THERE WAS A TIME when one could take a train from London to Portsmouth, cross the Solent by ferry to Ryde on the Isle of Wight, and then take another train from Ryde to Ventnor. This was before 1966 when the station at Ventnor was closed forever. A century earlier, in 1866, this station opened to rail traffic. The closure was part of an extensive plan (devised by Dr Richard Beeching [1913-1985]) to reduce Britain’s railway mileage.
The station, the southern terminus of the isle of Wight Railway, with its associated sidings was located on the site of an old quarry. It was almost completely surrounded by high cliffs. Trains reached it from Shanklin by emerging from a 1312-yard-long tunnel running beneath St Boniface Down. It must have been dramatic emerging from the tunnel to find oneself in the space surrounded by vertiginous rocky walls.
Today, the entrance to the tunnel, through which water pipes now run, is hidden by dense foliage. Nothing remains of the tracks, and only a small part of the former station building (ticket office etc.) remains. The space once occupied by the platforms and railway lines is now occupied by an assortment of buildings, comprising an industrial estate. Trains still run between Ryde and Shanklin, but Ventnor station has all but vanished.
LONDON’S WEST END includes the part of the city that contains areas such as Chinatown, Theatreland, Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Oxford Street, Mayfair, Soho, Fitrovia, and Bond Street. Before the 19th century, the western boundary of London was Park Lane, which runs along the west edge of the West End.
Until the end of the 18th century and even during the early years of the 19th, west of Park Lane and the West End was the Middlesex countryside, which was dotted with villages such as (for example) Paddington, Kensington, Chelsea, Hammersmith, Fulham, Acton, Ealing, and Southall. In between these then separated places there were farms, heathlands, parks, stately homes (such as Chiswick House and Osterley Park), and highwaymen.
During the 19th century, several things happened. London expanded in all directions and spread into what had been countryside. The small villages in Middlesex grew in size. Some of them coalesced. Canals and railways were built, and along with them, building in areas that had previously been rural, caused them to become urban. In brief, London spread relentlessly westward. What was called the West End, and is still so-called today, was no longer the west end of the city of London.
Although many previously rustic settlements (such as Paddington and other places mentioned above) became engulfed in the metropolis, most of them have retained at least a few reminders of their pre-urban past. Currently, I am putting the finishing touches on a book about London west of the West End. In it, I hope to help readers discover more about London’s western spread and what has survived it (despite being surrounded by the city’s western expansion).
THERE ARE NO MORE trains running to the picturesque town of Clare in Suffolk. Between 1865 and 1967, trains running on the Stour Valley Line between Marks Tey (in Essex) and Shelford (in Cambridgeshire) stopped at Clare Station. In 1961, you could leave London’s Liverpool Street Station at 8.30 am and reach Clare at 10.44 am (www.disused-stations.org.uk/c/clare/).
On a recent visit to Clare in August 2021, we decided to take a look at what remains of Clare Castle, which was built shortly after 1066 by Richard fitz Gilbert (1035-c1090), who took part in the Norman invasion of England (1066). To reach the remains of this structure, we walked across a large car park, at the far end of which is the attractive Clare Castle Country Park. The north side of the park is occupied by a tall conical mound, the motte of the former castle. On top of this, there is a short length of ruined, curved walling. Running east from the base of the motte, is a length of wall with one archway, presumably a wall that formed part of the castle’s bailey. These features are all that can be seen of the former castle. Exciting as this might be for historians, the park contains some other structures of historic interest. They are not as old as the castle, but fascinating, nevertheless.
The Country Park contains the platforms, station buildings, and the goods shed of the former Clare Station. These have all been preserved well and employed as leisure facilities for visitors to the park. The main station buildings on platform 1 contain a waiting room with its old fireplace and ticket office. Built in 1865 to a standard design used in 30 Great Eastern Railway stations, this building now serves as an eatery and café. Across the grassy strip, where the tracks used to be laid, is platform 2, with its own waiting room, now used as a visitors’ centre and souvenir shop. A short distance away from the old platforms, the former goods shed still stands. With an old-fashioned goods crane outside it, the shed contains toilets and other facilities for visitors. Clare’s signal box no longer exists as it was destroyed by fire in the late 1960s.
