In the 1840s when Brunel’s Great Western Railway arrived in Berkshire, people suddenly were able to travel at speed to London and places in between. Before that date you had never travelled faster than when you were on a horse, and suddenly Brunel’s railway was offering speeds well over 40mph and before too long, up to 60mph. Yes, a horse can canter at up to 15mph and gallop at perhaps twice that speed but for how long? Some people thought they would die from lack of oxygen at such speed and that they were risking their lives with this new form of transport, but luckily they were proved wrong.
Many of the early railways were more interested in ‘higher’ classes of people and transporting goods than the working classes. Eventually the railways were forced to provide carriages for 3rd class passengers and a relatively cheap fare enabling everyone to travel. You could travel in an open carriage (no roof and open sides) for hours on end behind a steam locomotive throwing hot cinders at you, or sit on top of a stage coach in the freezing weather. I’m not sure which one I would prefer and will leave that for you to decide; Victorians were a hardy bunch.
The Great Western Railway gave the people who could afford the fares the opportunity to travel from London to Bristol. It was a journey that really meant that you would need sustenance en-route and Swindon provided that opportunity with its infamous refreshment rooms. Trains stopped for everyone to sample food and drinks.
There is a story that one Gloucestershire villager, who had never ventured outside his village, decided to travel by this new-fangled mode of transport and had to stop at Swindon to change trains. He saw everyone head for the refreshment rooms and was overwhelmed by the variety on offer. He picked up some wares that he thought he would try and walked out of the Restaurant only to be apprehended by the police. His claim was that he thought it was all free and couldn’t understand that he had to pay for the privilege. Obviously, a significant change to his normal life back in his village.
If you want to see how the Victorians travelled, then come and have a look at our 1840s train and imagine what early train travel was like.
Didcot Railway Centre has featured in many TV programmes and films with the Centre playing the parts of everywhere from Didcot to Moscow. Many of these productions are featured in our latest project, Action Stations, a series of pop-up banners on display around the Centre. The project was developed by Marylyn Molisso during her University of Reading internship with us last year. The internship was sponsored by the University of Reading and Action Stations was funded by donations from Didcot Rotary Club, Didcot Chamber of Commerce members, and from the Flourish Project.
We starred as Didcot Railway Centre in ‘The Wolvercote Tongue’, an early Inspector Morse episode but unfortunately we didn’t have the image rights to include this In Action Stations. And our Engine Shed was transformed into Moscow Station for the film of ‘Anna Karenina’ starring Keira Knightly and Aaron Johnson-Taylor.
One of the earlier productions, ‘The Incredible Sarah’, was filmed in 1976 and starred Glenda Jackson as Sarah Bernhardt. The Engine Shed was busy acting as both Dover and Paris stations and the banner shows Glenda Jackson on the front of one of our engines, Cookham Manor.
The Engine Shed was in use again in 2014 when it appeared as Copenhagen and Paris stations in ‘The Danish Girl’, starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. The following year we welcomed Colin Firth, Jude Lay and Nicole Kidman to the Engine Shed for the film ‘Genius’, only this time it was transformed into New York Station in 1929.
Action Stations also shows a number of other productions that used our engines but were filmed elsewhere, such as ‘Young Winston’, starring Simon Ward, where our engine, No 1466, was converted into a South African war armoured engine.
Didcot Railway Centre has also featured in many documentaries ranging from Dan Cruikshank filming ‘Great Railway Adventures - Brilliant Brunel’ on our Broad Gauge tracks, to Wlademar Janusczcak recreating the soft haze effect of an impressionist painting in ‘The Impressionists: Painting and Revolutions’.
Last year, of course, we were the location for BBC4’s ‘Trainspotting Live!’ which was broadcast live from the Railway Centre for three days last July. That was a great opportunity to star as ourselves and show off some of the stars of our collection - King Edward II and No 22, our wonderful Diesel Railcar. Tim Dunn from ‘Trainspotting Live!’ will be launching Action Stations on Saturday 11 February.