Two Scenes From My Life In Thatcher’s Britain

1. Plank Lane Leigh Lancashire July 1984

One evening we were heading north towards Wigan on the Canal. Shortly after eight o’clock we reached an electric swing bridge near the Plank Lane coal mine in Leigh. The bridge, as we found out, was only manned until eight so we had no chance of going further until the following day. An evening in Plank Lane it was.

There was a pub was in the shadow of the winding wheel of the colliery. The machinery was silent as it had been since March. A group of pickets greeted us and waved, rattled their collecting buckets. It was a balmy summer’s evening, not the time of year for a miners’ strike I reflected. The pub was quiet, very quiet. No money meant no business and a group lf students, even students who hadn’t had a proper bath for a week was a Godsend. Our welcome was very warm and carried on into the small hours. Shortly  before closing tine a few locals came in, , the doors were locked and the curtains drawn. Plank Lane was determined that, even if we were moving on the following day. some of our money would stay behind. And we left a little bit more as well, stopping at three o’clock to put as much as we could afford in the collecting buckets. We had just finished university, had jobs waiting for us, careers to begin, The people of Plank Lane had a further eight months of not knowing where their next meal was coming from.

2. Dudley West Midlands July 1988

I was looking to buy a house and had found what I thought might be a suitable property in Dudley. I arranged a visit one evening. I was not alone. The estate agent had arranged a mass viewing and nearly 50 people crammed into the inter-war semi. The message was clear. Bid well above the asking price or you’ve got no chance. This was the year that Nigel Lawson’s budget slashed income tax and announced the end of double tax relief for couples with effect from 1st August, sending an already booming housing market into a frenzy the like of which we had never seen before. At least that house made it into the estate agent’s window. Many houses at that time were sold even before the boards went up. It was not unusual for estate agents to buy houses through intermediaries  ensuring that their clients never knew of better offers. They, of course, resold immediately and cashed in. The culture of greed, that has led to the mess we find ourselves in today, had well and truly arrived..

WHEN THE TIDE FINALLY TURNS AGAINST BEECHING

Bank Holiday Monday found us in Lincolnshire, taking a ride on the Lincolnshire Wolds Railway, a short trip through flat countryside between the villages of Ludborough and North Thoresby. This is a pleasant if unexciting journey. The railway has only been running since 2009 and eventually aims to extend its operations to the capital of the Lincolnshire Wolds, Louth.

Despite appearances this is not the relic of a bucolic branch line. It was once part of an important thorough route from Grimsby to Peterborough via Boston. This was one of a number of such lines closed in the aftermath of the Beeching report. Many of these closures are now recognised as mistakes and some (for example the Varsity Line about which I have written before) are being reversed. In many cases, however, the indecent haste of British Rail to dismantle lines and sell off the land, as opposed to mothballing them, has led to many lines being lost for ever. The Great Central London extension, about which I have also written is the best example.

The new edition of Modern Railways  has a league table of the worst closures, Top of the table is the Waverley Route from Edinburgh to Carlisle (another closure that is now being partly reversed)  while the Great Central and the Grimsby-Peterborough route are also in the top five. There was another controversial closure in the top ten, the folly of which is almost certainly yet to be fully revealed.

One of the highlights of a railway trip to Devon is the thrilling section along the sea wall through Dawlish where you almost appear to be travelling along the waves particularly at high tide.  This section is now causing much soul searching at Network Rail as rising sea levels raise the prospect of frequent line closures or even worse, the section having to be abandoned altogether. The costs of building a replacement route further inland are not insignificant. Yet there were once two alternative routes. The Great Western had a line from Exeter to Newton Abbott along the Teign Valley closed in 1958, before Beeching,  while the London and South Western Railway had an alternative main line from Exeter to Plymouth  passing to the north of Dartmoor through Okekampton and Tavistock a town that once had two stations (being also on the GWR line from Plymouth to Launceston) but is now cut off from the national network. The logic of this closure was that it was a duplicate line and so not needed in times of rationalisation.

Yes, some may say, but rising sea levels could not have been predicted in 1968. Except that they could. Problems at Dawlish are nothing new and back in 1958, when the Teign Valley line was closed, it was suggested by more than one commentator that, even if not required now, the line should be mothballed rather than lifted, in case an alternative to the route through Dawlish was ever needed.   In 1958, it hardly needs to be said, no-one seriously thought that the ex-Southern route might only have a few years to go. What seemed obvious in 1958 surely still held good in 1968 when the Okehampton route finally closed. It is one of life’s little ironies that the trackbed of the Teign valley route is now, 54 years after closure, being considered as a possible alternative route.

Talk of a new line really shouldn’t be necessary. If the tide has turned against Beeching and the flawed assumptions on which his plan was based, a real tide may, in not too many years, expose possibly the biggest folly of all.