Archive footage telling the history of modern Britain. Melvyn Bragg looks at the 1960s, when the Beeching Axe led to the closure of over 2,000 railway stations.
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Just over a century ago, the motion camera was invented.
It changed forever the way we recall our history.
For the first time, we could see life
through the eyes of ordinary people.
Across the series, we'll bring these rare archive films back to life,
with the help of our vintage mobile cinema.
We'll be inviting people with a story to tell to step on board
and relive moments they thought were gone forever.
They'll see relatives on screen for the first time,
come face-to-face with their younger selves
and celebrate our amazing 20th century past.
This is the people's story. Our story.
Our vintage mobile cinema was originally commissioned in 1967
to show training films to workers.
Today, it's been lovingly restored
and loaded up with remarkable film footage, preserved for us
by the British Film Institute
and other national and regional film archives.
In this series,
we'll be travelling to towns and cities across the country
and showing films from the 20th century
that give us the reel history of Britain.
Today we're pulling up in the 1960s,
to hear how the actions of one man, Richard Beeching,
led to the closure of almost a third of Britain's branch lines
and cut off millions living in rural communities across the country.
Today, we're in Sheringham, in the County of Norfolk.
We'll be looking back to the 1960s
and the axing of the railways by Beeching.
Captured on film.
The chance to see a much-loved uncle for the first time in over 20 years.
To see Uncle Billy up there was very moving.
I re-live a boyhood dream in a signal box.
And ride a steam train with railway enthusiast Pete Waterman.
And we hear fond memories of the dad
who drove the final train to Aldeburgh.
People wanted to talk to him. In fact, he was signing autographs.
Sheringham, here in Norfolk, was one of 2,128 stations across the country
that closed in the 1960s.
Axing Britain's branch lines changed public transport forever.
Getting to and from rural areas became much harder
and led to an explosion in the use of the motor car.
It's easy to see how it happened, looking back.
When the rail network was nationalised in 1948,
the newly-created British Railways inherited huge losses
and poorly-run lines.
In 1961, its new chairman, Dr Richard Beeching,
was given a simple task:
Make rail pay.
Beeching reported back with some startling facts.
95% of the journeys were taken on just 50% of the lines.
He concluded the only solution was to close the unprofitable ones.
It made him public enemy number one but he stuck to his guns.
I think the plan is right.
All the proposals are directed
towards making the railways do those things they can do best
and stopping them doing those things they are no longer suited to do.
There was huge opposition to the plan,
still known today as the Beeching Axe.
A plan that kept Britain talking for months.
Joining me in Sheringham today
are railwaymen and passengers from across the UK
who have gathered to tell me their stories
about how the closure of their local lines affected all their lives.
'Bruce McCartney grew up in Hawick in the Scottish borders,
'a small town on the Waverley line between Carlisle and Edinburgh.
'It was earmarked for closure.'
Bruce was a student at Edinburgh University at the time
and he became one of the protestors
campaigning to stop the closures going ahead.
-Are you on there?
-I am bending over. That's me.
Not a very flattering shot, but...
So you lost the argument?
Yes, the line was losing about 700,000 a year.
And in the late '60s, that just wasn't viable at all.
Who's being led away here?
That is the Minister being led away by the police.
That's the Reverend Briden Mavern.
What has he done to be led away?
He has blocked the line, they padlocked the gates together,
hijacked the station master's car, let down the tyres.
And the train from Hawick was delayed about a couple of hours.
We've got a treat for Bruce. We're about to show him
a Border TV news report from that time.
He's going to see his younger self as a protestor on that very day.
He and his friends made a coffin, as a symbol for the closure plan.
40 years on, will he be proud or just a bit embarrassed?
The coffin was almost a last-minute thought.
After all, the line is dying.
The night the line closed,
we addressed it and sent it by the last train
to the Minister of Transport, Richard Marsh.
But I think he refused delivery of it. As I would have, as well!
Seeing our film, does Bruce have any regrets?
Blow me, I would do the same again,
only I've learned from my experiences.
'I think, had the closure taken place,
'or was scheduled to take place in a year's time,
'I would get much better organised and do things differently
'and hopefully the result would be different.'
The line should have remained open to Hawick.
