All aboard for Pickering war weekend

Katie Hallett discovers that all is not what it seems along the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, as the line and the picturesque towns that it serves are taken back to 1943 for the annual ‘Railway at War’ weekend

Katie Hallett discovers that all is not what it seems along the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, as the line and the picturesque towns that it serves are taken back to 1943 for the annual ‘Railway at War’ weekend

It’s a crisp, sunny morning in North Yorkshire and as I trundle by bus across the beautiful countryside to the market town of Pickering, it’s business as usual. Women bustle through the unspoilt villages, sheep graze on the hillsides and then, just outside Kirkbymoorside a couple – she in a pale pink wool skirt suit, he in full GI uniform – climb on board.

A stop later and another couple clad in Forties outfits hop on. By the time the bus rolls into its final destination, it’s heaving with servicemen and women and housewives jostling for seats and giving each other’s outfits appreciative glances. As we totter off the double-decker it becomes clear that we’re in good company. Land girls in dungarees, spivs in dodgy-looking suits, officers in authentic garb and well-to-do ladies in floral frocks are all making their way towards Pickering’s railway station, today decked out with sandbags, taped-up windows and wartime posters.

You would be forgiven for thinking that you’d arrived on the set of a World War II epic but there are no cameras rolling. Every year, for one weekend only, Pickering and the other stations lining the North Yorkshire Moors heritage railway are transported to 1943 for the ‘Railway at War’ weekend, which includes a World War II parade, re-enactments of blackouts and numerous Forties dances. ‘The event was started 18 years ago by a group of local re-enactors as a way to raise funds for the railways and to honour the railway workers who fought alongside the troops during the war,’ says Iris Woodhead, who works at the North Yorkshire Moors Railway organising the event. ‘There were less than 100 visitors to the first weekend but last year 15,000 people attended on the Saturday alone – it just keeps growing.’

All aboard!
The weekend’s events are set in motion early on Friday morning at Pickering station, where local children – clutching handmade ration boxes and flat caps – are ushered across the station platform with their teachers and onto a 1920s steam train. After waving them off on their trip to Goathland, I decide to explore. Tucked behind the back of the station I find a large marquee filled with row upon row of glorious Forties dresses for sale.

The real thrill, though, is in the people watching. Among the more creative costumes – which include a chap dressed half in German, half in British uniform, holding a suitcase that reads ‘British and German Frontline Mail Service’, and a gentleman in Forties-style drag – a clutch of glamorous women, embracing the opportunity to go all-out vintage, are swarming towards the marquee.

‘I love the atmosphere here and seeing what everyone else is wearing,’ says Kezy Feaster, who is clad in a green skirt suit and furs. ‘I dress vintage all the time and you can find so much here.’

While you could easily spend your time purely ogling the outfits, for veterans the event provides an opportunity to share memories with others who served in the war. ‘I’ve been coming here with a group of veterans for many years. Every year we say that it’s our last but we keep on returning,’ says former WAF, Anne Peacock. ‘Yesterday we were entertaining the guests at our hotel with renditions of wartime songs!’

It’s extremely unlikely that it was quite so jolly back in 1943. Then, the country was packed with American troops preparing for the D-day landings of 1944. Britain was at its peak of rationing and, for women, make-do-and-mend was not a trend but a harsh reality of life. But with Britain still under attack, this was the least of their worries. Harry Dresser, who grew up in Pickering and was 12 years old in 1943, remembers the presence of contingents of soldiers in the town, daily sirens and how the railway – which stretches to Whitby – was targeted by the Germans but was, luckily, never hit.

Given the railway’s role at the heart of the commemoration, I can’t resist the lure of the steam trains and jump aboard. As charmed as I am by a group of passengers bursting into The White Cliffs of Dover, I’m intrigued by the sound of Levisham station, or Le Visham as it’s been dubbed for the weekend. Located a mile from the village and only accessible via a single country lane, the idyllic station has been transformed into a French resistance town for the event. Around the corner from the platform, a woman in Breton stripes and a beret is selling partridges outside the Café Allée du Bois – a large marquee dimly lit by candles held in wine bottles.

After a busy afternoon discovering the rest of wartime North Yorkshire – a theatre group performing music shorts in Grosmont, Ministry of Food demonstrations at Goathland (which moonlights as Aidensfield in the TV series Heartbeat) and singers on the platform at Pickering, it’s time to retire to my, sadly, very modern lodgings…

Time to remember

A military parade has been part of the weekend since its inception and the occasion is still the biggest crowd-puller, with around 40 military vehicles, veterans and re-enactors making the circuit through Pickering. After watching the spectacle I manage to squeeze in time to have my hair teased into a ‘victory roll’ by Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service veteran Joan Law, who explains that WAFs would create this do on a daily basis, using the elastic from a pair of old stockings to secure the hair. With the roll hairsprayed into place, I’m all set for the evening’s entertainment: a Forties dance at a local school.

The last time I attended a dance in a school hall, teenage boys were huddled in one corner and giggling girls in another, but this is an entirely different affair. The venue is full to capacity and the wine flows steadily as ladies in polka dot tea dresses and men in braces tear up the dance floor with retro moves.

A couple of ladies compliment my ‘can’t believe it’s not vintage’ Topshop dress and a gentleman called Paul urges me to try a dance called ‘strolling’, which proves to be so simple that even I can’t go too far wrong. He tells me that he and his wife Sylvia have been attending the event since 2003. When I ask if they have come with friends he laughs, ‘You come with the whole room! Everyone seems to have 1940s values – the atmosphere’s so friendly and it’s nice to have ladies approach you for a dance.’

During my last morning in the Forties I head back to Pickering, where I witness an air raid on platform two and attend a remembrance service during which a wreath is laid on platform one. The tone is sombre and provides me with plenty of food for thought but, as I embark on another, far less romantic train ride back to the 21st century, I can’t help thinking that I’ll miss the comradely spirit, breathtaking scenery and, dare I say it, the glamorous outfits.

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