Along the Lambourn valley there used to run a railway line through the picturesque Berkshire landscape. Originally planned in 1881 it took some 17 years to become a reality and it opened for passenger traffic on the 2nd April 1898. It was neither a famous nor particularly efficient railway service taking some 40 minutes to travel the 12 short miles from Lambourn to bay platform 3 at Newbury but at the time it was a lifeline to the village of Lambourn and its surroundings.
Recent history tells us that the last train to travel the line, before partial closure, was the 5.20pm on the 4th January 1960. Experts will also say that the very last passenger train to run from Newbury to Welford took place on the 3rd November 1973. But there is another, most remarkable journey, that took place in 1978, never told until now. This is my story.
Back in early January 1978 I was waiting at Newbury Station for the last train to Hungerford. To keep warm I chose to wait in the waiting room, which desperately required a makeover. The old wooden benches were devoid of paint and heavily cut by graffiti and the walls still supported their original paint from the 1960’s, now flaking, adding to the general decay of this public waiting area. It was not through choice that I waited here but for complete necessity as heavy snow had started to fall outside covering the platforms with a blanket of white snow. As most of the light bulbs had blown only a single 60w bulb lit this room and gave it an air of complete mystery. I looked at my watch, it was 11.30pm and the train was now 15 minutes late. I was anxious to get home and angry at the poor service. I settled down to read my book in the half-light resigned to the delay.
Five minutes later the waiting room door opened and a flurry of snow and ice cold air entered the room followed by an old lady wrapped in a heavy shawl. I wondered what such a person was doing out at this time of night but continued to read my book
“Excuse me, young man, but have I missed the last train to Lambourn?” asked the old lady. I looked at her in utter disbelief, as the line had been closed some 18 years.
“I think you have. No trains have run on that line for 18 years. You will find it hard to get to Lambourn at this time of night as you’ve missed the last bus,” I responded helpfully.
The woman looked forlorn and was visibly disappointed. I decided to be helpful and to offer her reassurance and a possible lifeline. “I suggest that you catch the train with me to Hungerford and I will get my father to drive you to Lambourn. Will that help you?”
“Oh, yes, how kind. I willingly accept your offer. Would you like a sandwich dear?” She lifted the cloth covering her wicker basket and removed some sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper and handed me one. So not to offend her I took the sandwich and started to eat it politely. A flask of coffee soon followed and the warming fluid offered me some comfort in the dismal surroundings.
The wind had picked up and it was nearly impossible to see beyond the dirty, unwashed windowpanes. The snow created an effective barrier to sight so I had to rely on my hearing to register when our train arrived on this winter’s night in January. As we ate heartily I heard an unfamiliar sound through the storm’s wind.
“That sounds like our train, young man. Oh, I haven’t introduced my self. My name is Gertrude Hollis and I am the cook at the Old Manor House in Lambourn.”
“My name’s Peter Bradshaw and I live at Hungerford. I’m taking my A’ levels in June. Pleased to meet you.” We shook hands and I was somewhat surprised how cold her hands were. They felt as death itself.
During the next few minutes of silence I took the opportunity to study her closely. She was wearing a tweed skirt and jacket, long green socks and sturdy, brown shoes with a one-inch heel. A simple silver brooch held her tartan shawl in place across her broad shoulders. Gertrude Hollis must have easily been in her 70’s and her silver hair was tied tightly in a single bun under a straw hat. She certainly looked out of place as her clothes were of a different era but I consoled myself that most eccentric, older people, often dressed in a similar way.
Outside came the unmistakable sound of a steam train reversing into the station. This surprised me, as it was the wrong time of year for the ‘Steam Specials’ that frequented the main line during the summer months offering a journey back in time for visiting tourists and steam fanatics. Gertrude packed her basket, adjusted her shawl and moved towards the door in some haste.
“Well, are you coming Peter?” she inquired.
“Oh, yer, yes,” I replied in disbelief. We walked out into the blizzard but there was no sign of a train on the main platform.
“This way,” Gertrude directed and moved down the platform to the old bay platform 3. I followed meekly and was astonished to see a steam pannier engine and a single carriage waiting in the former Lambourn line bay. I wondered how it had got there as the track had been lifted five years before. As there were no station staff visible I could not confirm where the train was bound. Gertrude opened the nearest door and climbed in beckoning me as she sat on a brown upholstered seat. As I had nothing to lose I followed and sat opposite her expectantly.
No sooner had we taken our places the engine started to emit a plume of steam and started to move slowly out of the station initially in the direction of Hungerford.
“I knew we would catch the last train. The GWR never lets me down,” Gertrude added. I remained silent as I felt the train start to cross the main line, over invisible points, to the main up line. This worried me as we were heading in the wrong direction on the main up line to Paddington. Once again we crossed some more points and I felt the engine begin to strain as it started to climb a gradient. I looked out of the window and through the falling snow I could see the main line on my left and we were travelling on the former Lambourn/Newbury branch line.
