Clouds of steam anthology
Home page

A virtual anthology about British railway motive power, especially the steam locomotive. At present it is divided into five sections: a broad chronology (from George Stephenson to British Railways standard types); boilers (which should be joined by everything from buffer beams to poppet valves), footplate experiences and names and "other trivia", and poetry with Night Mail at the beginning. Sometimes. items just fall into one's lap like the Paul Johnson item on The Loop..

Virtue is the child of Knowledge: Vice of Ignorance: therefore education, periodical literature, railroad travelling, ventilation, drainage and the arts of life, when fully carried out, serve to make a population moral and happy. Cardinal Newman via The Railway book; edited by Stuart Legg

George Stephenson and the Great Builders. from Michael Robbins The railway age. Oxford University Press, 1966. pp. 18-19.
There would have been much less misunderstanding about the nature of Stephenson's work if people had not persisted in regarding it as principally a matter of mechanical engineering. The invention of the steam locomotive has tended to steal the picture. In its development, though Stephenson certainly played a very prominent part, he has to share the credit with a number of other men. But he has more important claims. With his equally gifted son Robert, he was really more notable as a civil engineer—the actual construction of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway was a prodigious feat for its age, and it was immediately recognized as such. But he was outstanding as the organizer of success. His administrative methods may have been undeveloped, but he had a conception, shared by some of his influential backers in the 1820s but not at that time by his brother engineers, of the Railway as an entity-of its construction, motive power, commercial potentialities, and internal management—underlying all his immense activity. What was more important, he had the force of character to convince doubters and to override obstinate opposition. This is well shown in the minutes of evidence on the first Liverpool & Manchester Railway bill, which have been reprinted and are not difficult to come by. They show the best legal brains of the capital set against the self-educated mechanic from Tyneside; and they show how character at length got the victory over brains. Not that Stephenson was destitute of brains—far from it; but it was tenacity of character that secured victory for the bill, at the second attempt. Stephenson showed during the hearings on the first bill that he had the stuff in him that would command eventual success; and it did.

Sharpies from Hamilton Ellis The beauty of old trains. London: Allen & Unwin, 1952. p. 32
Probably the most beautifully satisfying to look upon of all the very early engines were the celebrated Sharpies, for so were called the standard engines of Sharp Roberts and Company, built from the late 'thirties onwards. They owed their perfection by contemporary standards, not to an Englishman, but to an immigrant Saxon, for this is believed to have been the maiden design of the worthy Charles Beyer, a native of Plauen, who had studied under Redtenbacher and had applied himself to aesthetics as well as mechanics and physics, with all the diligence of the earnest and conscientious German. This was the Beyer who later went into partnership with Richard Peacock, to found one of the most famous firms of locomotive builders in the world.

Braithwaite, Jack. Midland Railway locomotive aesthetics. Midland Record, Number 1, 3-20.
The celebrated builder of small 'live steam' locomotives, L. Lawrence (1882-1967), whose articles published in the Model Engineer under the nom-de-plume 'LBSC', had a world-wide following. In 1935, referring to the Johnson single-wheelers, he wrote that they 'were among the most graceful engines that ever took the road'. In 1942, he said of the first of the Johnson singles introduced in 1887: 'And, what an engine too, one of the most symmetrical machines ever put on rails, in the opinion of most enginemen.' L. Lawrence particularly admired the 7 ft 9½ in 'Princess of Wales' series of 4-2-2s, and aesthetic tributes to them appeared in six articles he compiled.
In his novel, Fleming of Honister, the famous author Graham Sutton (1892-1959) paid a remarkable tribute to the small-boilered Johnson 4-4-0s: 'Yet, I reckon those Johnson 4-4-0s with their sleek lines and curving brass rimmed splashers, are the handsomest engines ever built or ever likely to be.' Sutton was born at Scotby on 26th February 1892, and had boyhood memories of those lovely Johnson locomotives passing through his home village station, on the Settle & Carlisle section of the Midland Railway.
G.S. Inglefield, writing in the February 1927 issue of the Model Railway News on 'My Favourite Prototype', said of P. Stirling's 8 ft 4-2-2s of the Great Northern Railway:

'The artistic lines on which they were built were only surpassed by the Midland 4-2-2 designed by Mr. Johnson, This locomotive marks, I consider, the zenith of the locomotive engineer's artistic achievements. The shapely chimney, the graceful lines of the frame, the unobtrusiveness and absence of mis-proportion of any form, provide such pleasing relief to the stumpy (or perhaps 'stovepipe') smoke-stack, massive boiler and general ungainliness of the present-day locomotive ... It was indeed an enjoyable sight to see one of these engines at the head of some fast north-bound express. It is my favourite prototype, not only from their pleasing appearance, but from their combination of the artistic and rhe efficient.'

This article was illustrated by a pen and ink sketch of Johnson's 7ft 9 in 4-2-2  No.117.
The very full report on the locomotive procession at the Railway Centenary held in Darlington, and published in The Times of 3 July 1925, was interesting in that only one locomotive of those taking part was mentioned from the aesthetic viewpoint, this being the Johnson 7 ft 9 in. 4-2-2, described as 'among the most graceful engines ever produced.' That great authority, C. F. Dendy Marshall (1873-1945), writing in 1930 on the constituent companies' locomotives which formed the LMS Railway, commented on S.W Johnson, who produced remarkably fine engines of the 2-4-0 and 4-4-0 type and 'a magnificent series of 4-2-2 engines with double frames which were among the handsomest ever built.' Celebrated artist, model maker, designer of miniature steam locomotives and painter, E. W Twining (1875-1956), whose exquisite coloured plates illustrated Alfred Rosling Bennett's classic book Historic Locomotives and Moving Accidents, published in 1906, wrote on locomotive aesthetics, in 1937: 'What, for instance, more beautiful engines were ever built than Johnson's Midland bogie singles?' Twining made a fine model of one of these celebrated locomotives in 1899, when he was 24 years of age. The classic address on 'Railway Design', delivered to the Council of Industrial Design in 1952 by George Williams, contained the following comment: 'Ideals of beauty vary with the individual and whether one admires the rounded outline of a streamlined locomotive or not, none will question the beauty of outline of a Johnson bogie single of the old Midland Railway.'
World-famous authority O.S. Nock, born in 1905, has many memories of the pre-Grouping railways, and had recalled seeing Midland engines running in their matchless red livery. He is on record as giving his considered opinion that the family of Johnson 2-4-0s were the most beautiful passenger engines ever to run in this country, and also that the small-boilered Johnson 4-4-0s, collectively, were the most beautiful eight-wheeled engines in Great Britain of their time, from 1876 to 1901.
The foregoing tributes are just a few of hundreds that have been paid to the artistry of S.W. Johnson's locomotive design down the years.

