Wednesday, 12 June 2013

There's a slow train coming...............

I am in the process of (slowly, oh, how slowly) writing a book about the servicemen who died in WW1 and who are listed on our local War Memorial. Attempting to track down a relative of one who had worked on our nearest railway line in the early 1900s, I did the obvious and Googled under a number of railway relevant terms. Hooray! I found what I was looking for - eventually and after some smugly satisfying lateral thinking. Having been successful, I rewarded myself with a rummage in the 'Related Items' collection and came upon an excellent interpretation of a Flanders and Swann song I'd long forgotten, "Slow Train". Michael Flanders and Donald Swann wrote and performed the song back in the 1960s and although the events it records (the closure of almost 50% of the small railway stations in Britain following the Beeching Report on the future of the railway network) are now long gone, the song remains as a triumphal celebration of nostalgia. To illustrate the cultural loss resulting from the Beeching Axe, they simply strung together a list of the names of just a few of the 3,000 small stations and halts that were closed during this period. The result is, I think, musical poetry at its best. And it's accompanied by some lovely old photographs of steam trains and sooty platforms.
The Beeching cuts hit all parts of the country. Both rural and urban lines were decimated and by the end of the decade a quarter of the original trackway mileage and a half of all stations had been cleaved from the system. Here in the West Country, as in the rest of the UK, many of the most romantic small stations and desultory branch lines vanished almost overnight. They remain only as ghostly markings on OS maps: look for faint dotted lines annotated with 'track of old railway'.

One of the more weird things I came across in my searches was the post-Beeching fate of the station at Cleckheaton in Yorkshire. It was stolen! Following the closures, British Rail issued contracts for the demolition of the buildings, the clearance of the sites, and the sale of the recovered material. When the appointed contractor turned up at Cleckheaton Station he found the entire station - every stone, wooden fence, metal frame, and tin signpost - had already been dismantled and removed. Eventually the person who had dismantled the station was arrested and taken to trial (the only case in British legal history concerning the theft of a railway station). He was eventually acquitted as the court accepted his defence that he had been following the orders of what he thought was the legally appointed contractor. The company that masterminded the plan was never identified, and the station was never recovered.

And finally: whilst we are talking about slow trains, how about this live version of 'Slow Train' by Joe Bonamassa? Listen and compare and contrast with the more sedate music of Flanders and Swann. I enjoy them both, but they are very, very different.

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