Reading Station – Easter 2013

This is a lengthy Public Information post on Reading station.

Reading station is a major rail interchange in a town in Berkshire. In the 2010-11 passenger figures, still the most recent available, it had 14,400,405 entries and exits, 2,898,671 attributed interchanges and the status of being the 25th busiest station on National Rail, as well as being the busiest largely unelectrified station in England and Wales. The current station, largely dating from the early 20th century with some 1980s additions, has been deemed unsuitable for this level of traffic flow and will be substantially redesigned this Easter.

On Monday 8th of April 2013, Reading station will re-open with several major changes. Those familiar with the station will find the place practically unrecognisable. It’s the third of a string of major blockades of the station as part of its remodelling – there are still several more to come – but internally marks the sixth phase of development.

This is what we began from – in April 2009:Reading 5 JPGMain line side of station looking towards London, during engineering works closing these two platforms – No. 4 (Down Main) on the right, the Up Through running through the middle and No. 5  (Up Main) on the left. The Southern bay platforms 4a and 4b (officially for Charing Cross, but actually served by Waterloo and Gatwick Airport trains) are under the footbridge in the distance. The large yellow brick structure is the station’s original main building, which will survive the project and maintain its role as the Three Guineas pub. It was abandoned by British Rail in 1989.

Reading 6 JPGRelief line side of station, also looking towards London, during a rare quiet moment. The bay platform to the right is No. 7, this is No. 8 (No. 6 was the bay at the other end of the station) and No. 9 is off to the left. Bay platform 10 is at the far end of No. 9. In the middle is space for an additional line for through movements and loco stabling, long ago abolished. Goods trains ran around the goods loops discretely laid behind the buildings on platform 9.

Reading 7 JPGAnother London-facing view from the east end of platform 4, with both platforms 4a and 4b to the right occupied by South West Trains “Juniper” units and a Thames Turbo in platform 6 to the left. All Reading through platforms have signals at both ends to allow trains to depart in either direction.

The platforms were used broadly as follows:

  • Platform 1: Terminating stopping trains to and from Newbury and Bedwyn (west end bay);
  • Platform 2: Terminating stopping trains to and from Basingstoke (west end bay);
  • Platform 3: Terminating Cross Country services, predominantly to and from Newcastle (west end bay);
  • Platform 4: Down Main – all fast trains from London Paddington to Bristol, South Wales, Oxford, Banbury, Worcester, Hereford, Gloucester/ Cheltenham, Bedwyn, Westbury, Exeter, Paignton, Plymouth and Penzance  (a status held since the station opened in 1837);
  • Platforms 4a/b: Charing Cross bays – no longer used by South Eastern trains, instead handling the suburban service from London Waterloo (simply advertised as “Waterloo”, no doubt partly to discourage the uninitiated from embarking on this hour-long journey to get to London) and most of the services from Guildford, Redhill and Gatwick Airport. The only electrified platforms in the station;
  • Up Through: Predominantly used by empty moves, since most passenger trains stop at Reading (there are a couple of exceptions in the morning peak) and goods trains use the relief lines and goods loops;
  • Platform 5: Up Main – majority of fast trains to London Paddington returning from the destinations listed under 4;
  • Platform 6: Up Relief-side Bay – terminating stopping trains from London Paddington and their return workings (advertised as going to Ealing Broadway, again to discourage the uninitiated) plus occasional Gatwick trains which didn’t fit into 4a/b;
  • Platform 7: Down Relief-side Bay – usually Cross Country services reversing on journeys between the North of England and the South Coast or return;
  • Platform 8: Down Relief – stopping trains to Didcot and Oxford (Oxford ones advertised as terminating at Radley to discourage the uninitiated) plus occasional fast trains to London Paddington when Platform 5 needed a break;
  • Platform 9: Up Relief – stopping trains to London Paddington from Didcot and Oxford;
  • Platform 10: Up Relief-side Bay – terminating stopping trains from London Paddington and their return workings, alternating with Platform 6.

The first major blockade, over Christmas 2010 and into New Year 2011, had little obvious impact on the station itself and focused on bridge replacement to the west of the station. When the Great Western Railway was built Reading was a town of note and Jerome K. Jerome makes mention of the law courts decamping to Reading during London’s periodic medieval plagues. However, this was a town of note by early Victorian standards and it did not take long to get from the town centre to being back into fields again. Underbridges a few hundred yards from the station were built accordingly, mostly as cattle creeps. Several of these had ended up playing host to major roads, so the station was closed, the embankments dug out and new bridges installed.

There were then no advertised changes to the station for a year, but regular users may have noticed Things Going On – mostly on the Southern side.

When the South Eastern Railway arrived here from Charing Cross they built their own, low-level station – Reading Southern – alongside the GWR’s Reading General. One of British Rail’s bits of tidying-up was to move the Southern out of its station into General, but since nobody fancied laying the third rail installed for Waterloo commuter trains into Reading station proper the Southern trains got their own platforms – two of them, at the east end of platform 4, numbered 4a and 4b. Normally “a” and “b” suffixes are used to divide existing platforms in half, not to create two new platforms without bothering to renumber the rest of the station.

The 1970s platforms had two operational problems, both clearly visible in this picture:

Reading 8 JPGThe first is that the Southern trains barely fitted into their own platforms and the second is that for trains to get in and out of the platforms they had to pass over a fragment of single track. Despite it only being a fragment, it prevented a train from entering the station while another was leaving. This is quite an important skill when dealing with a two-platform terminus used by two routes (Reading to Waterloo and Reading to Gatwick) which have a half-hourly service throughout the day and additional trains in the peaks. So over Christmas 2011 a third Southern platform was brought into use, combined with a new track layout which allowed trains to enter and leave the station at the same time (so long as they weren’t crossing each other’s paths, of course). The two existing platforms were then removed and replaced with longer and more permanent platforms, creating a 12-car 3-platform terminus stretching out alongside the GWR station throat.