“Where are we going?” I asked in disbelief.“To Lambourn, where do you think we’re going?” she retorted offering a strong smile of mischief.
“I need to go to Hungerford, not Lambourn!” I replied firmly but to no effect as my voice was drowned by the straining engine negotiating the 1:63 gradient out of the station.
“Now Peter we are going to be on this train for the next 40 minutes so we need to occupy ourselves. I have just the ticket, I’ll tell you a story that will amaze you,” said Miss Hollis.
“If you must,” I replied with some disinterest staring out into the heavy snow. She started her tale.
“It was on a night not too dissimilar to this that two strangers met on a train to Lambourn. One was a soldier on leave from the Front in 1917 and the other a young woman of 23 years. They started to talk, very much like we are doing now.”
‘It looks like you are doing most of the talking!’ I thought.
“Unbeknown to the soldier the woman was carrying a large collection of jewels that she had stolen from Speen Lodge that same evening. This was not her sole crime, she had killed as part of her evening’s work as she was caught breaking into the safe.”
“How did she kill the victim?” I inquired.
“With a knife, of course. She had it concealed in her handbag covered with a white handkerchief. As they talked the soldier told of his life in the trenches and the woman listened with some interest.”
I looked out of the window as the train had come to halt. A simple sign, half covered in snow said ‘Speen for Donnington.’ The door opened and a young woman got on accompanied by a soldier dressed in the uniform of an infantryman from the 1st World War. Things were getting far too weird for my liking. Gertrude continued her story as I watched the two newcomers sit in the furthest seats behind my travelling companion.
“The soldier, Private Jenkins, showed the woman Gertrude Hollis a German bayonet and told her where he obtained it.” I watched in horror as a similar bayonet was removed from the soldier’s rucksack. The woman held the blade firmly and ran her fingers up and down the cold steel blade in eager veneration.
“All was going well for her. She had escaped from the scene of the crime and was going to disappear into the depths of the winter’s night. It was a good choice not to catch a mainline train as the police were already hot on the trail and were patrolling the mainline services out of Newbury.”
Our train started again and I caught a mere glimpse of a stationmaster waving a red signal lamp. Once again he looked historically out of place in the 1970’s. The soldier and woman were now reading a single piece of paper that had been removed from her handbag. Gertrude continued,
“The woman was impressed with the bayonet and decided to show the soldier a letter she had received from King George in recognition of her bravery during the Zeppelin raids in London where she had been an auxiliary nurse. They looked at it together and their hands briefly touched causing some minor embarrassment. As she replaced the letter into her handbag the soldier saw the jewels and asked her what she was doing travelling with such a valuable collection.”
A curiously dressed guard started to walk through the carriage collecting tickets. He clipped the tickets belonging to the woman and soldier and announced that the next stop would be Stockcross and Bagnor Halt. He walked straight past us as though we weren’t there. This surprised me.
Two minutes later the train stopped at Stockcross and Bagnor and a man in his mid forties entered the carriage. The woman and soldier briefly stopped their conversation to examine the new arrival. He did the same to them then sat on a seat offering a good view of the whole carriage.
“Do you want me to finish the story, Peter?” asked Miss Hollis rather annoyed at his apparent lack of interest. “Yes, do go on,” I replied.
“The man was an undercover policeman who was acting on a hunch. As he was going to travel home on the Lambourn line anyway he decided to check the last train for criminal classes. His luck was in. He had found the perpetrator of the recent murder and jewel theft. Inspector Ragland decided to bide his time and wait to arrest the woman at the terminus. The soldier and woman continued their conversation and the woman offered some feeble excuse as to why she was carrying such valuable jewellery.”
I was transfixed as the story was being played out interactively before my very own eyes. There was little need to listen to Miss Hollis’ account as I could see it with my own eyes. The train stopped again and the sign now heavily covered in snow said ‘Boxford.’ The woman stood and opened the window to look out onto the platform. As the falling snow started to enter the carriage the soldier quickly removed a pearl necklace from the woman’s handbag and hid it in his rucksack. The woman sat down again and placed her bag on the floor of the compartment. As the bag hit the floor the train started moving once more and the same stationmaster holding a red signal lamp waved it mysteriously through the falling snow. This time he offered me a smile; this made my blood run cold.
During the next five minutes of my journey I made a conscious decision to leave the train at the next station. The whole journey was proving to be too much for me. I felt very uncomfortable.
“The woman had seen the soldier take the necklace and was angry. She hid her feelings with a false smile and asked to see the bayonet once again. The soldier duly offered her the German blade and she admired it with malice.”“What happened next?” I asked.
“There was a snow drift on the line just before Welford Park station. The engine driver saw it just in time and applied the brakes. The sudden halt caused the carriage lights briefly to go out. During this period of darkness there was a slight struggle as the woman pushed the bayonet into the soldier’s chest, between his ribs and twisted it firmly once. With her free hand she placed her headscarf into his open mouth to muffle his protestations. Once all resistance finished she removed the necklace from his rucksack and placed him in a sleeping position, carefully hiding the growing bloodstain with his worn, army cape acting as a makeshift blanket. A few moments later the lights came on at the Inspector saw nothing amiss; a sleeping soldier and a woman quietly reading her book. He was not suspicious and could not see the blood covered bayonet hidden up the woman’s sleeve.
