I Join The Railway. - a Memory of Kingswear.

I Join the Railway

In the summer of 1953, my Aunt and Uncle were staying with us for their holiday. It must have been my Uncle who first spotted the advertisement in the Dartmouth Chronicle for a Junior Booking Clerk at Kingswear Station.
Everyone knew I was not fond of school, so it seemed natural that I should apply for the job. With some help from my Uncle, I sent off my application to the Area Offices at Exeter and waited. The reply came to the effect that I would be required to attend an interview and examination to be held at Exeter St. David's Station, a free rail ticket was enclosed for the journey.
I remember little of that day, but somewhere, I still have that letter of all those years ago. I was duly informed that I was sufficiently numerate and literate to undertake the onerous responsibilities of the Booking Office, in the first instance at Kingswear station. In all candour I must say, as it was the beginning of a new school term, I am sure there were no other applicants so the job was mine.
It was an extremely nervous young man who on the first day saw me reporting to the Stationmaster, Mr Ralph Bovey, whose very appearance suggested he was Lord of all he surveyed. A bulky man with grey whiskered sideburns dressed in a uniform with gold braided cap. In my young eyes he was a very imposing man, a figure of the utmost strict authority.
However, he was congenial enough to introduce me to HIS railway station, showing me around, telling me who was who and who did what. I found out that he was to retire soon having spent a great number of years working on the Great Western Railway, which by now had become British Railways (WR), so a fast disappearing breed would become one less. (Looking back, he was a creature from another age, as if he had stepped straight out of a Victorian melodrama.)
Dougie Weeks was a local youth, tall, willowy, tending to baldness even at this early age, which I guessed to be around twenty or so. He was the local boy who had done well; he had joined the railway from the local school at the age of fifteen and had progressed to Relief Booking Clerk having spent some time at the booking offices at Paddington. He was now based back at Exeter relieving at local stations. I was to come under Doug's wing; in the coming months he was to mould me into a Junior Booking Clerk.
At this time I was still living in Dartmouth, and so it was, that every day I would leave home and make my way down to the river. The only way to get to Kingswear was by ferryboat. At the lower end of the river there were two ferries, one operated by Dartmouth Corporation and the other by British Rail. If I was in hurry or running late, I would catch the smaller boat run by Dartmouth Corporation, it had a two-man crew and was akin to the boat featured in the film African Queen. Sometimes when there was a swell coming in from the sea the boat would pitch and roll quite a lot, adding a sense of adventure to the journey. If I had time to spare I would often cross the river on the railway steam ferry, which was altogether a more leisurely affair. SS Mew was a much bigger boat capable of taking cars and lorries in addition to the passengers wishing to connect with the train at the start of their journey at Kingswear. Each side of the river were floating pontoons, linked to the shore by covered walkways, it was to these that the 'Mew' tied up.
There was even a third means of crossing the river, operated by Dartmouth Corporation, the car ferry was quite unique. A floating pontoon like structure with lowering ramps at each end was pushed and pulled by a powerful diesel tug alongside. Eight cars could be carried at a time at a cost of something like half a crown each (12.5p). The passenger fare was one old penny. I have very fond memories of the hundreds of ferry crossings made in all types of weather throughout the seasons.
Kingswear station lay at the foot of a large mound of a hill upon which the village of Kingswear was situated. The single line's approaches hugged the contours of the River Dart, crossing a creek bridge before entering the curved platforms to the buffer stops. Kingswear was the end of the line, the continuing journey to Dartmouth being by ferry. A station was built at Dartmouth by the GWR, thereby creating a unique situation, a railway station but never any trains.
This was the early nineteen fifties, I was a boy of fifteen setting out on my first job. The mass ownership of private motorcars had not yet made a significant impact on the travelling public, particularly when going on holiday, so it was by rail that millions of people would travel to the seaside.
Without doubt, Kingswear was a holiday destination, creating a situation where a sleepy village station was transformed into quite a busy terminus during those brief few weeks of summer. Only to return to its undisturbed rhythm for the remainder of the year.
Access to the Booking Office was through the Parcels Office in which there was a small alcove which served as a diminutive office for the Station Foreman (Percy Wadham) A counter, with a raised portion through which one could pass, a large set of red Avery scales, walls adorned with numerous scale of charges and conditions all lit by a stark single light bulb dangling from a plaited flex.
(Albert Phillips - Bill Bearman - Parcel Porters)
