Spotting tales of a bygone era

Words by:
Kate Maughan-Brown
Featured in:
January 2015

Exploring the history of trainspotting in Lincolnshire.
The National Railway Museum in York is currently presenting a trainspotting season exploring the fascinating and popular hobby of the 1950s and ’60s. As part of this season, the museum asked members of the public for their stories of the hobby, which paint a picture of notebooks on platforms; ‘shedbashing’; ‘copping a loco’; the sense of anticipation for that ever elusive locomotive or the cherry on the cake: getting a ride on a footplate.

Lincolnshire, being at the heart of the East Coast Main Line, has a rich and proud history of trainspotting with many people literally stopping in their tracks to watch the majestic Cathedrals Express make its way through the county. Amongst the 300 plus stories that came flooding in, Steve Vinter of Louth got in touch. He said:

“My abiding memory of trains through Louth is of the evening ‘fish train’ from Grimsby. It would come through the station each evening at about 6pm, hauled by a huge 9F loco, and leave behind a wonderful odour of smoked fish. We would occasionally get other large engines in Louth, one of which was the Pacific class ‘Britannia’. I remember leaving an old-style penny on the line ahead of her driving wheels and retrieving it when she had left. It had doubled in size – I keep looking for that penny as I cannot recall discarding it!

“Usually when a train stopped in the station we would ask the driver or fireman, Can we cab you mister? And if they were in no hurry we would be allowed onto the footplate and sometimes encouraged to shovel some coal into the firebox. Imagine that today! I remember on one or two occasions travelling around the East Midlands on a platform ticket. We would just buy platform tickets, which as I recall cost 2d – then hop on a train to Grimsby/Lincoln/Nottingham etc. If there was ever an inspector on the train then you would have to buy a ticket, otherwise it was virtually free travel to some of the Meccas of trainspotting.

“When we travelled down to London we would join the main line at Peterborough. From there onwards we would endeavour to be on the right side of the train in order to see the A4 Pacifics coming in the opposite direction. Some lads had goggles and stuck their heads out of the windows for a better view. I remember travelling to other parts of the country on holiday with my parents and being so excited at seeing engine types I had never seen before; it was always the best part of the holiday for me – it seems barely credible now! I also recall during the Sixties seeing marshalling yards in various parts of the country full of steam locos with sacks on their funnels – that was a sign that they were to be scrapped. It was the beginning of the end for steam.”

Mike Reynolds tells of his experiences at Grantham Shed in 1960:

“The friendly shed foreman had welcomed our large group, a motor coach full of impatient spotters. We were here for the old High Dyke locos. Being a Sunday morning, there was no disappointment at the quantity of loco numbers to record.

“We all piled back into our coach very happy. Me, I felt it was time for my favourite snack, the infamous Lyons individual fruit pie. A few mouthfuls later I wound the coach window down (yes coaches had window winder handles in those days!) and launched my empty fruit pie box into orbit, boomerang style, out the open window.

“A quick glance towards the coach rear window and shock horror came across me, as I saw my pie box score a direct hit on the helmet of a cycling police constable. The constable swerving from side to side, desperately trying to grab his whistle from his breast pocket. My last view, as we sped away, with a smile breaking out, was of the constable, notebook and pencil in hand, no doubt recording the coach number. So I wasn’t the only one that Sunday, taking numbers.”

As part of the trainspotting season, the museum commissioned acclaimed artist, Andrew Cross (a ‘self-confessed but lapsed’ trainspotter) to work on Parallel Tracks, a contemporary interpretation of the theme in the gallery space to challenge people’s perceptions of this much misunderstood hobby. Delving into the mind of today’s trainspotter is a new direction for the York-based museum, which is more often associated with nostalgic stereotypes from the golden age of steam.

In his exploration of the topic, Andrew uses personal memories of a childhood spent travelling the tracks plus contemporary film to create an experience that links the nostalgic pastime with the international perspective of the present day.

As long as there have been railways, they have inspired artistic and literary creations; the scale, noise and drama lend themselves to powerful prose. Northern poet, Ian McMillan devoted a new poem to the subject, in which he talks of ‘a story of numbers, and tales, of epic encounters on days wreathed with steam’ and of ‘parents and kids on an endless quest.’

Ian has also co-curated and responded to ‘spotters’ stories’ like Steve and Mike’s Lincolnshire Lineside tales, which are on display around the museum throughout the season.

When asked why the museum decided to explore the theme of trainspotting which is so close to our hearts in Lincolnshire, Amy Banks, interpretation developer at The National Railway Museum explained:

“With our trainspotting season we want to explore the past and present of the pastime – collecting and documenting, adventure, travel and mischief, the sense of anticipation and the drama of the train arriving. Although Andrew’s art commission will be looking at the subject from a fresh and contemporary stance, including international travel, Ian’s emotive poem and the real stories from the region’s tracks which he is curating will help visitors of all ages understand the strong allure of spotting.

