Monday, 17 October 2016

In training

I can’t explain how I acquired my love of trains. It certainly wasn’t nurtured by my parents, who most definitely preferred cars. Understandably enough, as my mother’s father had been a champion cyclist whose Alnwick cycle shop gradually developed into a small chain of north Northumberland garages; and who, as a pioneer motorist, could proudly claim to have driven the first car to reach a number of valleys in the Cheviots (I forget exactly which).

Ford's Garage in Alnwick; grandfather in straw boater
My father, meanwhile, had earnestly saved the earnings from his first job until the glad day when he was able to walk into a garage on Northumberland Road in Newcastle city centre, and drive back to Philip Street in the West End in his first car. No driving lessons or test in those days. Just hand over the cash and get on with it. I don’t know exactly when that was, but I can remember him telling me that the price of gallon of petrol at the time was 1s (5p), and that the nation came close to rioting when it shot up to an eye-watering 1s 1½d (5.6p).

We simply never travelled by train. My first ever journey by rail was with my father on a third rail electric train from Newcastle to the coast when I was eight or so, secured after much nagging by me. For a main line trip I had to wait for my mother to take me on a day trip from Newcastle to York. From the fact that I can distinctly remember one of British Railway’s very last steam locomotives pottering around the station while we were waiting for our return train home, I guess that was in the summer of 1967 when I was 13.

Once they indulged me by obtaining a brochure to satisfy my rail obsession by spending a summer holiday in a camping coach on a rural branch line, but the plan collapsed when my father grasped that they were only made available to those who reached them by train.

Still, they did buy me train sets (first Hornby O-gauge, then second-hand three-rail Hornby Dublo) and take me for walks. From the start, my favourite outings were always to the East Coast Main Line, a mile or so from our house. Particularly to the sidings at Little Benton, where there were usually steam engines to be observed chuntering up and down sort coal waggons and hoppers as the expresses between London and Edinburgh thundered past. My mother was fond of trying to convince me that the clangs of shunting were rumbles of distant thunder, requiring us to head for home without delay.

I loved the sound and smell of steam locomotives from my first encounter with them. As I grew a little older, I also came to appreciate the living history they represented, with a fair part of the motive power in the Northumberland coalfield having been designed and built before the First World War, yet still gamely plodding on into the 1960s.

Against that background, it is easy enough to understand how my seven-year-old son comes to be something of a rail enthusiast. Though perhaps not a particularly well-informed one. Over-exposure to Thomas the Tank Engine led to a certain amount of devastation when he finally grasped, just over a year ago, that regular main line express trains are not still customarily powered by steam.

The seeds do not always take root, either. My four-year-old has been subjected to exactly the same drip of pro-train propaganda, but still prefers cars. Particularly racing cars.

Even so, having two die-hard rail enthusiasts in a family of four certainly constitutes a quorum, and permits me to indulge my own fancies while pretending that I am doing something nice to please the children.

Two weekends ago we spent a most agreeable day in the National Railway Museum in York, which I can heartily recommend to any parent. Unlike the national museums in London it is not what Jeremy Corbyn would doubtless call ram-packed. Even though entry is – rather bizarrely to my mind – completely free.

The exhibits and attractions kept the boys’ boredom at bay for several hours, which is frankly one hell of an achievement, and the cafeteria does a very decent pork and black pudding sausage roll. What’s not to like? They were also very nice about retrieving my younger son’s souvenir sticker book from the roof of a carriage when he dropped it there from a footbridge, remarking as they did so that it was a remarkable achievement to have got it to lodge where he did. Minutes after the man with the grab on the end of a long pole had gone away, another child managed precisely the same feat.

The next day, after a comfortable night in a friendly pub in Kirbymoorside, we took steam trains from Pickering to Whitby and back on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, spending long enough at the seaside to enjoy fish and chips in the Magpie Café and take a bracing walk on the beach.

