Back before Christmas, myself and my brother were looking for a present to get our Dad, very much of a train buff. The suggestion of a driver footplate experience had come up so we started to look around.
Looking at the various preserved railways you’re looking at quite a lot of money – for example the Watercress Line charges £250 for a three hour introductory footplate experience that lasts three hours and is shared with two others. Then my brother took a look at the Pecorama experience. Although it’s on their miniature steam railway, it’s a 1:1 course, is seven hours, but is still cheaper than a full size engine. Given that we used to make an almost religious pilgrimage to Peco every year when we were in Devon, we thought we’d go for that.
It proved to be an excellent choice. We went down for the first week in May, coincidentally when my Dad’s birthday falls, and the driver experience course was booked on the Wednesday. At 9:30am Dad turned up for his briefing, when he was taken around the track, talked through the signals and line procedures. He was then taken by the instructor up to get the engine ready – this is right from cold with all the preparation. By lunchtime they were going through the basics of how to drive, and by the end of the day Dad was able to drive the train with a set of coaches around the whole route that the professional drivers use.
The staff at Peco were excellent and really friendly. We took the children down, who had a fantastic time in the exhibition, but once Dad had progressed to hauling coaches they allowed us all to ride the line with him driving – great fun riding on Grandpa’s train! Certainly if you’re looking for a driving experience course I can certainly recommend the Peco experience, the locomotives are miniature steam engines, and operate in exactly the same way as a full size locomotive, and you’ll see the whole process right from starting the locomotive in the morning through to putting it to bed at the end of the day.
I had my little video camera with me, and I’ve got two videos. The first is just Dad’s final circuit and taking the locomotive back to the depot – something you wouldn’t normally see. The other video is rather longer, and is effectively all the footage I took edited together as a memento of the day for Dad. It includes several runs around the line, one with the professional driver, the rest with Dad driving, plus various other bits with Dad learning to drive, and travelling around the line in several variations you wouldn’t usually see. Be warned, there is ninety minutes of it!
This post is the result of a request, so is a bit different than my usual Church or techie postings, and is being posted as a result of the friend we spent New Year with in Plymouth asking why I hadn’t mentioned them on the blog, my answer was that I’d half written something, but I wasn’t sure whether I’d actually post it as I wasn’t sure how they’d react – their answer was that they didn’t mind if I did, so here goes…
The trips down to Plymouth this Christmas were probably one of the most nerve wracking experiences of my life. I’m one of these people who values consistency, and really don’t like change – however silly it may seem with hindsight, it did feel a bit like a step into the unknown, and at the very least a bit of a gamble!
First off, a little bit of history. Much like many people in church choirs, I started young, and sang in the choir at St Mary’s Church in Rickmansworth – you can see a couple of pictures of my time there on Flickr. Anyway much as with St James now, there was a continual need to replace choristers as voices broke and the young people moved on, so periodically we would recruit new young people from the church school. One such recruitment drive in September 1985 brought in two sisters, Gina and Susan, recently moved to Rickmansworth from Chesham. What I didn’t know until a few days later when I was introduced to her at the school Junior Choir practice was that there was a third sister, Tracey, who hadn’t initially joined the church choir. I can’t really remember much of the conversation, but the upshot of it was that after we’d met at school she joined the church choir too.
I won’t go much into details, but myself and Tracey started dating. We had our ups and downs, and at one point split up totally, only to get back together again a couple of weeks later. Most of our time together was at church things or at school, rather than dates as such – and I think we probably walked most paths around Rickmansworth at one time or another. After about eighteen months or so we were starting to get pretty serious about each other.
Then in summer 1987, it all came to a crashing halt as Tracey’s father walked out on the rest of the family. This left her Mum with pretty well no options, and nowhere to live – so her Mum did what probably most people would do and went home, deciding to go back to her parents in Plymouth, taking Tracey and her sisters along too. It all happened so quickly, indeed I can barely remember anything about it. We didn’t really split as such, it just sort of ended. Tracey sent a letter to me shortly after they moved, which I replied to, but nothing came back. I wrote again, still no reply. Then there was just one really awkward phone call and Tracey apparently saw me and recognised me when I was on Going Live a year or so later, but that was it. I guess I wondered what had happened to her, wondered whether we’d ever meet again, that sort of thing, but largely I just got on with my life.
Roll on twenty years, and we now have the internet, and perhaps one of the best known of the UK sites, Friends Reunited. I’ve been a member on the site on and off since it started, and I’ve caught up with various old school friends through the site. There is a feature that allows the site to keep a watch for particular people, and Tracey was one of the people I added to the list back when I set up my account. I’d largely forgotten about that until back in October, I got an alert from the site that Tracey had created a profile.
