by Mel Smith
Can anyone recall their first outing completely alone? My own was a secret summer journey in 1959 and what follows here is my memory of that trip. I did not know it at the time, but I was about to embark on a journey that would be repeated many times over during the years to come. Looking back it was in fact the starting point of a lifelong affair with the railway scene at Grantham.
Apart from an occasional bike ride over to a relative’s house in a suburb of Nottingham I had not, at the tender age of nine, ventured very far alone.
I still remember that particular bright sunny day, it was the second week of the school summer holidays. The long hot days it seemed would stretch out forever, well at least hopefully until September. All of my friends at school called me “Smiffy” for obvious reasons. Today as I walked briskly over Trent Bridge and having just passed the famous cricket ground, I felt a growing sense of excitement tinged with mild anxiety. I stopped for a moment to look down at the waters of the River Trent sliding by silently under my feet and glimmering in the sunshine. I noticed too the lovely avenue of trees that stood like soldiers lining the length of what was locally known as Victoria Embankment. Those trees I remember were now in their summer uniform of full leaf and displayed a wonderful upside down canopy of green, perfectly reflected in the waters at the bottom of the rows of stone steps.
Continuing to walk on, I soon found myself over the bridge and at last on the “city side” of the river. Across the road a “corporation green” trolley bus waited quietly at the terminus.
Hopping nimbly onto the rear platform I entered the lower deck. The walk had made me fairly hot, so away from the glare of the bright warm July sunlight the interior of the bus seemed cool and musty, but somehow welcoming. Slotting into an empty seat halfway down the aisle I fished out my fare in readiness for the short journey into town and tried to look confident.
The bus conductor was a thin stern looking man dressed in a crumpled company uniform and he had rather small spectacles clinging precariously to his hawk like nose. He lowered his head slightly to give me a quick glance, almost as if he had just spotted his prey, before finally checking the pavement for stragglers. There was a pause then two short "ting tings" followed by a "hold tight". The bus set off with a slight jolt and as we gathered speed a low mysterious whirring noise came from somewhere under the floor as if something badly needed oiling.
Looking back briefly towards Trent Bridge and the terminus, I nervously checked again for the two pencils in my top pocket and the small note book in my inside pocket. Finally my hand thumbed the new Ian Allan ABC in my side pocket, a prized birthday present from my Uncle. "No going back now" said a tiny voice in my head. I was startled by another voice much louder "fares please!" The butterflies in my stomach fluttered as I quickly passed over the fare. In one well practised sequence my ticket, looking like a pink speckled tongue, curled out of the conductor's silver ticket machine and a few coppers disappeared into the chasm of his deep leather bag.
My thoughts turned to the now somewhat worrying fact that I probably should have told my parents the truth about my planned outing. Instead I had given them a vague story about engine spotting with some of my friends at the station. I had purposefully not added which station.....
The trolley bus moved onwards and gathered speed. I noticed with amusement how the heads of passengers in front of me would sway to one side and then the other on each corner. As the driver braked or accelerated they would nod gently in unison just like a field of corn at the mercy of the breeze.
A noise reminiscent of a knight putting on his chain mail came from behind me. Near to the stairs leading to the upper deck the conductor shook his bag again and still hawk like, skilfully kept his balance by leaning against a chromium plated pole (or perch?) He whistled a steady monotonous unrecognisable tune, casually sorting the silver and copper coins like a scene from Treasure Island.
Just about twenty minutes later and after many stops the bus turned into Parliament Street. I got up from my seat ready to get off and pressed the red button, sounding the bell to alert the driver. I had travelled this route many times with my Dad, so knew all of the stops by heart.
Having stepped down onto the wide grey pavement I raced along Milton Street towards Victoria Station. Glancing up at the imposing clock tower and with only five minutes to get my ticket or miss the next train my heart pounded.
Once inside the station I saw an ornate sign in the shape of a hand. The index finger pointed to the left and the word "Tickets" stood out on one side. In front of me a large man with an equally large suitcase unfortunately eclipsed my view of the panelled ticket office. Peering round his waistline was like taking a half orbit of the earth. Just as I had almost given up hope the Ticket Office came up over the horizon. I could see that he was in deep conversation with some unseen person behind a small glass panel set into the wall. After what seemed an eternity the man picked up his suitcase with a grunt and shuffled off in the direction of the platforms.
I stepped forward and a face appeared behind the glass panel. A muffled voice said something that I could not quite hear properly. Not being totally sure who the voice was addressing and still unable to hear clearly what it had said, I foolishly looked around expecting at any moment for my parents to come rushing up. Just then the glass panel moved with a dry squeak and slid upwards, the voice spoke again, much clearer this time. Alright young man, where to? The words sat in my dry mouth but eventually came out, err… Grantham, please. He asked me if I wanted a single or a return. Return please, I replied.