Reading 19 JPGThis also provided a handy opportunity, once the work was complete, to see what the rest of the station is going to look like – a bit flat and emotionless, but very modern.

At the same time the Down Relief bay platform, No. 7, was taken out of use. This created the possibility of a station with platforms 1-4, 4a-c, 5-6 and 8-10, which is a bit ridiculous so a renumbering scheme commenced – taking into account that the next stage of the project would be to add another four platforms.

  • Platforms 1-3 – no change.
  • Platform 4 – now platform 7.
  • Platforms 4a and b – now platforms 5 and 6.
  • New Southern platform – platform 4.
  • Platform 5 – now platform 8.
  • Platform 6 – now platform 16 (pending abolition).
  • Platform 7 – taken out of use and infilled.
  • Platforms 8-10 – now platforms 9-11.
  • Additional relief line platforms – to become platforms 12-15.

Reading 9 JPGThis was all helpfully explained by the above poster.

Old platform 7’s loss was keenly felt operationally – Cross Country trains which had reversed there on the way between the North of England and the South Coast now blocked new platforms 9 or 10 for 8 minutes. However, its elimination allowed the construction of the staircases for the new “transfer deck” – the huge 30 metre (100 foot) wide footbridge that is to link all these platforms together.

Passengers returning in the New Year 2012 found that according to the departure screens the Down Main now seemed to be handling Waterloo trains and the Down Relief Bay had acquired an intensive stream of Intercity trains. They also found that the new platform 10 was somewhat inferior to the old platform 9, since it had been extended out with a large curved temporary platform onto the space for the through line and in the process had lost its awning. The awning and associated buildings were then swiftly demolished.

Anyone on new platform 9 stood sniggering at the unfortunate and wet commuters on platform 10 was soon shut up when most of platform 9’s awning vanished too, along with those on 8 and 7. This was followed by the awning around platform 16 and then, for no very obvious reason, that covering 1 and 2. By the end of 2012 all that remained of the station’s shabby green awnings was a patch around the waiting room and footbridge on platforms 8 and 9 plus two lengths on platform 7 – one outside the original station building and one at the Down end shared with platform 3. 4-6 and bits of 8 and 9 had been equipped with the new awnings – strange blue things which do seem to keep the rain out. The remaining platforms had bits of corrugated plastic or, failing that, wet passengers.

Meanwhile work proceeded apace on platforms 12-15.

Reading 10 JPGReading station’s new platforms under construction in March 2012 from the footbridge connecting the station to the car park. The huge concrete foundation is for the north end of the new footbridge (except, footbridge being a rather passé term, it’s called a “transfer deck”) plus associated offices and booking hall. 

Reading 11 JPGA similar view from the same footbridge 11 months later, showing the new awnings on the virtually completed platforms. Part of platform 10’s new awning is being swung into place. The car park to station section of the footbridge had a support resting on the island platform in the foreground; to allow finishing works to the platform the support had to go so this half of the footbridge was taken out of use within a week of this picture being taken. The concrete foundation now has a booking hall on it.

The new footbridge was built by putting half of it together over the new platforms (where bits could be dropped without upsetting passing trains) then sliding it out over the supports to the new south staircase, after which the gap over the new platforms was filled by building the other half. In May 2012, this resulted in scenes like this:

Reading 12 JPGWhich by August 2012 had become scenes like this:

Reading 13 JPGIn April 2009 one could still catch a train from bay platform 7:

Reading 14 JPGBut by January 2013 that steam-age innocence view had turned into this scene:

Reading 15 JPGThe new bridge is being fitted out with considerable speed, which is good because it opens on Easter Tuesday (although for the duration of the Easter week the old through platforms will be shut and all trains will use the four new platforms and the south-side bays).

With 9 days to go, the current relief line side of the station looked like this:

Reading 16 JPGOne rather obvious improvement is that platform 10, to the right, now has a decent awning again. However, a peculiarity of the station roof design is that the awnings go up over the footbridge, which seems to have been designed for electrification to a Continental loading gauge. As a consequence there are parts of the platform where the awnings look a bit likely to be more decorative than protective, but with the spaces between awnings for the running lines being fairly tight it should not be an overwhelmingly serious problem.

Platform 7’s new awning is not yet in position; the current Down Main is awaiting a rebuild to move it out another 10 feet or so to face the current Up Through, after which it will be possible to install the awning.

The actual block

The block will be a rather untidy affair. The station’s through platforms will be closed outright from the early hours of Good Friday, the 29th of March, until the early hours of Easter Tuesday, the 2nd of April. During this time there will be a largely clockface timetable from Reading platforms 1 and 2 to Basingstoke on one hand (connecting with West of England trains) and Newbury, Bedwyn, Pewsey and Westbury (also connecting with West of England trains) on the other. Pewsey will be losing its (probably unique) accolade of being served solely by IC125 sets for the duration of the blockade.

Gatwick Airport and London Waterloo services will run largely as normal from platforms 4 and 5, providing Reading’s only through service to London.

Stopping services to Didcot and Maidenhead will be replaced by buses, although the branch from Twyford to Henley-on-Thames will be running broadly normally. Maidenhead to Slough will have train services and then buses will run to Hayes and Harlington to connect with onward rail services into Paddington.

North Cotswold trains from Hereford and Worcester and South Cotswold trains from Cheltenham and Gloucester will terminate at Didcot Parkway, with connections into London trains at Oxford and Reading respectively.

