The Surprise

1. ADVERTISEMENT

"Glorious Devon, Mysterious Cornwall - see them from the comfort of our luxury steam-hauled train. Experience a day in the style of yesteryear with silver service dining and first class comfort, from a station near you.”

Peter was reading the Leisure section of his local paper. There were always travel offers for the readers, usually at bargain prices. He and Wendy had been on many of these; short break coach trips to Paris, a fly-drive holiday to Ireland, a cruise on the Rhine aboard a hotel boat and lots more. None of them had been bad; some of them had been excellent. The key factor of these offers was value for money rather than out-and-out luxury but that was unimportant to them on a short break. In fact they preferred to take a series of mini-trips to a traditional two-week holiday in the sun.

This one wasn’t exactly cheap but had a lot going for it. Besides, they were comfortably off, having run their own small business for most of their working lives. Their children were grown up and had left home, leaving Peter and Wendy to rattle around in their detached five-bedroom house in a smart suburb. When they bought it they’d had to contend with two sets of lively teenagers, the friends of their children Alison and Mark. Now it was usually as quiet as the grave.

Alison had left first to go to university. Mark moved out last summer and now shared a flat with his girlfriend. Wendy had suffered from empty nest syndrome for a while but soon had her time and attention taken by her mother who, though she lived alone and was quite capable, couldn’t be ignored. She had been demanding of late and Wendy was looking a bit run down. Peter decided that a day out being waited upon hand and foot was what she needed, so he booked two tickets as a surprise.

He told her to keep the third Saturday in May free. She was intrigued but failed to persuade him to divulge the details, though not for her lack of trying. He relented the evening before the trip, as she quite reasonably wanted to know how she should dress for the mysterious occasion.

"Well, I’d never have guessed what it was. I feared it might be one of those dreadful Rotary Club events.” Peter was active in his local branch but Wendy never felt comfortable making small talk with the other members’ wives. “A steam train trip - now there’s a novelty. The last one of those I had was in the ‘60s, a holiday with Mum and Dad, that was in Cornwall too.” She was clearly excited about the prospect.

2. DEPARTURE

The day of the excursion dawned and Peter and Wendy took a taxi to Barnhurst Station where people were already awaiting the arrival of the special train. Most looked as though they would be travelling but there were groups of train spotters in evidence, notebooks and cameras at the ready. A steam engine on those tracks was a rare sight indeed.

Peter felt the locomotive approaching before he heard it, a deep vibration beneath his feet, then the throbbing beat of the exhaust filled the air, followed by the actual arrival of the train. The steaming leviathan drew to a halt and Peter caught the distinctive sulphurous smell of the smoke, a wonderfully evocative reminder of a bygone age.

Not everyone was travelling first class; some were carrying picnics, others would avail themselves of the fare from the buffet car but all shared the same sense of anticipation and excitement. Peter and Wendy made their way to their designated carriage, a restored veteran from the 1960s in carmine and cream livery with a wood panelled and brocaded upholstery interior.

The uniformed steward checked their tickets and led them to a pair of facing seats across a small table, smartly laid for breakfast with starched linen and gleaming cutlery. After removing their coats and stowing them on the overhead rack they sank into the deeply cushioned armchairs as the guard’s whistle shrilled and the first signs of movement were detected.

One stewardess brought a selection of complementary newspapers and they took their usual Telegraph and Mail. Another followed, serving tea and coffee to the newly embarked passengers. The train left Barnhurst and, as it steamed westward, Peter and Wendy started their Great British Breakfast. Always an enjoyable meal, Wendy relished it all the more for not having had to cook it. She loved surprises and this was the best one she’d had in years.

The train made its way in an arc around North London and out along what many still think of as Great Western metals, many decades after the demise of that sadly-missed company. On station platforms and by the roadside, onlookers admired the gleaming Hall Class locomotive, an elderly lady back on her old home territory. Small children were lifted for a better view of this strange puffing beast and to wave at the people in the pristine carriages behind it.

Peter looked at Wendy, waving her regal wave to a family in an estate car travelling the road alongside them. The train was gaining on it and soon it dropped behind their gaze. The weather forecast was good, they had breakfasted well and there was nothing to do but enjoy the constantly changing scene passing by their window.

