My day with Winston Churchill – 50 years on. The National Railway Museum in York have put me and my schoolboy memories in a new exhibition about Churchill’s final journey, opening this Friday, January 30. Here’s one of the images of me at the time, along with my Box Brownie pictures of the day (not exactly Don McCullin, but I was there!) It was all very emotional – and I recall it in detail in my recent book ‘Steaming to Victory’ (Arrow £7.99) Here’s an extract from what I wrote about the day in my book Steaming to Victory:
It was one of those seemingly indelible moments of childhood etched on the memory with an enduring clarity that has continued to shine through the years. Yet there could not have been a greyer and gloomier winter’s day than 30 January 1965, when my father took me as a young schoolboy to watch the funeral cortège of Sir Winston Churchill pass along the Strand on its sombre journey from the lying-in-state at Westminster Hall to the funeral at St Paul’s. The winter mists swirled around Big Ben and Westminster Abbey in a London whose demeanour had not yet brightened from the frown of wartime austerity. I still have the foggy pictures, taken with my Box Brownie camera, of the coffin on its gun carriage, draped with the Union flag. It mattered not that they were taken with old-fashioned black and white film, since the world of the time was monochrome anyway.
Afterwards, as one of the legion of schoolboy railway enthusiasts of the period, I raced over Waterloo Bridge and caught the first service to Clapham Junction, where I could get a clear view of the funeral train on its way from Waterloo to Handborough in Oxfordshire. From the station there, the great war leader would be taken for burial in the parish churchyard at Bladon, close to the family home at Blenheim, where Churchill had been born 90 years earlier.
At Clapham the gleaming green Battle of Britain Class locomotive No. 34051 Winston Churchill emerged from the gloom at the head of its five umber and cream Pullman cars coupled up to the van bearing the coffin. The train’s headcode discs had been cleverly set in a formation denoting Churchill’s trademark V-for-Victory sign, and the locomotive’s brasswork sparkled, even on that sombre afternoon, from all the polish applied at Battersea’s Nine Elms depot. As she leaned into the curve, heading westwards into the fading light, leaving just a wisp of smoke trailing under the Clapham footbridge, there was a heady fusion of emotions. Somehow Churchill’s wartime victory and the role of the railways in it seemed magically linked for a moment – at least in the mind of an imaginative schoolboy. And it wasn’t all imagination – Churchill himself had in 1943 praised ‘the unwavering courage and constant resourcefulness of railwaymen of all ranks . . . in contributing so largely towards final victory’.