Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Union of South Africa, the Worcester Christmas Fayre and Paddington Bear

If you have been watching Michael Portillo's latest series of Great Continental Railway Journeys you may have heard him say when travelling on Europe's last existing commuter steam train in Poznan, Poland, that for a rail enthusiast, seeing a steam locomotive on a preserved heritage railway is like seeing an animal in the zoo, but seeing it run on the main line, doing what it was originally supposed to do, is like seeing an animal in the wild, where it is meant to be. Once again this year, I have had the thrill to ride on a mainline steam-hauled train, this time the Worcester Christmas Markets Express from Paddington.

Peter Pan Statue, Kensington Gardens
Within walking distance of Paddington Station, the statue of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, in Kensington Gardens provides us with a little reminder that the delight of fascination and excitement that a child experiences when looking at what is around us often moves on with us into adulthood. Where I personally experience this is not only through the excitement of seeing a steam train arrive at the platform, but also through seeing how incongruous a steam hauled train looks in a major mainline station, surrounded by more familiar present day rail traction including high-speed pendolinos and sprinter units, a sight normally more common on model railways. With its old fashioned steam-heated carriages also giving off steam, a steam-hauled charter train in a present day mainline station almost looks like a magic train that has travelled forward in time to a familiar location but with unfamiliar surroundings, with the water cranes/columns that served them long since gone and the old-fashioned split-flap arrivals and departures boards long since replaced by modern LED boards.

60009 Union of South Africa heads the Worcester Christmas Markets Express
Hauled by an engine familiar to readers of this blog, 60009 Union of South Africa, the Worcester Christmas Markets Express took me through some lovely countryside and later brought me into contact with some interesting characters. Sir John Betjemen, the late former Poet Laureate, described railways as creating their own landscapes, which often blend in effectively with their natural surroundings. For me, steam trains can also create their own atmosphere with their sound and smoke. Giving off huge clouds of white smoke which could be seen flying past the carriage windows, Union of South Africa created a dramatic look to the surrounding countryside when the smoke shrouded the trees, reminding me of Peru's cloud forests, apparently from where a certain bear came from who was found by the Brown family with a suitcase and a jar of marmalade at the station from where my train journey started, and where he was named after.

Worcester Cathedral, overlooking the River Severn
The rhythmical sound of a steam engine while running together with its whistle is pleasant to the ear, but when the train arrived at Worcester's Shrub Hill station, while waiting for clearance to proceed to the depot to prepare for the return journey, passengers got a reminder that as well as provide power, steam technology also provides musical entertainment. While stationary, Union of South Africa's air compressors, which supply air to the breaks, made a sound like a calliope, almost as if one of Worcester most famous residents, the composer Sir Edward Elgar had orchestrated the sound composition himself! Born in Lower Broadheath, five miles from Worcester, Elgar's father owned a music shop at the end of Worcester's High Street where the young Edward Elgar grew up. A statue of Elgar (1857-1934) now stands near its original location. which overlooks Worcester's most famous landmark, Worcester Cathedral, founded the year 680, though its earliest existing features date from around the 12th century.

Friar Street, Worcester
Just like the steam-hauled train appeared to have moved forward in time to a world largely unrecognisable from its service days before motorways, the beautiful Mock Tudor architecture of Worcester's Friar Street appears to have almost stood still in time while the city's commerce and culture, as in most other towns and cities, have changed in and around it, bringing with it the usual chain stores, restaurants and cafes. Meanwhile, the former street names inscribed under the present day names serve as a reminder of city's medieval past as a city dominated by guilds. Along a very busy Friar Street, dominated by the sounds and scents of the Christmas market stalls, carol singers and troubadours, it again looks like another era in time has travelled forward to an unfamiliar world dominated by motorised road traffic.

With Paddington Bear at the railway station from where he got his name!
After enjoying the culinary delights of the Christmas market, the bells of Worcester Cathedral then reminded me that it was time for me to make my way back to Shrub Hill station for the journey back to Paddington. When I reached Paddington, to my surprise, I found that someone of the furry variety had followed me back from Darkest Peru! The smoke-shrouded countryside that I had seen on the journey to Worcester was a sign - Paddington Bear had followed me back to England in time for his new film coming out, after he had been back to Peru to see his Aunt Lucy! He said he managed to find his way onto the train hiding in Santa's sack, and he enjoyed the train ride though he was disappointed that they were service free mince pies rather than marmalade sandwiches!

60009 Union of South Africa at journey's end in Paddington 
There is something not just about railways themselves, but also their journeys that feed imagination, inspiring great works of art including the works of Terence Cuneo, literature with works like The Railway Children and poetry by the likes of W.H. Auden and Sir John Betjemen. Imagination fed by railway experiences has also been known to create delightful characters, including Paddington Bear himself. The different experiences that railway journeys bring, including the places that they take you, sights seen from carriage windows and the people you may meet on a railway journey and stories they have to tell. As well as a multi-sensory experience with the steam sound and steam heat of the train and the sounds and scents of Christmas in the markets, the Worcester Christmas Markets Express also felt like a journey through a set of time warps, going through the 1950s, to Victorian and Medieval times before coming back home to the digital age of the 21st century, and not forgetting the personal aspect of the journey from a childhood fascination that has continued with me through to the present.

A tribute to Phillip Hughes at New Road, Worcester 
RIP Phillip Hughes (1988-2014), who tragically died after being struck by a ball playing cricket for South Australia against New South Wales in a Sheffield Shield match in Australia. Hughes, 25, who had a spell playing for Worcestershire in 2012, will be a huge loss to both Australian and world cricket.

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