Let’s be honest, you can take the plot and characters of most romantic films with a pinch of salt. But the 1945 classic Brief Encounter is a genuine weepy; and not just dabbing a single tear on the cheek, but a full-blown, sobbing, duvet-sized handkerchief affair.
It’s the tale of two respectable, kind-hearted strangers, both happily married with children, who meet by chance at Milford Junction train station. She, Laura (played by Celia Johnson) tries to wipe away a fragment of grit blown into her eye by a passing steam locomotive. He, Alec, (Trevor Howard) comes to her aid. They immediately hit it off, and regular Thursday meetings at the station refreshment room allow friendship to blossom into something more.
I won’t spoil the ending for those not in the know, but wonderfully, Milford Junction does exist, or at least the station scenes were filmed at a real station, Carnforth, in Lancashire. And Carnforth’s story is almost as heart-warming as the cinema classic. Filming took place in February 1945 and Carnforth met every need: it was a mainline station, and most importantly, far from the wartime blackout restrictions that still applied to the south.
But Beeching’s 1960s reports removed Carnforth’s mainline status. Its buildings fell into disrepair and it became a sleepy regional outpost until a local charitable trust resuscitated its fortunes in the early 2000s.
Today the Carnforth Station Heritage Centre on Platform One welcomes visitors with bunting, a picket fence, stacks of vintage leather suitcases and the iconic black, green and cream station clock that featured in the film. The porters and telegraph rooms have been converted into exhibition areas, some devoted to the station’s film links, its actors and the director David Lean; others to its rail history.
The most romantic way to arrive is by train from Lancaster, where the line crosses the River Lune before suddenly all but leaping into Morecambe Bay. It’s like stepping back into a world of black and white.
A long way away
The film even runs on a loop, and since it’s only 90 minutes long you could comfortably watch the whole thing – I did – or just wander around to the backdrop of its main theme, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2. Afterwards, you can wash away the lump in your throat at the adjacent Brief Encounter refreshment rooms. This was the setting for many of Laura and Alec’s trysts, and retains much of the original flavour and furnishings. The floor is still wooden, the amber tulip lamps hang from the walls, the till register rests at the bar, and in photographs, Laura stands winsome and lonesome at the counter. The food is good, from bacon butties to large servings of cottage pie and a wide selection of cakes.
And, a little strangely – or was my imagination getting the better of me? – the café seemed full of assignations between people who weren’t each other’s official better half. Dropped spoons were bashfully picked up, and there were nervous glances over shoulders. Should a piece of grit be thrown up by a passing inter-city when you visit, who knows who might appear at your elbow to wipe it away.
HOW TO GET THERE
Carnforth is a working station and can be reached from Lancaster (Virgin Trains) and Manchester (Cross Country), in each case connecting with Northern Rail.
FIND OUT MORE
Carnforth Station Heritage Visitor Centre