Ashford has great railway history. This is being enacted by a drama group in lively evening performances 28 April – 6 May at Revelation St Mary’s (the venue being the old town centre church). The play in three acts is called “All Change for Ashford”, scripted by Suzi Hopkins.
Some were against a railway being built at all
We were met at the gate by two ‘local residents’ in costume of the 1830s arguing about whether the railway should be built at all. One was in favour to help take his sheep to market, and a lady landowner was against. Echoes here of the arguments that took place in the vicinity of Knutsford which Mrs Gaskell reflected in the novel “Cranford”.
Inside the church, there were festoons of railways pictures high across the nave done by local school children, with a few of the families attending in the audience.
Workers flocked to Ashford railway jobs
The story opened in the era of the 1840s when the first railway station was built in Ashford. We were told that workers flocked to the town from all over the British Isles, attracted by the new jobs, especially when the Railway Works was set up. Houses were built for them in S. Ashford in an area then called “New Town”, within walking distance of the works. The industrial activity was splendidly depicted, with filmed silhouettes of pistons and steam power projected on to the gothic pillars of St Mary’s nave.
What was somewhat missed, according to my brother who was with us, was the frenetic pace of the competition between railway companies. First the South East Railway, conceived to provide rail services between London and Dover, absorbed earlier railways such as the London and Greenwich and the Canterbury and Faversham railway. Then the feuding started with other railways in the South East
Much of the company’s early history saw attempts at expansion and feuding with its neighbours; the London Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR) in the west and the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LCDR) to the north-east. However, in 1899 the SER agreed with the LCDR to share operation of the two railways, work them as a single system (marketed as the South Eastern and Chatham Railway) and pool receipts: but it was not a full amalgamation. The SER and LCDR remained separate companies until becoming constituents of the Southern Railway on 1 January 1923.Wikipedia
The result of all that capitalist competition is that Ashford is a multiple junction serving routes in many directions.
Story of one family through the ages
Back at Revelation St Mary’s, the drama took up with the Cooper family, living in a typical house in New Town, with a front parlour kept for visitors, and two bedrooms and a box room upstairs. One son played the violin and the daughter Nessie played the piano, which meant that the episodes were enlivened by contemporary songs, sung either solo or by some local choirs from the gallery.
Nessie got pregnant at 17 to the initial fury of her parents. But she wanted to marry the boy of her choice, who turned out to be “not from round here” but a foreigner from Romney Marsh! In the next generation, their daughter also met with initial resistance from parents when she wanted , aged 21, to rush her marriage with her young man who had enlisted to fight in the war. Fortunately he was one of those who returned alive, although brother William was killed in action. The interwar years were narrated swiftly with the dip of the Depression that affected even railway labour. World War II was well projected on to the pillars with the dark shadows of the fighter planes darting across the pillars, and the news of bombed houses in New Town.
When I remarked to my brother that it was surprising Ashford station and Railway Works were not put completely out of action during that war, he responded that railways are surprisingly resilient in war: they can be repaired so quickly. This throws an interesting light on the current Russian attacks on Ukrainian rail infrastructure.
From British Rail to Eurostar
The company and audience then walked across to County Square for the next era of railway history: first the proud early years of the nationalised enterprise, British Rail, and then the ASLEF strike of the Thatcher years. The script cleverly showed the two sides of the labour arguments, with one looking ahead to an age of flexible rosters, countered by the union activist shouting at scab labour. These scenes took place at a typical British Rail café serving sandwiches and tea, staffed by two kindly women, one obviously a migrant as she had a Welsh accent. Their café followed trends in pop music and in catering, eventually even equipped with a proper coffee machine. The privatisation of British Rail was somewhat missing from the narrative at this point.
Then the Eurostar came to Ashford, and one of the ambitious rail workers became a Eurostar driver. In the final café scene, labour feuds seem to have healed, although the Railway Works had been in long decline with the changes in rail technology from steam to diesel and electric.
Social Media-type images projected on large wall
For Act 3, the audience was guided across the road to the space beside Travel Lodge, where there is a huge blank wall they used as a projection screen. This part hardly used the 5 actors but rather was a compendium of filmed faces making short comments on their experiences, social media style. I was a little troubled that although it was supposed to show how Ashford is changing, there were no black, Nepalese or Syrian faces. Is this the vox pop of South Ashford?
Act 3 poignantly finished with the experiences of the last two years under the pandemic, with haunting, empty platforms and trains, interspersed with some popular songs. As it was freezing cold by this time, I thought this was the least successful part of the show. In fact, I would have been happier had the whole show taken place in the warmth of the town church. But I suppose they needed a larger projection wall than could be obtained there.
More performances to come
This week there are still three more performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, so book soon to catch one. It is not as if this is TV and you can find it again on catch-up or iPlayer! Funded by the Arts Council, Lottery Fund and Ashford Borough Council, it obviously fits the criterion of value to the community. Social history might be more expertly depicted by expensive film-making sold to the TV companies, but there is a lot of value in performances of this type using local venues and choirs, with school children contributing artwork, and families feeling something like their own history is being performed.