The line that used to run through Clare was closed in 1967 as part of a plan devised by Dr Richard Beeching (1913-1985), who became Chairman of the British Railways Board in 1961. Beeching was instructed by the British Government to devise a plan to increase the efficiency of British Railways. This was eventually executed and involved the closure of many stations, including Clare, and of many miles of track, including the Stour Valley Line. The last passenger train to stop at Clare was on the 4th of March 1967. Although trains used the line for a short time after this, none ever stopped at Clare again.
A visit to Clare is worthwhile because it is small town with many historic buildings and an attractive parish church. We visited recently on a Saturday morning when a small street market was in full swing. The town has several shops selling antiques and a few cafés, apart from that in the former railway station. We had visited Clare several times before, but it was only on our latest visit that we came across the old railway buildings. In this period when there is great concern about global warming and ‘saving the planet’ seeing the station and its platforms reminds us that Beeching’s plan to close so many lines was short-sighted because a good network of mass rail transport could contribute to reducing the current dependence on road transport and might reduce pollution. Thinking back to the 1960s, the time of Beeching’s plan, I do not recall that there was much concern about the future of our planet in those days.
A WIDE FOOTPATH runs south from Piccadilly along the eastern edge of Green Park. We have walked along this many times, but it was not until a few days ago that we noticed a small alleyway leading east from the footpath about 190 yards south of Piccadilly. This unmarked footway, which is barely wide enough for two people to pass each other, passes under a building and emerges opposite the Stafford Hotel on St James Place, a short cul-de-sac with a dogleg, which leads off St James Street. St James Place, whose construction began in 1694, is an attractive short street lined with many fine buildings, some of which I propose to describe. What made this lovely quiet road interesting for me was that several fascinating people have been associated with it. I will begin with a relatively recent inhabitant.
Number 9 was home to Sir Francis Chichester (1901-1972), who circumnavigated the world single-handedly in 1966/67. He lived here from 1944 to 1972. He sailed in his boat named Gypsy Moth IV. In 1929, Sir Francis attempted another exploit, to fly from New Zealand to Australia in his ‘plane, a de Havilland Gypsy Moth. He made the first ever flight from New Zealand to Australia. He was also the first person to land a ‘plane on both Norfolk and Lord Howe islands. If you want to see his historic boat, then you need to get down to Greenwich, where it is on display close to the much larger Cutty Sark.
There is another building in St James Place, which associated with water transport. The elegant number 20, an 18th century building, has been the London Club House of the Royal Ocean Racing Club since 1942. The Club was founded in 1925. Between 1822 and 1857, the building housed the servants who worked in number 21, which was demolished during WW2 (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp511-541#h3-0019).
Not far from Chichester’s house is number 4. This is the house from which the short-lived Polish born pianist and composer, Frederick Chopin (1810-1849), departed to give his last public performance at the Guildhall on the 16th of November 1848 (www.chopin-society.org.uk/articles/chopin-britain.htm). It was held:
“… in aid of a Polish charity, came at the end of a difficult six-month British sojourn, which had included concerts in Manchester (one of the largest audiences he ever faced), Glasgow and Edinburgh… Finally back in London, the composer-pianist spent three weeks preparing for what turned out to be his final recital by sitting wrapped in his coat in front of the fire at St James’s Place, attended by London’s leading homeopath and the Royal Physician, a specialist in tuberculosis. A week after the concert, he was on his way home to Parisian exile and death the following year.” (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/frederic-chopin-st-james-s-place).
