The History Behind…

A Schoolboy’s Journey.

Much of my story writing on WordPress until last Tuesday has been from direct personal experience with the exception of the occasional scene setting paragraphs drawn from filmed material that suited the tale I wished to tell. The odd one out was my brief flight of science fantasy in my ‘The Delivery’ post.

Works of Science Fantasy / Fiction don’t usually require a huge amount of research when they are set ‘in a Galaxy far, far, away’. In fact all I had to do was think up a likely scenario, come up with some plausible names for planets, systems and people. And finish it off with some with some basic ship descriptions and action to keep the reader interested. Programs like Star Trek on the other hand, have consistently used projected developments of our current scientific understanding and theories to bring a degree of realism and continuity to their created future. I don’t know whether I did a good job or not of Sci-Fi – it probably wasn’t in an area that most of my readers interests lie but I do like to experiment.

So, my latest small piece of fiction was a step back in time to a period that some of my readers might recall. Some knowledge was essential as was a bit of research…

Peter – our hero for want of a better word – is a schoolboy catching the train to the nearby town of Hatfield. Presumably, therefore he is attending a Grammar School. The reference midway through to his short trousers is based on the fact that until the beginning of the 1960s schools required boys to wear shorts regardless of age. It was only in the 1960’s that schools at the Secondary level of education started to allow long trousers to be worn and different schools allowed this practice at different times. He still carries the traditional satchel – replaced by briefcases by the time I went to school and now in a slight reversal, replaced by backpacks (a satchel by any other name?).

The station is a small country halt at the start of the 1960’s before the slash and burn policies of the Beeching era destroyed such things and, in some cases, the rural communities surrounding them as well. It might be Wheathampstead or Harpenden East on the Welwyn to Luton branch. Such small stations were often run by a single person acting as Stationmaster, Signalman, Ticket Clerk and Telegrapher.

The horse drawn milk cart is not a figment of the imagination – some of these continued into the 1980’s in rural areas (often operated by a local farm) though in major cities the delivery of milk had long since become the province of the electric milk float or the ubiquitous Bedford CA.

Peter had hoped to see the local goods. Most branch lines were served by a pick-up goods train that started at a set time but fitted in between other services on the line as it collected wagons along the route. Its arrival time became less predictable the further along the route it travelled as the amount of goods to be collected varied from one day to the next. In this instant the goods must have been asked to wait to allow the passenger train to pass – passenger services being required to run to time. The days of wagonload freight were numbered by the early 1960’s and as such loads shifted to the roads the pick-up goods died out. In future the railways would concentrate on bulk cargoes.

The arrival of a diesel on the train was a sign of the times. The English Electric Type 1’s were the first of the mainline locomotives ordered under the modernisation plan to enter service – the first was delivered in 1958. They were also to prove to be one of the most reliable and a few are still running, albeit in a refurbished form, on our main lines today! This is the one part of the story drawn from direct personal experience. When I was around 5 years old during a family picnic at Hadley Woods I saw one of these locomotives come out of the tunnel there, pushing smoke from a preceding steam train before it. It left a lasting impression.

The lack of heating on the train was a common issue on local rush hour services in the 1960’s from Kings Cross. As skilled steam locomotive crews became scarce and maintenance quality dropped, diesels often were called upon to do jobs that they weren’t intended for. The English Electric Type 1’s were supposed to be freight only, used on local trips like the American Switcher locomotives. But, when nothing else is available, needs must. The loss of skilled steam crews, withdrawal of steam locomotives and unreliability of other diesel locomotive types more suited to passenger services that were introduced in the rush to get rid of steam, often saw the English Electric Type 1’s, which had no ability to heat trains, used on suburban services just so that the passengers could be got home. Ironically, in the late 1970’s through to the mid 1980’s the then Class 20’s were often used in the height of summer for Saturday services from the midlands to the seaside resort of Skegness, drawing a heady mix of holiday makers and railway enthusiasts 😉

Peter’s travels to Hatfield would switch to the bus or car in 1965 when the line closed to passengers on 24th April. The last train was, fittingly, hauled by EE Type 1 D8046.

English Electric Type 1's at Bescot
English Electric Type 1’s (Class 20’s) at Bescot, slogging away at their real job – hauling freight in 1982!

2 Comments

  1. Fascinating background information… wow! I would have guessed a lot of research had gone into all the details, but when I see them all presented like this… very impressive!
    Still, I think the most impressive part (to me, anyway) is how seamlessly you are able to integrate all these historical tidbits into your writing… it seems so ‘natural’… as if these things were all experienced personally (not diligently researched). A great credit to your writing skills, I would say, Martin!
    🙂

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