New York, Paris, Colliers Wood

I’d be the first to admit that, as guys go, I have baggage. That’s probably because the baggage I have takes the form of a stupendously awesome suitcase. Witness.

I picked it up today in Camden. I’ve wanted a suitcase like this for ages – a proper old-fashioned, battered leather thing with faded travel stickers. I do have a tin trunk from when my grandparents, ma and uncles moved to Britain from Kenya, but it’s needed to hold my grandpa’s judge wig (long story) and in any case is far too heavy and awkwardly-shaped for everyday use. Cases matching that description tend to go for big bucks, so when I saw this one for £15, I snapped it up in accordance with my “jetset lifestyle, Ryanair budget” mode of living.

I love the paraphernalia of bygone travel, the days of named trains and ocean liners. These days, nobody cares about long-distance travel. People get on a plane to the other side of the world as if they’re not flying at 500 freakin’ miles per hour halfway around the planet, and I think that’s just sad. The days of savouring the journey are long gone. No doubt I’m looking at it all with rose-tinted spectacles, and back then people were sick of taking six weeks to get from Britain to Australia by boat, but… well. There’s just a part of me that wishes there was a bit more effort required to get to another continent, that’s all.

So, what voyages has this suitcase been on? Let’s take a closer look at some of the labels. Apparently it belonged to someone in Holland Park, so for me in Colliers Wood that’s already pretty exotic.

The sticker on the right is pretty self-explanatory. It indicates that the owner travelled on the overnight train that ran from Victoria in London to Gare du Nord in Paris. Named trains are all but extinct these days, mostly existing as a nostalgia thing where they haven’t been abandoned altogether, but the time was when there were dozens operating on British Railways, with names that ranged from the thrilling (the Red Dragon, the White Rose, the Silver Jubilee, the Royal Scot, the Cornish Riviera) to the downright peculiar (the Flying Scotsman, the Master Cutler). Don’t they just make you want to abandon the morning commute and leap on board?

The Night Ferry was not the only international service on BR, there was also the Golden Arrow (also to Paris) as well as a number that only went as far as the port. However, thanks to its specially-built coaches, the Night Ferry was the only train to physically get on the boat without passengers having to disembark. The service lasted until 1980, and would eventually be made entirely redundant by the opening of the Channel Tunnel. Yr. Humble Chronicler was actually at the opening of the Channel Tunnel, and once again it amazes me how un-amazed people were at the fact that there was a freakin’ tunnel to France. I mean, you could walk to Europe for the first time since the Ice Age! Is that not just incredible? I think I need to lie down.

Oh wait, no time for that, here’s the other label. Ah, now, this is interesting. It’s not very clear from this shot, but this case was taken from New York on the RMS Mauretania. If you’re not familiar with ocean liners, you probably know that name from the film Titanic, in which it is mentioned by Kate Winslet’s character. That was the first Mauretania, which was the biggest and fastest liner in the world when built. This one was technically the third ship of that name, the second being a steamer to the Isle of Wight given that name until the completion of the new liner. Apparently this unusual measure was to prevent a rival shipping line from stealing the name and therefore the reputation of the old ship from Cunard White Star.

The third Mauretania was launched in 1938. She briefly ran from London to New York, and in so doing became the largest ship ever to navigate the Thames. When war broke out, she was requisitioned as a troop ship and repainted a drab grey. During this period, she had several exciting adventures, including setting a speed record between Australia and South Africa, sailing right around the world and fleeing attacks by U-boats.

Her postwar career was, alas, not quite so spectacular. She worked the route from Southampton to New York without any particular hitches, but set no more records. It was during this period, in 1958, that my case took its trip in her hold. By the 1960s, however, she was looking distinctly old-fashioned and at the end of 1965 she was broken up.

Four years later, the Boeing 747 would take to the sky and at that stage, I think we can safely say that the era was at an end.

Still, you’ve got to admit it’s a cool suitcase.

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6 Comments

Filed under 20th Century, Camden, Fashion and trends, History, London, Markets, Port of London, Thames, Transport

6 responses to “New York, Paris, Colliers Wood

  1. Aaron

    As an ex-employee of Cunard Line, I can say for an almost certain fact that the only reason they keep the Southampton – New York crossings going is only so that you might get a turn on them.

    As an interesting trivia note – when I crossed from NYC to Hamburg and back in 2008(9?) the fuel was costing $1.4m each way. They won’t be able to run it (profitably) forever, so best get your travel plans in order soon before there are only carribean or med cruises left to choose from.

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  3. I know what you mean about train names; I’m no railway nerd but living in Surbiton there’s a colloquial pleasure in catching the 19:23 service from Waterloo which stops only at Surbiton. It’s nicknamed the ‘Surbiton Flyer’ by many commuters and is echoed in the name of a pub just outside the station in Subiton … but I’m not sure it has any provenance from a by-gone service.

    PS. Loved the post on the Necropolis Railway. Had me digging around for more on the history of it.

    • TGW

      I don’t believe there was a train service by that name – official named trains tended to be long-distance, although as you say, unofficial nicknames do tend to stick. There was a commuter service known as “the Jazz” operating out of Liverpool Street for many years, for instance. The train on the pub sign (I have a couple of friends in Surbiton) is an East Coast express train, though, so not the sort of thing you’d get on a commuter service.
      Another possibility for the Surbiton Flyer name is that the pub was originally a coaching inn, and the Flyer was a coach service that called there.

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  5. James Blair

    Great days when travel was a pleasure rather than a challenge of nerves and patience. Those old trains always had dining cars with excellent food on china plates with silver cutlery, in contrast to the microwaved, over-priced and bland “fast food” of today.

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