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Coal mines, train stations and gas-works - school trips used to be very different

PUBLISHED: 14:26 08 August 2017 | UPDATED: 14:26 08 August 2017

Coal mines, train stations and gas-works - school trips used to be very different.

Coal mines, train stations and gas-works - school trips used to be very different.


Lately, some people have been trading tales of the school trips they once went on, comparing them with the exotic jaunts of their grandchildren. Boys and girls in their mid-teens these days think nothing of jetting off, teachers in tow, to ever more distant places.

When I was at grammar school in the Fifties I remember Paris being thought of as far away and ever so foreign, what with the food and the language – which was really the point of the trip as some of us were learning it. But because of the cost I couldn’t go, and plenty of others couldn’t either.

We did go on school excursions of a different kind, paid for by the local authority. That was because they were only a bus-ride away and would be seen as wholly educative. There was no way they could be defined as frivolous outings, mere pleasure trips, which is not to say that we didn’t enjoy aspects of them.

The one I reckoned the most fun was a visit behind the scenes at Leamington Station, especially the sidings where carriages and wagons were being shunted. The engines were steam, some of them still painted green from their Great Western days, and they appeared enormous. The only close-up view of engines that we’d ever had was from station platforms, seeing only half their height. Standing beside them at ground level they were giants.

They whistled and huffed about the yard and the scent of steam and smoke was wonderful. And then, oh joy, a ride on the footplate! I’ve never forgotten balancing on the metal plate that covered the gap between engine and tender and how it moved as we went over the points. How many potential engine-drivers were made that day?

There was a coal-mine trip too, with helmets and headlamps, and the yell of shock and surprise when the cage dropped us down and down. We had to crawl a lot through low, narrow tunnels. I don’t think any of us entertained ambitions to become miners, but we never took a full scuttle for granted after that. Maybe a seed was sown that day; years later I was down the mines again, as a director with the National Coal Board film unit.

The most horrifying visit of all was to the gas-works, a vision of hell that’s never left me. It was noisy and hot; men worked all day pushing giant pokers in and out of tall banks of tubes. Perhaps the sight of this was intended as a deterrent, a warning of what we might end up doing if we slacked at school. If it was, it worked. We bent to our books with renewed zeal – for a while, anyway.

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