It seems almost too good to be true that Haworth, the village made famous by its most celebrated residents, the Bronte sisters, would be served by one of Britian’s many preserved railways.
The Keighley & Worth Valley Railway operates heritage steam and diesel services from Keighley, where it interchanges with the Airedale line and the national network, to Oxenhope, some five miles away. As it passes through a tea stained West Yorkshire landscape of mills-cum-monuments of consumption, streets laden with the passage of time, a beautiful valley to which the passage of time seems anathema, one finds oneself succumbing to the illusion it collectively creates: the same idyllic, innocent past one finds valorised in Ealing comedies and the Beano finds its spatiotemporal home within the country’s ‘living museums’.
The fact that it serves Haworth is just another tool in the KWVR’s armoury, for Haworth too exudes this same pastoral fiction: the stone-clad buildings, ornamented with a petit-bourgeois ideology, seem to speak in the voice of the caricaturised Last of the Summer Wine Yorkshireman, shaking hands with his boss over a pint and a cigarette down the local (the Black Bull, for those of you who may be interested).
The steam locomotives operated by the railway partake in this same illusion: these great hulking animals, these bundles of stimuli – the heat, the smell, the bark, the motion – now torn from their use-value and exhibited in a context which allows them to be appreciated on an aesthetic level, do not convey to a tourist’s cursory glance the gruelling effects of class war experienced by the men and women who served Britain’s railways in days gone by. There is no real fusion of horizons here: the context is so artificial that we can scarcely imagine these machines being anything approaching mundane. They wield excitement and awe and give rise to naïve lamentations for a forgotten, non-existent past. The country’s aestheticized heritage comes alive as though reawakened, and for a while we’re allowed to believe that there really was a golden age of steam.
Author details: Mike Atkinson; Mike Atkinson is a student, writer, prospective researcher, and evident train buff currently based in Leeds.