By Jeremy Miles
I’m sitting in the idyllic West Dorset garden of Paul Atterbury’s railway carriage home sipping his special blend of tea. One part Darjeeling, one part Assam to a half measure of Lapsang. Delicious! British Rail never aspired to such finery.
The BBC Antiques Roadshow expert has just published Life Along The Line - a nostalgic look at the world of Britain’s rail network. He’s trying to tell me that he’s not really a railway buff at all. He fell into it quite by accident.I look around. There are signals, signage and ephemera from a steam age that for many is all but forgotten. Frankly I’m not convinced.
Not only does he live in a 1903 Great Western Railway carriage or at least the “grown up house” that he has attached to it, but this is his sixth book on the subject of... er, there’s no other way of putting it... railways.
Finally he hold up his hands: “OK, If anything I’m a social historian. My enthusiasm for trains is really about what they’ve done to our culture rather than how many rivets there are on the side of a locomotive.”
He argues that his new book is simply the latest in a series that started in 2004 when he was persuaded to write a one-off called Branch Line Britain.
“It proved far more successful than we’d expected and the result was the inevitable question: ‘So when are you going to write the next one?’ Basically that’s been going on ever since .
“Essentially the books aren’t really about trains. They are a nostalgia thing. They’re about people’s memories and I seek out pictures that are reflective of that, which I think is why they work.”
Life Along The Line, published by David and Charles, focuses on the human experience of the railways. The stories of the lives of the drivers, firemen, guards, station staff, signalmen, engineers, caterers and, of course, passengers are told through a fascinating collection of photographs, postcards, brochures, badges and other ‘railwayana’,
This archive material has been collected by Paul during a tirelessly trawl through postcard and antique fairs, auction sites and car boot sales. There are, he says, real gems to be found, many never previously published.
He believes that railway history is hard-wired into the modern British collective memory. “People are either fascinated because they’re of a certain generation, or it’s something they remember talking to their parents or grandparents about. Go back to the Edwardian or Victorian era and it’s a different sort of history. No one can remember it. Once you’re into the 1920s though most people have some sort of direct connection.”
He points out that the railways not only brought prosperity to Britain but revolutionised our way of life by making the population mobile. They also brought Royalty to the people.
“Queen Victoria was the first monarch to use the railway network to travel the nation. She was also the first monarch to be instantly recognised by her subjects. It was partly down to stamps, partly photography and partly the railways,” says Paul.
“Everyone knew what she looked like. If George III had walked down the street no one would have recognised him.”
Paul believes he has invented a new kind of railway book, one that resonates with a much wider audience than what he calls “the anorak books”.
He’s anxious not to bad-mouth the train spotters though. “I don’t want to alienate the anoraks because they really are part of the market and they write me wonderful letters generally pointing out some incredibly minor detail that I’ve got wrong. I always write back and say thank you very much.”
He tells me of one elderly fan who, a month or so after publication, would invariably write in making a number of points. I really used to look forward to receiving his letters. They were typed on an 1802 Remington or whatever and made much of telling me all the tiny things I’d got wrong. “Eventually I asked him if he’d care to read the proofs. He was so excited. It was as though I were doing him the favour. We always send him the proofs these days.”
Paul bought his railway carriage home in the beautiful little village of Eype near Bridport nearly 25 years ago. “I’d originally been looking for something sensible like a flat, but I’d always been interested in railway carriage housing as a social phenomenon. They were the cheap housing of the 1920s. When I spotted this one, I just couldn’t resist.”
It was stunningly basic when he moved in. “It was a little wooden building with one cold tap and no sanitation, just an earth closet - a shed in the garden with a hole.”
Things changed fast when Paul met his second wife Chrissie a decade ago. Not only did the 20th century plumbing appear but they built the extension in which they now live.
Chrissie was also the creative drive behind designing a beautiful garden on the long, thin strip of land that their home occupies. Meanwhile the railway carriage is rented out as a holiday home.
Footnote: Paul and Chrissie have finally decided to sell up and move to an eco-friendly new-build in Weymouth, where Paul can walk to the station when he makes his regular journeys to the Antiques Roadshow.
“We’re really going to miss living here. We’ve been very much a part of the community and have a lot of good friends but I’ve reached the point where I really do not want to get into a car every time I want to do anything.”
He says the search for a new home was always focused on Dorset. I have no reason to be here whatsoever. I only arrived here by accident but it’s a wonderful county and I don’t ever want to leave.”
*Life Along the Line: A Nostalgic Celebration of Railways and Railway People is published by David and Charles at £25.
After 20 years as an expert on The BBC’s much loved Antiques Roadshow, Paul is one of the most recognisable faces on TV.
One of his lesser known claims to fame however is that he has been involved in television since he was just five years old. His mother Audrey Atterbury was a resident puppeteer on the pioneering children’s programme Watch With Mother and in 1950 used her young son as the inspiration for the character Andy Pandy.
Paul remembers regularly going to the BBC’s Lime Grove Studios and watching his mother working on both Andy Pandy and TheFlower Pot Men. The programmes were broadcast live in the early days. “It was strange really because, like so many other people, we didn’t have a telly at home until 1953 (sales rocketed for the coronation) I was just aware that my mother was doing something which was invisible to most of the nation.”
I point out that, like the marionette he inspired, Paul still wears stripes on TV. “Yes,” he says ruefully.”I’ve got rather stuck with that image.” He makes it clear that he is actually a little fed up with the signature striped jackets he wears for the roadshows, but it’s expected.
Despite his early experiences, a career in TV was far from a foregone conclusion. “It’s interesting how life goes in circles. It was just what my mother did. It never occurred to me to think that one day I’d work on television. I wasn’t interested at all.
“It happened by accident. I was a ceramic specialist who had done a lot of work on art and design and one day I was Invited appear on The Antiques Roadshow by someone who worked on the programme. That was in 1990 and I’m still there.”