Once we Shropshire folk had a very scenic Great Western Railway line that ran along the banks of the River Severn, including passing along the wooded slopes of the Ironbridge Gorge, now a World Heritage site. Just north of Ironbridge there was a branch line to Much Wenlock and South Wales far beyond. Much of the Severn Valley line has gone now, and that also goes for our Much Wenlock branch that once served the limestone quarries and livestock farmers. Mostly all that remains are stretches of track bed that have been overhauled to create walking and cycling routes. But we do still have a working section – the Severn Valley Railway, which is run as a heritage attraction from Bridgnorth to Kidderminster in Worcester where you can also connect with the mainline system. As their strap line claims ‘it’s a great day out.’ And for someone who still remembers travelling in steam trains as a matter of course (visions of Crewe Station where family outings to North Wales began) I still have pangs of nostalgia whenever I’m around a steam locomotive stoking up.
Last week the Severn Valley Railway had a fit of the Sleepy Hollows: witches, ghouls and other scary entities popping up all over the place; ghosties wiffling off platform lampposts, skellies rising from station gardens, mega cobwebs and evil pumpkin faces. There was even a huge red devil to give you the willies if you were thinking of catching the train from Kidderminster. It was schools’ half-term holiday of course, so there were plenty of kids ready to go in for some serial screaming at Bewdley Station’s gruesome set pieces. It all added to the fun of trundling along on a steam train. We spent the whole day doing it – up and down the 16 mile line – Bridgnorth, Hampton Loade, Highley, Arley, Bewdley, Kidderminister, and back to Bridgnorth in time for tea.
Here’s a gallery of things we saw on the way, mostly through the train window – a very flooded River Severn for one, and also a most surprising sight in rural Worcestershire. But you’ll have to wait till the end for that.
And last but not least in the way of motley scenes and sightings on the Severn Valey Railway: elephants at Bewdley Safari Park.
Here in Shropshire, May has been a month filled with much welcome sunshine. Everywhere you look, the countryside is brimming with green-ness, so no colour enhancement was needed for this view across the River Severn at Arley (just south of Bridgnorth). It was taken last Saturday at the Arley Arboretum Plant Collectors’ Fair – post to follow.
I’m sorry you can’t see the river, which is actually quite wide at this point (hiding behind the foreground hawthorns). Nor can you see the railway line that runs midway across the frame. For this is the landscape through which you will pass if you have the good fortune to board the Severn Valley Railway, and chug along the river behind a good old coal-fired locomotive, trailing its long white steamy banner as it goes, and not a few smuts. Clackety-clack and much toot-tooting and many a rustic halt en route. Oh, the nostalgia!
How Green Was My Valley a 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn set in Wales: tales of the Morgan coal mining family. Also a 1941 John Ford film.
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
L P Hartley The Go-Between
I’ve cropped and re-cropped this image in hopes you can put yourself right there on this path amid the fallen leaves. I’m hoping, too, your eye will be drawn further down the trail, that you will be wondering what lies beyond: where is this path taking us?
The ash trees and goat willows arching overhead make the path tunnel-like; mysterious, but not threatening. Slashes of light fall in from the right. They relieve the gloom of the overgrown embankment on the left.
Other impressions might occur. That this is a peaceful place: a perfect resort from the technologized maelstrom we have created for ourselves. That it must be especially lovely in summer: birdsong and windrush through the greenery. Love-sick souls might wander here; those seeking solace from other cares; writers who have lost their plots; small boys intent on secluded thickets for a new den; dog walkers; girls on ponies: all seeking, consciously or not, the perceived restorative, imagining powers of wilderness.
As you take in the scene I might tell you that where you are standing is an ancient green lane, a once busy rustic thoroughfare used for centuries by the lay workers of Much Wenlock Priory. You can imagine them hauling carts of grain to the mill for grinding, or mule trains bringing in bales of wool from a shearing of the Prior’s flocks. I could throw in tales of St. Milburga, the seventh century abbess, who was renowned for striking springs of pure water from bare rock, or tell you that this path was one of the haunts of resistance fighter Wild Edric, the local Saxon lord who challenged Norman rule.
But no. That’s not it at all. Nothing in that last paragraph happened here as far as I know. What a shame. It had all the makings of a good yarn. We were beginning to identify with the characters. We were starting to confer on them certain notions/images/memories, conjuring a past we think we recognize.
Wait though. Here’s another version.
Into this tranquil scene comes what? A TRAIN? Turn around and you will see what all the din is about. A large locomotive is rumbling out of the railway siding. It is hauling many wagons loaded with limestone from Wenlock’s vast Shadwell Quarry, which lies out of your sight behind the path embankment. The limestone is destined for the furnaces of South Wales and the West Midlands Black Country, used as a flux in the smelting of iron. This scene belongs to the 1860s when the United Kingdom was still a world leader in heavy industry, the monster-offspring of the 18th century Quaker Ironmasters who pioneered iron-making techniques just a mile or two away in Coalbrookdale.
