets or lyricists may not, as yet, comprehend my words. So I shall, in my usual arbitrary, chaotic and irregular manner, begin to ramble away and hopefully elucidate you all too where my thoughts have wandered regarding this subject.

If you will humour me, I shall ask you to close your eyes for a moment or two and imagine you are on a station platform in the nineteen forties or fifties.

casablanca04Hear the sounds of the locomotive hissing steam as it waits for the passengers to disembark. See the porters wheel loaded wooden carts to the goods wagon, while others push handcarts laden with passenger’s luggage to the coach doorway where they assist the people to alight.

In the waiting room a small coal fire burns filling the air with a sooty but homely scent, a scent of warmth and comfort. From a small kiosk a man wearing a scarf and flat cap sells newspapers to the passengers waiting on the platform.

All around a cacophony of sound melds into this concert of life, whistles blow, milk churns clank, You can hear the ‘thunk’ as reams of newspapers are plonked on the platform ready for collection. Passenger’s voices are a constant murmur, a backdrop to the stationmaster’s call of “All aboard”. Doors slam shut, the train huffs and puffs as it pulls away. A metallic squeal pierces the air as the wheels begin to turn.

Those remaining on the platform wave off their loved ones who, leaning out of the windows, blow kisses back.

The pervading smell is of coal, steam, hot metal, wood, newspaper and soot.bacio in treno grande

That is how I remember railway stations. Or at least that is how my selective and partially false memories cause my mind to create this evocative picture in my head.

I am not old enough to have had such an experience. I was not born into that era. Perhaps I do have just enough knowledge, enough memory to blend the truth into this fantasy.

As a young child, maybe six or seven years old, I regularly watched the last few operational steam trains as the rattled over the railway bridge in Penge.

I remember ‘platform tickets’, tickets which allowed non-passengers access onto the platforms to say goodbye and wave off their loved ones, or to meet them on their return. I have sat in the comforting warmth of a British Rail waiting room which was heated by an open coal fire, the smell of which I shall never forget. I also recall when the green liveried trains had first, second and third class carriages, as well as a goods wagon and guards van at the rear.

Some may say that these were the ‘good old day’s’ and in many ways I agree. But historical conclusion is not the topic of today’s rambling.

I was not born early enough to have encountered life in the forties, not early enough to truly know the scents, sounds and feel of traveling by train in ‘those days’. Yet I do have the ability to create with my pen an acceptable and, this is the important bit, believable account of ‘being there’.

This is where ‘false memory’ becomes a friend and not the enemy.

downloadMixed with those few true memories I have are the perceptions of what life was like during such times. I have absorbed and pooled many of these ideas by reading books and watching films from that era, such as Brief Encounter (1945), or The Lady Eve (1941) and many other such scenes from plays and television programmes.

If, as a writer, I do my job well I can utilise both the true, the false and the acquired to create a world that will captivate the consciousness of the reader, draw them into my fantasy world as their eyes traverse the page. I want to fascinate and enthral the reader, not only with my characters and their antics but also by lending to them an illusory world where they can escape the mundane and humdrum of life, at least for the moment.

This is where nostalgia, or at least nostalgic imagery features. I believe it is something we all have a longing for. Who, for instance would not wish to travel back, to at least one certain point in time, if they were able?

I know that is something I would do if it were at all possible.

So why, I hear you ask, have I focused on railways as a topic to discuss the past. The answer is simple. Trains were ‘the’ mode of transport for the majority of people ‘way back when’ when few owned a car, less could afford to board a ship and air travel was just an aviators dream. Most places were too far away to cycle and horses were all but history.

How many have not said goodbye, waved off a loved one or shed a tear on a railway platform. Who has not been be45a6b16e065833331925e08c5acb93bursting with excitement and anticipation while awaiting the arrival of a train returning a family member, a friend or a lover home?

It is a fact that stations are a place we all hold dear, because this is where we have experienced numerous emotions countless times.

The station, the train, the railway is a place indelibly ingrained, permanently embedded and entwined with both our memory and emotion, however true or however false those evocative recollections might be will still hold them close, we still cherish them.

We all carry within that simple wistful yearning for a time and place that we have never been.

Thank you for reading this rambling. I hope that these few randomly scribbled words have given you food for thought, stimulated your muse or even simply entertained you for a short while, Paul.

 


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10 thoughts on “Railways, nostalgia, memories and time travel.

  1. I know what you mean about longing for a time or place you have never experienced, but which feels like a memory due to the combination of books, movies and imagination. Thanks for describing it so well. Incidentally, I wonder if anyone will ever have similar nostalgic feelings about airports…

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  2. Hi Paul, I enjoyed reading your article where you certainly proved how these nostalgic times affect the memory with steam trains rushing through Penge in the early ’60s. I was a youngster in this era and a railway enthusiast often travelling alone between the West Country and London, care of the guard, watching people, watching me. My memory of those times is real and I too used it to good effect when I wrote my novel Assurance. The whole of the first chapter centres around a steam train journey from Waterloo to the West Country, looking both inside and outside the compartment where I wrote about those timeless smells and sights. Much of the magic of railway travel I enjoyed as a child has disappeared, although I still enjoy the occasional outing on steam-hauled special trains in the hope that I may rejuvenate those fading memories. Much of the ethereal things you mention have faded from living memory and I often wonder how much the recreations of our past by the preserved railways are just a little too nostalgic to be believable.

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  3. Richard, I agree with your view about preserved railways being a little ‘too’ nostalgic to be believable. I now live in Yorkshire where, in the city of Hull, there is a transport museum with a replica station. The sight, sounds and smell, (yes they have re-created ‘that’ waiting room smell), are all a bit too twee for those who genuinely can recall ‘the good old days’!
    However, I am glad that some organisations, such as the museum and the preservation societies exist, at least then parents & grandparents can ‘share & tell’ stories of their past with the younger generations, modern history/social history if you like. I think that has to be a good thing however fake and Disney-like the exhibits may seem.
    As for your book, Assurance, I will check it out….you may even gain a new fan!

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  4. I was born in the 1940’s so I don’t remember anything about trains and railways then. But as a child I travelled on many steam trains, which weren’t much, if any, different to trains of the ’40s. My 16-year-old grandson is a big history lover, and steam engines are his biggest passion. We travel all over the country to these vintage lines, where we ride in old renovated carriages pulled by amazing steam engines. A few weeks ago we had a day out at the Great Central Railway at Loughborough. I did a post about it which has some great photos. They have ‘Events’ weekends, including WW2 and the Edwardian era, where prople dress up and they lay on lots of displays and so on that fit the period. The stations along the route of the line are ‘done out’ permanently as either Edwardian or 1940s style.
    I love your old photos. I have an Aunt who lives in Carnforth (where the station used in ‘Brief Encounter’ is situated). The waiting room there is decorated 1940s style. Perhaps you know all this already, as you’re a Yorkshireman. We’ve been to the North York Moors Raiway, too – and the Railway Museum in York dozens of times over the years. (We’re on the Notts/Lincs border, so York’s not too far to travel.)
    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your post.

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