It’s a cold, blustery morning with a hint of spring in the air; clouds hurry across a pale blue sky causing sudden showers to wet the pavements of the dull coastal town. It is the end of March 1959, a time when travel of any kind is still imbued with romance and excitement. Long distance air- travel is still something of a luxury for which the few still dress up; jets have recently taken the place of lumbering turbo-prop aircraft allowing destinations which were once a few days away to be only a few hours out of our increasingly busy lives. Each journey is preceded by days of anticipation and eager packing; there is still the sense of going somewhere, leaving and arriving amidst noise and bustle. We have not reached the stage of arriving at a huge sprawling airport with crush-proof baggage, dressed in jeans and running shoes, to join a long queue to have our papers stamped and then to be herded into cramped spaces numbered on our tickets.
We are not transported from A to B, personal phones switched off and stowed in our hand-luggage; we are not force fed with aircraft food off plastic plates, nor are we concerned with what movie may be playing to while away the few brief hours of our high-speed journey; we have not reached the stage of departing one side of the world and arriving on another within twenty-four hours, wondering how we arrived there or what we have missed on the way. In 1959 it is not the arriving that matters, it is the getting there which holds all the pleasure.
Few families own even one car and our towns and villages are not scored with enormous shopping centers and car parks; we take the bus to do the shopping, we go to work by train, we buy tickets instead of carrying credit cards for the purchase of petrol; we cannot plan our journeys by computer; we cannot press a button and have our tickets printed within a matter of seconds; the world we live in is much bigger, much more individual, its nooks a crannies still undiscovered and untrammelled by tourism; the age of the masses is yet to come.
England is still criss-crossed with minor railway lines which are still marginally profitable; country stations still have tended flower beds and heated waiting rooms; we can still sit by the fire, and the art of conversation is still alive; we have not yet reached the stage where our lives are ruled by the television schedule, and we still regard the Sunday chicken as something of a luxury. We know who lives in our street and what they do, how many children they have; we still go to the cinema occasionally instead of taking in a movie; we dress for the theater. It is 1959.
So it was that, on that blustery morning, the old black taxi deposited us and our various large, leather bags, at the steps that swept up to the main railway station. We had already bought and paid for our tickets and, unheard of as it is today, our seats were booked. We heaved the numerous bags up the steps and through the dark foyer onto the windswept platform to join the already large crowd of people waiting expectantly for the train. It is almost impossible to imagine today the smell of a railway station; in those far-off days there was somehow an odor of stale coal-smoke, damp clothes, the sea, and numerous other scents that whistled through the drafty entrance so fast that you were largely unaware of them. But they were there and they made up part of the excitement of going somewhere. Although nothing much was happening there was a constant buzz of hushed conversations, the occasional clang of a porter’s trolley as it unloaded someone’s luggage on the platform, the sound of a distant taxi arriving or leaving, but over all lay a kind of hushed expectancy, a waiting for something momentous to happen. The cold wind cut in eddies under the bridge and along the platform, causing us to hug scarves tighter and raise collars against departing winter. The large central clock beneath the sooty awning stood at eleven-forty-five and every few seconds we stole a glance beyond the bridge, round the curve of the line, hoping to see something.
Promptly at eleven forty-seven a hissing and clanking could be heard somewhere just out of sight, the other side of the bridge. This hissing grew louder and louder until it was overtaken by a kind of huffing roar; clouds of smoke began to appear through the arches of the bridge, and then, suddenly, with an almost deafening chuff, hiss, and clank, the enormous monster grew out of the bridge until it dwarfed the crowd on the platform. A belching funnel topped a mountain of dark green and brass; massive silver pistons shot up and down, back and forth, a wave of heat struck us from the tender as it slid past, and then came carriage after carriage of dark red and gold, sweating from a recent shower, windows closed and slightly misted from the outside cold. Almost silently now, the enormous monster came to rest against the platform with a final hiss of steam as it curled up from somewhere underneath the carriages. Doors opened with a thud, leather straps waving in the wind, and the scramble to get aboard began. This was the beginning of a journey.