South Wales and Bristol trains will run at a modified frequency – hourly predominantly – to modified timings (e.g. the 0358 Saturday service from Swansea to London Paddington will depart at 0330 on the 30th of March). After Swindon they will call at Oxford and then run up to Banbury, reverse and head down the Great Western’s North Mainline into London Paddington. Certain trains will serve both South Wales and Bristol.

West of England trains will be diverted onto the London and South Western Railway between Salisbury and London Waterloo, calling additionally at Basingstoke in place of Reading.

Once the first phase of the block comes off Tuesday 2nd to Saturday 6th April will be spent running trains through the new side of Reading station, with platforms 7-11 out of use. Certain retimings will still be in force – e.g. the 0730 Paddington to Penzance via Bristol Temple Meads service will depart Paddington at 0718, but will still convey a Travelling Chef and pick up its booked path around Swindon.

Without platforms 7-11 there will be no direct route between London Paddington and Newbury. West of England trains booked to call at both places, such as the 1703 Paddington to Paignton, will have outrageously long journey times between the stations at Reading (depart 1738) and Reading West (depart 1755), which are normally about three minutes apart on a conservative schedule. Trains may take some convoluted routes in the process.

Then the block will come on again on Sunday 7th April, for one day only. Much the same arrangements will be in force as for the Easter weekend, except platforms 1 and 2 will also be shut so Basingstoke trains will be replaced by buses and trains from Newbury, Bedwyn and Westbury will terminate at Theale to connect into buses to Reading.

Full timetables, with only mildly inaccurate grey and pink covers, are available from major Western Region stations. Passengers are advised to check specific journey arrangements on the National Rail Enquiries website to be sure of picking up any last minute alterations or convoluted timetable features, particularly on Thames Valley suburban services.

The New Station

After Easter, platforms will usually be served as follows (with some variation as platforms 7 to 10 are periodically closed and completely rebuilt):

  • Platform 1: Terminating stopping trains to and from Newbury and Bedwyn (west end bay);
  • Platform 2: Terminating stopping trains to and from Basingstoke (west end bay);
  • Platform 3: Out of use – new track layout will make it inaccessible from Oxford, so not much use to Cross Country anyway;
  • Platforms 4-6: suburban services from London Waterloo and most of the services from Guildford, Redhill and Gatwick Airport. Still the only electrified platforms in the station;
  • Platform 7: Down Westbury – all fast trains from London Paddington to Bedwyn, Westbury, Exeter, Paignton, Plymouth and Penzance  (except those running via Bristol Temple Meads);
  • Up Through:  Abolished, pending conversion into platform 7.
  • Platform 8: Up Westbury – majority of fast trains to London Paddington returning from the destinations listed under 7;
  • Platform 9: Down Main –  all fast trains from London Paddington to Bristol, South Wales, Oxford, Banbury, Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester/ Cheltenham;
  • Platform 10: Up Main – all fast trains from London Paddington returning from the destinations listed under 9;
  • Platform 11: Out of use – once the current footbridge has been demolished the track will be extended around the back of platform 10 to form a new through platform, the Up Main Loop;
  • Platform 12: Down Relief – stopping trains to Didcot and Oxford;
  • Platform 13: Down Relief Loop – likely to be predominantly used as a pair of bay platforms which conveniently don’t have a bufferstop in the middle. London end to be used by terminating stopping trains from London Paddington; Bristol end for use by terminating Cross Country trains;
  • Platform 14: Up Relief Loop – also likely to be predominantly used as a pair of bay platforms which conveniently don’t have a bufferstop in the middle. London end to be used by terminating stopping trains from London Paddington; Bristol end for use by terminating Cross Country trains;
  • Platform 15: Up Relief – stopping trains from Didcot and Oxford, with easy access onto a new underpass allowing platforms 13-15 to be used by Gatwick trains passing under the station throat to join the Southern lines.

Platforms 12-15 will be divided into “a” and “b” ends – “a” for London and “b” for Bristol – in a more traditional manner than Reading’s old 4a and 4b which existed entirely separately to platform 4. (Exactly what Cross Country passengers made of the old set-up when they’d just come in from Birmingham New Street, which says – for example – “platform 2a” if the train occupies half of platform 2 and “platform 2” if it occupies all of platform 2, is not wholly clear.)

Cross Country’s South Coast trains will not be using 13 and 14 for a bit, since those platforms have no access to the line towards Westbury and Basingstoke. They will still be reversing in 9 and 10.

Access will be by the new footbridge, but the current 1989 main booking hall will remain in use. With the 1989 footbridge removed, the route from the booking hall onto platforms 4-7 will be a lot more open and spacious. The old footbridge featured a barrier down the middle to separate passengers who had come up the stairs from the platforms from those who were passing through the station from the car park to the town centre or who had come up in the lifts. (The fact that fare-dodging at Reading was as simple as using the lift rather than the stairs never seems to have dawned on the person tasked with designing the ticket barrier layout.)

Reading 18 JPGInside the old footbridge, soon to be demolished, with its largely grey colour scheme offset by Network SouthEast red light fittings. The green TV display screens are leftovers from the days of Great Western Trains (1996-98). The panels separate the staircases and escalators to the platforms (this side) from the lifts and the ticket-free walking route (other side). When the footbridge extension to the car park was removed, the panels swiftly went too and the footbridge became much nicer and wider. Car park access and passage across the station without buying a ticket is now by means of a refurbished subway beneath the new footbridge. 

Once that’s all over platforms 1 and 2 might get their canopies back.

Reading 17 JPGThe two platforms which have not really featured in this story, since not much is being done with them – platform 1 to the left for Newbury & Bedwyn and platform 2 to the right for Basingstoke. They now sit in the shadow of the southern stairway onto the new footbridge; their presence precludes providing platform 7 with the double-access from the new footbridge which the other through platforms are all getting.


