Picture - The Gornergrat Bahn Zermatt
John Lancaster Wigan MP
Travels in Time 1960 - An account of two journeys, made by an inquisitive and impressionable teenager looking for adventure and fifty years later by his silver haired alter ego. Still inquisitive and impressionable but this time looking to indulge an increasing tendency for nostalgia and hopefully enjoy some good food along the way.
It's eleven o'clock on a warm Friday night in July 1960, it's pitch black and I'm standing on the cobbled paving stones of Starch House Square Preston wondering if I'm in the right place. It doesn't look like a bus station and even if it is it's shut. Wait though there's some activity, as my eyes adjust to the darkness a figure is shuffling towards me from the other side of the square. Just my luck it's a drunk coming to beg a few quid for his bus fare home, I have only a Swiss Railway Pass and £20 in my pocket which I've spent all year saving to finance this two weeks youth hostelling trip to the Alps, I dare not give him anything the budget is very tight and I can't risk running out of funds. I break the bad news to the Irishman who marches immediately to the centre of the square and harangues and denounces me to all four corners, at which point to my great relief floodlights are switched on and people coaches and buses start to appear as if by magic. My pal turns up with his parents who will see us off on Scout Motor's overnight bus service to Victoria Coach Station London, the first leg of our journey to Switzerland. The drunk, embarrassed by the bright lights brings his tirade to an abrupt end and slopes off to find another target. We locate our coach and load our rucksacks into the storage under the floor and settle into our seats ready to depart, I think we've got discounted fares through my pal's family contacts in the Ribble, Standerwick, Scout Motors company. These are the days before the motorways were built and you could still drive through the centre of most towns in England, when long distance road transport was still an adventure. I imagine it will be like travelling with Wells Fargo in the old western films we used to watch at the Ritz, admittedly the watering holes and livery stables have been replaced by modern all night 'greasy spoon cafes' and petrol stations but there will still be the ever present prospect of an attack by bandits or that a wheel might come off in a pothole just around the next bend. Our carriage though is the very latest technology to roll off the production line at Leyland Motors a 'Leyland Tiger' with two speed axle in the very smart Scout Motors cream and maroon livery, it will deliver us to our destination safely and hopefully refreshed and relaxed providing we get some sleep on the way.
We were soon on our way via the A6 and the A49 passing through Wigan to the first stop on Bridge Street in Warrington, it must have been just after midnight, perhaps a toilet stop for the driver, I'm sure there was no transport cafe there. The plan was to arrive at Victoria Coach Station at 7am the following morning so the programmed comfort and refreshment stops at several all night transport cafes had to be tightly controlled by the driver and there was always doubt as to whether anyone had been left behind. The nocturnal comings and goings at these transport cafes were fascinating to young explorers like us, car parks full of coaches going to all corners of the country North West Road Car Company from Salford, Smiths of Wigan, Crosville Motor Services from Chester and Wirral and Midland Red amongst others. Heavy goods vehicles of all shapes and sizes Leyland, Scammell, Erf, Foden, Atkinson, Albion, Commer, Crossley, Bedford, Austin, AEC, Morris and Thorneycroft, drivers enjoying their bacon sandwiches and pint mugs of tea as they renew acquaintances and social network with colleagues they regularly bump into on their travels. A busy nightlife we never knew existed until today and all part of the education. Sleeping only in fits and starts from all the excitement around us we realised we would have to make up for it later but neither of us wanted to miss anything. There is something surreal about bowling along the main thoroughfares of England during the night with the coach in overdrive quietly whisking us through sleeping towns with only the occasional disturbance from other traffic. Approaching Northamptonshire the breaking dawn appears on the horizon and we begin to see the occasional early riser emerging from their homes to begin the journey to work. We take the next comfort break in broad daylight amid further signs that the world is springing to life at the beginning of a new day, and taking to the road again we soon find ourselves on the outskirts of London navigating the North Circular and Edgware Roads. From here it's only a skip and a jump to Marble Arch and into Park Lane, Westminster, Belgravia, and Buckingham Palace Road to Victoria coach station our destination.
