For my wife, who deserves so much better than this little story.
It was Christmas Eve and the large heavy flakes of snow were drifting lazily through the frigid afternoon air.
Inside the church it had been cold and dark, the only light dispelling the gloom had come from the candles around the bier. The service had been brief and Harry had given a short eulogy. In it he had spoken of a life gone but not forgotten but most of all how much his grandfather would be missed. After the service his grandfather had been taken to the family crypt and the small congregation had left the church to go their separate ways.
Harry was the last to leave the church with the stale mix of beeswax and incense still clinging to him. He decided not to take the car that was waiting for him and in spite of the rapidly increasing snow fall Harry opened his umbrella and started walking towards Winterby Hall.
As Harry approached Winterby Hall he realised how it was hard to think of himself as the last of the Winterby’s and what was once his grandfather’s home was now his.
He opened the front door and as he stepped inside he felt the heat and noise of a busy house surround him. His grandfather’s and now his butler, Woodford, silently appeared and took his coat and umbrella from him and said, “Good afternoon sir, I’ve lit a fire in the study and I have left an envelope on your desk.”
Harry was about to ask, ‘what envelope?’ but as silently as he had arrived Woodford had disappeared, so, he turned and walked through the house to the study.
He had always felt that the title of the ‘The Study’ was something of an understatement for a room that had clearly been intended, when the house was built, as a small ballroom and then at some later point had been converted into a spacious library and finally a study.
Two sides of the large oblong room, forming an L shape, were lined from floor to ceiling with mahogany shelving; each shelf was filled past capacity with books, journals, periodicals and notebooks. The third wall was another long wall interspersed with sets of French windows at regular intervals that opened out onto the gardens; and the final side of the room was dominated by a large stone fireplace. The fireplace was surrounded by overstuffed armchairs and a single sofa big enough to seat six people; and throughout the remainder of the room was scattered a random assortment of chairs, tables, library steps and a large lectern.
In the middle of this was an island formed by a very large and very ancient Persian carpet and on it sat a blackened oak desk and leather chair.
The desk was uncluttered as always with only a blotter, notebook, fountain pen, pencil and lamp on it. Visible in the pool of light cast by the lamp was the envelope Woodford had alluded to.
Harry walked across the study to the desk, sat down and picked up the envelope. It was addressed to him and when he turned it over to open it he saw a wax seal; as he looked he realised the imprint in the wax had been made with the old seal his family had been using for generations.
It made him smile at to see his grandfather’s love of tradition and when he broke the seal and tipped the envelope, the contents slid onto the desk; all it contained was another smaller sealed envelope and a black leather-bound journal.
Harry picked up the small envelope; the wax seal on this envelope was brittle with age and crumbled easily as Harry opened the envelope, scattering dark red dust onto the desk; he withdrew from it a single sheet of paper, unfolded it and started to read.
I have left you this journal because it contains an untold part of our family’s history; I urge you to read it and believe what is written and if you find that you cannot, then go and see for yourself.
Your loving grandfather
The brevity and vagueness of the letter puzzled Harry, as he had always known his grandfather to be a man of precision and detail who’s letters were not normally as brief as this.
So, doing as he was bid he picked up the journal and turned it over to find the Winterby family seal embossed on the front cover. The binding was worn with age and use and as he flicked through the pages it appeared to him to be nothing more than a commonplace notebook; until he found a page that had been bookmarked with a small slip of paper. Opening the journal properly he saw that the bookmarked entry was addressed to him in his grandfather’s handwriting.
What you are about to read started as a conversation between me and my grandfather. I have done my utmost recall all of the details as accurately as I can, and I’ve added what little information I have been able to gather from the family archives and from my own experiences.
The story starts sometime around 1845 when my great-grandfather met George Stephenson. My great–grandfather spent his whole life being enthralled by engineering and how it could be used to change the world. So, when he had the opportunity to meet one of his heroes he was determined to seize it with both hands and not to waste a moment of it.
