An Indian Summer in the West Country - Part 1

Ian Dinmore

In July 1979 I had been working for the railway for eight years at different stations all over the old South Central Division of the Southern Region, It was my fathers fault, he told me "get a job when you leave school or I'll find one for you". I left school at 16 (no careers advisor at any of the wonderful new comprehensive schools in those days). I did a few different jobs during the first month and hated most of them. So dad got me a job on the railway as a very junior railman.

Anyway, I was on holiday in East Anglia during 1979 searching out remains of closed railway stations with my friend Martin. We were travelling in his trusty (?) Mini Clubman. We’d covered a lot of the western side of East Anglia and were planning to head East toward the remains of the M&GN – we had a really good selection of 1950's OS maps so we knew where the stations used to be – "well that's where it says on the map"! said to Martin, but it's a dual carriage way! Well, that's the upside we've just driven over explains Martin. Oh well, tick that one off as gone for good.

Blimey, there were a lot of these old ruins which were once proud 'community' stations. Half way through them I thought, I'm going to need some extra leave to cover this lot. So I rang Dad (Station Manager Streatham Hill and other local stations), "dad can I have two extra days leave please?" – it’s handy having your dad as your boss! No he said, come home asap – whoops, must have upset him.

Got home on the Sunday and dad was in a right old mood – "why did you not tell me you'd applied for a job in Devon?" Well I'm always applying for impossible jobs in the West Country (I even applied for the Area Managers job in Truro, but it never got any further than Dads office as he had to sign off all applications). However, this job I'd applied for in Barnstaple was signed off my Dads holiday relief so he never knew and neither did I until, "You've got an interview at Exeter St Davids on Monday" dad said – but that's tomorrow –"now you know why I wanted you home" he replied.

Exeter St Davids: A pair of Class 52 'Western' diesel-hydraulic locomotives double heading a train at Exeter St Davids in 1977. Ian Dinmore //1977

Well I went for the interview and it was done with the usual grilling of the Area Managers clerk, the Travel Centre Manager for Barnstaple and Station Manager Exeter St Davids. Needless to say a few days later Dad told me I did not get the job, I was not too surprised just lucky to get the interview I guess.
Three months past and a letter arrived – posted to me at home which was a little unusual. Please report to the Station Manager's Officer Exeter St Davids Tuesday on 05 November next for a second interview for the post of Booking Clerk CO2 at Barnstaple; it said.

I started work at Barnstaple in early December, having found a real dive of place to stay, which was cheap included breakfast and only a mile from the station.
Now Streatham (where I was working in the ticket office in South London before going to work in Devon), was an ultra modern ticket office with the latest quick fire Ultimatic and NCR 21 ticket machines, and boy you could really swing it during the morning peak hour you could get through 50 people in the queue in two minutes (Credit cards then were still quite rare and processed very slowly manually).

Barnstaple - well what can I say? I had been to Barnstaple before but that was on a holiday to Lynton, it was like a working museum and it was not just the staff!
The platforms were gas lit as was the signal box, there was an open grate fire in the corner of the ticket office, in the staff mess room and Traffic Supervisors Office a Station Manager to all intents – they even had strange names for them then, think Station Customer Service Manager in 21st Century speak.

The ticket office was all wood, leather and brass with a black leaded fire place and grate in the corner. Strange practices took place – the platform staff were still very subservient to us 'white collar' salaried staff and even called me Mister! That's not quite what I was called in South London (I was 'whitey' or 'chalky' in London being the rare white boy in an otherwise ethnic environment, which I really loved) all this on the super modern 125 HST powered railway of 1979!

The platform staff made the tea, laid the fire at 22.30 ready for the early turn staff to light it in time for when the ticket office opened, did all the cleaning and the washing up! This was brilliant my promotion to a CO2 clerk was great. BUT,

Oh dear! In the ticket office they had two NCR 51’s, now these where the posh Inter City of ticket machines big 1/3 A4 sized chunks of card and complex 3 pass systems, it took me a while to get used to them but within a year I could beat the pants off the old boys.

I was the first 'outsider' to work at Barnstaple or 'Junction' as it was locally known (the junction had gone with the closure of the Ilfracombe Line on 05 October 1970) and as such was something of a curiosity. Previous placements were all son's or daughter's of local railway staff – two of the people I worked with were third generation staff and the stories they could tell of past things held me captive many a late turn in the middle of winter in the warm signal box.