People who didn't have their own transport
would have a two-and-a-half bus journey in front of you.
That was a dreadful thought.
Seeing himself on that day
has certainly turned the clock back for Bruce.
It brought back events of 40-odd years ago,
seeing the protesters and just recalling the events of the day
and the placards that we'd spent ages out with the ink and...
Ah, dear... Youth!
Michael Gatenby from Lancashire was also captured on film in the '60s.
He's come to join us at Sheringham station to see himself on screen
and share his story of the life of a signalman.
Michael began his love affair with the locomotives
as a five-year-old trainspotter and he worked the railways for 37 years.
In a minute, he's going to see himself on screen as a young man.
And we're going to join him,
as he settles into his seat for a trip down Memory Lane.
The trains used to run past my school
and that's where the passion grew from.
I always wanted to work for the railway.
I never wanted to do anything else.
Michael was filmed for a BBC documentary when he was 19
and one of the youngest signalmen in the country.
The film bore the curious title
"Engines Must Not Enter The Potato Siding."
How will he feel about seeing himself all those years ago?
It's one of the most responsible jobs there is, signalman,
no doubt about it.
Come to think of it, it's more important than a pilot's.
A signalman's got the lives of two passenger trains coming up,
all those lives.
I mean, there's no element for mistakes in this job.
It was like a part of me that's been preserved forever.
I suppose then I was at my best and now I'm at my worst!
Down path's just coming out now, a twin-engine section.
For railwaymen like Michael, the closure of
so many rural lines was shocking.
He recalls that Beeching's axe fell hard.
As well as closing over 2,000 stations
and cutting 67,000 jobs,
over 5,000 miles of track were ripped up
and sold for cash or abandoned.
It did need whittling down a little bit but I thought,
you know, he's decimated the railways
and it was a bit short-sighted.
If anybody could have seen how much we still need the railways,
it would have been better to mothball certain lines
instead of ripping them all up.
Michael's feelings echo those of millions at the time.
It's more than a job, it's a family.
That's why when they close down a line, you destroy families.
'You destroy a way of life,
'which you can't really put into words.'
It's terrific to meet someone like Michael,
who cares so much about the railways.
He's taking me to see the signal box here at Sheringham,
which is just like the one he operated at Woodhead in Lancashire.
It's a kind of sitting room, isn't it?
Yep, everything you need.
You've got your armchair.
Home from home. Feels like I've never been away.
Watching the film, of you on the film, a rather younger
version of yourself, what did you think of yourself on the film?
My son, who watched that for the first time,
was five years older than I was at the time and he said,
"Dad, "I bet you were a real babe magnet!"
But I was really shy.
I was probably the most shy person you could imagine.
But, er, yeah, I look back now,
I wish I was that age again with what I know now.
That's the driver ringing in to tell me he's arrived.
Yeah, OK. Thank you.
What effect did you find from your experience
was it having on the places that no longer had a railway?
They had no service any more. Not everybody had a car in those days.
The bus services weren't adequate to get people where they wanted to go.
People couldn't go on holidays any more.
They used to rely on the trains.
They were prisoners in the community unless you had a car.
Once entrusted to dedicated individuals like Michael,
the job of the signalman has now been replaced
with cutting-edge technology.
Today on Reel History we're at Sheringham station,
in East Anglia, which was closed
during the restructure of Britain's railway network in the 1960s.
Today, thanks to the dedication of railway enthusiasts,
it's re-opened as a popular tourist attraction.
But not all branch lines were as lucky.
The next film was made by an amateur filmmaker.
It captures a day in the life of a community
when it came out in force to say farewell to an era.
Susan Hawkes from Sizewell knows she is about to see
her beloved uncle in this next film. What she doesn't know is
that he isn't the only member of her family who will appear.
This film was shot on 10th September 1966
and captures the last train from Saxmundham to Aldeburgh in Suffolk,
just a few miles from here.
Susan's uncle, Billy Botterill, gave 50 years to Aldeburgh station,
working his way up from luggage boy in 1916
to managing the station right up to the day it closed.
How will she feel about seeing him on film?
My heart thumped when I saw Uncle Billy on the film,
it was really lovely.