They met somewhere in London and talked at great length about how they both saw the future of the railway and the benefits an extensive system would bring to the country. The prospects for travel as a leisure activity and how willing entrepreneurs would be able to profit from it; but Stephenson added the caveat that he believed that anyone considering making an investment should seriously consider the scale of the undertaking and the fact that this would be a long-term project.
Shortly after the meeting with Stephenson my great-grandfather got married and all I was able to find was a small sheaf of papers covered in notes and a few sketches which outlined his ideas for a station and other buildings.
Then in early 1860 he started to buy plots of land and obtaining plans from architects and engineering firms; and from the dates on the letters and plans it is clear that he’d spent the next ten years searching for the building designs and railway route he was happy with.
It was at this point my grandfather was able to take up the story, he said that he remembered Winterby as a quiet country village where one year followed another and only the occasional visitor would come to spend the summer.
In 1880 all this began to change as my great-grandfather started to develop and redevelop large parts of the village, laying the foundations for the railway station and its route.
When he died my grandfather took up the project and completed the transformation of the village; and in 1905, despite still having no track, he employed his first Station Master, Edward Harrison. He tasked him with completing the project to bring the railway to Winterby. And Edward spent the following five years managing the construction of the railway to and through Winterby.
Fifty years might sound like a long time to spend building a railway route but what you have to remember is, at the time, Winterby was a small village in the south of the Cotswolds with one road in and one road out which in the winter could easily become impassable for weeks at a time. That combined with my great-grandfathers passion for architecture meant he never hurried a building project. Anything he built had to be right or it didn’t get built, and my grandfather was of the same opinion.
Combine this with the fact that Winterby is in a valley and getting the rail tracks here meant building and rebuilding a number of bridges, digging a tunnel and making several adjustments to the route. None of which was easy in those days when you consider everything had to be moved by horse and cart and bridges for railways were often far from roads.
Winterby Halt finally opened in the spring of 1910 and in the beginning it saw only a few trains each day passing through on their way to Bath, but by the end of that summer Winterby Halt had started to become an established station, with a steady stream of visitors who turned Winterby from a quiet country village into a destination in its own right.
Then, as I read some of the letters sent by visitors and some of the old newspapers it became clear that people who had come as visitors had decided they wanted to stay and started to buy and build property and raise their families in Winterby. There are a number of reports, in the newspapers, of property prices rising, the school being expanded and how businesses had grown. Interviews with people moving to Winterby showed that even if they left the village for work or other reasons they always came back, eventually.
It was some time during the first two years that the train started to come and the story about it started.
It was at the end of December 1912 when Edward raised the subject of the late train on Christmas Eve with my grandfather. He said that for the last two consecutive years he had heard a train arrive at the station at midnight on Christmas Eve; the first time he dismissed it as either a late running train or one that had been diverted via Winterby Halt.
However, after the second time, which he thought was too much of a coincidence, he decided to make enquiries with the train companies using routes that passed through Winterby Halt.
He had done this within a couple of days (the telegram is dated 28th December 1912) and received an immediate reply that confirmed that the last train passing through Winterby Halt should arrive no later than eight pm and that there were no late trains scheduled after this nor had any been diverted through Winterby Halt. Edward also said that he had been hearing stories about a ghost train and whilst he did not believe such nonsense himself he was concerned that this type of idle gossip could affect Winterby’s reputation.
My grandfather who was an old friend of the owner of one of the railway companies discussed the subject with him when they met the following spring. His friend said that whilst he could think of no late-night services on that route he would investigate the matter and write to him.
Around a month later, in June 1913, my grandfather received a reply saying that his friend had thoroughly investigated the matter and was very puzzled as there was no scheduled service due to stop at Winterby Halt at that time; and he had also made enquiries of other company owners none of whom had any services running at that time of night and no one knew of any that could have been delayed and re-routed via Winterby Halt.
