Life is confusing at the moment and across the globe there is a huge sense of uncertainty. Businesses are struggling as the effects of self isolating and social distancing take hold and many people (myself and Liz among them) who are self employed in the so-called ‘gig economy’ are fearful of what the future holds from a financial standpoint.
We know our friends and family are thinking of us just as we are thinking about them, and that includes our many friends across the globe.
I have been writing a blog post over the past couple of weeks, my first since Christmas, and although in the current situation it may seem trite to publish it, I hope that it may divert your fears and restore a sense of normality for a couple of minutes.
Here it is:
I have been quiet for a few weeks, for which I apologise, but that does not mean that I have been idle for I have been working to complete the manuscript of my first ever book – a feat that I was never certain I could achieve, so this winter has been a voyage of discovery.
Regular readers of my blog will remember that I have been investigating Charles Dickens’ involvement in the Staplehurst rail disaster of 1865, which occurred on June 9th – five years, to the very day, before he died.
Much of my research has taken place at my laptop, made possible by the fabulous resources available now, such as online census records, the amazing British Newspaper Archive, the complete collection of Charles’ letters. Added to that cyber collection of information is the huge stack of Dickens biographies that I own, each of which takes a slightly different tack thereby sending me off down different avenues of exploration. On the way I have become acquainted with others who boarded the tidal train from Folkestone to London on that day and have enjoyed discovering their histories as well as that of my illustrious forebear.
But there is only so much that can be done online and there came a time where good old fashioned legwork was required and it all started at a railway station. We live in Oxfordshire and our nearest mainline station is Didcot Parkway from where we board the mighty Great Western Railway high speed trains that whisk us into London’s Paddington station. Nestling behind the electric main lines is The Didcot Railway Centre where a remarkable collection of GWR locomotives and rolling stock is restored, preserved and displayed and it was here that I made my way on a chilly February afternoon to meet Kevin who had offered to explain how a steam locomotive is driven (in writing the book I wanted to take the reader onto the footplate, to feel the heat and hear the noise).
Kevin, wearing a dirty boiler suit made of natural fibres, welcomed me at the gate and gave me an extensive tour of the site, explaining how the locomotive involved in the crash would have looked (he had also been researching and had found out that it was number 199 and had a 2-2-2 configuration. If you don’t know what any of that means you will just have to buy the book when it is published!). We stood on footplates and he explained about regulators and valves, brakes and whistles, coal and water. He put up with my ignorance and patiently went through technicalities over and over until it began to make sense to me.
The highlight of the day was the moment that Kevin led me to the steaming panting Railmotor number 93 which was standing at a platform waiting to depart along the short stretch of line, and I was to drive it! A Railmotor is basically just a carriage with a footplate at one end. So although one does not get the sensation of riding a huge great locomotive, the manner of driving is the same and this is what Kevin wanted to demonstrate. On the footplate was the boiler, the drive selector, with which you could select forward or reverse drive, and the huge red leaver attached to the boiler which opened the regulator valve, allowing the huge steam pressure to enter the cylinders and ultimately drive the wheels.
After a very brief lesson I pulled the cord to sound the whistle, and off we went: the sheer amount movement of the boiler suspended in the chassis surprised me and the feeling of such huge latent energy kept in check by purely by iron plates and rivets. The heat of the furnace, the smell of the coal and steam, the sight of the tracks rushing beneath us, and all the time Kevin telling me to ease off on the regulator, or prepare to sound the whistle, or gently start braking until we came to a smooth stop next to another platform (a feat of which I was ludicrously proud!).
Having guided the coach back to our starting to point I bade farewell to my new friends taking with me the feeling that at the age of 56 I had driven a steam train, and as I walked back to my car Kevin’s parting words rattled around inside my head: ‘You must come back soon to drive a proper locomotive, so you can understand how limited the visibility is from a cab.’ I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the manuscript will be finished before I can take him up on his offer, because it is one that I will be unable to refuse.
During the week following my visit to Didcot I embarked on my next journey of research when I drove down to the county of my birth, Kent. I particularly wanted to visit three towns, all of which played an important part in the story.
On the first day I drove to Staplehurst itself, not so much to observe the scene of the crash for I have been there many times, but to board a train bound for Folkestone. On 9th June 1865 Charles Dickens sailed across the English Channel from Boulogne to Folkestone where he boarded the ill-fated train to London. I particularly wanted to understand the geography of the quayside, and how passengers would transfer from the steamer to the train. During the kitchen table period of research I had been sent a few old photographs of the harbour station in Folkestone but I was keen to see it for myself, hence the journey.
At Staplehurst station I boarded an airy modern train and stood at the window so that I could judge the precise moment we passed over the little bridge crossing the river Beult, the spot at which the accident had occurred 155 years earlier. Finding the location proved to be difficult as the surrounding fields were flooded obscuring the path of the stream.
