Great railway journeys of the past

Birmingham–Stafford via Cannock Chase with John Russell.

I always had a feeling that six decades ago there was an anonymous Villa supporter working in the offices of British Railways in Birmingham. There can be no other explanation as to why there always seemed to be an excursion train laid on for Villa supporters to travel to away matches where there was rarely one for Blues fans. The explanation may have something to do with the fact that few Blues were supporters bothered with going to see their team playing away whilst there was always a goodly number of claret and blue-scarfed addicts.

There were maybe up to 250 of us, although famously 64 once occupied an eleven-coach train to Burnley and two of those were an elderly couple merely using the train to visit relatives in the town. Back at the start of the misnamed Swinging Sixties there were eight Lancashire teams in the first division so the clerk at British Rail must have had a fairly easy job arranging the timings of the almost regular excursion. We were also treated to special trains into Yorkshire and elsewhere but trips to London (five clubs) and the north-east usually involved only excursion fares on normal service trains.

I digress. Every midweek I used to trot along to New Street Station during my lunch hour to pick up the handbill for the latest outing. Come match day I always left home precisely one hour before the scheduled train departure time, this after signalling to my mom that I was leaving the house by the playing of a well worn 45 (remember those?) of trumpeter Sidney Bechet blasting out the Battle Hymn of the Republic. This tune somehow came to be something of a personal anthem in part my answer to Robert Dennis Blanchflower and the Glory, Glory of Tottenham Hotspur fans, who were then carrying all before them. Ignoring the main ticket lines at the station I always used to buy my ticket at the anonymous ticket office beside the Queens Drive, if only to give the clerk there something to do.

Excursion trains to the north used to start from Northfield so there were always a handful of Villa supporters already aboard when it came in. Except for FA cup days there were never going to be enough of us to fill a train so there was no rush to get aboard. Besides, everyone knew that I would be in the eleventh coach at the back.

The reason for this was that on Friday nights I would call in at Buckley’s newsagents on Witton Square to pick up a supply of reserve team programmes for that afternoon’s game at Villa Park. Whereupon my regular clients would know exactly where to come to get their programme from me at cost price.

Four of us would then settle down to play a rather strange card game which we had invented, and for which I can no longer recall the convoluted rules. Unlike in other carriages taking part was the thing; no money changed hands. We who were four or five later constituted the Manor Park Football Club which went on to win a cup at St Andrews but only because Villa Park was not available due to the World Cup.

The train would then set off via the Walsall line usually stopping at Aston, Witton and Perry Barr. Odd really that I could so easily have boarded at Witton but I never trusted the system all that much, not only because trains were often not scheduled to pass through Witton on the return journey because the platform was not long enough (there were rules even back then). Invariably I would leave the train at Perry Barr.

At Witton I hear about George Kynoch and the supply of munitions to the military. At Bescot we would take a right turn to pass through Walsall but seldom if ever stopping to gain what was then single track line towards Rugeley Perhaps our booking clerk had an aversion to our stopping at what was then enemy territory even though every Villa supporter was supposed to ‘love the Saddlers’. But nobody in Walsall would admit to supporting the Villa. Note the use of the definite article. We have always been THE Villa, not just plain Villa.

Nevertheless, at Walsall I got to hear about the humour of their favourite son, Jerome K. Jerome and his famous whimsical story of Three Men in A Boat. Back on the train I do seem to recall that on one occasion, joy of joys we went out via Castle Bromwich and the Sutton Park line. There always seemed to be something adventurous in crossing the wilds of Cannock Chase on a train before we reached the West Coast main line beyond Rugeley Power Station. Few passenger trains met this junction and it invariably involved waiting for right of way.

For the trainspotters aboard the football excursion train this meant the thrill of supplementing their other hobby by seeing a Jubilee or a ‘semi’ roar by although it has to be said that generally speaking train spotters were expected to ‘retire’ on leaving school. It was viewed as something of a hobby of childhood.

Regaining the main line our train was now expected to put on some speed except I take time out at the false tunnel at Shugborough and hear about George Anson, who in 1740 set out to circumnavigate the world with six ships and 1,900 men. Despite the loss of six of the ships and 1,400 men through scurvy and malnutrition he returned a hero. That puts him third on the podium of national maritime heroes, behind Nelson and Drake

After which you could almost guarantee that Stafford would be reached precisely sixty minutes after leaving New Street. The journey time today is rather less but then today’s passengers do not get the joy of seeing the wild life and the changing colours of the leaves on the trees of Cannock Chase.