"Not very long ago, in the top left-hand corner of Wales, there was a railway.
It wasn't a very long railway or a very important railway, but it was called The Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Limited, and it was all there was.
And in a shed, in a siding at the end of the railway, lives the Locomotive of the Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Limited, which was a long name for a little engine so his friends just called him Ivor."
- “Psst, koff, psst, koff -Come on Ivor”.
So began the very first episode of Ivor the engine, way back in 1959. The little green steam loco lived on, on our TV screens, for some 30 years & became a much loved character for generations of viewers. Modern children may think Thomas the tank engine is the only track-bound celebrity, but their fathers know Ivor led the way, puffing & chuffing up & down the mountains of that little Welsh kingdom.
I was born in 1962, so Ivor was already well established by the time I became a discerning viewer of children’s TV programmes. I was never quite sure whether I liked him, or his companions, Jones the Steam, Evans the Song, Dai Station, Mrs Porty, Dinwiddy the Goldminer … there was something slightly –creepy, about those little films, which I found quite disturbing as a small child. It wasn’t Ivor himself, or his friends. I think it was more the presentation. Dimly lit black & white drawings; the odd. jerky, not quite natural movement of the characters; the strangely disembodied tone to the voices –I always thought Oliver Postgate’s quite deep voice-overs would’ve been better suited to narrating Hammer horror films, than as the kindly presenter of kids’ TV shows. Around the same time he also produced Noggin the Nog, the tales of a Norse Viking in a strange land of dragons & dark mountains, battling the evil Nogbad the Bad. Even my Mother admits she wasn’t keen on those. I know small children are supposed to enjoy being scared, & little Ivor was never intended to be anything but bright & colourful & friendly, but he occupies a dimly lit, smoke filled corner of my childhood memories.
So it was with a sense of slight trepidation that I arrived at Alresford railway station, in Hampshire. The Mid Hants Railway consists of a ten mile section of track, running from Alton, through Medstead & Ropley, to Alresford. It’s affectionately known as the Watercress Line –cress was a large part of the local economy at one time & fresh batches were taken from the surrounding cress beds to market by train. A band of dedicated steam enthusiasts saved the tracks from extinction in the 1970s & gradually built them up into a fully functioning rail line, with a collection of trains & rolling stock. Alresford station has been preserved just as it would have been in the late 40s & hosts a variety of themed weekends, covering everything from Ivor & Thomas the tank engine days, to Wartime experiences, with staff & actors dressed in period costume. It has a fully equipped station cafeteria, serving discounted meals to local residents on production of proof of their address. The sound & smells of steam are now a familiar part of daily life in these villages once more –which I think is wonderful.
I was on my way to visit my Mother down on the South coast, but knowing they were “steaming” this weekend, I couldn’t resist making a quick detour & calling in at Alresford for a couple of hours on the way. As I pulled into the carpark at lunchtime, I was greeted by a plume of white smoke rising above the station buildings & the shrill whistle of a steam loco. “Psst, koff, psst, koff -Come on Ivor”, a little voice in my head said.
Collecting my platform ticket from the window in the entry hall, I stepped out onto platform one. And there he was. Ivor. Unmistakable to 40 something year old small boys everywhere, resplendent in his bright green Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company livery. He’s a lot bigger than I remember him I thought.
Ivor sat, hissing gently, shrouded in the steam clouds that Postgate & Firmin depicted so well in their films, across the tracks at platform two. “You remember him then”. One of the station porters, dressed in full uniform, complete with pocket watch on a chain across the front of his waistcoat, stood beside me & I realised I was grinning like a Cheshire cat. I was on a windy railway platform, cold February rain & a biting wind blowing between the station buildings, but suddenly I felt 5 years old again. I half expected to see Idris, the little red Welsh dragon, who lived in Ivor’s firebox, perched on his funnel.
I spent far longer than I’d intended to at Alresford, wandering up & down the platforms, watching the train spotters -& realising I was one of them. The rain had kept the visitor numbers down to just a few hardy enthusiasts, but I kinda liked it that way. If it weren’t for the carpark full of modern cars beyond the green painted railings, this really could be a little corner of post War Britain. Station clocks, Mail trolleys, fire buckets, classic travel posters, a red phone box –“Push button A to continue your call”, (yeah, I remember them). Inside, the waiting room was warm & cosy, with an open fire burning in the grate below a huge mirror. The ticket office too had it’s own coal fire, rolls of paper tickets, piles of timetables, ticket punches -& a bespectacled clerk behind the glass window –so much more pleasant than a modern British Rail terminal.
A regular service was carrying families up & down between Alton & Alresford all day, but, like it’s modern counterparts, the 1.43 was late, the steam loco pulling it having broken down just outside Ropley. In the meantime, Ivor was kept busy, shuttling fans up & down the track from the station platform to the sidings & back again. Just a short trip of a few hundred yards, but for those of us old enough to remember Ivor in his heyday, we trundled back nearly half a century.
There’s something fascinating about steam, whether it’s trains, traction engines, pumps, lorries –I just love it. The noise, the smell, the huge, industrial sized, yet amazingly complex & intricate engineering, the constant tending necessary to keep them running. Steam vehicles just seem so much more “alive” than modern machinery. I stood on the iron bridge above the tracks & let the clouds of smoke envelop me as Ivor chuffed past below. Wonderful.
Eventually the 1.43 arrived, rumbling into platform one, behind a huge 1960s type 33 diesel engine, which had been dispatched to collect the stricken passenger carriages. The big diesel dwarfed little Ivor, equally as impressive, but in a completely different way. Suddenly the station was full of noise & bustle as families disembarked & headed for the cafeteria, or across the bridge to see Ivor. Noisy kids in brightly coloured raincoats ran about, Mothers loaded down with pushchairs & bags shouted at them to keep away from the platform edge, Fathers took photos of Ivor –I suspect they were far more excited by his presence than their kids were. I know any tourist business needs visitors to survive, but I think I preferred it before Ivor’s gentle chuff chuffing was drowned out by the hustle & bustle of modern life.
The souvenir shop was showing old episodes of Ivor on a large screen & were doing a brisk trade in postcards & childrens’ Engine Driver hats. I bought a hot pasty from the cafeteria & wandered up to the little churchyard that overlooks the station buildings. Several decades after first watching him on the TV, I’d met the little Welsh loco & he wasn’t nearly as scary as I remembered him. Nice to make your acquaintance Ivor.
As I pulled out of the carpark, late for lunch with my Mum, the repaired 1.43 engine came steaming into the station. Bugger.
The Watercress Line runs regular steam & diesel weekends throughout the year, plus steam galas with six or seven trains in attendance, real ale & dining trips & various themed days.