The International Steam Pages

The David & Charles "Railway Holiday" Books 

Robert Hall writes of a series of books which may have come before their time.

Ever since railway enthusiasm came to exist (at a guess, 1840 at latest), it has been a fact that most British railfans have tended to the opinion that Dover is where the world ends. A fair few of the more adventurous spirits among them have admitted Ireland into the worth-paying-attention-to railway scene, despite that island’s heathen standardising on the gauge of 5’ 3” (1596mm). Considerably fewer have been disposed to admit that, in Bryan Morgan’s words, “there is a place called abroad”. Among that fairly-few, who could wish to persuade their fellows that they might be missing out on good stuff – it’s generally felt that “honey is more effective than vinegar”: gently tell them positive things about “out there”, rather than evangelistically harangue them, and some of them might “get it”, and be moved to visit foreign parts.

I feel that that approach, was the idea behind the transport-publishing firm David & Charles’s launching for a brief but concentrated period in the mid-1960s, their “Railway Holiday In...” series of books. These concerned an assortment of Western European countries, ultimately covering most of the west of Europe. 

The series kicked off, appropriately enough, with George Behrend’s “Railway Holiday in France”, telling of a tour by rail of the country, which he performed in 1963. All books in the series are essentially well- and literately-written – any quarrels with them that this author has, are about “content”, not “form”. The series ended up with a total of nine books, by a variety of authors (two by Behrend, all the rest “one man, one book”). Coverage came to be (in order of the books’ appearing): France, northern Norway and Sweden, Austria, Northern Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Bavaria, Italy, and northern Spain and Portugal. A tenth volume -- on Jugoslavia, by D. Trevor Rowe, possible 1968 publication envisaged -- never saw the light of day. Rather melodramatic speculation has suggested that this one was perhaps “squashed” by unfortunate historical timing. Jugoslav “gricer with camera = spy” paranoia, always acute, is suggested by some to have gone utterly through the roof as from the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (the Jugoslavs were in great fear that “they’d be next”). However, info received suggests that D & C decided against “DTR on Jugo” for more mundane reasons, and the idea was abandoned at a very early stage.

It would seem fairly self-evident that a “Railway Holiday in...” book’s purpose would be to introduce a British gricer to a particular foreign country, hitherto unvisited by him – whereby “some of everything, to appeal to all kinds of enthusiasts – including in the interests of background, a little non-railway content ” would be the way to go. Behrend’s book on France excellently fulfils this ideal. I could – personally and self-centredly – feel a bit sad that he did not seek out more steam haulage, which abounded in many locations in France in 1963; but he includes in his tour of the country (Channel to Spanish frontier on Mediterranean and back again) a modicum of runs behind steam, and steam encounters “in the bygoing” . And one should have in mind that for very many years before 1963, diesel railmotors had been overall at least as prominent as steam on the French rail passenger scene. Behrend splendidly includes in his itinerary steam journeys, modern diesel-and-electric haulage, SNCF back-country branch lines with diesel-hauling-coaches locals and varied-railmotor locals, general SNCF railmotor travel in considerable variety, metre-gauge rides, and ditto on a standard-gauge independent local line. Plus accompanying commentary on scenery and history along the way. With copious, but not mind-bendingly super-technical, information on all railway aspects of this.

Most of the books in the “run”, fulfil what I feel to be this basic mandate for “the series offering what it purports to”. With what was then West Germany being a big country in its own right, the publisher divided it into two, allotting the north to W.J.K. Davies, and the south to J.H. Price. General plan with this was – Davies being a light-railway-buff par excellence, his northern slice of the country was where, at the time of his 1964 tour, the greater part of West Germany’s light-and-independent-railway action was happening. In the main, Davies got the north and the light railways (by no means totally ignoring action on the state railways, Deutsche Bundesbahn) – “Railway Holiday in Northern Germany”; Price got the south and the DB and, rather, the main lines (by no means totally ignoring what light-railway and narrow-gauge doings went on in the south) for his 1966 tour – “Railway Holiday in Bavaria” (which took him through Baden-Württemberg also). This double-act basically works well.

