Abby Ch. 07


Monday dawned, and it really did feel as if it was the first day of the rest of her life. Peter, who she had known for years, was absolutely dumbstruck when she told him the news. "Abby, what are you going to do?" Like Steve he was sure she had a deal going somewhere. With her reassurance that nothing like that was in the offing, and that she would be living in Devon for the next few months at the least, he shook his head. "I don't know, what's in Devon?" Like a lot of City people he could not imagine life anywhere else.

"Peter, have you ever thought about my surname?" She asked. He shrugged his shoulders. "Tregonney is a West Country name, that's where my roots are."

He thought she was mad, but respected her business acumen, particularly when he examined the plan she had put together. "Shrewd," was his comment, "I like this, good returns from day one, and capital builder, any losses will be more than balanced by the growth stocks, but if they come off good profits to be taken. Good Lord! Do you reckon that one?" He pointed out one particular Company. Abby just tapped the side of her nose. "Oh I see," a very knowing tone. "In that case, perhaps you wouldn't mind if I made a little investment there too?" Abby smiled.

"Go ahead, if my information is good, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, that could buy you your Roller. But Peter, don't go mad; we don't want to attract attention." They agreed on the purchases, which Peter would begin immediately.

Abby went out into a muggy day, very close, with just a hint of rain in the air. Her mobile rang, and she was in two minds whether to answer, until she saw the number displayed on the screen, which was not one she recognised. Pressing the green button she announced herself. It was the bookstore manager, who told her that Mr. Brasher was coming in this afternoon, and would be happy to talk to her. "Great, I'll be there, what time do you think is best?"

The manager laughed. "Well if I were you, I would make it about two o' clock. When Brasher gets going you will have difficulty in stopping him." Abby grinned and said she would make it about two, and rang off. She made for home quickly, reasoning that if this Mr. Brasher was as knowledgeable as she was given to believe, then lots of paper would be needed for note taking.

It was as an afterthought, that she grabbed the box-file containing her grandfather's papers before leaving the flat, perhaps Mr. Brasher could explain some of the abbreviations and codes used in their writing.

The manager she had met before was just inside the door when Abby arrived. "Miss Tregonney, I will take you down to Mr. Brasher." As they walked he enquired if she had started reading the books she bought.

"I have finished them, well not quite true," Abby explained, "I have read all the references to the line I am interested in. but there does seem to be a paucity of information about it."

The manager nodded, as if he understood. "Well if you could let us have the name of the line, I am sure we could find more references for you. Ah here is Mr. Brasher. Mr. Brasher, this is the young lady I spoke about, Miss Tregonney." Abby could hardly believe her eyes. Mr. Brasher was a tiny, rotund man, sparsely haired, with a small squashed face underneath spectacles that could have doubled as telescope lenses. The most remarkable aspect was his style of dress. Each item, suit, shirt, tie, spoke of quality, yet had evidently been put on with absolutely no thought to colour or co-ordination. Blue suit, with a Lime Green shirt, and a tie that boasted various colours of bright hue, none of them Blue or Lime Green. He was obviously a man with no feminine influence in his life.

Abby held out her hand. "Hello Mr .Brasher, my name is Abby Tregonney." Her hand was shaken timidly, and he mumbled something like, 'pleased to meet you.' Abby was taken aback by this somewhat lacklustre greeting, and wondered if the Manager had put pressure on him to talk to her. She was later to find out that Mr. Brasher was very unsure in female company. The manager invited them to sit at one of the tables that dotted the store. Once seated Mr. Brasher seemed to relax a little and without social preamble asked how he could help.

Abby had not been sure how much of her family background to tell him, but his initial greeting had convinced her that he would not be interested in this at all. "I have recently taken a holiday in the West Country, a village called Combe Lyney, in the Lyney Valley. There had been a railway there and I was interested to learn as much about it as I could. Unfortunately the books that I have been able to get hold of, don't mention it much. I was told that you were something of an expert, and could probably cast more light on the line."

