My article on the joys of transpottinging fro the latest edition of Steam Tube;
I HAVE a confession to make. It’s shaming, embarrassing and something no grown man wants the world to know about him. In the galaxy of public scorn it might be easier to come out as a robber of charity boxes. Yet here goes – deep breath. I’m declaring myself as a trainspotter.
There can certainly be no more reviled tribe in Britain. You’ve all seen them – the knot of males who stand in their anoraks at the ends of railway platforms with their vacuum flasks, scuffed notebooks, Kit-Kats, battered SLR cameras, squashed Marmite sandwiches, the butt of every second-rate joke from every third-rate comedian.
Yet now we are to be recognised and even celebrated in a new BBC documentary series fronted by Peter Snow called Trainspotting Live, in which three nights will be devoted to – well – passing trains.
For me, it’s about time the noble and very British hobby of trainspotting was rescued from its mockers. Remember the Jasper Carrott sketch about meeting a trainspotter at a party so boring that he only had to utter three words and Carrott would fall asleep? Or the bespectacled and acne-covered ‘Timothy Potter, Trainspotter’ from the adult comic, Viz magazine, who was so bad at trainspotting he was forced to collect phone numbers instead.
But forget the stereotypes. The first trainspotter in recorded history was actually female – one Fanny Johnson, a 14-year-old living at Westbourne Park in London, who in 1861 neatly noted down the names and other information about trains arriving at Paddington station. And there’s an early spotter in the E Nesbitt’s book The Railway Children of 1906 which was, of course, turned into an enchanting film starring Jenny Agutter.
But the halcyon days of trainspotting were really in the 1950s when there was no more wonderful time to be at the trackside. By then it had become a national cult in which enthusiasts turned out in all weathers on platforms all over the land, accompanied by their ‘Bible’ – a well-thumbed copy of the Ian Allan ABC Locospotters’ Guide. Whether derided as rivet counters or anoraks, we didn’t care as long as we ‘copped’ – that’s the technical term for ‘spotted’ – our coveted engine.
The guide, which listed all the trains we might see, was a goldmine for Allan, an administrative assistant with the old Southern Railway. Because to be a successful spotter, you could record your ‘finds’ in it.
I still have my copy on my bookshelf, the numbers of my cherished engines underlined (always neatly with a ruler). It’s full of precious memories of the days when I would fight my way to the end of the platform at King’s Cross and Paddington through throngs of boys with notebooks and with their lapels plastered in enamel badges of their favourite engines.
We were a spirited and determined bunch. I still recall being hurled out of engine sheds I’d snenaked into by angry drivers, and then climbing over the fence to get back in again.
Nostalgia was everywhere in this world of glamorous steam engines with names like Britannia and Winston Churchill – as well as obsessive addiction, since it was unlikely our lists of numbers would ever be complete, yet we were determined to make them so. During school holidays some stations were so full of over-excited boys that the staff chased them away.
A quarter of a million boys joined Ian Allan’ Locospotters’ Club. (Entry fee and badge: one shilling. ‘All genuine spotters wear this badge’.) And how inclusive it was, too, with our secret language of nicknames for engines, where insiders would know their ‘Streak’ from their ‘Brit’; their ‘Jinty’ from their ‘Pom Pom’.
In time, we discovered Pink Floyd and girls – and all grew up. But these were harmless thrills indeed from happier, more innocent times.
‘It was democratically cheap, requiring minimal equipment,’ says railway historian Simon Bradley, ‘Notebook, pencil, ABC. Like birdwatching, the payback came from from a mixture of application, observation and luck; it encouraged both co-operation and good-natured rivalry.
‘Spotters did not usually form gangs or beat each other up. They also developed an early taste for independence and a working knowledge of cheap public transport.’
Yet trainspotters all got a battering in the years that followed. ‘The trainspotter became everyone’s favourite wally,’ says Nicholas Whitaker in his book Platform Souls. ‘With blacks, gays and women all off the right-on comic’s agenda here’s a man you can titter at in safety, political integrity unblemished.’
Instead of rejoicing in its eccentricity, people explained away trainspotting as delayed adolescence. One academic controversially made headlines by linking it to Asperger’s Syndrome. (Although it’s certainly habit-forming – I know one very senior official of the rail industry who takes down bus numbers on his days off.)
Yet despite all this, the hobby has survived – there are estimated to be around 200,000 trainspotting today compared with a million in its heyday.
And that is despite the fact that most trains now look like boxes on wheels, are painted in identikit corporate liveries and run to a computerised timetable.
We should not be surprised, though, because a love of railways remains the ultimate in nostalgia for those of us who started trainspotting as boys. Nor do we trainspotters feel the need to defend ourselves in the face of all this criticism. As the historian Roger Lloyd wrote in his book The Fascination of Railways: ‘I have never met a lover of railways who felt the slightest need to produce any justification for his pleasure.’
‘A lot of folk got addicted to it in their formative years and have been reluctant to give up,’ says Chris Milner, editor of the Railway Magazine. ‘And they have the money to travel rather than standing around on a draughty platform.
‘The internet has changed everything, with spotters just as likely wield an ipad as an oily notebook,’ he says, adding that spotters can use the web to follow trains round the country. ‘And there are still plenty of unusual things to spot – especially the locomotive-hauled trains that still run around the country. And trainspotting is certainly no more boring than fishing’
Certainly, thousands lined the trackside to see the Flying Scotsman’s recent return to the rails.
The 1950s trainspotter generation has also grown up and paid off its mortgages, with some wealthy middle-aged businessmen indulging their boyhood passions by spending millions buiyng and restoring vintage express steam locomotives to run on the main line. If you didn’t spot it when you were young, why not own it now?
One hedge fund manager, Jeremy Hosking, owns a fleet of some of the greatest locomotives ever built, including the A4 class Bittern, sister of the record-breaking Mallard. Top engine nameplates at railway auctions sell for £20,000 or more.
So confident was the National Railway Museum that trainspotting is back in fashion that it recently held an exhibition on the subject, commissioning some verse from the poet Ian McMillan to give it a modern family feel:
‘It’s a life filled with moments that ring like a bell,
With elation the thrill of the chase;
It’s a smile from your dad that says ‘Yes, all is well
As he matches the grin on your face.
This is a hobby that never will pall.
Tomorrow’s a spotting day. Well, aren’t they all?’
As for me, I’m delighted to find others of my generation have come out. ‘I’ve loved travelling since I was a trainspotter with my map and my notebook,’ says Michael Palin. Out too is Michael Portillo, seemingly endlessly roaming the rails for his Great Railway Journeys, as well as Pete Waterman, Rod Stewart and the former newsreader Nicholas Owen.
And who better as Fat – or should that be Thin – Controller than Peter Snow, model railway enthusiast, who will be standing at the trackside to present Trainspotting Live, which will follow the successful formula of ‘slow TV’, pioneered by last year’s film of a barge travelling along the Kennet & Avon canal.
So let’s hear it for enthusiasm and eccentricity. A dull hobby pursued by a niche demographic of obsessives? Or a celebration of one of the most underrated of British pastimes? The nation will soon find out.
‘The Trains Now Departed: Sixteen excursions into the lost delights of Britain’s railways’, by Michael Williams is published by Arrow books next month (June 16 2016)