Every day of his life he'd got up early in the morning,
sorted the household out, left his wife at home
and gone up to his beloved station.
He really loved it.
And he particularly loved his garden.
Year after year he would win the cup
for the best station garden in the local area.
But someone else catches Susan's eye in our mobile cinema -
someone she wasn't expecting to see.
Also on the platform was my cousin, waving a white handkerchief
with a great big smile on his face.
It was really lovely to see him
because, unfortunately, he only died a few days ago.
To see him on film was very special at this particular time.
3,000 people lost their link to the outside world
when the branch line to Aldeburgh close.
A story repeated across the country.
It's been a sentimental day for Susan.
To see Uncle Billy up there, he was so like my father.
It was very moving.
The day they ran the last train to Aldeburgh,
Clive Strutt was there to capture the moment on his camera.
He was a press photographer covering
the story of the closure for the local papers.
-You were a photographer on that last train, a press photographer?
Yes, the last train running from Aldeburgh to Saxmundham
was a major event in our lives.
-It was a big turnout, all along the line.
I think everybody felt a lump in their throat.
What Clive didn't know was that an amateur filmmaker was filming him.
That film was preserved by the regional archive in East Anglia,
and Clive's about to watch it for the first time.
How will he react to seeing himself, aged 23?
Here he is, walking along the middle of the track.
Seeing myself in those days, as a young man,
I didn't realise how old I'd become. My hair wasn't grey,
I wasn't wrinkled and I certainly wasn't fat.
But, no, it was very nostalgic.
Clive recalls how, like communities right across the country,
everyone along the line turned out to say an emotional goodbye
as the last train to Aldeburgh went past.
The thing I remember most of all about that day
was the large amount of people that turned up.
I think that was a surprise to a lot of people.
And probably it said something about the way the branch line,
as it was known in those days, how people felt about it
and how people felt about the closure,
because it was quite a community shock when that went.
Clive's obviously pleased
he's had the chance to share his recollections of that day with us.
In a way, I was quite privileged to be here today,
because most of the people there are no longer with us.
-Huge cheers by the crowds, wasn't there?
Clive has brought with him one special photograph he took that day,
of a man who played a crucial role - the train driver, Albert Skeels.
A coincidence there, really.
Albert's son, Colin, is here to see his father captured on camera.
Have you seen this photograph?
Not such a clear one. I've seen a hazy one in the paper.
-That's very nice, isn't it?
-It's good, yes.
Colin's father, Albert,
drove the last train from Saxmundham to Aldeburgh.
After a quiet 40-year career on the railways,
that day, he became the reluctant star of the show.
Albert died 26 years ago.
So how will his son, Colin, feel about watching
his father's big moment re-played on the big screen?
He started off at the very bottom when he left school,
I think it was in 1917 or 18,
and he worked his way up.
He enjoyed his job, he liked the railways,
he was a railwayman through and through
and erm, he... this was just a special day.
My father was lucky enough to be on duty that day,
to drive the train to Aldeburgh from Ipswich
and it was so different from a normal day's working,
because people wanted to talk to him.
In fact, he signed autographs,
which...nobody ever wants an engine driver's autograph!
I suppose he felt special for one day.
You know, it brought back some nice memories for me
and it's made me realise that he had a moment
in the limelight in his life.
Because most of the while, he just drove his train and that was it.
Unfortunately, both him and my mum died before we saw it,
so they never saw the film.
He never showed his emotions very much,
but I think he would be pleased to think that something he did
was still available for people to get some enjoyment from.
Colin's dad retired shortly after this film was made
but 5,000 engine drivers like him lost their jobs due to the cuts.
Were you there on that day?
No, I wasn't. No, I didn't know it had happened until afterwards.
My dad told me, when we saw him later.
And we didn't know the film had been taken. We had no idea.
And this you have here, is...?
The passengers had a whip round for the driver,
because it was the last train,
and presented him with a hatful of money at the end
and he bought this with it.
And he passed it down the family.
Oh, lovely. Mmm.
1966 was the end of the line for Aldeburgh.
But the '60s sounded the death knell
for another treasured aspect of the railways -
the steam engine.
In 1963, there were 8,767 steam trains.