Non-standard Standards from Michael R. Bonavia. The birth of British Rail. London: Allen & Unwin, 1979. p. 55
Riddles and his team were meanwhile proceeding with gusto to develop the new standard' designs for BR locomotives. I have put 'standard' in inverted commas, because so-called standardisation schemes often act in reverse — they merely add to the total number of types in service for which spares have to be kept and know how acquired — unless certain conditions are fulfilled. First, the inspirer of standardisation must be reasonably certain of a long period in office, and that his successor will not prematurely discard his policies. This, for instance, was not the case when Edward Thompson formulated his 'standardisation' plan for the LNER as he had only a short expectation of years in office. Next, a continuing demand for the type of motive power involved must be predictable for at least a quarter of a century, preferably longer. Lastly, there must be the financial resources clearly in sight for large-scale scrap-and-build, quickly replacing non-standard by standard products — as when Stanier took office on the LMS. None of these prerequisites was present when the Riddles team plunged into their task.

Clan class Pacifics from Cecil.J. Allen . British Pacific locomotives. London: Ian Allan, 1962. p. 218
Why in any event it should have been thought necessary to supplement the large numbers of other Class '6' types, such as the L.M.S. 'Jubilee' 4-6-0s (the former Class 'SX') by a type of greater weight and cost, and, as it turned out, little if any greater tractive power, is a mystery. The 'Clans' never appeared in any regular working as replacements of the 'Jubilees' on the Midland Division of the L.M.R., nor on the Great Central line. No. 72009 Clan Stewart made a brief appearance on the Great Eastern line as a proposed substitute for the latter's 'Britannia' Pacifies, but after trial runs between Liverpool Street and both Clacton-on-Sea and Norwich the outcry raised by the prospect of so dubious a bargain resulted in a speedy return of the stranger north of the Border. It had been thought that the 'Clans' would take over the working of the Highland main line, and also the lines between Glasgow St Enoch and Stranraer and Stranraer and Carlisle, but this did not happen.

Rebuilding the Bulleid Pacifics from J.E. Chacksfield. Ron Jarvis: from Midland Compound to the HST. Monmouth: Oakwood Press, 2004. p. 127.
Some suggestions were ignored, for example, in the early days of the investigative work the suggestion came from BR Headquarters that a rebuild to a two-cylinder layout might well be required. Ron took careful note to put this on one side as it would result in such major changes to the locomotive as to destroy the existing design concept, which in principle was sound enough. There remained a further batch of major modifications required to complete the ultimate rebuild, viz:
The switch to three independent sets of valve gear
A new centre cylinder and front frame stiffening
A new smokebox assembly
Deletion of the air-smoothed casing
The Brighton office was, at that time fully committed on the support of the BR Standard class '4' 2-6-4T and 4-6-0, plus the design of the 2-10-0 and the 2-10-0 with the Crosti boiler, when the order to proceed on the Pacific came through from Mr A. Smeddle, the deputy Regional CM&EE. Ran accordingly set up a small development section under Michael Lockhart to achieve the redesign, which was, by now, an extremely urgent task.
The basic remit to which Ron was constrained to work is probably best put in his own words from a letter to Col H.C.B. Rogers in later years: 'The whole principle of the exercise was to eliminate the unsatisfactory features and retain the many excellent ones the original design included. Moreover, nothing was to be changed unless there was a very clear case for making a change.' The first big problem was to see if three sets of Walschaerts valve gear could be applied, if possible, to the existing cylinders. It was soon evident to Ran that the middle cylinder would have to be replaced and the steam-chest moved to one side to line up with the valve gear in the space between the connecting rod and the right-hand frame plate. One feature of the new inside cylinder assembly was that the valve had inside admission as against the previous outside admission. This eased the worries about access for maintenance of the glands which would only be exposed to exhaust pressure. The outside cylinder valve glands were easily accessible for any rectification needed. The resulting middle engine drew heavily on those employed on the 'Schools' class and the Stanier 'Jubilee'. The outside cylinder valves were located such that it was possible to link onto the new valve gear, the original units could therefore be used.
The manufacture of a new inside cylinder assembly enabled a new fabricated smokebox saddle to be provided, which was bolted to the front of the cylinder casting. The whole assembly made a very solid bracing for the front frames. The new outside Walschaerts gear was very similar to that on the BR class '4' 2-6-4T. A modification had to be made to the final drive to the valve spindle based on the need to translate the actuation to the cylinder vertical centre line. Here Ron's knowledge of some German valve gears, picked up in Turkey all those years ago, came in useful to guide the draughtsman detailed to cover this change.