We manhandled our luggage into the corridor and left it by the door while we went looking for the reserved seats. Outside in the windy morning the announcer could be heard above the clamour and hiss reading out the stations of our journey; they were magical names even though they were distorted by the speaker-system and the amount of noise that the arrival of a large train always generates. “Chichester, Portsmouth, Yeovil, Exeter, Okehampton, Plymouth.” Inside, the carriages smelled of soot, steam, slightly of coffee, but most of all of going somewhere. The corridors were jammed with people walking up and down looking for reservations and the atmosphere was warm with the dampness of steam-heating. We found our reserved seats and heaved the luggage along to the compartment and then up onto the rack which stretched above our heads.
Our compartment was not full – there were still three seats vacant – but every seat had a little card screwed above it showing that it was reserved. The seats were of a dark red moquette with arms which pulled down between each place; the window was large and square and when you sat down it came to knee-level; the top section consisted of a ventilator which could slide along into the open position to allow a bit of fresh air to enter the compartment and each place was topped with a framed picture of some seaside spot. The air inside could only be described as a ‘fug’.
As the train gradually shook and started to roll, almost silently, out of the station, I looked across the aisle between the seats at my mother. She was wearing her blue Harris Tweed suit, sensible shoes and a tartan scarf, and her auburn hair was swept back in a figure of eight which nestled into the back of her head. She wore small, clip-on earrings of some semi-precious stone, and she fumbled around in her clutch-bag making sure she had everything she needed for the journey. I sat, mesmerized by the sight of stations and level crossings as they flicked ever faster past the window. We careened through stations and flew under bridges and gradually the countryside began to unfold on either side of the train. It was still a bit rainy outside and every so often clouds of steam would obscure the view, but there was a tremendous sense of going somewhere, of excitement, of achievement. The chick had at last broken out of its shell.
Southampton found us sitting in the dining car waiting for lunch to be served. We had crashed and lurched our way down the snaking carriages until we had found our seats on either side of a table in the steamy dining-car. The menus had been handed round and our choices had been made. Now we only had to wait for our food. In due course this arrived, roast lamb with three vegetables, roast potatoes and a little wine to drink, but the best thing was to see the passengers waiting on each platform as we stopped, their collars raised against the cold, while we, in state, sat and ate our food. Paradise!
Lunch over, we lurched our way back to the compartment while outside the rainy morning turned to afternoon sunlight and the soil went from brown to red. Devon could not be far away. I couldn’t imagine anything more thrilling than dashing along through the afternoon on my way to somewhere exciting while the rest of the world simply went about its normal business. I got up and walked along the corridor for a while, stopping to chat with a boy of about my age who was going to Dawlish. This, he told me, would necessitate a change at Exeter and then another train down along the south coast.
Back in the compartment again, my mother had got her knitting out and was busy with something complicated, but I couldn’t get enough of the passing panoply of stations and countryside. In a storm of rain Chard Junction came to rest outside our window, then back in sunshine once more, the fields and hills became steeper and more interesting and the soil always redder as we approached Exeter. Yeovil came and went in a flurry of steam and then, finally at 4 pm we pulled into Exeter with a great rush and clank. This was really the life!
At five o’clock the train pulled into Okehampton and we manhandled our bags down onto the platform in the last of the afternoon sunshine. With a creak and a groan the express slid out of the station to leave us, the only two people on the platform, wondering what to do next.
‘We still have nearly an hour before the next train, so maybe we should look around for some tea,’ suggested my mother.
From just down the platform a porter appeared and walked slowly towards us.
‘You’m for t’other train to Bude?’ he called, brightly.
‘No, not Bude; our tickets are for Otterham.’
