Reading about railways

Illustrated poster for Great Northern Railway Whitsuntide Excursions, showing a woman dressed in Edwardian fashion in a field

Great Northern Railway Whitsuntide Excursions Poster, 1904 (catalogue reference: COPY 1/216 (407))

Flying back from my summer holiday this year there wasn’t a lot of conversation on the plane, just a spare seat next to me and plenty of thinking time! So my thoughts turned to wondering where to go for my next holiday; maybe take a train along the south coast?

Trains cause frustrations at times but where would we be without them? Waterloo station has always been the main starting point of travel for me and it is so rich in history and ghosts of the past. I can’t help thinking about the evacuee school children of 1939, and the thousands of men who were transported to enemy lines. In Railways of the Great War Colette Hooper and Michael Portillo explore some remarkable stories, from the exploits of railwaymen at the Front to the secrets of railway spies who worked behind enemy lines, as well as the manufacture of munitions in railway workshops. The book also explores the ways in which Britain’s locomotives, railway companies and skilled railway workforce moulded the course of the conflict, from mobilising men and moving weapons to transporting food for troops.

Did you see the programme ‘Great British Railway Journeys’, in which Michael Portillo took different train journeys inspired by Bradshaw’s Handbook? The Handbook is a copy of the actual book (original produced in 1863) and is often referred to as Bradshaw’s Guide. It was the first national tourist guide specifically organised around railway journeys in Britain. If you know a railway enthusiast, historian or traveller, this leather-bound book would make a fine Christmas present and a collector’s item!

If you have already booked a journey and are in need of something to read on the way, we have Daniel Defoe’s Railway Journey, which is flying off our shelves at the moment! The book describes a journey undertaken by two eccentric pensioners as they travel every mile of railway track in the UK mainland. Influenced by the ghost of writer and spy Daniel Defoe, who completed his own journey in the 1720s, Stuart Campbell describes their adventures and the people they meet along the way. Just the ticket to while away those moments as you are transported to your destination!

I have only seen and heard a steam train from a distance. I watched the film The Railway Children with childish enthusiasm but I have never ridden aboard one. For fanatics of the steam-train era Railway Maps of Great Britain, 1924 is a must have! The early 1920s were an exciting time for Britain’s intricate network of railways, amalgamating dozens of small companies into a system monopolised by the ‘Big Four’ – the LNER, the GWR, the SR and the LMS. The Grouping Act, implemented in 1923, transformed the way that the nation travelled. This box contains a set of maps which surveys the four routes, describing their construction, operation and the iconic express trains that served them in the days of steam.

The Railways: Nation, Network and People reminds me of my sociology studies for O Level, back in the day. In relation to the subject of transport and trains, it is a highly recommended and informative read. It reflects a story of technological achievement of Britain’s railways; of architecture and engineering; of shifting social classes and gender relations; of safety and crime; of tourism and the changing world of work. Using fresh research, keen observation and a wealth of cultural references it explores the evolution of Britain’s trains and the changing experiences of passengers and workers. It is amazing how a study of the railways reveals so much about the changing nature of our wider society.

We may complain about them but trains were and, to an extent, still are a part of the lives of a very great many people. A study of railways is a study of Britain!


  1. David Matthew says:

    I agree what you say about trains and for me London Victoria was the starting point (hours spent waiting to be served to get a ticket for Europe and reservations through the ‘German Computer’, the ‘French Computer’ or the ‘Italian Computer’, 30 minutes was not uncommon. I started too late for ‘Night Ferry’ to Paris and Brussels (it ceased in 1980), no Channel Tunnel) one of the last vestiges of the Pullman service. For me the Thomas Cook Timetable (copies are held in the records at Kew) as well as altered train services in the 1930s at the time of Nazi dominance of Europe. Somewhat depressingly it used to take 5 hours from London to Glasgow in 1973 and only a small reduction now. The delights of the Trans-Europe-Express (TEE) is another loss these days, spending time planning and looking out for planned alterations. Eric Robson’s episode of ‘Great Railway Journeys’ (Changing Trains) from BBC 1 is very good from 1980, the first time Michael Palin travelled on trains on TV (London-Kyle of Lochalsh). The mad rush by LNER and LMS trains to get to Perth signal box (which LNER ran) to see who could get to Aberdeen first is interesting.

  2. Clive Edwards says:

    Last week we went on the wonderful GWR, the Gloustershire and Warwickshire Railway and was reminded how much our lives were involved with railways.
    My great grandfather was a railway carter at Ludlow. A cousin was tfor many years the stationmaster at Stratford upon Avon and wore a top hat to welcome important passengers. Another cousin was a signalman near Luston (between Ludlow and Leominster) and as a young boy I walked across the fields with him to his GWR signal box and was allowed to move the brass levers to change the rails. The GWR engines with their magnificent name plates made such an impression on me. Later in Newton-le-Willows I lived near the Vulcan Foundry where engines were made (in the war it was tanks) and I collected numbers on the Liverpool to Manchester line and saw the memorial in Lowton to the first train fatality. The royal family stopped overnight near there. Express trains used to whizz past on the London to Scotland line.
    I now have a railcard and must use it!

  3. John Sefton Purdon says:

    I have many happy memories of the railways going back to the late nineteen thirties. Travelling on the LNER to Newcastle upon Tyne and eating in the Restaurant car. I can recall to this day the almost musical notes made by the crockery and silver as the train swayed slightly as it moved along. Also train spotting on the LMS line from St Pancras or Euston and even as a small Boy going to the Willesden Sheds in London to collect numbers and getting vey dirty from the smoke and cinders. I remember my friend and I buying a Tube ticket for a penny ha’penny and tearing it in half -one for each of us and the Conductor saying “What’s this then? Three farthings each?! My Father always went to the front of the Train at Euston or St Pancras and thanked the Driver. I am 83, now living in Ontario, Canada

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