Charles Dickens, Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biogrpahy of a Rail Crash, Furness No 20, Mr Benn, The Didcot Railway Centre, The Signalman
When I was a child, in the years long before wall-to-wall kids TV and when there were only 3 channels to chose from, I loved a simple animated programme called Mr Benn. At this point many of my English readers will be smiling fondly and nodding their heads as their minds go back to the early 1970s, whilst my American readers will either be skipping forward to a part of this post that means something to them, or hurriedly Googling ‘Mr Benn’ to see where this is leading; let me help you out. Mr Benn was a respectable gentleman who lived at number 52 Festive Road. He wore a black suit and a bowler hat and presumably was employed in the Civil Service. At the beginning of each episode Mr Benn would walk to a fancy dress shop where a shopkeeper appeared, as if by magic. Mr Benn would choose a costume (a knight, a chef, a caveman, a pirate among many others), and would make his way to the changing room where he would take off his bowler hat, put it on the ground and then magically his suit would disappear to be replaced by the costume. a green door at the back of the changing room stood open and Mr Benn would walk through and into an adventure. It was simple stuff, lasting only five minutes, but I liked it!
Over the Easter weekend I felt a bit like Mr Benn as I put on my Victorian costume for the first time in months, because it felt as if I was returning to an adventure that had happened long ago. The start of 2023 was not easy thanks to various complications stemming from the bout of Covid that I caught during my American tour. I had noticed that one of my eyes had drooped and the pupil in it had shrunk to a much smaller size than its counterpart. I took myself to my doctor who immediately diagnosed Horner’s Syndrome, and I was booked in to hospital with great haste to find the origins of this condition. Horner’s Syndrome in itself is not serious or dangerous, but it is cause by damage to the nerves which run from the brain stem down to your neck and then back to the eye (a rather clumsy piece of engineering, it seems to me!) Damage to those nerves can be caused by all sorts of things, some of which are potentially very serious indeed. I was given a great many tests: blood tests, CT scans, MRI scans and blood pressure tests, and it was the last two that threw up the answer – thanks to Covid, the doctor thought, my blood pressure had soared to catastrophic levels, so much so that one of the arteries in my neck had split causing a small blood clot which fortunately didn’t travel north! The course of treatment was a prescription of blood pressure medication and very regular checks to keep an eye on things.
Fortunately, three months on, my blood pressure is back to the levels it should be, and I am feeling healthy and ready to tackle another year, a year which will mark my 30th anniversary of performing A Christmas Carol.
So, on Good Friday I was channelling my inner Mr Benn for my costume seemed to magically become part of me again and I was ready to go. The weekend commitment was not actually a show, but three days of appearances at our local historical railway museum, the Dicot Railway Centre which is situated only a few miles from our home. When I was writing my book about the Staplehurst rail crash I was fortunate enough to use the centre for some research, including actually driving a steam locomotive. During the holiday weekend the centre were staging a Victorian event, and it seemed like a great opportunity to sell some books and sign some copies.
I arrived at 10.30 on Friday morning, gently making my way past the long queue of public waiting to buy their tickets, as if my top hat were a special pass, and, as I was a little early, I decided to take a ride on the steam train which was waiting at the platform. I sat in a compartment and within a few minutes the whistle blew, the carriages shuddered and we were off. I was clutching a copy of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst: A Biography of a Rail Crash’ and once again wondered how Charles Dickens must have felt as the train left Folkestone on the 9 June 1865. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the locomotive that pulled my train did in fact have a connection to Staplehurst, but more of that later.
The first train ride took me the length of the centre, and then I boarded another train which took me back to the little square where the museum, cafe and book shop are situated, and which would be my home for the next few days. I was greeted by Sarah, the events manager at Didcot, who had planned this whole idea. As well as selling my books (of which she had bought a huge stock), Sarah had also produced a special edition beer which had been brewed to her own recipe by the Hook Norton Brewery Company, which still brews in the traditional ways, even having the original steam engine which used to power the brewery (indeed, they still fire the engine up once a month). Sarah had christened her beer ‘Off The Rails’ and apparently it had slight notes of orange to give a fresh citrus flavour for the summer months. Some suggested that this ale had a slight taste of marmalade, which may be very suitable for a forthcoming event when the centre is running ‘A Day With Paddington’. So, outside the shop, one end of the table was piled high with my books, and the other with bottles of beer and a tray of little plastic cups filled with free samples for visitors to taste – you can guess which end of the counter was more popular!
