Travel Report: Carnforth, England.
The cosy English market town of Carnforth lies in the north west of England in the bucolic county of Lancashire. With a population of just under 6000, it’s a discreet and peaceful locale that could be entirely inconsequential to the casual traveller. If not, that is, for its connection to an essential piece of 1940s cinema.
As it happens, I’m a huge fan of the movie that put Carnforth on the map. But actually that wasn’t the primary reason I’d come to town. Rather, I had arrived in Carnforth for a long overdue catchup with my Uncle Dave. I hadn’t seen my “favourite uncle” (as he always insists) for nearly a decade. Thus to Carnforth I came for a delightful four nights reconnecting with D, his wife and their (now grown up) children.
For the most part I used Carnforth as a base to explore Lancaster, Morecambe and a bit of the Lake District. We also did some local hiking, keep your eyes open for that in an upcoming article.
However, Carnforth itself proved every bit as memorable as its more popular neighbours. For my days of independent exploring, I’d invariably set off on foot through the town towards Carnforth Railway Station. On the way, I would pass the endearing Welcome to Carnforth train sign. Then came the handsome Canal Turn Pub, a listed building that enjoys a wonderful location on a bend of the Lancaster Canal.
It originally served as the town’s Canal Warden House before being renovated into a pub in 2001. Next time I’d love to grab some food here. And perhaps do the canal walk from Carnforth to the nearby village of Bolton-le-Sands.
One afternoon I stopped to check out Carnforth War Memorial, situated in a small garden square on Market Street. Installed in 1924, it honours the soldiers of Carnforth who lost their lives serving Britain during World War I and II.
The memorial holds the inscribed names of 70 soldiers. Interestingly, a silent 6-minute film of the statue’s unveiling has survived the years and now exists on DVD at The North West Film Archive in Manchester.
For such a small town, Carnforth has what can only be described as a magnificent bookshop. Opened in 1977 on the site of an older Victorian bookstore, Carnforth Bookshop is a lovingly crafted space that stretches out across three floors.
The ground floor itself is impressive enough, with its impeccably kept shelves packed with over a thousand titles. Want to test run a novel? Just pop yourself on one of the painted wooden stalls and have a quick read.
But it’s not until you get to the upper floors that the true charm of the place reveals itself. There, you’ll find sprawling collections of books split into a huge variety of literary genres.
According to a painted sign, they have around 100.000 second hand books to sift through. You name it they’ve got it, from sci-fi, comedy, history, biographies, comics, sport, movies and more.
Furthermore, they do tasteful bookmarks and playful animal-themed bookends. They also sell cards, toys, stationery, maps and have a large wooden chest packed with drawers of sheet music! I had a nose through one marked Guitar Music, Folk and Classical. Then another drawer, Popular Songs of the 1920s.
Make no mistake though, my favourite Carnforth site is the Railway Station itself, the filming location for David Lean’s acclaimed 1945 romantic drama A Brief Encounter.
Starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, A Brief Encounter follows the story of Laura and Alec, who embark on a passionate affair after a chance meeting at Milford Junction Railway Station. The only issue is that they’re both married, which certainly made for a risqué plot back in 1945!
Weirdly, Milford Junction Railway Station was in North Yorkshire, but closed down in 1904. While Lean kept the station name for his film, he and his crew shot the majority of the picture at Carnforth. 74 years later and it’s amazing how much of the station looks and feels so familiar to the scenes in the movie.
What a nerd I am, but truly I felt my heart skip a beat as I made my way through the underpass onto one of the platforms. Quite literally following in Laura and Alec’s steps. By the way, that f****ing cool clock was in the movie too. It’s a J.B. Joyce & Co model that arrived at the station in 1895.
Just think, this clock would have watched soldiers jumping onto trains and heading off to war. In fact, The Second World War was still unfolding when A Brief Encounter was shot in February 1945. By the 1980s the clock had fallen into disrepair. It was later removed from the station to be fixed, which is when many of the original parts got lost.
Eventually, after years of work, The Carnforth Station Railway Trust tracked down its original components and, hooray!, the clock returned to the station. It has since been through several restoration projects to keep it in tiptop shape.
In recent years the clock found itself at the centre of a local scandal. This is when trusty clock winder Jim Walker got banned from the station for alleged racist comments. The sorry affair, hotly contested by all sides, even resulted in the clock coming to a standstill for 11 months because there was nobody to wind it! You can read more about the story here.
A Brief Encounter.
Much of the movie plays out in the station’s Refreshment Room, where Laura and Alec meet. It’s also where Laura stews over her unsatisfactory marriage, and that she is fast falling in love with Alec.
“It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly. So very easy, and so very degrading”.
Those scenes actually took place in a custom built set offsite. Nevertheless, the movie’s Refreshment Room has been lovingly brought to life within Carnforth station.
How delighted I was to see that every effort had been made to keep things looking authentic. The bar looked particularly faithful, so much so that I was half expecting to see cafe owner Myrtle Bagot appear and ask, “What can I get ya?” Rather, it was my own cousin Ewan who greeted me, as back in 2019 he had a part time job working in the cafe!
Behind the bar, there are sketches of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in their roles, in addition to Stanley Holloway, who played the ticket inspector.
Couples can even grab a table for two in a quiet corner, similar to the spot Laura and Alec sit for an intimate chat. A framed photo of the onscreen lovebirds makes it one of the cafe’s most popular tables.
In a side space meanwhile, styled as a 1940s living room, I came across some local antiques, framed archive photographs of the station and a further sketch of Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson.
It would have been so easy, I suppose, for a cafe like this to be all style over substance. And yet, I would give the fantastic cooked breakfast I had here 9/10. The minus point (yes I’m being pernickety) goes for the cardinal sin of having a grilled tomato. #nohardfeelings
If Carnforth Railway Station’s delights had ended there, I’d have been content. But next, with a happy and full stomach, I spent an hour exploring the fascinating Carnforth Station Heritage Centre. Here, I quickly lost myself in the history of Lancashire’s rail networks and its display of memorabilia.
The centre even had a little cinema that kept the movie rolling throughout the day. Plastering the walls on either side of the screen were panels detailing the making of the film, including a biography of director David Lean.
Back on the platform I breathed in the calm and rejoiced the fact that Carnforth isn’t one of those manic stations where commuters rush back and forth from dusk till dawn.
This makes it easy to poke around and savour the experience. To imagine what it must have been like when the cast and crew came here to shoot one of the most acclaimed films in the history of British cinema.
“Nothing lasts really, neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore”.
I’ve seen some fine railway stations across the world during my 20+ years of global travel. But I can honestly say that so far Carnforth is my favourite. At the time of writing I have just booked up another stay with my uncle, nearly three years after the visit documented in this piece.
Naturally I’m looking forward to showing Sladja around and will be sure to update this piece with a shot of us at the station. Hopefully the clock, which I hear is away again for restoration, will be back by the time we roll up. Cheers Carnforth!
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