You had better look sharp then, said the ticket clerk as I handed over the money. I glanced over my shoulder and waited for the change. Safely clutching my ticket I nervously looked around again and now, trying to look casual, moved off towards the platforms. The public address announced that the next train to depart would be the 9.30 to Grantham. I quickly broke into a sprint not having time to take in too much of the cavernous cathedral like atmosphere of my surroundings.
My platform was over on the other side so with a quick dash, two steps at a time, I scampered up the stairs and over the wide footbridge. Down the other side I leapt the last four or five steps and landed in a heap at the bottom. Opening my eyes I saw from my now horizontal position a row of maroon coloured coaches. I was quickly hauled to my feet by an unseen pair of hands. A whistle sounded from somewhere further down the platform and a man called out to me to hurry along please!
I frantically tried each handle of the nearest coach, but my hands were wet with perspiration and would not grip. Just then an arm thrust past me and easily opened the door. Blimey! It was the large man with the suitcase... Get on young lad, he shouted, or you will be left behind. I have an hour to wait now for my next train, missed the last one! Blasted British Rai..... The man's voice was cut off by the door as it slammed shut behind me.
The coach was empty so I settled down into one of the firm slightly dusty seats just as the train started to move out of the station. I wanted to make sure that I would have a good view of any engines that I might see during my journey. Gosh, I had not even had time to make a note of the locomotive in charge of my train! With my face pressed flat against the window I looked back to wave a thanks to the large man, but as the platform slowly slipped by I could see no sign of him. A large signal box came into view and then semi darkness filled the compartment. Some smoke came in from the partly open window as we moved into the short tunnel leading to Weekday Cross junction.
Rail joints clattered and echoed from the tunnel sides. I knew that straight ahead lay the familiar old GC line to Leicester and the south. My trainspotting outings until now had been with others and also limited to that section, in particular the Wilford, Ruddington and Loughborough area. It was on one of these visits that I had first heard some of the older boys talk about the sights and sounds of Grantham and the mainline express trains.
Their comments had fired up my imagination and now, having saved up my pocket money and after telling a few vague misleading fibs, I had drummed up the courage to visit what was to many of my school friends a trainspotters’ mecca.
Emerging from the southern portal of the tunnel the train gently lurched to the left, squealing over the points at Weekday Cross. Looking to my right the junction signal box came into view. Below I caught a brief glimpse of the tops of red Barton and blue South Notts buses waiting in the circular Broad Marsh bus station. Slowly gathering speed and with bright sunlight streaming through the windows a mixed feeling of wellbeing, freedom and growing anticipation crept over me. I watched the white smoke from the as yet unknown locomotive drifting lazily past the window.
Progressing further down an elevated blue brick viaduct, I could see that we were running parallel with an industrial landscape dotted with small workshops and storage yards. A man on a ladder cleaning a window turned half around to view our train. A cat on a low wall nonchalantly watched our procession go by. Almost as quickly as our speed had increased I felt a gentle tug of the brakes.
Coasting along for a short distance we soon crossed over London Road, a main thoroughfare leading southwards out of town towards Trent Bridge. Slowly our speed decreased before we gently pulled into London Road High Level station and stopped. All now seemed well with my world, the locomotive simmered quietly at the head of the train and further back I heard doors open and slam shut as a few more passengers got on. After about a minute of silence a shrill whistle sounded from the platform and it was answered immediately by a whistle from the engine, we were off again.
Gradually increasing speed we drifted past a number of sidings, each with rows of trucks and parcel vans lined up end to end like library books. Dotted amongst them I spotted a variety of locomotives of Eastern and Midland origin. I pulled out my notebook and pencil but, frustration upon frustration, I could not make out any of their numbers as they were all absolutely filthy!
Leaving Nottingham behind, my train paused again at a place called Netherfield and very soon after leaving this station Colwick Shed yard came into view on my left making my heart race. However, the assembled throng of locos were too far away to even try and note any numbers down. This was not a good start to my day, nothing yet to show in my nice new notebook, apart from the date at the top of the page! We soon crossed over the waters of the River Trent again, this time at Rectory Junction and our train headed eastwards leaving the suburbs of Nottingham behind.
The countryside slipped by opening up to lush green fields on all sides as our engine clattered along at a decent pace. With my face once again pressed firmly against the window I watched the rise and fall of the telephone wires. I could hear and feel every rail joint through my head, it was somehow hypnotising….. Whoosh! Thud, thud, thud! My trance like state was abruptly broken by the brief sight and sound of a Nottingham bound train as it whisked by in the opposite direction.