Before discussing the most curious inhabitant of St James Place, I will discuss one of its famous residents, the writer and politician Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who founded “The Spectator” magazine in 1711. According to Peter Cunningham in his “Handbook of London” (published in 1850), Addison was living in St James Place by 1710. I am sure that we did not see any memorial celebrating this on any of the buildings in the street. Cunningham wrote, quoting from another source:
“Addison’s chief companions before he married Lady Warwick (in 1716) were Steele, Budgell, Philips, Carey, Davenant, and Colonel Brett. He used to breakfast with one or other of them at his lodgings in St James Place …”
His companions listed above were probably sympathetic to Addison’s Whig politics. However, Cunningham gives no indication of Addison’s address. He frequented the St James Coffee House in nearby St James Street, as he recorded in issue number 104 of his “Spectator”:
“That I might begin as near the fountain head as possible I first of all called in at St. James’s, where I found the whole outwardroom in a Buzz of Politics. The Speculations were but very indifferent towards the Door, but grew finer as you advanced to the upper end of the room, and were so very much improved by a knot of Theorists who sate in the inner Room, within the steam of the Coffee Pot, that I there heard the whole Spanish Monarchy disposed of; and all the line of Bourbons provided for in less than a Quarter of an Hour.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp459-471#h3-0014)
The coffee house was at number 87 St James Street. It was demolished to make way for a new building, erected 1904/05.
Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_James%27s_Place) lists many other notable residents of St James Place, including Oscar Wilde and Lord Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill, but omits one very interesting person, William Huskisson (1770-1830), whose residence at number 28 is commemorated by a plaque. This records him as having been a ‘statesman’. He was that as well as a financier and several times a Member of Parliament. He lived in Paris between 1783 and 1792 and witnessed the French Revolution. Although he had an active political life, what makes him remarkable was the manner of his death.
Against the better judgement of his physician, Huskisson attended the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway on the 15th of September 1830. Thomas Creevey (1768-1838) related the story in a letter written to a Miss Ord on the 19th of September 1830:
“Jack Calcraft has been at the opening of the Liverpool railroad, and was an eye-witness of Huskisson’s horrible death. About nine or ten of the passengers in the Duke’s car had got out to look about them whilst the car stopt. Calcraft was one, Huskisson another, Esterhazy, Billy Holmes, Birch and others. When the other locomotive was seen coming up to pass them, there was a general shout from those within the Duke’s car to those without it, to get in. Both Holmes and Birch were unable to get up in time, but they stuck fast to its sides, and the other engine did not touch them. Esterhazy, being light, was pulled in by force. Huskisson was feeble in his legs, and appears to have lost his head, as he did his life. Calcraft tells me that Huskisson’s long confinement in St. George’s Chapel at the King’s funeral brought on a complaint that Taylor is so afraid of, and that made some severe surgical operation necessary, the effect of which had been, according to what he told Calcraft, to paralyse, as it were, one leg and thigh. This, no doubt, must have increased, if it did not create, his danger and [caused him to] lose his life.”
(quoted from “The Creevey papers; a selection from the correspondence & diaries of the late Thomas Creevey, M.P., born 1768 – died 1838. Edited by Sir Herbert Maxwell”)
Thus, Huskisson achieved the dubious distinction of becoming one of the first widely reported casualties in a railway accident. The ‘Duke’ mentioned above was the Duke of Wellington and the engine that caused Huskisson’s death was the “Rocket”, a pioneering locomotive designed by Robert Stephenson in 1829. I wonder why his demise was not noted on the commemorative plaque.
Huskisson’s former home has a superb front door flanked by iron lampstands each with its own conical torch flame snuffer. St James Place has plenty of fine 18th century buildings as well as some newer ones. These include the Stafford and Dukes Hotels, which are late 19th and early 20th century in appearance. Number 26 St James Place, a mid-twentieth century building, bears a Civic Trust Award. It is a block of flats built 1959/60 to the designs of the architect Denys Lasdun (1914-2001), who also designed the National Theatre on the South Bank. It replaced an 18th century house that was destroyed by bombing in WW2. Although not unpleasing, it stands in stark contrast to the far more elegant older buildings near it.
