A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biogrpahy of a Rail Crash, Ebenezer Scrooge, Leeds, Leeds Library, National Rail Museum, The Met Hotel, The Shambles, The Signalman, York, York Minster
Usually when I wake up in the Sleeperz hotel in Newcastle I have to get on the road early, but on Friday I had a fairly leisurely day ahead of me, with no commitment until the evening, and that was to be in the city of Leeds which was not a huge drive. I had my breakfast at around 8.00, an extensive buffet with plenty of choice, and then returned to my room ready to be on the road by 9am, for, although I had nowhere to be professionally for several hours, I did have a plan for my day. I had decided to drive to the city of York and visit the National Rail Museum, as I had been in touch with them a few times during the research for my book. The drive was about an hour and a half, and I was able to finish the final two episodes of my Formula 1 podcast series, before listening to live coverage of the opening practice sessions from Abu Dhabi.
The start of my journey took me down the busy A1/M trunk road, but soon my Satnav began suggesting alternative turnings across country, and as I had no specific timetable to follow, I thought I would take them. I wound through small market towns and villages, through farmland, passed flooded meadows and across rivers. It was much more fun than maintaining a constant 75 mph (oh, I’m sorry officer, I meant 69.5 mph) on a very busy road.
Eventually I arrived on the outskirts of York and was directed to the Rail Museum’s car park. The National Railway Museum is part of a network across the country under the umbrella of London’s Science Museum, and as such is free (although I did note that the car park would cost me £10!). It is magnificent, you walk into a huge hall, set up with a series of platforms, each with an impressive train (locomotive and carriages) spread out: these are all Royal Trains, with carriages belonging to Victoria, Edward, George and Queen Elizabeth II. Also in this shed is the original Stephenson’s Rocket, one of the most influential of the early locomotives, and which generally settled the standard design for decades to come. From The Station Hall one walks through an underpass and to The Great Hall, and this is where the magnificent collection of giant locomotives are shown off. A giant steam train is a thing of sheer mechanical beauty, I adore them, and looking up at them from ground level, rather than from platform level, reminds you of the sheer scale and power of these beasts, the quality of engineering and design is simply breathtaking. Most prominently displayed in this hall, and quite rightly too, for it has a place in the British psyche alongside the Spitfire, Concorde and the Mini, is the jaw-droppingly elegant and beautiful Mallard. The Mallard was built in1938, using advanced streamlining techniques to make it faster and more efficient. In the year of its launch, it achieved a speed of 126 mph, a record which has never been beaten by any other steam locomotive. Of course, to a petrol-head like me, the streamlining and blue paintwork evoke the record-breaking achievements of Malcolm and Donald Campbell in their Bluebird cars and boats.
One other exhibit which fascinated me was tucked to the side of the hall, and of course was somewhat in the shadow of the great locos, and it was in a very tatty condition, not beautifully restored and painted – it was a passenger carriage dating from 1851, and from the various engravings and photographs from the Staplehurst rail crash, this was the sort of carriage that Charles Dickens, Ellen Ternan and her mother were travelling in on June 9, 1865. I felt quite moved looking at it, imagining Charles clambering from the door, down the embankment to assist his fellow passengers as they lay wounded and dying in the river Beault.
From the Great Hall I returned to the main building and took a look around the gift shop, where I was astounded, nay horrified, to discover that although there were a couple of books relating to Charles Dickens (Tony Williams’ ‘Dickens on Railways’, and A small copy of ‘The Signalman’), there was no copy of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst, A Biography of a Rail Crash’. I immediately sought out the shop manager, who promised to forward my details to the buying team, as she thought it would be an excellent book to sell: well, durr!
By this time, I had exhausted my interest in railwayana and as the city centre was very close, I thought I’d spend a little time strolling up to York Minster. My walk took me right passed the mainline railway station, and this brought back so many very happy childhood memories. In the early 1970s my parents would take us on our summer holidays to a small, remote village in the northeast of Scotland, and there we would spend time as a family swimming, exploring, playing, climbing and just having the most idyllic summers. The village is called Cromarty and still has a grip over me, so much so that when Liz and I married in 2015 it was in the gardens of Cromarty courthouse where we made our vows. We try to return as often as we can, and it is just as beautiful and relaxing as it was when I was a child. So, what does this have to do with York railway station? Back in my days of childhood my father liked to pack the car up with all of our belongings and take an overnight sleeper train to Inverness, whilst the car was loaded onto trucks behind, as part of British Rail’s Motorail service. I am guessing that the Motorail part of the equation didn’t run from London, for we would drive for 5 hours to York and board the train there. The start of the summer holidays coincided with either my mother’s or father’s birthdays (July 29 and August 6 respectively), and there were occasions when we decorated our compartments on the train and had a celebratory picnic before the great diesel engines (one of which had been on display at the museum), began hauling us north. We would settle into our bunk beds as the gentle rhythm of the train lulled us to sleep, and when we woke, answering a deferential knock on the door from the train steward, who left a tray of morning tea and biscuits (always Rich Tea biscuits, and I am sure that’s why I have an enduring love of those very plain items today), we would look out of the window to see moors covered with heather, slashed at points with dark almost black peaty streams, and shining white waterfalls. That blue/purple hue of the terrain can be seen nowhere else and meant that we were in the Highlands. All of that came back to me, as I stood on the busy ring road in York and looked back at the steel arches of the station.
I continued my walk to The Minster and was a little disappointed that would not be able to go inside, as there was a graduation ceremony in full swing, but I strolled around the precincts and admired the fine old building from every angle.
