30 April 2024

Attempted murder on the Waterloo express? : 1971 : Bagshot railway station

 Kapow! There was an explosion. Before I even grasped what had just happened, I could see I was covered with shards of glass. What was that noise? The train window I was sat next to had suddenly vanished and was in pieces on me and the seat. Luckily, I had not been looking towards the window at the time, otherwise my face would have been injured. Luckily, because it was winter, I was wearing an army surplus hat with furry earflaps that had protected my head and ears. Luckily, I was wearing a coat over my school blazer, gloves and long trousers that had shielded me, these winter woollies necessary because trains’ heating systems rarely functioned adequately.

I caught the ten-past-eight number 28 train every day for seven years from Camberley station to my school half-an-hour away in Egham. It was part of a commuter route propelling workers on the one-hour journey into London’s busy Waterloo terminus. Travelling to school this way felt like stepping into Narnia through the wardrobe door of our suburban British Rail station. Journeys were populated by strange characters not present in my normal day-to-day homelife. The station platform was awash with bowler-hatted, suited gentlemen carrying leather briefcases and rolled-up umbrellas. Women were a rare sight. Humourless station staff in uniforms shouted announcements about delays in the tone of army drill sergeants. Bumptious Terry-Thomas ticket inspectors walked through train carriages, looking down their noses at our thick green cardboard season tickets as if we were interlopers on their Orient Express.

At least the trains on our line were relatively modern electric rolling stock. As a small child, I recall standing at the top of the open footbridge over Camberley station, looking down at the signal box beside the level crossing and feeling clouds of smoke envelope me from a steam train passing underneath. Or was that a ‘Railway Children’-inspired false memory, acquired from reminiscences by my grandfather who had worked unloading timber for local building firm ‘Dolton, Bournes & Dolton’ in the goods yard beside the station? He had been made redundant in the early 1960’s for the yard to be replaced by a new ring road and Camberley ‘bus station’, in reality no more than a line of bus stops and tiny shelters without a waiting room. After my afternoon arrival in Camberley by train to await the hourly 39B (40 minutes past every hour) or two-hourly 34A bus (15 minutes past even hours) for the final two-mile journey home, I would have to walk over to the railway station lobby and sit opposite the ticket window to keep warm and dry.

My schoolfriends and I were the Pevensie children of Camberley, rendezvousing every morning at the very rear of the station’s eastbound platform that could accommodate only four carriages, despite our train normally being eight. When the train driver pulled up close to the signal at the top of the platform, we could just about clamber up to open the first door of the fifth carriage from the platform’s sloping end. Those rear four carriages became our playground because, until the train reached Ascot station’s longer platform, we had that section entirely to ourselves. No other passengers, no train staff. We could be as loud and unruly as we wanted. We would walk down the corridor to sit at the very rear of the train because, eventually alighting at Egham station’s full-length platform, we would be right next to the exit gate.

When the incident happened that morning, the train had slowed down to pull into Bagshot station and was about to cross the Guildford Road viaduct, a massively tall structure of four arches built in 1878. On either side of this bridge carrying dual train tracks were high embankments with steep, near vertical sides. On the north side, below the railway, was a vast tract of land owned by ‘Waterers Nurseries’ since 1829 to grow and sell plants. Before reaching that was Bagshot Infant School, set back from the embankment, on School Lane that ended in a footpath passing under the embankment towards Bagshot Green farm on the south side. At the time, undeveloped land stretched on both sides and (unlike now) the embankment was not bordered by trees.

Could a person have thrown a stone from the north side to make the train window next to me shatter? Unlikely because the embankment on which the train passed was too steep to stand upon. If the culprit had stood further away, below the embankment, a rock could not have reached the height necessary to make contact with the train, nor would it have retained sufficient momentum to smash the window with enough force for it to have not merely cracked, but to have shattered in its entirety.

What kind of projectile could have caused such damage? A powerful gun of some kind could have generated the necessary velocity and momentum for its bullet to shatter the thick glass window. A gunman (or woman?) would have needed practiced skill to aim upwards from the land below the embankment, or possibly to have lain half-way up the embankment adjacent to the footpath (now 'School Lane Field'). In either case, it would have required planning and experience to succeed in such a challenging topography next to the train route. Since only two trains per hour travelled in either direction, this act could not have been a spur-of-the-moment impulse.

