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U3A Writing: Decades Of A Nobody

...One of the funniest incidents that I recall was being in Windsor booking office when a little lad, resplendent in Eton collar, tie and suit, rapped on the window and arrogantly demanded "A half first class ticket to Newbury my man". Not at all nonplussed the booking clerk said "Get to the back of the queue". "But there is no queue" said the lad. To which the clerk replied, "Then wait until a queue forms sonny". I thought the confrontation was extremely amusing...

In this long and luscious read Bill Chamberlain tells something of his life - including his 47 years as a railway man.

Among my favourite reading is the Grossmith brothers extremely humorous book 'Diary of a Nobody', so I plagiarised the title and adopted their theme.

To cast my memory, such as it is, over many years, and to recall the highs and lows, will require a lot of thought and patience, and may even drag me away from watching cricket or mowing the lawn ( no problem forgoing the latter). Logically, this article should be in several equally-aged periods. It may start off in chronological order but it is doubtful whether it will remain that way.

If the Millennium could have hung on for a few more years, say a score or so, I would have been a centenarian in the millennium year. For those of you who know calculus , or own a slide rule or abacus, it is reasonably easy to work out that I am either over eighty, under eighty or old enough to vote. Whatever the answer, it has been a long, long time breathing the air, or , in my case, polluting it with tobacco smoke. This leads me, being mathematically minded, to have estimated that I have smoked about half a million cigarettes, or the equivalent in cash of a fleet of Bentleys or a couple of Ferraris. On the same theme, I must have drunk enough beer to fill the gasometer at the Oval Cricket Ground, and as for tea, I imagine a medium sized tanker would be needed to hold it all.

So what has happened to me over the years? A great deal? Or not a lot? I'm older - yes; wiser - maybe; healthier - well lets forget that! - and I'm still in a state of pecuniary embarrassment.

The first decade of my life was spent in a little Welsh mining village about ten miles from Swansea. I recollect nothing of the nappy changing and potty training period. First recollections are having to walk two miles to school in all sorts of weather. As if this wasn't enough, Sundays entailed a similar journey, three times a day to attend matins, Sunday School and evensong. There was some relaxation if the weather was too bad, on those occasions Sunday Service was held in the parlour, with my sister churning out hymns on the piano and I, dressed in one of my mother's white aprons in lieu of a surplice, having to read a short passage of scripture.

A fine summer Sunday evening meant that after church service, dressed in our Sunday best, we walked along the banks of the river Tawe with my parents, and were strictly forbidden to lag behind, walk in any puddle or throw stones in the river. Back at home there was no indoor plumbing, water was fetched from the village pump, and a visit to the toilet meant a walk to the bottom of our garden to the 'Ty Bach'.

The few 'lows' that I recall were squashing my finger under a rocking horse at school (I still have the scar), and a pony and trap trip to the doctor at Llansamlet when I broke my arm. The 'highs' were journeys to Swansea on Saturday, and being allowed to travel in the driver's cab of a 'pull and push' train. I was afforded this pleasure as my father was a railway inspector. The little pocket money I had was spent in Woolworth's (nothing over sixpence (2p) in the store). Christmas was another 'high', all my father's family spent it together; as Dylan Thomas wrote 'Christmas was all aunts and uncles'. And a hectic time was spent playing charades, 'hunt the slipper', 'pin the tail on the donkey' whilst blindfolded, and musical chairs with music provided by a hand wound gramophone. These were simple, happy and stress free times.

The next ten years were not the happiest ones of my life. We had moved to Neath as my father had been promoted. But after a few years he contracted pneumonia, had to retire, and died within a year or so. During the very short time he was with us he left me a legacy which remains to this day. He instilled in me a love of classic literature, especially Shakespeare, he taught me to play chess, an interest which matured over the years, and an abiding love of cricket, which still burns brightly. Although he had had very little schooling, he was extremely well read and knowledgeable, and was invariably fair, kind, generous and courteous. I would like to think that some of his attributes may have rubbed off on me.

Eventually, at the second attempt, I passed my scholarship and went to Neath County School where I learnt a smattering of everything from algebra to zoology, and a real knowledge of nothing. That isn't strictly true, I did learn how to secure several pencils together to write the innumerable 'lines' I was unjustly given for forgetting my homework or attending cricket net practice when I should have been in a French lesson
Due to financial circumstances at home, I left school at sixteen and joined God's Wonderful Railway; it really was a wonderful railway in those days. I can honestly say that I enjoyed 99% of the forty seven years I was a railwayman. There were some not altogether nice aspects, like having to cycle to Crynant, twelve miles uphill in all weather, to open the station at 5 30am; having to rewrite sixty or so invoices because the chief clerk, Dewi Jones, thought they were too untidy; or being faced one day with the problem of having to haul a large ram from the luggage department of a train, and then push, pull and drag it over to the farmer who was expecting it on the other platform.