“Something for everyone” was, I feel, essentially delivered also in the series’s books by D. Trevor Rowe (Spain); D.W. Winkworth (northern Spain and Portugal) – Spain too huge a country for DTR to be able to cover all of it; and Behrend again (Switzerland). I personally find Switzerland deadly dull in almost all respects, but that’s “my fault, not its, and certainly not Behrend’s”. 

The other three books in the series – I have to feel, choice of authors not the best that might have been made. The worst of the lot, in my opinion, is O.S. Nock’s “Railway Holiday in Austria”, written about a trip by the author in 1964. In my opinion, Nock was one among several of his railway-author contemporaries who were more toplofty and pleased-with-themselves than they had any business being. I see in his book in this series, a basic attitude along the lines of what interests him, being what is worthwhile, and that is what he’s going to write about; aspects of railways that do not interest him, he will ignore and treat with contempt. Not good, for a series whose basic aim is “highly general about the country; as far as possible, something for all tastes”. This book is essentially, all about “Nock’s stuff” – heavy technicalities, deeply and lengthily gone into, about signalling, and railway-building, and (standard-gauge) steam, diesel and electric loco design and construction, and the history of all these. (All interesting in its own right, if hard going for those readers who are not technical wizards.) His travels do include a broad spread of Austria, and some appreciation of scenery; but the details of where visited, seem incidental, and firmly tied to Nock’s fairly restricted areas of interest.

One thing about the book strikes me, an admitted narrow-gauge-junkie, as almost criminal. Austria has been renowned “since forever”, as a country with multitudinous “conventional” (i.e. not rack) narrow-gauge railways, both electric and non-electric. In his book, Nock does briefly recount first-hand experience of the Achensee and Schneeberg rack lines; but his itinerary includes not even one n/g line of the ordinary kind. (He deputes his wife to travel on the Zillertalbahn, her report on same taking up one line of print.) Message got “to the max”, at least by me – “I despise the conventional narrow gauge; so you should, also”. It’s his right to hold that opinion; but if he does, he has no business writing a book of this kind, for the sort of audience envisaged by the publisher.

Also, an aspect which irritates me is the amount of space given to Dr. Adolf Giesl-Gieslingen, inventor of the renowned ejector chimney, and his family. Lovely people though these no doubt were -- I feel that Nock takes too far in the book, his bragging about his personal friendship with them, and indeed outright “brown-nosing” of them. In my view, regrettably egotistical on the part of the author; and taking up of page-space which would have been better given to some of the directly rail-related features which the book deals with scantily, or ignores altogether. For me, Nock on Austria is the one real “turkey” in the series.

“Railway Holiday in Italy” by P.M. Kalla-Bishop suffers, in a less acute form, from the characteristic faults of Nock’s book on the neighbouring country. For sure, K-B gives chapters’-worth of ample and lucid information about many aspects of Italian electric, diesel and steam power; and Italian signalling and train control, and the structure and set-up of staffing of Italy’s railways, as in that country mid-1960s. But one picks up, as with Nock, an attitude of “what does and doesn’t interest me, is what ought to interest and not interest everybody; I’m not going to mess around writing about the many things that don’t interest me”. Bizarrely for a supposed travel book, the author does not seem particularly to relish the experience of travelling; actual journeys made in the course of his tour are, with few exceptions, briefly and summarily recorded, with scant attention paid to the terrain traversed. In telling of the initial stages in Milan, of his travels, he remarks “indeed, a holiday could perfectly well be spent in Milan from the railway enthusiast’s point of view, without bothering about the rest of the country”. The implication is felt, that the author wishes that he could indeed write his book on that basis – which seems an oddly “Zen” approach to railway-travel-writing.

Although Kalla-Bishop’s travels on his quasi-tour as recounted in the book, essentially comprise a simple main-line circuit between the latitudes of the Brenner Pass in the north and Naples in the south; to do him justice, he does add, from other peoples’ findings and / or previous journeying of his own, plentiful information about certain other parts of the country, including an interesting section on the various lines of the Calabro-Lucane 950mm gauge undertaking in the “deep south”. Plus mentioning in an “afterword”, the complete omission from his book of the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, the considerable railway interest of which places, he concedes: he mentions a possible later volume in the “Railway Holiday” series, about these islands – sadly, a thing which never happened.

