Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

Of trains and other monuments

I'd like to talk about trains.
Actually not trains, but train stations - or rather, 'a' train station.

I tend to think that having the desire to work in quiet solitude is a distinct advantage for the instrument repairer. It's seldom that you'll find us working in teams - it's the kind of trade that requires a degree of concentration and a certain amount of silence (yes, you really can hear if a pad is leaking when you press a key down).

It would seem natural then that I gravitate towards places that exhibit a similar kind of calm, and one such place can be found just a few miles down the road from me.
Alresford is a pretty Georgian town tucked away in North Hampshire. I've no doubt that such a town possesses a fine historical pedigree, but for my purposes it's the train station that beckons me time and again...and I flatly deny that the off-licence in the town that sells a comprehensive range of bottled beers enters into the equation at all.
In years gone by the line that ran through the town would have been part of the huge network of lines that wove around and over the entire countryside of Britain - but the march of 'progress' has long since done away with the vast majority of these rural connections.

The stretch of line that runs the ten miles or so from Alresford up to Alton has been rescued by a team of enthusiasts and is now known as 'The Watercress Line' (one of Alresford's claims to fame is the production of fine watercress - which used to be transported around the country from along this very line).
And with train enthusiasts come steam engines.

OK, it's obvious that in my trade I ought to have more than a passing interest in all things mechanical - which I do - but oddly enough it's not the magnificent engines that draw me to this place, rather the wonderfully evocative atmosphere of the station itself.
The Watercress Line houses just four stations, and each station has been restored to reflect a particular period of the original line's existence...ending with a relatively modern terminus at Alton, where it co-exists with a modern-day station.
Alresford station resides in the golden age of rail...pre and post W.W.II.

What really clinches it is that given its relatively secluded location it's possible, with a bit of judicious squinting, to stand on the platform and not see any evidence of the last 60 years having taken place. This in itself is wonderful enough, but there exists there a certain kind of calm that can only be described as distilled nostalgia. Not bad, considering I'm nowhere near old enough to be entitled to share such nostalgia.
I like to take the children there of a Sunday lunchtime occasionally - the station buffet does simple meals and serves tea in sturdy, white mugs - and you can sit on the platform and watch those monuments to art and engineering roll in and out, to the accompaniment of that inspirational sound of raw power and the strangely invigorating smell of oil, coal and steam.
For me though, the best part comes as the train departs with its payload of waving children, misty-eyed dads and tolerant (or perhaps resigned) wives, the fading sighs of the engine leaving a strangely comforting silence to descend on the station once more.

It's at that point that I can feel the years fly away to when children used to dream of driving engines, when records broke when you dropped them, when radios had to warm up.... and when young saxophonists would hanker after a Selmer Cigar Cutter.
All of this may seem entirely irrelevant to my trade - and yet I firmly believe that to be good at any job you have to have an understanding of it, a feel for it. I can stand on that platform surrounded by the past, and it's exactly the same feeling I get when I flick the catches on those vintage saxophone cases and lift another kind of monument to art and engineering onto the workbench.

The reverie is broken by the ringing of the station bell, announcing the expectation of another train - bringing with it that curious 'assemblage' of the past and the present.

There's a website for the Watercress Line - if you're in the area it's well worth dropping by...especially if you have children (any old excuse eh?). Entry onto the platform is free, but as the line is run by volunteers I would encourage you to drop a quid or two in the collection box in lieu of a platform ticket.
The off-licence I mentioned doesn't appear to open on Sundays...unfortunately.


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