Saturdays were the busiest times, the whole populace of the village travelled by train to Neath. Day Returns cost 6d, (2p), children 3d (a little over 1p). The three chapels in the village forgot their differences on Bank Holidays when they all travelled by special train to Porthcawl at a cost of 2s 1d (10p) adult and half of that for children. It was the highlight of the year.

Leaving the Neath valley, I went to Cymmer in the Port Talbot Valley. During this time Cymmer was the centre for four railway lines, the Rhondda and Swansea Bay Line, the Bridgend and Abergwynfi line, the Port Talbot Railway and the Glyncorrwg line. Here I attained the dizzy status of Class Five Signalman. The signal box I manned had no less than twelve levers, two of which were 'spares' and not used. It controlled the siding to Glenavon Colliery, and two trains daily shunted there. Despite the minor responsibility of the job, I had to learn all the Rules and Regulations in operation throughout the system, they were many and complicated and even to this day I can quote Rules verbatim and recount the bell codes such as 'Is line clear for express freight?' (3-4 -1); Obstruction Danger! (6); Train running away on wrong track! (2-5-5); Line clear but station or junction blocked (3-5-5) and many, many more. It is strange that as one gets older it is easier to remember things in the past than it is to remember what happened today. Quite recently I found myself on the bedroom landing with a frying pan in my hand, I had intended to put it in the pantry.

One of the 'perks' of the job I was given a permit to have cwt of coal from the colliery, and once a week I cycled home with the bag of coal on my back.

In October 1938 the Army needed able-bodied soldiers, and even I was called up. At the interview board earlier I had volunteered for submarine service in the Navy, I never understood why, as I suffer slightly from claustrophobia. However I ended up in an infantry regiment, the Third Monmouthshire's My military service was not distinguished, and after 'exercising' over the sand dunes at Tenby and clambering all over the mountains of Mourne in Ireland, someone must have realised that my boots weren't too clean or my buttons not shining, or my slope arms untidy, and I was called into the Orderly Room and told that the railway's need of me was greater than the Army's, so I was released on W reserve.

British Rail directed me to Cardonnal Junction, a signal box on the approach to Swansea Docks and adjacent to Llandarcy Oil Refinery. It was reasonably busy section of line dealing with mixed freight, coal, government stores, and later with US troop trains from the docks. Operating during air raids was tricky with the box in darkness and only a small oil hand lamp with which to find the right levers and instruments, but by the grace of God and a little luck trains were kept mainly on the right tracks. On one occasion a barrage balloon from a nearby site broke free and pulled down all the telegraph and telephone wires, and we had to work an antiquated, complicated system harking back to the very early days of railways though we dispensed with the man walking in front of the train warning people of its approach as they did in those days. An interesting feature of the time I was there was the fact that any spare time was spent playing chess with a colleague in a nearby box. The moves were transmitted by telephone using the descriptive chess notation, and anyone listening in might easily have thought we were enemy agents sending coded messages.

I slowly, very slowly, moved up the promotion ladder moving to Resolven in Dulais Valley, and on to Llandilo on the Central Welsh Line. I experienced some difficulty there, as all the train advice was transmitted in Welsh. Then on to Neyland in Pembrokeshire. Pembrokeshire is noted for two things, new potatoes and the fact that couples are allowed to do their courting in bed. I regret I experienced only one of these pleasures. Whilst I was in Neyland, Nassar and Anthony Eden disagreed about the Suez Canal, and I and other reservists were enlisted and flown out to sort things out. Whether we did I never found out, but for over a year I dashed about the Egyptian State Railway on military trains, developing a taste for Egyptian cigarettes and acquiring a beautiful suntan.

On my return to BR my gallantry overseas must have impressed and I was promoted to Station Master near Wolverhampton. Dunstall Park was the station for Wolverhampton racecourse and several cross country express trains stopped on race days. I received a number of 'red hot' tips from race goers, but the nearest result I had was on a horse named Blue Star which finished third in a field of five. During my first week in charge a freight train became derailed in the sidings, so feeling my exalted status I dashed over to take charge, but I was soon cut down to size when the driver in broadest 'Brummy' language enquired "What the dot dash do you think you are doing ? And "Who the ***!!!*** do you think you are?" I had forgotten to wear my Station Master's hat of office. I worked in a number of stations in the Midlands, including a little station in the heart of the Black Country surrounded by factory chimneys, slag heaps and scrap piles which rejoiced in the most unlikely name of Daisy Bank.

