I grew up in the Hertfordshire town of Berkhamsted where for the early part of my life my parents and I lived with my mother’s parents in George Street at number 130. There are two roads here, in this particular part of the town, not in the town itself, George Street and Ellesmere Road, both running parallel to each other and sandwiched between the Grand Union Canal and the main London to Glasgow railway line.
When I was fairly young, the woman who lived next door to my grandmother gave to me as a present, one of the Rev. W. Awdry’s Railway Series books. I don’t remember which one but my Mother always claimed that it was the start of my love affair with railways. As a child I only knew this woman as Auntie Audrey, not a real aunt but an “aunt” by association. Years later I learned that Audrey, and I’m doing her a great disservice here because I have forgotten her surname, but Audrey had suffered a number of miscarriages and ended-up unable to have children. I, it seemed, living with my parents and grandparents next door to Audrey, provided a ready-made object for Audrey’s maternal instincts and I was doted on, with the full approval of mother and grandmother.
In the very early 1960s, after the birth of my brother Michael we moved out of my grandparent’s house and into a house in Ellesmere Road, 51, Ellesmere Road to be precise, it was a two-up, two-down, end terrace, (in a terrace of three) with an outside toilet and a long garden to play in. Central heating was some way in the future when we moved into No. 51 and the only means of heating the house was an open fire in the front room. As a youngster it was something of a privilege to be allowed to light the fire on those occasions when it was deemed necessary. No firelighters mind you, paper and kindling, holding a sheet of the Daily Express across the hearth to force the draught, carefully placing the coal… simple pleasures.
One of my earliest memories of No. 51 was during the winter of 1963/64, I clearly remember dad opening the front door, which had a small step up onto the street, and the snow which had built-up against the outside of the door falling into the front room.
The garden at No. 51 ran down towards the gardens of the houses in George Street and the gardens were separated by an alleyway which ran between them, it was part of a small network of alleys which ran between the houses and gardens, an ideal adventure playground for young children, well, it was back in those days. I know it’s been said before but I’m going to say it again because it’s true, we made our own amusements back then, electronic gadgets were the stuff of science fiction. Set back from the three houses in our small terrace was another smaller terrace of three brick-built outhouses, single story affairs which had once housed, or so I was told, the apparatus for washing clothes. No, not washing machines but a hearth upon which to boil water to wash clothes.
When we were living there the hearths had long gone and the outhouses were used as garden sheds. I remember one day I was in our garden with a friend making our own amusement. I had found a loose brick in the rear wall of the outhouse terrace and had managed to prise it out. This caused the adjacent bricks to become loose in turn and this friend and I proceeded to remove as many bricks as we could. Soon there was a gaping hole in the brick wall, easily five feet across at the base and as high as we could reach. Goodness knows how the structure didn’t collapse and oh my, I didn’t half cop it when dad got home from work!
I also remember that dad had this idea to make money, well, he was always having ideas to make money but this one did work for a while. Dad would come home with pieces of wood and he and I would chop them into smaller pieces suitable for kindling, bag them up and sell them to the neighbours. Well, you know: I would go round and sell them hoping to take advantage of the fact that I was a sweet innocent child trying to earn a little pocket money. Do you know? It worked, for a short while, then it was summer and nobody wanted kindling but we’d sold some wood and made some money.
Train and boat spotting.
I spent a large part of my childhood living in Ellesmere Road, you may not know Ellesmere Road but it is at the top of the railway cutting, on the fast track side as you approach Berkhamsted Station in the down direction. Trains clattering by only yards from the house didn’t bother us, the railway cutting was quite deep opposite the house so you couldn’t see the trains and this no doubt helped to muffle the noise but after a while you just tuned it out. Years later when we moved out of Ellesmere Road to a house high on the other side of the valley in which Berkhamsted sits I remember suddenly being aware of the sound of trains.
I wrote there about Ellesmere Road being, “…on the fast track side as you approach Berkhamsted Station in the down direction.”, “Down” in this context means going away from London, “Up”, as you may have guessed means going towards London. The railway here has four tracks; Down fast, Up fast, Down slow and Up slow. The fast tracks were used by the Inter-City trains and the slow lines were used by the suburban “stopping” trains and the majority of the freight trains. The terms fast and slow here though are nowadays a bit misleading as even trains on the “slow” lines travel in excess of 100 mph.
When I was old enough to venture out alone, being between the railway and the canal provided a variety of distractions for young lad. Unfortunately I missed out on the last days of steam as the railway was electrified in the early 60s but I did get to see a variety of diesel and electric trains, the new electric locomotives in their “Electric Blue” livery at the head of a train of maroon coaches always looked very impressive, well, I thought so.
