As a railway modeller, I spend a good deal of time studying photos. Many are in published history books, so my only source is a photo someone took in the 1940s or 1950s. If I’m lucky, someone else may have taken images at a similar place, so I can begin to build a picture of what it is I’m attempting to reconstruct.
Change is inevitable. Familiar places change, almost imperceptibly, over many years. Someone familiar with their home town as a child – like me, for example – but who has lived away for several decades, finds the old landmarks gone, and the familiar become strange and alien.
We’re currently working on creating a scale model of Wolverton Station as it was in about 1960. We want to make it as accurate as we can, so we’ve spent ages poring over photos of the period between 1955 and 1960. We’ve found gaps in our knowledge, we’ve acquired plans and maps, and generally we’re having a fine old time researching for the model. Older images often yield vital clues, too.
We also have photos taken in the 1980s and 1990s of the area. Best Beloved lived in the area in his formative years, and you’d think he would have reasonably clear recollections of the station since he used it frequently. However, memory is fallible, as we’ve discovered. Facts that are quite clear to Best Beloved turn out to be wrong when you’re on the ground – much to his surprise, it has to be said.
While the Wolverton we’re recreating is no longer there, there’s enough of the basic infrastructure and surrounding ground to help us complete our picture. We paid a swift visit to Wolverton a short while ago, and spent a few hours walking around the Grand Union Canal, and around other parts which haven’t changed significantly in five decades. It was great fun, and educational, because I now have a much better idea of where things are – or were – in relation to each other.
Even in a short space of time, however, Wolverton Station changed beyond recognition. In the 1980s, the station building on the road bridge was still intact.
A short time after that photo was taken, the building had been demolished.
And today, you’d never even know it might have been there.
Happily, because we’d been able to take images of the area over the period during which the station was demolished, we have been able to fill in gaps that other sources have left. It’s pretty likely that many of the residents of the Wolverton area would have been unaware of such changes over the time, because it happens so slowly. I do believe that if we had been living in the area, we would have been able to fill many of the gaps in our knowledge, and to provide a fuller history of the area for future generations.
(Ironically, the demolition of the station building yielded useful information about the structure that supported it, information we may never have been able to spot if the building had still remained intact.)
This very morning, I was studying a photo taken in 1962. A week before I had been standing on the very spot the photographer had used. I’d studied the photo before, but only this morning had I noted an important fact. Looking across the Grand Union Canal to the railway, in 1962 there was no towpath on the opposite bank. Today, there is a towpath – in fact, it’s even marked clearly on the 1938 Ordnance Survey map! Yet, in 1962, not far on from the period we’re trying to research and recreate in a model, that towpath is quite obviously not there. This has also raised tangential questions about how the path crossed the canal at two places with no obvious remains or record of bridges…
I lived and worked in Maidstone for a period in the late 1980s. At that time, there were still vestiges of an industrial heritage in the town. The gasworks, while disused, was still there. A large sweet factory still worked in the town, and there were still the remains of paper mills and so on along the river. That’s all gone now. Large DIY outlets and shopping centres have sprung up, and anyone under the age of 20 will never even be aware that such features existed before they were born.
Another example: I live close to the M2. It was built in the early 1960s as a four-lane dual carriageway. It was slow, winding its way laboriously up the Nashenden valley. Over a period of five or more years, the entire motorway was rebuilt. It’s now eight-lane dual carriageway, with sweeping junctions and new viaducts across the Medway valley. I can’t even remember how the original junctions worked, yet I drove around them countless times in the past.
Which is kind of my point in this Sunday morning ramble. It’s easy to poke fun at people who take an interest in their locality, who note change, or record it by camera. However, without such people recording the ordinary, mundane story of our environment, great chunks of shared history would be missing. We would quite happily have modelled a towpath alongside the Grand Union Canal at Wolverton, but for the fact I noticed something different in a photograph of somewhere that has changed almost out of recognition in the past 50 years.