But they were dirty and inefficient
and by 1969 there wasn't a single passenger service left,
as cheaper, more efficient diesel engines took over.
These affectionate pictures of a steam engine,
chugging through the British countryside,
were taken on the North York Moors by a former rail worker, Frank Dean,
who became a keen filmmaker.
They capture a charming, disappearing world of steam trains
and flower meadows.
Maybe that's why steam trains still have enormous appeal,
but now as a tourist attraction.
Despite axing railways in the '60s,
some people will never forget the glory days
and one of those is the railway enthusiast, Pete Waterman.
Pete's enjoyed huge success as a music producer and television star,
but his life-long passion is trains.
He even has a share in his very own railway.
He's come to give me his thoughts
on what happened to the railways in the 1960s.
What about Beeching and his legacy?
What did you think of Beeching,
who became the most hated man in Britain?
Beeching gets too much blame.
By the time he came in, he was asked to do a specific job.
He was told, "Run this railway for a profit."
"Well, OK, yes, I'll close all the lines down then."
And everybody went, "Yeah, that'll do then."
There was no talk of social railways back then, there wasn't.
"You must keep something open so the rural community can work."
That's not what Britain was like then.
But Pete's optimistic for the future of trains in rural areas,
even if that future rests on the tourist industry.
We're on a steam train and that town we've come from, Sheringham,
more or less lives off the steam train, doesn't it?
Well, all these small railways have transformed rural economies.
They can't survive without them.
Severn Valley is another one,
North Yorkshire Moors, these bring thousands of people.
200,000 visitors a year, you know, to these small villages.
In the old days, it'd be the bucket and spade brigade.
Now, it's the steam railway brigade.
You know, they have the '40s weekend, the beer festivals,
the Thomas weekends... And they're packed. It's like a heritage ride.
It's the biggest, the longest theme park in the world!
Here in Sheringham today, it's buzzing with day trippers
of all ages.
In 1976, this line, the Poppy line,
was re-opened by railway enthusiasts and volunteers.
It now has five miles of attractive track, trips into nostalgia.
One of the people responsible
for reviving the line is volunteer, Dave King.
-So you're the museum curator?
-I am indeed, sir.
-What was this like before the axe fell in the 1960s?
It was a busy little station from time to time.
We're in a busy holiday resort
and the station was built to reflect that
and be somewhere welcoming for the passengers to come to.
Do you remember how it got going again in 1976?
We were in negotiations with British Railways from 1964,
when the line closed,
and we actually bought the line from Sheringham up to Weybourne.
It took quite a while to get steam locos restored
and get some coaching stock sorted out,
and start carrying passengers as a proper railway.
The man in charge of Sheringham today is Station Master, Ted Linge.
I'm meeting up with him to learn about the work involved
in returning this station to its former splendour.
When you started to do this Poppy Line, did you have to
reconstitute most of the station with the signs?
I see you have original signs, original adverts, the glass roof.
Well, the station was constructed originally in 1887.
We took it over from British Rail in the '70s
and a band of volunteers, since then,
have been working extremely hard
to bring it up to what you see now.
Through the goodwill of the people who love trains
and love heritage.
Very pleased to meet you. Thanks for looking after us today.
So today it's been rail, steam and nostalgia.
The age of steam is gone but a funny thing's happening.
All over this country, groups of volunteers and enthusiasts
are laying down the tracks, building up the stations,
bringing in new steam engines and starting all over again.
Next time on Reel History,
we're in Manchester, to see what the earliest motion cameras
captured on film at the turn of the century.
The first time they saw these films, our jaws dropped.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Melvyn Bragg, accompanied by a vintage mobile cinema, travels across the country to show incredible footage preserved by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives, to tell the history of modern Britain.
Melvyn visits Sheringham in Norfolk, home of the North Norfolk Heritage Railway, to look back to the 1960s when the Beeching Axe led to the closure of 4,000 miles of track, over 2,000 stations and the loss of 67,000 railway jobs.
Susan Hawkes sees her beloved uncle on film for the first time in twenty years, tending his station garden at Aldeburgh. Lifelong signalman Michael Gatenby comes face to face with his younger self on screen. And there is a trip down memory lane with pop mogul and lifelong train enthusiast Pete Waterman.