He touched his cap briefly. ‘Yers, well that’s back ‘arf of that one; front two carriages go to Bude, the rest dewn to Padstow.’ He indicated the train on the other side of the platform.
‘Is there a place here where we can leave our luggage?’ my mother asked.
‘Oh you just leave’m bags in the train, there. They’m be foine,’ he grinned, going on up the platform.
So we picked up the bags and climbed aboard the train waiting behind us, taking care to avoid the first two carriages. The whole train was deserted, apart from its small steam-engine gently breathing at the far end, and so we left the two leather bags on the seats in one of the compartments and made our way over the bridge to the station café on the other side.
Having drunk a cup of rather strong British Railways tea out of the usual heavy-duty white china, we made our way back to the waiting carriages, hoisted the bags up onto the luggage rack, and sat down waiting once more for departure. It was just before six.
Almost silently the little train slid away from the platform and into the gathering dusk of an early spring evening. Wraiths of mist hung low between the trees down below the line and here and there was the sound of birds being disturbed by the sound of the train’s passing as it huffed its way around steep curves and between high embankments as the branch line snaked around the edge of Dartmoor. For a time, over the sound of the train, we could hear the river rushing over stones somewhere below us. Gradually the light faded and night took over, so that when we stopped and shunted at Tower Hill, we could see nothing of the place except for the gas-lamps above the platform.
Most of the stations seemed deserted and we saw no-one else on the train. I started to nod from time to time in the warmth of the compartment, my weary eyes trying to make out shapes in the darkness. I came awake again when the train lurched once at Launceston and then dropped in and out of consciousness as we wound round the endless bends of the line through Egloskerry and Tresmeer. Shortly before Otterham, my mother pulled down the bags and readied herself to go out into the cold night.
‘I should put your mac on and do it up, because it’s going to be cold outside,’ she advised.
I shrugged into the mackintosh and did up the buttons, fastening the belt at the same time, and before more than a few minutes had passed, the train slid and clanked into Otterham station. We climbed down onto the platform in the dark, the only lights being the gas-lamps which lit up the station signs. With what seemed like a final sigh the train slid out of the station and we were left, alone on the platform, looking at what appeared to be an empty building. However, as we crossed the line, a small figure in a battered brown hat and an overcoat appeared in the central archway.
‘You’m bin ‘itch-‘ikin then? I been waiting since seven,’ it squeaked as we drew near.
‘No. It’s on time,’ my mother laughed, as she recognized the owner of the voice. ‘Anyway, we’re here’ she said, and introduced me. ‘This is Mr Ward.’
We shook hands and then we followed him through the archway to his waiting Austin Somerset. He took the bags and put them in the boot, then we climbed into the car.
‘I ‘xpect boy’s toired arter so long in the train’, he muttered as he started the engine. ‘Never moind – we’ll soon be home in the warm. Mother’s waitin’ for’ee.’
Sinking into the brown leather back seat of the car, I realized that I hardly understood a word he was saying, but at this stage it didn’t seem to matter so much. I was tired and sleepy from all the excitement, there was little or nothing to see beyond the dark windows and the day was almost over. There were a couple of lighted windows at Marshgate as we passed and then all I could see was the silhouette of the two heads in the front of the car as their faces were dimly lit by the lights of the dashboard. Shortly, with a crunch of gravel, we came to a halt at the farmhouse and I remember no more.
We spent ten happy days walking through the hills and valleys of North Cornwall. In those days it was a land of farmers who seemed to spend their whole lives in Wellington boots, always accompanied by a collie dog, most of whom seemed to be called ‘Rover’ and who was very quick with the sheep; the steep hillsides would be covered with large herds of black-faced and black-legged sheep, which always looked more intelligent than the Sussex Whites to which I was accustomed. While there were many little country lanes, these were only wide enough to allow one pony and trap at a time, and often they were still loose stones with a central mound of grass. Each lane seemed to run between high hedges or dry-stone walls, and these were often covered with primroses and violets; each deep valley contained its own rushing stream, which burbled and sang its way to the nearby sea, and often the roads simply ran straight through the water. The flat valley bottoms were a mass of daffodils, jonquils, freesias and other flowers which were grown for transport and eventual sale in London. The scent in the fresh spring air was amazing. I also remember, vividly, the sound of rushing water almost everywhere, and the merry song of the Chiff-chaff echoing through the branches of the old, gnarled oak trees.
