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‘Air raids’ return to SVR’s 1940s Weekends - by public demand! (19th June 2012)

IN WARTIME, the heavy drone of large formations of Luftwaffe bombers and the sound of bombs exploding struck dread into British hearts. But a decision to drop the simulated ‘Luftwaffe air raids’ from the Severn Valley Railway’s 1940s re-enactment weekends’ last year brought complaints from visitors - so they’re being brought back!

The high-drama ‘bombing raids’, simulated by synchronising ‘surround-sound’ recordings of bombers with carefully managed pyrotechnic ‘explosions’ at different points around the SVR’s Kidderminster Town station site, were a regular feature of Saturday nights at the 1940s Weekends which the railway has staged for the past 16 years - but they were ‘rested’ in 2011.

Now, as the Kidderminster – Bridgnorth steam heritage line this week taped up station windows, hung the ‘blackout’ curtains, built the ARP sandbag ‘dugouts’ and began transforming itself into a wartime ‘film set’ once more for the first of this year’s two back-to-back ‘1940s Weekends’ on Saturday and Sunday (June 23rd/24th), event organiser Malcolm Broadhurst confirmed: “The people have spoken. They want the air raids because, for better or worse, they were an intrinsic part of wartime in Britain – so we’re bringing them back.”
 
Come Saturday, Bakelite radios will splutter back into life, the BBC Home Service will resume its wartime bulletins, old 78 rpm record-playing ‘phonographs’ will be wound, and Glenn Miller ‘big band sound’ favourites such as ‘In the Mood’ and ‘Moonlight Serenade’, so evocative of the period, will blare from loudspeakers as, with the help of some 500 ‘re-enactors’,  the upbeat, friendly, never-say-die mood of wartime Britain in the 1940s is impressively revived once more.

Between 8,000 and 10,000 visitors are expected to take part over the two weekends (June 23rd/24th and June 30th/July 1st) in this, one of the biggest ‘audience participation’ events in the UK special events calendar.

Many will come ready-attired in the gladrags of the 1940s era, but for those who don’t, and for re-enactors looking to expand their wardrobe, period clothes stalls at Kidderminster (Auntie Angie’s) and at Bewdley (by the station entrance) will be selling suits, dresses, trousers and hats, now being specially made for the burgeoning ‘1940s interest’ market.

Getting the two 1940s weekends off to a really impressive start this Saturday, a Spitfire from the RAF’s ‘Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’ based at Coningsby, Lincs, will be put through its paces in an aerial display over the railway at Bewdley – a worthy follow-up to last year’s spectacle when an RAF Lancaster bomber – the last example still flying – made two low-level passes over the railway, one in each direction.
   
Meanwhile on the ground, 70 years will be melted away as the SVR’s Kidderminster station time-warps to become a living museum of the 1940s, with its own resident compere – Stourport’s Guy Roles – in the role of a 1940s ‘DJ’ ,and playing the hits and the big-band numbers of the age.

Visitors will be transported back in time to see how life was ‘at home’ in wartime - thanks to the remarkable creation of a typical 1930s/1940s terraced house – a three-sided mock-up (with plywood walls), showing how a kitchen and sitting room typical of the era were furnished. 

The living room will be represented with flowery wallpaper and frumpy curtains, a horsehair sofa and oak sideboard (with obligatory ticking mantle clock), and a clutch of framed, sepia-tone photographs. The set even has a ‘Dig For Victory’ allotment garden, following the wartime government initiative which urged every family to grow their own vegetables.

The frugal kitchen, with few ‘mod-cons’ is characterised by a Belfast stone sink, a mangle and a washboard, a very archaic-looking ‘Hoover’, a primitive washing machine, and a gas stove or cooker – all of which now have a distinctly ‘last century’ look about them.   And to emphasise the austerity of the war years when meat was rationed, re-enactors in the roles of family members will be seen peeling the spuds and boiling the kettle to make the tea.

Ticket holders will also be able to experience at first-hand what it was like to take refuge during bombing raids in a corrugated steel Anderson shelter (more than two million were built, and issued free by the Government to householders earning less than £250 a year!), and also see the smaller, table-like self-assembly Morrison shelter, designed to absorb the impact of falling debris in homes which had no cellar. 