Occasionally in Kalla-Bishop’s book, there surfaces a trait of his, going a bit beyond just strong opinions, and the “what interests me...” attitude. Namely a tendency to be what can be politely called blunt; and less politely, offensive. Quoting from the final paragraph of “Railway Holiday in Italy” ‘s introductory chapter: “One thing the traveller will not see in Italy is the run-down branch line in all its squalor, with a decrepit steam locomotive shuffling along over wobbly track hauling a mixed bag of old coaches. Persons who moon about over such sights should keep out of Italy, for such a glorious railway as the FS has no truck with such things, nor do the private railways go in for this nonsense.” To my mind, both right out of keeping with the “something for everyone” ideal of the series; and an out-of-the-blue deliberate slap in the face, liable to insult and put off a more-than-tiny sector of the book’s potential readership. In fact – though Mr. K-B, true to his word, gives no room to any hypothetical mid-1960s Italian Bishop’s Castle-equivalent – his book does tell of the odd encounter in Italy with in-service small and aged tank locos, without giving vent to any obvious loathing.

A similar bit of “bluntness”, on a different matter. Writing “at one remove” about Italy’s far south, the author expresses a low regard for the inland regions of the peninsula’s “heel” and “instep”, mentioning long, perceivedly unexciting rail journeys with infrequent crossings of opposite-direction workings; and, “The interior is little penetrated by the tourist, dotted as it is with horrible towns and cities, with only occasional natural beauty”. I understand that there is a grain of truth to this; still, there are ways in which to express one’s opinions, and then there are ways... it is to be hoped that Mr. Kalla-Bishop never contemplated a career in the diplomatic service. In just one book, he guarantees that he will have no friends in the “Colonel Stephens brigade”, or in the tourist boards of Basilicata and Puglia provinces...

H.A. Vallance’s “Railway Holiday in Northern Norway and Sweden”, the second in the series to appear, also suffers in my view from a lack of the balanced and catholic approach which seems to me vital for a run of books of this kind; but in a different way. Vallance is plainly a very non-technical type -- his interests seem overwhelmingly to be scenery and landscape, and the recounting of interactions with people met on his travels. He does not even identify the classes of locomotives / railmotors /electric multiple-units conveying him, or otherwise encountered, on the summer 1963 tour which his book recounts. At that time, both Norway and Sweden still had a little steam in regular service; but Vallance was there first and foremost for the scenic stuff, not for steam-chasing. He expresses mild interest in the small handful of active steam locos which he happened to encounter – including one train on which he travelled on the Norwegian leg of his tour chancing to be steam-hauled, giving him a 32km steam run – but it seems plain that he would have been equally happy with the tour, had no steam been seen at all. This book would seem to go equally as far as Nock’s, concerning tunnel vision and non-breadth of approach; but in a polar-opposite direction. Either way, not in what I would feel to be the proper spirit of the series.

Much of Vallance’s book is in fact of interest – for me at any rate, including a fair proportion of his rhapsodising over scenery. One has the feeling that he is, basically, a benign and mild-mannered chap – none of the “neck-trampling” tendency that one senses at times, from Nock and Kalla-Bishop. Now and again, the amount of space which Vallance seems to give to “banal gossip about trivia” is frustrating, in the light of his failing to impart much seemingly basic railway-related information – there comes to mind the suggesting of some adjustment of priorities. A matter in Vallance’s book which particularly irritates me, is the “razor saga”. He recounts, in the latter stages of his tour, discovering on-train that he has left his razor behind in the previous-night’s-stay hotel. Several pages of intermittent “angst” over this issue, starting with asking the train guard for help. The cliffhanger is resolved the following morning, when (suspenseful music) the errant razor catches its owner up – the hotel having been telephoned, and put the precious object on the overnight train for Oslo, to be unloaded at the town which the author has reached and there spent the night. Granted, part of the point of this tale is to emphasise the kindness and helpfulness of Scandinavians in general, and Scandinavian railway staff in particular; but such a degree of drama and detailed narrative over a quite easily replaceable (even in 1963) item of personal toiletry, seems a little absurd in the light of so much directly transport-related, crying out to be written about and being ignored.