Raptures about raptors: Hamilton Ellis Some classic locomotives. pp. 148-9
In the summer of 1932...coincidentally with the completion of reconstruction work on the Boyne viaduct at Drogheda and the viaduct at Malahide, five handsome three-cylinder compound express locomotives were placed in service on the main line of the Great Northern Railway of Ireland, having been built by Beyer, Peacock and Co., Limited, to the designs of Mr George T. Glover. These were Nos. 83-87, named, respectively, Eagle, Falcon, Merlin, Peregrine and Kestrel after those suitably fierce and fleet-winged birds of prey. The new design had smaller cylinders than the Midland compounds, the inside high- pressure cylinder being 17¼ in. in diameter, and the low-pressure cylinders 19 in., with a stroke of 26 in. The boiler pressure, however, was considerably higher, at 250 lb. per sq. in., the first instance of such a pressure being employed in ordinary service in Ireland. The appearance was strongly reminiscent of the Midland design, though more massive. The boilers had 1,251 sq. ft. of evaporative heating surface, 277 sq. ft. superheating surface, combined total 1,528 sq. ft.; grate area, 25·2 sq. ft.; coupled wheels diameter, 6 ft, 7 in.; weight in working order, 65 tons, of which 41 tons was on the coupled wheels. The tenders (38½ tons) were built at the Dundalk works of the G.N.R. (I.). Following the appearance of these engines, the 1932 summer timetable saw one of the most remarkable general speed-ups on the main line that had ever taken place all at once on an Irish railway. The 3.15 p.m. Dublin-Belfast express was now booked to cover the 54.3 miles to Dundalk, over an undulating road, with a severe slack through Drogheda, in 54 min., start-to-stop speed thus being 60.3 m.p.h., the first mile-a-minute average in Ireland. In the new timetables, twenty runs were booked at 54 m.p.h. average or over. In the early nineteen thirties, the advance of motor transport had brought in its trail not only falling railway traffics, but sporadic outbursts of propaganda in the Press and elsewhere, deprecating the future value of railway transport as compared with motor vehicles running on greatly improved roads. In Great Britain these were led by such personages as S. F. Edge, the motoring pioneer, H. G. Wells, and F. A. Macquisten, M.P., whereof the first two, in particular, were men with a well-earned influence on public thought. The late Mr Macquisten, I believe, was considerably influenced in his anti-rail enthusiasm by that Connel Ferry Bridge whereby the L.M.S. monopolized transit between one part of his constituency (Argyll) and the other, exacting heavy toll every time he drove from Lorne into Appin or back. It was, however, in Ireland that scrap-the-rails campaigning carried most weight, that being a country where it was more of a practical possibility than in Great Britain and where much railway equipment was undeniably ancient, so the Great Northern improvements of June 5th, 1932, had considerable psychological value on the railway side. Public interest was further stimulated by the Great Northern painting its express engines in a very showy livery of sky-blue, lined-but in black and white, with Venetian red platform angles, beginning, shortly after their appearance, with the new compound engines. This handsome colour scheme happily still adorns the engines used on the Dublin-Belfast and the Bundoran expresses, the last example of the Victorian style of painting to be used in its full exuberance on engines in ordinary service.

R.S. McNaught. The Great Central as I saw it. Rly Wld, 1954, 15, 258-62.
Those of us who can clearly recall the separate and independent railways of the pre-grouping days before 1923 will find it a fascinating mind-test to try to recall the precise place and circumstances of seeing, for the first time, an engine or tram of what to us was a strange line, It may turn out that this thrilling experience (to a railway devotee) took place a long way from the owners' territory, upon some special working. Or, possibly, the venue was a remote branch line, in which case the "first ever" was in all probability a quite humble or old-fashioned sample. Thus, in my own case, the first glimpse. of a Doncaster engine was m the singularly dingy bay platform used by Great Northern trains at Stafford, the Euston express I was travelling in having been halted conveniently by signals right opposite. Likewise, my first acquaintance with the domeless green engines of the old South Eastern was when my Great Western train went slowly past their shed at Reading, while the first time I heard steam roaring from a polished brass Salter valve set upon a lovely crimson dome was at Hereford where a lonesome old Midland tank engine, from Brecon, was wont to do a spot of shunting.
For my first glimpse (and it was literally only a glimpse) of a Great Central locomotive, I had to wait until a family move to Birkenhead involved a first run over the old G.W.R. main line north of Shrewsbury. It was just beyond Wrexham that my father told me to keep a sharp look-out on the platform side of the train, and there, in a corner of Denbighshire, I beheld for a fleeting moment, several antiquated-looking black tank engines, which were perhaps hardly true Great Central representatives, being, I discovered later, takeovers from the quaint Wrexham, Mold and Connah's Quay Railway. It was also at a later date that I discovered that this North Wales section of the Great Central even boasted, for some years a daily express during the summer months between Manchester and Aberystwyth, comprising Cheshire Lines carriages and a Pollitt 4-4-0 express engine. The service was even extended to Leicester before its lack of patronage caused a withdrawal before the 1914 War, and C.L.C. coaching stock had by then been replaced by G.C. vehicles.
It was very soon after my family's arrival at Birkenhead that I made a proper acquaintance with the engines from Gorton. There is much to be said for first impressions, and in this case I have never seen any reason to amend my immediate feeling that for elegance of outline and high standard of maintenance there was none, south of the Scottish Border at least, to equal the Great Central's, but to my mind the colour scheme was, if anything, slightly overdone. There was a touch of the over-lavish in the lining out, and too large an application of the secondary colour. The express engines, in particular, were slightly over-ornate, and I considered that the graceful , Atlantics (now extinct) could never be fully appreciated until they were, in their old age, relegated to L.N.E.R. glossy black with thin red lining. It was possibly an artistic error, in their heyday, to paint the coupled wheel splashers the rich dark red which should, I think, have been confined to the running-plate and lower surfaces. In the scheme adopted, Gorton engines looked like mobile paintboxes or new toys, and they were kept so trim that it seemed difficult to associate them with gruelling work on one of the least level systems in the country.
I took an immediate liking to the well-balanced 4-4-2 tank engines, which, being the only type hauling passenger trains on the section of line nearest my new home, I had ample opportunity to study. They must have been as good at work as they were fine in appearance, because both classes which were very similar are still practically intact at the time of writing and the only major alteration has been the unfortunate loss of their designer's neat style of chimney for the much uglier "flower- pot" variety. The line upon which they functioned skirted the town of Birkenhead as far as Bidston Junction, whence it used running powers over the Wirral Railway (the oldest line in the world, we schoolboys said. because it is recorded in the Book of Genesis that all "crawling things" , were created in the beginning!). The G.C. trains from North Wales then finished up in the singularly drab and unattractive Wirral terminus at Seacombe, adjoining the ferry pier to Liverpool.

Boilers

Roof stays. L.P. Ahrons The British Steam Railway Locomotive 1825-1925. London: Locomotive Publishing Co., 1927. p. 175.
The fire-box with direct roof stays in place of girders made its appearance in W. Bouch's Stockton and Darlington engines, but it is by no means certain that these were the first engines in this country to have this method of staying. It had previously been employed in Belgium and France, and direct stays in combination with roof girders had been used in America. According to the late Edward Reynolds direct stays had been used in some of the earliest Great Northern engines, the date of which was not given.

