By Alex Cochrane:
Late night at Crewe station. I wander empty dark platforms where rain drips down and fog drifts through the lights. A non-stop London-Glasgow train arrows past with unnerving silence and speed.
It’s Sunday night and there are few travellers about which is surprising given Crewe’s renowned status as a major transport junction. Then again Crewe is also smaller than you would expect. The station will interest the railway history buffs with its many firsts, for example the first station to have its own adjacent railway hotel. The Crewe Arms was built in 1838 and is still in use although tonight its dark, foreboding airs make it look like the setting for a 1930s murder mystery novel. Then there are the glimpses, on the approach to the station, of ancient and decaying railway stock clustered around the Crewe Heritage Centre. Crewe will interest and frustrate the urban explorers with its large swathes of inaccessible overlapping edgelands, wilderness and railway landscapes. One of the platform stalls serves an excellent hot chocolate often needed to warm up passengers waiting for connections. Even at the best of times, with the sun shining through its new roof, Crewe station is a little charmless. At night it is downright shabby and gloomy. But if you’re there on a Sunday afternoon or evening you can imagine a world now lost that does lend Crewe a hint of nostalgia.
Ronald Harwood’s celebrated play, The Dresser, explores the relationship between a personal assistant and a brilliant but disintegrating Shakespearian actor as they tour the province theatres of World War Two England. In an emotional outburst Her Ladyship, the wife of the actor, Sir, laments life on the theatrical road, a litany of complaints which includes spending Sunday evening on Crewe Station.
In the age before television, theatrical and musical mass entertainment was provided in the variety theatres up and down the land. Every town had a variety theatre and the migrating performers were its blood. Bookings were weekly and on their Sunday rest the performers would travel to their next venue, often via Crewe. The station became a social as well as a transport hub; where the performers caught up with each other, like the railway lines criss-crossing, before separating and heading off for another town and another week of performance.
Tales of Sunday at Crewe, no doubt exaggerated, have been handed down one side of my family. In those days the goods vans of trains carried all the equipment which would be unloaded onto the platforms along with dancing girls, comedians, singers and circus acts. There was chaos and gossiping on the platform, drinking at the station bar, performers dancing and practicing their acts, performing dogs running amok amongst cases, props and surreal looking costumes.
It always sounds chaotic and lively. Crewe is quiet and this world is gone now, even its ghosts have disappeared and the variety theatres have closed down or been redeveloped into flats and bingo halls. The train for Glasgow arrives. There’s little nostalgic or elegant about these trains with their stale airs, cramp seats, sticky plastic tables, garish lighting and jarring colours. Not unless you pay for the muted, sleek modernity of first class.
The train slides out of Crewe, gathering pace as it heads north.