Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. So the joke goes: in fact, it’s alive and well. How else to explain the continuing popularity of Downton Abbey and Inspector George Gently?
We had a brush with nostalgia over last weekend. Driving to West Wales for a 60th birthday party, we negotiated Bank Holiday weekend traffic-jams around Manchester, Chester and Rhyl, before discovering just how far Wales extends along slow roads through mountainous Snowdonia.
Six hours into our journey we needed tea. A short way beyond Llangollen we spotted a sign to Carrog station and tea-room. We stepped back in time. Carrog, the penultimate station on the Llangollen railway (proclaimed as “the only standard gauge heritage railway in North Wales”), boasts a quaint Victorian station with original waiting room and old carriages awaiting restoration. Its authentic accoutrements would render it a perfect set for any period movie, if it weren’t so remote.
Enthusiasts informed us the last train of the day was on its way to the end of the line (Corwen, only a few minutes away), and would return shortly.
It did. Four or five carriages were pushed in by a mighty 4-8-0 British Rail steam engine (number 3802, for enthusiasts!) Carrog station boasts two lines and two platforms and, on its arrival, the loco disconnected, changed lines, chugged to the front of the train and reconnected.
Most spectators were blokes older than me, every one an expert. Phone-videos were taken, images recorded. Children enjoyed the train, too, smuts smearing their faces from hanging out of the train windows (no decapitation hazards here!) as the train puffed gently along the bank of the River Dee.
Here’s a confession. I grew up beside the last steam-powered British Rail line in England. As a little boy I watched trains on the Somerset and Dorset line (known as the S & D, or the Slow and Dirty) from my bedroom window. When it was closed under Dr Beeching’s axe in 1966, we witnessed the last train out of Evercreech Junction: I burst into tears.
I still struggle to resist squealing with pleasure when close to an engine hissing steam, oozing oil and smelling, well, wonderful. There was always a magic about steam: there still is.
Recently we saw that new film, A Royal Night Out, an affectionate evocation of the spirit of VE Day in 1945. Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, brilliantly played by actresses Sarah Gadon and Bel Powley, are permitted by their protective royal parents to mingle with the crowds. That much is fact: the remainder of a cleverly crafted script is imaginary.
The King, desperately insecure, is eager to know how his victory speech is received: in a touching scene, the pub Elizabeth finds herself in falls respectfully silent as his voice comes over the wireless.
The wayward Margaret gets herself into all kinds of trouble, ultimately saved by her elder sister.
Elizabeth is rescued in turn by Jack, a rebellious airman who’s gone AWOL. Their brief, finely drawn friendship illustrates the social gulf between them. In a cleverly contrived moment of foresight the future queen observes quietly that the future belongs to Jack’s class, not hers.
My Mum and Dad, married in 1944, joined the crowds in Trafalgar Square on VE night. After stealing a few hours’ sleep in a bed in the bombed-out St Thomas’s Hospital (where he’d started his medical training), they caught the first train back to Woking War Hospital. Late for her nursing shift, Mum was sentenced to a week on nights: “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” Matron demanded.
Nostalgia does us good. Certainly it fills the carriages on steam railways. The Llangollen Line is running a Real Ale day in June. Transparently aimed at old gits like me, it cunningly links two oft-shared passions: the smell of steam engines and the taste of proper traditional beer.
Will I go? It’s tempting. But a 500-mile round trip? Too much.
Besides, who would drive home?
- Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views expressed here are personal.