Water-gauges. James T, Hodgson and Charles S. Lake. Locomotive management. 9th ed. London: Technical Press, 1948. p. 95
From the well-known fact that one of the most common causes of boiler explosions is shortness of water, it will be understood readily that the water-gauge fittings on the front plate are essential adjuncts to a boiler. Two sets of gauge-glass fittings are usually employed, so that one acts as a check against the other, and as a safeguard should one require repairing or not be working properly. The glass tube water-gauge consists of a straight glass tube connected by fittings at the top end to the steam space in the boiler, and at the bottom end with the water; the bottom end of the glass is fixed above the highest part of the heating surfaces. The gauge glass is a simple and yet effective method of showing the water level, the steam being transparent in the glass, and the water rising to its own level in the boiler. One of the principal objections to the use of gauge glasses is the chance of injury to the driver and fireman by the bursting of a glass.
In recent years, however, it has been the practice to incorporate in the upper and lower arms of gauge glass fittings, a ball and a spring valve which automatically shuts off the steam and water in the event of the gauge glass tube breaking under pressure. Further protection is also afforded by the adoption of protectors which prevent a shattered gauge glass from flying in all directions.

Boiler explosions. C.H. Hewison Locomotive boiler explosions. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1983. p. 39
When the 6.15am train from Paddington arrived at Swindon on 7 February the engine was taken off and the Actaeon was attached, taking the train forward to Gloucester; there Actaeon drew off two of the carriages, put one in a siding and was gravitating back towards the train on a down gradient, propelling the other carriage, when the boiler burst. The two safety-valves were blown sky high, falling through the goods shed roof 30 yards away, a piece of the boiler penetrated the wall of a house nearly 300 yards distant, and the bottom half of the boiler was forced down with such violence that it broke the crank axle. Casualties are not mentioned in Captain Wynne's report on the case.
There was no question of excess steam pressure; the safety-valve ferrules were intact and tampering could not have taken place. Wynne found that the boiler's bottom plates had become 'deeply pitted with innumerable indentations, apparently the effect of some corrosive action, and along the junction of the bottom plates with the side plates, on the boiler's right-hand side, there was a deep channel eaten away to some extent, reducing the thickness of the plate to 1/10 in, evidently the effect of the same action'. 'The conclusion appears irresistible' he went on, 'that the explosion was caused by the plates being so much reduced in thickness as to be no longer capable of resisting the ordinary working pressure of the steam'.
Wynne's report on the Actaeon explosion was the first from the RI that mentioned boiler pitting. 'Believing the question [of pitting] to be one of great and growing importance, I applied to Dr Tyndall, Professor of Physics at the Royal Institution', but the only help that this scholarly individual appears to have been able to offer was that 'science probably furnishes the means for its prevention'. Wynne followed this up with a long conclusion, which in brief was that the interiors of boilers needed inspection at reasonably frequent intervals; he revealed that it was almost five years since the interior of Actaeon's boiler had been examined, and therefore since anyone knew what was going on there.