Even greater contrast to its surroundings is the building on the northern corner of St James Place and St James Street. This avant-garde metal-clad structure, the Target Building, designed by Rodney Gordon (1933-2008) and completed in 1984, is opposite William Evans gun shop and houses the Stern Pisarro art gallery on its ground floor. One of the galleries owners, Lélia Pissarro, is a great-granddaughter of the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). The gallery specialises in Impressionist art amongst other things. While on the subject of art galleries, it would be easy to walk past number 6 St James Place without noticing a small plate on its front door that says ‘Agnews Est 1817’. Between 1877 and 2013, this gallery, which deals in the highest quality works of fine art (e,g. Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velasquez) was on Old Bond Street. Then, it relocated to number 6.
St James Place is only 180 yards in length, but as can be seen from the small selection of buildings I have chosen to describe, it is choc-full of historical associations. I am pleased that we discovered the tiny alley that led from Green Park to this fascinating cul-de-sac. And, finally, if you find that you are getting tired of staying at the Ritz Hotel, you would do well to book into one of the two hotels discreetly located in St James Place.
[PS I have not dealt with Spencer House because I hope to write about it in the future]
IN THE EARLY 1990s, I was invited to a wedding in central Italy. Although I could have flown or driven to Italy, I decided to travel by train and ferry (the Channel Tunnel had not yet been opened for use). In my bachelor days, I was not a careful packer. I used to stuff my clothes and other belongings into a rucksack in a disorderly way. I was puzzled about what to do with my smart suit that I planned to wear at the marriage ceremony. I was concerned that it would become badly creased whilst stuffed in my rucksack. I consulted one of my female colleagues at the dental practice in Kent, where I was working at the time. She gave me some useful advice that did not include asking the hotel to iron it for me.
On my way to Italy I stopped for a few days to visit some good friends who lived in Basel in Switzerland. They lived near to the terminus of a tram line that ran from the French Border, close to my friends’ flat, across the Swiss city to the German border. Although they no longer live in Basel, we now have other friends who live at the end of the same tram line, but close to the German border. Getting back to the early 1990s, I spent an enjoyable time in Basel. Before leaving, I bought an immoderate number of large bars of Swiss chocolate. My rather unhealthy plan was to take this chocolate to Italy and then after the wedding festivities were over, I would spend many happy hours eating obscene amounts of Swiss chocolate on the train while travelling back to the French coast. It seemed like a splendid plan at the time.
I arrived at the hotel in the Italian city where the wedding was to take place. As I was not yet trained to hang my clothes in wardrobes, I left my full rucksack on the floor for the duration of my stay. Following my colleague’s advice, I extracted my creased jacket and trousers from my ruck sack, put them on hangers, and hung them in the room’s attached bathroom. Following the instructions I had been given in Kent, I turned on the hot water and closed the bathroom door so that the bathroom filled with steam from the hot water, and then I went out for some hours. On my return, the suit looked respectable enough to wear after its steaming.
The wedding festivities stretched enjoyably over three days. On each day, I attended meals in restaurants and the marriage ceremony in a municipal office. We all ate well and drunk fine Italian wines. As the saying goes, ‘a good time was had by all’.
At the end of my stay, I crammed everything into the rucksack lying on the floor of the hotel room, and then made my way to the city’s station. I boarded a train heading north through Italy towards Switzerland and then Paris, where I had to travel between the Gare de l’Est and the Gare du Nord, from where trains to Calais departed.