Mr. Brasher brightened considerably. He could discuss this easily without having to make the small talk some women wanted. "The Lyney Valley line, yes, I'm not surprised you haven't been able to find much. Most historians concentrate on the big picture, and small branches such as this are rarely mentioned. That's something that I'm trying to put to rights, I am writing a complete history, you know, and I mean complete. The Lyney Valley line, yes. It should never have been made you know, there really wasn't any point, but that's hindsight of course." He delved into the large shoulder bag that he carried with him, flicking through reams of paper, until he brought out the relevant sheets.

He cleared his throat. "It was supposed to tap the mineral traffic that was thought the moor would produce at that time. Lills quarry produced regular traffic for a while, but after the second War, never more than a couple of trains of half a dozen wagons a week. That was part of the original prospectus; the other part was the iron Ore traffic. The man who owned most of Exmoor was granting Licences for mining iron ore at the time, what was his name now, I've got it here somewhere, ah yes, Knight. Small pockets of the ore had been mined for years, but not on an industrial scale. There were schemes aplenty, one including the building of a railway to take the ore to Porlock, and then to South Wales, as they did from the Brendon Hills through Watchet. The Bristol and Exeter thought that if they got a railway up to the Moor first, then they could have all the traffic and would route it through Barnstaple. Trouble was that the ground was so faulted, and there was so much water, they never managed to get ore in commercial quantities to the surface anyway. So the line existed on the traffic from Lills quarries, the agricultural traffic, and the passenger traffic that came from Paverton, and Combe Lyney."

Abby was amazed, although he had got his notes, Mr. Brasher hardly referred to them at all. He wasn't finished and went on. "Fiscally, it was always on dodgy ground, and returns would never have been able to repay the capital account, but for one thing. The way the land was obtained. Usually land could be bought, sometimes at an inflated price, sometimes using the powers of compulsory purchase that were included in the Acts of Parliament. This line for most of its length was built on land obtained by Way leave, from the Comberford family."

Abby stifled a laugh, that family again, but the term Way leave was unfamiliar to her so she asked the question. "What does that mean?"

Mr. Brasher preened himself; his expert knowledge was again being sought. "A Way leave was basically a lease system. The land was granted to the railway for a fixed number of years at an agreed rent. The Way leave was renewable, but should the land cease to be used for its original purpose, the land reverted to the owner. Similarly if a change of purpose was intended, the Way leave had to be renegotiated. With the Lyney Valley railway, the rent was set very low, far lower than comparable rents elsewhere, although it was not a system used much, if at all, in England. Very popular in Scotland though! Without that rent, which really should be described as a Peppercorn, the railway would never have been viable, as it was it was a borderline case for most of its life."

Abby's cynical City mind was working. Without realising she spoke aloud. "The Comberford's were up to something."

Mr. Brasher looked surprised. "You know of the Comberford's then," he asked.

"I have met the present Mr. Comberford."

Mr. Brasher acknowledged this by raising his eyebrows. "You could be right though; part of the deal was the station at Combe Lyney, far larger than really required for the traffic. I would imagine also that free First class travel would also come into the deal, although this may not be written down on the agreement, it was a common request from the Landowners. There could in addition be other ways to collect rent, for instance a toll on every wagonload that passed over the line or for every wagonload that originated from the goods yard."

Abby gave a short cynical laugh at that. "That sounds like the Comberford's, an invisible tax on their tenants. They collect the rents, and then collect on the goods the tenants send out. Tell me, would that be possible?"

Mr. Brasher smiled for the first time. "Oh yes. You must remember this was a little branch line. The big railway companies were promoted and run by big businessmen. Their shareholders would be prominent people, and institutions, so it would be very difficult to put anything past them. But small lines like this would be promoted by the local businessmen and local landowners, often holding all the shares between a few men, who got a big railway company involved, to operate their line. Often the tactics and morals of some these local people were, shall we say, less than ethical. Whilst the line was technically independent I am sure that there were some who, and I am looking for the right word here, creamed, I think is the expression, some off the top." Abby noted his remarks, something to throw, in the most light-hearted way at James Comberford.