I would suggest that the funding of a bank bailout by imposing a one-off tax on those wealthy enough to have savings accounts is a far lesser evil than either allowing the bank to go bust – leading to the reposession of homes – or funding through general taxation – leading to the cost being borne by the truly poor who are dependent on welfare and government spending.

Colective punishent, meanwhile, is both illegal as sin and a moot point.

Well, I could spend ages pulling at odd strings in this, one of the more sensible comments (relatively speaking) on a Guardian page about Cyprus’s latest way of resolving its financial problems – raid savings accounts of anyone who happens to be saving up for their kid’s birthday/ Granny’s birthday/ next Christmas/ the holiday/ the next house/ a meal out/ a new TV/ next year’s season ticket. There was a distinctly economically inept person going on about saving destroying the economy and how we should go out and spend our money, which reminded me that as well as buying a house I need to keep some money aside from pay-to-pay spending for a new computer. Apparently they have a fixed life these days and this one’s getting on a bit. And a new one which meets my thrashing requirements still costs more than the heritage computer sat on the desk behind me did.

But I resent the idea that I am “wealthy” simply because I put some money aside in a high interest bearing savings account (it generates about  £4 per year or something superlatively worthwhile like that). I could rant for ages about all the signs that I am not wealthy, but apart from the fact that I used to live off Tesco Value Horseburgers most of them are a bit revealing about where I live.

(I might manage to throw in the fact that I can’t afford a car either, not even one of those amazing value Volkswagen cars for £21,000. I admit they’re amazing value. It’s amazing that anyone thinks they’re good value. You do realise that five years of commuting into London by train is unlikely to set you back more than £18,000? And expensive London season tickets count as a railcard too, not that anyone advertises that; see here for details and save pots of money despite not being over 55, under 26, a student, disabled, unemployed or local.)

Anyway, I would like to take this opportunity to note that it is now only a matter of time before these things spread as a way of allowing Governments to raise more money to better buy more votes, so everybody is therefore advised to Panic!


Panic and withdraw all your money from your savings account!

And invest it all in re-opening the Wye Valley Railway! Guaranteed no EU raids on profit margins!

(There won’t be any profits. In fact you will never see the slightest sign of any of your money ever again, unless you count the begging letters asking you to send more money to allow the railway the faintest possibility of one day having enough money to afford to hold an Annual General Meeting or submit accounts to Companies House or fulfil any of these other bits of legal red tape. But at least the EU/ the Government/ the banks won’t get anything out of it, and that’s a distinct advantage over a savings account!)

Flanders and Swann

This March is the 50th anniversary of the Beeching Report. Dr Richard Beeching, later elevated to the peerage, wrote a lengthy report on the profitability of British Railways (or lack thereof) and concluded that most of the rail network made no net contribution towards any profits that could potentially be made. He duly recommended removing about half of the route mileage and rather more than half the stations. The Tories implemented the report with unusual haste for any Government; Labour largely opposed it up until the moment when they saw the overall profit/ loss account of the nation and duly decided to continue.

This cross-party enthusiasm for Beeching left very little opportunity for the pro-rail remnants of the population to express any form of opposition except by attempting to prove “undue hardship” at closure inquiries. An examination of the railways which survived on this basis (prime examples include Middlesborough to Whitby, Inverness to Wick & Thurso and Kyle of Lochalsh, Glasgow to Mallaig and Plymouth to Gunnislake) show that in order to demonstrate that closing the local railway would cause undue hardship it was necessary to show that the area was devoid of alternative roads. As a result the minor rural dead loss railways going nowhere which deserved to be axed all survived, while the middling routes serving notable market towns found that the market towns were also served by roads, enabling easy closure of the railways.

The Government then proceeded to spend vast amounts of public money building roads to replace these railways which needed closing down because the Government didn’t have any public money available to spend on keeping them running.


Much is likely to be written – and, indeed, said – about the Beeching Report. Most of it will be unfavourable and criticise various closures on a variety of grounds. One or two daring ones may even suggest that, since road usage is falling and rail usage is increasing, there could possibly be a business case for re-opening one or two lines. That is, up until the point on the trackbed where a road takes over the alignment and thereby renders any form of further extension, at any point in the future, utterly out of the question. But rather than outright technical debate on the merit of car-based societies versus rail-based ones (which, since we seem to be slowly sleepwalking from the former back to the latter, would be worth having), a lot of whimsy about steam trains is likely to fill the national press.

In the process the whimsy will focus on quoting two men who, back in the 1960s, wrote a song about the Beeching closures.

The Slow Train

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann wrote this song for their show, At the Drop of Another Hat, in 1963; in common with most of their pieces, Flanders wrote the words and Swann wrote the music. (There were odd exceptions where one or the other wrote both words and music; periodically they also performed songs by a friend called Sydney Cartwright, which have a distinctively individual tang and which were cut from the initial commercial releases.)

Most of these songs are entirely comic on some level or another, possibly with political undertones. Slow Train is a wistful retrospective and entirely not intended to be comic on any level. It regrets the passing of all these wonderful station names of the 19th century railways – even if some of the best, like Redbrook-on-Wye, had already gone. Flanders is told as having drawn the station names from the Guardian report on the closures (explaining why Armley Moor, Arram, Formby and Four Crosses came out as two station names rather than four – the Guardian presumably printed them as paragraphs rather than lists and lost a few commas along the way) and concentrated entirely on the “England stations for closure” list.

