The Stuffed Giraffe and other rail tales

The railway brought him to Manningtree and now he's honouring the station and the people who have given it life and colour. David Cleveland tells Steven Russell about his new bookALL human life might pass before you if you linger long enough at a railway station, but, even so, you'd do well to clap eyes on a fleeing nun.

Steven Russell

The railway brought him to Manningtree and now he's honouring the station and the people who have given it life and colour. David Cleveland tells Steven Russell about his new book

ALL human life might pass before you if you linger long enough at a railway station, but, even so, you'd do well to clap eyes on a fleeing nun.

You would have done if you'd witnessed a bit of a scene outside Manningtree station on a filthy night nearly 100 years ago, for Margaret Moult was trying to escape “the wretched, dreary routine” of “a life of absolute loneliness, without so much as a single friend”.

In 1902, aged 17, she'd entered a Benedictine convent at East Bergholt, apparently attracted by the notion of the “beauty and holiness of the life of a nun”. Sadly, it wasn't all she hoped.

The nuns were up at 5am, ready for three hours in church. After breakfast - bread and butter, and a mug of tea or coffee, taken standing up - they went back to a day of work, chores, Bible readings and worship.

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Dinner in the refectory was eaten in silence, and the nuns wouldn't have got to bed until after 10pm. They weren't allowed baths, and washing and teeth-brushing had to be done in one's cell, using a small can of hot water, before the lights were turned out. Young Margaret also complained of back-biting - “jealousy and meanness”.

It all became too much for her.

On the dark night of Monday, January 15, 1909, she managed to get out, hoping to catch a train to London, where her mother lived. She wasn't sure about directions, but managed to half-run and half-walk to the bottom of Station Approach in Manningtree, says author David Cleveland in his new book.

“There a horse-drawn wagonette drew up, and out jumped the gardener and two Sisters. Margaret ran across to the other side of the road and held on to the wooden fence while the Sisters grabbed her and tried to pull her away. Her screams were heard by station staff and two porters, Frederick Munnings and

Levi Rumsey, came down to see what was happening.”

As the group sheltered under the station canopy, the nuns issued dire warnings of what awaited Margaret in the next world.

The commotion alerted station master Frederick Swann, who after a while offered to help Margaret by lending her five shillings for the train fare, and the same sum for a cab at Liverpool Street, “merely to avoid scandal for the Abbey”.

He put the young woman in the warm waiting room at about 8.30pm. The next train wasn't until 1.20am and she waited fitfully, expecting nuns to reappear at any moment. She was the only passenger on the mail train when it pulled out.

“It was with the utmost satisfaction that I leaned back in the carriage, knowing myself to be each moment going farther away from East Bergholt,” she later wrote in her popular book The Escaped Nun.

Not surprisingly, her flight became headline news.

Margaret Moult went on to enjoy an extensive lecturing tour, speaking about convent life and its dangers. She even got married.

Her moving tale is one of two in his book that David Cleveland had heard whispers about. He did some digging to trace the facts.

“The other extraordinary thing is about how a stuffed giraffe once went through Manningtree. It was on its way to Ipswich Museum, and it's still there. The plaque says 'lent by John Hall of Broughton.' I hope he doesn't want it back!”

It was some year, 1909. That's when the giraffe travelled from London to Ipswich - concealed under canvas, sadly. It wasn't an easy task.

There were fears that, even when loaded onto the lowest rail truck and tilted semi-horizontal, the ears of the 16ft 10ins cloven-hoofed, cud-chewing quadruped would poke up too high. The lowest bridge on its route stood only 13 feet from the ground.

Experts were consulted and trials conducted before they decided it would be all right - “ . . . but to guard against possibilities,” reported Great Eastern Magazine with levity, “the inspector was instructed to see the load through and the suggestion made that he should travel jockey fashion on the animal's neck.

“The inspector, however, successfully pleaded age, weight and non-training against that method, and was therefore allowed to enjoy the usual need of comfort obtainable in the brake of a goods train”.

David's book, Manningtree Station, does what it says on the cover. It looks at a day in the station's life in the summer of 2007: from the arrival of the first staff at 5.15am, and the opening of the renowned buffet shortly afterwards, to the last person leaving at 11.45pm and the final passenger train from London stopping at 12.30am.

This companion volume to his book from 2007 - Manningtree and Mistley: The People, the Trades and the Industries - also details the history, with plenty of reminiscences. Signalman Danny Holland, for instance, who moved there in 1972, calls his time in the Manningtree box “the best years of my life”.

There are plenty of photographs, old and new, to complement the text.

In many ways it's a vote of thanks, for it was the railway that introduced David and wife Christine to the town nearly 40 years ago.

The son of a Norfolk poultry farmer, he joined the BBC in 1964 to train in film handling and production techniques. “I used to travel up and down the line between Norwich and London. Then we got married in 1969 and were looking for a place to live. We decided to get out at Manningtree and have a look, because it was halfway between the two places. It all just fell into place. A house came up, this one, and we're still in it,” he says.

Commuting the 59.5 miles to the capital became the pattern of life.

“I used to bicycle to the station with my eye on the tall semaphore signal that could be seen right down Station Road. If the signal was up I had to pedal faster. I had a couple of minutes at the most to get there, put my bicycle in the cycle shed, and jump on the train as it pulled into the station. The train got me to Liverpool Street at 8.37am, and then a half-hour on the Central Line to White City and I was at work.”

