We all queued at the red phone box to call home for our exam results. I knew deep down that this was going to be a significant moment, as one by one, we took it in turns to receive the news that would set us on our different paths. We had just left school, just reached the magical age of sixteen, and we were on our first ever unsupervised holiday. But now my life would go down hill as sharply as the mountains that flanked our path through rural Wales, with results that pointed me in the direction of soul-destroying work and low self-esteem.
My grades were hardly surprising though.
Anyone could have foreseen that a boy who spent all his spare time working at the local steam railway would struggle in his exams.
The cost of my four years on the railway was high, yet I worked there for nothing and have no regrets. How can this be?
When I was at school, I often heard the steam engines whistling in the distance. My school teacher even turned some of his maths lessons into lectures about his activities on the very same railway, so when a friend suggested we go and have a look, naturally I said yes. The moment we got there, I was hooked. It was like nothing that I had ever experienced before – the camaraderie, sense of history, hard graft, team working and a feeling of being part of something that was very special.
In the early days, I spent most of my time sanding down and painting doors, station signs, awnings and cast iron guttering, all in the original Great Western Railway colours. I also helped the more experienced workers with bigger jobs such as repairing the station roof, refurbishing the waiting room and renovating the wooden footbridge. We visited disused railway stations or derelict buildings to recover artifacts from a bygone age. I sometimes romanticized about a society that I imagined to be very different to recession hit Britain in the early 1980s. The enamel signs advertised products from an era when life was cosier and simpler. The brown leather suit cases stacked on the wooden platform trolleys, and the posters of the English Riviera, conjured up images of people flocking en masse to the coast during the factory fortnight. The large silver milk churns told a story of self-sufficient communities living from fresh local produce transported along this rural branch line.
The two main stations were at either end of the Severn Valley Railway (SVR) – Bridgnorth in Shropshire and Bewdley in Worcestershire. This was before the line was extended to Kidderminster. Before the Bewdley bypass was built. Actually, it was before so many things. I thought Bewdley was the more impressive station, however, Bridgnorth boasted the biggest collection of steam engines and was home to some of the most influential characters on the railway. It wasn’t until my first Bewdley versus Bridgnorth football game that I came into contact with them. In a field beside the Ship Inn at Highley – a neutral station and venue – I scored the winning goal for Bewdley. The evening that followed was legendary! The steam engine puffed gently through the midnight valley with a single coach in which the victorious team drank homemade ale and sang rousing songs that had me smiling and giggling for days and weeks to come!
I often felt that the best moments were when the public had gone home. Strolling around the station late at night could be a solitary and yet stirring experience. The moonlight reflection in the polished engine that was gently hissing and creaking as it cooled down from a hard days work. The relative peace and quiet would be gently broken by the dull thud of ash dropping from the engine into the concrete pit between the tracks. The gas lamps from the station and the signal boxes would flicker in the mist to create a sense of anticipation of the train that may soon arrive.
Early mornings were special too, although I saw less of them! Watching the engine pouring out smoke as the sun and boiler pressure gradually rose was a real privilege. At this time of day, the air was fresh and slightly chilled, and this created the perfect environment for your senses to take in the smells of the railway – oil and tar soaked wooden sleepers, log fires, breakfast being cooked on the engine footplate and milky tea in large enamel mugs! And sometimes, rather than just day dreaming about all this stuff, I actually helped out, perhaps by polishing the engine with an oily rag so that it was ready to impress the enthusiastic visitors that arrived each day.
And this is what I loved about the railway – it was full of special moments. On one occasion, when the trains were not running, we used the pump trolley to travel up the line to Arley. Like a scene from the 1960s film The Great St. Trinians Train Robbery, four of us seesawed our way through the magnificent scenery, the highlight being the spectacular crossing of Victoria Bridge with the river flowing from far below to the forest that dominates the horizon. We were probably travelling to Arley to help build Santa’s grotto – a magical experience that took about three weekends to complete. This quiet old country station with its real coal fires, its crackly tannoy system blasting out Christmas carols and its slow pace of life was the perfect setting for the festive season.
Later in the winter, we had heavy snow and travelled to Highley with the pannier tank 5764. I remember riding on the footplate, regularly getting out to help clear the snow so that the little engine could make the six-mile journey north.
But perhaps the most fascinating times were when the film crews arrived to shoot their latest movie, sitcom or documentary. The BBC 1980s sitcom Sorry! springs to mind. Rising up above Bewdley station on one side was a sandstone railway cutting, topped with fields and trees. From up there, we could see Bewdley North signal box, the viaduct, the church and the roof tops of our charming Georgian town. Turning round slightly we could see the picket fencing that straddled platform one and the wooden footbridge across to the platforms below. Directly opposite us was the Victorian double fronted station with its barge boards pointing to the sky and framing the centerpiece of the film set. From our comfortable spot away from the action, we watched the crew and actors create what would be a rather short scene in the thirty minute episode. An autograph from Ronnie Corbett – one of the most popular TV personalities of the time – was a nice end to my day.
There were many of these filming occasions.
And on one of them, a film crew set up a marquee in the station car park and threw a small party to celebrate the end of their filming. I went along, lured by the free drinks and a sense that this was the only place to be on a quiet night in rural England. It fuelled my imagination about what life might be like in London – sophistication, champagne, style, success, beauty and confidence. But I was also demoralised by the huge gap between the reality of my situation and this other world that was a long way from anything I thought possible.
Fourteen years later, I returned to the SVR for a footplate experience that my wife had bought for my birthday. I was by then a happily married man, with a young family, a company car, an office job, and a detached house. I had managed large projects all over the UK, which included lengthy spells in London where I had indeed drank Champaign and tasted success.
I needn’t have felt so despondent that night in the marquee!
While writing this, it occurred to me just how important the railway was to me. I remember that I often felt so low that I could feel the pain deep inside me, draining me of all my energy, hope and enthusiasm. Because I was working for free, my work mates tolerated my poor performance on the days when I was not in the mood for work.
I could simply be there, in a setting I loved, with people I liked.
Yet I never asked for help or talked about it other than to sometimes moan about how fed up I was. Nowadays, we might call this teenage depression, although I am really not certain. I don’t remember it being a thing with a name and so the railway was my only therapy. It gave me a sense of purpose, belonging and I worked through the pain with perseverance, creativity, hard graft, team work and fun.
I had started to take my own path through life.
And the disappointing school grades gave me a mindset to keep on learning, to catch up, to prove myself, to keep on going no matter what. I think we might call this a growth mindset, something I am very pleased to have and something I have relied on a great deal over the years.
Working rather than studying might not have been the recommended course of action, but it was the right course of action for me at the time. I have no regrets about the choices I made.
Thank you for reading.