From the smog and grime of the Midlands I moved to clean fresh air of the Cotswolds, to the market town of Chipping Norton. A busy railway metropolis it was not. Most of the time was spent pacifying irate farmers whose wagons of fertiliser were late arriving, or visiting remote hamlets whose inhabitants seemed to live by mail order firms and who blamed BR for delivering the wrong shade of carpet, or as in one case, a knitting machine without the operating manual.

Chipperfields Zoo and Circus had its winter quarters in the nearby village of Enstone and annually a complete circus train of animals, materials and hands departed and later returned to 'Chippy'. The elephants, there were about eight, were walked in single file through the town to and from their quarters and the population all turned out to see this free parade. A massive clean up operation was always needed after the event. Another headache was the confrontations with the local hunt, the Heythrop Hunt, who chased foxes over the railway lines risking damage to the trains. The Master of Fox Hounds was Sir John Chamberlyne (HE spelled his name the posh way). He was also president of the local cricket club where I played so most arguments were settled amicably at the bar over a pint of beer, or in his case a large whisky. I spent a lot of time canvassing for new traffic; the fact that these trips coincided with midweek cricket games for other clubs in the area was purely coincidental. My idyllic life was cruelly cut short by the infamous Doctor Beeching, 'Chippy' was closed down and I was seconded to Slough on relief duties.

At Slough I was billeted in a converted 'grace and favour' house, used as a hostel for itinerant railwaymen. The manageress was a Miss Jarman, an ex prison warder who ruled us all like a martinet. She struck terror into all and sundry, and woe betide anyone who came in late or failed to leave their room in pristine condition. She was fair however and treated everyone, irrespective of status, to the same discipline. My duties were varied; I visited such well known firms as Ladybird Clothing at Langley, Hallmark Cards at Greenford, Horlicks at Slough, HMV at Hayes and many others. Despite my efforts very little new business came the way of BR.

One of the funniest incidents that I recall was being in Windsor booking office when a little lad, resplendent in Eton collar, tie and suit, rapped on the window and arrogantly demanded "A half first class ticket to Newbury my man". Not at all nonplussed the booking clerk said "Get to the back of the queue". "But there is no queue" said the lad. To which the clerk replied, "Then wait until a queue forms sonny". I thought the confrontation was extremely amusing.

Whilst as Slough I resuscitated my interest in chess, playing at the local club and in a number of tournaments and county matches, and was also involved in postal chess and for a number of years was the Controller of the British Correspondence Chess Championship. Contrary to popular misconception chess players are after all only human. When our team won Bucks Championship we celebrated with a night out in Raymond's Revue Bar in London. The beer wasn't so great, but the topless waitress were worth double the money.

Several months were spent in the Regional Claims Office at Reading in the Miscellaneous Claims section. It was indeed miscellaneous; in my time there I dealt with irate passengers who had missed their connections, a VIP who had had soup spilled over his trousers when the train stopped suddenly, a lady who broke the heel of her shoe alighting from a train, various farmers whose sheep had inadvertently (???) strayed on to the line at the exact time the train was passing, and even a small boat owner whose boat had been struck by a china clay tender in a West County harbour. It was interesting work because one never knew what to expect next. After a brief spell in Slough Goods Depot, the goods delivery side was taken over by National Carriers Limited. Wishing to rejoin BR I applied for a post at Severn Tunnel Junction, was accepted, moved to Caldicot and came to live with my widowed sister, which was very convenient as in my travels I had never found a lady who was prepared to say "yes" (to my offers of marriage that is), and my sister lived on her own.

Frankly I expected Caldicot to be a quiet area of inactivity, but within a short time I was involved in Sudbrook Cricket Club as an umpire, not playing because of my age or my war wounds. Some kindred chess addicts got together and we established a successful club, playing in the Gwent League and also running several congresses at the Leisure Centre. With the late Mr Tom Bevan we set up a Users Committee at the Centre, and my fondness for maths resolved in my being the fund treasurer for several years. These coupled with involvement with the Educational Centres Association, kept me busy until I retired from BR after 47 years service. It is strange fact that the last job on BR was transmitting freight train loadings by computer on a system named TOPS, and first job on the GWR was telegraphing train load details by single needle Morse code. Nothing changes very much! During my devoted (sic) service, apart from a few 'dicey' times, I enjoyed the work, the comradeship and the many friendships. Now when I occasionally travel by train to places where I've worked I feel sadness and nostalgia for the days gone by,

Not to close on a sad note, the advent of the U3A in Caldicot has been able to fill some of the gaps in my life.


What started out as a one page article just went on and on - it must have been the 'muse' or the gin or something. No doubt Barbara Cartland, Jeffery Archer and Wilbur Smith will now be worried about opposition.


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