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Anoraks at half-mast

Tom Chesshyre on the death of a train-spotters’ paradise

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

On halloween something shocking happened in rail enthusiast circles that was nothing to do with ghouls or witches. The jolt took place not far from Waterloo Station in London, a couple of minutes’ stroll from the platforms: the last Ian Allan Book & Model Shop shut. You may not have heard of this rail-lover’s institution; it is (or was) undoubtedly a little niche.

But its closure marked a symbolic moment: in the nation that invented trains — the first proper passenger service beginning all that time ago between Manchester and Liverpool in 1830 — a centre of trainspotting was no more. Anoraks around the country were, figuratively speaking, hung at half-mast.

Ian Allan was a clerk at the Southern Railway who in 1942 published a booklet entitled the ABC of Southern Locomotives. This curious little booklet, packed with information on loco names, classes and numbers, allowed those with an interest to tick off those they had sighted, or in train circle-lingo “copped”.

It proved an instant hit — 20,000 copies sold in a few days — and soon Allan, known by some as the “godfather of trainspotters”, was producing all sorts of publications about other British lines. In 1949 he also formed the Ian Allan Locospotters’ Club, with a peak membership of around 250,000. So many of these spotters clutching dog-eared copies of ABC sometimes arrived at stations that police had to be called.

Trainspotting had begun. Allan quit Southern Railway, launched a publishing company and began knocking out Trains Illustrated magazine, Railway Modeller and Hornby Magazine.

Recognising an interest among readers on all matters transport, Buses Illustrated and Vintage Roadscene hit the shelves, too. Shops were to follow in London, opening in 1987, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff. All are now gone as is Allan, who died in 2015 aged 92. His grandson Nick, director of the company Allan founded, is diversifying, believing that younger generations are more interested in iPhones and computer games.

He is, of course, right. The magic of the early days of trainspotting/ rail enthusiasm was born out of the magnificent spectacle of steam trains chugging down the tracks.

When steam locomotives were replaced by diesel engines from the 1960s — the last mainline steam service was in August 1968 — the allure for youngsters dragged along by parents with notebooks and cameras was never quite the same.

It was usually Dad not Mum taking kids along (for reasons that perhaps require a thesis on male-female psychological differences to explain). Or perhaps it is quite simple: trainspotting with its anoraks, tea flasks and drizzly English weather has never exactly been glamorous.

At the marvellous Crewe Heritage Centre, a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of shiny old locos and train paraphernalia at the junction by Crewe Station in Cheshire, I met the manager, Mike Lenz.

He was only too aware of what the decline in rail enthusiasm might mean in the long run, knowing that without youngsters growing up with a love of trains, finding volunteers to restore classic locomotives would become increasingly difficult. “We need those young people again,” he said.

“It’s a tall order, but we do need them so they can come to us and learn how to operate and overhaul steam trains. If they don’t come, they [the old working steam trains] are all going to disappear.” Nick Allan’s concerns seem only too well founded: the average age of customers at the Allan bookshops was more than 50 in the final few years and many were much older.

At the waterloo branch the day before its Halloween closure I got talking to Kevin, a rail enthusiast and model railway hobbyist who had been visiting for 33 years. He was aged 63 and worked as a classical music singer. He seemed, as you might expect, downcast.

“It’s a real loss to the hobby,” he said, holding tight a bag full of Live Rail magazines and various model railway bits and pieces he had just bought.

“It’s wonderful to browse in a bookshop like this with assistants who know what they are talking about. It’s a myth that you can find what you want online. Most of stuff on the internet is garbage. Spend half an hour in here and you suddenly notice something and think: ‘Oh that’s interesting.’ You don’t get that online.”

The shelves at the shop were almost bare. Like locusts, enthusiasts had descended when the closing sale was announced. Just a few odd publications of Modelling French Railways and The London Railway Record remained.

I returned empty-handed to Waterloo to catch the train home to Mortlake. At the end of platform five at Clapham Junction? Two teenage trainspotters (boys) with cameras ready. Perhaps it’s not all over quite yet.

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