Next, I thought I would continue my walk to The Shambles, a collection of narrow Medieval streets, which are very much a part of York’s appeal to tourists. Indeed, the Shambles were packed, and as I stood at the end looking down the lanes, I thought how this must have been an inspiration for JK Rowling when she hit upon the idea of Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books. I walked in, and to my dismay discovered that I was not the only one to have had this thought, for rather than the quirky antique shops and small businesses that used to be in The Shambles, there were now Ollivander Wand Shops, outlets to buy Butterbeer and just Potter tat shops. Rather sad.
I was getting hungry by this time and decided to walk back to the Railway Museum and have lunch in the cafe there (the centre of York was so busy, I could imagine myself having to wait an age). The Cafe is set on the Platform in the Station Hall, and the seating is in booths, using carriage benches and tables, as if you were sat on your train setting out on a long journey.
With lunch finished it was time to get back in the car and head to Leeds, where I would be performing that evening. I had booked a hotel in the city centre, an older looking property – The Metropole, or ‘The Met’ as it is currently branded. I thought that I had read online that the hotel had no parking, so I made my way to the nearest public parking garage I could find, attached to Leeds Railway station, and walked the short distance back. Actually, there was a small parking garage, but the desk clerk told me it was full, and there was no guarantee that there would be spaces whenever I returned, so I decided to leave the car where it was.
I had two hours to watch some television and relax on the bed, until it was time to rouse myself and decide how best to get my things from the car to The Leeds Library, the issue being that the venue is in a pedestrianised street, and the nearest parking was a multi-story serving the huge shopping centres nearby. This being the second time that I had performed at the Library I knew that it was difficult to lug pieces of heavy furniture into lifts and through busy shopping streets, so I had asked if the library could provide the set – a chair, a table and a hatstand (I would bring my own stool, as I knock on it with my cane, and didn’t want to damage theirs). But even so I still needed to carry two costumes, a top hat, a scarf, my roller case, and a box of merchandise. I looked at the map on my phone and realised that my best bet was simply to leave the car at the station and make two trips, the walk being only about 6 minutes each way.
I arrived at the library at about 4.45 with my first load and was met by Ian Harker and Carl Hutton, who have been my contacts there. I said a quick hello and then disappeared into the busy streets to bring the remainder of my things, before settling in for the evening. The Leeds Library is an amazing old building which has stood in Commercial Street since 1808 and featuring the most amazing galleried central room, in which I would perform. A small stage had been set up at one end of the long room, and shelves of books towered above on all sides. The centre of the hall was filled with as many chairs as could be squeezed in, for once again the event was a sell-out. I arranged my furniture and stood for a while taking in the majesty of my office for the evening.
Carl would be looking after the sound effects and had stationed himself at a small table stage right. He was a little nervous about taking on this responsibility, but we ran through the cues a few times and I assured him that I had the utmost confidence in his abilities!
When all was ready, I retired to the Committee Room which was behind the stage and busied myself by going through the extra lines required for the two-act show (this being the first of the year in this format). I heard the audience arriving, and relished in that murmur of expectation and excitement, which is one of my favourite sounds in a theatre.
At 7, Carl knocked on the door and said that we were ready to start. I would make my way to the back of the auditorium, and when I was there Carl would start the first music cue. I walked through the more modern part of the building, through a passageway and there I was behind the audience who sat in silence. To quote the show, they were quiet. Very quiet, and then there was a degree of shuffling and looking around. The horrible thought came to me that perhaps Carl had already played the sound effect when I was not there, and now the audience were wondering what should happen next. I was wracked by indecision – should I just march up to the front and begin, or should I wait? I didn’t think that there would have been time for the effect to play all the way through without my hearing it, but what if it had? How long dared I wait? My confusion was relieved when Carl’s head popped his head around the wooden pillar that marked the edge of the stage, nodded, and started the sound effect, meaning I could begin in the usual style.
The Leeds audience were as enthusiastic and engaged as the Newcastle one had been and the first half was filled with fun and laughter. The extra passages slotted into the script easily, which was a relief and the whole thing moved on at a great pace. The most enjoyable part was Fezziwig’s party, as I had a little idea that I wanted to try. Rather than confining Mr F’s dance moves to the stage, I decided to utilise the central aisle in the hall, galloping all the way down and then all the way back, as the fiddle music of Sir Roger de Coverly played. As I came back, I gestured to an imaginary Mrs Fezziwig, standing on the stage, that she should join me in my dance, crouching slightly as I moved forward and beckoning to her, thereby recreating the iconic final scene from Dirty Dancing: Swayze and Grey had nothing on us. Nobody puts Mrs Fezziwig in a corner! The whole scene even merited a very small moment of applause from an audience member. Shortly after the Fezziwig scene had faded away there was a loud noise from the streets outside, a large dumpster being emptied of what sounded to be hundreds of used bottles. The Fezziwig’s ball had been quite an event, obviously.
Fortunately, I remembered to stop after the Ghost of Christmas Past had vanished, for it would have been so easy just to carry on as I have been for the last few weeks, but that is the point of the show where the interval comes, and I returned to the Commitee Room to change shirt and drink lots of water,
The second half was as fun as the second, and the whole show was a great success with another great ovation from the audience.
Once again lots of people remained afterwards to chat, and have merchandise signed – audience members of all ages, which was really gratifying. It was just after 9 o’clock when I started getting changed. I had asked if I could leave my things at the library, so that I could collect them in the morning, and with that I returned to the hotel, without needing to divert to the railway car park, and discovered to my delight that the restaurant was still open, meaning that I was able to finish my day with a fine plate of fish, chips and mushy peas.
Charles Dickens had not particularly liked Leeds, calling it rather unkindly ‘an odious place’. Well, I am sorry that he didn’t enjoy his time there, but for me it is a wonderful city and one that I hope to continue to visit for many years to come