Last Train to Cowes - Memory

by Matt Triewly

On the day that the last passenger train ran to Cowes, Sunday 20th February 1966 my mother took me to Ventnor - bloody typical! To be fair to her she didn't know, and neither did I. I would have been eight years old at the time.

I used to love the steam trains then, and I still do though my passion has cooled slightly over the decades.

It used to be a great treat for me to be taken on the trains back then and when I got back home I would set up my Lone Star toy trains on the welsh dresser in the kitchen and run them up and down the die cast metal tracks making steam engines sounds - a real little 'anorak'!

I was also fascinated by closed down stations too. One day my grandfather took me out to have a look round the old station at Bembridge.

It was great fun scrabbling around the unused platforms and overgrown track-beds with the rails now lifted. I also climbed up the rotting wooden steps to the signal box despite my grandfather's concern for me falling through them and I think it was then that I became to drawn to the haunting beauty of desolation and dereliction - I still am.

Whenever I played toy trains I would often recreate the real world of railways by 'closing down' my lines. I loved the idea of 'last trains', rusting tracks, and undergrowth encroaching upon the permanent way, buildings crumbling. It was like a person dying and then morbidly watching them as they slowly decayed till only the bones were left. What would Freud have made of my obsession?

On April 17th the last train ran on the section between Shanklin and Ventnor - the intermediate station at Wroxall also succumbing to the Beeching axe. All that was left of the original 55 miles of railway on the Island was the eight and half mile section between Ryde Pier Head and Shanklin.

On the 31st December 1966 steam operation came to an end - I was nine years old and I cried. The rail service was suspended for three months whilst the line was electrified.

On the 20th March 1967 'new' forty year old electric trains - time expired London tube stock from the Central, Piccadily and Northern lines - recommenced the service.

Shortly after my grandfather took me for a ride on one to Brading and back - he was too tight to pay for the whole journey to Shanklin I thought ungratefully at the time. A year later my grandfather died.

There was a scheme from a company (Vectrail) to reopen the line between Newport and Cowes using railcars but they were thwarted by innumerable obstacles and eventually gave up - a shame as many believed it would have been profitable.

There were also rumours that the Ventnor section would be restored. But it too was just a rumour.

In the meantime the recently closed lines began to fall into disrepair and I would nag my mother to take me to the old stations so I could wallow in nostalgia.

At this time the Wight Locomotive Society was formed with the intention of preserving a working steam train and in 1971 they purchased the section between Havenstreet and Wootton.

On Sunday 24th January 1971 the society moved all their rolling stock from Newport due to work commencing next day on lifting the track. And my mother and I were there to watch this historic event. Much to my delight a former patient of my mother's, and a member of the society, smuggled me aboard so that I was on one of the last trains to run out of Newport - I was well chuffed!

Nearly four decades on and the Isle of Wight Steam Railway has gone from strength to strength - now running trains from the old junction at Smallbrook to Wootton most days during the summer season.

The electric line between Ryde and Shanklin is still running - now with 1938 Underground stock - with two extra stations: Smallbrook Junction and Lake.

I do wonder how much longer we will have trains on the Island - one relies upon subsidies, the other, donations.

Interestingly enough the electric trains are only about three to four minutes quicker than the old steam trains between Ryde and Shanklin. The journey times between Ryde and Ventnor and Ryde and Cowes were just under forty minutes - quicker than the bus now, and quicker than travelling by car during rush hours or road works. Progress eh?

Halcyon days...

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