“What thee mean, you’re closing down our station?” Ernest Claybourn protested almost inaudibly, as he stood on his station’s platform under a torrential Yorkshire Autumn downpour. “Well, I’ll go t’foot of our stairs – if I had any. That’s how gobsmacked I am.”
Charles Fotherington-Clarke stood opposite Ernest, drenched from head to foot. Moments prior, he had been enjoying the warmth and comfort of a first-class carriage on the Hull to Withernsea steam train. Disembarking amid Yorkshire’s wettest October on record, the elements provided him a cold and wet East Riding welcome to Hedon – a small town sat along the Humber Estuary. His unenviable task of informing the long-serving station master in person about the impending closure of the surplus to requirements station, was a voluntary decision Charles had respectfully made.
“In circumstances like these, I feel it my duty to let him know in person,” he informed the management at British Rail. “It’s the least we can do for all his years of loyal service.”
Charles was no stranger to this part of the world. Born and raised in Leeds, he had studied and worked hard to see himself through university and into a well-respected job in the civil service. His father – a dashing British officer stationed in Ireland – had met his mother at a debutante ball in Dublin. It was love at first sight, so after a whirlwind courting period, they married eight months later. The honeymoon lasted thirty days before young Charles blessed them with his timely arrival into the world. Insisting on both parents’ surnames being used, his father Frederick Fotherington, had Charles christened with a hyphenated surname.
The wisping memory of his deceased parents briefly came alive with the smell of the Yorkshire air. As Charles stood trying to parry the deluge of water soaking him through, he sheltered under his leather briefcase, while trying to be heard above the din of the torrent cascading down from the darkened sky.
“Is there somewhere we can go that’s warm and dry?” Charles pleaded with the old station master – some twenty-five years his senior.
“Follow me!” Ernest shouted above the noise. “I’ve got fireplace lit over yonder in station house.”
With a quick hop, skip, and a long stride, Charles trailed Ernest into the station master’s quarters like a hungry lamb following its mother. Shutting the entrance door, the sound of the rain outside instantly became a white noise unable to penetrate the thick stone walls of the cottage.
“Sit thee down next to fire, lad.” Ernest instructed. “I’ll fetch thee summat to dry yerself with.”
Welcoming the comforting heat of the fireplace, Charles removed his bowler hat, raincoat, and rain-streaked glasses, before Ernest returned with a large, grey blanket and a cotton towel roll sequestered from the gentlemen’s toilets.
“The towel is a little rough, mind you, but it’ll do the job… The mover’s blanket is a leftover from when we refurbished the old place a while back. Wrap that around yer shoulders.”
With an appreciative nod of his head, Charles proceeded to first dab at his wet hair, followed by a more aggressive wiping of his face.
“Set yer coat and jacket on back of these chairs,” Ernest instructed, as he dragged two dining chairs from a table at the opposite side of the spacious room. “Fire’ll have yer clothes dry in no time… I’ve put kettle on stove, so we’ll have a nice brew to warm us up. Plus, you’re in luck. Mrs. Pennington from the mill only yesterday dropped off a cake she baked for me, so I’ll slice a nice big piece for you to go with yer tea.”
“You’re very kind,” Charles gratefully replied.
“I’m a Yorkshireman, young man. Hospitality begins in Yorkshire. You remember that - next time you bring bad tidings to East Ridings.” Ernest’s cheeky expression acknowledged his own rhyming witticism, which in turn, relaxed Charles - whose own courteous smile reflected that the humour was not lost on him.
Ernest was a friendly type of man, always willing to go the extra mile to hold a train departure - so his delayed customers would not have to wait for the next one. He would also lend a helping hand to load heavy suitcases and packages onto baggage cars for those struggling with the weight. Always a friendly smile to travellers and locals alike, he was endeared and admired amongst the small populace of Hedon – as a good station master should be. It was a position of prestige amongst many small communities like Hedon, and Ernest’s gold-leafed trimmings of his railway uniform resembled a high-ranking officer often associated with military service.