The roll-call of “Railway Holiday” books shows that most of continental western Europe, but not absolutely all, was covered. As mentioned concerning Kalla-Bishop on Italy -- a book dealing with Sicily and Sardinia was thought about, but in the event, did not appear. Had this one come to be, one wonders whether it might have featured French Corsica as well.

Speculation invites itself, about other venues which the publishers may have contemplated covering, but in the end did not do so. I being rather a fan of the Low Countries -- tending to the opinion that they had, and have, more on-rails interest than many enthusiasts give them credit for -- feel that they might have made, together, a decent book early in the series (say, a 1963 or 1964 visit). 

At that time, the Belgian state railways were still using steam (it finished there in 1966); and Belgium had much, though ever-declining, electric and diesel action on its “Chemins de Fer Vicinaux” metre-gauge “empire”; and the “Vicinaux” boasted even a tiny bit of anomalous standard-gauge steam-tram freight. In the Netherlands, the surviving portion of the 1067mm gauge Rotterdam Steam Tramway, Rotterdam to Oostvoorne and Hellevoetsluis, was still going strong with diesel traction, and a few steam-tram locos in working order for specials. Various Dutch standard-gauge private lines then survived for freight only; the country had plentiful tram action; and the Dutch state railways, whilst using exclusively modern traction, had their interesting points. Luxembourg in the early 60s was, one has to feel, of limited interest (steam there already finished, I believe) – but might have been good for a rounding-off chapter, bulked out by reminiscences of the country’s once-splendid collection of metre-gauge secondary lines, the last of those abandoned in 1955.

Perhaps the Low Countries were not considered for the series, by reason of the publisher wanting to produce books, the bulk of the information in which was expected to hold good for at least a few years (Price in “R.H. in Bavaria” is a little apologetic about recounting a journey on a section of the delectable metre-gauge Mittelbadische system, which would be closed by the time the book appeared in print). It could be that the abovementioned Dutch and Belgian delights, still there in the early 60s, were universally expected and predicted to vanish very shortly; as indeed, in the main, did happen.

It would seem nearly certain that D & C at least considered a companion volume to Vallance’s “Northern Norway and Sweden”, to take in the more southerly reaches of Scandinavia: Denmark, and the south of Sweden. In the 1960s, those parts would have provided wonderful subject-matter: Denmark with a wealth of standard-gauge private railways on top of the state-railways network (and with the metre gauge on Bornholm until 1968), and the south of Sweden was where the narrow gauge had its being in profusion – in the 1960s, 891mm gauge abundantly, and perhaps in the earlier parts of the decade, the “last knockings” of the 1067mm gauge. By the 60s, Scandinavia was basically not “about” steam traction – although all three main Scandinavian countries kept steam in regular use, in small quantities, longer than Britain did – so paucity of steam would not have been an issue. It is tempting to dream of what “Railway Holiday in Denmark and southern Sweden” might have been like. A choice of author that comes to mind is, once again, the quintessential light-railway authority W.J.K. Davies (who by the evidence of a “Continental Railway Journal” article, visited Norway at least once – thus, clearly he did not eschew Scandinavia).

Finland also missed the “Railway Holiday” boat, though Vallance made a brief call at the Swedish side of the main-line frontier station. One may suppose, essentially not enough to the country to make a whole book in its own right; and nothing not already covered, with which it might have been combined – despite its various features worth paying attention to. There was the “near-Russian” 1520mm gauge; steam in plenty, some of it wood-fired; a couple of narrow-gauge lines; and various intriguing “box-and-cox” doings on the peripheries of the USSR. All this would bely the remark in a short article about the Finnish state railways (VR) in the February 1953 “Railway World” magazine, where the author snootily declares that (while worth an implied quick look) “it cannot be said that the VR forms a system of unsurpassed interest”. Speak for your Brit-chauvinist self, mate – I’d give anything for a brief time-machine voyage and grice of Finland in 1953...