On the footplate

On the Flying Scotsman. Eric Gill (via Stuart Legg's The Railway book S112)
"Well, did you get your ride on the engine?"
"Rather! "
"What was it like?"
"Marvellous, simply marvellous—a jolly sight more marvellous than you'd expect and yet in some ways quite the opposite."
I got to King's Cross about 9.30 (wasn't going to risk being late) and, after a cup of tea and a sandwich, I ventured into the guard's van of the train, at which the guard, looking very spruce, had just arrived with bag and flags and what not, and said: "I say, good morning, look here, it's like this; I've got this engine pass to Grantham.' "Oh, have you?" " Yes, and, I say, can I leave my bag in here till I come off the engine?" No objection to that, so I stepped back on to the platform and there I saw Mr. Sparke, the District Locomotive Superintendent, and a friend of his. Mr. Sparke had very kindly come to introduce me to Mr. Young of Newcastle, the driver of the engine, and his friend kindly presented me with a nice clean swab to wipe my hands on from time to time. (Forgot all about it afterwards, but kept it as a memento!) The engine, No. 2582 of Newcastle, then backed in and I was introduced to Mr. Young—very grand and important and an object of curiosity to the group of enthusiasts on the platform (I mean me, not Mr. Young).
I was born beside the railway at Brighton, and I spent most of my childhood examining and drawing locomotives, and what surprised me now was, first, how little things had changed in fundamentals since I was a child 35 years ago and, second, how simple in idea the mechanism of steam engines still is. A detail that struck me immediately was that the throttle lever on the L.N.E.R. engine was worked by pulling it upwards towards you whereas on the engines of my Brighton childhood it was worked by a lever at right angles to the axis of the boiler.
The remaining few minutes were spent in explanations of the brake apparatus, steam pressure required—the names of this and that and then someone called up from outside: "right you are" and I gathered that it must be exactly 10.0. The engine was driven from the right-hand side, so I was given the piano-stool or perch on the left side, with one foot on a pail (a quite ordinary household-looking pail) and the other dangling. Up to this time the fireman had been doing various odd jobs about the place. He now shut (if you can call it shutting, for it only about half covered the gap) the iron door between engine and tender, and Mr. Young, having made a suitable response to the man outside who had shouted "right you are," pulled up the handle (both hands to the job and not too much at a time—a mouthful, so to say, for a start, to let her feel the weight) and, well, we simply started forward. It's as simple as that. I mean it looks as simple as that.
And, immediately, the fireman started shovelling coal. I shouted some apology to him for taking his seat. I could not hear his reply. It was probably to say that he had no time for seats. He shovelled in about 6 shovelsful; then, after a few seconds' pause, another half dozen—a few seconds' pause and then six or more shovels and so on practically without stopping the whole time. What strikes you about this, even more than the colossal labour of the thing and the great skill with which he distributes the coal in the fire and his unerring aim in throwing a pretty big shovelful of coal through a not very large opening, what strikes you is the extraordinary primitive nature of the job. You stand in a space about as big as a hearthrug spread out longways to the fire and you take a shovelful of coal out of a hole at one end and throw it through a hole in the other end—spilling a bit every time. You go on doing this for hours. Your attention must be as great as your skill and strength. You must watch the pressure gauges and you must watch the state of the fire at the same time. And your only relaxations are when, on entering tunnels or passing stations, you give a tug at the whistle handle and when, on a signal from the driver, you let down the water scoop to take up water from the trough between the rails (which occurs every hundred miles or so). And talking of primitive things, look at the whistle handle! It is a round ring on the end of a wire (there is one on each side of the cab). It dangles down about a foot from the roof. When the train is travelling fast you have to make a bit of a grab for it as it is never in the same place for two seconds together. On receiving a nod of acquiescence from Mr. Young, I pulled the handle myself as we approached Peterborough, and again as we went, at reduced speed, through the station itself. (My first pull was but a timid little shriek, but my second was it seemed to me, a long bold blast.)
But don't imagine I'm complaining or sneering about this primitiveness. It's no more primitive or less venerable than sawing with a hand-saw or ploughing with a horse plough. I only think that it's surprising how these primitive methods persist. Here we were on an engine of the most powerful kind in the world, attached to one of the most famous of all travelling hotels—the string of coaches called The Flying Scotsman—with its Cocktail Bar and Beauty Parlours, its dining-saloons, decorated in more or less credible imitation of the salons of eighteenth-century France, its waiters and guards and attendants of all sorts, its ventilation and heating apparatus as efficient as those of the Strand Palace Hotel, and here we were carrying on as if we were pulling a string of coal trucks.
All the luxury and culture of the world depends ultimately upon the efforts of the labourer. This fact has often been described in books. It has often been the subject of cartoons and pictures—the sweating labourer groaning beneath the weight of all the arts and sciences, the pomps and prides of the world—but here it was in plain daily life.
And what made it even more obvious was the complete absence of connection with the train behind us. The train was there—you could see if it you looked out when going round a bend—but that was all. And just as the passenger very seldom thinks about the men on the engine, so we thought nothing at all about the passengers. They were simply part of the load. Indeed there may not have been any passengers—we weren't aware of any.
And the absence of connection between engine and train was emphasized by the entirely different physical sensations which engine travelling gives you. The noise is different—you never for a moment cease to hear, and to feel, the effort of the pistons. The shriek of the whistle splits your ears, a hundred other noises drown any attempt at conversation.
Though the engine is well sprung, there is a feeling of hard contact on the rails all the time—something like riding on an enormously heavy solid-tyred bicycle. And that rhythmic tune which you hear when travelling in the train, the rhythm of the wheels as they go over the joins in the metals (iddy UMty . . . iddy UMty . . . &c.) is entirely absent. There is simply a continuous iddyiddyiddy ... there is no sensation of travelling in a train—you are travelling on an engine. You are on top of an extremely heavy sort of cart-horse which is discharging its terrific pent-up energy by the innumerable outbursts of its breath.
And continuously the fireman works, and continuously the driver, one hand on the throttle lever, the other ready near the brake handle (a handle no bigger than that of a bicycle and yet controlling power sufficient to pull up a train weighing 500 tons) keeps watch on the line ahead for a possible adverse signal. If the signals are down they go straight ahead, slowing down only for the sharper curves and the bigger railway junctions. You place absolute trust in the organization of the line and you know practically every yard of it by sight. You dash roaring into the small black hole of a tunnel (the impression you get is that it's a marvel you don't, miss it sometimes) and when you're in you can see nothing at all. Does that make you slow up? Not at all—not by a ½ m.p.h. The signal was down; there can't be anything in the way and it's the same at night. I came back on the engine from Grantham in the evening, simply to find out what they can see. You can see nothing but the signals—you know your whereabouts simply by memory. And as for the signals: it's surprising how little the green lights show up compared with the red. It seemed to me that they went more by the absence of a red light (in the expected place) than by the presence of a green one. You can see the red miles away but the green only when you're almost on it. And if it seemed a foolhardy proceeding to rush headlong into tunnels in the day time, how much more foolhardy did it seem at night to career along at 80 miles an hour in a black world with nothing to help you but your memory of the road and a lot of flickering lights—lights often almost obliterated by smoke and rain. And here's another primitive thing: You can generally see nothing at all through the glass windows of the cab at night because the reflections of the firelight make it impossible. To see the road, to see the signals, you must put your head out at the side—weather or no. The narrow glass screen prevents your eyes from being filled with smoke and cinders, but, well, it seems a garden of Eden sort of arrangement all the same.
And they don't even fill the tender with coal of the required size. Sometimes a big lump gets wedged into the opening and has to be slowly broken up with a pickaxe before it can be dislodged—what about that? Well, I call it jolly fine; but it's jolly rum too, when you think of all the electric gadgets and labour-saving contrivances which the modern housewife thinks herself a martyr if she don't get.
Up the long bank before Grantham—yes, and you notice the ups and downs when you're on the engine. They are both visible and hearable. You hear the engine's struggle (there's no "changing down" when it starts "labouring"). You feel it too, and looking straight ahead, and not only sideways like the millionaire in the train behind, you see the horizon of the bank before you. It looks like a hill. And when you run over the brow you see the run down and you hear and feel the engine's change of breath, you hear and feel the more easy thrust of the pistons.
And, on the return journey, going down into London in the dark (on No. 2750 with Mr. Guttridge and Mr. Rayner, a London engine and London men) with steam shut off and fire nearly out—just enough fire to get home with—we were pulled up by an adverse signal. Good that was too. Nothing visible in the blackness but the red lights over our heads. Silence—during which the fireman told me that Mr. Guttridge had driven the King 28 times. Suddenly one of the lights turned green—sort of magical. "Right ho," said the fireman. Eric Gill. Letters. 1947

NIGHT MAIL. W.H. Auden

This is the night mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich. letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door,
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb--
The gradient's against her but she's on time.
Past cotton grass and moorland boulder,
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses;
Birds turn their head as she approaches,
Stare from the bushes at her blank-faced coaches;
Sheepdogs cannot turn her course
They slumber on with paws across,
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.
Dawn freshens, the climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends
Towards the steam tugs, yelping down the glade of cranes
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her;
In the dark glens, beside the pale-green sea lochs,
Men long for news.
Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from the girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or visit relations,
And applications for situations,
And timid lovers' declarations,
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands,
Notes from overseas to me Hebrides;
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
The cold and official and the heart's outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.
Thousands are still asleep
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or a friendly tea beside the band at Cranston's or Crawford's;
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen.
They continue their dreams
But shall wake soon and long for letters.
And none will hear the postman's knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

Names and other trivia

What's in a name? Lambert p. 45
On 15 January 1938, Éamon de Valera was travelling from Holyhead to Euston. When it was discovered that the only locomotive available was 'Royal Scot' No. 6122 Royal Ulster Rifleman, it was prudently agreed the nameplates should be removed. This proved a wise decision, as his arrival was awaited by a tumultuous reception party which might not have appreciated the irony.