“Mr. Claybourn, I thought it best to tell you in person that…”
“My trains are being put out to pasture...”
“…Metaphorically speaking, yes.”
“Along wit’ me…”
“…I’m so very sorry.”
“…It t’were a tad loud outside, so I didn’t quite catch yer name?”
“Oh, do excuse me,” Charles apologised. “My name is Charles Fotherington-Clarke. Minister for transportation.”
“…And you travelled all way from London just to give me the shove?”
“Not entirely, no… When I read about your four-and-a-half decades of service to the line, I felt you were owed a personal explanation.”
“…I’ll pour us both a cuppa first,” Ernest paused, before answering the kettle’s whistle. “Then I’m all ears... How d’ya take yer tea, Mr. Fotherington-Clarke?”
“Um, milk and two sugars, please.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve had Yorkshire before… It’s all Darjeeling and Lady Grey with lemon down south, I suppose.”
“Well, this’ll open yer eyes to the delights of Yorkshire.”
Returning to the small table sat in front of the fireplace, Ernest set down a tray containing a cozied teapot, plates, cutlery, and two generous wedges of cake.
“Ave you ‘ad Parkin before, Mr. Fotherington-Clarke?”
“What…!? My goodness, yes… As a boy…”
“By gum, you get this in London now, do you?”
“…I was brought up in Leeds, Mr. Claybourn. Mother often baked it as a treat.”
On hearing this, Ernest softened his tone of voice. “…I just luv treacle in cake, don’t you?”
“…Yes… yes, I do…” Charles delightfully agreed.
“Nice t’come home once-in-a-while in’t it, Mr. Fotherington-Clarke,” Ernest stated, as he carefully poured some tea into the cups.
Embarrassed by the generous demonstration of hospitality, Charles hesitated to discuss the business of the station, but was beaten to the punch by Ernest.
“Mind you, the news you bring upon us is most disturbing,” Ernest unabashedly stated. “Most… unwelcome… and that’s a difficult thing to say for a Yorkshireman.”
“If there were any alternatives,” Charles apologetically explained. “I would not hesitate to explore them, but the government wants to push for an increase in mainline passenger travel… to get the country moving again…”
Catching himself preaching a politician’s party slogan, Charles interrupted himself with a brief clearing of his throat before continuing in a more subdued manner.
“The irony is that small stations like yours must give way to allow for expansion of the rail network. So, the government has enacted a scheme to shut the most nonessential stations along many key routes. With the increase in diesel and electric powered trains, your line - quite frankly - is a slow-moving relic of the Industrial Revolution. Sadly - like many things in today’s swinging era - it is a rotting casualty amidst the bloom of fresh progress.”
Ernest had sat quietly staring into the fireplace listening to Charles sincerely explaining the reasons for the de-listing of the entire railway route.
“More tea, Mr. Fotherington-Clarke?”
“Thank you,” Charles replied - holding his cup and saucer steady while Ernest filled it. “It’s a robust flavour, isn’t it; however, I find it to be rather palatable.”
“You know, like all things Yorkshire – such as Parkin Cake and this delightful tea – we like things a little slower than you folks down South. Take this line for instance – the Hull to Withernsea line. It were never meant for speed, you see. It were meant for folk to enjoy beautiful scenery on way to a day at coast - where families could learn to appreciate the beautiful countryside from the comfort of a moving train, travelling slowly past a world they may never have gotten to see otherwise.”
Pointing towards a wall plaque displaying the year 1864, Ernest proudly continued his observations.
“It’s been one ‘undred years since this line opened. Withernsea was a small village back then, but now, it’s a busy seaside town come Summer – all because of a track most people in your Parliament have never travelled - but impatiently want to close - without reservation. I admit, beach at Withernsea were never anythin’ t’write home about, but it’s the journey that’s so exciting, Mr. Fotherington-Clarke… It’s not always ‘bout the destination. It’s also about the adventure of getting there. That’s what train travel is… a journey of unexplored terrain. Now, all-of-a-sudden, you’re ‘ere to tell me that there won’t be no more journeys… no more railway adventures.”