It was quite idyllic; Peter thought he could get used to this sort of thing. Wendy looked ten years younger; the worry of recent times was absent from her face. This was how he’d dreamed their retirement would be - a fit, healthy middle-aged couple with the means to enjoy life to the full.

3. THE FOG

The train sped on, stopping only for a crew change at Reading. By this time a rosy glow had settled over Peter and Wendy. They were thoroughly relaxed, dipping into their newspapers, chatting to their fellow passengers and joking with the stewards. The sun shone brilliantly, rising in the spring sky.

There’d been a lot of rain last winter and the evidence remained in the waterlogged countryside. A mist rose above the Kennet valley, masking the fields and farmhouses. Soon after they passed Newbury the mist had become a fog, enveloping the line-side in a white robe. Not what they forecasted, Peter thought, but there was a long way to go before they reached their destination.

Sure enough, the fog lifted a few miles before they reached Taunton. As the train ran through the station, Peter noticed another steam engine at the adjacent platform. Further down the line two tank engines were hard at work, shunting strings of mixed goods wagons. “This was the first steam train I’d seen in years, now I’ve seen four!” he remarked to Wendy who barely glanced up from her colour supplement.

Peter returned to his paper for a while. The next time he looked out the window the train was running parallel to a dual carriageway. Pristine Vauxhall Victors and Ford Anglias vied for space with Hillman Minxes and Triumph Heralds. This was a day of surprises, he mused, vintage steam and a classic car rally.

The train slowed as it passed through Exeter, affording them a good view of the Cathedral. Turning south, it ran down the Exe Valley towards Dawlish and the sea. They passed a small garage with a car showroom alongside. Emblazoned across the top of the window, a large banner read “The Ford Classic Is Here!” Through the window Peter saw the unmistakeable shape of Ford’s new generation family car for the 1960s. “Did you see that?” he asked his neighbour across the aisle.

"See what?” the man replied, munching his way through a packet of crisps. He’d put away his own cooked breakfast and half of his wife’s, now he’s snacking, thought Peter. He’s definitely someone who lives to eat rather than eats to live. “Oh, never mind”, Peter replied.

The train reached Dawlish Warren and turned along the celebrated coastal section to Teignmouth. Everyone’s attention was taken by the magnificent sea views and Peter forgot about the strange sight a few miles back.

The sun shone down on a glorious spring day and the stewards began to prepare the tables for lunch. That’ll please Kenwood (as he had mentally nicknamed his food-processing neighbour), Peter thought as he folded his Telegraph.

The train turned up the Teign Estuary and came to a halt at Newton Abbot Station for another crew change. Peter looked out at family groups waiting on the platform; men in suits and ties, women wearing little hats, young boys in short trousers and girls with pigtails. A blinding flash of realisation hit him. He leaned forward across the table, grasping Wendy’s arm. Startled, she looked up as he whispered, “something incredible’s happened!”

4. PAST AND PRESENT

It took Wendy some time to realise the point that Peter was making. While the stewards served lunch, Peter told her everything he’d seen; from the steam engines at Taunton to the people in their mid-20th Century clothes at Newton Abbot. “That’s very strange,” she said in a low voice, “a nostalgic journey is one thing; you don’t expect the whole West Country to get in on the act!” They sat quietly, observing the changing scene as they made their way towards their destination. Not one vehicle in sight had been built later than the early 1960s and some were considerably older.

The train pulled into Par Station where they had hoped to take a taxi to the Eden Project, a few miles away. In the station yard were two dilapidated vehicles bearing Taxi signs on their roofs, an Austin A55 Cambridge and a Ford Consul Mark 2. They were not enthusiasts’ cars; both had clearly seen better days, waiting for the occasional passenger who wanted a ride into town.

"How much to the Eden Project?” Peter asked the driver of the first taxi at the rank. “The what?” replied the driver, “I’ve lived here all me life but I’ve never heard of it!”

Peter looked down at the Daily Mirror at the driver’s side, clearly remembering the old masthead. “Never mind,” he said, “we’ll walk into town.”

The driver, sensing his fare was slipping away, said “I can take you there, only half-a-crown.” “No thanks,” Peter replied, “it’s a lovely day and the exercise will do us good.”

They left the station yard and started walking towards the town. “Why couldn’t we have taken the taxi?” asked Wendy, a bit miffed at having to walk the mile or so to Par on her big day out. They passed two teenage girls with ponytail hairstyles; one of them was carrying a transistor radio. Cliff Richard was singing “The Young Ones."