“Our spotters’ stories are filled with humour and we have been overwhelmed by the care and attention that people have taken to share their memories with us. We have received tales filled with fondness and nostalgia, of moments filled with ‘elation’, ‘the thrill of the chase’ and the ‘epic encounters of days filled with steam’.”

The museum’s popular Locos in a Different Light event, part of the citywide Illuminating York festival, also used artistic interpretation to explore the mischief, and drama, of travelling the East Coast Main Line and sneaking around sheds and stations to capture the last number on the list.

Families have also had the chance to experience the adventure and anticipation associated with trainspotting, one of the most common hobbies for boys in the 1950s and 1960s, with a variety of fun activities including Great Hall and Station Hall trails and theatrical performances by street theatre troupe Platform 4.

Alister Constantine, Heckington:
“As a young lad of eight or nine I used to tag along with my elder brother, who was trainspotting dotty. We lived in Potters Bar and in the holidays we would visit my grandmother in Beeston in Nottingham and often spend time walking around Toton railway yard, so he was a serious spotter!

In Potters Bar, opposite the station, on the towpath there was a dead tree which was known as ‘The trainspotters’ tree’ It was heavily carved with the graffiti of trainspotters.

“One day at the start of the summer 1977 holidays we cycled to the tree to observe the line and capture the numbers of passing diesels. From the top of the tree I spotted an approaching Brush 4, shouted, pointed at it then fell straight out of the tree. I landed in a load of stinging nettles and as I ran around in circles screaming, my brother and friends laughed their heads off.

“Although I could see the funny side of getting stung, the group stopped laughing when my arm was sagging and bleeding. We got home and I was carted off to Barnet Hospital but they were on strike, so we had to drive in the Marina to Edgware Hospital. I had a multiple break and had to spend three nights inside.

“The rest of the holiday was spent in plaster and my parents cancelled the summer camping trip. I never did get the number of the Brush 4. One bonus was I got a rubber shark in hospital, as the film Jaws was all the rage. The following summer I tripped up my brother and he ended up in a French hospital with a broken arm.

“I have a permanent scar from my trainspotting accident and I have a party trick of showing off my injury lump which leads on to the story.”

John Earth, Boston:
“I was a trainspotter in 1962, ’63 and ’64. Whilst I have very few photos I do have my ‘cop’ book which was religiously written up after each journey in my ‘best handwriting’, listing the cops or the first time I had seen a particular engine.

“In effect it tells a story of summer holiday ‘week rover tickets’ that could be bought and then extended to reach certain destinations. I have a July birthday and in 1962 I would have been fourteen. All the journeys I planned, from my home in Boston Lincolnshire, and I had to make sure that I caught the last train into Boston at 21.30 whether it was from Lincoln, Grantham or Peterborough.

“The 1962 ‘rover ticket’ saw trips to Sheffield/Chesterfield; Doncaster; Crewe; Wakefield/Normanton; York and the museum and finally Derby Works. Nineteen sixty-three was a little more adventurous and saw trips to Rose Grove/Bury/Manchester; Goole/Mexborough; Kirkby in Ashfield/Annesley/Nottingham; Sheffield/Manchester/Northwich/Trafford Park; Mirfield/Huddersfield/ Low Moor; and finally Derby Works.

“In a day I could get from Boston and ‘jump’ the sheds at Skipton and Hellifield and still get back for 9.30.Dad took me in a very old car to Wolverhampton and I jumped the sheds at Wolverhampton (Stafford Road); Oxley; Bushbury and Burton on the way home!

“On summer Sundays I would bike to Midville, having seen the excursions going to Skegness etc through Boston in the morning, seeing the returning excursions which would have gone through Lincoln and not Boston. 

“I recall cycling to Donington on a weekday to see the ‘boat train’ in the morning, from Liverpool to Harwich, and the Harwich to Liverpool which went through Donington late in the afternoon.

“It brings back the memories of a party of about twelve of us from Boston going to Crewe Works open day on 30th April 1962. There was a fire in the DMU bringing us back from Crewe to Nottingham, which as a result would have meant us all missing the last train from Lincoln to Boston. During the journey from Nottingham to Lincoln, my cousin, who was four years older then me, realised we were going to miss the last train and went to the guard to explain the situation. The guard at the next stop must have telephoned through to Lincoln to say there were twelve boys on the train, and they delayed the departure of the train from Lincoln to Boston so we could get home!

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