The Booking Office door was a solid affair and when opened revealed a high ceilinged room whose focal point was a large wooden structure containing hundreds of tickets of all colours stacked in small compartments side by side. A large engrained wooden table dominated the centre of the room with several chairs to keep it company. A wardrobe-like cupboard for the stationary completed the main picture. I remember telephones of very early vintage both in the Booking Office and Parcel Office; these were railway telephone lines for internal communication and must have been there for decades. A modem GPO telephone line was in the Booking Office for outside use. I must mention the black-leaded fireplace, which must have been there since the station was built, a bucket of coal by it’s' side. One of my earliest discoveries was an ancient ledger, rather like the old family bible containing copper plate writing dating back to the 1880's. (What became of that I wonder?)
Dougie would say "Now these are day returns, these, single first class, these, second class returns and so on and so on" until the whole range of tickets was explained, "Don’t forget to date stamp them before issuing them". The knowledge required seemed endless. A bowed face appeared filling the window "single to Paddington please" without hesitation Doug's hand plucked a ticket from the rack and with a deft flick of the fingers punched dated the ticket. "Thirty shillings please" and with a swift exchange of cash it was all over. Goodness me! Would l, could l, ever, learn to do that?
"What is the next train to Birmingham? Do I change at Newton Abbot? Is there a restaurant car attached"? The questions were endless, the answers reeled off like a machine gun, "Ten twenty five change at Bristol", "I'm sorry sir but it doesn't run on Saturdays" or "You will have to reserve a seat on that one". I felt very much in awe of this nonchalant, confident young man in a brown pin striped suit. "Answer that", nodding to the phone, I was gripped with panic. The person on the other end of the line must have thought there was a lunatic answering as I stammered and garbled my words in sheer terror. This was the first time in my life that I had encountered such an instrument.
My! How the world has changed.
Winter was setting in; the pace of the station was slow with occasional bursts of activity, especially at Christmas. Being the hub of the village, it was an ideal place to monitor what was going on, who was travelling where? Who was visiting who? It was at about this time of the year that a large side of venison arrived for a well to do resident of Kingswear. It was simply wrapped in hessian with an equally simple label attached. The label was printed with the legend Kyle of Lochalsh, I don't know why, but the name sounded pure magic to my young being. I would gaze at the large pull-out folded maps in the back of the timetables and trace the route of that side of venison, all the way down from Scotland to this little village in the West of England. I made a solemn promise that one day I would take the reverse route and visit The Kyle of Lochalsh. It is now many years later and the promise has never been fulfilled.
I cannot recall how long Doug and I were together, however within a few weeks I was given a shift opposite another young man whom I have not yet mentioned, Fred Didsbury; Fred was a product of the local grammar school and was altogether a different character from Doug. Prematurely bald, twentyish, a sophisticate, I got the impression that Fred was destined for better things in the Civil Service but fate had decreed otherwise, which explained his presence in the Booking Office. I liked him and got on well with him, we had a matching sense of humour.
Depending which shift, my mother would, sometimes bring my meal accompanied by a flask of hot sweet tea. I treasured these occasions, I would sit by the glowing fire and eat my meal almost in complete silence save for a ticking clock. With Christmas over, winter eventually gave way to spring and with lengthening sunny days summer would arrive. New sets of timetables would herald the summer workings. A parcel of them would arrive for distribution. A set would comprise of all the different regions of the BR system denoted by a colour code. Cream for Western Region, maroon for Midland Region etc. (I possess such a set today.) These timetables were the meat and drink of us Booking Clerks, looking back, the information contained within, to my mind, was nothing short of miraculous. The age of the computer was many years away so these priceless timetables were compiled by hand by ordinary people from ordinary walks of life and to me, even to this day, are an extraordinary tribute to the human mind.
It has been well documented elsewhere as to the Jekyll and Hyde character of village stations in the transition from winter to summer workings. Kingswear was no exception; I well remember the activity of summer Saturdays. Strangely, I seem to remember that for us in the booking office, most of the work leading up to Saturdays was done during the week, for about this time a compulsory block booking system was in force. My favourite occupation was, whenever possible, to stand outside the parcel office and watch the scene unfold as a long distance train came to a halt at the buffer stop. A sweat stained castle class locomotive would be standing directly in front of me, one could swear its tongue was hanging out with the exertion of hauling its' load of carriages and passengers mile after mile in the heat of a summer's day. When the train was secured, the engine crew would retire to the porter's room to replenish their hot water supply. An engine's crew and their billycans seemed inseparable.
