Romance by rail with the Great Western
The glamorous Exchange building at Bristol has a curious clock. Its dial boasts two minute hands, permanently set 10 minutes and 23 seconds apart; the physical reminder of a seismic change between ancient and modern Britain. Local time, set by the rising and setting sun since antiquity, in the 1850s had been supplanted by standardized “Railway Time,” imposed across the country to allow for the smooth running of trains. First applied by the Great Western Railway Company, it brought slow- moving, rural ways to a shuddering, industrial halt. On the plus side, the Holiday Line saw the beginnings of leisure travel, as the GWR encouraged ordinary folk to use their admittedly short time off from the factories to visit the seaside.
The Great Western Railway retains a romance other rail operators lost long ago. It has its fair share of hiccups, not least a stretch of coastal track near Dawlish in Devon that has an unfortunate habit of being washed into the sea by winter storms, but people love it, often while cursing the rest of the rail system in the same breath. Perhaps that love comes from the places the network covers. Cornwall, Oxford, Bath, Salisbury, Plymouth, Windsor, South Wales and the Cotswolds—the place names alone carry images of honeyed stone, rocky outcrops and coastal majesty. For millions of Brits, though, it is the railway itself that warms the cockles of the imagination.
Its story mirrors much of Victorian Britain’s own, featuring historical giants and the birth of big ideas. The trains themselves may have moved on from the days of steam, but the names remain in the very air. The Flying Dutchman (named for the 1849 Derby winner), the Cheltenham Express, the Cornish Riviera Express; all come from some of the world’s first mass advertising campaigns and live on today. The famous Brunswick Green livery still adorns their modern incarnations. People still collect the guide books, postcards and jigsaw puzzles produced as early merchandise, impressing one American businessman that GWR was getting people to pay to be advertised at. The annual Holiday Haunts gift book fueled many a Christmas dream, and in 1914 the GWR even released a promotional movie, shown at the London Coliseum.
It was iconic from the start. Created in 1835 by Parliament, the ambitious project was headed by a fresh-faced 27-year-old, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Still glowing from the success of the world’s first-ever tunnel under a river (The Thames), he saw the railway as the first piece in his own jigsaw: a direct link between London and New York. Bristol was the second most important port city in the country, and Brunel figured a steam train ride could be followed by a steamship journey to America.
Dazzling engineering feats tumbled pellmell from his mind. The Clifton Suspension Bridge, the tunnel through Box Hill and two bridges crossing the Thames all helped make
Brunel the leviathan he is today. He didn’t get things all his own way. His likely correct assertion that a wide-gauge track would be safer and more efficient caused huge friction between the GWR and other rail companies and, for some years, meant the lines didn’t meet up very well. His larger visions were not always shared by others. He had to work for free when designing the Great Western, his first truly giant steamship, but its success led to two more steamers, the SS Great Britain (now beautifully restored in Bristol’s Great Western Dockyard and truly worth visiting) and the troubled Great Eastern.
Cleverly-orchestrated “firsts” and “fastests” helped lend the railroad national-treasure status. As buffet services, first-class lounges, grand restaurants were introduced, column inches were devoted, poems devised and paintings dedicated, including Rail Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway by J.M.W. Turner.
Arguably, despite its Victorian achievements, including a tunnel under the River Severn, the GWR’s golden age was the Edwardian era. Marketed as the Holiday Line, it encouraged people to visit Britain’s southwest coast through a series of posters so famous they still adorn greetings cards, calendars and books today. Express services allowed top-quality fruit and vegetables to be transported overnight to London’s classiest hotels, and trains were specifically laid on for seasonal crops. That same Dawlish line that keeps falling into the sea was, once a year, the Violet Train, ferrying boxes of sweet Devon violets for sale by Eliza Doolittles in Covent Garden. The Daffodil Line transported boxes of sunshine to the city and carriages of city folk to the fields where the flowers grew.
The Great War saw huge changes for the railways when most were brought under government control. Coal fueled the war effort and soldiers fueled the trenches. Of the 25,000 GWR employees called up for King and country, 3,312 failed to return. A poignant memorial to those fallen workers stands on Platform 1 of London’s Paddington Station.
