The Steel Byway
(An essay published in the Railway Correspondence & Travel Society's Locomotive Stock Book 1939)
Enjoyment of travel on a minor railway is quite a modern phase of railwayism. Taxis had to come before we realised how jolly an occasion was a ride in a hansom cab. So with the Steel Byway. It had been half-killed by the lorry and the country 'bus before many of us came to know it for the pleasing thing it is.
The old attitude towards the minor railway was one of condescension, and this took two forms. Those who wrote about it did their best to point out how very like a main line railway it was, when you looked closely. It was well rubbed in that the Rother Valley locomotives were painted like those of the Great Eastern, and the tramcar-like vehicles of the Garstang and Knott End were bravely described as "handsome new corridor carriages." If it were beyond human power to go on in this strain, regarding a certain railway, they went to the other extreme and called it a "toy railway." To this day, in Portmadoc, you can buy picture post-cards of what the publisher labels the "Festiniog Toy Railway," and even the Company's posters descend to similar baseness. Take one ride up to Festiniog and back, travel through the tunnel in one of those open-sided observation car things with the engine working hard, and see if you don't want to bash someone's face in! Toy railway my hat!
Yet the toy railway ramp was an important one. It was responsible, in 1915, for the revival of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway by its conversion into a 15in. gauge miniature line. It was really much more interesting in its original form, but the transformation did the trick. Yet what railway lover, to-day, would like to see the Tal-y-llyn Railway treated likewise? It would be like pulling down a beautiful old pub and building a fun-fair on the remains. The Tal-y-llyn Railway hasn't changed at all since the middle of the 'sixties, and to-day people flock to ride on it during the holidays. Not only people who like railways, but all sorts of people. I was on it last summer, and our antediluvian coach was boarded by an open-air, hatless, blonde lady in blue trousers, with quite half-a-dozen children, who had arrived in Towyn with a travel-stained Morris and a trailer caravan. And as we went bumping up the valley, at the regulation eight-miles-an-hour, she suddenly said to her five-year-old girl: "Why, Caroline, you've never been in a train before, have you?"
To which Caroline gravely answered: "No."
Verily, more than once I have seen a motoring party, who wouldn't give a glance to the Royal Scot or the Cheltenham Flyer, draw up and wait at Northiam crossing to watch the Kent and East Sussex evening train pass on its clanking way down to Robertsbridge.
I have a particular affection for the Kent and East Sussex, for I am one of its regular passengers. Unfailingly I use it, six times a year. It's a wonderful line. When you have changed into its train at Robertsbridge, and the lordly Southern express has passed disdainfully away in the Hastings direction, you feel that you have really escaped from the world of escalators, scarlet 'buses, tube cars and neon signs, from the monstrous conglomerate of semi-detached love-nests, super-movie-houses and Southern Electrics.
How jocund is the mellow whistle of your ancient engine as she goes butting along beneath a nave of trees! How engaging are the coloured views of the Cornish Coast on the partition, so disarmingly labelled "Places of Interest on this Railway"! Even better was the old royal saloon belonging to the 'forties, which I can truthfully say was one of the most agreeable carriages I have ever ridden in. From an antiquarian point of view, the K.E.S. has improved with the years. It started in 1900 with two engines and some carriages and wagons, all new. Now, its best locomotives belong to the 'seventies, and the carriages average about ten years younger.
Then, what can be more pleasing than the Isle of Man Railway? On this the traditions of a former age have survived without it getting shabby or poverty-stricken in the meantime. Indeed, the I.M.R. really is something like a main line system in miniature. It has all the dignity of a main line, you find, when you first pass under the elegant Victorian red brick façade of the terminus at Douglas, and its locomotives, from the Sutherland of 1873 to the Mannin of 1926 are things of beauty. There is a picture to be painted, a picture of one of those gleaming little Manx trains coming into Union Mills, which is without doubt one of the world's finest garden stations.
The minor railway has fallen on sad days during the past twenty years. The Lynton and Barnstaple has gone, and the price of coal in Lynton went shooting up as soon as the trains had ceased running. I enjoyed hearing that. A friend told me I ought to write a fable about it - The Town that wouldn't support its Railway. The Welsh Highland has gone. The Manifold Valley has gone. The Campbelltown and Machrihanish has gone. Even the Lauder Light, on which I remember the train waiting while the enginemen breakfasted with the Oxton stationmaster, has ceased, like many others, to have passenger trains. But let us hope that one or two beautiful anachronisms will survive the slaughter, and that in years to come pilgrims will flock to see a lovingly cared-for Festiniog, and a changeless Isle of Man Railway, as to-day they flock to see Chester, or Lavenham, or Polperro.