Elma Exploring Family Kitty Uncategorized

Early in the morning, down at the station …

27/07/2013

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Devon has a secret.  A not-very-secret sort of a secret, but one unknown to anyone arriving by way of the M5.  Because for a true introduction to Devon you need to be on the train.

The problem with Devon, where trains are concerned, is Dartmoor.  A massive hunk of granite looming across the spine of the county.  If you’ve ever wondered why Devon looks a little chunky after Cornwall’s rough skinniness, that’s Dartmoor.  It goes up.  Trains do not like up if they can possibly help it.

And so as the line leaves Exeter it turns to the coast, hugging the cliffs, weaving in and out of red sandstone as it wiggles its way around Starcross, Dawlish and Teignmouth before plunging up the side of the River Teign to Newton Abbot and Totnes. I’ve never forgotten the exact point at which to look for that first glimpse of water, the smell of the sea, or the largely silent shared mirth of a carriage when the idiot who’d been having a crafty smoke out of the window into a winter’s night got an unexpected and entirely deserved bath when a breaker thundered over the sea wall at Dawlish and sploshed into the side of the train.

For me, the train stopped at Totnes and as I never timed a trip well enough with the tides to finish the journey by boat, nor could be bothered to drag all my belongings across town to the bus stop, I met the sea by taxi, parental or otherwise.

When Dad made that same journey from Oxford some thirty-something years earlier, his connection at Reading steamed all the way down the country, along the banks of the Dart and into the heart of home.  The train stopped at Kingswear, a few feet short of the water, where an official British Rail ferry shuttled everyone across the water to Dartmouth, or sometimes my grandparents would come across on the car ferry to meet the train, Dinah the dog baby woofing frantically as she searched in the crowd for that familiar pair of kneecaps, and the boy above them, hiding behind a sturdy hooped trunk.

Dad’s time at university was a season of hard winters, probably the last time it snowed heavily and regularly each winter in that usually temperate neck of the woods and I remember as a child being told of the Christmas when Dad arrived to a blanket of snow.  Both Dartmouth and Kingswear had all but closed down, enveloped in thick soft white. Without any vehicle running for miles around, the car ferry had called it a day, and only the passenger boat scuttled back and forth across the river, carrying a few intrepid railway passengers, Dad, and his trunk.

Heading for one of the few places still open, he stowed the trunk in the Sailing Club, and set off, hauling up the steep climb out of Dartmouth and striking out for the village, walking home in the snow for Christmas.

The Paignton to Kingswear branch was officially uncoupled from the national network a few years later but has been run as a private line ever since.  When we suggested taking the girls on a little train ride, I did wonder whether for Dad it would be a bit like someone asking me if I’d like to catch the 8.24 to Birmingham Snow Hill “just for fun”, but then again, my commute doesn’t run on a steam train, and steam trains are cool.

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They’re just such phenomenal pieces of engineering; fire-breathing dragons, all glinting black paint and burnished copper.

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Kitty, who admittedly would be excited by a trip on the 8.24, didn’t need asking twice.

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She loved the model line at the station, the brio engines lined up just for tiny hands to play with, and when Grandpa discovered an all important 50p in his pocket for the Princess Karyn, she was on top of the world, even before the train arrived.

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I know I posted this picture as {this moment} a while ago, but I can’t not talk about the devotion she had for “my choo choo train” without including it.

Kitty, train toy, Kingswear steam railway

The Princess was the honoured recipient of more than a few lingering hugs, with Kitty telling everyone in earshot “I love my train.  I just really love my train!”

The real train arrived in a flurry of passengers. It doesn’t turn at either end of its run, but runs backwards to Kingswear, then trundles along the train to recouple at the front.  Kitty lent her own level of supervision to the recoupling – “Mummy, what that man doing now?!”, before we all hopped into a blissfully empty carriage at the front, and set off in a maelstrom of steam and hooting.

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And as for my littler daughter, well she snuggled into me as the train rocked and rolled, and no tunnel, no whistle, and certainly no highly excited and possibly chocolate fuelled big sister was going to prevent her from enjoying her nap.

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At Churstow we waved to a field full of girls playing rounders,

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and as the train coasted down into Paignton there were beach huts and cliff walkers, sandy bays and boats.

At Paignton we strolled to the water’s edge, a little strip of pinky red beach between the promenade and the waves, and added that all important sandy seasoning to our sandwiches.  Elma, wide awake and very determined to avoid wearing her hat at all costs, decided that Grandpa made an excellent seat, and Kitty and H decided to see how she’d look as a mermaid.

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And then all too soon it was time for an ice-cream (it’s Devon, the appropriate reaction to all activities and events is ice-cream), and the ride back home.

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As we crested the hill and started a gentle descent through the trees, Dad lent up against the far windows of the carriage, waiting for the moment that he knew was coming.  The trees suddenly cleared and the train roared into blazing sunshine along the banks of the river, with Dartmouth beautiful and lovely, sparkling across the water.  The look in his eyes said everything, recognition, sheer delight and that unshakeable moment of homecoming.

 

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  • Caroline 29/07/2013 at 7:02 pm

    I love this post. Almost a decade ago, I lived in Plymouth for a year. It was a difficult year for lots of reasons, and I spent a huge amount of time on the train between Devon and London. Without doubt, that stretch through Dawlish and Starcross was my favourite part of the journey, and remains my favourite rail journey in the UK. Imagine how much better it would be pulled by a steam train!

    It’s funny that we must have been aboard the Dartmouth steam railway during the same week. And I absolutely concur that ice cream is the appropriate reaction to most situations in Devon – we ate a lot that week!