Wednesday 1 July 2015

Don't you know there's a war on?

I got involved in the war by accident, really, or by a coincidence ... One Saturday this summer I found my day off shifted to a Saturday and my wife away for the weekend. An opportunity to go away alone for the day. Living in the East Midlands the choice of destination is huge but a preserved railway was definitely high on the list of possibilities. "What about the Severn Valley?" I thought, as I had not been there for about twenty years and have always liked it. The trip would only involve a change at Birmingham - easy to do. So I looked at the Severn Valley Railway's website to start planning and found that the Saturday in question was the first day of the first of two "forties" weekends when various special events would take place to evoke the wartime era. Dressing up was encouraged but as the only outfit I had that would suffice would involve wearing a mac and a hat on one of the hottest days of the year I gave that a miss - as did about half of the day's visitors - but it was really great to meet a lot of forties enthusiasts in uniforms and other period costumes.

To get the most out of the day I left Stamford early, on the 07:05 train to New Street. At weekends all tickets are off-peak but I still saved quite a bit (apart from using my Senior Railcard) by booking to Birmingham return and then from Birmingham to Kidderminster return separately. The total was less than £20 for the round trip but would have been over £30 booked as a through fare! I had hoped to use my voucher I'd received as compensation for late arrival in London a few weeks earlier, but they can only be used at booking offices and that had not opened when I got to Stamford station so early on a Saturday and I bought my ticket by card at the machine instead. The voucher will come in handy some time, though.

Picking my way through the tramway construction in Birmingham city centre I walked to Snow Hill for my train to Kidderminster and bought my onward tickets. As I went down to the platform I passed a "soldier" and then a young couple with rather small, old suitcases and strangely archaic clothing. In the 21st-century context of Snow Hill station in the still-developing new financial centre of our second city I was already finding myself in the forties time-warp. The train was due any moment and was a semi-fast terminating at Kidderminster: on the way I would see some of the Black Country places I had not seen for many years, so it was a good time to be looking out of the window.

Arriving at Kidderminster I made my way to the terminus, next door to the main station, of the SVR to find it already busy with soldiers, sailors and airmen of several nations as well as civilians in period and in up-to-date costume. Although not in costume I think I fitted in OK with jeans and a check shirt. I bought my ticket (and identity card) and went to the NAAFI to buy my coffee. Prices were definitely 21st century!

Moving onto the platform I was delighted to see that my chosen train consisted of teak LNER coaches with art deco detail. Hauled by a Southern locomotive but there is a war on so these things happen - although the British Railways livery was a bit "Back to the Future". The train was packed as far as the first stop at Bewdley and then it was merely full. My plan was to travel part way up the line to Highley then back to Bewdley before making the trip all the way up to Bridgnorth at the other end of the line. This was I'd ride on several different trains and see several stations, and I'd be in Bewdley at lunch time so I could try the Great Western pub which had been recommended to my on Twitter.

So at Highley I left the teak-panelled splendour of the LNER and wandered around the station area for a while before catching the next train south. Re-enactors were busy preparing for a battle to be staged later in the day at this station. A locomotive had acquired a SNCF logo for the battle was to be in France - now I had shifted in space as well as time and began to wonder what was in my coffee ...

My train down to Bewdley was a real treat, too, GWR panelled coaches bearing some interesting destinations all over the West Country. I had never seen the interiors of coaches like these before. For this stage of the trip I wandered down to the buffet car, which had a sixties Formica interior unlike anything seen in the war, but it was selling a real ale for this weekend so I forgave the decor and took my beer back to my compartment. Bewdley is a place where trains "cross" in opposite directions and there are locomotive facilities and much to be seen on a normal operating day for those with enough time, but it was lunch time now and I left the station for the short walk to the pub, which I had seen earlier from the train as it crossed the viaduct just by the station. There were many "military" vehicles in its car park, and many "service personnel" in the bar! A pint of ale and a ham roll were consumed and I returned to the station to take the next train north the Bridgnorth. This time I sat in the (sixties) buffet car, near the "chimney sweep" I'd seen in the pub, with a gin & tonic and got into conversation with an "airman" and his (real) wife.  We discussed all kinds of things about forties paraphernalia and about real life, too, and another round of gin & tonic got us to Bridgnorth where we parted company. So far, everyone I had engaged in conversation lived a lot nearer to the SVR than I did and most were in the habit of attending this weekend every year. It is so popular that the railway now does it on two successive weekends to spread the load a bit.

I strolled into Bridgnorth thinking I really need to come here with more time - I think a four or five day visit when there is no special event on the railway (trains are much slower in wartime!) will have to be made so that the towns can be properly explored: a future adventure is now in the early planning stage! Back to the station and the train back to Kidderminster. This time I was in a compartment and I met a younger couple, he again the RAF uniform, both fairly local.

We were joined later by and older couple. Our new gentleman companion was in flying kit as if he'd just climbed out of his aircraft! Must have been a bit hot under the sun we'd had most of the day.

The train made frequent and sometimes long stops (there was a war on ...) but got to Kidderminster eventually. There was time to go onto the platform at Arley while we waited for two trains to cross ours: people were dancing to a live singer on the northbound platform.

With having to be back in Stamford for the Sunday morning I had to forego the evening entertainment on offer (at extra cost) and catch my train back to Birmingham and on home. But the day was not quite over yet: I stayed on as far as Moor Street station in Birmingham city centre and had my supper at the Centenary Lounge, stepping back another decade into the art deco pre-war era, before walking through to New Street and the train home.

Reconstruction at New Street is now coming along nicely and there is just a glimpse of the daylight above the concourse - still behind hoardings. I look forward to the opening in the autumn when we shall no longer have to find a different way around it at each visit and all the entrances and exits will be open. The journey back was smooth and uneventful and I was soon home and uploading my photographs for people to see. If you were there, you may spot yourself!

My photographs can all be found at of which only a tiny selection is posted on this blog entry!

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