One could regret the “Railway Holiday in Finland and...” that never was. Presumably padding out such a book with a rail journey from Helsinki to Leningrad and a few chapters of non-rail conventional tourism in the Soviet Union (all that could have been legitimately achieved there in those years) would have been rejected as, fundamentally, cheating.

Finland kept steam in fair strength until a latish date; though such a faraway, inconveniently located, and not highly scenic country was not on the agenda of many British “abroad-bashers”. I recall an episode in the late 1960s when the firm of Thomas Cook, advertising their wide-ranging diligence in booking foreign rail journeys for clients, put out a poster showing motive power from a wide assortment of European railways; for whatever reasons, Communist countries were excluded. To give steam traction one look-in, they originally included a picture of a Finnish loco with magnificent spark-arrester chimney (a frequent VR feature). Representatives in Britain, of Finland, protested at the antiquated image of their country conveyed by this item on the poster; Cooks accordingly substituted in the slot, a Garratt of the Benguela Railway in then Portuguese Africa – the Benguela’s management presumably not giving vent to the kind of sensitivities that the Finns had displayed.

Nor did Greece get in on the “Railway Holiday” act. “Worth it” in many enthusiasts’ estimation, largely because of its considerable quantity of metre-gauge trackage; the country has never appealed to me, but “that’s my problem”. Not a land of enormous size, or with a railway system of great density – as with Finland, I can see a struggle to make a full book out of it. Possible adding-on of Turkey-in-Europe, and the wondrous two-nation steam doings in the 1960s, at Pithion on the border? In alternative-history realms -- something which might have truly been a winner: had Cyprus’s 762mm (2ft 6in) gauge railway, instead of being abandoned at the end of 1951, somehow miraculously carried on for another couple of decades (even if in the course of that time, going 100% diesel) – a 1960s “Railway Holiday in Greece, Turkey-in-Europe, and Cyprus” – “if only...”

One takes it that such an against-all-odds survival of the Cyprus railway, would not have lasted beyond 1974 and the fighting then, and the resultant splitting of the island into its Greek and Turkish parts – the railway’s route closely coincides with the “fault-line”. From pictures seen, this is one which I would have most dearly loved to experience. If every railway enthusiast had a penny for every time he has entertained a similar sentiment...

There may have been no policy strictly to limit the series to Europe; D & C might, I feel, at some stage have had thoughts of a volume about Turkey, hence preferring not to co-opt Turkey’s tiny European part into any putative Greek project. George Behrend did write a book of his own, “Yatakli-Vagon”, chronicling his 1960s grices in Asiatic Turkey – a wonderful read. Stupendously irrelevant and useless trivia item: Behrend was a childhood friend of Richard Adams, author of “Watership Down” – Adams gives him a mention in his autobiography. (In point of fact, Behrend – a “man of parts”, with many interests besides railways -- knew many people of note, in the arts in general.)

As we know, the series’s no. 10 -- Trevor Rowe on Jugoslavia -- never saw the light of day, for whatever reason. Jugoslavia, a breakaway Communist state, began to allow access to Western holidaymakers during the 1950s; regarding the Warsaw Pact countries, this was virtually impossible till early in the ‘60s. And always “east of the Curtain”, there was the, from gricers’ point of view, dreadful photography problem. In my personal experience of the “Evil Empire” pre-1990 – coloured by my being an unusual railway enthusiast in that I don’t do photography, or want to – one could take a great deal of interest in the local railway scene: nose around, make notes, consult maps, copy things down -- nobody batted an eyelid. It was only the bringing-out of a camera that usually instantly alerted the local guardians-of-order and caused them to go ballistic. This made very little sense; but after all, the entire Communist system was not conspicuously about making sense.

Sadly, the whole thing was a no-win situation – especially frustrating in that steam survived and throve for so much longer in the East. For the large majority of railway enthusiasts, taking photographs of what they encounter, is a vital part of the whole experience; if they can’t, the experience is ruined for them. For the “guardians” in the eastern half of Europe (and a few in the west – Italy could be dodgy as regards rail photography – Kalla-Bishop cautions about same), photography was a total no-no. If DTR’s Jugoslavia book had been published; I wonder how the photographic issue would have been treated, and what counsel given to readers. In the light of most gricers’ non-negotiable requirement of total freedom to phot – and Communist Europe’s mostly non-negotiable opposition to this requirement – not much of a market seen for such books as “Railway Holiday in the People’s Republic of Eastern Roumelia – this place is Cloud Nine, railway-wise and in all other ways, except that if you’re detected doing railway photography, you’ll be for the high jump.”