Having no better ideas, he suggested that my grandfather and his Station Master meet the train the next time it arrived and ask the Guard what business brought the train to the station at that hour.
So, on the following Christmas Eve Edward and my grandfather met at the Ticket Office at five minutes to midnight and walked onto the platform and waited. Midnight came and went and no train arrived. As something of a joke my grandfather suggested that as he, personally, found the Vicars midnight sermon more than a little dull on a good year they should do this again the following year.
They met again the next year and this time with mugs of hot tea in their frozen hands and waited and still no train arrived and again they agreed to wait the next year.
Years past and every Christmas Eve they met on the station platform to wait for a train neither thought they would ever see; till they were just two old men standing in the snow on a station platform wishing each other the compliments of the season and laughing about how curiosity had become tradition.
Then one year, whilst standing in the snow discussing the events of the day, they heard the distant whistle of a train. They both turned their heads and peered up the track to see a light approaching and then within moments the train had pulled silently into the station.
Other than this he did not tell me anymore, and neither to the best of my knowledge did he tell anyone else, his story stopped with the moment the train arrived.
Both he and Edward retired shortly thereafter, and both were succeeded by their sons; and this is where my part of the story starts.
I was away at school when it happened, I was called to the Headmasters study to find my father waiting for me; he told me that my grandfather had died, and I would be returning home with him, for the funeral.
The day of the funeral came, and it was a dark bitterly cold day in February one of those days when the ground is as hard as iron, and the snow stings your face like shards of glass.
As we walked across the frozen churchyard I remember looking up at the sky and thinking how dark it was. Then we entered the church for the funeral service and after this we made our way to the crypt. It’s an awful place, every one of our ancestors lies there right back to the first Winterby, and I felt a tremendous sense of loss as we consigned my grandfather to that place.
After the funeral I sat with Edward and talked to him about my grandfather and how he was finding his retirement and whom he would wait with for the train now my grandfather was gone.
Edward was a little vague with me, at first, until I told him I already knew the story, that being fifteen my grandfather had considered me man enough to hear it the previous Christmas. Unlike my father I shared his love of trains and he had told me that he felt it was an important part of our family history and I should know it was more than just a story and that he and Edward had met the train.
I asked him more questions about the train but he said I should see for myself; so, I asked Edward if I could accompany him the next Christmas Eve. He agreed but died suddenly a few weeks later and I visited his grave with my father when I returned from school at Easter. My father had paid for a good headstone, as he said, it was only fitting after so many years of friendship with my grandfather that the family should show its respect.
It took me most of that holiday to summon up the courage to ask my father if he had seen the train, he said not and refused to discuss the matter past that point and then I told him of the conversation with my grandfather the previous Christmas and how he had said I should see for myself.
His answer was that “if you really must, then you must” but he added the caveat that he thought it best if I was really that fascinated by trains that I should work for the Station Master during my school holidays. He said ‘Henry, it will give you a proper understanding of that part of our business, from the ground up so to speak’. He agreed to speak to James, the new Station Master, and would arrange this in time for my return for the summer holidays. In reality I think he thought it would keep me occupied and give me something useful to do.
That summer I earned my wages doing all the little jobs that James could find for me. James like his father was a quiet man who had married when he was home on leave in 1943 and now two years later he and his wife were expecting their first child early in the new year. I asked what would happen if the baby came early, who would meet the train on Christmas Eve.
“We will”, he replied, “My father made me swear that whatever happened I would always be there to meet the train.”
On Christmas Eve, just as my grandfather had done for all those years, at eleven thirty sharp, I set to meet James at the station and I arrived just before midnight. He passed me a mug of hot tea and we walked through the snow to the platform and stood under the lamp nearest the Waiting Room.
I remember it was so quiet and still, we were wrapped in the strange silence that descends upon the world when it is snowing; it was as if we were the only people abroad in a world gone into hibernation.