After the war Great Western expanded across the South West, Wales and Midlands. Business boomed as the holiday industry matured into kiss-me-quick seaside fun. Thousands of city children got their first taste of rural England for more disturbing reasons during World War II, when they boarded Great Western Railway trains to escape the horrors of the Blitz. Four frantic days in September 1939 saw 163 GWR trains carry away 112,994 forlorn evacuees with luggage labels round their necks, clutching gas masks and cardboard suitcases.
After the war, Britain’s railways were nationalized and, for the moment, the Great Western Railway was a thing of the past. The dark days of Dr. Beeching took their toll on the entire rail network with the closure of scores of lines and stations. Some enthusiasts kept the faith. The smut, grime and sheer exhilaration of excellently preserved steam railways, such as the stunning West Somerset Railway, lend a nostalgic whiff of how great God’s Wonderful Railway once was. For most, however, the romance of rail was dead. On PM Margaret Thatcher’s denationalization of the railways in the 1990s people wanted to look ahead, not to the past. It took until 2015 for the heritage penny to drop.
Now, Great Western Railway once more, the Catch a Great Western train for Salisbury and the south coast at bustling London Victoria. contemporary incarnation of GWR actively recognizes the immense weight of its own history. Many of the historical buildings preserved by enthusiasts during the bad old days are emerging as destinations in their own right and quirks are celebrated rather than obliterated. Look out for oddities such as Station Jim at Slough, a faithful dog that collected money for charity, barking thanks when he received a coin. On his death in 1896, Jim was stuffed and put on display in a glass case on Platform 5.
The GWR visits some of Britain’s biggest-hitter tourist destinations, often stopping in the center of the city, where cars are either banned or impossible to park. Bath Spa, for example, is a nightmare for traffic, but the train arrives directly into the city center, making it easy to get pretty much anywhere on foot.
Sleeper trains were first introduced in 1877 and still run to Cornwall, allowing overnight passengers to enjoy a full day in Poldark Country (and, conversely, Cornish MPs to journey from their constituencies to London for parliamentary debates). It’s a luxurious way to travel, but it is worth taking at least one trip in daylight for the staggeringly beautiful countryside, ranging from rolling green hills to rugged moorland, gleaming cliffs to sleeping towns, meandering rivers to lush fields. One treat worth watching out for is the 18th-century White Horse of Westbury, carved into the hillside on Salisbury Plain and fully visible from the train. Look out for it on your left as Westbury Station is announced.
Britain’s seaside towns languished in the second half of the 20th century. Even glamorous destinations such as Torquay and Torbay, promoted by GWR as the “English Riviera” with Art Deco posters comparing the climate to that of Italy, struggled as tourists discovered country charms, historic properties and city breaks. Seaside holidays are slowly returning, and resorts are smartening up again, but now revealed, the beauty of the West Country allures ever stronger. Many of the GWR’s smaller lines have disappeared, but local bus services ensure people traveling without a car can get to places deeper in the countryside than the trains themselves allow. As some railways try for ever-shorter journey times, GWR celebrates time spent on board. The luxury Pullman dining car on some routes proffers silver service, chef-created menus and locally sourced ingredients that owe more to Agatha Christie novels than the often lampooned British Rail sandwich.
Brunel’s grand vision of the Great Western Company dominating transatlantic travel never really took off in the way he had imagined. The masses chose to leave from cheaper ports, and Liverpool took over from Bristol as the go-to departure point. Sometimes, however, romance triumphs over reality and, in the public imagination at least, God’s Wonderful Railway still chuffs through the holiday destinations of a golden childhood. It’s a grand way to travel.
Traveling to the West Country by train can all be managed from the GWR website, gwr.com. Trains leave from London Paddington and can be booked up to 120 days in advance. It’s always worth booking ahead for all British rail fares, including GWR, even by a day, as tickets get more expensive the closer to travel time they are ordered. If you arrive early in Paddington, do take a look around the station, especially around Platform 1; there are many hidden gems to be discovered.