Mr. Brasher interrupted her thoughts. "Tell me Miss Tregonney, of your interest in the line, it is personal, isn't it; or is it coincidence that your name and that of one of the stationmasters at Combe Lyney are the same?"

Abby was taken aback, she did not realise that his research would have been in such depth. She saw no reason not to tell the truth. "My grandfather." she said simply.

"Ah, your grandfather. Do you know much about him?"

She shook her head. "No, I don't, I never knew him. My mother's dead, so the only information I have is from those who had contact with him at Combe Lyney."

Mr. Brasher busied himself in his voluminous bag once more, saying. "Let me see if I have anything on him. You know the trouble with the G.W.R. is not that the facts are not down on paper, they all are. The problem is finding them. This is also the problem with my filing system, I have the information, but sometimes I am damned if I can find it. Today is one of those days. Wait! I have it here." He pulled out a sheet, which he waved triumphantly. "Now let's see. I cannot give you a life history, just the significant dates as they appear in the records, but I will fill in as much as I can with generalisations typical of the time. Thomas Tregonney joined the G.W.R. as a Lad Porter in 1915 at Par. He would have been doing the most menial of jobs, sweeping, cleaning, and filling the lamps."

"Filling the lamps?" Abby broke in.

Mr. Brasher nodded. "Yes, terrible job that, all the signals had an oil lamp behind them, so they had to be replaced every week, whatever the weather. It usually fell to the most junior of the staff, and with some signals, especially the distant signals, very often a mile or so from the station, you can imagine how unpleasant a job when it was raining or snowing. Climbing the ladders in those conditions was enough to break anyone's will, not to mention a leg. More than one has fallen and been seriously hurt." He paused and then continued. "Your grandfather went to Lostwithiel in 1919, being confirmed as a Porter there; and then to Truro in 1927 as Leading Porter. Truro was a large station and would have many grades of porter, so he would have been issuing tickets at times but mainly supervising the lower grades of porter. He was doing well."

Abby was astounded at this comment. "Doing well? It has taken from 1915 to 1927 to become a Senior Porter."

Mr. Brasher smiled. "Yes, that was doing well. You must appreciate that the railway service was a job for life, not just a stopping off point in a personal career plan. Many men at that time were out of work, and the railways had more applicants for jobs than positions to fill. So getting a promotion with every move, even a small promotion, was doing well." He referred to his paper once more. "In 1936 he had a trial as a Relief Stationmaster, spending time at any number of stations covering for illness, or holidays. That was a very difficult job, never being in one place long enough to know the staff, or to discover their little tricks, and trying to pick up on paperwork that the incumbent has let slide. He must have done it well enough though as he was appointed to Combe Lyney in 1938." He looked up at Abby. "Small stations like Combe Lyney, and there were lots of them, were the obvious choices for newly promoted stationmasters. They could be watched from a distance. If they made a mistake then it would not matter too much. If they did well they would soon get the chance at another, but larger, station. If their performance was alright, but hardly inspiring, then they could be left there to serve their time out without holding up others who were destined for better things."

Abby thought about those words, 'left there to serve their time out.' Is that what happened to grandfather, forgotten and neglected? She said as much to Mr. Brasher

"I think that would be putting too harsh an interpretation on the matter," he replied. "The times were unusual. Within a year of his appointment, the Country was at War, and although railway men were a reserved occupation, it did not mean that promotion and staff movements were as normal. There would cuts in the timetable, exceptional trains would be run, normal hours of duty went by the board and men who were in place, and knew how to do their job, were invaluable, left there to get on with it, working very much on their own initiative without constant supervision from the hierarchy. No, your grandfather's contribution would have been important. After the war, it took time to get things back to normal. The railways were in a terrible state, and Nationalisation was the preferred option to re-vitalise the system. That of course opened another unusual circumstance, insomuch as under British Railways appointments could be made to anywhere from anywhere in the country. I don't know many men who would voluntarily move from the West Country to the industrial Midlands, or the North, but certainly for men outside, a move to the West Country was very much desired. Applications for appointments in the South and West were always plentiful, not so in other areas. Your grandfather would have applied for more important appointments, of course he would. Probably though they were never for appointments outside the G.W.R. area. He would have been G.W.R. through and through, like a stick of sea-side rock, it would never occur to him to apply elsewhere for a position."