274. Drawing engines
I have said before that from my earliest years I had always been fond of drawing engines and bridges and signals and tunnels. As time went on this enthusiasm was canalised more and more into the drawing of locomotives. Whether or no I was any good at it does not matter. The point is that I was always doing it and with progressively greater and greater attention to the details of structure and the technique of draughtsmanship. I knew little or nothing of mathematical drawing. I used rulers and compasses, but as regards measurements and proportion I went entirely by eye. I was very much concerned with the structure and movement and purposes of locomotives, because you can't make a good drawing of anything unless you know how it works and what it is for. This may be a "heresy" from the point of pure aesthetics but I wasn't interested in such things then and am only interested in them now in order to repudiate them. But what I was primarily concerned with then was locomotives as such, their character, their meaning. And as this character and meaning were manifest in their shape, it was their shape I was determined to master. I laboured under the spur of this enthusiasm for ten crowded years. I don't know how many hundreds of drawings I made. Perhaps it was not very many; for I could only do them in my spare time in the evenings and in holidays - on the breakfast-room table when the things had been cleared away and before the time came for the next meal to be laid. I suppose I was a pretty good nuisance, but my parents were proud of the result and encouraged me, and once or twice my drawings were even exhibited at school. I suppose I was training myself to be an engineer. I think I thought that all engineering was like that – an immense enthusiasm for engines – engines as beings. Engines pulled trains; they belonged to the Railway Company, they did things and served purposes. Their construction depended upon a vast amount of mathematical calculation and knowledge of physics. But, though I saw, though rather dimly, that I should certainly have to go into all that, it was the shape and character of the locomotive that really enthralled me.
(c. 1895) Eric Gill, Autobiography (1944 ed.), 73-4

The Loop Line

Then began a time of adventure. Stoke was at the other end of the Potteries and a journey by rail necessary. The 1930s was the tail-end of the great age of rail in England and we were the beneficiaries of the densest rail network m the world. Until a few years before (1929), the network was still being extended and new lines of track and stations opened. When the early railway barons were driving their arterial routes north, they ignored most of the Potteries. Stoke, almost by chance, was not only made a stop on the main line north, but chosen to be the headquarters of the North Staffordshire Railway. That one event ensured its future status as head of the Six Towns. A large station was built (1848) in Jacobethan Gothick, a luxury hotel, the North Stafford, set up opposite and in the square thus formed a statue of Josiah Wedgwood was duly set up. The only real connection between the main line and the Potteries was a little station at Longport, an insignificant place whose sole purpose was to sustain this connection.

However, in the 1860s and 1870s, as the Potteries expanded, it was swept into the railway age, especially in the form of what were called mineral lines, built to transport heavy goods like coal and clay, not people. One went from the main line at Etruria, whence Wedgwood goods travelled to London, to the Shelton Colliery at Hanley. Another went from Etruria to a colliery in Burslem. A third passed from Longport through The Sytch, Tunstall and on to the big Chatterley-Whitfield colliery. It had branch lines too. This was the railway for which Mr Williams, 'the Master', worked. These little lines, each with its own engines, staff, uniforms and ethos, criss-crossed our region like veins, full of life and peculiarities, run by real experts who never did anything else in their entire lives. However, the glory of the Potteries was the Loop Line, built in the 1870s when the rail barons realised they were missing a lot of trade. It started at little Longport, worked its way through Tunstall, Burslem, Cobridge (Arnold Bennett's station) and Hanley to end up at Stoke and the main line.

(There were one or two other obscure stations which do not concern us.) It was like a toy railway. The stations were all complete with goods and parcels offices, stationmaster (wearing a bowler hat at minor stations, a top hat at Stoke), ticket office, porters, waiting rooms and trolleys for putting milk churns on. There were proper signals and points. No expresses ever came through and the engines – King Edward VII/, the Duke of Connaught, the Princess Royal, the Duke of Cambridge et al – tended to be a generation out of date. All the same, it was a busy and efficient public service. The trains kept perfect time and no accidents were ever recorded. At its peak the Loop Line ran seventy trains a day, one every fifteen minutes. My sisters and I loved this railway. It was 'ours'. And it was part of the great London, Midland and Scottish Railway, largest of the Big Four – nicest, too, we thought. People were very attached to leading institutions then. It was a form of patriotism. You were either Oxford or Cambridge, Eton or Harrow, Yorkshire or Lancashire, Gentlemen or Players, whether or not you had connections with any. North Staffs despised South Staffs – it was 'stuck up'. The Potteries despised the rest of North Staffs as 'idle'. Potteries people particularly disliked Newcastle-under-Lyme, which was older, had no pot-banks and 'did nothing'. It was 'stuck up' too. Of the railways, the LNER was' common', the Southern 'boring' and the Great Western was yet another 'stuck-up' institution. The LMS was 'just right'; its maroon colours were ours.

You went down a steep track to get into Tunstall Station, a cavernous place under a bridge, of smoke-stained dingy brick, dark and fumigerous. I loved the powerful stamp machine which put the date on our cardboard tickets with a loud 'thoomp'. Stationmaster Greatbatch was in charge, assisted by Porter Hamps, who waved the green flag when it was time for the train to go. Mr Greatbatch sometimes saw us into our carriage and made sure the heavy brass door handle was securely shut. The dignity with which he took out his huge steel watch – a 'turnip' I was told, to my mystification – consulted it, then nodded gravely to Mr Hamps, was an exercise in the courtly manners which antedated rail and went back to the stagecoaches.

The train would always whistle loudly when it left Tunstall, run fast down the slope which led into The Sytch (or the edge of it), then chuff and pant laboriously up the hill to Burslem. We often had the carriage to ourselves and if we did we would defend the door to prevent 'rough Burslem boys', on their way to Hanley High School, from getting in. Clare led this operation with great determination and spirit. The boys had to go to another compartment – there were no corridors, of course. I soon knew by heart the pictures under the luggage racks: Blackpool, North Shore, The Esplanade at Rhyl, Paddle Steamer, Coniston Lake, The Pier, Hoylake. (This despised and dreary place was where the Stones took their holidays.) They were all brown and flyblown, for the LMS put superannuated coaches on the Loop Line. The seats were of much-worn plush and emitted immense dust clouds when thwacked. It was strictly forbidden for children to get into the luggage racks, so Clare performed this antinomian gesture as a daily ritual, hoisting herself up in one lithe movement, a feat of athleticism in which she took pride and delight. Her other trick was to swing herself from one rack to the other.

