Train spotting - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Train spotting

It is difficult for people today to understand why train spotting was such a common and absorbing pastime for young lads in the 1940s. In the 21st Century, train spotting seems to be primarily a hobby for men of a certain age who congregate with digital cameras, note books and other paraphernalia at the ends of mainline railway station platforms. These men, or as they're often patronisingly called 'railway anoraks', usually bring their own refreshments with them in their bags and they can be seen comparing notes and digital images as they await the next arrival. (Apparently the modern word for a railway locomotive spotter is 'gricer'.) No-one aged more than the age of about 14 engaged in train spotting in the 1940s because that was the school-leaving age for those not going to grammar and high schools. The fact is that there was very little to occupy younger lads during the war years and there is no doubt that the steam locomotives of the age were magnificent examples of British engineering prowess.

In my experience, train spotting was not often done at railway stations. Pocket money was always in very short supply and one had to buy tickets at one penny a time to gain access to platforms. In any case, in stations the trains were inevitably either at a standstill or travelling very slowly and there was nothing very exciting in that. On the rare occasions when I went onto the platforms at Wakefield's Westgate and Kirkgate stations I was hoping for an invitation from a driver to climb onto his footplate for a quick look around while the fireman was outside oiling the locomotive's mechanism or supervising the re-watering of the tender. Now that was exciting.

As I got older, I quickly sought more excitement than was to be had from merely watching trains from the fence at the bottom of our street. Once we had become competent cyclists, most of the spotting done by my friends and me was at out-of-town locations. We rarely seemed to stay in one spot for more than an hour and between trains there was always something else to do, such as kicking a ball around or having a friendly wrestle, as boys have probably done since time immemorial. One of my favourite spotting places was just south of Walton Station (eventually closed by Beeching) on the LMS Midland route between Rotherham and Leeds. We knew when trains were expected because we could see signals in both directions. A 'double signal' usually meant that an express was imminent; a single 'up' usually indicated a freight train or a local train, either of which was far less exciting.

(Image below: The site of the former Walton Station as I found it in 2009 - from the bridge over School Lane)

At the point in Walton where we parked our cycles there was a long wooden bench seat, a wide grass verge, and a footbridge over the tracks. This was the Midland Main Line in the 1940s. We watched long distance expresses roar by, wondering at the destination boards affixed above the windows of the coaches: London St Pancras, Glasgow St Enoch, Carlisle, Inverness, Newcastle. In those days we lads could accurately pinpoint all those famous cities on a map of Great Britain, which is more than many youngsters of today can do.

For nostalgia reasons, I re-visited our spotting place at Walton a few years ago. The railway is no longer in use except for the occasional freight train. The bench seat had fallen apart but, bizarrely, the timbers were still there, scattered around and rotting. The grass verge was overgrown with weeds, some several feet high. When I used to train spot there, the verges were kept neat and tidy by railway workers. The footbridge across the tracks is still there (image left) but is now dilapidated and is sealed off at either end even though it is part of a public footpath. However, it's still possible to climb the rickety steps and walk across. I did.

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