Brief encounter in Lancashire

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, August 15, 2019

The 1945 British film Brief Encounter centered around two people, played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, who meet at a railway station. Their love story is set against a gritty background of steam railroading. The Image Place
I felt my pulse quickening as we got off the local train from Liverpool last week and made our way up the long ramp to the opposite station platform. There it was, looming over us like Big Ben itself, a huge J.B. Joyce & Co. clock, the one they call the “second-most famous in all of England,” its Roman numerals pegged at 12:20 p.m.

It could only be one place: Carnforth, Lancashire, one of the most charming passenger stations you’ll ever encounter, and one of the three stars of a truly great movie.

I’m guessing some of you like Brief Encounter as much as I do. Filmed in 1945, starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard and directed by the great David Lean, it’s a taut, tense, ultimately heart-wrenching story of a halting affair between two people who by chance meet at the station. Both married to someone else, they try to resist their attraction for each other, their earnest flirtations played out against the relentless pressure of the London, Midland & Scottish Railway’s timetable and that implacable clock. 

Today’s audiences — especially younger ones — might find the movie dated or melodramatic. There are no action heroes, no violence, no digital effects, just a couple of middle-class Brits suddenly in over their heads — to the music of Rachmaninoff.    

The movie doesn’t need me to defend it. Celia Johnson earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. In 1999, the British Film Institute named it the second-greatest English film of all time, behind only Carol Reed’s The Third Man. In 2010, London’s Guardian newspaper named it the No. 1 romantic film of all time, with Michael Thomson writing “Brief Encounter has survived . . . because it is so well made, because Laura’s voiceover narration is truly anguished and dreamy, because the music suckers all of us, and because Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are perfect.”

Filming took place at the London, Midland & Scottish Railway's station in Carnforth, Lancashire. The station clock, so prominent in the film, still serves rail travelers. Kevin P. Keefe
Then there was the movie’s No. 7 position in Trains magazine’s 100 Greatest Train Movies, published in 2010. In it, critic John Farr wrote, “The wonder of Brief Encounter lies in the spare potency of its execution, creating a heartbreaking immediacy and authenticity.”

The movie deserves its high rank among railroad movies. Filmed largely at night in deep black-and-white, the film is peppered with scenes of LMS locomotives and trains roaring past the platform in clouds of steam, their shrill whistles screaming into the night. It’s as if O. Winston Link himself was looking over the shoulder of cinematographer Robert Krasker the whole time. 

Carnforth was a fortuitous choice for the movie’s prime location. The long, ornate brick station was built in sections in the late 19th century, its arches and filigree a perfect expression of English charm. Although filmed late in World War II, the station was far enough north — 250-plus miles from London, generally beyond the range of German Heinkels — to avoid blackout regulations. Director Lean had the run of the place.

Restored in 2000–03, today’s Carnforth station is a shrine to the movie and a frequent destination for fans like me. The clock and the platforms look pretty much the same as in 1945, and inside is a re-creation of the movie coffee shop where Johnson and Howard’s characters discovered each other.

A screen shot from Brief Encounter hints at the film's evocative, almost Linkian depiction of steam in full cry after dark.
Our lunch, served by a couple of earnest young people, was quite good. And I’m glad we ordered when we did, because five minutes later a tour bus pulled up and perhaps 30 Brief Encounter pilgrims poured in for lunch, something I suspect happens often. The crowd — 90 percent female — looked as though they might have been around for the premiere. 

Other rooms in the station beckon. In one, there’s an exhibit of David Lean’s career, with an illustrated timeline that shows his transition from small, intimate dramas like Brief Encounter to his epic blockbusters The Bridge on the River KwaiLawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago. That amazing contrast is a measure of Lean’s greatness. 

In other parts of the station you can learn more about the making of Brief Encounter, or even watch the movie in a small studio theater. In the gift shop are all manner of souvenirs dedicated to the film, from DVDs to T-shirts to hardcover biographies of Celia Johnson. The volunteer staff is as helpful as can be.

The station is warm and comforting, but eventually the nearly constant rumble of trains outside pulled me out to where the action is. The depot is located between two sets of tracks, one set that serves the station with local service provided by the U.K. company Northern, the other the double track of the West Coast Main Line, sealed off from the platform by metal railings but otherwise highly visible. It seemed there was a train at one or the other location every 10 minutes.

Visitors to Carnforth can purchase refreshments in the recreated station cafe, the setting for much of the film's action. Kevin P. Keefe
The West Coast Main Line trains are the most exciting, of course, especially Virgin Trains’ class 390 EMU trainsets, knifing through Carnforth in a 125-mph blur of red and yellow. You never get tired of watching a show like that. There are also a fair number of goods trains, with the West Coast line carrying 40 percent of U.K. freight traffic. Throughout my trip, I was surprised at how often I saw English, Welsh & Scottish class 66 diesels — built by EMD in London, Ontario — still in their Wisconsin Central-inspired maroon and yellow a decade years after EWS became a “fallen flag.” 

You could spend the better part of a day at Carnforth and never get bored. It’s a showcase for the “big show” of dense, fast U.K. railroading.

But we couldn’t linger for long. Eventually our Northern train for Leeds arrived and we were obliged to leave the main platform, walk under that big clock again, and catch a two-car class 156 Sprinter diesel multiple-unit trainset for a delightful, bouncy ride through the Lancashire countryside. I was delighted to see you could open its “standee” windows and enjoy the fresh farm air and the sound of four-wheel trucks hammering jointed rail. 

I’ll think about returning to Carnforth someday, though, just as soon as the movie comes up on the telly again, calling to me again with those haunting, film noir images of LMS Princess Royal–class 4-6-2s screaming past a tearful Celia Johnson.

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