This was one of these odd moments when you really don’t know how you feel. On the one hand I was now happily married and settled, and I certainly didn’t want to jeopardise any of that, but equally with the way things had ended with Tracey I had a whole load of unanswered questions. Thankfully I am truly blessed in having Beth, who whilst she could have thrown a fit, didn’t do so, instead being exactly the opposite, and a massive support. So after a couple of days I sent a short ice breaker e-mail and waited.
I’d largely given up hope of getting a reply when a couple of weeks later I got an e-mail back from Tracey.
I’m not quite sure what I expected – usually peoples lives have been a bit of a mixed bag, some of the things they wanted to do at school they’ve done, others they haven’t – but in general things are pretty positive. Tracey’s e-mail was very much a shock in some of what it said.
One of Tracey’s talents was her music. Alongside singing in the choirs she played several instruments, was a member of a marching band, and being very much of a perfectionist, produced marks in her music exams that were way better than anything I ever got. She’d come to Rickmansworth School after her Mum had basically made a real pain of herself at the local council – ultimately despite there not being a place, the council had eventually let her in, one of the main reasons for her mother fighting to get her in being the music department at the school. The one thing that Tracey really wanted to be was something involved in music, probably a music teacher.
When she went down to Plymouth, that just hadn’t happened. The school she had ended up in, the people in the music department said they couldn’t take her through the grade five clarinet exam she had been working for up in Rickmansworth, so she’d gone through the school doing music where she could and ended up initially working in offices, and was now working as a nursery nurse. She’d joined another marching band in Plymouth and had taught some of the junior players to play there, but certainly wasn’t doing what she had wanted before. As an aside, for part of her GCSE English exam, where she had to debate a point with an examiner, she chose to discuss the abysmal state of music teaching in Plymouth. She’d also been the person who had sung the Once in Royal solo at the school carol services, and had even been up to Exeter Cathedral to sing, but from my point of view it was just massively depressing comparing it with the multitude of opportunities musically I’d had at Rickmansworth.
What was more of a shock from my point of view was the rest of her life. I’m not going to go into details, suffice to say she’d been through a number of failed, sometimes violent relationships, and was currently in what was classed as emergency housing being a single parent with two children aged 9 and 12. She was getting by, but it certainly wasn’t easy.
Maybe that sounds a bit odd that it would be shocking, but I guess I have a positive outlook on life, and that tends to reflect on how I thought how her life would have gone, and I probably thought of Tracey more along the lines of happily married rather than the reality. Also hearing some of the things she’d been through it was stuff that I just couldn’t conceive of doing to a partner.
Don’t get me wrong though, she’d be the first to say that it hasn’t been all bad – but I guess from my point of view comparing what she’d wanted with what had happened it was very different.
Anyway, after a couple of e-mails back and forth I added her MSN user to my friend list, and we started talking online, and started answering each others questions about what had happened over the past twenty years, and especially what had happened when they left and went to Plymouth. What is interesting to note is that she hadn’t received any letters from me – from her point of view she had written immediately she’d arrived, and then had heard nothing until the awkward phone call. Then much the same as me she had got on with life. I guess it will always remain a bit of a mystery quite what happened, there are some suspicions maybe, but it’s all somewhat academic now.
I’m not quite sure who actually suggested it first, but we pretty soon decided that her and the children and myself and Beth should meet up, and as Christmas was coming up, and we all had time off, that seemed like a good time. Eventually we settled on meeting for New Years as from our point of view we had few commitments at Church at that time.
The real worry from my point of view was actually what it was going to be like meeting again – it’s all very well chatting online, but it would be different face-to-face. Beth was going to be there as support, but still it would be a nerve wracking experience. Along with the wondering what had happened to her, and what it would be like if we met again, it was all questions – what would it be like?
As a result I decided we needed to do it in stages. Initially the idea was that we’d just drive down to Plymouth and have a look around, but once we got to Plymouth I thought that we couldn’t really come all that way and not tell Tracey that we had been and at least give her the opportunity to meet up if she wanted. I have to say that I chickened out at this point, and with us parked up in a car park about half a mile from her house, Beth phoned Tracey rather than me. After the initial shock, plus telling me off for having surprised her Tracey invited us over and we drove to the house.
We’d already seen pictures of each other, and established that we looked largely the same as we did before. Talking online we seemed to have much the same outlook as before. I think the one slightly difficult thing is the difference in height. When we had last seen each other we were about the same height, but she is still 5ft 2 as she was when I last saw her. I on the other hand had subsequently had my growth spurt and am now 6ft 1 – so it was perhaps a bit of a surprise when I walked in.