A slow river of people accompanied by all manner of luggage would flow in unison towards the exit, where Ticket Collector Norman Jones or Ed Trickey would be waiting to perform their raison d’être. Most of the passengers will be destined for the ferry to Dartmouth and beyond, to be absorbed into the holiday countryside of South Devon. In two weeks time the process will be reversed, as these same people will set off on their return journey home. With the last of the passengers through the ticket barrier, the platform is once more deserted. The tempo of the station is now reduced to waiting for the next burst of activity. The recently arrived engine and its crew, now refreshed, silently move off to perform duties anew, a slow build up of engine and carriage movements will all add to an expectant departure or arrival of the next train.
Without doubt, the main event of the day was the departure of the Torbay Express. This non-stop train from Torquay to Paddington and was the pride of the local line. Due to leave Kingswear at eleven twenty five in the morning, the well turned out castle class engine would arrive earlier in the morning on a local train from Newton Abbott. The eight coaches of chocolate and cream stock would be backed into the platform in good time.
The staff of the restaurant car would have been busy for some time, immaculate in their uniforms, tables would be laid with snow white linen and sparkling cutlery. The carriage cleaners had done a first rate job; I would like to remember that one could see one's face reflected in the paintwork. The guard would be fussing about his charge, he too, not to be outdone, sporting a fresh rose or carnation in his buttonhole. It was to the loco's crew that ones attention was inevitably drawn. The all knowing driver, usually in his sixties with clean blue overalls busying himself with the oilcan, all the time running his expert eye over his steed. This man exuded a quiet calm assurance, that with him in charge, everything would go well; the railway system bred such men in their thousands. Whilst the driver was engaged in his ritual, the fireman, whose job for the next few hours was to feed this grey hound with something like ten tons of coal, was by this time relaxing, sitting reading his newspaper, conserving his energy for the toil ahead.
Meanwhile, the station staff were antlike busy, seeing to the hundred and one last minute preparations. Reserved seat queries to be dealt with; luggage in advance to be stowed in the guards van, passengers' queries to be dealt with. By now, the Stationmaster (Mr L F Nickels) had set the scene with officialdom, as it was his custom, to be present at the departure. With appropriate seriousness, watches would be consulted, glances exchanged and with a flourish of hands and green flag waved, a shrill whistle would signal the right o' way.
As the engines' barked exhaust faded away into the surrounding hillsides, the station once more descended into a quiet calm of inactivity.
Winter and summer alike, Saturdays saw something of a migration of Kingswear and Dartmouth people to the Torbay area. The train preferred being the one fifty in the afternoon. I personally, mentally and physically prepared for this train as no other. You knew that a mad rush would develop by quite a crowd of people within a short time of departure. First of all make sure the Paignton and Torquay cheap day return ticket racks were full - even then, have some more in reserve ready to replenish the soon to be rapidly emptying compartment. Having done this, make sure that all available change was easy to hand and the desk area was clutter free. From one forty onwards, an already brisk trade would build to an almost frenzy by the time the train was ready to go. I always breathed a sigh of relief when the last passenger had hared round the railed platform, through the ticket barrier and dived on to the, by then, moving train. I would pull down the window flap and prepare to balance the books. It had been instilled into me that the most important thing was that after each train had gone, the first thing was to balance the tickets sold against cash receipts. This was done by systematically inspecting each ticket compartment and recording where tickets had been withdrawn from the rack. It was always an anxious moment when the final balance was made. Sometimes there would be more money than accounted for; this usually meant that you had forgotten something and so had to backtrack and check again, and again, if necessary. Alternatively, of course, there might be a shortage of cash, which usually meant you had given incorrect change at some point. Whichever way, short or over the exact amounts had to be scrupulously recorded and accounted for. Of course, this balancing time would, especially in the summer, be constantly disrupted by any number of things, such as, telephone calls, train enquiries - you name it.
Like the four seasons, the station had a cycle of its own - it always had and, it seemed, always would. However, by the time I was called up for my National Service in 1956, there were distant rumblings that all might not be as they seemed. The ever-growing ownership of private motor-cars was evident for all to see. Those whose business it was to see these things were busying themselves with their notebooks. As for me I it seemed the station would go on forever. Soon, it was time for me to keep my appointment with HM forces, little did I realise that my association with Kingswear and the railway was almost at an end.

IG

 Comments & Feedback

Sun Jan 3rd 2021, at 11:00 am
This is a long shot but by any chance have you heard of Gillian Lilley ?
I am looking for my grandma

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