I was also lucky enough to witness the last of the working boats on the Grand Union Canal, their prows, when empty sitting impossibly high in the water and when laden they had barely inches of freeboard. One of the things I remember well is the sound of the boat engines, especially when they were just ticking over when the boats were in a lock, a wonderful chump…chump…chump… chump… chump, they seemed to miss a beat every now and then but it was and still is a wonderful sound.
Ellesmere Road itself as I mentioned, runs alongside the railway which is in a cutting, the road/railway alignment runs approximately in a south-east to north-west alignment (in the down direction) and in north-west direction the land is rising. At the north-west end of Ellesmere Road is a junction with Gravel Path which runs up and crosses the railway by a bridge, the railway at this point being in quite a deep cutting. At the south-east end of Ellesmere Road is another bridge which carries the prosaically named Ivy House Lane across the railway but crucially for an aspiring trainspotter, Ellesmere Road at this point is almost level with the tracks.
This was my favourite train spotting location; either on Ivy House Lane bridge or below in Ellesmere Road where the tracks emerged from under the bridge. Up trains would appear from the left coming out of the cutting, they were easy to “spot” and by “spot” I mean of course to record the locomotive (or multiple unit) number. Down trains however were a different prospect, they would emerge (from the right) from behind the brickwork of the bridge abutment and you had to be on your toes to catch the number as they flashed past. Even now as I write this I can recall the excitement of hearing a train approaching as I stood by the trackside. First you would hear the rails singing, then the sound of the train itself getting louder, louder but the sound was partially shielded by the bridge abutments and then the train bursting into view from under the bridge with a sudden increase in volume as it tore by.
Fairly early on my dad gifted me with a model railway, not a 6′ x 4′ board with track and scenery in time honoured fashion but a collection of track, some wagons and an engine. My father worked at the time as a taxi driver, times were hard, dad worked but mum, as was the case back in those days, stayed at home and looked after the children, three of us by now, my sister Elizabeth having come along barely two years after my brother.
The engine I had as a OO scale Tri-ang “Jinty”, number 47606, this was soon accompanied by a 2-6-2 tank engine and a rather smart looking green A-1-A, Brush Type 2 diesel. I never had a fixed layout, we never had the room to accommodate one but track would be laid out, on the floor or on the table top and trains were run. My grandfather provided a home-made transformer in a wooden box which stepped down the mains AC supply to 12V DC, then there was a Tri-ang DC controller to regulate the DC voltage to make the engine go faster, stop or reverse.
As I grew I learned about the railways and how they used to be. My dad spent part of his childhood near to Welwyn Garden City and told me tales of A4s racing over Welwyn Viaduct but as we lived next to what used to be the LMS main line (out of Euston) I decided that the LMS was “my” railway and so my allegiance was forged. Nothing too partisan though, I like railways in all shapes and sizes but my favourite, if asked is always the LMS. Pride of place in my growing collection was the Tri-ang Hornby “Coronation” pacific which looked really good pulling the rake of LNER and Southern coaches which I had accumulated.
In 1971 we moved, as I said earlier, out of Ellesmere Road into a brand-new three bedroom house with a bathroom and two toilets, yes, two toilets and what’s more they were indoor toilets, one off of the hallway and one in the bathroom. Ah, such luxury. In Ellesmere Road dad had built a sort of wood and corrugated plastic lean-to outside the kitchen door, this allowed access to the toilet without actually having to go “outside” but this new house had real indoor toilets and, get this, central heating. There were four children now, another sister, Alison having come into the world in 1967, in fact there were very nearly five children because as we were moving house, my mum was in hospital expecting what turned out to be yet another sister, Jacqueline.
Through the 70s my interest in railways remained but the incidence of my actually playing with the toy trains I had, diminished. Sometime towards the mid-70s I decided to sell the trains that I had. There was an auction house in Berkhamsted back then and my dad put them in for me as a job lot. I can’t remember how much money I got for them but as a young teenager I was happy to have it.
Out into the world.
I left school in 1975, fresh-faced and wanting to take on the world. No, not really, fresh-faced and wondering what on Earth I was going to do, it seemed that nobody was offering me a job as an astronaut or a train driver so I ended up in a small firm making watch cases and bracelets. 11 years I spent there, all in all it was quite fun, I gained a good understanding of mechanical engineering, learnt on the job, albeit with very small machine tools as you might imagine for watch cases and bracelets. I learned how to set power presses and fly presses; I have a certificate somewhere, probably with my 25 yard swimming certificate. I’ll dig them out one day and display them on my desk at work as that seems to be the current fad. We started out working in base metal, brass and nickel but progressed onto gold and silver. Weighing the gold out of stores, machining it, then collecting every scrap of swarf and weighing the finished product and swarf back into stores was a bit of a bind mind you.
