War on the Line

How to have a Bad Day and Still Stay Classy

Heather Park

I love the 40s. You probably already know this, if you’ve been keeping up. Ever since I discovered the sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart snuggled away on ITV3 during my teenage years, my love for it has been kindling away gently. The music, the fashion, the etiquette, the overall charm and nostalgia of a time long gone. On a daily basis, I try to inject elements of this romantic era into my everyday life, but somehow that’s never quite enough. So when I discovered that the Mid Hants Railway was holding a 1940s event, obviously I was going.

I’ve been to this sort of event before; the Severn Valley Railway’s offering remains one of my favourite ever outings, so I was hoping this day would sufficiently recreate the experience. Women in tea dresses and heeled brogues, men in suits and trilbys, brass bands, sophisticated singers, military reenactors and vintage vehicles. That’s what I expected as my housemate Lizzi and I strolled up to Arlesford train station one rainy Saturday morning.

We were in full 40s attire, of course (although I admit we tiptoed a little into the 50s – hey folks, we’re on a budget.) I’d gone for a bright red tea dress and lips to match, with a black hat, lace gloves and my favourite pair of Mary Janes. Lizzi was quite the adorable thing in her green and black dress, complete with genuine 40s hat.

The station didn’t seem to have quite acquired the proper wartime feeling yet, but at the time it wasn’t even ten o’clock, so I convinced Lizzi (and myself) that it just needed a while to get going. There were some monstrous military vehicles that were definitely impressive to look at, and I adored the G.I. dance display that we watched whilst waiting for our train. Eventually it arrived, and we took our seats in the carriage, excited to see what was awaiting us at the line’s busiest station, Ropley.

‘Bustling wartime station’. That’s how Ropley was described on the map. ‘Ropley certainly has a wartime buzz!’ Well, quite frankly, it had buzzed off by the time we arrived. For the couple of hours we were there, we saw a brass band that never played, about four stalls, half of which wouldn’t be out of place at a car boot (not exactly 40s chic), and while I’d naively expected a tearoom with teacups and patterned crockery, I was unimpressed by a table clumsily piled with cake.

I know I’m being horrifically cynical, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these things in the right setting. But when I’ve paid £18 pounds to get in to what felt more like a themed school fète than the epitome of wartime, I’m going to be a bit annoyed.

I’ll stop being rotten for a moment to admit that there were good things. The carriage workshop had been converted into a plotting room, where a volunteer explained exactly how a plotting table works with such wonderful, overflowing passion, and although we couldn’t afford anything from the stalls we approved of, they were a joy to look around. After doing our best to wring every ounce of entertainment from the place, we boarded the next train to Medstead and Four Marks station, hoping we’d find it a bit more eventful.

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We were right, just not the desired way. Not long after alighting, we were approached by what can only be described as a middle-aged creeper. Dressed in full spiv gear, complete with a dodgy tash that just screamed ‘sexual assault’, he told us how he wanted us to come back in the night and kiss him. I utterly adore re-enactors, they really liven up an event like this, but he was old enough to be our father, and when your parting line is ‘you’ve been molested by Smart Alex’ you need to re-evaluate your act.

There was no salvaging the day after that. Of course, there was nothing at this station either, bar a few displays, so we spent the fifty minute wait trying to hide from creeper-man.

We caught the next train to Alton and walked into town, where I purchased six macaroons from Bottega Dei Sapori, devouring them far quicker than was appropriate in my ladylike getup. They were worth the trip to Alton, and were undoubtedly the best part of the day.

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We travelled home in a bizarre mixture of tiredness, annoyance and sheer shock at the state of proceedings. I hope that we just went on a bad day, or were at the wrong stations at the wrong times, because I wouldn’t like to think that the day could’ve been this lackadaisical out of choice.

I recommend Wartime steam events wholeheartedly, I do. When done right, they are the most authentic-feeling, magical, enjoyable event, with live music at every station, enthusiastic (not rapey) reenactors, plenty of good stalls selling all sorts of wartime curios, and – of course – a decent tearoom. But perhaps, if you’re going to go, visit the Severn Valley Railway’s offering, and give The Watercress Line a few more years to mature.

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