We all know that traveling broadens your horizons, but did you know that it can also narrow them right down, make you focus on past memories and lead you to relive them. Or at least try.
Like many English teenagers, I was in love with actress Jenny Agutter and would have given my right whatsit just to touch the hem of her Edwardian dress as she saved the day in the movie The Railway Children.
Touching Jenny’s frock and what was hidden beneath was never going to happen, only in my dreams, but I could explore The Keighley and Worth Valley Railway where the movie was filmed. The branch line was part of the endless summers of my childhood, and for a kid growing up in the ’50s steam trains were part of everyday life.
British Railways operated the last scheduled passenger train on the Worth Valley line on Saturday 30 December 1961 and I remember my mum taking us on Sunday picnics to Haworth and Oxenhope – and stations in between – when the line was still a fully functioning part of the main railway network.
Fast-forward to our recent visit to Keighley, our train ride, and our hike along the Railway Children Walk. Secretly, I hoped Jenny had chosen the same day to dabble in a bit of nostalgia, but my search of the train left me flat. In her honor, I had asked my wife to wear her Edwardian frock but she refused, and it looked awful on me (only kidding).
The train chugged out of Keighley on the slow climb towards Oxenhope. Smoked belched, steam hissed, carriages swayed (rather alarmingly, I thought) and the wheels made that lovely clickety-clack sound.
The narrow banks of the River Worth, which the railway follows, are lined with old mills, a testament to Yorkshire’s thriving industrial past. Many of the mills are derelict, which is rather surprising given the housing crisis facing England. But to hell with politics and deep thinking we were pulling in to Oxenhope station, as pretty as a picture on this warm, late summer day, and there was Jenny waiting with a wet kiss and up for a bit of bodice ripping as I stepped off the train.
A poke in the back burst my bubble and we were on our way, following the rustic signposts along the Railway Children Walk.
From Oxenhope station, the walk briefly follows the road, crosses the fledgling river and leads up through farm fields replete with doe-eyed cows. A short hike on a country lane, followed by a cowpat-dodging skip across a farm yard and we are in open meadows where the beautiful Yorkshire countryside unfolds to infinity. In Yorkshires industrial heyday, the hills and valleys were wreathed in smog from hundreds of mill and factory chimneys burning hundreds of tons of coal a day. These emissions spread a deadly pall across the countryside, poisoning the lungs of the workers, many of whom were children already suffering from TB.
Today the air was crystal clear and the high meadows like those featured in the Sound of Music.
“Go on,” I encouraged my wife, “do your Julie Andrews impression and I’ll take your picture for Facebook.” That received a more forceful response than my request for the Edwardian dress and, to add to the injury, my yodeling of ‘The Hills are Alive’ followed by an arm-flapping run through the grass got us chased out of the field by a herd of angry cows. They obviously didn’t like the musical, either.
About half a mile further on, the path meandered down the side of the famous Haworth churchyard and we were up to our frockcoats in Brontë country. Time to invoke Heathcliff with a quick burst of Kate Bush, but again no such luck only a terse refusal before I’d spit out the whole request. That’s one of the problems of being married for such a long time … your wife knows what you are thinking before you do!
Music and Heathcliffless we tumbled down the church steps onto Haworth’s cobbled Main Street and the tourist circus it has become.
For all its crassness, Haworth, with its out of place shop signs and tourist trinkets, the village that played home to the literary geniuses the Brontë sisters and their wayward brother Branwell, is still not to be missed.
From the church, it’s downhill all the way to the railway station and the train back to Keighley.
For more information about the Worth Valley Heritage Railway, visit: http://kwvr.co.uk/
Find out about the Brontës here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bront%C3%AB_family
And The Railway Children here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Railway_Children_(1970_film)