As my train headed across the plain of the River Po south of Milan, I began to feel the urge to make inroads into my stash of Swiss chocolate bars, which at that moment I treasured as if they were bars of gold. I opened my rucksack in which they had been stored while I was staying in the hotel in Italy, my heart sunk, and I was filled with gloom. No, they had not been stolen. Far worse, they were still there but completely and utterly inedible. Each bar of chocolate had melted and then re-solidified. However, when they had been in a molten state, they had been distorted in such a way that the silver foil in which they had been wrapped by the manufacturers had become intimately intermingled with the chocolate. After it had cooled down and solidified, all of my chocolates were welded to the silver foil in such a way that it was impossible to separate what was potentially edible from the inedible distorted strata of foil running through the chocolate. What had happened, you might well wonder. Well, there had not been a heatwave during my stay in the Italian city. What I had not realised when I was staying in the hotel was that my hotel room had under floor heating and it was this that had been warming my rucksack filled with chocolate that had been lying on the warm floor for several days.
Looking back on this after so many years, it was probably a good thing that I had not been able to consume a huge amount of chocolate all in one binge, but this is not what went through my mind at the time.
AFTER EATING DELICIOUS KEBABS and a wonderful mutton biryani at Raavi Kebab, a Pakistani restaurant in Drummond Street close to Euston Station, we took a short post-prandial stroll around the area, a part of London that is home to University College London (‘UCL’), where my wife and I did our first degrees and we first met.
The west part of Drummond Street has become a desolate building site because of the works being undertaken to construct the HS2 railway. A building covered in tiles the colour of clotted blood stands in the midst of the building works. It looks like some of the entrances to older London Underground stations. It is located on the corner of Drummond and Melton Streets. It was the original entrance (opened between 1907 and 1914) to Euston station of the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, now part of the Northern Line, which is now accessed from within Euston railway station. The latter was built in the 1960s on the site of the demolished Euston Station (with its impressive Doric arch) built in the 19th century.
When the old Euston Station existed, Drummond Street stretched further east than it does today. It ran past the southern façade of the 19th century station and across the present Eversholt Street, ending at Churchway (not far from the current British Library).
All that remains of what must have been a splendid old station is a statue of the railway engineer Robert Stephenson (1803-1859) and two pavilions on Euston Road. These formed part of the entrance to the old station’s forecourt. Built of Portland stone in about 1870, they were designed by JB Stansby. The corners of these two buildings bear the names of the stations that were served by trains from Euston Station. Interestingly, these include cities such as Cork and Dublin, which are no longer within the United Kingdom. When the pavilions were constructed, the whole of Ireland was under British rule.
Strolling along Gordon Street, we passed the Ingold Chemistry building, part of UCL, where my wife and I spent many happy hours trying to synthesize various organic compounds, often ending up with tiny granules of non-descript materials, which might have been bits of broken glass rather than the desired product. Across the street, where there had once been an open-air entrance to the main campus of UCL there is a new building, glass-fronted at street level. Through the glass, we could see the mummified, clothed remains of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) in a glass container, instead of the old wooden one in which he used to be housed. Bentham was strongly associated with the foundation of UCL in 1826.
As I stared at Bentham, an opponent of slavery, through the windows of the new building, I wondered what his views were, if any, on colonialism in India. Some of Bentham’s followers, such as John Stuart Mill, had been employees of the East India Company. Mill and Bentham, were not opponents of British colonialism, but did criticise it.
It was almost dark when we walked into the garden of Gordon Square, a place overlooked by the homes of some members of the famous Bloomsbury Group, a set of British intellectuals and artists, which thrived during the first half of the 20th century. We discovered something that had not been present when we last visited the square some years ago. This is a bust of the Bengali genius Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Created by Shenda Amery, it was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in July 2011, seventy years after Tagore’s death and one hundred and fifty years after his birth.
Tagore coined the name ‘Mahatma’ for the Indian Nationalist and freedom fighter MK Gandhi and also composed (in 1911) both the words and music of the Indian national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana”. The eminent historian Ramchandra Guha explains in his “Makers of Modern India” that:
“Tagore was a patriot without quite being a nationalist. He was no apologist for colonial rule… he was dismayed by the xenophobic tendencies of the populist edge of the Indian nationalist movement. He thought that India had much to learn from other cultures, including (but not restricted to) the West.”
