Social historian Ruth Goodman became fascinated by railways when she chanced upon a job as a stationmaster. “I couldn’t get a job after university and ended up as a ticket clerk on the railway,” explains the co-presenter of BBC2’s Full Steam Ahead. “Then they opened up the management training course to staff, so I applied and I got it.”
This was the mid-80s, when female stationmasters were a rare sight and her first boss wasn’t exactly welcoming. “I was moved 200 miles from my home to – and I am quoting – ‘test my commitment to the railway as a married woman’. I remember at the time being utterly shocked by that phrase.”
When she arrived at Chester station, the first problem she had to solve as duty stationmaster was what to wear. “It was a terrible worry to everyone concerned! I ended up wearing my old clerk’s skirt and blouse and donated clothes from all my male colleagues. I think I had a train inspector’s jacket and guard inspector’s hat, because it had gold braid. Then when I got pregnant everyone was, ‘Oh my god! What do you dress a pregnant stationmaster in?’ I got sent up the road with £20 in my purse to buy a black maternity dress from Debenhams.”
Her commitment to the railway only lasted a year because she wasn’t allowed to go back part time after giving birth. Going back to work full time meant 21 days on duty and seven off, and those 21 days were divided between mornings, afternoons and night shifts. “You try getting childcare for that!”
Nevertheless, she came away with a lasting respect for British Rail, as it was then. “My staff were all male, all a heck of a lot older than me, but they were very graceful about being bossed around by a young woman and very dedicated.
“The railway was about to be torn apart by Margaret Thatcher and there was a huge cultural difference between those who were working on the ground and those who were doing the reorganisation, and the two found it almost impossible to speak to each other. It was a strange period of my life, but I liked the railway culture – that loyalty and dedication.”
Full Steam Ahead presenters Peter Ginn, Ruth Goodman and Alex Langlands don period attire to explore Britain by rail
Young Ruth never imagined that 30 years later she’d be chugging around Britain on steam trains, or that preserved railways would enjoy such a renaissance. “When we started Full Steam Ahead, everybody I spoke to said, ‘Well, that’s all dying out, isn’t it? All the people involved are very elderly and that will be the end of it.’ And it’s just not true.
“There’s a new generation of youngsters who are busily driving trains, maintaining trains, building track with great enthusiasm. I think our youngest driver was 22.”
There are now over 100 heritage railways in Britain and over 1,000 miles of track, and more are reopening every year. “It really is booming. Many of them are building new track and new carriages to carry passengers because it’s so popular.
“There are a few trainspotters collecting numbers, but most of the people you meet have completely different interests. You get those who are interested in carpentry and restoring, or interested in social history or even, believe it or not, railway catering.”
And did she meet many women on her travels? “It tends to be more male, nonetheless there are quite a few young female drivers, guards, track-workers and signal persons, so nothing like one’s stereotyped image.”
A few of Ruth’s favourite railways…
Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways
“Perhaps the most beautiful run we did during the series was the Ffestiniog Railway in the heart of winter. I’d never been up in Snowdonia in January, when you can see the shapes of the trees and the lichen-covered rocks, and it was beautiful. It’s the world’s oldest narrow gauge railway and it snakes right up into the heart of the mountains and then down to the coast.”
For information: festrail.co.uk
North Yorkshire Moors Railway
“This railway was built because it was difficult to get a coach and horses over the moors. In the 1830s, they put the horse-drawn Whitby and Pickering line in to access the port and build industry. It climbs up some spectacular open moorland and wanders down into Whitby, which is a very pretty little town.”
For information: nymr.co.uk
“Beginning in the village of Bronwydd, the Gwili line is part of the original Carmarthen to Aberystwyth railway, which connected all the woollen mills. It runs along a valley, hugging the River Gwili. I’m a bit of a textiles girl so I enjoyed the scenery and all the little mills along the way. The line is also only a half-hour drive from the Teifi Valley, home to the National Wool Museum.”
For information: gwili-railway.co.uk
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