For me the locals were a funny old bunch who spoke in a real Devon drawl, a fascinating and rather pleasant dialect (I'm sure they could have held a half hour conversation and not once move their lips). This was a very tight and close knit community and still at 05.30 on Friday mornings the cattle were walked down Boutport Street to the Cattle Market. There was always someone who knew someone who could get you something cheaper and get a good job done for you if you asked the right person. So, I did not stay long at my doss house but moved in with Frank, a retired railwayman and his wife whose only son had just moved to Spain leaving a spare room. I felt sorry for Olave, Franks wife; as we spent most of the time talking shop in the evenings while she did my washing and ironing, I did feel a bit like a surrogate son and I had everything done for me and only paid them a pittance each week which was good as the overtime I was used to in London did not exist in Devon, were I was actually earning less despite my promotion as I’d lost my London weighting allowance as well.

Amazingly there were 72 staff at Barnstaple and all the wages were made up on Wednesday night with a COSBAR cash retention certificate to act as credit for the cash taken from the till – it was quite common for the travelling safe to come down from Exeter St Davids as we had insufficient funds to make up all the wage packets. We even had a carriage and wagon examiner who must have been 70 years old or more – it seemed we were so far from the real world that Barnstaple staff had been forgotten about and nobody had told him to retire.

We still had an allocation of two guards, who worked turn about with passenger and freight. The largest number of staff we had were the two permanent way teams at Barnstaple and Umberleigh. Today, there is one full time clerk and two part time platform staff, which is still surprising to find staff at the end of a county branch line in the age of the privatised railway and internet ticketing.

Barnstaple: Running round a Waterloo train at Barnstaple in August 1983. Ian Dinmore /08/1983

The train service was seven trains Monday to Saturday in the winter with the first being the 04.05 from Exeter due in at 05.10 and was met by the post and mail vans, five Surridge Dawson vans (the newspaper distribution company). The train (usually a class 108) brought with it a GUV (General Utility Van) in tow with the newspapers, mail and parcels. It was a general rule that all staff helped to unload. Although the ticket office was not open until 05.30 (for the 06.05 departure) the clerk was booked on at 05.00 and the platform staff at 04.30 and the signalman at 04.00. It was the job of the platform staff to light all the open fires to ensure that the ticket office and staff mess room were warm before the clerk came on duty. My first early shift on my own (one month training on the job with all three shifts), I was amazed how many people were at the station at 5am, this included the bus driver of the 05.15 bus from Barnstaple Junction to Lynton, the Surridge Dawson van drivers, the post man and platform staff! It was, as it had been for as long as any of the staff could remember. We all mucked in unloading the GUV, sorting the parcels and Newspapers which were divided up in to destinations and four bundles went on the Lynton bus. This I learnt was a hangover from the days of the Lynton and Barnstaple Railway, the bus had only moved to the Junction station when Barnstaple Town had closed along with the line to Ilfracombe, the bus its self being a replacement for the first L & B train from Barnstaple Town. I doubt that bus runs now!

On Sundays, we had three trains, in the Summer, 10.00, 14.00 and 18.00, in the winter 12.10, 16.30 and 18.30. Now back at Streatham we had trains every five minutes during the rush hours and 12 trains an hour off peak with half hourly trains on Sundays. So the paucity of the train service led me to believe that it must be a very quite place to work and why did they need all those staff?

Barnstaple: Summer of 1980 in the west country. A class 25 arrives at Barnstaple with the milk train. Ian Dinmore //1980

Barnstaple still had two freight trains, the 06.30 off to Torrington for the milk and the 10.05 off to Meeth for the China Clay. The goods yard was still quite extensive and handled timber, glue (For the Formica works near South Molton) explosives and munitions for RAF Chivenor, Steel for Appledore ship builders and cement for Blue Circle. The return working of the milk from Torrington would often shunt the yard before setting off with the milk at 11.00 for Kensington. There was an afternoon freight which took the empties from the yard at about 15.00.

Barnstaple: Scene at Barnstaple in 1985, with a Blue Circle cement train preparing to leave the goods yard. Ian Dinmore /07/1985

So, I moved from a really busy commuter London station to a way out West quiet country branch line. The cultural shock was out of this world!
My main delight and the one which I have most happy memories of (and I haste to say that is the only time in my career I really looked forward to going to work) was of summer Saturdays.