Ernest’s compelling argument forced an empathetic sigh from Charles.
“That is the sad truth,” Charles confessed.
“What will I tell townfolk who want go to the seaside or go shopping in Hull?”
“I’m afraid they’ll have to rely on the buses or taxis.”
“Excuse me for my bluntness Mr. Fotherington-Clarke, but that seems a cack-handed way to solve a transport crisis, don’t it?” Ernest used his wisdom of age and experience to put Charles on the defensive. “Is that the solution all of you government people came up with… Take the bus?” He mimicked.
“Taking alternative modes of transport into account, it was the clearest solution.”
“Well, it’s good to know my tax contributions are funding such constructive planning of the countryside.”
Put in the uncomfortable position of having to defend the government’s policies, Charles started to feel his welcome was wearing thin.
“Yes… well, perhaps it’s time for me to leave.”
“And go where, Mr. Fotherington-Clarke? There’s only one bus to Hull today and the next train is at 12:35…” Ernest checked his watch… “Tomorrow…”
“What about the bus, then?” Charles enquired.
“I’m sorry to say you’ve missed it by two hours… Beside, I can’t let you go out in downpour. You’ll catch your death, and that wud’nt go down well in the House of Commons, would it…”
The coincidental timing of a tree branch whipping against the study’s rain-blown window, reminded Charles of the torrential conditions bearing down upon the well-insulated station house.
“Yes, I see. Can you recommend any local lodgings for the night?”
“Nearest t’here, is in Withernsea, but trains cancelled now – due to weather… I’d say your arrival here was a sorry omen, I’m afraid...”
“Before you came here today, the weather has been t’only thing with authority to cancel trains…”
Charles huffed in solidarity as the ironic truth of Ernest’s light-hearted observation sank in. Closing train lines, bypassing towns with the new motorways, and planting the seeds of insecurity, was never good business for any ruling government; however, he was just a small cog in the wheels of technological advancement, and with the ever-decreasing era of steam-powered transportation derailed to museum attractions, a new era of technology and engineering had emerged to take the reins of industry. For the people in charge of leading the country out of the Industrial Age, the use of public funds to action the march forward had no coffers for those left standing. It was an evolutionary step in the full-speed-ahead mentality. No matter what personal attachment to the area, nor Charles’ own personal objections to stamping out the culture of rural life, the majority in Parliament ruled the land and held the purse strings. A majority ruled by the minority – albeit, voted in by the many - another irony.
“If you need somewhere to bed down until tomorrow, there’s a spare room upstairs, and it comes with a nice fry-up come morning,” Ernest kindly offered.
“That’s awfully decent of you, Mr. Claybourn,” replied a grateful Charles.
“No bother at all… and seeing as we have each other’s company for a while, why don’t you call me Ernest, Mr. Fotherington-Clarke.”
“Ernest, yes… How do you do…? Well, seeing as we’re now on a first name basis, please call me Charles.”
“A fine name, Mr. Fotherington… um, Charles… A king’s name - if I may say so.”
“My father’s decision, really. My mother wanted to name me after one of her Irish saints but was overruled by a British officer’s logic explaining that, A man born of the soil should inherit a name befitting to the land – meaning, assimilation into the country would instil a high degree of loyalty to it. I like to believe that I’ve inherited his sense of duty and loyalty – if not his influence.”
“What is a man if he acts otherwise, hey, Charles?”
“Precisely, Ernest. My father based his philosophy on learned history. He would preach the sense of belonging to something or somewhere by continually referencing Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland. He highlighted the fact that it lasted only until the next generation, who - born of British serviceman gifted lands and titles by Cromwell - believed themselves more Irish than British. It was called Victory by absorption… I do miss his wisdom... Killed at El Alamein, fighting Rommel.”