Each day ended with our return to the farmhouse, where the kitchen would be suffocatingly warm with the breath of a great Age stove, and where the smell of saffron was always present. Hardly a day went by when there wasn’t a loaf or two of saffron bread, or a batch of saffron buns, and when the weather was particularly cold and there was a new-born lamb to be looked after, it would be placed in the cool oven and fed there until it was deemed safe to be let out. Cold water was delivered from a huge steel pump next to the draining-board, and when this failed, an electric pump would be switched on to assist with the flow.
The houses were almost all built either from stone or from dark grey slate, and very often at the end of each house would be an extra room in which the animals could shelter. Mr Ward kept chickens in old wooden railway carriages, and each morning he would go out into the fields to these makeshift abodes and collect eggs, causing the birds to squawk and flee any way they could. The farmhouses almost invariably had a kind of enclosure over the front door, to keep the harsh winter winds at bay. They were not pretty, not necessarily picturesque, but in their simple practicality, they did the trick.
We made our pilgrimage down to the Wards every year until the mid 1960s, by which time Beeching was closing all the smaller railway lines and the country began to change – and not always for the better.
Having traveled a good deal in my life, and deciding that I could perhaps try to live in England again after many years, I returned in March 2010. I had no intention of settling in my own native county but had promised myself that there was only one place where I could be happy: North Cornwall.
So it was that in early April of that year I drove down to Camelford and looked for somewhere to stay. I had never been able to understand what Dickens meant when he started off ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ with ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. It seemed to me to be a ridiculous statement which really had no meaning, but now I can see how this could be applied to the Cornwall of today. On the surface, not much has changed; there are still plenty of small bays, coves, and creeks, and many of the smaller places seem not to have changed, except for the addition of a couple of houses here and there. Lanes are still impossibly narrow and bordered with wonderful wild flowers almost right through the year, and villages are still their grey, somewhat forbidding selves. However, you rarely ever see a farmer – especially one followed by a ‘Rover’. It is no longer possible to reach this part of the world by train; the service that we used to take was discontinued in 1967, the lines closed, and the tracks taken up soon after that. Even the main line through Okehampton down to Plymouth has now been closed at Okehampton. Only one line remains down the spine of the county, and that has to serve everyone.
Everywhere I look seems fresh and new and in good condition: farmhouses which were once rather forbidding, grey, and always shiny with rain, now are clustered around nice clean areas surfaced with gravel, where the cars can park. The windows which were once steamed up with internal life and often surrounded by cracked and weathered white paint are now empty and new and shine with the unnatural look of double-glazing. The valleys are no longer heady with the scent of spring flowers, because none are grown here any more, and I have never heard the Chiff-chaff since my return. Somehow, what was once new and vivid to me has become ordinary and has learned to conform to modern standards. Cornwall is like an aging actress who has had many successes but who now refuses to retire; she has a face-lift and her clothes are made to hide a drooping bosom and a widow’s hump; what has not been hidden with surgery is carefully replaced with pancake make-up, blushers, and highlights, as she prepares to go on-camera one last time. The county has become the fashionable place for the wealthy to own a second home, so many of the older and more picturesque houses are empty for most of the year. A land which once grew its own saffron now largely relies on imported herbs and spices, and that delightful lilt, the Cornish brogue, ceased to be heard many years ago. Now everyone seems to speak with a midlands or Yorkshire accent.