I know every old railwayman has a pair of rose tinted glasses – me, I have three pairs! The Saturdays were very busy during July & August and I just loved which ever turn I got, early, late or middle – I often stayed on long after I'd finished such was the pleasure I got from the job.

It was always about people, arriving from anywhere in the UK and quite often from abroad, I had the hard task once of explaining to two young attractive Danish girls that while sunbathing was allowed on the platform, people took exception to the topless variety (well some people!).

In 1980 we still had two loco hauls, one from Waterloo and one from Paddington. The Waterloo was usually a class 33 and the Paddington usually a class 31 or 47. Now as previously mentioned the age of some of the staff left a bit to be considered whether they should be slinging buck eye couplings around, the 33 often came in with a screw coupling at one end, which after running round often required the Buckeye automatic to be lifted. John Norman was mostly our cleaning and parcels man and helped out with everything else but he was also a passed out shunter and often worked the freight to Meeth turn about with Bill Gregory (he could juggle a shunting pole like a match stick). Good old John, Captain of the Pilton Church Bell ringers for the past 40 odd years and fast approaching his 65th; was certainly in no condition to lift a buckeye (there is a knack in swinging it up with the pole and dropping the peg in the hole to secure the coupling with the other hand – but watch out for your fingers!).

Now I was taught this trick in my training days back on the Southern at Norwood Junction yard, so I would often be let out of the ticket office to give John a hand while he went off to make tea for the train crew.

The other thing I got landed with is the instruction to collect a box of steel pins from the Traffic Supervisors office and go and pin the seat reservation labels on to the return train to Waterloo or Paddington. The pins were often used as the circular screw clips on the backs of seats were mostly missing. To make this a bit easier for our passengers we had the habit of putting names on the labels as well.

Now Barnstaple was not exactly the hub of the universe and only had four telephones, on the platform one GPO, one auto, which is a BR internal phone (in the Traffic Supervisors Office) and two omnibus circuits (gossip lines); so to make a reservation on an Exeter to London train you could ring up the starting station (say Newquay, Paignton, Plymouth or Penzance) on the day up to about an hour before the train left – the difficulty was, it was bus circuit* to Exeter where the switchboard connected you to the auto phone and put you through to which ever station you asked for, needless to say the line was quite often crackly and translation was fraught with the phonetic alphabet and then some bright spark would break into the bus circuit to start chatting! So it took 20 minutes or more to get your reservation by which time the queue at the window was half way to Bideford! But having said that – you try and get a reservation on a train the same day as you leave today!

* bus (short for omnibus) circuits are open telephone lines where you pressed either a red or black button a certain number of times – say 3 pause 1 for Crediton signal box, that anyone can listen into.

Barnstaple was also the collecting point for Golden Rail Holidays to Ilfracombe. Lynton and Westward Ho! (quite why anyone would go to Westward Ho! is beyond me, I thought the place was a bit of a dump, perhaps the exclamation mark should have been a question mark!). But they came in their hundreds and needed herding on to connecting buses run by Roy Filer under contract from BR (his boy Ed still runs buses in North Devon). You are always going to get the odd couple who miss the train and connecting bus, but Roy was a good sort and would come back and collect the late runners and such was his good record he retained the contract until Golden Rail finished around 1990.

Barnstaple: A class 31 diesel stands at Barnstaple in April 1981 at the head of a parcels train.
John McIntyre /04/1981

In 1981 the ticket office was completely rebuilt and an extension to the main building added on the outside to form a dedicated Travel Centre, separate from the ticket office. It was formally open by no less a dignitary than Sir Peter Parker the BR chairman himself. The old ticket office was swept away whilst I was on holiday and I returned to find all the gas lamps gone and new florescent lighting on the platform and in all the offices – the exception being the gas lamp over the bus circuit telephone in the signal box (now that is another tale).

As previously mentioned in the winter, late turns and Sundays were very quiet and the cosiest place on the station was up in the signal box where I, the one member of platform staff on duty and the signalman would get together and I would listen as the old boys related some wonderful tales of their younger days on the railway – some of these I will regale you with in part two of this story when I get round to writing it up.

Ian Dinmore
Director Community Rail Network