Flanders and Swann are always presented by such articles as being part of the national culture, but having met a few people who have never heard of them despite good quality upbringings (and who have subsequently become fans) this author will now move on into a Public Service Introduction for the Uninitiated.

Flanders and Swann

Flanders was born in London on the 1st of March 1922; Swann was born over 18 months later on 30th September 1923 in Llanelli. They met at Westminster School in the City of Westminster (now forced to play second-fiddle to the less politically important London) and in 1940 produced a revue called “Go To It”. Then they split up and went to university – both at Christ Church College, Oxford. Foreign affairs intervened and Flanders found himself in the Navy; Swann registered as a Conscientious Objector and ended up driving ambulances.

Swann seems to have managed to broaden his mind in the process, but mind-broadening was made rather more tricky for Flanders when his ship was torpedoed. The military spent the Second World War assuming that anyone who seemed a bit bashed after being blown up was shamming and preferred to send them back into action without further question – something which did for what was left of Spike Milligan’s sanity. Flanders merely contracted polio and with the help of the military’s most efficient medical support was condemned to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair with one lung out of use. This is a condition which inhibits study at Christ Church – at least, so Christ Church thought – and Flanders was left trying to become an actor in a world where being disabled was something of a hindrance.

The pair got together again after the war was over and began writing songs together occasionally. The doyenne of these was a little number called “In the D’Oyly Cart” – for three people. It was eventually worked into another revue and sung by three people – none of whom were Flanders or Swann.

Revues were a kind of performance which has largely vanished today – perhaps the closest is a “selected highlights” stage-based feature of the sort that one occasionally sees at the BBC Proms. A string of performers in costume would perform little acts on a stage with some form of backdrop for scenery. Skits and songs made up the little acts and the audience expected to laugh at the result. The ones that Flanders and Swann were in, once they had found some people to let them go professional, were organised by Laurie Lister. The sort of length of the skits can be guessed from the fact that the shows, which ran in a London theatre for one “season” and were then re-written and improved for the next year, tended to have titles based around the word “airs” – e.g. “Airs on a Shoestring” and “Fresh Airs”.

At the time these were not recorded professionally, though odds and ends found their way through tape recorders onto reel-to-reel tapes. Most were merely retained on paper and a selection emerged later in the album And Then We Wrote, done as a celebratory recording for the BBC and released on LP after Flanders’s death. The album is naturally led by  “In the D’Oyly Cart” .

 “In the D’Oyly Cart”  is an interesting piece, since it can seem a bit critical of the way in which the operettas of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were being performed at this time. Yet it clearly acknowledges the debt owed by Flanders and Swann to Gilbert and Sullivan – those leaders of the English language musical satire:

And while the House of Peers witholds its legislative hand

And noble statesmen do not itch to interfere in matters which they do not understand…

(from the song “When Britain Really Ruled the Waves” in the opera Iolanthe)

It’s a common debt; one of the most notable contemporaries of Flanders and Swann, Tom Lehrer (who has also found that the passing years have little harmed his reputation), also makes periodic references to Gilbert and Sullivan – ranging from pinching the tune of “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” whenever seems appropriate to adapting the folk song “Clementine” into a quite remarkable parody of Sullivan’s musical style. Lehrer intersperses such references with comments such as:

It is staggering to think that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for a year.

…which was accompanied by similar periodic borrowings of Mozart ideas ( “Clementine” comes to mind again). These have not quite reached the heights of Flanders and Swann usages of Mozart themes.

The first of these was for one of their “Bottom Five”. The Bottom Five represented some very bad popular songs; they couldn’t get anything in the hit parade of course, Flanders frequently boasted, but they could write songs using popular themes from previous musicians and foreign phrases which for no obvious reason didn’t do nearly as well as those written by other artists.

The Mozart example was called “Eine Kleine Nachtmusick” and used the tune of the first movement of the famous piece of the same name. Other examples included “Jaguar” (which was about a car at the time, but became part of the Bestiary with a few alterations to the lyrics), the gloriously upbeat “Death Wish” (which apparently Tolkein rather liked) and the wonderful “Happy Song” – the third of the trio that made it into the commercial recording of At the Drop of a Hat.

One which saw little evolution was “Satellite Moon”. The only change was to the last line. The original was then potentially a little shocking; nowadays it’s too boring to be funny. And so “The girl in my arms… is a boy” became “The girl in my arms is Mabel Figworthy and if she says ‘Oh really?’ once more I’m going to break her neck!”

Between whiles they created a rather tragic song for the London Trams, which were eliminated as part of the campaign to modernise the nation by moving to rubber tyres and diesel engines rather than rails and electricity. It finishes with the lines:

Until one day we drive you through the Milky Way,

Goodbye Old Tram

They won’t get us to drive their ruddy trolleybus!

Goodbye Old Tram…

Instead of driving the trolleybus, they wrote a song about omnibuses which was used to kick off proceedings when they eventually went solo.

Revues went out of fashion in the late 1950s; Flanders saw no obvious reason for this, but it was probably part of the general change in national humour from the world where that great radio sitcom Much Binding in the Marsh was regarded as actually being funny to the one where Tony Hancock’s trials and tribulations were the height of humour. Revues were perhaps too simple in their appearance and the insults too lightweight, even if the Lord Chamberlain did rather enjoy the satire.

At the Drop of a Hat

So Flanders and Swann cut the scenery, the costume (except what Moss Bros. very kindly leant them) and even the cast, which made things very much easier and they found also cheaper. On New Year’s Eve 1956 they performed to a full New Lindsay Theatre (there was nothing else on), which had a 150 seat auditorium and nothing to show an audience for three weeks.