I have been a member of the NYMR preservation society since 1973, when the best it could offer was a diesel multiple unit ride from Grosmont to a little way beyond Goathland, but I had not visited the line for well over a decade. It was a most enjoyable experience, particularly on the outward journey. Because my sons have the compressed attention span of the internet generation and their view of return journeys tends to be “been there, seen that”. Or, as the elder wearily put when I tried to encourage him to take another look out of the window somewhere in Newtondale, “Trees, bracken, bracken, trees, trees, trees.”

An image from the outward journey
A latter-day camping coach on the NYMR. Next summer's holiday sorted?
Perhaps the single most annoying thing about the elder boy is that he is even more observant than I am, and virtually impossible to catch out. Because even the things I feel sure he cannot possibly have seen because he has been, at best, half paying attention, have all been clocked, absorbed and stored away in his capacious memory banks. “I told you so” is fast becoming one of his favourite phrases or sayings.

We had one bit of unfinished business at the end of that weekend in Yorkshire. Although we had duly seen and admired the fastest steam engine of all time, Mallard, we had not encountered what has become the most famous locomotive of them all.

So it was lucky that I had also managed to secure perhaps the last four tickets on the final train of Flying Scotsman’s weekend stint on the East Lancashire Railway late yesterday afternoon.

It would be fair to say that even the child who prefers racing cars was highly excited.

We counted the minutes on the platform at Bury Bolton Street station until the legend drifted into view, and we were the first to take our booked seats on its train, the best part of half an hour before it departed.

The boys admired the scenery of the Irwell Valley – both industrial and rustic – all the way to Rawtenstall, where they wisely did not join me and the rest of the passengers in disembarking to try to take identical photographs of the locomotive.

On the way back, as ever, ennui set in, alleviated a little by an iPad. But then Mummy went to stand by an open window at the end of the carriage, where the boys joined her. And as the shadows lengthened, the elder boy was heard to say, “Mummy we’re on the actual Flying Scotsman and it's getting dark, could this day get any better?” On the strength of which, I feel entitled to mark the day down as a success.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016


I had an enlightening conversation with the four-year-old over breakfast this morning. First he imparted a great deal of information about dinosaurs, including several that I had never even heard of; then he gave me a run-down of the main categories of animal classed as reptiles.

“Do you know, Daddy, what is the largest lizard?”

“Is it a Komodo dragon?”

Apologies if these aren't actually Komodo dragons, but they're definitely lizards and definitely in Chester Zoo

He gave me a look of shocked surprise and said, “Correct!”

Then added helpfully, “That means you were right, Daddy.”

“I’ve seen a Komodo dragon. They have them at Chester zoo.”

He looked surprised again, then changed the subject to his best friend at the pre-school he has just left. He loves playing with his best friend but sometimes another boy comes along that his best friend prefers to play with. But this other boy is going to a different school in September so my son’s best friend will have to “stick together” with him in future.

It’s nice when life works out like that, isn’t it? I wish it had happened to me more often.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Having to make one's own bed

I have now cunningly wangled two peaceful weekends in Northumberland constructing a bunk bed. The first, to be fair to me, was utter hell: seven solid hours of unremitting toil bolting, gluing and screwing the individual beds together. I returned to Cheshire exhausted and with a large bandage on the second finger of my right hand, to compensate for the skin still adhering to my screwdriver.

I showed the following picture to a so-called friend who said, “Oh, you’ve just been assembling a flat-pack! I thought you meant that you’d actually made the things yourself!”

Yes, because I am exactly the sort of chap who would know how to go about cutting and planing virgin timber to make a bed.

Anyone who is so blithely dismissive of the effort involved in building flat-pack furniture has clearly not spent long enough doing it. Though in truth, any time is too long. I would much prefer to have bought a ready-made bunk but could not find one. Which may be just as well, as it would have need disassembling to get it up the stairs and into the bedroom, thereby taking us roughly back to square one.