The ride to Folkestone lasted around 45 minutes and I disembarked at the modern station to the north of the town and walked towards the harbour. Folkestone is a typical modern south coast town, slightly down at heel and faded, although the centre is dominated by a huge modern supermarket. To reach the sea I found myself walking down the ‘Old High Street’ a quaint cobbled lane lined with art galleries and gift shops most of which were closed up for the winter, although one defiantly had its doors open with an ‘A’ board on the pavement declaring that ‘No, this street isn’t closed. Its just very artisan.’ The other side of the same board read. ‘Thank the Lord that the vapid commercial emptiness of Valentines Day is over. MOTHER’S DAY IS 22 OF MARCH’
At the bottom of the steep hill I found myself at the harbour and everything I had read about it in my research began to make sense. The Harbour Station has long been out of service but in recent years it has been restored and developed as a…I’m not quite sure what, really, a performance space, a gathering spot, who knows?
What is certain is that I could stand on the old platform and imagine the train waiting to take the passengers from the Victoria steamer. The platform is built in a long arc stretching towards the end of the sea wall, and next to it there was originally a large custom house of which only the façade survived the war.
From the station itself the Victorian trains would have crossed a swing bridge over the harbour, then over a long viaduct originally built from timber, but now of brick, and then gradually uphill towards the main station in Folkestone at that time, Folkestone Junction, where the main journey to London would have commenced.
Today the old signal box which stands at the end of the platform, before the swing bridge, has been converted into a tiny café and I found a seat near the old signalling equipment where I did a little writing and enjoyed a ‘Kentish Rarebit’ for my lunch.
The rest of the afternoon I devoted to a walk around Folkestone, and thanks to the wonders of the internet and Google Maps found my way to an elegant home on the top of a cliff, Albion Villas, where Charles Dickens had stayed for a few months. As I looked at the building and photographed it a rather frightening woman came out of the door, her head was bound against the chilly wind by a scarlet headscarf and she seemed to be a modern equivalent of Betsy Trotwood from David Copperfield, striding out to admonish me for trespassing on her land. In reality she couldn’t have been kinder and was happy to tell me all about the house and its history. We discussed the recent storms which had ravaged Britain and she pointed out an upstairs window which faced the sea: ‘my bedroom! And, yes, I can confirm that the bed does move!’ With that rather startling revelation in my mind I made my way back to the station for the journey back to Staplehurst. I made sure that I took in all of the scenery during the ride home so that I could recall exactly what Charles Dickens saw as he rattled through Kent in 1865. The line of the North Downs to the right, the featureless farmland to the left. Church spires and conical oast houses with their white cowls, woods and marshes flashed by until I once again crossed the flooded lake that had once been the River Beult and disembarked safely at Staplehurst. As I drove away from the station I saw a building that had once been the Staplehurst Railway Hotel, which played an important part in the story, for not only were many of the wounded given beds there but the formal inquest was held in the large room downstairs. It is a hotel no more but has been converted into flats or bedsits and a tiny plaque made of individual self-adhesive black letters on a gold background states that it is now called ‘Charles Dickens Court’, which is ironic for the great man made sure that he did NOT attend the formal proceedings there
The second day if my trip was devoted to a trip to France to investigate the city of Boulogne from where the steamer had begun its journey. I arrived back in Folkestone in plenty of time to catch an early train through the tunnel and arrived in Calais on a beautiful morning. The drive to Boulogne took a little over half an hour and soon I was searching for a parking space in the shadows of the great ramparts which surround the old town. Our gold Renault seemed at home in the country of its birth.
My guide for the day was to be Janine Watrin the founder of the Boulogne branch of The Dickens Fellowship organisation and an absolute authority in the subject of Dickens and Boulogne (he had spent a few summers in the city holidaying with his family). Janine was accompanied by another member of the Fellowship, Hazel, who had been born in Canterbury before marrying a Frenchman and moving to Condette, a few miles outside Boulogne. Hazel therefore would play the role of translator for the day.
Our tour began with a stroll around the top of the ramparts, a walk that thanks to Janine has recently been named ‘Promenade Charles Dickens’. Following our perambulations, and having seen a few of the old streets and sights that Dickens knew, we all piled into my car and drove to a large school in a neighbourhood on the edge of the town, set on a hillside. Janine explained that this is where Charles Dickens and his family stayed when they were in the city. The view over the docks was beautiful (and would have been more so in Charles’ day, before the proliferation of apartment blocks grew from the soil), and as the bell of the Basilica dully tolled midday I could quite imagine being there, standing on the hillside with great great grandad.
Lunch was next and we sat in a small café on the quay trying to work out quite where Dickens alighted from the train from Paris and where he boarded the steamer for Folkestone. Lunch finished Janine (into her 90’s, by the way), led us to a tiny museum located in The Beurières.