At Cobridge, where no one ever got on or off – it was a mere platform - a curious thing happened. The driver always shut down his engine and, for half a minute, a great silence descended, in which you could hear birds sing. During this time I read over and over again the enamelled iron signs which were joined to the wooden railings: 'Virol: Expectant Mothers Need It'; 'Virol: Growing Lads Need It;' 'Virol: Convalescents Need It'. I studied advertisements intently as soon as I could read. A lot were concerned with energy, or the lack of it. Horlicks ran a series of fascinating tales, in comic-strip form, about men, women or children who were failing at work, home or school because of a dread complaint called Midnight Starvation. Then a friend told them about Horlicks, the family solemnly quaffed it before going to bed and careers, house- keeping and studies prospered. Even better were the Guinness ads, which then were drawn by a genius who depicted pint glasses of foaming Guinness swallowed by ostriches, and other stupendous events depicting animals stealing the hard-earned porter of red-faced men. (All these ads would now be banned, of course.)

At Hanley there was bustle. Sometimes an elderly gent got in (by elderly I mean anyone over forty). In those days the old liked to converse with children and children liked to be talked to. It would not happen now, but the Thirties was an age of innocence. The man would say, 'Off ter school, thin? Brownhills most likely, ar?'
'No, St Dominic's,'
'Oo aye, that's Roman, ar? Dost learn Latin?'
'A little:
'Ee, ah wishtad learned Latin, it's a reet sign of knowledge, tha knowst. 'Im as knows Latin is a superior person, they say. Congregations. Irregular verbs, that sort of stuff, eh? Ee, I envy thee. Stick to thy books while thee canst and thee'll not regret it, believe thou me:
The Potteries people were always gregarious, talkative up to a point: judged everyone as equals (and voted Labour overwhelmingly, even in those days) but never challenged class distinctions based on education. They would address anyone, even the Duke of Sutherland, if they got the chance. But they did not seek to dispossess him of his broad acres; on the contrary, they applauded his decision to throw Trentham Park, his huge, unlived-in palace near Stoke, with magnificent gardens and pavilions, open to the public. They positively liked an aristocracy, in fact, provided it was generous and public-spirited, and they could laugh at it too. The Earl of Derby, who was fat, jovial and pronounced his 'a's short, as they did, was particularly popular, 'allus ready wuv a five-pun note'.

What I liked most about going to school on the Loop Line were those early winter mornings when the carriage windows misted over, providing me with six large virgin surfaces on which to draw with my fingers. This was sheer delight. I quickly discovered that they made a perfect medium for caricatures.


When we had been going for a month on our six-days-a-week journeys (for in those days we all went to school on Saturday morning, just as the grown-ups worked until midday), a notable event took place. Everything about the train seemed huge to me: the height of the carriage, the size of the engine, its pistons, wheels, funnel, buffers, fender and cylinders, the doors, the distance from the step outside it to the ground and even to the platform. Clare and Elfride got out first when we reached Stoke, and the train hissed to a halt. I appeared in the doorway, satchel on my back, and Clare would then swing me high in the air and deposit me on the platform. I liked this, but I also liked to get out by myself, which was perfectly easy at Tunstall, on our way home.

One morning Clare was a little slow at turning to get me: she had plants she was taking to show the botany mistress. I stepped down and vanished into the depth between platform and train. It was dark and dim there, with only an oblong of light above my head. The wheels of the train seemed enormous, smelt strongly of oil and shuddered, as if anxious to spring into motion again. Clare's voice came from a long distance: 'Where's Paul?' and I replied, 'I'm down here: She said, later, that my voice sounded 'very tiny' and 'forlorn'. Concerned, frightened faces peered down at me, there was a hullabaloo as porters were summoned. The stoker from the train jumped down and lifted me up, and strong arms deposited me on the platform. It was all over in seconds and I was not really frightened at all, except at the prospect of being blamed for causing trouble. A crowd had collected, as crowds did in those days at the smallest incident, many people having nothing to do - unemployed, I suppose. And Potteries people all believed they were born with a right to comment. 'The little lad might've been squashed reet flat: 1\r, or brok 'is bones: 'Dangerous them holes betwixt train an' platform. Ah say this is too wide, like: 'It's allus been like that at Stoke. Think' or old folk, an all'.

Then there was a sudden deferential parting and Mr Oldcastle, the stationmaster, having donned his top hat for the occasion, strode on to the scene. He lifted his topper, though whether to me, my sisters, or the crowd I do not know, and said, 'This will have to be reported to Higher Authority. I will undertake to do so. There may be a Hazard. On the other hand there may have been carelessness. Or both. The young lad is unharmed, is he? Good. Take additional care next time, boy: Then, suddenly reaching a decision, 'Tell Mrs Silverbright in Refreshments to give the boy a glass of that special Sarsparilla to set him up. And now' – consulting his enormous turnip – 'the service must be resumed.'

That was the one time I had dealings with Mr Oldcastle, who normally appeared only when the Euston Express to Glasgow stopped, to deposit the Duke of Sutherland or Earl Granville on the platform. Clare was subdued, thinking what my mother might say when the incident was reported to her. Then Elftide, who was not without a certain legitimate guile, said, 'The stationmaster said there might be a hazard and we should make a point of repeating that to Mum: And so they did, and my mother's account of the episode to neighbours and relatives revolved around the word 'hazard' or, as she put it, 'the perils of that dreadful, filthy station'. However, she was no fool. After publicly praising my courage in misadventure and the fact that I had not cried, she said to me privately, 'You have a disconcerting habit of drawing attention to yourself.'
Paul Johnson. The vanishing ladscape: a 1930s childhood in the Potteries. London Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 2004.

Great Central Railway: Sheffield Victoria to Banbury. Sir John Betjeman

Unmitigated England
Came swinging down the line
That day the February sun
Did crisp and crystal shine.
Dark red at Kirkby Bentinck stood
A steeply gabled farm
'Mid ash trees and a sycamore
In charismatic calm.
A village street - a manor house -
A church - then, tally ho!
We pounded through a housing scheme
With tellymasts a-row,
Where cars of parked executives
Did regimented wait
Beside administrative blocks
Within the factory gate.
She waved to us from Hucknall South
As we hooted round a bend,
From a curtained front-window did
The diesel driver's friend.
Through cuttings deep to Nottingham
Precariously we wound;
The swallowing tunnel made the train
Seem London's Underground.
Above the fields of Leicestershire
On arches we were born
And the rumble of the railway drowned
The thunder of the Quorn;
And silver shone the steeples out
Above the barren boughs;
Colts in a paddock ran from us
But not the solid cows;
And quite where Rugby Central is
Does only Rugby know.
We watched the empty platform wait
And sadly saw it go.
By now the sun of afternoon
Showed ridge and furrow shadows
And shallow unfamiliar lakes
Stood shivering in the meadows.
Is Woodford church or Hinton church
The one I ought to see?
Or were they both too much restored
In 1883?
I do not know. Towards the west
A trail of glory runs
And we leave the old Great Central line
For Banbury and buns.