I was even trusted to take gold up to the Assay Office in London to get it hallmarked. I’d take an early train, during the rush hour; all these besuited people on the train reading The Times and Telegraph and me, jeans and t-shirt with £20,000 of gold in a Waitrose carrier bag. I loved having to do this; it meant I was getting paid to take a train ride, mind you, as this was during the morning rush-hour I sometimes had to stand all the way into Euston but I didn’t mind, I was on a train.
When I got to Euston it got better, I then hopped the Northern Line to King’s Cross or walked along to Euston Square to gain the Metropolitan Line and got a train to Farringdon where I would alight and walk the rest of the way to the Assay Office. Through Smithfield Market, past St Bartholomew’s Hospital and into Little Britain then up into Gresham Street and into Gutter Lane where the entrance to the Assay Office was located. Handing over my precious cargo to be hallmarked I would be given a receipt, a small card ticket and woe betide me if I lost that ticket because that was the only way anyone was ever going to get that gold back. The journey back to Berkhamsted was of course much quieter as at that time of the day most of the traffic was going into London but best of all, a few days later the journey would be repeated to collect the hallmarked goods.
After 11 years the firm very sadly went bankrupt, we had to buy the raw material up front, nobody wanted to buy gold in advance in case the price went down between buying the material and getting the finished product so we assumed all of the financial risk. In the end it proved too much and the company folded. I then spent a little while working in an engraving shop, I hated it. Then I spent two years making contact lenses on CNC lathes, it was interesting to begin with and I was promised a promotion from being merely an operator to being a setter or setter/operator but that elevation never materialised so I began to look for another job which I found in Tring, making musical boxes. The job had certain similarities to my first job so I felt quite at home there but after a couple of years I began to look around again.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
One day in 1988, after returning from a holiday on the Isle of Thanet I was leafing through the Berkhamsted Gazette’s situations vacant pages and I saw an advertisement for a Quality Inspector at a firm in Chesham. I sent off my application, received an invitation and went over for the interview. The firm was called Aerial Facilities Ltd. (AFL) and they made products to improve signal coverage and reception for a wide range of radio applications, the burgeoning mobile telephone market included. A sister company Aerial Sites plc. (AS) owned radio mast sites, AFL made the equipment and AS hosted the equipment. AFL also sold to other companies and operators.
When I went for my interview I was going to dress-up smartly, like a proper job applicant but at the last moment I decided to go wearing jeans and sweatshirt, that’s more like the real me, I’m not a suit and tie person even though I’ve been told that I carry it off quite well, it’s just not me. The sweatshirt that I wore on that day was a bright red one with a graphic of the steam locomotive 46229, Duchess of Hamilton on the front.
Some years later a chap who was already working there and who has become a good friend over the years told me that they had seen all these young hopefuls coming in for their interviews, all wearing suits and ties and then I appeared with a steam train on the front of my sweatshirt, there was a general consensus that I’d most likely get the job. Guess what? I got the job!
One of the founding members of AFL was a rather fine gentleman who also shared a passion for railways and especially the Great Western Railway, Gerald, for that was his name was also “something” to do with the Severn Valley Railway (SVR), a preserved steam railway running between Kidderminster and Bridgenorth. At this remote memory fails as to exactly what Gerald was to the SVR, a shareholder certainly, maybe more, anyway, for whatever reason, Gerald held sway at the SVR.
Gerald organised several factory days out which would consist of hiring a train on the SVR and steaming up and down all day between Kidderminster and Bridgenorth, drinking beer, wine and spirits (soft drinks were available) and then a select few would be invited at the end of the day to partake in a late-night curry in Bewdley. On the occasion of the company’s 25th anniversary he even hired a train from Chiltern Railways, a special train, carrying AFL company branding, to convey all who wanted to partake in the day’s celebrations from London Marylebone to Kidderminster. And then of course when we got to Kidderminster, we detrained, walked across to the SVR station and steamed up and down the SVR.
On the occasion of one of these company trips, which wasn’t a general company day out but more of a corporate hospitality day out, I was invited to attend. Gerald knew that I was a kindred spirit when it came to railways, but for some reason or other I had to decline. The next Monday when I went in to work I was asked to go up to the Personnel Department where I was presented with a small brown envelope. My heart sank, what was this? The woman in charge of Personnel saw my dismay and smiled, “Gerald wanted you to have this as you couldn’t manage to attend the trip.” She said. I opened the envelope to find a Life Membership card for the SVR. They don’t make chaps like Gerald any more.
…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…
AFL was a splendid little firm and in my time there it grew into something much bigger. I was working with a great group of people and we were doing a job that we enjoyed for people we had faith in. 28, nearly 29 years later I’m still there, sort of. I’m not still a Quality Inspector; I somehow seemed to have metamorphosed into a Technical Writer via a lengthy period of running the despatch department, well, life’s like that sometimes. The company has been through many changes, not all for the better. AFL and AS were sold to private equity, it was a dreadful time; the original owners bought AFL back but after a number of years Gerald suddenly died and the other owner, decided to retire so the company was sold again.
