Sounds in Silence: Journeys by train in Lock down

Jackie Mitchell, a volunteer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage East of England hub at Norfolk Record Office, records her experiences of transcribing a collection of annotated notebooks that document the UK’s railways, and reflects upon the joy of train travel which has been missed during lock down.

“I volunteered to assist with the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project at Norfolk Record Office in February 2019. The first task I undertook was to listen to recordings of oral history interviews with people who lived in Norfolk. We were asked to make brief notes of the highlights on each tape, to be collated with the digitised recordings of the interviews and archived at The British Library in London.

Recently, I have been transcribing the notes of a train enthusiast. The notes are a hand-written record of a collection of sound recordings on open reel tapes and cassettes, which document his expeditions across the country’s railways. The train enthusiast is Chris Thompson, who began recording steam engines as a teenager in his school holidays in the 1960’s. The notebooks which I have been transcribing date from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The UOSH project are making digital copies of Chris’s sound recordings to help preserve them and make them available to the general public.

On the face of it, this probably comes across as very niche, and of interest only to other train enthusiasts, which I am not. However, I have travelled quite extensively by rail, a mode of transport that I find relaxing and allows me to appreciate our countryside. I accept that my travel has been largely for pleasure, so short delays here and there have not frustrated me, as they do to daily commuters. That said, I did wonder where the ‘sound heritage’ aspect of these penned notes fitted with the ethos of the UOSH project.

As I typed-up the notes, I came to realise the ‘sound heritage’ value contained within the pages. The notes or logs of each day’s recordings are headed-up by the location or train station; setting the scene. The jottings are short paragraphs that are well written, lyrical even, and do evoke the sounds of each journey and station. It is the detail of the background noises and atmosphere which capture the imagination of those of us who are not thrilled to learn the exact numbers and types of engine. Here is a lovely example from one of the notebooks:

On a still, damp evening at Pitlochry, with the roar of background traffic on the A9(T), an off-duty Signalman or Driver walks past, groaning, having come from the cabin, crossed the lines and walked onto the Perth-bound platform. 47 550 ‘University of Dundee’ toots a distant acknowledgement to a proceed aspect and runs into Pitlochry on the 18.20 Inverness – Edinburgh to await clearance of the single line ahead by an Inverness train.

The terms Class ’37’ and Class ‘47’ are written throughout the logs. For any readers with a fleeting curiosity for more information:   

‘The English Electric Type Three, or Class 37 as it is more commonly known…Between 1960 and 1965 a total of 309 Type Three locomotives were built…[Class 37s] were designed as a mixed-traffic locomotive and saw use on both passenger and freight services… Initially concentrated on the Eastern Region, as more of the fleet entered service, they spread their wings across the whole of the BR network and there are few areas of the country that they have not visited’ Coward, Andy (2019) Heritage Diesel and Electric Locomotives, (Mortons, Horncastle) p.50

‘The Sulzer Type Four, or Class 47 as it became more commonly known, was the largest class of diesel locomotives built for use on the British Rail network, with 512 locomotives constructed between 1962 and 1968’ Coward, Andy (2019) Heritage Diesel and Electric Locomotives, (Mortons, Horncastle) p.76

An example of an English Electric Type Three/Class 37

Over the last three months, like the rest of the country, I have been in what has become widely known as, ‘lockdown’ due to the Covid-19 virus and have been continuing to volunteer upon this project from home. Although there has been an easing on our access to outdoor space, the restriction on rail travel for pleasure remains in place as I write.

A particular delight in the notebooks are the hand-drawn sketches of railway lines illustrating the text: e.g. Peterborough to March (left page) and Glasgow Queen St. To Crianlarich (right page).

Pages from the annotated notebooks supporting the Chris Thompson audio collection.

At times, the very sense of travelling is what I have missed and has led to moments of sadness, wistful memories even of the smell and noise of train stations; people going places. Indeed a planned holiday in June to the west coast of Scotland has had to be postponed. As Scotland has been a regular holiday destination in recent years so, the stations mentioned in the notes; Edinburgh Waverley and Glasgow Queen’s Street are familiar destinations to me. I recall my own sounds and images of these places as I type; a pleasing aside to my task.