Other scenes can be added: weekly earth-shattering blasts from the quarry; the land, lanes, town in a grey-dust pall; air filled with fumes from lime-burning kilns; a man burned one day in a kiln collapse; Wenlock’s Town Council of the late 1940s complaining that the blasting was shaking stones from the Wenlock Priory ruins; 1981 and rocks from a quarry blasting landing on the neighbouring secondary school, injuring three pupils.
Here then are a few clips from Much Wenlock’s many ‘pasts’; ones that actually happened. The path you are standing on is the track bed of the former Severn Valley Railway branch line. It once linked Much Wenlock to the rest of the world in a way that the River Severn had done in times past. This railway once served the nation’s industrial heartlands. And most of us have forgotten this now. Or never knew it. Looking at it now, it is anyway hard to believe.
In this particular case our forgetfulness or ignorance or disbelief is probably of little consequence. We have a lovely place to walk, and doubtless most of us will protest should anyone try to turn it into a car park or a housing development.
I still have a niggling query. Should we not all be a good deal more knowledgeable about own histories, the actual lives of parents, grandparents and great grandparents? Should we not all be well versed in our nation’s last hundred years, including understanding our responsibilities as citizens, and knowing precisely how our land and its people make a living?
I’ll leave these questions with you, because I want to talk about the quotation. It has haunted me for decades, and is the opening line of L P Hartley’s novel The Go-Between. But it was not in the novel where I first read these words. My first encounter was in the title of quite another book. It was 1985 or 1986, and the book in question had not long been published. At the time I was employed as the seemingly grand, if poorly paid Leverhulme Research Fellow at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. (This being the sprawling Shropshire heritage enterprise that lays claim to protecting and interpreting the ‘birthplace of the Industrial Revolution’ aka the aforementioned Coalbrookdale – a location which thus has a very great deal to answer for).
In those days, the IGMT had recently set up an Institute of Heritage Management offering postgraduate diplomas to professionals in the heritage business. It was at one of the Institute seminars that I encountered David Lowenthal, American historian and geographer, and Professor of Geography at University College London. (He is at UCL still, Emeritus Professor at the age of 93.)
Lowenthal’s book The Past Is A Foreign Country is regarded as one of the classic works of cultural history. It was described by one erudite reviewer at the time as ‘a meditation on misuses of the past in contemporary culture’.
I will repeat that phrase in bold:
‘a meditation on the misuses of the past in contemporary culture’
In the light of recent events – the outcome of the US election and Britain’s Brexit vote wherein proponents’ projection of a perfect national past formed a key part of the ‘sales’ pitch – it seems to me that this is a phenomenon that should worry us all.
The past that was being sold was not an old past either, but one deemed to be within someone’s living memory – you know, that happy land just over the brow of the hill where everyone resides in the rosy glow of unchallenged prosperity and inviolable national sovereignty and with no incomers.
When did that place have its heyday? Can anyone tell me. I’ve been alive quite a long time, and I can’t pinpoint it. When I grew up in the 50s there was still post war rationing. Kids were getting polio. Pregnant unmarried girls were considered the scum of the earth, and hustled into homes. Racist language was the norm. Homosexual acts were criminal offences. There was the Korean War, the Suez Crisis, the Kenya Emergency, the Malayan Emergency, the Cuba Missile Crisis. The Cold War threat of nuclear missile strikes hung over us for decades – fear still lingering until 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. All local authorities had their nuclear bunkers in place. Some are still extant.
So the golden age must have been earlier then – ‘40s, ‘30s, ‘20s? Surely not. Ah silly me. It was obviously the ‘80s when Thatcher and Reagan let all the bankers off the leash to start wreaking unmitigated financial mayhem across the globe…
Anyway, you get the picture.
It is doubtless a common human affliction to wish to turn back the clock whenever things go badly wrong. It also a well held fallacy that there is some perfect place from which humanity has been excluded – a sort of expulsion-from-Eden syndrome – and that maybe we can get back there?
Lowenthal points up our maladjusted relationship with the past when he says:
…we also preserve, I suggest, because we are no longer intimate enough with that legacy to rework it creatively. We admire its relics, but they do not inspire our own acts and works.
He suggests too that “the past conjured up is…largely an artefact of the present”, “shaped by today’s predilections, its strangeness domesticated by our preservation of its vestiges.”
The past has become commoditized as escapism, a state endlessly replicated in the kind of costume dramas that lure us into thinking that people back then thought just as we do. It is an on-going process of re-invention that becomes ever more ‘real’ and so I think predisposes many us towards a hankering for a past that contains none of the things that so upset us now. It was so much better then.