My heart soon settled down and apart from the steady “dum de dum” of rail joints beneath my feet, relative silence returned.
Last night before bedtime I had managed to make a note of the stations that I would be passing through on my secret trip “Radcliffe on Trent” “Bingham” “Aslockton” and then the oddly named “Elton & Orston” which, looking back after all these years, sounded a bit like some future pop double act. We soon slowed for Bottesford and just before arriving in the station I glimpsed yet another unidentified engine waiting patiently on the Melton to Newark lines, at this spot forming part of a fascinating diamond shaped junction. Still nothing in my notebook though…
Bottesford at last. A pause, more slamming of doors, a dog barked, then another whistle exchange and we were leaving the station behind. Just after passing Sedgebrook I felt a gentle side to side sway as we crossed over the points for what must be the Sleaford line branching off to the left. Now hopefully heading straight on for Grantham I could see higher ground starting to come into view. My train plunged into what turned out to be a relatively short tunnel at Gonerby. With excitement rising and my notebook at the ready I strained my eyes for a first glimpse of the main line. Without warning there it was rushing eagerly to meet us from the left. The glistening sleek rails of the East Coast Main Line. I climbed up onto the seat, standing on tip toes to look out of the gap in the sliding window. Our train was now running parallel with the main lines and I noticed that the engine’s speed was decreasing. As if on cue a large engine moved up alongside with an express from the north, it too was slowing for the station. For a moment I had the illusion that our train was actually going backwards! Little chance of me missing the number this time I thought. Both trains soon drew level but in the excitement I had dropped my pencil and when I looked up the main line loco was just out of view. Drawing level again the still unknown green loco finally revealed its identity. Number 60063 was emblazoned on the cab side in large pale yellow numbers. Below this number was a strange further number; RA9. Having now found my pencil I repeated 60063, 60063, to myself a few times just to make sure before quickly noting it down at the top of the cream coloured page of my notebook.
I had also noticed that the engine had a rather odd name I thought as I returned to my seat. I was pretty certain that it said “I sing lass” but I decided that I would check it later in my ABC. Perhaps it was named after a famous vocalist or something?
Slowing down to a crawl our train inched its way into the station and with a faint bump I realised we had stopped. A few seconds went by and at first I just sat there, not being sure what to do next. Moments later closing my book and putting my pencil away, I sprang into life again. With the familiar sound of doors being slammed, I made for the door myself. It opened easily this time and with one step down onto the platform I was on hallowed ground at last, I had made it. I was finally here, Grantham Station!
Apart from my earlier fleeting passage through Nottingham Victoria, Grantham was the largest station I had actually been on. Looking across the platforms towards the main lines I saw a row of coaches on the far side. This surely must be the express that I had observed coming in from the north a few minutes ago? I walked down the platform to have a closer look at 60063 “I sing lass” now waiting patiently in charge of her train and alongside what I learned later was the Yard Box. The green liveried loco’s boiler was lovely, magnificent! She carried an oily warm sleek presence only previously imagined from the pages of Trains Illustrated magazine. In contrast the large grimy spoked driving wheels and lubricated yellowy shine of the motion were business like and full of potent menacing danger for the unwary. Her buffer beam had the appearance of a line of red lipstick vaguely similar to those worn by elegant ladies on the front cover of my Mum’s Woman’s Own magazine. What a treat this was to my young eyes, a main line express locomotive up close!
A tap on my shoulder and I stood aside for a man taking a photograph. I gave a nervous glance towards a group of boys who were sitting on a trolley at the end of the platform with their notebooks. In turn they glanced towards me for a few seconds but then collectively carried on with their excited chatter.
A minute passed by, doors slammed, a shout, a whistle, a long hiss, an imperceptible creak from somewhere within the depths of the loco and a hint of tension from hesitant coaches. Finally movement, immediately followed by a laboured chuff, then a pause, chuff and another… chuff, chuff growing louder and louder. With each one a Vesuvius like vertical cloud of soot and smoke was thrown to the high heavens and this was quickly followed by another and another. My first A3, 60063 slipped away southwards followed by the repeated click clack of the coaches, each one now paying full attention and settling down in line for the journey ahead. I stood spellbound and watched until the last coach had disappeared under the skew bridge in the distance. Taking off my coat I folded it up to make a seat on a splintery vacant trolley. I remember clearly on that day the cloudless sky with the sun warm on my face and arms. I remember briefly opening my note book and running my fingers over the number 60063 again, just to make sure it had not disappeared or I was not perhaps dreaming. I wasn’t, it was still there, pure magic.
So began my lifelong affair with Grantham and the East Coast Main Line.
© Mel Smith