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Memories of Sheerness Railway Station and its unique grapevine


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Sheerness Railway Station in the 1930s was a place of soot, dust and steam - but also home to a very exotic fruit, for the time at least. Memories writer Bel Austin remembers its grapevine, the only one we know to have grown in such a place...

Sheerness station before it was partly destroyed in the 1971 train crash. Picture: Jeremy Seagrove
Sheerness station before it was partly destroyed in the 1971 train crash. Picture: Jeremy Seagrove

How long does a grapevine live and still bear fruit?

Perhaps the gardeners among you can answer.

We're curious because we've seen pictures of a healthy vine being tended at Sheerness Railway Station in 1931 - in the days of steam trains - and we have people who remember it flourishing right up to the time of electrification in 1959. Was it the same vine?

A good many station staff up and down the country took pride in their workplace. They cleared litter, painted fire buckets, grew pansies and cultivated vegetable gardens, but we're unaware of any, other than Sheerness, who grew grapes.

Apparently they are easier to look after than fruit trees.

Grapes were grown at Sheerness railway station
Grapes were grown at Sheerness railway station

Margaret Sewell, now in her 91st year, remembers porter Jock McCann being particularly proud of the vine in the late 40s, and younger brother Colin was aware of it in the mid 50s.

"We used to go into the station, not just to catch a train, but to meet people.

"There was usually a fire in the waiting room, we could buy books and magazines at the WHSmith shop, I remember a sort of machine with a pointer, which for a penny you could print your name on a metal strip or make a name tag to fix to a dog's collar.

"There was a Fry's Five Boys chocolate machine as well - I couldn't often afford that, nor grapes, but I used to look longingly at the vine and wonder how it lived inside".

Others must have wondered what happened to the fruit when it was ripe. We can imagine the temptation being too much for servicemen returning on the last train. It's a fair bet one or two took a leap at a bunch of grapes to bring them down.

"Grapes were also the decider in social status - only the very well off had them in a fruit bowl when nobody was ill or in hospital!..'

We tend to think of the fruit as a bit exotic - better suited to fertile soil and a warm climate, instead of ripening under the glass roof and suffering soot, dust and a blast of steam.

Grapes were also the decider in social status - only the very well off had them in a fruit bowl when nobody was ill or in hospital!

The grapevine, train travel, newspaper sellers Bill Wood and Charlie Barber standing on the forecourt yelling Star, News or Standard - the railway station was the place where life could be exciting.

For young people on a Wednesday night out, the station was always the meeting place. The girls wearing the dirndl skirts made at school with peasant blouses sewn from pillow cases, and hair stiff with sugar water to preserve the curls created by pipe cleaners or Dinkies.

This was the night Sheerness girls went to Queenborough, where Maudie Dobner ran a tanner hop at the Borough Hall.

The original Blue Town train station opened in 1860. Picture: Jeremy Seagrove
The original Blue Town train station opened in 1860. Picture: Jeremy Seagrove

From their carefully saved two bob (2/-) they had return train fare, admission to the dance, a lemonade in there, and a bag of chips on the way home.

They could be guaranteed a "welcoming committee" would be at Queenborough station (which didn't have a grape vine).

There was never an actual "turf war" but a definite "us and them''. The response was the same when they came to Sheerness. All in the game.

Even children travelling to school preferred the train to buses. Who could forget the final journey on leaving school forever and tossing caps and berets into the Swale.

But the Island's train services have not been run without accidents.

Sheerness train crash in 1971, taken by John Gamble
Sheerness train crash in 1971, taken by John Gamble

Most will know of the February 1971 tragedy, when one person died and 10 people were injured.

Much earlier, in June 1892, when the main station was in Blue Town, a train hit the buffers at the dockyard resulting in injuries to nine passengers and the driver. It was through human error and the driver, fireman and guard were penalised.

And on December 12, 1922, the Norwegian pulp boat Gyp collided with Kingsferry Bridge making it impossible for trains to run.

It was not until November 1, 1923 it was fully operational, 11 months later.

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