Following the horrendous massacre of innocent Indians by soldiers under the command of the British at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, he returned his knighthood to King George V.
Tagore was sceptical about ‘non-cooperation’ as advocated, for example by Gandhi. He was also worried about the concept of nationalism as applied to India. In his book “Nationalism”, published in 1917, he wrote:
“When our nationalists talk about ideals they forget that the basis of nationalism is wanting. The very people who are upholding these ideals are themselves the most conservative in their social practice. Nationalists say, for example, look at Switzerland where, in spite of race differences, the peoples have solidified into a nation. Yet, remember that in Switzerland the races can mingle, they can intermarry, because they are of the same blood. In India there is no common birthright. And when we talk of Western Nationality we forget that the nations there do not have that physical repulsion, one for the other, that we have between different castes. Have we an instance in the whole world where a people who are not allowed to mingle their blood shed their blood for one another except by coercion or for mercenary purposes? And can we ever hope that these moral barriers against our race amalgamation will not stand in the way of our political unity?”
Tagore’s views on Indian independence were not as clear cut as many of the other advocates of freeing India from British rule, such as Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, and Vinayak Savarkar. He was essentially in favour of it but as Radha Chakravarty wrote in “The Essential Tagore”:
“For Tagore, the view of nationalism and patriotism that the movement was taking on was too narrow. He disengaged with the movement but remained expressive on the issue of independence through his art and writings … Fundamental to his belief was that nationalism could not rise above humanity…”
We left Tagore as his bust began to become less visible in the deepening gloaming and walked along Torrington Place past Waterstones bookshop that is housed in the pinnacle-rich building that once housed Dillons, the university bookshop. Almost opposite the north eastern corner of the bookshop, a private roadway leads into the UCL campus and under a circular archway. This was a familiar landmark for us when we were undergraduate students because it allows the roadway to pass beneath the building that housed ‘our’ Department of Physiology. Being August and in the midst of both the university holidays and the coronavirus pandemic, this normally busy roadway was empty.
We walked north along the east side of Gower Street passing a door marked ‘Anatomy’. This used to be an entrance to the Physiology Department, where I spent six years studying. During the last three of these, I used to have a key to the door so that I could let myself in whenever I wanted to do laboratory work on my PhD project. In those far-off days, security was far laxer than it is nowadays.
After passing the main entrance to UCL, we reached the corner of Gower Street and Gower Place. This building, now a part of UCL, used to house the medical bookshop, HK Lewis & Co Ltd. This, according to a plaque on the wall, was founded in 1844 in Gower Street, soon after UCL’s medical school was established in 1834. HK Lewis had a useful second-hand department, where I bought a few of my textbooks at prices not much lower than they would have been if they had been new.
We returned to our car parked in Drummond Street. Our favourite Asian grocery and Ambala’s sweet shop were already closed for the day. Raavi Kebab, a haven for carnivores, and its neighbour, the long-established Diwana Bhel Poori House, a haven for vegetarians, were still serving diners. These restaurants and several others in the street serving foods from the Indian subcontinent are run by folk whose ancestors were subjects of the British Empire prior to 1947. The street is a fine example of the idea suggested by the French colonial writer Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), namely, that eventually the colonial chickens come home to roost. And, thank goodness they have because they help to give London the vibrancy that makes it such a great city.
LIKE MANY OTHER YOUNG BOYS, the idea of being a train driver appealed to me. I am pretty certain that my parents would not have been ecstatic had I ended up in the driving cab of a railway train. Once my father told me that he did not mind what I studied or what profession I took up eventually, so long as it was not economics (he was a professor of economics). He had no need to be concerned about that, as what I could gather about economics made it sound unappealing to me. So, what did I consider after my urge to drive trains diminished?
