And not so many who can say that they attended the first day of their junior school by catching a steam train at the bottom of their road. That's what I did in 1959. We lived in Miskin Street in Barry, South Wales, and the railway was close by, just down the hill from us. We used it rather a lot, having no car for most of our time there. Dad caught a train to work. At first he went from Barry to Pontypridd, via Wenvoe; then (until he got the promotion in 1963 that whisked us all away to Southampton) it was a daily commute to Cardiff via Dinas Powys. All by steam train, until the Western Region of British Railways decided to dieselise its operations, beginning with South Wales - ironically still, at the end of the 1950s, a leading area in Britain for the mining of high-quality coal. Here's a 1993 view of the railway complex from outside our (by then) former home in Miskin Street:
In the late 1950s the Age of Steam would have been much more in evidence. After dieselisation, Barry became a dumping-ground for redundant steam locomotives. Every rail enthusiast has heard of the famous Woodhams Scrapyard, where locos came to be cut up - until a more lucrative business emerged of selling the engines to the various preservation societies around the country. In 1980 the yard was still half-full of rusting hulks, some already reserved for eventual splendid restoration on the Bluebell Railway or wherever. I went there with my girlfriend Deborah:
If you liked railways, then Barry had a lot to offer. One iconic feature still in situ (and in use) was the long, high railway viaduct at Porthkerry, seen here in 1973 (with the family Ford Cortina Mark II at the bottom left):
It's time I visited Barry again. I'm going to devote a whole day to it on my forthcoming Welsh Tour.
In the 1950s there was coal everywhere in Barry. We used coal in the home, as our only source of heating. Most unmodernised houses did. And we weren't even up in the Valleys! Barry was originally a coal exporting port, and although its dock facilities had started to decay a bit, all the coal staithes were still there in all their grimy unloveliness. Barry Docks was a place that no mother wanted her children to play in. Not because the coal wagons, and deep water, and ships' hawsers were seen as dangers - that would be an incomprehensible notion in the mid-1950s - no, it was because any child who played in the Docks, boy or girl, came home covered in filth. Because children would crawl under or clamber onto wagons, and sit astride buffers, and generally take their dollies and potato-guns everywhere that was black with coal dust. Me too.
In those unfenced days, when adults would wink at kids doing kids' things, even timid children like myself could investigate interesting-looking holes and doorways to their hearts' content. We weren't wearing designer clothing that might get spoiled, just home-made knitted jumpers and hand-me-downs. Getting a bit dirty was really the only perceived hazard, and it was not a crime for an ordinary child to come home smeared with coal dust. But mums must have toiled endlessly over the washtub.
I was a fastidious child, but I scrabbled as any other in the rubble and the quayside grime, just to pick up something I fancied. I remember visiting Treorchy in the Valleys with a neighbour's little boy (his name was David Jones, believe it or not - what an archetypical Welsh name!). We went by train, of course, and while there I thought nothing of getting my hands dirty by sorting through a fascinating collection of smashed plate glass on some abandoned factory premises (I kept and treasured a pyramid-shaped specimen for years afterwards). And also from sitting around in David's grandmother's tiny terraced house, which was in a terrible state. It had a big green rug in the main room. That was the only green thing. Everything else was black, black and gritty and begrimed beyond redemption, and especially the vast black cooking range with uncleared ash all around it. I remember feeling mildly shocked that anybody could tolerate such a mess. The lady herself was all hospitality. I remember holding a gigantic cup of tea. Welsh people love their tea. It's an institution (one that carries on to this day in sunny Sussex!).
Compared to this house, my parents' terraced house in Barry (which showed abundantly how good Dad was at DIY) looked like the home of Mr and Mrs 2000 (the year 2000 lay forty years ahead, and had utopian status), with its fridge and fitted carpets, TV and electric blankets. But I had not known any grandparents, and did not understand the physical problems that old people had; how old age crippled you; how a point came when housework was impossible; when, in particular, getting down on your knees to shovel ash into a bucket (as my Mum did daily) was just too hard to manage. So I was a little disturbed to see all that ash, and the unwiped table top. But it was not the only such house I ever saw. And it was only what you expected to see in the Valleys. Coal and poverty and no social services to speak of were at the very heart of life there. I may have been a well-protected child growing up in modest affluence, but I wasn't blind, and I haven't forgotten that dingy house in Treorchy.