I checked my fellow passengers and the description was quite accurate.
The snow drift was only three feet deep so the engine could plough its way through it with comparative ease. The train entered Welford Park Station and took on some water.”
“I’m just popping out for some air. I won’t be a moment,” I said as I unlatched the door. The smell of burning coal, steam and chilled air filled my nostrils. I closed the door behind me and started to walk down the unfamiliar, deserted platform, the snow crunching under my feet. By my reckoning I was only about 8 miles from Newbury and could easily walk the distance or ring home from a telephone box.
“Where do you think you are going?” shouted a voice from the platform. I turned around to see the ghostly stationmaster. “Passengers are not allowed to leave the train before their destination. Your ticket is for Lambourn and Lambourn it is!”
“But… but I wish to alight here,” I feebly protested.
“That’s as may be. But you will get back on the train. It will not move until you are on it. Do I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly,” I replied considering a brisk run to freedom. I felt a hand clasp me lightly on the arm. I was escorted back to the carriage and duly sat down next to the old lady. I was imprisoned within this spectral, living nightmare.
“There you are, dear. Feeling better?” asked Miss Hollis.
“Yes, thank you. Would you mind if I sat and read my book? Your story is interesting but not to my taste. Would you mind?” I pleaded.
“Surely not. You go ahead. I’ll do some of my knitting instead,” Gertrude replied as she pulled some wool, two knitting needles and a bayonet out of her basket. I observed but didn’t react. I pretended to read my book but continued to monitor the other passengers within my compartment. The soldier sleeping in death; the woman reading her book and the inspector watching the screenplay intently. The train left Welford Park station heading for Great Shefford. Only a few more stops I thought and my nightmare would be over.
The sign ‘East Garston’ heralded our arrival to this sleepy Berkshire village. The spectral attendant was protecting my escape on the small platform so I decided to stay put for the duration. The church clock struck midnight through the eerie snow-laden darkness but strangely illuminated by the full moon. I checked my watch – it was the 4th January. The train jolted heavily as it navigated the 1 in 60 gradient out of East Garston and I noticed that the inspector had changed seats adjacent to the young woman and double murderer. I checked Miss Hollis she was happily knitting with the bayonet resting impotently on her right knee.
Suddenly all hell broke lose. The inspector rushed towards the young woman and met the waiting bayonet between his ribs. He fell back into the next seat clasping his chest in great discomfort. There he writhed in agony until the train slowed down for its penultimate stop, Eastbury Halt. As the train stopped the young woman walked towards me and stared directly into my smarting eyes. I was shocked as I thought that she couldn’t see me. She spoke,
“You have seen enough. You will also need to be silenced.” The woman picked up the bayonet from Miss Hollis’ knee and thrust it in my direction. I ran to the other end of the carriage but felt something pulling at my coat. I looked down to see the inspector clasping my coat in desperation. In blind panic I prised his fingers from my garment and rolled his dying body into the gap between the seats thereby blocking the main thoroughfare to hasten my escape.
Meanwhile the train started to strain against the 1 in 63 and 1 in 100 gradients into Lambourn station. I ran to the door at the end of the carriage. I opened it but the elderly Miss Hollis blocked the opening. I turned to face the younger Gertrude Hollis my eyes partially blinded by the reflection of the carriage lights on cold steel. The blade lunged wildly at me and all went dark.
I woke with my body laying half in and half out of the carriage. There was a great pain in my chest and I feared the worst. I strained to raise my head and saw the station sign ‘Lambourn’ before passing out.
The ambulance took some twenty minutes to fight its way across the snow filled Lambourn downs. As I lay within its warm confines I overheard the ambulance crew discussing my case over the radio. A voice said,
“He was found on the doorstep of No12 Station Road, Lambourn. He was muttering something about being stabbed by a Miss Hollis on the Lambourn railway line. I think we have another drug overdose on our hands. We will pump his stomach as a matter of routine and we should arrive a St. Margaret’s Hospital in half an hour, snow permitting.”
What were they going on about? I hadn’t taken drugs. I had been attacked and the victim of an historical crime replay. I had no evidence to prove this. I felt tired and exhausted after my ordeal.
“Never mind, my dear. You have a nice rest. I’ll stay with you during the journey. Don’t you worry leave everything to me!”
I opened my eyes to see the elderly Miss Hollis knitting as she sat on the opposite stretcher, the bayonet resting on her knee. I screamed in protestation and felt a sharp needle pierce my arm offering sedation. I saw her face fade before my eyes and then, finally, the reflection of my own terrified face in the cold steel blade.
©2002 Tim Callaway – all rights reserved