Music from C. Hamilton Ellis's The engines that passed

While still an infant, I had found steam trains very lovely indeed, and learned to recognize their many varieties. Only at the advanced age of four did I encounter the ship. Somewhere in between came the airship, that wondrous great fish of the skies. Outside the works of nature, those, and music, made four loves. Music, of course, was magic, and curiously involved with the train at that, for day journeys on the London and South Western often ended with Schumann being played in an idyllic setting as the sun went down over Black Furlong (which had the West-of-England main line on the other side). To this day, a certain Arabesque suggests the stately progress of a T9 into the Unknown Country beyond Tisbury.

Many railway people loved music. Why, one wonders, did many musicians love the train? Dvorak is the classic example, often remarked. But late in the 'twenties, long after Dvorak had joined his ancestors, I rode to Oxford (very properly in a finely clerestoried gaslit coach of the Great Western) with a jolly, bearded, Elizabethan sort of man who talked like a book on the fascinating railways of Central Wales. Only later—for when I got off, he went on—did I find out that he was Peter Warlock, Disciple of Delius, composer of the Capriol Suite and a great many other things which, like Rutland Boughton's operas, may be rediscovered some day. Before he had become the jovial Peter Warlock, he had been the mild Philip Heseltine who had written a most scholarly article on the Van Railway (cf. The Locomotive Magazine, January 15, 1912).

The disciplined rhythm of the railway in all its works might have pleased Bach, had he become a bicentenarian. On the other side of the picture, the Great Western Railway named two successive engines Sir Edward Elgar, the Northern of France had a Mozart and the Palatinate a Beethoven. As to Peter Warlock, before his needless end, he once danced a jig in the middle of Charing Cross Station (the South Eastern one).

Sir John Magill's last journey. Freeman Wills Croft. 1930.
This is a jolly good detective novel and extracting a section that will not spoil the suspense was quite difficult, but the following is safe enough.
It did not seem possible that anything could have occurred during Sir John's journey which might have borne on his subsequent fate. At the same time French determined to travel as the old gentleman had done and to keep a careful note of his surroundings so as to visualise the other's experiences.
He began therefore by engaging a sleeping berth at Euston. On inquiry he was directed to a stationmaster's office on No. 6 platform. There a clerk made the reservation, handing him a voucher. This voucher he presented at the booking office when taking his tickets, a first-class return for the journey and a single for the sleeping berth.

The train left at 7.40 p.m. from No. I2 platform. There he found that all arrangements had been made for his reception. His name was on the list on the window of the sleeping coach and the attendant was expecting him and showed him to his stateroom. Immediately after starting the man came to him for his tickets. He was most civil, making a point of addressing French by his name and fixing up when he" should call him next morning.

For a time French sat watching the lights flit by, then thinking he would be more comfortable in bed, he undressed, switched on his reading lamp and became immersed in a novel. At the end of a couple of hours this palled and he turned off the light and composed himself to sleep.

Darlington & Wavertree Celebrations: Ellis: London Midland & Scottish
With the best of intentions, the London & North Eastern had held those Stockton and Darlington Centenary celebrations in 1925, with royal patronage, but to many the event had suddenly rubbed in that railways were now over a hundred years old, and therefore old-fashioned. ... In 1930 there was yet another large-scale Railway Centenary celebration, this time commemorating the Liverpool and Manchester opening, with an outdoor exhibition in Wavertree Park, Liverpool. Perhaps it would not have been such a damp squib had not the rain come down in torrents on the first day (as indeed it had done at the original opening in 1830). But it had none of the triumphant pride that there had been in the Darlington one, even though it had a wonderful thing in the shape of an oval track whereon the ancient locomotive Lion, recently rescued and rehabilitated, gave people rides in a beautiful set of replica carriages. An enormous pageant in costume, with mock-up locomotives powered by spluttering motor engines, was a sad thing, especially for the poor girls who had to look jolly and picturesque in gay bonnets, great skirts and frilly trouserines that became saturated. Some of the mud was memorable.

Atlantic City run. Tayler: Illustrated history of North American railways
A pair of Baldwin 4-4-2 camelbacks built for the Atlantic City Railraod in 1896 regularly ran the 55.3 miles between Atlantic City and Camden, NJ at an average speed of 70 mph and could develop 1,450 horsepower at that speed.

Across the land and the water W.G. Sebald; translated from the German by Iain Galbraith. Hamish Hamilton, 2011.

For how hard it is

to understand the landscape

as you pass in a train

from here to there

and mutely it

watches you vanish.

Holy Isle

The electric train glided silently over the Tweed to pause at Berwick
Where many years before they had arrived by noisy steam train
Her first trip to England on a six and nine penny Sunday excursion
He had consulted bus and tide tables and it should be possible to reach Lindisfarne

During the brief pause he was very conscious of poet Sean O’Brien’s
Comment heard on Michael Berkeley’s Private Passions
That travel by train is a journey through both space and through time
And here they had been nearly sixty years before

It was Remembrance Day: the bands were playing in Princes Street Gardens
The tide was reluctant to leave the causeway: just time to cross, embrace and return
Memories of the calls of the geese and the smell of the wrack remained
So it was back to Glasgow in a compartment with the soft sense of steam

Once again they were heading north to celebrate a later matrimony in Edinburgh
The train raced past Torness nuclear power station and the odour of burnt tyres
Past Dunbar and Drem, for North Berwick; past Longniddry and Prestonpans
Past Joppa and Portobello and into the tunnel to the Waverley Suburban Platform

The Gillis Centre was quickly reached by Number five bus
And after sorting themselves out in a pleasant room
They set forth for Bruntsfield to meet a far younger couple
Eileen was determined to greet them with chocolates

And so they entered an elegant, but dark confectioner
Where a delightful Polish assistant greeted them with
“What a beautiful couple”. Yes: Us. Perhaps it showed on our faces
Memories of earlier romance in what he regards as his spiritual home

Had that initial excursion by a pair of librarians been a pilgrimage
That Aidan, saint, monk and scholar had quietly blessed

Kevin

Sean O'Brien

2014-07-31