Friday, 27 February 2015

The Railway that wasn't there or Mea Culpa

Last week I promised to tell you about the mistake I made which means that there is an error in The Children’s Hour. You will remember that Lydia Shaw had a lover called Timothy Lestrange (which was just as well as her husband, Ambrose, was not the nicest of men). It is not only Lydia whose life is made much nicer when Timothy is around: the children all adore him and when he is around they find their father far less difficult. As Mina puts it:

Timothy is nice, isn’t he, Mama?’ says Mina. ‘He’s like a very kind magician. Like Merlin.’ Lydia is reading T.H. White’s ‘The Once and Future King’ to them after tea during the children’s hour. ‘He’s put a spell on all of us, hasn’t he?’

Last week, Maria left a comment about trees in winter so this one of beech trees is for you, Maria.
It was taken not far from the setting for The Children's Hour.
Then comes the war. Ambrose remains in London where he is busy making money. Timothy is enrolled into some clandestine group and is shortly to go abroad and will be away for some time. However . . .

Timothy manages one more visit to Ottercombe before vanishing again into Europe. Ambrose and Georgie, by now, are firmly fixed in London; each manipulating the other to attain their own ends. Petrol rationing and restrictions on travel give them excellent excuses to avoid the long journey to Exmoor but, somehow, Timothy finds the means: travelling by train to Barnstaple, catching the last connection to Parracombe and walking the rest of the way, nearly four miles, across the moor.

Obviously not Ottercombe as that is fictional, this is part of the coast that (together with Heddon's Mouth) inspired the idea of a small cove surrounded by tall cliffs and fed by a small stream that had eroded a steep valley on the side of which was perched the house. As so often happens the tops of the hills are shrouded in cloud and visibility is generally pretty poor.
When Marcia asked me to check and find out how Timothy could travel down by train I was able to find the line of the dis-used railway track and details of the old station at Parracombe but I didn’t bother to check when it had ceased to run because I assumed I knew. In 1963 and 1966 the Chairman of British Railways – Dr Richard Beeching (he was a doctor of physics, not medicine, and was also a fully qualified engineer) wrote reports about the need to modernise the UK’s railways. As a result about 5,000 miles of railway line and nearly 2,500 stations were closed and, yes, this was vandalism on a grand scale and should not have happened. Indeed, and at huge cost, some of these lines are being reopened as car travel becomes more and more expensive and the roads more and more congested. Anyway, I just assumed that this line to Parracombe was a victim of the so-called “Beeching cuts” in the 1960’s.

This is the cover of The Children's Hour as published by Wydawnictwo Replica in Poland - and it's not far from what Marcia had in mind, is it?.
Only it was closed before the war: Timothy could not have used it. Indeed, it is doubtful whether Timothy (in the time available to him) would have been able to make that flying visit to Ottercombe.

We discovered this thanks to a very kind and tactful email from an Anglican priest, Father Keith Denerley. Father Keith was Chaplain to the convent where Marcia used to go for a couple of retreats each year and they became (and remain) good friends. He apologised for bringing the error to our attention but, as he put it, in his profession it is important to remain on the ‘straight and narrow’. 

In order properly to enjoy that remark one needs to know that the railway in question, The Lynton and Barnstaple Railway, was indeed a narrow gauge (1 foot and 11½ inches, to be precise) railway with a single track about nineteen miles long that opened in May 1898. It soon ceased to be commercially viable and, despite efforts to run it more economically and to attract more travellers and freight, the last train ran on 29 September, 1935.

Taken a bit to the east of 'Ottercombe', this shows the effect of cloud on thw water of the Bristol Channel. On the far side is South Wales and the ship is on its way to the port of Avonmouth. Navigation here is tricky: the rise and fall of the tide here can be as high as 50 foot (I think I an right in saying that highest tides in the world are around 53 feet - in the Bay of Fundy, Canada). This means the water sluices in and out - especially out when the water coming down the river is added to the ebb flow - and it is very easy to lose control.
However, in 1979 The Lynton & Barnstaple Railway Association was formed to see what could be done. To date they have refurbished one old station (Woody Bay complete with tearoom and other facilities) and have some of the track laid to create a very popular tourist attraction. The trains may not go anywhere but the route takes you through some of the most breathtaking Exmoor scenery. The first train ran in July 2004 and an extension was opened in 2007. The society continues to work towards its ultimate aim: the restoration of as much of the line as is possible.

There is some rather interesting footage of the old railway on YouTube. To see it, click here.

I have no idea how many other people noticed the error – nor do I really want to know. However, if I had done my job properly when Marcia was writing The Children’s Hour that book would not have contained this stupid error. I mean, that line was never, ever, part of the British Rail network that was the subject of the Beeching Enquiry – how could I have got it so wrong?