“Most sorry to hear that, Charles... Like your father, many men from this area joined up to fight Hitler, and some never returned… See that photo on the wall, above the entrance?” Ernest pointed it out. “The Collie sitting on train platform, with his back to camera?”
Without getting up, Charles swivelled in his chair, straining to see the photo elevated directly behind him.
“Ah, yes… Yours?”
“Heavens no. Although, the station adopted him after his master went off t’war… Archie was his name. You know, every day for two years, he would wait on the platform for his master to come home. Wouldn’t leave station. Eventually, staff here began to feed him and sit with him - when time allowed between trains. During each arrival on platform one, he’d run from carriage to carriage looking for the man that had raised him from a pup – wagging his tail until train pulled out. It were right heartbreaking to see this loyal animal patiently waiting for something we all thought wouldn’t happen.”
“Did his master return…?”
Ernest’s eyes brightened as he continued.
“By gum, I tell ya… He did! T’were the arrival of a special hospital train bringing the wounded home that got Archie all excited. He could smell him, you see. Went straight to the middle carriage and sat looking at one of the doors slowly opening up. After the able-bodied had alighted, the dog gave a hearty bark as he saw his master emerge on a stretcher. I tell you, there were not a dry eye on the platform, seeing Archie’s excited barking and spinning in circles, so happy to be reunited with his owner… He remembered, you see… after two long years, he still remembered. Now, don’t that story beat all, ey, Charles?”
“…Did the soldier recover?”
“He did, fully… and that dog never left his side for a moment, until it t’were his time to go where dogs go when they die. There were talk for a while of a statue to Archie – a shining example of patience and loyalty in unsure times… I dare say when you close this line down and the council replaces it with concrete, I’ll be like that old dog, sitting patiently on platform one - waiting for train to return. But in my case, that won’t ever happen, will it…”
Embarrassed by Ernest’s forthrightness, Charles bowed his head in a demonstration of remorse.
“My most sincere apologies, Ernest. If I could change things, I most assuredly would.”
“…Aye, lad… you would… Hard to stop progress, I s’pose. Nothing lasts forever, they say… except memories – and even then, they sometimes die along with those holding them…”
As the two men chatted throughout the rest of the afternoon and into the night, a mutual respect and friendship grew between them. Family stories were swapped, tales of parliamentary scandals, and talk of boyhood days in Yorkshire were shared - while food and drink was enthusiastically consumed, eventually leading to a good night’s rest had by both men. Come morning, a break in the weather after breakfast allowed Charles the opportunity of a quiet stroll up and down platform one. The fresh country air, the songs of the morning Robins going about their business, and the lush greenery surrounding him, produced a pang of remorse for being the harbinger of such gloom and doom. He vowed to himself to fight the line closure – no matter how futile it seemed. As he took in the rustic charm of the train station, Ernest cheerfully appeared with a parcel wrapped in brown paper tied with twine.
“A gift for your journey home, Charles… a whole Parkin Cake. Mrs. Pennington just dropped this off. Hadn’t the heart to tell her I’d not finished the other one, yet. Bless her, I think she’s a bit sweet on me. Anyway, a bit of home-away-from-home to take on your travels.”
“Very kind of you, Ernest. I want to mention that I will fight your corner in the House, but whatever the outcome, I shall return to visit you. Who knows, I may even decide to retire here someday.”
“And you would be warmly welcomed, Charles – like the returning son of the soil you truly are... Nar then, let’s get you over to the other platform.”
Charles hesitated with a step backwards then explained, “I’m in no hurry, Ernest. I thought I’d get the 10:35 to Withernsea and walk the Promenade. Take in a little exercise and some sea air.”
“That sounds like a wonderful idea. Mind now, the train stays there for one hour before heading back, so make sure you don’t miss it.”
“Would that be so tragic, Ernest?”
“Not in the least, Mr. Charles Fotherington-Clarke… Not in the very least.”