Trainspotting is derided as a hobby, but the National Railway Museum is determined to rehabilitate its reputation, as Alice Lavelle found out
Trainspotting runs at the National Railway Museum until March 1, 2015 – more details on the NRM website
“We’ve not tackled anything quite like this before,” is the first thing Amy Banks says when asked about the National Railway Museum’s brand new project.
“It was quite a controversial subject that we realised we needed to talk about. We wanted to get across a sense of travel and adventure. That desire to record and document what’s happened”.
Trainspotting is one of those hobbies you just don’t admit to. It brings to mind images of the friendless, bookish boy with a notebook and pencil studiously documenting every locomotive.
But exhibitions manager Amy says that trainspotting transcends such narrow stereotypes. It could be quite a devilish pastime – with a dash of illegality thrown in.
Children from as early as the 1940s used to sneak out and catch trains all over the country. They would take a packed lunch and a notebook and be gone for days. “There was a sense of purpose to go out and do something,” she said.
There was something called “shed bashing” where spotters would sneak into an out-of-bounds train shed and document all the locos inside.
More daring still was “shed bunking”, the distinctly illegal version which involved breaking in at night.
Spotters on film
Video artist Andrew Cross and NRM exhibition manager Amy Banks, and a still from Andrew’s film. Click to see a bigger image
Artist Andrew Cross was chosen by the NRM to reflect on the theme of trainspotters via a video installation.
A “lapsed” trainspotter himself, he is keen to challenge the idea that spotters were conformist mummy’s boys.
“I see trainspotting as one of the last remaining stances against the normal you can take,” he said.
“At a posh dinner party you can confess to all manner of things and no one will turn a hair, but if you were to say you like trains you can see a palpable disquiet among your fellow guests who may not understand your motivation.”
Trainspotters, he says, “are not influenced by fashion or social expectation. I think many people are envious of that”.
From being a 10-year-old schoolboy in the Seventies to the present day Andrew Cross has taken photos and videos of everything from trains, to landscapes to festivals.
He was selected from 120 different artists to go ahead and film his installation Parallel Lines – which depicts trains and waiting for trains in different parts of the world, including Switzerland and America.
To him trainspotting, is like waiting for a band to play at a festival. Festival goers arrive hours early to see their favourite band, just as spotters hang around for one specific engine to pass by.
Amy says she and her colleagues sat and watched all 100 minutes of his video installation without a break, because they found it “mesmerising”.
Both the exhibition and film give children a chance to visit the museum over and over again and experience something different every time, says Amy.
They can discover a new Spotter Story, spot one of the museum’s locos and glimpse footage from another world in the Parallel Lines film.
She hopes families will experience something of the adventure and anticipation of trainspotting, one of the most common hobbies for children in the 1950s and 1960s.
There will be a variety of fun activities including Great Hall and Station Hall trails and theatrical performances by street theatre troupe Platform 4.
The project will also tie in with Locos In A Different Light, part of the Illuminating York festival, to “use artistic interpretation to explore the mischief, and drama of travelling the tracks and sneaking around stations and engine sheds”.
Lines on trains
Yorkshire bard Ian MacMillan has written a poem in response to the public’s memories of trainspotting.
Love Me Tender
It’s a late-night moment on a freezing station,
A notebook with one page to fill.
It’s a morning that trembles with anticipation
Of the signal, the whistle, the thrill
Of the number you thought that you’d never get
After days of frustration and weeks of regret.
It’s parents and kids on an endless quest,
A Sunday weighed down by the rain;
It’s the glow of a light rushing down from the West
And that beautiful, beautiful train
You now get the chance to tick off in the book
Through pure dedication and skill and good luck.
It’s a map of the system laid out like a dream
A story of numbers, and tales
Of epic encounters on days wreathed with steam
When the bright sun mined gold from the rails
And you ate your sandwiches on Platform 3
And the big book of engines was light on your knee.
It’s a life filled with moments that ring like a bell,
With elation, the thrill of the chase;
It’s a smile from your dad that says ‘Yes, all is well’
As he matches the grin on your face.
This is a hobby that never will pall.
Tomorrow’s a spotting day. Well, aren’t they all?