We stood side-by-side drinking our tea and staring into the distance waiting for the train and wondering if it would arrive; then I heard a faint whistle and looking up the track I could just make out a light through the falling snow.
I was about to tell James when I realised he had already seen and heard what I had; and following his gaze I realised he was not looking at the approaching train but at two old men who had stepped out onto the platform. They were vague and indistinct figures that glittered with frost as if they had been standing still all day and only just decided to move.
Then suddenly and noiselessly the train was upon us; a huge black steam train with smoke belching from its funnel and yet not a single hint of heat radiated from it, the whole of the engine and the carriages were covered in the same glittering frost as the two old men.
James and I stood open-mouthed watching as the Guard slowly stepped onto the platform.
He was very tall, pale and skeletally thin with dark rimmed sunken eyes that glinted like the frost covering the train.
His uniform was black and bore no company badges or decoration; the only visible accessory was a silver chain crossing the left side of his uniform and disappearing into the breast pocket.
The Guard made absolutely no noise as he stepped from the train, the snow did not crunch under his boots nor did he leave a single footprint as he walked to across the platform to a position where he could see the entire train. He stopped, turned, and looked at us; and we, terrified, just stared at him.
As he spoke the spell was broken; his voice was deep and quiet, he said “Station Master I have four passengers for you and two to collect.”
He then looked towards the train and announced “Winterby Halt”.
Two carriage doors opened, and four people stepped onto the platform and stood looking at their surroundings; like the train and the two old men already on the platform they also glittered with frost and having realised where they were they started to walk towards the exit. The two old men then turned to face us; they waved, I looked at James and saw tears running down his cheeks. As I watched his father and my grandfather boarded the train.
Then the Guard blew his whistle, stepped back onto the train and it started to move, leaving the station and slipping back into the darkness.
I will never know why I did it, but as the train started to move I dashed across the platform and reached for the handle on a carriage door; I pulled it open and climbed aboard.
I looked around the carriage and saw it was full of people all seated and either staring out of the windows or in conversation with their neighbours.
As I moved through the carriage I spotted my grandfather and called to him and as I drew close to him he looked up and said, “Henry you cannot be here”.
Then the Guard appeared behind me and my grandfather looked at me and said, “Henry you must go with him, do not worry about Edward and I we are going to do some travelling but we will be back.”
I turned to face the Guard and he beckoned me to follow him, we walked for what seemed like miles but eventually we arrived in the Guards carriage. Which, to my surprise instead of being filled with luggage and bicycles as I had seen on the trains to school, reminded me of my father’s study. It was warm and comfortable with a desk, a fireplace, bookcases and comfortable chairs. He indicated that I should sit in a chair on one side of the fireplace and he sat opposite me.
After looking at me for what seemed like an eternity he said; “Henry you must never catch this train, this train is only for people who have already started their last journey and you are many years away from that.”
Then he reached into his pocket and produced a smaller version of his whistle and passed it to me, “Carry this with you always and when the time comes, use it; but remember, be certain before you do because you can only ever use it once.”
As he finished speaking he stood and opened the door of his carriage and indicated that I should leave the train, to my amazement we were back at Winterby Halt and James was staring at me in disbelief. The Guard stepped onto the platform and looked again at the passengers who had left the train earlier, turned and peered at James and nodded, blew his whistle and stepped back onto the train and then silently as it had arrived the train departed.
We both turned and walked towards the exit following the passengers as they left the station, we stood side by side as we watched them walk towards the village. It was the strangest thing I had ever seen, as they separated and approached different houses they seemed to grow fainter until they had melted into the night.
We turned and looked at each other and for the want of anything else to say or do shook hands and wished each other a “Merry Christmas”; and then we went our separate ways.
Every year after that, we waited on the platform to see if the train would arrive; some years it did others it didn’t and then it was my turn to leave Winterby.