From an early age, I used to spend much of my spare time drawing and painting, pursuits encouraged by my mother, who was an accomplished, but lesser known (and not self-promoting) painter and sculptress. In addition, in my early teens, I began to develop an interest in ‘modern’ architects including Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright. I read books about them and the idea of studying architecture, to become an architect, entered my head. My hope was to create structures as beautiful and innovative as those, which I had read about. After a year or so, I was walking back to school from our dining hall when I was struck by a depressing thought. If I studied architecture for the required seven or so years, there was a good chance that I would not be undertaking major, exciting projects like those which had made my architectural heroes famous. Instead, I might very well have ended up designing loft rooms, domestic garages, garden room extensions, and similar important but mundane structures. This thought dampened my enthusiasm to pursue architecture as a profession.
My next idea was to become a schoolteacher like those who taught me at my secondary school. I am incredibly pleased that this idea was short-lived because over the years the conditions that many schoolteachers have had to endure have deteriorated continuously.
My father, now long retired, was a university teacher (he became a senior professor at the London School of Economics). From my young vantage point, his lifestyle looked good. Despite working hard, which he did, he had lovely colleagues and many pleasant students as well as long holidays. His profession appealed to me and set me on the path of pursuing studies which I hoped would lead to an academic career. After completing my BSc, I worked on a research topic that led to me being awarded a PhD.
As I reached the completion of my doctoral work, two things began to worry me. One was that none the other British-based workers in the field that I was working (connective tissue physiology), whom I met at conferences and seminars, seemed like people with whom I would enjoy working. The prospects for obtaining post-doctoral work abroad were not good, and at that time I had no yearning to live outside the UK. Another thing that worried me, which I only realised after I left research, was that it was a lonely pursuit.
To cut a long story short, I began studying dentistry. I had an idea that with a clinical qualification, a wider range of research possibilities would become available to me. However, I discovered during the clinical dentistry course that I enjoyed working with people, members of the public, who were willing to risk their teeth in the hands of students. So, when I qualified as a dentist, instead of going back into research and academia, I began working as a practising dentist. I did this for 35 years with varying degrees of enjoyment and satisfaction. Overall, it was a valuable life experience for me, as I hope that it was for my patients.
I have been retired for over two years now and love it. Jokingly, I often tell friends that my main reason for going to work was to retire eventually. But there is an element of truth in this. Even now, so many decades since my childhood, I still enjoy railways and rail travel. I have not yet completely lost that juvenile desire to drive a train. Maybe someday, I might get to ‘have a go’ at the controls of a train. I have heard that these days drivers of London’s Underground trains make quite a good living. The money would be satisfactory but, more importantly, the thrill of controlling the train would be a fine reward.
Have you, dear readers, been satisfied with the tracks along which your working lives have travelled?
I AM AN INVETERATE COLLECTOR. During my childhood, I collected all kinds of things especially if they related to travel. For a long time, I hung on to my collection of used travel tickets: bus, air, rail, boat, tram, etc. I do not know what ever happened to my hoard of salt, pepper, and sugar sachets, and ‘sickness’ bags collected whilst on air flights. Likewise, my bags filled with London Transport bus maps have been long lost. I thought that I had mislaid my collection of exotic toothpaste tubes, but some of these, including those I bought in Albania in 1984, resurfaced recently. My extensive collection of printed airline timetables has disappeared, but not my library of railway timetables, most of which are safely locked into a storage unit. Let me tell you about some of them.
Some exotic toothpaste found in Serbia in 1990
I was in my late teens when I began collecting railway timetables, both British and overseas. One of my earliest gems was a paperback containing the timetable of CFR, the state railway system of Romania. Many decades later, when I was practising dentistry, my boss, Andrew, had a dental surgery assistant from Romania. Knowing that I had visited many places in south-east Europe, Andrew said to me:
“Adam, you must surely know a bit of Romanian. Say something to Cristina.”