Three weeks later, Flanders and Swann moved on to the Fortune Theatre and its 350 seats. There George Martin, of Parlophone and Beatles fame, arranged a mono recording of the show and released it as a Long-Playing record – much cut down and with several songs missing from the original 1957 performance. Two years later, with the pair at the height of their fame, Martin came back for the better-known 1959 stereo recording – with exactly the same songs, but quite differently presented. Flanders talks more, the Hippopotamus song has its second chorus in Russian and the interior designer can still remember why he hung a Northumbrian spoke-shaver’s coracle up on the wall. Two years of singing also seems to have done a great deal for the health of Flanders’s remaining lung; several notes (particularly the last “mud”) are held for considerably longer. The 1959 recording, being more polished and in stereo, has become the definitive version.

Apart from “Transport of Delight” (the aforementioned omnibus song), the Hippopotamus and “Design for Living”, other notable songs in this collection include the “Song of the Weather” (which Joyce Grenfell sang once she’d arranged an alternative last line), “Misalliance” (which can be read as a tragic love song until old enough to recognise that it’s clearly satire) and the notorious “Madeira M’Dear” (which is clearly entirely about cake and has the unusual accolade for a non-classical piece of having its own Wikipedia article).

As wall as the main Hat recordings, an additional string of albums all entitled something like More out of the Hat came out in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Meanwhile Flanders and Swann went from strength to strength. They went on world tours and were followed by a recording device which committed several of their foreign variations for posterity on scratchy bits of tape. The Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, is reputed to have asked Flanders how to keep the House of Commons sitting quietly for two hours (to which Flanders responded “Try singing to them”). The Royal Family came to one performance and joined in on singing about “Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud”. Though when Princess Margaret was asked about her favourite performer she responded with “Tom Lehrer”, disgracefully failing to support British talent and showing a distinct preference for much clearer and crueller satire.

Flanders and Swann did not actually sing all of their own songs – the animal ones were at the time mostly being done by Ian Wallace (“an artist we very much admire – we have several of his paintings at home”) as were a few odds and ends like “The Income Tax Collector”. However, with the success of the 1959 album, it was decided that the animal songs (minus the already well-known Gnu, Hippopotamus and Kokoraki) should be committed to disc for the Bestiary with a studio recording and this was released in 1961. A few odds and ends about armadillos, ostriches and wom-poms were also recorded in various parts of the world on an individual basis.

During the touring period the pair were commissioned (unusually) to write a song for the American Bookseller’s Association. The result is “Vendor Librorum Floreat” – a pleasing song to the tune of “Widecombe Fair”. Flanders and Swann fans who go through the compact disc collection in disc order from the EMI “Complete Flanders and Swann” and then the “Hat Trick Flanders and Swann” will encounter this song last of all; the final piece of their music released on CD.

At the Drop of Another Hat

This emerged in 1963 once Flanders and Swann had done with touring and returned to London. It opens with “The Gas Man Cometh” – a rather fun feature which feels instantly familiar, even if it isn’t. Then we proceed through songs about deserts (translated as we go along) to that king of Mozart rip-offs – “Ill Wind”.

“Ill Wind” is to the tune of the first movement of Mozart’s fourth Horn Concerto (in E flat). A squiggly bit in the middle has disappeared in translation; otherwise the adaptation is very close to the original, which adds greatly to the song’s charm. It is hard to listen to the original piece without murmurs of “started to play it/ in spite of the neighbour who begged me to stop” drifting innocently through the mind, but unlike certain adaptations of popular classical themes by unscrupulous advertising firms this doesn’t particularly jar.

Other notable songs on this album include a satire on General de Gaulle, ruler of France (“All Gall”), that entertaining song on the curious places that things get dumped out in the country (“Bedstead Men”) and a notorious feature on patriotism (“A Song of Patriotic Prejudice”). It is also this album which features “Slow Train”, following on from Flanders’s speech about flying.

It has actually been calculated that it’s safer to fly than it is to cross the road. Mind you, I gave that up years ago where I live, in Kensington, near the air terminal, they have these airline buses whizzing about, you know. I think the drivers have instructions to keep the statistics favourable.

Tom Lehrer spent this period writing and singing about the Bomb; Flanders and Swann touched on this as well. “Twenty Tons of TNT” refers to the statistic that at that time for every one of the three billion people on the planet there was a nuclear arsenal with a power equivalent to twenty tons of TNT (a similarly unpleasant high explosive used in the First World War to accidentally blow up the factories where it was being produced). It is depressing to think about whether the equivalent level per head of population (currently a little over seven billion) is now higher or lower. “Twenty Tons” was released on a separate disk with “The War of 14-18” as a B-side; nowadays the pairing, which are not exactly usual Flanders and Swann fare, can be found on the Bestiary CD in the so-called “Complete Collection”.

A trip to the USA in 1967 saw another quality recording of the pair being made – a version of both major Hat shows was preserved in colour on video tape. This was broadcast once and then allowed to slip into disgraceful obscurity, from which a few clips have been rescued for Youtube. (Unlike Tom Lehrer, Flanders and Swann’s entire output cannot be found on Youtube and readers of this article are therefore expected to buy the CD collection rather than demand that more tracks be uploaded to the Internet.)

And Then We Wrote

After At the Drop of Another Hat was over there were apparently thoughts about a third show called “Hat Trick”. Instead the pair were not reunited until they came together with some old friends for And Then We Wrote, one of a collection of albums gathering up pieces not in the main Hat recordings. The others were Bestiary and Tried by the Centre Court; the former sticks to animal songs while the latter is a rather mixed bag of the best tape-based recordings and cutting-room-floor bits from the commercial recordings. EMI broke Tried by the Centre Court up across the three disks of the Complete Collection, but it can be reassembled with the help of some software off the Internet by anyone with bags of time who really cares about the purity of the LPs. It represents the first time that a Sydney Cartwright song performed by Flanders and Swann, “The Youth of the Heart”, made it to a commercial release.