The Didcot Railway Centre is an amazing and vibrant place – it is very much a working museum with the focus very much on renovation and restoration. Some historical railways offer long stretches of line, giving passengers plenty of time to experience the age of steam and even dine on board, but that is as far as the experience goes. Other Rail museums, such as The National Rail Museum in York, have huge sheds with static displays, showing some of the great locomotives of the past in all their glory, but they do not run. All have sheds where restoration and repair work are carried out, but it is rare that you are able to see that. Didcot has all of this and more – the site is a breathing piece of history, the smell of coal and oil and grease and polish pervades the great engine shed (itself a grade 2 listed building dating back to the 1930s) as volunteers go about their daily tasks, and they all do it with a passion and a pride that is rarely seen in the modern world. This is no sterile visitor attraction, it is a visceral experience.
The books sold well throughout the weekend, and were especially popular with the many enthusiasts who came to the event clutching their cameras. I chatted at length to people who had maybe heard of the story and in some cases researched it for themselves. In one case a young man had actually adapted his own version of The Signalman to be performed and, by chance, he works in Westminster Abbey where Charles is buried in Poet’s Corner.
During quieter moments I took the opportunity to walk around the site, marvelling at the engines and watching the Easter Bunny reward the younger visitors with chocolate eggs. It was on one such sojourn that I ran into the team from The Furness Trust who had brought a special guest locomotive to the party.
Furness No 20 is the oldest running standard gauge locomotive in the country, having been built in 1863, and is a beautiful machine to behold, gleaming in her rust-coloured paintwork and highly-polished brass trimmings around the cab. Furness 20 was the engine that pulled my morning train on Friday, and the team mentioned that she had a special connection to the Charles Dickens story. Ten years ago the actor Ralph Fiennes directed and acted in ‘The Invisible Woman’, which is the story of Charles Dickens’ relationship with Ellen Ternan. Those of you who have read my book (and if not, why not?) will know that Ellen was on the train when it crashed just outside the town of Staplehurst, so the accident was featured in the movie, and it was Furness No 20 that pulled the train in those scenes (being the only operative locomotive of the correct age). Whilst I was chatting to the driver, a fellow with splendid muttonchop whiskers, he told me that during the filming of the aftermath of the crash, when he was attending to a lady flung from the wreck, he whispered to her ‘You know what? You should’ve got an earlier train!’ Fiennes, in his Dickens persona, was nearby and apparently hissed ‘this is supposed to be serious!’
On the last day of the event I happened to be in the staff and volunteers mess having a bite of lunch, having a conversation with Kevin Dare who had been my teacher in all things railway during the research for the book. It turned out that Kevin was on driving duty that day and invited me to join him on the footplate of Furness 20, an opportunity I leapt at! The appropriate permissions were granted and the formal slip of paper signed and I found myself in the cramped open cab of the train, with the furnace glowing and all the pressure gauges reading as they should. Kevin let me sound the whistle before he carefully opened the regulator, released the brakes, and the sheer power of steam began to turn the wheels and we were off. What a joy, what a privilege.
The weather on Monday was not as kind as it had been over the rest of the weekend, meaning that visitor numbers were lower, so Sarah and I walked around the whole complex looking for possible venues for a performance of ‘The Signalman’ later in the year. There are various sheds that would work, but the most obvious setting to me was in the open air, outside a genuine signal box. Sarah suggested that if I performed there she would bring a locomotive in behind, with steam and smoke creating a wonderful atmosphere at dusk. We do not have a date set as yet, but do watch this space, for it promises to be an exciting prospect.
I was sad to say my final goodbye to all at Didcot for I had really felt like a member of the team during the weekend, and I look forward to co-operating with them all more very soon.
In Mr Benn, the adventure over, the shopkeeper appears again, as if by magic, and leads our hero back through a door where he finds himself in the changing room again. Mr Benn changes back into his suit and picks up his bowler hat once more and walks back into the shop to hand the costume back. The shopkeeper gives Mr Benn a souvenir of the adventure, and in my case that was a copy of the stylish new guidebook which has just been produced.
With happy memories of a fun weekend I returned to ‘Festive Road’ and returned to my normal life.