I had joined the army, finished my training and had been commissioned a second Lieutenant and along with my regiment I was being sent to Korea. They were the worst years of my life, how or why I survived when so many of my men didn’t is beyond me.
During this time, I only returned to Winterby once at Christmas and standing on the platform that year I was in no doubt that the train would come; too many men had died that year and needed to be taken home.
As silently as ever the train arrived, and I watched as the Guard stepped down and announced the stop, the carriage doors opened and I stood silently fearing what I would see as the dead returned home. I wept with relief when I saw the young men of the village step down onto the platform free from the ghastly wounds that had ended their short lives. All of them turned and faced me, smiling at the relief of being home, and saluted me; I returned their salute and watched them as they marched briskly out of the station towards their homes.
After the war I could not face Christmas’s in Winterby and so I took to travelling; mostly in Italy and America.
I was in Italy, Rome to be precise, when I received a telegram telling me that my father’s illness was worsening and that he was asking for me. I packed immediately and took a taxi to the train station and bought a ticket on the last train heading north.
So late on Christmas Eve I found myself standing on a platform in Rome with the snow falling steadily as I waited for my train. I remember looking at my watch and realising it was nearly midnight.
They say old habits die hard and it’s true becuase I found myself staring into the distance looking for the familiar light. Then I heard the faint noise of a distant train whistle and I bent forward to pick up my case. I stood up I found myself staring into the pale glittering eyes of the Guard and behind him covered with frost was the train. He stared at me briefly and beckoned me to follow him; he opened the door indicating that I should step into the Guards carriage and then turned and walked back down the platform and the last thing I remember as I settled into one of the armchairs in front of the fire was hearing him announce Rome.
We arrived in Winterby that same night and my father lingered ‘til the church bells had announced the arrival of the New Year; and then he slipped quietly into death. The following Christmas Eve I waited at the station with James and as the snow started to fall we watched the train arrive belching smoke and glittering in the platform lights. Then I saw my father step out onto the platform, he turned briefly, smiled at me and then climbed aboard the train and the Guard looked at me, nodded, and we were alone again on the platform.
Every year since then I have waited for the train, first with James and then with his son Charlie, some years it comes others it does not, but I have always waited.
Your father waited with me some years but more often than not he was away. It was the Christmas Eve after he died, and you were fifteen, when I walked through the snow to the station and Charlie and I stood on the platform waiting to hear the faint whistle of a train approaching.
As we heard the whistle the train appeared before us glittering with ice and snow, belching smoke and steam.
The Guard stepped onto the platform and as he turned to face the train he looked at me and pointed, I looked down the platform to where he indicated.
Through the snow I saw your father as he stepped onto the platform and I watched as he walked towards me, soundless, pale beyond measure. He stopped and looked at the Guard who nodded his ascent and then faced me with tears streaming down his face and said, “I’m home Dad” and then passed between me and Charlie and gently faded into the night as he left the station. The Guard looked at Charlie and said, “Two more for you Station Master.”
We looked and further down the platform two very old men were descending from the train, apparently deep in conversation. They turned and smiled at the Guard tipping their hats they walked through the exit and disappeared into the snow.
After that I could never again face waiting on the platform, the look in your father’s eyes will haunt me ‘til the day I die; I am only grateful that I got to see him one more time.
And this is where my part of the story ends.
Harry, if you are reading this at my desk look in the top drawer, to your right, and in it you will find a small black leather box; it contains the whistle the Guard gave me, keep it with you always.
Now it is up to you if you want to continue this tradition; but just like the station it is part of your inheritance. Whether you go or not the train will still come to bring the dead home and the Station Master will be there waiting for them.
As ever, your loving grandfather.
Harry looked up and realised that it was late, the house had grown quiet; the fire had burnt low and looking through the French windows he could see the snow was still falling.
He closed the journal and placed it on the desk, stood up, put the whistle in his pocket and walked through the house, collecting his overcoat as he went; he stepped out into the cold night air and started to walk towards the Winterby Halt.