Scenic Britain by Train – Stephen Gay – 21st March 2016

This was Stephens’ 16th visit to us since his first in 1998. With pictures of his travels over the years with his faithful German Shepherd dog ‘Wrawby’  on the British Rail network, he shared tales, experiences and memories of times past and present, punctuated with his own evocative poetry.

With beautifully composed, unenhanced pictures on slides, which took many hours of planning and timing, he covered from Penmere Station, voted the best kept station on the Truro to Falmouth Maritime Line, to Helmsdale on the Inverness to Wick and Thurso line, where a bus service was in operation around a closure, due to slippage on part of the line.    Apparently Wrawby was only allowed on the bus after the passengers power forced the driver to bend the rules to let him on. We were told that the competition  for  ‘Best Kept Station’ was far from friendly being a very competitive and serious business!

Stephen showed us slides taken from the top of the Great Orme at Llandudno, where seats are strategically placed to take advantage of the view. He commented that as magnificent as the view was, he preferred the view of Doncaster Station. The top of the Great Orme is reached by a tram which is pulled up  by a cable running in the centre of the lines. Apparently it is the only one in the UK if not in Europe. Needless to say Stephen had an excellent photograph of a car on the way back to its depot.

We viewed magnificent viaducts and bridges, photographed with much effort and waiting, using a tripod at dawn, or twilight for best effect, with a train in the picture.

We saw the Border Bridge over the Tweed, the Hayle (Cornwall) Viaduct, Monsal Head Viaduct (no train on this), the Forth Rail Bridge (designed by Sir John Fowler from Wadsley, who also engineered the Sheffield to Cleethorpes line), Marple Viaduct and adjacent aqueduct on the Peak Forest Canal, and Ribble Head and Arton Ghyll (1875) viaducts on the Settle to Carlisle route, opened in 1876.

The photograph of the Ribble Head Viaduct showed a train, almost as long as the viaduct itself heading south which, incidentally, now goes a different way because of a landslip. Stephen was lucky enough to be invited into the old fashioned signal box adjacent to the viaduct which is manned day and night, (not something Health and Safety would allow today). There is no running water piped to the box and so this has to be delivered each day.

Stephen showed us a photograph of Dent Station which is reputed to be the highest station in Britain at 1150 feet above sea level. The station itself is 5 miles from Dent and was due for closure but Michael Portillo played a big part in saving it. The Station House has been converted into a B & B and Michael was just one of many celebrities who have stayed there.

Stephen journeyed from S.Wales on a Rover ticket, through Heckington Station, with its classic 8 sailed  windmill in the background in Lincolnshire, on to Bridlington Station, where time has stood still, especially in the tea room. Mmemories of the film ‘Brief Encounter’ were evoked.

Stephen made a pilgrimage to Aberfan to pay his respects to 116 children and 28 adults who died on 21/10/66 when the pit spoil heap slipped and buried the school. He took his photograph from the place where the slip occurred. Incidentally t was here where the laying of floral tributes marking accidents and disasters originated. The nearest station to Aberfan is  Merthyr Vale, and it is here where Timothy Evans, who was wrongly accused of a murder and hanged, was born.

Nearer home, we saw a photograph of Dronfield Station including the ticket office. The station is still in use but the ticket office has been closed since 1967. We also saw an excellent photograph of a night mail train which invoked memories of the film  ‘Night Train’.

The East Coast Mainline – 393 miles long from London to Edinburg, was opened by Queen Victoria in 1849. Stephen showed a photograph of Berwick  where 70% of Berwick Castle was demolished for this line. The Berwick to Dunbar section is voted second best picturesque route after The Settle to Carlisle route.

A final reflection was on past cheap short ‘Merrymaker’ excursions, to places like Skye. They were to encourage people to take a holiday on the railways. The final picture was an advert for a Cardiff beer displayed on a railway bridge – ‘You Need BRAINS’.     The Victorian engineers certainly had ambition and brains, and was very well represented in this morning’s marvellous talk.