"The Night Ferry", France, 141Rs and table football - July, 1970
Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Introduction: When I was eight, in 1960, a kid down the street where I lived explained how he went to the local railway station and collected the train numbers. The kid's name was Brian Bartram, otherwise known as Bart. In the next eight years, as steam locomotives succumbed to the cutter's torch by the score each month, I, sometimes with Bart, but mostly without, travelled thousands of miles around Britain chasing and trying to photograph trains. (Well? How did you misspend your youth?) It wasn't just the locomotives that were disappearing – it was the first phase of an end of an era. Victorian Britain was vanishing before our eyes. Steam locomotives, cloth caps, Woodbine cigarettes and smokey working mens' clubs were out, Swinging London, Twiggy and Mini-Coopers were in - all to a musical background from the Beatles, Who, Kinks, Cream and Traffic. With my mum's fixed-lens Kodak Retinette camera and only pocket money for films, in truth I did a poor job on the photographic side. But when main line steam finished in Britain, there was France, which, conveniently, still used steam on the north coast from Calais to Boulogne-sur-Mer to Amiens. Big, black, bulky and sprouting pipes and carbuncles everywhere, the American-built 141Rs failed miserably when it came to aesthetics (I'll find a photo and post it when I learn how – but they nothing like the clean lines of, say, Flying Scotsman, an LNER class A3.) But they roared and – fed low-calorie coal – belched smoke black smoke like billy-oh So it was that a decade after Bart had inspired my first station visits, we both went to France to experience the 141Rs, he leading the way as he'd been before. This week, in 2020, I realised it had to be close to the 50th anniversary of that (for me) groundbreaking trip. So I sent Bart an email - edited here to make it more understandable to the non-enthusiast. Dear Brian, 50 years ago, this weekend, as I remember, we did our first trip to France together. It was my first trip outside the UK. We were on the Night Ferry from Victoria, replete with dark blue Wagon Lits sleeping cars. Of course, we didn't have the dosh to go in those, not even if we'd been going to Paris. On the boat, departing Dover around midnight, I tried to chat up a girl from Mulhouse in French - gosh, I wish I'd studied the language better. It was the first time that I realised I could actually USE IT! Alas, my fluency faded in proportion to the alcohol intake that night. I have this vision of her giving up as my schoolboy French faded into incoherent Franco-babble. She sure missed out, big time. She could have learned all about 141Rs. It would have changed her life. We staggered off the ferry at about 04.30, onto the Paris train, but only went 2 km to Dunkerque Ville. As we were heading to Calais and Boulogne, that was all we needed. The train squealed away en route to Paris Nord, It's now 05.30, the sun was up, and we badly needed repast. At a cafe across the square from the station, we bought coffee and croissants. The price on the list was - I forget exactly – perhaps something like FFr 4.50 for coffee and maybe FFr 2.50 for the croissants. (IRCC, the £ was about FFr 13.00 at the time). But when we got the bill, it was about 50% more - because we'd sat down at a table, away from the bar. I was furious! Talk about culture clash, we'd been on foreign soil about 1 ½ hours, and I was ready to start World War III. Only years later have I come to agree with the French economic logic. We made our way on local trains over to Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer. I think we went with a 141R to Etaples, where we had steak and chips in a local spoon de graisse. It was gently raining, and, for July 4, quite cold. To save dosh, we took the train towards Boulogne a couple of stops to Neufchatel - Hardelot, where we planned to sleep on the wayside station. But it was so bloody miserable and uninviting, and we were both so knacked, we went into the village and found a "Les Routiers" cheapo hotel. I think double rooms were about Ffr 54.00, so it was just over £2 each. I did a quick calculation, hardly able to believe our luck. In our state, that was a giveaway. We played table football with the locals in the bar. I remember you were impressed by my French, which really was pretty crap, but it was fun. I think the locals were decent and paid for most games! Les pauvres Anglais! After a sleepless night on the boat, the bed that night was so welcome. Clean sheets, dry and warm. Heaven! I think it was raining the next day too - can't remember anything about that. Then it was the boat at about 14.00 from Boulogne Maritime, Folkestone and Victoria. Back to Derby by about 19.30. We did two or three more trips to the area that summer - one 2 weeks later. (I met a French-Canadian girl in the queue at Victoria, she came from New Brunswick - what was her name? She tagged along with us, and liked you more than me – typical!) and then right at the end, late September, we went for one last time. It was just over the Channel, but it was proper abroad! It electrified me. I was bitten by the bug, the adventure, the giant, lumbering, clagging 141Rs, and the fact that learning languages had a purpose! Fun times, Bart! Thanks for the memories! Kester Postscript: Brian replied yesterday that indeed, it was not only the first weekend of July 1970 that this took place, but the dates are also precisely the same – we left London on Friday July 3rd, and returned on Sunday 5th. The French-Canadian girl's name was Theresa. Bart reckons she came from Camberley - near Reading, England, I suppose.
OK, here's a photo - it's not a 141R, as I haven't got a decent print of one.