Having said that, after all the concern, actually meeting was fine. She and Beth got on well too, which was another concern on my part, and for me it was just like chatting to a friend – Tracey has described it as being as if not having spoken for twenty years just didn’t happen. On that night we sat and chatted for a while whilst we waited for Tracey’s daughter to come home, and then just went out for a meal. After that it was back on the motorway to get home – the ice having been broken.
With hindsight, that initial meeting made it an awful lot easier when it came to our trip over the past couple of days. So this last Sunday we headed down to Plymouth, checked into a hotel, and got to know Tracey and her children a lot better.
On the Sunday night when we arrived, the vote was to go ice skating. It’s worth saying at this point that it seems the Canadian definition of â€œnot being very goodâ€? is a bit different from the British definition, as Beth was literally running rings around everybody despite her protestations about not being very good. During the day on New Years Eve we took them off Geocaching, up near Tavistock, and then in the evening Beth and myself had dinner at the hotel, and then headed back over to Tracey’s house where we saw in the New Year accompanied by the sounds of the ship horns in the nearby Devonport Dockyard. On New Years Day we walked down along under the Tamar bridges, and then they took us on a tour around the city centre and up onto Plymouth Hoe.
What is quite interesting is that in many ways Beth and Tracey are remarkably similar – indeed at times they even seem to think the same way – particularly when it comes to teasing me it has to be said. There were a couple of occasions over both trips down that I didn’t know who to glare at first! We also both get on with Tracey’s children really well – indeed Beth and Becky get on like a house on fire, with Beth teaching Becky how to line dance on New Years Eve, and us being invited to one of her dance shows in the summer. Tracey’s son was somewhat at a disadvantage in that we didn’t meet him on our first trip down, but he did seem to enjoy the Geocaching, and also being introduced to Fluxx, which seems to have become our New Year’s party game of choice now.
Whilst saying that you saw in the New Year with your wife and your ex-girlfriend does sound like a lot of peoples worst nightmare, it was anything but. Although it was a nerve wracking experience meeting up first of all, I certainly feel it was worth the effort, it was a bit of a gamble in some ways, but I’m glad that I made the jump and contacted Tracey. In Beth’s case she now has a new friend, and I’ve renewed an old friendship. Of course we do have that little bit of shared history, which did maybe make everything a bit more difficult, but ultimately what Beth and I have got now are some really good friends – indeed Tracey’s children are already asking when we’re going to be coming back again…
We spent New Year visiting some friends down in Plymouth. One of the topics of conversation that comes up a lot when we talk to them is frustration with their local Church, where it seems that the older members very much dictate what happens, to the point that the uniformed youth organisations are no longer allowed to parade because the older members don’t like having children in Church – indeed it was apparently even a struggle to get a Children’s Crib Service this year. What is even more frustrating is that talking to our friends daughter, she wants to go to a church but doesn’t feel welcome! She is somewhat pinning her hopes on the fact that the current vicar is about to retire and that they might get a more family friendly replacement – so does anyone who have any influence over the selection process in Exeter Diocese? If our village of just over 3000 in Berkshire can get nearly 2000 people of all ages through the doors over Christmas, surely it’s not rocket science to get a city Church with a parish of thousands to not alienate young people who want to come?
As part of Beth’s parents visit last week, we spent a few days down staying with family down in Devon. Whilst in my childhood trips to Devon were to see my grandparents in Dawlish, now it is my aunt and uncle who live a bit further along the coast in Exmouth. It is a good few years since I’ve been down for a holiday, so it was interesting to see how the place had changed.
On our first afternoon, Eileen and Geoff took us down to the sea front at Exmouth. Until recently, the town was a working port, but now in common with a number of other port towns and cities around the country, the port has closed, and been replaced with a marina, and flats. Also in common with another of other places, the smart looking ‘docklands’ style properties are expensive, and beyond the means of many locals.
The next day, we undertook what used to be an annual pilgrimage when I was a child, to Pecorama at Beer. Pecorama started life as essentially a large demonstration area for the Peco range of track and model railway accessories, alongside their factory. However over the years it has grown, thanks to the panoramic views of Lyme Bay from the factory, they have build an extensive miniature railway network on top of the hill behind the factory, and large gardens. As a family we’ve been visiting since the early days of the exhibition and a short length of track for the miniature railway – and it’s interesting to see how it has changed.