The instructions did specify that putting the thing together was a two person job. In fact, the only small but critical phase that required any support was lifting the upper bunk on top of the lower one. By an immense stroke of luck two friends proposed calling in for tea yesterday and were able to help me do this. They even brought a top class lemon drizzle cake with them.

We needed the bunk because our sons’ bedroom is too small for two full size single beds, and they have outgrown their cot beds. We do have another bedroom already equipped with two full size single beds, but it is downstairs, right next to the sitting room, and we assessed that there would be zero chance of their actually going to sleep there until we went to bed ourselves.

Now everyone warns me that we have set ourselves up for a nightly battle over who is going to sleep in the top bunk. The manufacturer’s instructions specify that the top bunk must never be occupied by a child under the age of six. My four-year-old thinks he has agreed a rota with his seven-year-old brother. So it is Elfin Safety versus Democracy. I wonder which of those will come out on top?

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Trains in the garden

It all started with the Boy complaining that the train table in his bedroom was too small. He wants more tracks and, to be fair, I can see his point. Two ovals and three sidings on a 6’ x 4’ sheet of plywood afford limited opportunities for creative play in 00 gauge. We could buy him a bigger baseboard but there isn’t room for anything much bigger than 8’ x 4’, and with the best will in the world I can’t see that making a massive amount of difference towards fulfilling his ambitions for a locomotive roundhouse, turntable, marshalling yards, tunnels, bridges and so forth.

So in a moment of madness I said, “We could always build a railway in the garden.”

In truth, this has been a not particularly secret ambition of mine since I was a small boy myself. At my parents’ house in Longbenton it got no further than constructing an embankment through the rose bed, which I had to keep explaining away as a novel decorative feature. The tracklaying gang never materialised owing to pocket money budgetary constraints.

In my own house in Northumberland I went as far as to design the back garden with raised flower beds specifically intended to accommodate model railway tracks. There is even a hatch into the conservatory, through which trains were intended to steam to an indoor station complex. But as with so many grand Victorian railway schemes, progress rapidly ground to a halt owing to a critical lack of funds. Combined, in my case, with indolence and technical incompetence.

Back then I also lacked the wonderful excuse of having children to play with the trains. Now that that gap in my life has been filled, it is surely now or never for a garden railway.

But what sort? The Boy’s first thought was simply to extend his 00 gauge network outside. Which would be handy in terms of the capital outlay required, but seems slightly impractical when every falling leaf would carry with it the risk of a catastrophic derailment. Something chunkier, perhaps with the possibility of using actual steam motive power, would surely be preferable. Though sadly neither the length of the garden or the depth of my pockets are compatible with building the sort of thing on which even small boys can ride.

As a starter for ten, I bought a book and a set of DVDs from a garden railway specialist shop (yes, there are such things) in Buckinghamshire. Those DVDs have now been watched so many times that I know every scene, and every word of the commentary, off by heart.

The Boy is wildly enthusiastic. His younger brother, who usually claims only to be interested in cars and animals, has discovered that he quite likes trains after all. Even more remarkably, Mrs H has started making positive noises about how we could run the trains along a dwarf wall around the lawn that would blend nicely with the garden, and stable them in the shed when they are not in use.

As an incentive to get started, I received from the boys a £100 gift voucher from the garden railway shop for my birthday last month. And serendipitously this week Mrs H and I found ourselves attending the opera at Garsington and staying with friends who live only about five miles from the shop. After a long and fruitful conversation with the proprietors we came away with an LGB starter set, some extra track and a supply of steam oil, and we are now the proud owners and operators of a small oval railway on the lawn.

The Boy is eagerly telling his friends that we will soon have five, six or seven tracks heading all over the garden, and stations representing different countries.

I think this is highly unlikely. But given time and perhaps a lottery win I think we may reasonably aspire to have a garden railway worthy of the name within the next year or two. Watch this space for further reports.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Winning the lottery

If there is one thing I have learned from the white heat of the technological revolution, it is that it is always a seriously bad idea to consult an electronic device while in bed.

