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First-class ticket to a bygone rail world

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 28, 2013

  • Author Paul Atterbury carrying out some detailed research for his various railway publications

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Paul Atterbury conjures the spirit of yesterday's railways so eloquently that his latest book is a first-class return ticket to a bygone world.

Vintage atmosphere percolates from the pages of Favourite Railway Journeys like gently escaping steam.

You can almost hear the hiss of exhaust and inhale the sulphurous smoke of the coal-eating locomotives; sense the melancholy demise of isolated halts, and be drawn into the bustling humanity of busy stations.

The Dorset-based author, familiar to TV viewers as a member of The Antiques Roadshow team, is an avid railway enthusiast with a number of published books on the subject.

His latest book, in typical Atterbury style, combines many aspects to create an entertaining and enlightening celebration of our railways.

Carving the country up into seven geographical chapters, he features 14 of his favourite railway journeys – ranging from Liskeard to Looe in Southwest England to the Glasgow-Oban line in Scotland.

Each description is preceded by an array of station scenes from the region, selected from Paul's vast collection of postcard, sepia and colour images.

To add further variety there are chapters that take an illustrated look at stations from London termini to humble halts – with city, town and county stations in between.

Paul's writing and extended captions are informative, while his choice of often unexpected images are refreshing and inspired.

"The aim is to build up a rich pictorial approach using as many unfamiliar images as possible," says Paul.

So while locomotives feature centre stage in many pictures, just as many focus out attention on buildings, infrastructure and passengers to evoke the atmosphere of the day.

"I like general photographs of stations or views where things are going on. Trains are there but it is not just about trains – it's about people," he says.

Conscious that images for many railway books often go to the same sources Paul consciously searches elsewhere.

"The world is awash with railway pictures. The focus tends to be pictures of trains – but I often find the standard three-quarter view of an approaching train very dull."

His favourite hunting ground for interesting and previously unpublished pictures are railway fairs full of dealers.

"I go through box after box after box. Most collectors want pictures of a type of locomotive or something specific, and they are put in tidy boxes.

"Then there is a pile of miscellaneous stuff that doesn't fit into any category," says Paul.

"I can spend a day going through these. I might look through 1,000 images and buy things that are interesting and that hopefully will one day get used."

And it is not always the perfect shot by the professional photographer that catches Paul's eye.

"The amateur takes interesting images, they may not be great compositions or technically perfect because they are not professionals. They are amateurs with a basic camera doing their best – but they often show things that other pictures don't," says Paul, adding that with photoshop they can be sharpened and brightened or darkened.

His wife Chrissie, who was a book designer, looks after the technical side.

Paul's railway books attract dedicated enthusiasts, but also those with warm memories and a genuine nostalgia for the subject. But nostalgia has its limitations – and Paul knows there is a cut-off point.

"I have learnt that you cannot go back too far. If you go back beyond living memory people lose interest," he says.

"Victorian pictures are like the Stone Age because people have no connection. I tend not to go back before the 1920s."

It is ironic that everyday moments, almost too mundane to record at the time, have all the trappings of fascination when viewed as a piece of social history.

And so past pictures of passengers and station staff from decades ago hold a special curiosity.

Paul has a little poetic licence with some of the captions – is the woman waiting at the Welsh halt with her wicker basket really going shopping in Aberystwyth? It would be nice to think she was, but even if she wasn't it is the sort of every day reason she might have caught the train.

"The railways were very much at the heart of our lives and the images reflect that," says Paul.

"Travelling today by train will, in 40 years time, be interesting for all the same reasons. It is an on-going process."

Favourite Railway Journeys is a book that is easy to dip in and out of.

And, despite the rapidly changing railway scenes chronicled within its pages, some things haven't totally changed. While Paul reflects on his favourite lines in their heyday, they are all still here to be enjoyed today.

"None of them are lost. You can do any of them – because they are still doable."

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