The other thing that hit me on my return was the difference in the sheep. This sounds absurd, and
probably is, but those nimble creatures that used to dot themselves around the hillsides and who looked at us with a mixture of bovine surprise, curiosity, and disapproval on their long black snouts, and then promptly stood and weed, as we trod our Wellington-booted way round the edge of their field, have been replaced by thoroughly ordinary and unintelligent-looking white-faced creatures who couldn’t care a dam what we do and who resolutely ignore us.
Roads, once the domain of the farmer and the pony and trap, are now broader and straighter, although the narrow winding lanes still exist – much to the dismay of the disgruntled town driver who finds himself face-to-face with a car coming in the opposite direction. Whole sections of public road have been closed off with gates and fences and are now manned by little men in caps who live in wooden huts from April to October, their only function being to collect money in return for access to the coastal beauty-spots. Many of the more picturesque fishing villages are now off-limits to drivers, who must leave their cars in huge car-parks at the village edge, and many wonderful places are now only accessible if one pays a hefty entrance fee. Tintagel, once a rather dingy village with no great claim to fame, has cashed in on the tourist business big-time: every second house declares in large type that it houses ‘King Arthur’s Round Table’, or the stone from which the sword was drawn, and anything else which the owner can think of; the castle itself is still there – green and gaunt and in ruins, as it stands on the cliffs in the midst of the Atlantic – but now one has to park one’s car miles away in a ‘pay and display’ area and then walk a good way down a muddy lane, at the end of which is the inevitable booth and the little man in the peaked cap with his hand out, and once a fairly large amount of money has changed hands, one can then climb up to the ruins and gaze around – at what? No-one knows precisely what the castle was built for, but it certainly doesn’t
date back further than the 15th century and has little or nothing to do with King Arthur, who was, at best, an imaginary figure.
It took me from July until November last year to find parking at the harbour in Padstow, and even then the pavements were filled with tourists and trippers; every second shop turned out to be either a restaurant or art gallery and the buildings were scarcely visible for people. Parking one’s car has become a nightmare throughout the county. The larger towns have a ‘park and ride’ facility, where vast acres of ground have been turned into car-parks where one leaves one’s car and then takes a bus into the town. In smaller places, and in particular the beaches and beauty-spots, the dreaded ‘pay and display’ car-park has become the norm. This is one of the worst nightmares ever dreamed up by any human being: one sandwiches the car into whatever space is available and then trudges for what seems like miles to a machine which gets fed with an incredible amount of money,
for which it in turn coughs out a slip of paper; one then trudges all the way back again and leaves the paper under the windscreen of the car and then, and only then, can one get on an do whatever one has gone there to do. Tickets are only for a relatively short space of time, so a meander or a dawdle to look at the shops is out of the question.
Throughout the county all sorts of parks have been created so that children can be amused; there are bird parks, national parks, tin-mines have been turned into parks; there are small zoos, concert arenas, garden parties in the great houses of the past, and tourist shops are everywhere. The footpath which always careened across the cliffs from bay to bay now belongs to the National Trust and is known as The Coastal Path; it is well-maintained and trimmed, and each fork in the way is signposted; no longer can one see the occasional hiker out for a blustery morning by the grey rollers of the Atlantic as it crashes its restless waves on the little inlets; today these paths are populated by the middle-aged, wearing anoraks and carrying large backpacks of bottled water and sunscreen, and belting along with a walking-stick in each hand, and, of course, at regular intervals there are rubbish bins and bins into which one can put one’s dog’s turds, which have to be picked up with a poop-scoop, because nothing must mar what has been declared an ‘area of natural beauty’,
The old wildness, the apparently untameable atmosphere of the place has long gone, and although we are still at the mercy of very changeable and isolated weather, we can’t escape the fact that we live in the center of a vast theme-park – a kind of Disneyland-on-Sea, where the tourist is king and only money counts.
Article provided by Christian Nielsen