Even if one manages to avoid accidentally flicking the switch that will unleash a tsunami of top class pornography, the chances of getting to, or back, to sleep are as close to zero as makes no difference.

So very unlike my experience of the good old-fashioned book, magazine or newspaper, any of which are more or less guaranteed to bore me into the deepest of slumbers within minutes.

Nevertheless, when I woke in the early hours of this morning, I found that I could not resist sneaking a quick look at my iPad. Because I knew that, at 00.30 precisely, the Government was releasing the results of a lottery far more valuable and important than Camelot’s EuroMillions: the allocation of primary school places for September 2016.

I would have found out then if only my device had remembered the necessary password, as it is supposed to do but rarely does. So I put temptation aside, screwed my eyes shut with the determination of a Border terrier fixed on laying down some zzzs in the face of bright sunshine and some nearby pneumatic drill action, and checked again shortly after 6 when I was up and about in the normal course of events, and able to access the Top Secret Folder in which my passwords (all different, constantly changing and fiendishly hard to guess, obviously) are stored.

And there was great rejoicing in the House of Hann for the child previously described in these pages as The Baby, but now clearly overdue for promotion to The Boy Mk 2, had secured a place at our first choice school.

In reality this should have been no surprise given the operation of sibling preference and the fact that the school, though excellent in every respect, is not oversubscribed. A consequence, I imagine, not just of its being located in a fairly sparsely populated rural area but also almost on the boundary between two of the unitary local authorities into which our county was split by Labour in 2009. The fact that one of them came under Labour control last year suggests that there might have been some method in their apparent madness.

I pressed the “accept” button with alacrity and rushed to share the good news with the other members of the family, who all received it with total indifference. Because they had assumed (correctly as it turned out) that this was what was going to happen all along.

Personally, I feel that my pessimistic “what could possibly go wrong” mindset is of great benefit in allowing me to enjoy moments of elation when things do actually go right. On the downside, there was no one interested in sharing the bottle of Champagne I had reserved for this happy occasion.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

A day out with Thomas

Me: “Would you like to go and see Thomas the Tank Engine, boys?”

Boys: “No.”

Me: “Why not?”

Boys: “We’d rather stay at home and play on our iPads.”

(Technically Kindle Fires, but who am I to undermine their credibility in the playground?)

Me: “Well we’re going anyway.”

Boys: “Awwwwww.” So it was that we drove to Llangollen and shelled out £52 – that’s fifty-two English pounds, more than I earned in a week in my first job – to chug to Carrog and back in the sort of 1960s Diesel Multiple Unit which I always hated so much when it was the mainstay of British Rail in my younger days; plus shunting back and forth in Llangollen station yard in a brake van propelled by a very reasonable simulacrum of Thomas himself.

I would like to emphasise that this is NOT a selfie
There was a puppet show and face-painting as well, but the boys quite reasonably consider all that sort of thing beneath their dignity. All they really want to do is go into shops and buy toys, with scant regard to price, quality or the fact that they already own most of the items on display.

I managed to persuade them that there was no point forking out hundreds of pounds we have not got to buy model locomotives that I already possess, gathering dust in my loft in Northumberland.

I assembled a large collection of them in the early 1990s, confident that I was making a brilliant investment for the future. And indeed auction results did seem to suggest that vintage Hornby trains were an appreciating asset, for a time.

Only those prices were driven up by sad old men, like me, satisfying a lifelong yen to own the coveted toys they could never afford when they were children.

A quarter of a century on, the same sad old men are dying or downsizing, and there is no one particularly interested in buying the collections they built up. Hence I am consistently advised that my models are worth less than I paid for them.

Might as well let the children wreck them, then. That is, after all, what they were designed for. And at least it will give them some fun away from their iPads for a while.