Passengers will be issued with identity cards - faithful copies of the actual wartime design - and they’ll have to show them too if steely-eyed military or plain-clothes police – or perhaps even German soldiers – thrust out a hand to demand:  “Papers!”
 
Train tickets will also be valid for the 10-minute vintage double-decker ‘United’ bus ride from Kidderminster station’s cobbled forecourt, and visitors can indulge in some period‘retail therapy at a delightful old-style WH Smith station kiosk on Kidderminster’s concourse, where travelling ‘spivs’ will try to hawk ‘black market’ nylon stockings, chocolate and other ‘contraband’ from their battered old suitcases. 

Bewdley station yard will boast a collection of old jalopies – the family cars of the 1930s and 1940s era – while the story of wartime US Army Hospitals in the area is examined in an exhibition inside a ‘Red Cross’ coach, entitled ‘Wyre Forest at War’.
 
At Arley, the next stop down the line, visitors will by entertained by a repertoire of nostalgic songs from resident crooner Kevin Mack, or for those keen to indulge in some audience participation, there’s an opportunity to become one of the ‘guests’ at a typical wartime wedding ceremony, which will be enacted each afternoon.

Arley station will also be the tented ‘HQ’ for the duration to a full Dads Army’ platoon - members of the celebrated Pitsford (Northants) Home Guard, which was formed in only 2005 as a tribute to the county’s 9th (Brixworth) Batallion of the Northants Home Guard. Between ‘mixing and mingling’ with visitors, they will parade and take part in exercises.

Highley, however, is the destination that many, if not most visitors will head for at lunchtime each day, for it’s here that the traditional ‘battle’ between German and Allied troops - all re-enactors of course -  takes place, at approximately 1pm.  In a slight variation on past themes – but with the usual help of special pyrotechnic effects and ‘blank’ ammunition – American GIs  and British ‘Tommies’ will attempt to take a bridge on the line being held by the Wehrmacht. Can you guess who will win?!

The Engine House – the SVR’s impressive visitor centre at Highley once again provides a grandstand view of the battle, and it’s at Highley that wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill (played by re-enactor Robbie Burns) will arrive beforehand with Field Marshal Montgomery to inspect the troops - though visitors are in for a bigger surprise, with the ‘unannounced’ arrival there of King George VI (portrayed by Dan Hindman) and the Queen Consort (Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother).

The Engine House will also host an impressive mock-up of a live RAF wartime operations room, and from the restaurant balcony, visitors will be able to watch 20-year-old singer Marina Mae as she jogs musical memories with a repertoire of ‘40s songs.

Hampton Loade station which has always retained its standard Great Western Railway 1930s appearance at previous ‘1940s Weekends’, joins the fold for the first time, the volunteer staff there under Station Master Steve Docherty joining the ‘war effort’, and falling in with the ‘sandbags and blackout curtains’ appearance of other SVR stations.

At Bridgnorth, visitors may catch sight of ‘George Formby’, complete with his ukulele - a very persuasive act by imitator Paul Harper, who is supported in his impromptu singing at the railway’s northern terminus by professional singer Lola Lamour. On the two Saturdays, Prime Minister Winston Churchill will pay an official visit at 3.30pm, before returning to Kidderminster on the 4.40pm train.

But nothing reawakens an era better than its music, and The Allen Francis Big Band  - the former works band of a now long-closed Worcester steelworks - returns to the SVR to bring alive again the unmistakable Glenn Miller sound, at Kidderminster’s two Saturday night Big Band Shows (7.30pm).

For many the climax of the weekend, the Big Band concerts and singalongs are served by an evening train from Bridgnorth (departing at 6.35pm, stopping all stations, and returning from Kidderminster at 11.00pm).

Throughout each day, the Middleton Youth Band from Middleton, Manchester, will be on a roving commission, giving live performances at Kidderminster, Arley and Bridgnorth stations.

Tickets for the evening concerts cost £10, while ‘Freedom of the Line’ all-day rover tickets can be bought in advance for £20, or £22.50  on the day, Seniors £18 / £20 on the day, and Children (4 -15)  £12.50 / £14.00). A one-day family ticket costs £54 if bought in advance, or £60 on the day.

As a mark of respect to those who made the ultimate sacrifice during World War II, a bugler will play ‘The Last Post’, the Union Flag will be lowered and prayers said in a short ceremony at Kidderminster station at around 4.30pm on both Sundays.