Brief Encounter with a wonderful buffet

Martin Newell: Having been around the block enough times to know that most UK travel news is either bad news or else speculation about its worsening in the near future, it's heartening to encounter something which goes some way to restoring your faith in the old place.

Martin Newell

Having been around the block enough times to know that most UK travel news is either bad news or else speculation about its worsening in the near future, it's heartening to encounter something which goes some way to restoring your faith in the old place. On my way home from Ipswich the other day I went to Manningtree Station. The place has spotless platforms, working lavatories, and a genial station manager. It also has a famous station buffet, which, because I have fondly fuzzy memories of it was the reason for my stop. Manningtree is a lovely station anyway. It's partly because of the view. When you stand on the platform, at certain times and in certain lights you may find that what you are actually looking out at, is a Constable painting. On the mild green slopes of the Stour valley the sheep and cattle graze dutifully, the sun casts obliging shadows over the distant poplars and the clouds are moored like great cotton galleons overhead. In fact, apart from the two blokes in tricorn hats idling by a haycart - who are missing- you've nearly got the whole set.

Ah, but that legendary buffet though. It's almost Brief Encounter stuff. For decades now, groups of businessmen and old college mates from different corners of England have met up there for a reunion drink and a bit of grub, taking their respective trains home to London, Norwich, or wherever, afterwards. Was it still the case? I asked the station manager. Yes, he said, they still come. And once a year, a party of schoolteachers at the end of school year arrive. He thought they came from Wivenhoe. They often end up getting quite merry and singing songs, apparently. Only, he added, somewhat poignantly, “ They seem to be getting younger each year.”

I noticed that the Buffet remained much the same - except that the bar, with its old marble counter now ran widthways as opposed to lengthways. Manningtree Buffet keeps pub hours. It serves honest pub grub and snacks, has a couple of rooms down a passage from the small bar, and a clean smoking shelter outside complete with tables.

The man who runs the place, said the station manager, had once applied to run Clacton Station Buffet as well. Negotations with the rail operator though, had been rather protracted and in the end they fell through. A shame, I said. The station manager added that he had worked at Manningtree for years and liked it greatly. The customers were alright and even in times of frustration, if they occasionally shouted, he knew they were really only shouting at the uniform. As if on cue, a well-dressed commuter walked past and greeted him cordially like an old friend.

Regarding the Victorian buildings on the platforms, the station manager conceded that the station had changed 'a bit' since he'd known it. He told a story that a once, few years ago, twenty or so trucks had been parked up in a side road to 'take away the bricks'. He indicated towards the fine station building on the opposite platform with its gable end. But there'd been a stay of execution and finally, the trucks had gone away empty. He thought that the building was probably listed now. Then he went indoors, because Manningtree is known as a cold station when that old wind blows.

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In the midst of a very ordinary working day, it was as if I'd accidentally gone through a time-warp, emerging into polite, post-war world of things which still functioned and people who still talked to each other. With that, I suddenly received a strange insight into the current mindset of the average rail user. It is akin to that of Brief Encounter's yearning heartbroken heroine, played by Celia Johnson: “Heppy?” she asked. “Yes, I suppose I was heppy, once. Not that that anyone's ever perfectly heppy, really. But just to be ordinarily contented.....” And then a hesitant rail operator, played by Trevor Howard, replies awkwardly, “ I wish I could think of something to say.” before getting up and rushing from the table.

It occurred to me that if people such as myself will voluntarily come to Manningtree Station Buffet, just because they like it, the chap - whoever he is, who runs it - could somehow be appointed to run the railway buffets for the whole country. And perhaps the cheerful station manager whom I met could be put in charge of regional staff-training. It might transform the entire experience of train travel. So how do we make that happen?

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