We're on time and with more than four hours to kill before we catch the afternoon boat train to Folkestone Harbour we decide to do some sightseeing. By 11.30am we have seen Buckingham Palace, the changing of the guard and other attractions within walking distance and are footsore and a little weary. We find a little coffee bar near the station and order some drinks. The Greek owner exhibits a rather large red scar across his left cheek, we decide it must be a hazard of the late night trade in this area with its rather curious mix of opulence and neglect. Feeling a little uneasy (but determined to look nonchalant) we sit down at a table facing the counter and near the door for a quick escape should anything kick off as they say up north. The only other patron of the cafe is a strange looking young man who looks a little high on drugs, of course he couldn't have been we didn't use drugs in those days did we? He was sitting on a step at the side of the juke box feeding it with coins, probably shillings playing the same record over and over again, I fully expected Sidney Tafler to put in an appearance any minute to collect his protection money. This cafe was not like your modern day Starbucks it was something else, when you have heard "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" for the fifth time without respite you begin to feel you've stumbled into the asylum. Looking back it was probably the result of an over-active imagination but both of us began to feel there was something sinister about this place and its rather strange clientele, we became rather uncomfortable and picked up our rucksacks and made our way to the station for the train.
It's with some satisfaction therefore that we stash our luggage on the rack and sit back to enjoy the next leg of the journey, as the green Southern Region electric train pulls out of the station bound for Folkestone Harbour it feels good to be on our way again. Before long the gentle motion of the train and general fatigue induce a deep sleep, we awake in a panic with the train stationary on the dockside and have to scramble to gather the bags for the transfer to the ferry. The sea is calm as we set out for the short crossing to Boulogne with British Rail's shipping line Sealink, a time to relax and tuck into some of the food we have brought with us for the journey. We don't have long to wait at the other end as the most enormous steam train pulls into the dockside station, SNCF's finest connected to an apparently endless set of mixed carriages first and second class, sleeping cars, couchettes and normal seating accommodation for those on a budget like us. We have reserved seats just in case the train is full and hope against all the odds to discourage others from joining us in the compartment so we can sleep across the seats, on the floor or the luggage rack. In the event we offer only token resistance as the train is invaded by what looks like an elite regiment of the French army, only two join us in our compartment but their equipment leaves little space for anyone else. To our great relief conscription into the British Army has just been abolished but we have a sneaking admiration for these soldiers and speculate what they are up to and where they are bound, Algeria or some other North African state is a good bet. We look for badges and other insignia, could they belong to the Foreign Legion and heading for their depot in Marseilles? We don't speak the language so we'll never know! It's dark as the train gets under way and takes some time to build up speed, I'm struck by the smooth progress on the French welded track and the speed across the flat countryside, but the gentle motion makes us feel sleepy after a hectic day and we are soon curled up in our seats and sleeping like babies. At some point during the night I wake conscious that the train is stationary and find we are again alone in the compartment. Pulling the blind to one side I see the bright lights of a deserted station and can just make out the word "Paris" on one of the platform signs but cannot tell which station, I guess probably Paris Est. The train seems to remain in the station for quite a long time, but I settle down again to sleep for another few hours to wake aware of movement along the corridor outside, it's dawn and people are taking advantage of the opportunity to wash and brush up before reaching our destination. Not sure how much time we have we join the queue and emerge onto the platform in Basle fresh as daisies and raring to go again after a thirty six hour journey. We pass through customs and set out from the Swiss side of the station to explore Central Switzerland, the Bernese Oberland, Valais and Neuchatel before retracing our steps back to England. (Above is a picture of the buffet bar on the French platforms of Basle station just before midnight and the departure of the overnight service to Boulogne taken sometime in July 1960).
Basle Now and Then 2010 - 1960,
continued in part 2 - Click Here
Palfreyman July 2010