"Because we’re broke”, said Peter. Wendy stopped and turned to face him. “We’re not, I went to the cash machine yesterday,” she said a bit tetchily. “Oh, we’ve got money,” Peter replied, “plenty of it in fact, but nothing we can spend here. They say the past is a foreign country and that’s just where I think we’ve landed - the past - sometime in the early ‘60s if I’m not mistaken!”

5. ANOTHER COUNTRY

Every step they took confirmed the awful truth. Nostalgia had turned into reality and nostalgia’s not what it used to be. The town had an otherworldly feel, like stepping onto a film set. Complete strangers wished them good afternoon as they passed by, in total contrast to life in the early 21st Century where some people barely acknowledge their neighbours’ existence.

They passed a small café, the sort that caters for tourists, whose menu might have inspired the famous Monty Python sketch. Peter and Wendy couldn’t remember when they’d last seen Spam on a menu, and in so many combinations. The ice cream range was similarly mundane, being only vanilla in cones and wafers, plus a few ice-lollies. All the prices chalked on the blackboard were in pre-decimal money, real money as Peter sometimes referred to it. It seemed unbelievable that things were ever as cheap, even allowing for the lower level of wages.

"It’s a good thing we had lunch on the train,” Peter remarked, “but I wouldn’t mind a drink.” He pushed at a pub door and met total resistance - it was locked. A trilby hatted passer-by looked on in amazement, as if anyone would want a drink after closing time.

"A cup of tea would have been far more refreshing,” said Wendy, eyeing an old-world teashop across the street. “Not many years ago there were still shilling and two shilling pieces in our change. They’ll think we’re from another planet if we offer them pound coins. I’m afraid it’ll have to be water from over there”.

The fountain was the gift to the town from some long-dead benefactor. An iron cup hung from one side by a chain. Shutting his mind to the hygiene considerations Peter held the cup under the spout and drank deeply from the icy cold water. A lot better for my health, he thought, the pub’s probably only got Watney’s Red Barrel or something just as dreadful.

They walked out of town in the direction of Fowey, past a sandy beach that even early in the season had determined holidaymakers encamped on it. People huddled behind canvas windbreaks while their children made sandcastles and paddled their toes in the sea. There was innocence about the scene that struck a chord with Wendy, remembering that last holiday with Dad. He was already becoming ill but stoically suffered in silence until it was too late. A tear ran down her cheek at the thought.

"Enjoy it while you can,” Peter said to nobody in particular, “you’ll soon be jetting off to some concrete Costa with cheap booze, tummy bugs and hangovers”. Wendy’s mood lightened somewhat at this. Same old Peter, she thought, same old prejudices.

They wandered on, taking in the amazing sights and sounds. There were relatively few vehicles around, just like they remembered from the era of their teens. Most cars were old, some from before the Second World War, with only a handful of recent models. Their fellow promenaders were dressed quite formally for a Saturday afternoon stroll. The age of smart casual clothing was still some years off; most men wore a tie and their wives a hat or a headscarf. Even their conversation seemed strangely formal.

They turned around and walked back towards the town. Wendy noticed a handwritten sign outside a church hall, advertising a jumble sale. A keen collector of early 20th Century chinaware, she persuaded Peter to accompany her to see what bargains might be inside. The stalls in the small hall were mostly covered with household items and bric-a-brac, some interesting bits and pieces of china but no Clarice Cliff. The mainly female shoppers rifled through the merchandise with the sharp eyes of bargain hunters. A stack of Shadows records played in succession on a Dansette sitting atop the stage, tended by a spotty youth wearing National Health glasses.

Peter smiled, remembering the time he’d saved his pocket money to buy each of the Shads’ releases. His eye was taken by a collection of Matchbox toys in pristine condition, most of them still with their boxes. He’d read recently that they were fetching a fortune at auction but he hadn’t got the right currency to buy them. The effect was like being in one of those museums of yesteryear that exploit the market for nostalgia.

They were amazed at the friendliness and generosity of everyone they met. Offered tea, Wendy politely declined, saying they’d come out for an impromptu walk and hadn’t brought any money. The motherly woman with the giant teapot, the minister’s wife, insisted that they accept a cup each - free of charge - and told them to help themselves to biscuits. They found themselves drawn into conversations and didn’t notice the passing of time.