This area of Boulogne was home to the fishermen and was built over 5 streets which were so steep that they form staircases rather than paved roads. On each side were crammed three story houses, each floor of which was occupied by a single family living in two small rooms, and it was recorded during the 19th Century that 13,000 people lived within the neighbourhood. Children slept on rudimentary cots built into kitchen cupboards to save space, whilst the babies were put down to sleep and shut away in chests of drawers.
There was no running water to these houses, no drainage, no sanitation and the effluent would be disgorged into the street, cascading down the steps in a foul-smelling waterfall. Rivalries and fights were commonplace, but these were people united in their profession and when a man was lost at sea (as often happened), the community came together to help the grieving family.
Today only one of the streets has survived and the tiny museum in one of the houses at the very top (to which Janine clambered without assistance) was fascinating. On thing caught my eye particularly, in the background of one of the old photographs of the street there is very definitely a cowl similar to those found on an English Oast House, a design most peculiar to the county of Kent. I asked our guide what it could be but he did not know. He did however tell me that the residents of Boulogne traditionally had a much closer relationship with the people of Kent than they did with the citizens of Calais just a few miles up the coast, so the possibility of Kentish industrial architecture influencing the building of businesses in the city is quite understandable.
Our final stop of the day (having briefly stopped to admire Napoleon standing on top of his column, pointedly facing AWAY from England) was at the Archives where we ploughed through lots of images of Boulogne in the 1860s. It was here that I was able to discover that the train from Paris came in on one side of the quay and the passengers either walked or took hansom cabs past the fish market to where the steamer waited, moored near to the fashionable casino.
After an hour huddled over a screen the scene that had greeted Charles Dickens in 1865 was a great deal clearer to me and I knew that I could now imbue the facts in my book with a little more local colour.
We all thanked the staff at the archives for their assistance, and then I bade farewell to Janine and Hazel before returning to England where I sat at the little desk in my hotel room and re-wrote the chapter pertaining to Boulogne while the memories were fresh in my mind.
Day three of my adventures had been earmarked for Staplehurst itself, possibly visiting the farmer who owns the field through which the railway runs so that I could revisit the scene of the accident once more, but the flooding made such a pilgrimage useless, so instead I decided to visit the Kent and East Sussex Railway in Tenterden to get a little more experience of steam.
When I arrived at the station a fully laden passenger train was getting ready to leave with plumes of white steam seeping from every part of her. A uniformed guard made sure everyone was onboard, blew his whistle and displayed his flag and from deep within the belly of the great snake a guttural belch answered the actions of the driver and slowly and with great ceremony, the train began to inch forward. I was positioned near the signal box and level crossing at the end of the platform and with my flat cap and camera I looked every inch a train spotter (I believe that ‘rail enthusiast’ is the correct term).
When the train had departed I spent a while looking round the site, although the main locomotive museum was sadly closed to visitors, until it was time for the next departure. I found myself a private compartment and settled into my seat to enjoy the journey. Having previously experienced the footplate itself, now I wanted to understand how Dickens felt in his carriage and as I looked out of the window it was as if I were rushing through the countryside approaching Staplehurst, crossing small bridges over shallow rivers.
I have been on many steam railways before but on this occasion I made every effort to remember the exact experience, I tried to analyse the damp smell. and watched how the view was obscured by whisps of steam in the slipstream of the train. As we rushed towards Bodiam I worked on my laptop and asked the ticket collector to take a picture of me. ‘Hmmm,’ he must have thought, ‘another train spotter, sorry, rail enthusiast’
My day ended with the return trip, and this time I walked through the train watching the various families who were spending the half term break together. I noticed that, on the whole, it was the grandfathers who were enjoying the ride the most whereas the many children were gorging themselves on crisps and snacks as young mothers and fathers struggled to keep them occupied.
Back at Tenterden I left a bygone world behind me and returned to the quiet and comfort of my car and started the drive home. For all of the factual information that I had previously packed into my manuscript those three days brought it all to life in my mind and now I have to make sure that I pass that on to the reader.
As yet I have no publication date in mind, and indeed do not have a publisher, although one company has shown interest and is currently reviewing my work. I will let you know how things proceed over the coming months and maybe in the autumn when I am touring again I may have a little volume to sell and sign.
In the meantime, read lots and keep safe.
Lauren Speckmann said:
Such an amazing pleasure to read!
Robert Florczak said:
Excellent, Gerald. Thank you.
Thank you Robert
Tena Gift said:
Very interesting. I felt that I was with you on your journey. Looking forward to reading you book!
Thank you, I’m glad that you enjoyed the post!
Gayle Casias said:
I loved reading your blog it brought back wonderful memories of places I have visited while visiting friends in Kent.
When you publish your book I would love to purchase a signed copy that is, if it is possible. I live in Tennessee near Fayetteville where I first met you for the first time 1996 at the Christmas Past. you I also met you at the Dickens Festival in 2018.
Thank You so much