With this post, I am coming dangerously close to heckling myself. Worse, I am heckling myself about railways and railwayana. So I shall keep it brief; those of you with a sensitive disposition should look away now.
Last week I mentioned this poster, which is coming up for sale at Christies next month. I wondered what this train was, and whether I could ride on it.
I had thought I might be deluged with very detailed answers from People Who Know about Railways, but I wasn’t, so I had to find out for myself.
First and most important fact is that this is the back of the train not the front – an observation car rather than an engine. So it is a bit less like something from the 1947 World’s Fair than I had thought.
Pretty much everything else you might want to know about the Devon Belle can be found on Wikipedia and elsewhere, right down to what the observation cars were before they were made for the train (one was originally an ambulance car from the First World War, which is a pretty creative piece of recycling). It was meant to be a glamourous and luxurious train, but back in the austerity days of 1947, the travelling public weren’t very keen to pay a supplement for all of that flummery, so it only lasted until 1954.
But before that, British Transport Films made a film about the Devon Belle, and you can see some stills from that at the Science and Society Picture Library if you want. I’ve tried looking for the film itself on YouTube, but have only found a rather considerable amount of footage of people giving their Hornby Devon Belle’s a turn around the model track. Which isn’t quite the same.
But that doesn’t matter though, much more important is that the answer to my second question is yes. Both the Devon Belle’s observation cars are still preserved and so yes I can ride on them. They’re not too far away from me either, at Swanage and Dartmouth.
Although looking at this picture of it running close to the edge in Dartmouth I may opt for genteel Swanage instead. I don’t have a good head for heights.
Now, on the one hand this is just a brief digression on the subject of rolling stock. But it’s also a reminder as to why posters can be so interesting. They’re not just artworks, but they’re also a window into pieces of the past which might otherwise get overlooked. Not just the histories of a pair of carriages, but the tensions at play in the late 1940s, when the British people desperately wanted a sleek, modern post-war world which looked like the World’s Fair, but were faced with the realisation that they couldn’t really afford it. All of which sounds just very slightly familiar.