There have been odd times too, when the past and present have collided into serendipitous co-incidences between the notes on paper and my own life under lockdown. Watching perhaps more television than usual, I viewed a travelogue about the 130th anniversary of the opening of the Forth Bridge, only to read the actual travelogue of Mr Thompson in 1990:

“March 4th 1990 marked the Centenary of the opening of the famous Forth Bridge, still one of the wonders of the world. To mark the occasion, Scotrail ran two tours on the day – a VIP special in the morning and an excursion to Perth in the afternoon.  I travelled on the afternoon excursion….The route to be via Ladybank and hence over the Forth Bridge….Just after Haymarket, we pass no. 3442 ‘The Great Marquess’, relief loco for this train.  A whistle conversation ensues. Good ‘sixty toots’”

Sixty toots must have created quite a din! The above passages give an indication of the meticulous detail of the notebooks. Each section faithfully recorded with engine numbers, names and ancillary details.  

There is the occasional personal note too, such as this one from the Forth Bridge centenary train ride. Note the price of a good whiskey in 1990.

“Drinking time.  Glenfiddich with ice, retailing at £2.30p for a miniature.  I am recognised from earlier Clacton Buffet car days.”

Yes, our train enthusiast did spend this adult life working on the railway.  He is recognised on this journey, by a buffet car attendant. There are also small glimpses into domestic life with recordings of train sounds and birds from his garden:

“4.  Birds in back garden…Two Beyer M200 microphones inside on Atherstone MK111 reflector, on Sat. 13/1/90 towards the end of a fine afternoon….

6.  Back garden noises detract.  Aircraft (piston-engined) (538 overhead).  Batteries fail.”

Other recordings give a glimpse into the lengths our recordist will go to, in order to capture the sound he wants including late nights, early mornings and all weathers:

“at 01.14hrs. This was the penultimate train to convey sleeping cars from Inverness to Glasgow/Edinburgh.  Disappointing recording….

On a bright Friday morning, the 07.00 Inverness – Glasgow calls at Newtonmore.  5/1/90….

made from a leaden ledge outside bedroom 3 of the Spey Valley Lodge guest house.”

Within the 1990’s notebook, there appeared to be a growing interest in bird watching alongside trains as birds and birdsong notes appeared ever more frequently. Mr Thompson made detours from some train travels to visit other sites, in this instance, a bird reserve. The sketch shows the flight path of swans circling and terns nesting at the Abberton Reservoir. The contour of the bird flight almost mirrors that of rail lines.

A page from the annotated notebooks supporting the Chris Thompson audio collection.

I believe these notebooks demonstrate well that are many ways to convey the atmosphere of sound heritage through the written word in the digital, visual world of today:

“A beautiful but cold evening at the tiny, exposed station of Corrour between Crianlarich and Fort William….

Savage gusts of wind overwhelm the muffled beat of the generator outside the station house as geese, then upland birds call in the dusk.  I shelter in the lee of the signalbox, now out of use.  In the distance, 37402 ‘Oor Wullie’ is climbing away from Loch Treig, making light work with its short 4-coach train (which will all go through to Euston) on the 1 in 67/1 in 59 gradients below the summit and hooting ‘by arrangement…

Having eased off and with another toot which is much closer now (it also echoes), 37 402 eases to a halt next to the recordist.” 

The following sounds thread throughout the notes, creating soundscapes which transport the reader to the recordist’s side;      

“Powering away, tooting, brakes squealing, gates locking, whistles, – birdsong, cars, cat, cattle, chatter of rail staff, on-board commentary incl. clatter of cutlery….

March 1990 – Note the sound of the leaf or more likely a piece of litter drawn along the platform behind the receding train…

The engine’s blast is borne on the wind as a solitary sheep bleats.”

These passages have the power to take us to places where we cannot currently go and allows us to travel on journeys which we cannot currently complete. In his dedication to recording sound and making a detailed written record, Chris Thompson has given us not just the trains, but the journey as well.

In summary, the ‘Stay at Home’ mantra of recent months has made all of us pay more attention to our own locality and, aided by some lovely spring weather, we have been able to open our ears to the sounds that are often filtered-out by our sub-consciousness in the daily need to attend to pressing matters of work, or indeed, travels further afield.

Right now, for me it’s the sound of spring 2020 and the evening screech of swifts soaring overhead and watching their arrow wings propel them across the clear blue sky at speed, without the interruption of planes or their vapour trails marring the view.

What I will take away from this time and these notes is the pleasure of train travel; time to sit back, contemplate the world outside the window, station noises and association with fellow passengers/strangers all going their different ways. Travel, something I look forward to.

Thank you Chris Thompson for your time, dedication and allowing us to join you on the journey.”

Jackie Mitchell, Volunteer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

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