And Then We Wrote, recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Christmas Eve 1974, has a faintly luvvie quality to it as the old friends get back together again, but it also shines with enjoyment and variety. We see the songs being performed as many were intended in their high-budget format; we get the chuckling female voices that Swann can beat for humour levels but not for authenticity and we get that little change from it always being Flanders and Swann doing the performing. It’s a good album and the Lord Chamberlain’s Regulations at the end have an additional richness for the additional voices in “The Public May Leave”.

Flanders died suddenly the following year in North Wales, ending the possibility of further new studio productions. Swann wrote down the music for the Hat songs and they were now published.

Later Years

Donald Swann became more of a straight classical pianist after that, with periodic new compositions. He died in London in 1994; a neat mirror, with one being born in Wales and the other in London while one died in London and the other in Wales.

Interest circulated around the pair still. EMI brought out a “Complete Collection” on CD in 1991, which apologises for the (not immediately apparent) poor technical quality of several songs. At the same time, it was obvious that there was still a great deal of their repertoire unavailable on CD or, indeed, at all – And Then We Wrote remained determinedly out of print and if there were some recordings on tape from the front row of shows for Tried by the Centre Court then there was obviously the potential for more stuff to be out there.

A search of the tapes made of the shows after Swann’s death turned up various interesting results, including some pieces from their days at Oxford; the resulting cluster of songs and sketches were released in 2007 as the “Hat Trick Flanders and Swann Collector’s Edition”. Flanders amused himself spoofing nightly news bulletins with a skit that has outlived most, if not all, of the original bulletins; Swann, meanwhile, did a straight version of his setting of “Je Suis Le Tenebreux” (which it is widely agreed is rather spoilt by translation). Also to be found in this bundle of stuff is a song about the girls of St Trinians School – of all the people to encounter in what initially seems from this distance like a high-brow form of show.  With some polishing, gathering together and arranging, these additional songs appeared around And Then We Wrote and the original release of At the Drop of a Hat. In the process we get to see how Flanders and Swann developed over the years.

The collection results in some duplication (“Pillar to Post” appears twice and “Grandma” three times in various formats – this is a Flanders Grandma, not the one that a school choir sang about in 1980) but along the way a couple of the songs only referenced in And Then We Wrote actually get to appear in full. “Survival of the Phew” was written off as “rather long and boring” but is still nice to have at length, while “Rain on the Plage” is a magnificently soft tune catching the mood of sitting in a cafe watching the rain drum down outside.

That would appear to be it for now; one song (“Motor Perputuo”) has been referenced online but no viable recording seems to have been rooted out for CD (the other three songs on that link are all on the Hat Trick collection). A Christmas album – The Christmas Story – is also still lacking from the available repertoire. And, of course, there’s the US television programme.

But there’s still enough to appreciate these two men, one piano, a few friends and hours of gentle satire, miles away from their contemporaries singing about pigeons in the park (Tom Lehrer) or laying into Harold Macmillan upon realising that Macmillan had decided to come and be satirised in person (Peter Cook).

It’s a shame in some ways that they’re often only mentioned in connection with one song, but they have to be remembered for something and “Slow Train” represents a good way of introducing people to their existence. Though there are of course three other songs through which people are likely to encounter Flanders and Swann for the first time – “Transport of Delight”, “Gas Man Cometh” and the doyenne of the animal songs…


(This author “discovered” a fellow fan through reference to “A Song of Patriotice Prejudice” and subsequently partook in an impromptu singing of “Gas Man Cometh” at a party. More recently, after too many lemonades, the aforementioned fellow fan and said author could be found singing “Satellite Moon” in a restaurant to the mild consternation of the uninitiated parts of the party…)


Albums on CD (EMI)

The Complete Collection:

Disk 1: At the Drop of a Hat (1959 stereo recording) (tracks 1-12/ 17) with 4 items from Tried by the Centre Court inserted between “Madeira” and “Hippopotamus” (tracks 13-16). Tracks are:

  1. A Transport of Delight
  2. Song of Reproduction
  3. The Gnu Song
  4. Design for Living
  5. Je Suis Les Tenebreux
  6. Songs for our time – Philological Waltz/ Satellite Moon/ Happy Song
  7. A song of the Weather
  8. The Reluctant Cannibal
  9. Greensleeves
  10. Misalliance
  11. Kokoraki
  12. Madeira, M’Dear?
  13. Too Many Cookers
  14. Vanessa
  15. Tried by the Centre Court
  16. The Youth of the Heart
  17. The Hippopotamus Song (Russian chorus)

Disk 2: At the Drop of Another Hat (1964) (tracks 1-13/ 17) with 3 items from Tried by the Centre Court inserted between “Patriotic Prejudice” and “Hippo Encore” (tracks 14-16). Tracks are:

  1. The Gas Man Cometh
  2. Sounding Brass
  3. Los Olividados
  4. In the Desert
  5. Ill Wind
  6. First and Second Law
  7. All Gall
  8. Horoscope
  9. Friendly Duet
  10. Bedstead Men
  11. By Air
  12. Slow Train
  13. A Song of Patriotic Prejudice
  14. Built up area
  15. In the Bath
  16. Sea Fever
  17. Hippo Encore

Disk 3: The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann (1961) (tracks 1-15) with the remainder of Tried by the Centre Court on the end (tracks 16-23), followed by the single Twenty Tons of TNT (tracks 24-25). Tracks are:

  1. The Warthog
  2. The Sea Horse
  3. The Chameleon
  4. The Whale (Mopy Dick)
  5. The Sloth
  6. The Rhinoceros
  7. Twosome – Kang and Jag (Kangeroo Tango and Jaguar) (animal jaguar)
  8. Dead Ducks
  9. The Elephant
  10. The Armadillo
  11. The Spider
  12. Threesome – The Duck-Billed Platypus/ The Humming Bird/ The Portuguese Man-O’-War
  13. The Wild Boar
  14. The Ostrich
  15. The Wompom
  16. Twice Shy
  17. Commonwealth Fair
  18. P** p* B**** B** D******
  19. Paris
  20. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik Cha Cha Cha
  21. The Hundred Song
  22. Food for Thought
  23. Bed
  24. Twenty Tons of TNT
  25. The War of 14-18

Hat Trick:

Disk 1: At the Drop of a Hat (1957 mono recording) (tracks 1-15) with items from various More out of the Hat albums appended on the end (16-22). Tracks are:

  1. Introduction
  2. A Transport of Delight
  3. Song of Reproduction
  4. A Gnu
  5. Design for Living
  6. Je Suis le Tenebreux
  7. Songs for our time – Philological Waltz/ Satellite Moon/ Happy Song
  8. A Song of the Weather
  9. The Reluctant Cannibal
  10. Greensleeves
  11. Misalliance
  12. Kokorari
  13. Madeira, M’Dear
  14. Hippopotamus
  15. The Public May Leave
  16. In the Bath
  17. Wom Pom
  18. Vanessa
  19. The Youth of the Heart
  20. Tried by the Centre Court
  21. Too Many Cookers
  22. Grandma

Disk 2: “Hats around the world” – a collection of songs recorded abroad with a mix of alternative versions of old favourites and unfamiliar songs. Tracks are:

  1. Play-in
  2. The Warthog
  3. Topical Song (Harold Macmillan)
  4. The Whale
  5. The Elephant
  6. Hippopotamus (French chorus)
  7. Grandma
  8. Miranda
  9. Kokoraki
  10. Madeira M’Dear
  11. Down Below
  12. The 100 Song
  13. The Great New Gardiner Expressway
  14. Good Literature
  15. A Gnu
  16. Say Who You Are
  17. A Transport of Delight
  18. Sing a Song of Fivepence
  19. Russia is Red, Dilly Dilly
  20. The Great New Sydney Opera House
  21. Commonwealth Fair
  22. Happy Song
  23. The Lord Chamberlain’s Regulations – Smoking is Permitted/ The Safety Curtain/ The Public May Leave (& Play-out) (Flanders & Swann only)
  24. Hippo Encore

Disk 3: And Then We Wrote (1973) (tracks 1-13) plus additional tracks appended on the end (tracks 14-21). Tracks are:

  1. In the D’Oyly Cart
  2. Prehistoric Complaint
  3. The Album
  4. There’s a Hole in my Budget
  5. The Seven Ages of Woman (including “Grandma” in context)
  6. Fragments – It’s a Dog’s Life/ Survival of the Phew (excerpt)/ Beau Brummell
  7. Pillar to Post
  8. Guide to Britten
  9. Excelsior
  10. Rain on the Plage (excerpt)
  11. Last of the Line
  12. Rockall
  13. The Lord Chamberlain’s Regulations – Smoking is Permitted/ The Safety Curtain/ The Public May Leave (full cast version)
  14. Play-in
  15. Haymarket Introduction
  16. The Sloth
  17. Take Me Back to Byker
  18. Nursery Rhymes – Nicky & Neddy/ Currency Reform/ Pop Goes the Weasel
  19. The Ostrich
  20. Bring Back the Birch
  21. The Armadillo

Disk 4: “Hats Off” – largely fuzzy but still intelligible (and intelligent) recordings from the dim and distant past. Tracks are:

  1. For the Forces (news bulletin)
  2. Je Suis le Tenebreux
  3. Prehistoric Complaint
  4. Surly Girls
  5. Strike
  6. Private View
  7. The Valley
  8. Survival of the Phew (full)
  9. Pillar to Post
  10. I Couldn’t Care Less
  11. Trunk Call
  12. A Word on My Ear
  13. Ballad For the Rich
  14. Airs on a Shoestring
  15. Guide to Britten (full cast)
  16. Brave New Worldling
  17. The Man From Aix-Les-Bains
  18. Overture: More Strings to Our Bow
  19. Miss Fraser’s Dresses
  20. Bi-Party Line
  21. Rain on the Plage (full)
  22. Interim Report
  23. Capital Charge
  24. You (Satellite Moon) (original)
  25. Anyone Will Do
  26. Death Wish
  27. Jaguar (car)
  28. The 100 Song
  29. Vendor Librorum Floreat


Original Tried By Centre Court track listing:

  1. Twice Shy
  2. Commonwealth Fair
  3. P** p* B**** B** D******
  4. Too Many Cookers
  5. Vanessa
  6. Tried by the Centre Court
  7. Paris
  8. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik Cha Cha Cha
  9. The Hundred Song
  10. Built up area
  11. In the Bath
  12. Sea Fever
  13. The Youth of the Heart
  14. Food for Thought
  15. Bed


Post mildly tweaked in February 2017, with removal of a dead link and addition of track listing.

Seasonal Area March 2013

The Seasonal Area for March 2013 is online. It’s basically a delayed February picture in that it shows Penryn, Cornwall. Efforts will be made to get a nice summery picture should Penryn ever feature again.

April’s image is under consideration. Efforts to get another Wye Valley scene nominated have been shot on the basis that we’ve already had two in the last six months. Another Cornish picture is therefore rather likely; Devon is however another possibility, as is Wiltshire or perhaps Monmouthshire…