Hands up if you’ve seen ‘Brief Encounter‘? There may be quite a few who have, as the classic film is de rigeur on a wet Sunday afternoon. It’s based on a one act play by Noel Coward and stars Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as the protagonists whose doomed love affair is played out mostly in the refreshment room of Milford Junction railway station.
What’s that, you cry? A refreshment room? Yes, back in the day railway refreshments weren’t dispensed by some footsore peddler, towing a teetering trolley up and down the narrow aisle of the train, like Sysiphus and his boulder. There was no sign of overpriced franchised coffee and sweating mystery-meat sandwiches pleading to be taken from the chiller. Before Beeching’s infamous ‘Reshaping of British Railways’, stations had heated waiting rooms, serviced toilets and somewhere to have tea, served in a china cup and saucer by – in Noel Coward’s world – an efficient but chirpy canteentrix.
Of course, those days have all but gone. Or have they?
In order to stave off the inevitable thickening of the waist that all of their eating out could bring, Matt and Cat like to go cycling. As anyone who has saddled up on the Isle of Wight will know, this is generally a pretty aerobic exercise as, sooner or later, you will encounter a hill. However, M&C have devised a route for the indolent cyclist which involves a tiny climb then a long freewheel downhill from Tesco all the way to Brading Station. At Brading they then put their bicycles on the train and get a lift back to Ryde.
The approach to Brading by train from either Shanklin or Ryde takes you through some of the east Wight’s delightful countryside; woods, agricultural land and the occasional glimpse of the sea. As cyclists, Matt and Cat are compelled to approach Brading Station down the appropriately-named Station Road, before arriving at the eponymous terminus. And one day, while out on their ride, M&C decided not to hop straight on the train but to check out the facilities.
The award-winning station is not just part of a working railway, but also a tourist attraction in its own right; run by the town council and volunteers from the Friends of Brading Station. Enthusiasm for the place is palpable. A little tea room area welcomes the visitor, and another room well-stocked with railway cruft is available for the enthusiast – indeed, this is starting to encroach somewhat on the cutely chintzy little tea room. Whilst Matt and Cat were there one of the volunteers was fixing shelves across the window to allow the display of even more DVDs of steam trains and books by local enthusiasts – ironically obscuring the view of actual passing trains.
There were two assistants in the station, both eager to accommodate their new customers, and once Cat had placed the order at an authentic antiquated hatch it wasn’t long before M&C were sat at one of the little tables with a pot of coffee each. For Cat there was a slice of fruit loaf, plus bread pudding for Matthew. Cat spread butter on her cake as a train trundled to a halt outside. It really did feel like being in a station refreshment room from another era. It was a particularly hot day, so the door to the platform was open and the bustle of the passengers made an interesting diversion. But attention was soon turned back to the deliciously-moist home-made cakes.
Another couple entered the visitor centre and, as in 1940’s England, Matt and Cat soon struck up a conversation with the holiday-makers. Before long, the ‘Station Master’, who had been waiting patiently for the chitchat to subside, invited the four of them to have a tour of the signal box. Never one to miss the opportunity for a nose around, Matt and Cat greeted the proposition with enthusiasm and spent a pleasant half hour or so with their new companions pulling levers and examining archive photos in the station’s decommissioned nerve centre.
Coffee 2 @ £1.20
Cake 2 @ £1.50
Having had such a friendly welcome, replenishing refreshments and time to let their hearts recover from the bike ride, Matt and Cat finally wheeled their cycles onto the train and bade farewell to Brading Station. Of course there was no steam engine, or Noel Coward-voiced station announcements and no-one waved them off simmering with repressed emotion. However, with the china mugs, tea cake and chatty service the ‘refreshment room’ at Brading Station is far removed from the modern railway travellers’ more typical experience of a cardboard beaker of blistering coffee and a shrink-wrapped bendy cookie.
Romantic films come in a broad spectrum. For every one of Brief Encounter’s lingering and meaningful glances, there is a ‘gross out’ teen sex movie. For every apple pie served at Milford Junction’s refreshment room there is an alternative pie having an altogether more visceral fate at the hands of a susceptible virgin. Similarly, station refreshments range from the franchised and tasteless, or in the case of Brading Station, in a slow-release cafetiére, with milk poured from a jug into a china mug. For persistent romantics Matt and Cat, their afternoon at the station was a perfect way to experience a slower pace of life. Which is why we’re all here, isn’t it?
You can put your hands down now.