My very first train ride - to Blackpool - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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My very first train ride - to Blackpool

Grandfather Winter, who had moved in with us after Grandma had died in May 1942, often promised to take me after the war on a railway trip on the Devonian Express as far as Gloucester to enjoy the ride and to visit some of his relations. Together we drew simple line diagrams of the route, marking the tunnels, the stations, the running times, and he told me about the many points of interest along the way including the extensive engine sheds at Derby, the famous crooked spire of Chesterfield’s Church of St Mary and All Saints, and the well-known breweries at Burton-on-Trent. He also told me about the famous Lickey Incline where the gradient (bank) was so steep over two miles (3.2km) from Bromsgrove towards Birmingham that trains needed an extra push from behind by an additional locomotive known as the ‘banker’.

To my dismay, Grandfather died in our house in Cotton Street in July 1945, just four weeks after his 69th Birthday and after VE Day but before VJ Day. I came down to breakfast one morning to find Mum crying and Dad comforting her. Dad took me to one side and explained that Grandfather had died peacefully during the night and that I should leave Mum alone for a while. I was desperately sad because Grandfather and I had got on so well together, not least because of the fascinating stories he used to tell me about his years on the LMS railway.

Although I didn’t know it then, Grandfather had suffered a stroke some weeks before his death. I had noticed that he had become very forgetful and his speech was impaired; he had tended to repeat himself quite a lot, especially when reminiscing. Grandfather was buried on 31 July alongside his wife in the family plot in Hunslet Cemetery, just a stone’s throw away from the home on Westbury Terrace where he and his wife had lived in all their married life and very close to where my infant brother, Michael, was buried. Because my sister and I were still deemed too young to attend a funeral, we stayed at home and one of our kindly neighbours looked after us for the day. I never did get my railway trip with Grandfather, but he had kindled in me a lifelong interest in railways.

Shortly after Grandfather’s funeral, I was given his ex-LMS Railway gold hunter watch, complete with solid gold chain, presented to him on retirement and which he had always promised me would be mine after his death. On the inside, there was a small photograph of his wife. “Whenever I was away from home,” he used to tell me with a twinkle in his eye, “I always had your Grandma with me – keeping an eye on me.” I had only owned the watch for a few weeks when a disagreement between my Mum and her sister, my Aunty Nellie, resulted in the watch being packed up and sent off to her in Birmingham. I was distraught, as was my Mum. I never discovered what the disagreement was about but for several years the two sisters never spoke to each other although the cards and parcels for Kathleen and me continued to turn up on time for Christmas and birthdays. I never saw the watch again.

The death of Grandfather Winter and the end of the war in Europe brought many changes to our family life. The main one, from my point of view, was that the family could now go away for a day trip on the train to Blackpool. We travelled from Wakefield Kirkgate station one Saturday morning in September 1945. We were there early to beat the queues at the booking office; I remember that the return fare for the four of us came to less than £1 because Dad got some change from a £1 note.

By the time the lengthy non-corridor special excursion train pulled into Kirkgate’s Platform 2 from the sidings, there was a seething throng of folk waiting to board. There was a little unseemly pushing and shoving but eventually everyone was seated. In any case, one of the platform porters shouted out at regular intervals that there was another ‘relief’ train leaving for Blackpool in a few minutes. There were, as I recall, eight people crammed into our six-seat compartment. Mum and Dad had controlled my liquid intake at breakfast and warned me to go to the toilet before leaving home because there would be no toilets on the train.

At first, I stood by the window on the right-hand side of the compartment because I knew that a few seconds after leaving Kirkgate Station we would pass our house at the end of Cotton Street and I wanted to see what it looked like from that angle. My sister was content to sit on Dad’s knee. There were no station stops because everyone on board was going to Blackpool. I jotted down the station names as we passed: Horbury Junction, Sowerby Bridge, Mytholmroyd (which I couldn’t pronounce, or spell, correctly), Hebden Bridge, and then across the border at Todmorden into Lancashire.

From Todmorden the train went via Stalybridge and then slowly through Manchester’s Exchange and Victoria stations. In those days, two of the through tracks were joined end-to-end to form what we were told was then the longest continuous platform in the whole country – 669m (2,194 feet). After branching off the main line north of Preston another man in our compartment told me and my sister to watch out to see who would catch the first glimpse of Blackpool Tower; he did, of course, because he knew when and where to look. We eventually arrived at Blackpool Central station, one of the resort’s three railway stations. North and South stations, at opposite ends of the town, are still there but Blackpool South has been renamed Blackpool Pleasure Beach. The former Central station has long since disappeared and a large car park now stands on the land it once occupied very close to Blackpool Tower.

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