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.
Photo courtesy of visitlancashire.com.
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!
Like this? Why not leaf through my other articles from Lancashire.
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If you’re a “non-film person” like me, this is one experience that travel never brings: recognising a film set. That’s an experience I’ve never once had anywhere in the World – and probably never will! However, it’s fabulous to stand in a place steeped in history, imagining what the walls have seen and what secrets lay within…I think we’ve had an exchange along those lines before. It’s a feeling that brings a place to life…a real tingle factor moment.
Glad you appreciated this little corner of English film history despite not being all that bothered about films. For a movie nut like me it was a real thrill, truly one of my favourite spots of northwest England.
Oh, I love the train with flowers – that’s a friendly way of saying ‘welcome’! The bookshop looks like a good place to spend some time (probably more than just an hour or two). And that is indeed a … 🙊 cool clock at the train station. What a nice place the railway station must be to explore with the movie as the background – enjoy your next visit here with Sladja.
So glad you liked it Corna! Carnforth is a delightful village and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a delightful railway station. If you’ve never seen the film I highly recommend it.
I have not seen the movie … and to me, that sounds like the perfect way of enjoying a Sunday evening!
What a lovely little town to explore. I’ve actually never heard of it nor have I seen the movie, but I love visiting places where you can arrive and leave by train, especially if there is a decent bookshop to stop by. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva
So glad this was a revelation for you! Carnforth is a little English gem.
Nothing like stepping back in time, except maybe seeing a familiar place in a new film. I’m going to have to look that film up now. Glad Carnforth capitalized on their claim to fame. I am with you Leighton, I was never sure why they put a grilled tomato with a cooked breakfast. Here, we will often have fried fresh tomato slices with toast, but a whole tomato half? Thanks for sharing. Happy Sunday. Allan
I’d love to know what you think of A Brief Encounter Allan. A little comical in parts, mainly due to the language and attitudes of the times. But nevertheless a compelling and well acted story. Have a great Sunday!
Okay, now I need more than a Brief Encounter with Carnforth. Sounds like a perfect destination. Canal walks if the weather cooperates, book store as a place worthy of dozens and dozens of visits. And of course the train station for multiple explorations. And I like grilled tomatoes so that breakfast is calling to me. I just need to find a copy of the movie.
Hooray! Even the tomato came through for you. Glad Carnforth ticks all your boxes, hope you can grab a copy online. I have a suggestion on how you may do that, but better not post it here 😉
I think I have already found a copy. Now to find the time to watch it. May have to watch it more than once though so it might be a double popcorn viewing.
Carnforth looks an attractive little place and it’s bookshop is gorgeous. I’m a fan of the classic film ‘Brief Encounter’ too and had read about it beiling filmed from that station. Hope your weekend is going well. Marion
Thanks Marion. It’s amazing how much of the station they have managed to preserve over the years. Great weather here today in Staffordshire, albeit still pretty chilly needless to say.
I love that they’ve recreated the set for the movie. Your enthusiasm about it makes me want to see the film! Maggie
Thanks Maggie, do let me know what you think of the film if you watch it.
The train station is straight out of 1945! It looks so cozy and inviting. I hope your cousin slipped you some of those delicious looking pastries.
Great to have you back John! Sadly no free pastries but definitely, shall we say, generous portions with the breakfast. We’ll be back at the end of the month, looking forward to another train station breakfast with Sladja.
What a beautiful railway station, I love it 🙂
Thanks for dropping by Hannah.
A charming little place, and it’s incredible that Carnforth has played a major role in such a British film classic! That railway station looks like a delight (considering that I recently wrote an article of beautiful stations in Europe, I’ll need to add this one to the list!), and to return for a visit to see family adds a familial flair to it all.
Hey Rebecca, glad you appreciated Carnforth’s retro vibe. Sladja is looking forward to seeing the station for herself at the end of the month.
I love the train with flowers, seems a very fitting welcome from such a charming city. I am with you and love seeing film sets in real life. The apartment we live in is in half the NYC skyline shots and Jon and I always say “there’s our building” haha
Well, there’s movie locations and then there’s NYC, a giant breathing beast of a movie set. Very cool that your building is in there somewhere on that iconic stretch of skyline.
Carnforth looks so charming with all those old brick buildings. The Carnforth Bookshop looks so delightful and I feel like I could spend the whole day there. That’s neat that you were able to visit many of the filming locations in A Brief Encounter.
It’s a wonderful bookshop, though in retrospect the store featured in an upcoming article (coming soon) probably trumps it. Thanks for your contribution, as ever 🙂
Looks like a lovely little town. I enjoyed how you wove the movie theme into your post. The bookstore; oh my, I could spend a lot of time and money there!
Thank you so much, I’m glad you liked this one. The bookshop is indeed amazing. Keep your eyes peeled for an (arguably) more impressive bookstore in my Sunday post. Hope you are well!
I have never been to Carnforth but an interesting site. That is great that you are enjoying your time there… such a great vacation. Anita
Cheers Anita, Carnforth feels like something of a secret. I’m so glad the station doesn’t get mobbed with visitors.
There’s so much more to see in this town than just your uncle! But good to have an excuse to go. The canal looks like fun and I’m sure I would get lost in the three-story (or many more, pun intended) bookstore. I’m not familiar with the movie, but your clips evoke the feeling of the town and the romance.
Hey Ruth, glad I could capture a sense of what makes this such a special place. Hope you are well and that spring is slowly but surely making its way towards you.
Just returned from my road trip (posts to come). A snowstorm to welcome me back. Spring is a ways off around here!
What a treat to see this place as we just watched that movie not too long ago! I love that they have maintained the place to keep the feel of the movie. And that bookstore looks like my kind of place. I would probably spend a lot of time going through that wooden cabinet with all the sheet music.
Aaah what a happy coincidence. Thanks for taking my virtual tour of Carnforth Meg. Sladja and I are going to watch the film in a week or two before we go and visit my uncle at the end of the month. It’ll be her first viewing.
Looks like a really interesting village, what an historic train station!
Absolutely, thanks for liking and taking the time to say hi.
Great article about this charming English town. The history behind the train station is awesome!!!
Thank you for reading and leaving a comment, I’m glad to have spread the word about this village.