Now for the otters. Well, one otter: Tarka, the 'hero' of Tarka the Otter, an influential book published in 1927 by Henry Williamson (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarka_the_Otter). In recent decades Tarka has been adopted as a badge of North Devon, and therefore many touristy things are named Tarka this and Tarka that, from the Tarka Trail for long-distance walkers to umpteen Tarka Tea Rooms for thirsty visitors. And the Exeter to Barnstaple railway line has been called the Tarka Line for a long time. I really don't mind any of this. It happens everywhere. I dare say you can drink Shakespeare Shandies in Stratford-on-Avon, eat Brontë Burgers in Haworth, and hire a Beatle Bike to get around Liverpool. And no doubt Captain Cook Car Hire in Whitby will let you have a Ford Ka for the day (shudders: what a horrible idea! A nice, juicy, very rare steak at Whitby' exclusive Dracula Diner would be much more appealing, fangs very much).
Well, one day on holiday in late March I found my beloved black hairband broken in two. Plastic fatigue. It would have to be replaced urgently. An excuse to do proper shopping in a proper city then! Which was it to be? Plymouth (home of the famous Drake Deli and Pilgrim Fathers Pantry) or Exeter? Both were a distance from Great Torrington. Plymouth meant the A386, Exeter the A377. Neither of them very fast roads.
What about taking the train? Ah! That would be an adventure! It settled me on Exeter. I would catch the Tarka Line train at Barnstaple.
I arrived (cutting it fine as usual) with only just enough time to stable Fiona at the station car park and buy my ticket - only then to discover that the train up from Exeter was a little late, so there was ten minutes in hand before the so-called 10.43 departed. So I was able to chat a bit to a nice couple on the packed platform, and shoot the train's arrival:
I got a good seat. How well-appointed and comfortable modern trains are. And how well-patronised!
Some people were obviously walkers, and would get off en route. Others were like me going all the way to Exeter, using the hourly service on this line as a regular part of their lives. It's clearly a real asset to Barnstaple, to have this rail link. There's talk of reopening the old line beyond Barnstaple, so that the people of Bideford can enjoy the same convenience. It'll need a very good business case though. On the other hand, with the population of North Devon increasing, and everyone wanting to travel more and more, I think the next ten years will see something happening. Look for instance at how the Waverley Line in Scotland, from Edinburgh to the Galashiels area, has been disinterred. And indeed wherever a rising demand for rail services now exists.
Anyway, we were soon off. I followed the train's progress in detail by firing up the Memory Map app on Eloise. I had a copy of my digital Ordnance Survey map collection installed, and glancing from window to map as we raced along the Taw valley was a nicely diverting activity.
Of course, nowadays I'd have an even better map experience on the larger-screened Demelza!
The railway followed the picturesque Taw river valley south-eastwards for half the journey, generally with the river right there beside the track:
Then it headed east through red-soiled hill country to Crediton, and then south-east again to Exeter and the busy city. There were only two stops, at Eggesford and Crediton (where trains could pass) unless someone had made a request for the train to stop at one of the other stations. It was a lovely string of names: Barnstaple, Chapelton, Umberleigh, Portsmouth Arms, Kings Nympton, Eggesford, Lapford, Morchard Road, Copplestone, Yeoford, Crediton, Newton St Cyres, Exeter St David's, Exeter Central.
Exeter Central really is pretty central. It's an odd station. It used to have equal status with Exeter St David's, and looked the part, but the downgrading and singling of the old Southern Railway main line west of Salisbury in the mid-1960s turned it into just another stop on a second-rate route. That's long changed. It still plays second fiddle to St David's, but nowadays it's spruced-up and modernised, and as the Exeter to London service via Yeovil and Salisbury gets ever better and more important, it is assuming the air of a station that matters.
I won't of course be the first to point it out, but Exeter St David's is the only station in Great Britain where you can watch fast trains to London set off in opposite directions! In one case north-east towards Bristol, in the other eastwards towards Exeter Central, Honiton and Axminster, and thence via Yeovil to Salisbury.
Well, that's quite enough on my rail adventure. I did get my hairband. I also had lunch at John Lewis, and visited the Royal Albert Memorial Museum:
But there was nary a sign of Tarka the otter. A shame.