“Well, actually the only words I know in Romanian are ‘mersul trenurilor’”
Cristina looked at me blankly for a minute or so, and then exclaimed:
“Aha, the programme of the trains.”
My first copy of “Mersul Trenurilor CFR” was given to me at the Romanian Tourist Office that used to be in Jermyn Street. A few years before I retired, I told a charming Romanian patient about my first two words in his language and how I had first encountered them. Some months later, he came to my surgery for some treatment and presented me with the latest edition of the timetable, which he had bought for me during a recent visit to his native land.
Another gem in my collection was a set of huge volumes containing the timetable of FS, Ferrovia Statale, the Italian railway network. The hall porter at a hotel where the family regularly stayed in Bologna was the source of these outdated editions of the timetable. He also gave me a large volume containing the timetable of SNCF, French railways.
Soon, I had the idea of sending letters to foreign railway companies to request their timetables. I used to address the envelopes containing the letters with simple addresses like “Central Station, Moscow, USSR”. Moscow replied, sending me a hardback the size and thickness of the Holy Bible (both testaments). It contained the timetables for passenger trains in the USSR. The timetable of MAV, Hungarian state railways, was as large as that from the USSR. From the advertisements contained within it, I learned one of my first words of Hungarian: ‘fogkrem’, which means ‘toothpaste’.
Someone in Tunis sent me not only the slender timetable of Tunisian Railways, but also an extremely old book of regulations (in French) for the Phosphate Railway of Gafsa. Some kind soul in Teheran sent me a small glossy-paged paperback containing the timetable of the railways of Iran. This volume, sent to me long before the Shah was deposed, is prefaced by photographs of the Shah and some of his family. Other people sent me the large timetable of South African Railways and a smaller volume containing the timings of Turkish railways. I bought timetable for its neighbour Greece in Athens.
A letter sent to the “Central Station, Prague, Czechoslovakia” hit the jackpot. My correspondent there sent me any used timetables he could find – from East Germany, from Czechoslovakia, and several thick volumes from Poland. In return, I sent him used British stamps, which he collected. This went on for several months, and then ended abruptly. I hope that he had not got into trouble for communicating with someone in the West. The timetable for East Germany (DDR) had a page written in the Sorbian language for the benefit of those few travellers who were born into the Slavic Sorb race, which lived in the DDR. I was given “Red Vožnje”, useful in Yugoslavia, by the Yugoslav Tourist Office that used to be in London’s Regent Street.
In 1970, I joined the BSc class in the Physiology Department of University College London (UCL). It was then that I met and made friends with an Indian woman, who was later to become my wife. At the end of the second year, she went back to India to see her parents who were then living in Calcutta. Before she left, I asked her to do me a favour. Yes, you have guessed what I asked her: to get me a copy of the timetable for Indian railways. She said she would.
Some months later, a small parcel arrived at my home. The paper in which it was wrapped was falling to pieces, only being held to the package by the string tied around it. The parcel contained a thick paperback, the timetable of Indian Railways. It was only many years later that my wife revealed to me how much trouble I had caused her father. Always ready to take up a challenge and determined not to disappoint his daughter’s new friend, he had sent someone from his office, a ‘peon’ (a lowly clerk), to Calcutta’s Howrah Station to obtain a timetable, but he came back empty-handed because the station had run-out of the current edition. Undeterred and unwilling to admit failure, my future father-in-law sent the peon back to the station at regular intervals until finally he obtained one to send me. Years later, when Lopa and I decided to marry, we telephoned her parents from my home (in Kent) so that I could ask their consent to our marriage. After Lopa had spoken to them, she told me what her father had said. He had asked her hesitatingly:
“Is that the boy … for whom … I had to search for a railway timetable?”
Even now, if I see a railway timetable during my travels (sadly rather limited during the Covid pandemic), I add it to my collection. However, with the desire to ‘save the planet’, printed timetables are gradually being replaced by paperless online versions.