This brought a name change and a change of business model; now it was all about “margin” and “overheads” not RF engineering and problem solving. This phase lasted about seven years and after a period of shaving overheads and increasing margins, albeit with a vastly reduced set of products and services, we were sold again. Another name change, another slight change of direction and a load of managers, directors and vice presidents and other hangers-on that really don’t have a clue about the core business that we do, or are trying to do, and only seem to be interested in clinging onto their positions. Well, that’s how it seems to me.
Anyway, it was against this backdrop that several years ago I decided that I wanted to play trains again. I’d seen the new Hornby models and they seemed to be vastly superior to the clunky Tri-ang and Tri-ang Hornby models I’d had as a kid. I started to buy stuff, brand new and shiny stuff, stuff with a wealth of detail, stuff that actually looked like the prototype it was supposed to represent.
Day Return to Childhood.
I bought track, locomotives, rolling stock. At first I bought LMS models as the LMS was my “favourite” railway, then I decided that I also liked the early 1950s British Railways image, Brunswick green locos and blood and custard coaches. Next I dabbled in some “Modern Image” models, EWS class 66 and 100 ton coal hoppers. I was insatiable and bear in mind that I still didn’t have a permanent layout on which to run all this stock.
One day I woke up and though, “American HO”, I’ve always had a sneaking regard for those big American locomotives. More track, more stock.
I constructed a set of demountable baseboards, ten, 4′ x 2′ boards which I arranged into a 6′ x 18′ configuration with a 2′ x 14′ “hole” in the middle for the operator, me, to stand. Of course, it was far too big to erect indoors so I used to set it out in the garden on clement days. On the board I set out a four track “main line”, and ran trains. There was no scenery, just track and trains. Sometimes I’d have an LMS day, sometimes a BR day and sometimes a New York Central day. When I was perusing the American HO models I was taken with a model of a 4-8-4 “Niagara” type as used by the New York Central Railroad in the late 1940s to 1950s so that’s what I bought.
And then came a regression, I began to think about the Tri-ang models, the old, not particularly to-scale models. A quick inspection of eBay showed there to be lots for sale in varying degrees of completeness and operability. I saw a set for auction, Tri-and set R2 consisting of The Princess Royal locomotive, three maroon carriages and an oval of track. After much Umming, ahhing and soul searching I waited until an hour before the auction finished, plonked £50 on it and walked away. Next morning I received an email informing me that I had won the auction.
About a week later the set arrived, the box was a bit tatty, as befitted its age, it was almost as old as I was. I put the track together and placed the loco onto the rails to see if it worked as advertised. It did. The loco even had Magnahesion and Smoke! – I didn’t have any of the proper smoke oil so out came the 3-IN-1 and soon the room was filled with the smell of burning oil and that peculiar smell that only a Tri-ang electric motor can make. I sat there with the biggest grin on my face…
The Tri-ang track from the late 1950s, and into the 1960s had steel rails, to help the locomotives pull trains they were fitted with magnets between the wheels which was supposed to give the loco more adhesion to the track, hence magna+hesion. Some of the models of steam locomotive had, when space permitted, a small brass reservoir mounted underneath the chimney. It was an open ended tube with a heating element, the open end at the top under the opening for the chimney. You bought “smoke oil” which was a very light oil, and placed a few drops of the oil into the reservoir. As the locomotive was running the element in the reservoir heated the oil until it boiled away in clouds of white smoke and if you were lucky the smoke came out of the locomotive chimney. If you didn’t have the approved “smoke oil” then a few drops of 3-IN-1 would do the trick, both oils produced their own rather distinctive smell, the 3-IN-1 being the more pungent of the two.
I like the modern Hornby models, they are very good but there is something about the old Tri-ang ones that just speaks to me of childhood, maybe that’s the point, maybe I’ve been trying to go back to childhood, maybe I’m just overthinking that point. Some people race their cars, some people collect stamps, some people paint or sail or climb or make jam or… people have hobbies, people do stuff. I like to play with toy trains, from time to time.
Sadly now though all the trains sit in their boxes in cupboards, the 4′ x 2′ boards are all stacked neatly in the loft and I don’t often get the chance to “play” with the trains but every now and then I’ll put some track out on the paving slabs in the garden and have a little “run”.
When I started this particular article, blog-piece if you will, it was going to be something different to the way it turned out but it seemed to take-on a life of its own as I wrote. Reading it back it does seem a little, how shall I put this? A little disjointed, but, as you’ve got this far, and I hope you didn’t just skip to the end, I hope you enjoyed it.