The situation was becoming clearer to Abby. "So his isolation was to an extent of his own doing?" Mr. Brasher shook his head. "Only partly. The war was a turning point in our social history. Your grandfather had grown up and worked in a system where loyalty and application had their own reward. He would have understood and approved a practice that promoted men only after they had demonstrated those qualities, and proven that they were competent in the job. After the War that ethos was turned on its head. There were plenty of jobs available as Britain rebuilt itself. The returning servicemen, young, fit, were found well paying work, very often attaining situations which hitherto would only have been theirs after years of diligent employment. Young men were impatient, they would no longer wait around for Dead Men's shoes, after all they had risked their lives and won the war for the country, they wanted their reward now. There were lots of other jobs they could go to. Employers found that to keep these men they could no longer follow the old system. The railways were no different. As the fifties moved on, new ideas, new locomotives, Diesels and Electric, were coming in. It required men who were conversant with the new technologies, or who could learn quickly. Men like your grandfather would most likely abhor and obstruct such developments. They had no place in the new railway."

The way that Mr. Brasher had said this gave Abby reason to believe that he didn't altogether approve of the changes that had taken place. "You don't sound as if you liked that new railway."

He shrugged. "Like it or not it happened. The railway had to become a profitable business, not a public service, although the G.W.R. and perhaps one of the other railways had managed to combine the two. We went from a system where very few villages were more than three miles away from a railway station, to a system that seemed to believe that people only wished to travel between big cities. Given that the cities house fewer than 40% of the population, then the railways are ignoring 60% of their potential customers. And they call that good business!" He shook his head. "You, young lady, will probably label me a Luddite, against progress, and maybe I am, when that progress doesn't actually improve things. I remember what it was like, and do so with fondness, for I was young then, so it is my nostalgia for the days of my youth that is speaking. Allow me that memory. It does appear to me though, that the ethic of service to the community has been lost somewhere along the way."

Abby's working life had been imbued with the attitude that profit was all. Banks were not sentimentalist, and cared little for those who suffered in the pursuit of their profits. Yet the little she had learned during her stay at Combe Lyney was starting to make a persuasive argument in her mind that perhaps Capital should be more attentive to the effects its decisions have on society at large. She would never be convinced of any argument that Capitalism was the wrong system; but she was beginning to think that its policies ought to take into account social deprivation as well. Mr Brasher had started packing his files away, obviously with the intention of leaving. Abby started to thank him for his time, but he waved her thanks away.

"Please, Miss Tregonney, think little of it. I have enjoyed talking; you probably gather that I could bore for Britain on this subject. I would stay longer, but I have an appointment."

Abby had more questions to ask, and with a moment of inspiration, she opened the box file. "I have one or two items here that were my grandfather's bequest. Perhaps when you have the time you could look through them and explain their significance." She handed the Journal to Mr. Brasher; the effect on him was electrifying. He sat down again and with trembling hands leafed through the Journal.

"I don't believe it, it's wonderful, a Journal. And it appears to be complete. It's amazing. You know they were encouraged to keep these, but few ever did. This is magnificent, look at the writing, beautiful Copperplate, and it's all here. Fantastic." He looked at Abby, "you probably don't realise how important this could be do you?" Abby shook her head, bewildered by his reaction. He explained. "This is a record of the working of Combe Lyney Station, the running of trains, punctuality, the fluctuations of goods traffic, and passenger traffic, the special requirements, and requisitioning of stationery, oil, coal, everything. With this we can piece together the daily working of the branch, and used in conjunction with Bradshaw it will build a complete picture of the line within its environment. May I borrow this? Please let me, it will be invaluable."

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