‘If you fell in there you’d be dead in two minutes’ said a voice very close to my ear. Instinctively I pulled back although I wasn't in any real danger. I'd been lolling against the stone balustrade overlooking the River Irwell, peering at the curiosity below. It was fascinating. There must have been water under there, but all I could see was a slow-moving kaleidoscope of randomly coloured sludge. There was an overarching rainbow sheen of engine fuel interspersed here and there with orange and chrome yellow streaks. It had a matching smell. I was outside Manchester Victoria Station, waiting for my dad to appear with everybody's tickets. I’m not sure who actually issued the whispered warning; there were quite a few in our group, chatting and laughing, so much so that my mother was too preoccupied to notice the sooty marks on my coat from the smoke-blackened stonework. Even on the brightest of days, Victoria station was black and dingy. Its vaulted roof might be a Victorian-inspired artwork of metal and glass sheets but not even the strongest of sunlight can force its way through years of untouched grime. Coal smoke, together with working steam engines gave the station an unique smell; harsh and metallic with a hint of cigarette smoke.
Like the rest of the families who lived in the flats we had no car so our travelling was done by bus or by train. If our journey started at Victoria Station it meant that we were catching the train to Yorkshire. No matter how bright the day we left in Manchester it was perfectly possible to arrive to snow. Yorkshire seemed to exist in its own small climate zone. This would sometimes mean my mother clinging to my father’s arm, slipping and sliding everywhere as she tried to negotiate the weather in her stilettos.
The noise inside the station was deafening. There was no bright, wide concourse filled with shops or ticket barriers to distance people from this mayhem. Travellers bought their tickets and walked out into the midst of it all. Their unprotected ears were suddenly confronted by a din like an open factory with its huge metal machines in full production. Trains were pulled along by an engine powered by steam. Coal fires in each engine were lit and shovel stoked to maximum heat. The heat converted the water in the engine’s tanks to steam and the controlled release of that ferociously hot vapour provided the energy the train needed to move. For a steam train to pull away from the station it needed to have built up huge amounts of potential energy. It was moving, literally, tons of metal from a standing start. Its carriages had no source of power, they were dead weight. The steam power the engine accumulated had to be released with great skill and care. An experienced driver knew how and when to release just enough energy to control the ripple of forward motion through the following carriages. But even so, trains did not glide gently and quietly out of the station. There was a huge rush of steam and often a high-pitched whistle which made it impossible to hear spoken words. The metal buffers of the carriages clanked and rattled and jolted until the jarring stopped and their momentum matched that of the engine. Then the train gradually moved away from the platform. Perhaps the level of noise explains why the station staff used whistles and coloured flags to signal imminent movement. There was a loudspeaker system which was supposed to help passengers by announcing arrivals and departures, but the sound was distorted by poor equipment and buried by the din of the engines. It was much easier to ask one of the station staff for guidance.
For those with time to kill, Victoria station had waiting rooms heated by open coal fires which were bright and welcoming, unlike the adjacent unheated toilets which were anything but. There was a small, steamy café where hot drinks and a small range of sandwiches and cakes was on offer. But these were only served on thick, heavy British Rail crockery so travellers had no means of carrying their food or drink on to the train with them. Customers were expected to consume whatever they bought sitting down at one of the plastic topped tables. There might be a buffet car on the train or travellers could come prepared with a thermos flask and some sandwiches made at home. Unfortunately, everything had to be carried by handbags and cases did not come with wheels so passengers had to be prepared to shoulder the extra weight or to forget eating until they got to their destination. There was a newsagent’s stand on the station platform and buying a newspaper or bringing a book to while away travelling time was a good idea. There was no other form of entertainment.
The train’s carriages were divided into compartments, but there were different kinds of carriages – those with corridors and those without and often the train to Yorkshire had none. This meant that we climbed directly into our compartment and could only get out again at our destination. We were stuck inside that single space for the entire journey with no option to find a bathroom or a buffet.
For trains with corridors, travellers climbed into a corridor, walked to a suitable compartment and slid open the door. A few of the compartments which my parents avoided were labelled ‘No smoking’, but none escaped the strange, metallic smell of the station which seemed to have drifted in and seeped into the upholstery.
Compartment seating was arranged in two facing well-upholstered bench seats – too high for my feet to touch the ground. Running the full length of each seat, well above my head, was a net rack for holding luggage. Our journeys were warmed in the winter by hot air which blasted through grills underneath the bench seats and reddened the backs of my legs. There was certainly no air conditioning available in the summer and often only a small sliding window to allow in some cool air.
Corridorless carriage compartments had a heavy door at either side; they opened with a grab handle that required a firm twist. My mother used to tell the story of travelling in one of these two-door compartments at night-time at the height of world war two. Even before hostilities had been declared, blackout rules had been put in place. No lights were to be visible at night as this might help enemy bombers; moving trains and well-lit stations would have been useful targets. Thick blackout blinds were drawn in all carriages and there was only dim lighting inside compartments. Stations could not light their platforms so that travellers could check where they were. A member of the station staff would shout out the name of the stop as the train pulled in. On this particular occasion, a man on the bench seat opposite had nodded off. When the train came to a halt before the next station, as they often do, the man wakened with a start and before anyone could stop him, jumped up, opened one of the compartment doors and stepped off into blackness. They heard him land (it’s quite a long way down without a raised platform to step on to) Seconds later he reappeared, clambered back in, closed the door, rushed over and did exactly the same on the other side. Some smaller stations still shout out their location on arrival. When I travelled back recently it made me smile to hear a shout of ‘Cheegloom’ (Cheadle Hulme) as I arrived at my destination.
The last carriage on a 1950s train was the guard’s van. This was where large items, animals and children travelling unaccompanied by adults could be located so as to be supervised and safe. The other alternative for unattended children was to seat them with a respectable looking granny who was travelling to the same place and ask her to take care of them.
When I was eleven I travelled to Kent for a week’s dance summer school – it was a very special holiday for me. My father and I arrived at Stockport station very early and I wondered why we hadn't had any breakfast - until we got on to the train. It was a Pullman train and when we climbed on board we were greeted with inviting smells of coffee, bacon and toast and seated at a beautifully laid table. Our food was brought to us by waiters who magically never seemed to drop or spill anything despite the unpredictable movement of the train. The food was delicious and with the thick tablecloths and napkins and white china, it all felt incredibly luxurious. When we reached London my father had a business meeting, but I was to travel on to Kent. He carried my case and installed me at a table with a really nice older lady on the Tonbridge Wells train. She and I had a lovely journey together. It all worked perfectly well; utterly unthinkable nowadays!