Last Thursday, I went back in time. Really. Well, so nearly really that it actually felt like I'd stepped back a few decades, to a time when men wore smart hats over brill-creamed hair and women wouldn't step outside without a pair of gloves and a swipe of lipstick. In other words, I took a trip on a steam train along the Severn Valley Railway. The SVR runs sixteen miles, from Kidderminster in Worcestershire to Bridgnorth in Shropshire, passing through some absolutely stunning countryside along the way. Several years ago, during a camping trip to Norfolk, I went on the Wells and Walsingham Light Railway:
As you can see, it's very cute, but although I remember this baby steam train being a lot of fun, it doesn't have proper carriages, so hardly has the same power to transport one back in time like the SVR, which really made me feel like I was one of The Railway Children. If I'd been wearing red flannel petticoats, believe me, I'd have been tempted to tear them off and start waving them as flags.
Managing to restrain my impulses to follow Jenny Agutter's example and attempt some impromtu sephamore, I sedately followed my mother into the first class carriage (at £3 each way for the upgrade, it was well worth it to have a proper little compartment all to ourselves!) and settled down to enjoy the ride. A red-faced, white-bearded guard came and checked our tickets, offered us a toffee (this never normally happens to me on trains!) and we were off into the beautiful countryside, the rhythmic chug and puff of the train signalling our passage.
The SVR has several station stops between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth, but although some of them sounded tempting, we had decided to travel straight through, so that we could enjoy a leisurely lunch in the Shropshire town, and, as the weather was so good (it was a glorious, warm day with bright blue skies and hardly any clouds), a little stroll around after our meal. Nevertheless, we enjoyed peering out of the carriage at the towns and villages, fields and woods as we passed by...
I also found out what it really means to be smutty, as I wiped the little dabs of flakey soot from my hands after they flew in through the window as I stared out!
Apart from the lovely vistas (sadly I still had no camera, hence the reliance on stock photos from the SVR website), we were also thrilled by the variety of wildlife that was prancing around outside. From partridges to pheasants, lambs to galloping horses, we saw it all. And I mean all. There were even elephants, a couple of rhinos, and a herd of reindeer. I kid thee not. Well, we did pass by the West Midland Safari Park, after all...!
The journey to Bridgnorth took about an hour, but it seemed no time at all before we arrived at the station:
Here, however, it looked like our journey might end, with dreams of lunch and sunlit strolls being catapulted out of our minds thanks to a sudden confrontation with a Rather Large suspension bridge. As some of you might remember, I have a little problem called vertigo, and I could tell at a glance that this bridge and I were not going to be friends. A little fingerpost pointed across the bridge proclaiming 'Bridgnorth Town Centre', and the rest of the train's passengers were trouping merrily across. I, however, cowered against the wall and felt slightly foolish as I wondered whether I would ever manage to join them. From my position against the stones, however, with the quick eye of a vertigo sufferer (it makes you very fast at figuring out alternate routes, or, rather, escape routes!), I had already noticed the line of cars next to the platform. They had definitely not come across the scarily high footbridge, so I knew there must be another way across. I started to feel a bit more hopeful. My optimism was rewarded when my mum returned from a scouting expedition with a charming young porter, who led us towards a nice gentle path out of the little railway carpark and down the hill to the main road below, with no sudden drops or vertiginous bridges in sight. I breathed a sigh of relief, and we set off.
Although we were keen to explore the pretty town, the call of our stomachs was stronger, and our first stop was lunch at a nice little brasserie on the High Street. Suitably replenished, we set off to admire the local sights, such as the Town Hall on stilts...
... and the beautiful church hidden away down a winding little lane:
As we pottered around, my eye was caught (naturally) by a sign for a vintage clothing and accessories shop called The Looking Glass. Venturing inside, we found a veritable treasure trove of vintage and reproduction clothing ranging from the 1920s through to the 1970s, as well as some contemporary hats, gloves, and jewellery. My eye was immediately caught by some stunning reproduction 1920s dresses hanging outside the one little changing room. Long, thin, and black, they were intricately beaded with silver decorations in the most fantastic patterns. Some of the most spectacular designs were influenced by the Art Deco craze for Egyptian style designs that came after the dramatic discoveries of the archaeological expeditions of the 1920s and '30s. The reproduction dresses were beautiful, and had been hand-made in India by families using traditional techniques, and sold under Fair Trade contracts to ensure they were being produced ethically. Mindful of the upcoming white tie New College Ball in June, I tried some on. They were gorgeous, and made me feel as if I'd stepped straight out of a Poirot novel. I was deeply tempted. But which one to choose? Time was ticking by and we needed to be back at the station to catch the steam train back to Kidderminster. I ummed and aahed and tried three dresses on again in a bid to make my mind up (decision making is not always my strongest point). Just as I was considering trying the first dress on for the third time, the lovely lady whose shop it was re-emerged from the back of the shop where she had been rummaging through the rails, clutching a shimmering bundle of taffeta. 'I don't want to confuse you even further', she said, 'but I couldn't resist showing you this one'. I took the dress from her hands and slipped it on. Instantly, I knew it. It was too big, but still, I knew. I had found my dress. I won't describe it now, apart from to say it's an original evening gown from the 1930s, and -- of course -- that I think it's very beautiful. But a proper description (with photos!) will have to wait until the ball itself. I'm not always a great fan of vintage clothes, but I must say that with this dress I'm glad to have my mind changed. I'm ridiculously excited about getting the alterations done and trying it on again, and even more excited about wearing it to the ball itself. And it's fitting, perhaps, that a 1950s steam train should lead me even further back in time to a 1930s dress! I really hadn't had any idea of finding the dress in Bridgnorth, and had actually been planning to slog around the London shops to try to find something. Such unlooked for treasures are always extra-special, and I am at one with Sir W in his 1600 essay 'Of Censuring' when he says that:
'I like them the better because vnexpected'.