Why was the window I had sat beside targeted? As the train decelerated to enter Bagshot station, the rear carriages would have passed at a slower speed, making them an easier moving target than the front ones. Us schoolboys were habitually the only passengers anywhere in those rear four carriages, making my head the one visible sign of on-board life amongst dozens of otherwise empty train windows. That implies that my window must have been purposefully selected as the intended target. It was a dark winter morning and the internal carriage lighting would have made my outline visible from outside the train.

So where did the bullet land? Only one thing was certain: it had not hit me, otherwise I would not be here to tell the tale. Did we look to see if a bullet had passed over my head and become embedded in the carriage’s structure? No. In that pre-‘CSI’ era, forensic science remained an unknown foreign land. From watching weekly television detective shows, all we understood was that ‘McCloud’ cracked cases by riding his horse down Broadway, ‘Columbo’ used his raincoat and ‘McMillan’ solved crimes by getting into bed with sweatshirt-wearing wife Sally. In the aftermath, I had not even deduced that I had likely been targeted by somebody shooting a gun. That is how unworldly I must have been, though I had always enjoyed the pellet-gun target shooting stall at the fair's bi-annual visits to Camberley Recreation Ground.

So how DID I react to this dramatic event? Did I scream? Cry? Sob uncontrollably? No, I simply stood up, brushed off the glass fragments that had covered me, and our little group moved to an adjoining carriage where the breeze through the vacant window would not make us feel colder. Even had we wanted to, there was nothing we could have done immediately. There were no train staff in those rear carriages and, once the train stopped in Bagshot station, its platform was too short to get out. Only once we reached Ascot was the platform long enough to deboard. So, did we? No, because if we had raised the alarm, we realised the fickle finger of fate might have pointed to us bunch of schoolboys for having broken the window. Which British Rail jobsworth would have believed our story that someone laying on a grassy knoll in Bagshot must have targeted me for assassination?

Leaving the train at Egham twenty-five minutes later, we could see the void where the window had exploded in front of our eyes. Nobody else seemed to have noticed the gaping hole or had bothered to halt the train to investigate. If they had, we might have arrived late for school that day. That would have been a fate worse than death. We had already brushed aside the incident and were more concerned with the school day ahead of us. Once I returned home that evening, I did not even bother mentioning to my parents what had happened. Only years later would I realise what a close call I had experienced that winter morning at the age of thirteen.

For us kids, trekking from one end of Surrey to the other every weekday on public transport, strange events would occur regularly in this otherworld. Our trains were sometimes cancelled, or rerouted through stations that were unknown to us, or suspended when someone jumped to their death off the footbridge at Egham station. In the latter case, some of us would watch morbidly for the arrival of emergency services whose crew had to scoop up the person’s bloodied remains spread along the tracks by a speeding train. Our unspoken attitude was: almost anything could happen on our way to and from school … and often did. It was a daily expedition into a world beyond ours, populated by weird adults to whom we appeared to be invisible.

Once a year, during ‘Royal Ascot’ week in June, our train would fill with bizarrely overdressed racegoers with strange toff accents and extremely loud voices who carried bottles of alcohol, swayed precariously and occasionally were sick on the carriage floor. They were much worse behaved than we had ever been, their conversations often ribald and filled with profanities. Did anyone chastise them, force them off the train or tell them to act respectfully in front of us children? Not at all! They did precisely what the upper classes are wont to do with their own children: they ignored us totally and appeared completely unembarrassed by their own behaviours.

I recalled the Bagshot train incident when, half a century later, I went for a run through rural France on a bright summer morning. There was no traffic and no visible human activity as I ran down the middle of a tarmacked road flanked on both sides by flat agricultural land. The only noise was birdsong until … a high velocity bullet whizzed above my head from left to right. I stopped running, turned in the direction from which it had come and shouted profanities (in English) at the top of my voice. Without my glasses, I was unable to see far enough into the distance to spot the culprit. This was no accident. I could not have been mistaken by a hunter for an animal. I was clearly visible on a ‘departmental’ road, not in the middle of woodland. But I had been the only object moving in this static landscape and that seemed sufficient to unwittingly make me a target.

If I were superstitious, I might be worried about ‘third time lucky’.

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