Friday, 17 July 2015

Time travel: Take a train to the 1940s

I love a ride on a steam train. It makes me come over all Famous Five. So when I heard there was a 1940s wartime weekend on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway, I was as giddy as someone who’d had one too many lashings of ginger beer. 

But first question: What to wear? Visitors are encouraged to dress up in 1940s costume, the website said. Fortunately my daughter loves a good old-fashioned dress even on an ordinary day, so she wouldn't look too far off the mark in her ‘normal’ clothes. 
As for me and my husband, we weren't going to make that mistake again. We'd been to fancy dress parties where we'd put lots of time and effort into our costumes only to find when we got there that everyone else had 'forgotten' and we looked like a*ses.

At the gate as we were issued with identity cards and told – mock-sternly –  that we must carry them at all times because we could be stopped and checked at any point (loved that!).
As we walked through onto the platform, we immediately caught the wail of an air-raid siren and a train windowful of passengers pulling out of the station. 
Oh ... WOW. Almost EVERYONE had dressed up. 
We were surrounded by very convincing wartimers, from civilians ...
to soldiers ...
to land girls and nurses ...
to policemen ...
to station masters ...
to evacuee children ...
carrying these ...
to whole forties families ...
Yep, we were were the a*ses again. Modern eyesores.

No-one seemed to mind too much though. We were instantly infected by the warm, lively, nostalgic atmosphere, with people everywhere happy to stop and chat, some old enough to share personal snippets and stories of living through the war themselves.

The attention to detail was incredible: From the government posters dotted around ...
to the tape criss-crossed on windows to stop flying glass injuring people in the event of a bomb.
Some women had even drawn seams with eyeliner to simulate stockings, which were in short supply in the war ... 
by Jamie Dobson/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (adapted)
"I love it here!" skipped my daughter. "It's like we've really gone back to the old days."

Next question: Where to start? The idea was that you could travel the steam train up and down the line, willy-nilly, alighting at any of the four stations for different sights, sounds and experiences of wartime. The programme, cleverly designed as a newspaper, told us what we could find at each one. 
Well, we'd better get on with it. We didn't want to miss a thing.

We started by jiggling to the swing band ...
... and watched, grinning, the goovy moves of the jitterbuggers.
We queued eagerly at this tea van – until someone told us it was just for show. (Damn. I'd always wanted to try the bread and dripping my nan told me about when I was a kid.)
So instead we ate at the Naafi cafĂ©, where there were old-fashioned classics like Lancashire Hotpot and Spotted Dick. 
We popped into the 1940s hair salon ...
... and watched a lady having a pin curl set.
We played old-fashioned children's games ...
Peered in vintage cars ...
... and found a station waiting room where you could see exactly what you got with your rations and clothes coupons.
“I'm not sure I could manage on one egg a week,” said my daughter, a boiled-egg-for-breakfast addict. "Look, you can have dried egg though," I pointed out. "Fancy that?" "Erm ... not so much." We flicked through a recipe book for dishes to make the most of your rations. "Whale meat?" grimaced my daughter. "Well, other meats were very scarce, you know," said a lady overhearing her. "It was very smelly when it was raw, but it was okay cooked – a bit like steak." "But not as good as spam fritters," chipped in an elderly gentleman. "They were my favourite." 

We saw underwear made out of parachute silk and pondered the information that kids got 70 clothes coupons a year and a coat, for example, used up 11 coupons. We also saw a gas mask for a baby.
My daughter was fascinated with the shed full of things to do with school in the 1940s. She loved sitting at an old desk trying to write out the alphabet with ink pen and ink well ...
She wanted to know just how hard it hurt when you were caned and was intrigued by the dunce’s cap. “Wouldn’t it always be the same poor kids?” she remarked, a child used to the modern mixed-ability education system where the 'bottom' table is never expected to do the same work as the 'top' table. 

We saw 'Dig for Victory' vegetable patches and browsed the stalls selling 1940s paraphernalia. Oh, these photo frames looked so familiar to me ... but why? ... 
... oh yes! My other nan used to have them on her 'front room' mantelpiece when I was little. Looking at them, I could almost smell her house again.

But if I had to pick out my absolute favourite, favourite bit of the day, it was having a go on a hand cart! Boy, can you bomb up and down that track.
When I was a kid, I actually wrote to the TV programme Jim’ll Fix It to ask him if my best friend and I could dress up in St.Trinian’s school uniform and be filmed in black and white doing the chase scene on one of these to Benny Hill type music. He never replied, but now, finally, my (odd) little childhood wish had sort of come true.

And I haven't even mentioned riding the steam train itself yet. The smell of steam and wood panelling would have been enough for me. But it was much more eventful than that. First we got to have a sing-song with the on-board musicians (the words were printed on the programme – they really had thought of everything!).
And it was on the train that we had our ID cards inspected by a member of the Home Guard – who tried to trick us into responding to German. We passed the test but the passengers next to us didn't and an arrest involving handcuff and lots of shouting unfolded right before our eyes. "They're re-enacters," the people opposite us whispered to us, reassuringly.

We were sad we didn't catch the singer performing Vera Lynn songs on the platform and we were really disappointed to miss the last chance to experience running to safety in an air raid shelter.
But all the same, we were full-to-bursting with fun and facts and jam roly-poly.Time to go. After all, we had to be back before 7pm!
My daughter insisted on us singing war songs all the way home.

When she scrambled into our bed the next day for her morning cuddle and chat, she sighed. “The 21st century feels a bit boring, doesn't it?" she said. "I want to go back to the 1940s."

Me too. I'm already planning my outfit for next year.

The next Wartime in the Cotswolds weekend on the GWR is 23rd & 24th April, 2016. There are numerous other 1940s wartime weekends on steam railways up and down the UK throughout the year. 


  1. Oh what a great day out! Sound and looks amazing! I'm heading straight to their website to see if they do anything near me! :) #letkidsbekids

  2. Wow, that looks like an absolutely amazing day. It must have been really interesting and fascinating being surrounded by 1940's everything. I bet your daughter learnt a lot, apart from having loads of fun.
    Thanks for linking #LetKidsBeKids

    1. It was fantastic to be 'immersed' like this! Yep, fun and educational.

  3. How brilliant, what a fantastic day out. Great fun and absolutely fascinating! #letkidsbekids

    1. Right up there as one of our best days out yet!

  4. Making a note of this, and having a look for one closer to home. My son blinking loves trains (me, er, not so much) but I DO like to dress up in wartime clothing. Perfect excuse.

  5. This looks absolutely spectacular. I can't believe the lengths they went to, to make everything authentic. What an incredible history lesson for your children (and you too!)

    1. I know -the attention to detail was astonishing Susan!

  6. For anyone looking to find 1940's events near to them go to Rod's 1940's events website as per link below. Loads of events, some on railways, some in parks, museums etc, don't worry too much about getting the look right, we re-enactors spend thousands to get it right just do your best and enjoy coming along
    see you at the GWR april 23/24 for the start of another season

  7. This years event will be held on the Weekend of 27th and 28th April, so why not 'Pack up your old kit bag" and come and join us for an even more action packed weekend: Mark GWSR