A Meeting with Tom Rolt

by David Rowlands

(from Ghosts & Scholars 11.)

Quite by chance it was Tom Rolt who put me on the road to making a collection of 'Jamesian' books, and it came about in this way:

In 1951 he had formed the first-ever railways preservation movement; to save and restore the Talyllyn Narrow Gauge Railway near Towyn in mid-Wales. Tom put in two seasons of his own time to run the railway in 1951 and 1952, but by the time I joined as a Junior Member in the Spring of 1953 he was only an occasional visitor to Towyn.

In my Dad's office was a young clerk who was a keen TRPS member. Finding that I was a member, he persuaded my Dad to lend him our car for the weekend to take me to Towyn and join in a working party. His true motivation, I'm afraid, was to have the use of the car for a weekend of courting his girl in Aberystwyth! In pursuit of this end, he took me to Towyn all right, but simply dumped me on the working party there and shot off in the car.

Understandably the other working party members were none too pleased at having this kid on their hands; especially since their work was pretty difficult and unromantic: clearing waterlogged drainage ditches alongside the track. Of course, I soon tired of the job, and in the course of messing about, managed to fall into one of the ditches and get soaked.

It was a pretty cold day and by the time it dawned on the others that they ought to do something about my condition, I was well chilled. One of them had to walk down to the nearest phone (about a mile!) to get someone out to fetch me, since the working party were not scheduled for collection by a train until evening.

Eventually a car arrived for me - an old Alvis. The driver was a man of relatively few words; no doubt he was fed up with this blessed kid who had caused the problem. Back at the Wharf station office I was ensconced in front of a blazing stove to dry, and given a cup of tea. As was my wont, I got out of my pocket a book to read: the new Pan edition of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1953), which we had been persuaded to spend two weeks' pocket money on, at the Eton Bookshop.

The man who had given me the lift back to Towyn came through the office, and happened to notice what I was reading. To my surprise, he became considerably more chatty. Did I like ghost stories? Did I like these particular ghost stories? (I hadn't actually got much further than "The Ash-Tree" at the time!).

I must - inevitably - have shown some enthusiasm for MRJ's work, for he went on to tell me about one or two other books I could get from my public library. In the front of my paperback, I noted down The Collected Ghost Stories of MRJ (a copy turned up in the secondhand bookshop in Uxbridge about a month later!) and also Malden's Nine Ghosts and Munby's The Alabaster Hand. The Malden was available as a remaindered edition at that same bookshop (the 1947 reprint), but it took quite some chasing to get the Munby from the library... and it was several years before I found a copy for myself.

I asked the man working in the station office who the gentleman with the Alvis was, and he said (I thought) "Colonel Rolt", though I was not aware of his holding this rank. In retrospect it may have been a railway joke - identifying Rolt with the redoubtable Colonel Stephens, doyen of the impecunious minor railway.

When Tom published his classic Railway Adventure later that same year (I got a copy at Christmas) I was able to learn a bit more about him. I have often wondered that he did not mention his own stories (Sleep No More was still in print in 1953), but possibly he would have considered that immodest.

Copyright (c) 1989 David Rowlands

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