D & C might have hoped that, fairly soon, some Communist countries would wake up to the understanding that gricers were not spies, just harmless non-political eccentric hobbyists; and thus welcome such folk with their cameras (and badly-needed hard currency to spend freely) – whence there could be “Railway Holiday In... whichever was the latest country to ‘get it’ “. Sadly, this did not happen much; and where it did, it occurred late in the day. In the 1980s, East Germany (in most things, hard-line) at last got the message; and for the final few years of regular standard-gauge steam there (narrow-gauge ditto, still obtains today), Western railway enthusiasts were welcome and could phot pretty much whatever they wished. Much too late for the “Railway Holiday” books.

The picture is got, that the series did not overall, sell as well as had been hoped for. Over-estimating perhaps, of the size of the pool of potential “conversion-fodder” to Continental stuff, among British gricers in that era. It is gathered that the last in the series, Winkworth’s “Northern Spain and Portugal”, sold poorly, despite its appearing after the end of steam on BR. This development perhaps persuaded D & C that at that time in history, they were digging in a not potentially very profitable lode; and contributed to their dropping the whole undertaking. Nonetheless – fun to speculate (as, for certain, D & C must have themselves speculated) what might have happened, if the series had taken off as per their hopes of its doing so.

There are minor ways in which the “Railway Holiday” series has a rather engaging aura of “past times” even from a 1960s perspective. Several of the authors (not all) display a few bygone-era quirks of language. For some, a road motor vehicle designed for carrying numerous passengers is always a ‘bus – they are punctilious about the apostrophe. (They could be accused of inconsistency, in that they do not call a small four-wheeled railmotor, a “rail’bus”.) Likewise the meticulous putting of a circumflex accent on the word “depôt”; and “an hotel”. Trevor Rowe goes further yet with this “Edwardian” flavour; when he contracts the word “telephone”, it’s to: ‘phone. It can’t have been “house” policy on the part of the publishers: as said, some of the authors don’t “do the old-fashioned thing” in this way. All were, I am certain, of the same born-1920s / early 1930s generation of enthusiasts; it would just seem that a few of them were unusually conservative in this small – to me, rather charming – way.

Also in the “period feel” realm: overwhelmingly, the “Railway Holiday” books employ the long-true-and-tried anglicised forms of the names of big continental cities: next to no politically-correct Köln / Wien / Göteborg nonsense. Kalla-Bishop (in his own eyes, one feels, certainly no fuddy-duddy) calls the port 140-odd kilometres south of Genoa not “Livorno”, but “Leghorn” – in my view, one of the weirdest of English foreign-place-name butcherings.

Another pleasure of the books for me, is the occasional bit of fascinating totally non-rail trivia. Trevor Rowe tries to make sense to non-Spaniards, of the intricacies of name-changes on marriage, for Spanish women; the Russians with their patronymics, seem straightforward in comparison. And Behrend mentions that in 1964, the Rhône glacier in Switzerland was melting, and was expected to be pretty well totally gone twenty years thence. To one such as myself, not a compulsive follower of current events, this provides a bit of potential comfort and reassurance – perhaps the global-warming menace is not so new, and not so dire, as the alarm-merchants would have us believe. Kalla-Bishop tells us that the international nautical mile is the same as the old Genoese land mile – a reflection of the great prominence of the people of Genoa, centuries ago, in ocean-based trade and exploration. Admittedly, there are some indications that in this, K-B may have fallen for an “urban myth”.

In general – a lot of time has gone by since the years when this series briefly streamed off the presses; pretty much, the short spell leading up to, and just passing, the end of steam on British Railways -- which event is now roughly forty-four years in the past. More than half of the series’s authors are now deceased. The books are, in my opinion, mostly well worth reading, and quite easily obtainable on the second-hand market – an interesting “snapshot” of a particular moment in railway history.

Rob Dickinson