Brief Encounter - why the classic film brings people to Carnforth

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 February 2020

The platform where the couple said goodbye

The platform where the couple said goodbye

Glynn Ward

Thousands of visitors pour into Carnforth every year to pay homage to most romantic film ever made

The famous station clockThe famous station clock

Seventy-five years ago two film stars stepped onto a railway platform in Carnforth and the station's romantic reputation was born.

This Valentine's Day - and all year round - old romantics follow in the footsteps of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard who filmed the classic love story Brief Encounter at Carnforth in 1945.

Many pose for photographs under the original station clock seen in the film and then wallow in more nostalgia at the station's award-winning Heritage Centre, where the film is played on a loop 1500 times a year, before taking a rest in a re-creation of the Refreshment Room where the final heart-breaking scenes were shot.

Brief Encounter tells the story of housewife Laura Jesson, whose repressed romance with Alec Harvey, a doctor, begins when he removes a piece of grit from her eye at the station. Although both married, they continue to meet there until Alec moves abroad.

Barbara Wolfenden, Russ Hyder, Fiona Kennaugh, Peter Thompson and Jean BlakeBarbara Wolfenden, Russ Hyder, Fiona Kennaugh, Peter Thompson and Jean Blake

Thanks to its association with Brief Encounter, which ranks second in the British Film Institute's Top 100 Best British Films, Carnforth Station has been voted as one of the country's most romantic stations.

And 75 years on, it is now the main reason why people visit Carnforth Station Heritage Centre, according to its manager, John Adams who said: 'Visitors go into raptures about Brief Encounter.'

Among them is Gyles Brandreth, who became the centre's latest patron after being impressed by a visit there and declaring the station as his favourite.

Little wonder then that the heritage centre has won a plethora of awards. In 2019, it was named Best Small Visitor Attraction at Lancashire Tourism Awards and Best Visitor Attraction at the Bay Business Awards. It has also won two bronze UK National Coach Awards thanks to its link up with Leighton Hall nearby.

Locals Frank and Joan LookerLocals Frank and Joan Looker

Another person who doesn't need convincing about the station's allure is the centre's first patron, Margaret Barton, the only surviving member of the Brief Encounter cast. She played Beryl, the Refreshment Room waitress, and in 2018 made her own mark in romantic history when, aged 92, she became one half of Britain's oldest newlywed couple.

The centre's other patron is Lucy Fleming, Celia Johnson's daughter, who returns to Carnforth with her husband, Simon Williams, on April 5th as part of the 75th anniversary celebrations.

Their last appearance at the centre was a sell-out so they will reprise Posting Letters to the Moon, a special reading of the wartime letters between Celia Johnson and her husband, Peter Fleming whose brother, Ian, created James Bond.

The evening also features stories about Celia working with Noel Coward - who wrote the play on which Brief Encounter was based - and the Oscar-winning director, David Lean.

The heritage centre, which opened in 2003, is now home to a permanent exhibition about the famous director supported by the David Lean Foundation, BAFTA and the British Film Institute. David Lean's son, Peter, has visited the centre and donated many personal items including scenes from the cutting room floor of Brief Encounter.

And among the more quirky donations by Lucy Fleming are a pair of her mother's gloves but if you are expecting elegance, think again - these are sheepskin mittens worn while filming outdoors.

Brief Encounter's link to Carnforth is now more visible than ever thanks to new platform signs which read 'Carnforth, Home of Brief Encounter', and another example of the film's enduring appeal is the fact that the Brief Encounter Special, an anniversary steam train trip around the Cumbrian Coast in April, sold out months ago.

New signs celebrate the station's role in cinema historyNew signs celebrate the station's role in cinema history

'On the last steam special, someone proposed and all the passengers cheered when she accepted,' said John. 'There's been proposals in the Refreshment Room too and one couple visit the station on their anniversary to have a picture taken under the clock.'

The clock, which could date back to the 1880s, is a significant feature of Brief Encounter, and was given false faces during filming to prevent continuity errors. This was just one of the challenges facing David Lean during filming which took place in January and February 1945.

Originally, he wanted to film at a London station but this was deemed impossible by the Ministry of War Transport which chose Carnforth as it was thought to be remote and safe from attack.

As David Lean wanted Celia Johnson to appear as though she was 'gliding' around during the film, Carnforth station's lack of steps helped greatly as did the large engine shed which could easily accommodate the steam train which played such an evocative role. Filming took place between 10pm and 6am so it didn't interfere with daytime operations which included the transport of servicemen passing through the station en route to duty overseas.

Although Celia Johnson, Leslie Howard and Stanley Holloway were the undoubted stars of the film, they appeared alongside dozens of extras, mainly locals.

And one of them described 'the thrills and boredom of shooting a film' in a local newspaper article dated February 1945. They wrote: "Ask one of the extras or one of the passengers stranded at Carnforth Station what impressed them most. They will tell you in one word 'waiting'. Very few had any experience of film work and the majority were greatly disillusioned. Film work is neither glamorous nor easy. It's hard and exacting, calculated to upset the most even tempered in the small hours of the morning."

Despite the mundane nature of filming, all that waiting around certainly paid dividends when the film was released and earned three Oscar nominations.

Among its lasting legacies is the heritage centre which now attracts around 50,000 visitors every year, including 200 coach parties.

And John added: 'We've been known as the home of Brief Encounter for many years now and most of our visitors come here for the nostalgia. Looking ahead, that's where our future lies.' Carnforth Station Heritage Centre is open daily from 10am-4pm. Admission free.

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