The first impression I got was how small the exhibition was – although I think that is perhaps because I remember it as a child, so in fact I’ve got bigger, rather than the exhibition smaller! The clientele seemed much the same, with lots of train enthusiasts big and small – and still loads of buttons for small fingers to push to make a selection of trains, boats and even a hot air balloon move around on the layouts. The miniature railway has seen a significant extension from the last visit, and massively more than the days when it used to be a five minute run along the length of the factory. One amusing thing to note was that nowadays the train drivers don’t have to turn their own locomotive on the turntable – now a fit young teenager takes the strain of turning the locomotive around on the turntable after each journey. The gardens have also grown considerably, with a big investment having been made for the millennium. All in all, it’s still a great day out for train fanatics, but whilst Mum used to spend the whole day sat in the gardens reading the newspaper in the past, there is now a lot more for those who aren’t quite so enthusiastic about trains too.
At this point, it is probably worth mentioning one of the places that we often went as a child, that we didn’t go to this time – being Bicton Park. In the past, it used to have the double attraction of nice gardens, but also the Woodland Railway. It still is the only 18-inch narrow gauge line in Britain. However when I was a child it was run by a steam locomotive and diesel locomotive that used to haul trains in the works at the Woolwich Arsenal. However in 2000 both locomotives were sold to the Royal Gunpowder Mills museum at Waltham Abbey, and Bicton replaced them with a brand new locomotive. However, whilst the outline may look like a steam tank engine, it isn’t – so from a railway enthusiasts point of view the attraction is somewhat lost. Sadly, you can’t ride the old Bicton trains at the Royal Gunpowder Mills as yet either. 🙁
Anyway, back to our trip to Devon. After our trip to Peco we went on a bit of a tour of old haunts, driving around to see how things had changed in Dawlish. In some ways things were much as they had always been. Heading down the A379, there was still the unused and listed porch in Starcross causing traffic queues as always. There wasn’t that much more housing on the edge of town than when I last visited, and the town centre was much as before. We also drove past my grandparents old house, which has seen a lot of refurbishment in recent years. Having said that, the town was still much as I remembered it.
On the last day, we took a trip down to Dartmouth, which is now possible entirely by train, as the local services from Exmouth now alternate between running to Barnstaple, and running to the start of the Paignton and Dartmouth railway at Paignton. Although the journey takes a bit of time, partly due to a couple of long waits in some of the Exeter stations, it does give you an opportunity to see much more of the scenery, especially on the scenic section along the sea wall between Dawlish and Teignmouth. However it also allows you to see the sad results of railway privatisation. While some of the stations appear to have been maintained, Paignton mainline station is a sad decaying shadow of it’s former self. Over the footbridge, there is no window that is not either smashed, gone, or boarded up. There is more graffiti than I’ve seen on most London stations, and whilst other stations are decorated with hanging baskets, the only healthy plant display is actually the wildflowers growing in the track-bed in platform 1!
Anyway, I’m pleased to say that the Paignton and Dartmouth railway is still going strong. We paid the supplement and rode in the observation car both ways, taking the opportunity to soak up the scenery, and period atmosphere on the line. We travelled down on the second train of the day, which got us to Dartmouth just in time for lunch. On the basis of a recommendation from my aunt, and also my parents, we had lunch at the Cherub Inn. A little away from the tourist hubbub down by the river, it is the oldest building in Dartmouth, dating from 1380. You can read more about the history of the building on their site. The food is great, we all had traditional fish and chips, with fresh fish of course. If you are in Dartmouth it is well worth seeking out. From there we took a stroll around the town centre, stopping in at various of the shops, and also paying a visit to the local parish church which includes a number of features such as a painted screen and pulpit that have been long since lost at many other churches elsewhere.
After that we headed back over the river to the station at Kingswear, and boarded the last steam train of the day for home. We even managed to get the four seats at the front of the observation car, with a great view of the locomotive. The connection at Paignton was nicely timed too, giving me time to browse in the railway shop, and pick up a book on the line – â€œBranch Line to Kingswearâ€? by Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith – and then pick up the train back to Exmouth.
Back in Exmouth, as a last night treat, Eileen and Geoff took us out to their favourite restaurant, The Seafood Restaurant in the centre of town. The restaurant is described in more detail in this article from the Exmouth Journal – suffice to say that this isn’t a fish and chip shop! The majority of the fish is caught locally, and is prepared by the owners who trained as chefs, worked in London and across France, before returning to their home in Devon to open the restaurant. If you are looking for freshly prepared seafood, I can certainly recommend a visit.
Anyway, after that whirlwind tour for the benefit of Beth’s parents, we finished up with another British holiday tradition – sitting in the holiday traffic trying to get home – it seems some things never change! You can see pictures from our trip in our photo gallery.
Thoughts from, and the lives of a Canadian and a Brit living in the UK.