After leaving the BBC he spent a short time at the University of Essex, travelling to Colchester by train and keeping another bike in the cycle shed there so he could pedal onwards to Wivenhoe Park. Then for a year or two he deserted the railway and had a motor scooter.

In 1979 he changed his job again and took the first train of the morning to Norwich, bound for the University of East Anglia, and catching the 7pm departure in the evening. In the spring of 1976 he became first curator of the East Anglian Film Archive, a joint venture between those two universities.

“I'd stand on the other side of the platform and see all the commuters piling into the trains; and then there was just me - sometimes one other person - getting into an empty carriage going to Norwich,” he smiles.

David, 65 this year, retired from the archive in 2004 but is still doing some teaching at UEA, along with consultancy work in London, so he's still a familiar sight on the Manningtree platforms.

He's thus got to know many railway folk over the years as a passenger, and during his BBC days - making quirky adventures for children's programme Vision On as The Prof - often used the station as a filming location.

How has the station changed over four decades?

“The number of commuters has expanded enormously since they built the big estates around here. A lot of us used to bicycle to the station; now almost everyone goes by car. There were no car parks then. The frequency of the trains is now so much better.

“We have a very good service, really. People moan about it, but I think it's marvellous; and it's much quicker.

“Personally, I think it's the most beautiful station on the line, because you stand on the platform and look out over Constable Country and there's sheep there, and birds, and no built-up area at all. But it's bloomin' cold sometimes!”

David's book costs £15 and is available at Townsend's in Manningtree, the station itself, and Mistley Post Office. ISBN 978-0-9558271-0-5

APPROPRIATELY for a man fascinated by film, David Cleveland's book includes an audio-visual bonus: an evocative, 42-minute, historical DVD recalling life on the line.

There's a film he made in 1979, as the winds of change blew. Preparations were being made for electrification, although that was still some years off. The film shows folk like senior railmen Jim Westwood, Colin Churchyard and Mick Turner going about their duties.

“I was making films for the BBC at the time and I had some film stock left over, so it didn't cost me anything!” laughs David.

Astonishingly - because 29 years doesn't seem so long ago, although the bright red phone box by the station entrance is a sign of how times change, as are the trains with corridors and compartments - paraffin lamps were still being used to light the signals at night.

A lamp could burn for up to eight days. One of the staff's important tasks was to clean these lamps back at base, trim the wicks, and climb metal ladders to install them by the semaphore signal blades. The more distant signals, such as Flatford footpath bridge, meant staff had to cycle off to complete the task.

Another chore of the era was feeding the goldfish in the small pond on platform three. This went when new metal fencing was put up during platform extension work.

There's a lovely glimpse of a poster warning that “on and from 29 April 1979 unaccompanied livestock cannot be accepted at this station”.

For years, of course, cattle, pigeons and even the odd band of circus animals were regular sights on trains. The Edwardian period saw all manner of goods being transported on the railways: fruit, vegetables, fish, coal, grain, flour, and much more.

The second film on the DVD is one David made in 1987 about the London to Norwich line's £60million-plus electrification - a major engineering feet, with more than 50 bridges having to be rebuilt.

Electricity came gradually. Cables and gantries spread from Liverpool Street to Shenfield in 1949, reaching Chelmsford seven years later. The Clacton and Walton-on-the-Naze branch was electrified in 1959, and the link between Chelmsford and Colchester finished in 1962.

Work began in the Manningtree area in 1984, with the 25,000-volt supply switched on on March 18, 1985. Test runs to Ipswich began in April.

The section to Norwich was not finished until 1987. To mark electrification, the Queen Mother named a

reconditioned locomotive, the Royal Anglian Regiment, in a ceremony at Liverpool Street. “She said the wrong thing and called it the Royal Anglican Regiment,” says David. “Nobody noticed, but it's on there. You can hear it.”

Manningtree milestones - snippets from David Cleveland's book

The railway came to town on June 15, 1846, though Manningtree station is actually in the parish of Lawford!

Trains went to Shoreditch, and then Bishopsgate. Liverpool Street became the terminus in 1875

Early on, there was a London train at 8.30am, arriving at 11am, then departures at 10.30am, 1.30pm, 4pm and 5.30pm

By 1848 the six trains a day each way had risen to eight

The branch line to Harwich began on August 15, 1854

On December 8, 1879, the non-stop Ipswich to Colchester train passed through Manningtree at 12.18 and derailed, plunging down the embankment, careering across the road and going through a hedge into a field. The stoker was killed and a passenger, a solicitor from Long Stratton, hurt a knee, though not badly

A photograph of Manningtree station staff in 1922 shows 20 people, resplendent in uniform, from a total staff of about 25

The day shift included two booking clerks, two clerks in the parcels and telegraph office, a ticket collector, station foreman, a shunter, two horse shunters, two horse lads, a goods clerk, a goods yard foreman and a porter

There was also an elderly widow who walked from Dedham one or two days a week to scrub the floors of offices and waiting rooms

At 10am a whistle used to be blown so all clocks and watches could be synchronised

For many years light locomotives took coal, acids and other materials on a line to the Wardle Storeys plastics factory at Brantham. The plant, which dated from 1887, closed just over a year ago

In the late 1970s the signalbox near the level crossing was manned around the clock by three signalmen working shifts, and in daylight hours an extra lad helped in the box, too

In 1980 barriers replaced the manual crossing gates and the semaphore signals gave way to lights controlled from a panel in the Manningtree box, the levers having been stripped out

Four years later the new signalling centre at Colchester began controlling the line. The Manningtree box would be decommissioned and eventually demolished

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