A grandfather clock struck five just as a buxom woman in a Girl Guide captain’s uniform made a beeline for them. Peter realised they had about half an hour to get back to the station or risk missing their train home. The woman blocked their exit. “Would you like some tickets for our little show next Saturday, only two shillings each,” she said forcefully as though she’d brook no refusal.

"We’re busy next Saturday,” Wendy quickly interjected, “otherwise we’d have loved to come.” “Well, take a leaflet in case you change your mind,” replied the Guide captain, thrusting a piece of paper at Wendy who folded it in half and pushed it into her handbag. “Sorry, we’ve got a train to catch” said Peter, propelling Wendy towards the door and out into the street as what seemed like everyone there wished them goodbye.

Wendy’s sandals were totally unsuitable for a forced march and, by the time Par station came into view, her toes and heels had blistered. Peter half-dragged her along behind him, into the station and across the footbridge where their train stood. The engine was snorting impatiently as if it knew they were the culprits who’d been keeping it waiting.

"Hurry along now” shouted the station master, who had turned out himself to see off this important “special”. All the other passengers were aboard and he held a green flag, gathered in his hand. He opened a door for them and pushed it shut the moment they were inside. They heard a shrill whistle and felt a jolt as the engine took up the slack and the train pulled away.

They collapsed into their seats. Wendy kicked off her sandals in blessed relief.

6. HOMEWARD BOUND

For an hour they basked in the glow of people who’ve achieved their aim, even if it was only catching their train. A gin and tonic apiece contributed to their rosy feeling.

The tables had already been laid and the stewards started serving dinner as the train sped homeward through Devon. Comfort food - mushroom soup, followed by roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with treacle tart and custard for dessert. A bottle of Australian Shiraz accompanied their main course and Peter had kept some back to drink with the assortment of cheeses and biscuits. Their meal was rounded off with coffee and Belgian chocolates. Wendy had been too full to eat her cheese and passed it over to Peter. Amazingly, she found room for her chocolates and Peter’s too.

Peter noticed that his neighbour across the aisle had hoovered up all the surplus food from his wife and children’s plates, just as he’d done on the outward journey. It’s a wonder he doesn’t burst out of that tracksuit, Peter thought. Feeling mellow after his meal, Peter asked him how their day had been.

"Went to that Eden Project; a lot of nothing, just plants and things in big bubbles. Waste of money,” the man said in his Thames Estuary accent. “Boring!” his son confirmed, not looking up from his Game Boy. It takes all sorts, thought Peter with a smile. The man didn’t bother to ask after Peter and Wendy’s day but that was just as well. His meal over, he started munching on a Mars bar.

Walking along the aisle, Peter heard a number of people talking about their visits to the Eden Project, all of them a lot more complimentary than Kenwood and his family, people who appreciated what was being done there and why. Later it dawned on Peter that their day had been a normal, contemporary one, in contrast to his and Wendy’s.

They stopped at Newton Abbot for a crew change. By then it was dark but Peter saw it was getting misty outside. They resumed their journey and, before long, they couldn’t see the line-side for fog. “There’s something very strange about this area,” Peter said to Wendy but she had settled deep into her armchair and was fast asleep.

7. BACK HOME

The train pulled into Barnhurst Station a little after 11pm. They bade farewell to their fellow passengers and got down onto the familiar platform. A Ford Galaxy sat at the head of the taxi rank. They hired it and it took them the three miles home. Inside, they removed their coats and went into the lounge. Peter poured two glasses of Bowmore, handed one to Wendy and sat down. He lit a small cigar, drew deeply on it and sat back in his chair.

"Well, you don’t do things like that everyday,” he volunteered to Wendy. She noted his tendency to state the obvious but didn’t remark on it. “Just as well, my feet are in shreds,” she replied wearily. “It really was a lovely day, thank you very much,” she said, leaning over and kissing him. “I can’t get over what happened,” Peter said. “It’s impossible, I just wish I’d taken my camera. We must have been affected by the wine at dinner and imagined the whole thing.”

"I reckon we must have,” Wendy said, taking her handkerchief out of her handbag. A piece of paper dropped to the floor and Peter picked it up. Opening it, he read

PAR METHODIST PLAYERS PRESENT

A Concert Performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s

“HMS PINAFORE”

Saturday 23rd May 1962

© Brian Smith 2002

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