Now I’m the first to admit that collecting train numbers is entirely pointless. But I go on to say that it isn’t any more pointless than kicking a leather airbag around a field or collecting used postage stamps. Hobbies are hobbies and do not need any other purpose. But train spotters get a bad name and are deemed odd.
Let’s say that when I took up the hobby, back in 1959, it wasn’t odd or unusual although it was almost exclusively male. Platform ends up and down the country had gaggles of boys, avidly noting the numbers written on trains. It may seem pointless, but knowledge and skills were being honed all the time.
Let’s take a typical day out train spotting for me. I lived in Crawley, thirty miles south of central London. As an under 14 year old I could buy what was called a shopping ticket to London which cost me half a crown (12½p). So a day would start by walking to my local station and purchasing a ticket. It wasn’t valid before 9.30 so I’d have caught the first train after that. I’d have hoped for an empty compartment, but I definitely wanted a seat on the right hand side facing forwards. This gave me the best chance to spot any unusual steamers on Three Bridges or Redhill shed but as these were fairly local, the chances would be that I’d see only old familiars. Memory needed to be good for you didn’t want to spend time recording numbers of engines you’d already seen.
On arrival at Victoria I’d have bought an underground ticket and taken the circle line round to Paddington and then gone one stop on the Metropolitan to a station called Royal Oak. This was out in the open and within sight of the ends of the main line platforms at Paddington. It had the advantage of a steam engine servicing depot just opposite the platforms and an easy view of all trains going in and out of Paddington. I was never alone there. Here were always other youngsters to chat to. If I felt inclined, I might take the underground again and get to Stratford in East London. This was a station where the underground reached the surface and shared the station with the main line trains out of Liverpool Street. Sometimes I might alight at Kings Cross where I could visit the three main line termini of Kings Cross, St Pancras and Euston which were all within walking distance. The hazard here was that I had to hold a valid ticket since this meant leaving the underground network.
Euston and St Pancras I found very dull. The stations may have been magnificent and they had an air of expectation about them. But that expectation never seemed to be fulfilled. Trains were so few and far between. Kings Cross seemed much more lively.
As one got a bit bolder further London adventures could take place. There were sheds to ‘bunk’. Bunking a shed was to visit it without permission. So sometimes I’d get to Willesden Junction station from where I could take in Willesden shed where I could cop a load of ex LMSR engines and then I could walk to Old Oak Common and see the GWR engines. Old Oak Common was ‘easy’. You bribed the gate man by purchasing a staff magazine which cost 3d. Willesden was more of a nightmare but worth the risk of a telling off from a shed foreman to see the range of engines there.
I remember I went to Plaistow shed once – on the old London Tilbury and Southend network, especially to see a loco now preserved and called Thundersley.
Despite what people might think, train spotting was a social activity. I had friends who were also spotters and we went to places together and then you met people who had the same interest. There was always company, chatter and general excitement. Most of us stuck fairly well to the rules and certainly we were all big supporters of the railways and truly wished them well at a time when the whole network seemed under threat.
I’m glad I was a spotter. I learned so much from doing it. My geography and history really improved because I could see the reasons for things. I became a regular reader of the Railway Magazine which did much for world geography, economics, engineering etc.
This May 1962 issue – when I still travelled legally for half fare, has a wonderful Isle of Wight train on the cover. The loco was over 60 by then and carriages were not far short of that, certainly in style.
I still buy a copy from time to time.