Wanting to turn back the clock to a time-that-never-was suggests feelings of helplessness and hopelessness; of depression, hardship and broken spirit. Hanging on to such a notion is obviously not going to help solve any of the problems that face us. In the short term it leaves us vulnerable to those who would sell fake pasts for our future salvation (and politicians have always manipulated history to confound us – some on a megalomaniac scale). In the longer term, when the lie is exposed, it will bring only further incapacitating disillusionment. It might bring worse too.
And how did we get into this position – we, the rich nations of the northern hemisphere? How did all our great assets reduce us to such impoverished and desperate ways of thinking? Why do we not know enough about ourselves and our nations to see off the self-serving opportunists who feed us fantasies and divisive hate-stories?
These are questions that surely have very many answers, and for now I’m leaving them with you too.
Interestingly, David Lowenthal decided to do a re-write of his book. It came out last year.The Past Is A Foreign Country – Revisited. It earned him the 2016 British Academy Medal, and here’s a nice review by Robert Tombs. The reason he apparently chose to do a new book was because the past he had addressed in 1985 had, over three decades, been so transformed as to be an entirely new realm. Well, who’d have thought it!
I have this mad, optimistic hope that one day we might get some slight grip on reality – before it gets a grip on us. And now it’s clearly time I took a walk. Back up the old railway line then. It is far more peaceful there.
copyright 2016 Tish Farrell
It was a gloomy, low-lit winter’s day when we went for a wander around Bridgnorth’s Severn Valley Railway. The reason for this visit is described elsewhere (Connected On And Off The Rails), so I will confine myself to mentioning that it had something to do with rivets and Graham’s model-making enterprise.
All these photos were originally colour shots which did not convert too well to straight black and white due to the aforementioned poor light. So I’ve added the blue-ish haze for interest’s sake. I think it suits the coal-burning, hard iron, cold steel, railway yard feel of steam locomotion.
For more trains and tracks please clickety clack over to Cee’s B & W Thursday.
This year Shropshire’s Severn Valley Railway celebrates 50 years as a tourist attraction. That this 16-mile remnant of an 1862 main line railway is still up and running is due to the efforts of several generations of steam engine enthusiasts who lobbied, fund-raised, rescued and restored old rolling stock, and then threw the lot open to a willing public that now loves to spend its spare time watching and riding on steam trains. I mean who wouldn’t want to catch the Santa Special? If you’re up for it, I should tell you that advance booking opens on September 14th.
These photos were all taken back in the winter at Bridgnorth Station, our nearest market town, and the railway’s terminus. Graham was there on a mission – to look at rivets. I was just there to savour the steam. Aaaaah. Oh yes, and to take snaps. But perhaps I’d better explain about the rivets.
First a little back story. Rewind 153 years…
In 1862 a branch from the original Severn Valley line was built through Much Wenlock. Mainly it served the limestone quarries, but at Whitsuntide, the Great Western Railway put on special trains to bring thousands of spectators to see William Penny Brookes Wenlock Olympian Games. Conveniently, the station was right beside the Linden Field where the games were, and are still held every year.
And because it was Wenlock’s William Penny Brookes who inspired the notion of the modern Olympic Games, and because we are proud Wenlock residents, some time in 2011 Graham had the idea, as a de-stressing pursuit, and as his own celebration of our town’s connection to the 2012 Olympics, to make a gauge 1 model of the ‘Olympic Special’.
This resulted in the creation of very pleasing passenger carriage, and a goods waggon that was the original practice piece for the enterprise. The superstructures of both were made from scratch, following some 1860s plans that Graham had unearthed. I don’t remember where he found them. But then came the stumbling block – the locomotive itself.
For this, he would need equipment he did not own, and skills he did not think he possessed. Ever since he has been pondering on how to set about it, egged on by our good neighbour, Roger, who does have handy engineering skills. Part of the on-going pondering included first-hand experience of GWR engine rivets so that Graham could judge the scale of them. And who am I to throw cold water on a chap’s enthusiasm.
Besides, as a child, I spent a lot of time on steam trains, and more specifically waiting to catch one on Crewe Station. And anyone who knows their railway history will know that Crewe Station, built in 1837, is one of the world’s oldest stations, and that its junction was once a thing of railway wonder. So, all in all, I was glad to tag along on the boiler rivet hunt, and thereby have the chance sniff hot coal and engine oil, and look at rust on old locomotive hulks. Graham always claims I was born on the foot plate. And no. My father was not an engine driver.
Also it was good to watch the happy voyagers waiting to embark on The Royal Scot…
And finally that brings me to the work in progress. It’s sitting over the DVD/CD shelves in the kitchen, waiting for an 1860s vintage locomotive to take it away. Passengers please take note. This train may not be leaving until the advent of the next Olympic Games. Graham says it’s good to have a deadline…
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell
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