HE was so enamoured with the splendour of this plush bistro-cum-carvery that when later considering its elegance and commendably efficient service, George Measom poetically recorded that even the waitresses evoked visions of heavenly young Greek Goddesses.

Somehow, with respect, I would doubt that the local lasses weaving between the tables at Swindon’s admittedly opulent original railway restaurant – however comely and neatly attired they may have been – conjured the beauty and grace of mythical maidens from Classical Greece.

Perhaps Measom had quaffed a jeroboam too many of the “aristocratic champagne”

on offer. Or maybe it was the warm and fulsome afterglow of the Banbury cakes that could be purchased in Swindon and for which he had such a weakness.

Whatever the reason, Measom’s description of the First Class Refreshment Room at Swindon Station paints a graphic and glowing picture of the world’s first railway noshery – a five-star review if ever there was.

What a turn around then, from just a few years earlier, when the station canteen’s reputation was so dodgy that even a certain Mr Brunel, who built it, was appalled.

Anyone partial to Michael Portillo’s oftrepeated TV series, Great British Railway Journeys, in which he criss-crosses the country in the footsteps of Victorian railway guide author George Bradshaw, would be very interested indeed in another George cut from similar cloth... future knight of the realm Mr Measom.

Whereas Bradshaw specialised in timetables and guides at a time when railway fever was gripping the nation almost as swiftly as the tracks were being laid, Measom took a slightly different stance, describing the railways from the practical standpoint of a mid- 19th Century passenger.

Swindon owes a debt to Measom – as indeed do other locations that populate the web-like network of the early Great Western Railway. As well as being a somewhat verbose commentator on riding the rails during 1850s and 1860s he was also an engraver of considerable talent.

His meticulous illustrations were published during an era when photography was in its infancy, and as such provide us with some of the earliest images we have of our still embryonic railway system.

As well publishing some of the first images of ‘The Swindon Station,’ Measom also depicted Paddington, Bristol Temple Meads and numerous other rail-themed structures dotted along the GWR line in such fine detail that they continue shine a light into a vanished era more than 150 years later.

His depiction of Swindon’s first station cafeteria in 1852 – a decade after it opened – shows some well-to-do travellers dining in fine style that resembles a gathering at some ornate eatery in The Pickwick Papers.

Measom was 31 when he published his first book in 1849 – The Bible: Its’ Elevating Influence on Man – a moral tale in illustrated form (an early graphic novel, if you like.) And then, you could say, he saw the light by focusing on God’s Wonderful Railway… Fourteen years after Bradshaw’s first effort, The Illustrated Guide To The Great Western Railway appeared in 1852 by which time GWR Firefly locos were rattling-up speeds of 55mph, opening the West Country for trade, leisure and investment.

The author/illustrator’s west-bound journey begins at the Paddington Engine House before – after various dalliances – he chugs into “Swindon, all-important Swindon.”

Measom enthuses: “Who that knows aught of railways, or railway travelling has not heard of Swindon’s world-wide reputation, as well as for the vastness of its workshops and engine depot, as for the admirable and splendid accommodation that it furnishes to the way-worn traveller.”

Swindon, of course, boasted the first railway restaurant because the locos were swapped here in order to handle the steeper climbs to Bristol – a bit like changing horses. With ten minutes to idle away, passengers were lured off the train for a snifter and tiffin.

Measom was certainly gagging for a bite, “pleading a weakness towards Banbury cakes and sherry-cobler.”

He and his companions “bent their steps”

through the folding doors and into the “snug interior” to “while away the few fleeting minutes” in order to “procure the services of the pretty and obliging Hebes” (the aforementioned goddess of youth) “that preside at the elegant and well provided counters.”

He goes on: “These rooms are of most noble dimensions, having their walls and ceiling elaborately decorated in arabesque and supported by columns, most exquisitely painted in imitation of inlaid woods.

“Nor would the mirrors, hangings and furnishings that adorn them do shame in comfort and elegance to the dining rooms of our first nobility” – especially the section catering for the first class passenger.

Every item of food, he gushed, “from Banbury cake or a sandwich to a basin of turtle to a cold fowl – every assuager of thirst from humble tea or bottled stout to iced lemonades or aristocratic champagne is provided with a kind of heigh-presto rapidity that might almost vie with the high railway speed for which this great line has long and justly been celebrated.”

The upper floor boasted a “noble coffee room with private sitting rooms..”

And then he wandered into the basement that was replete with “every solid article of food that reasonable men can wish for, and spacious cellars whose bins are full of the choicest wines and whose shelves groan under the weight of hundreds of dozens of porter, ale, soda water etc.”

Shame, then, that spoilt-for-choice passengers only had ten minute.

  •  SWINDON railway station – two classically-styled buildings/platforms on each side of the track linked by an iron footbridge – opened in 1842. It was a three-floor structure with refreshment rooms on the ground floor while the upper floors comprised the station hotel and a lounge. More than a century later swanky plans for an “imposing new station” fronted by a hotel were unveiled by the GWR on January 1, 1947 and duly splashed across the Adver’s front page.

    The scheme was to include a grand new boulevard but it was de-railed with the nationalisation of the railways several months year. Until 1961, when the Swindon Town Station in Old Town was closed, the town centre station became known as Swindon Junction to avoid confusion.

    The complex was largely demolished and re-built in 1972 although a remnant from Brunel’s original 1842 station still exists. The two-storey structure on the platform island, which boasts “strong classical styling with characterful Swindon masonry” and forms part of the “pioneering phase of the Great Western Railway“ is now a Grade II listed building.

  • WHEN construction firm J&C Rigby built Swindon Station in 1842 part of the deal was that it gained the catering rights. As all trains stopped at Swindon for ten minutes for the engines to be changed it was a nice little earner. Rigby’s sublet the contract to Samuel Griffiths of the Queen’s Hotel, Cheltenham who, as an avaricious cynic, saw it as an opportunity to charge high prices and skimp on the service and quality.

    “Despite their (the refreshment rooms) lavish character they soon achieved notoriety amongst trail travellers,” says Swindon: The Legacy of a Railway Town by John Cattell and Keith Falconer (1995.) One disgruntled passenger wrote: “We arrived at Swindon where we disbursed seven shillings and sixpence for pork pies and indifferent bottled malt liquor.

    “One of my friends had an attack on indigestion… and no wonder after such a meal.” Such scenes were captured by cartoonists of the day, thus launching a long and enduring tradition at poking fun at railway catering. Brunel himself, who designed the station, likened its coffee to roasted corn. Responding to a passenger’s complaint, he wrote: “I have long ceased to make complaints at Swindon. I avoid taking anything there when I can help it.”

    John Rouse Phillips purchased the rights in 1848 – presumably creating the environment and service that so chuffed Measom – before GWR took over the catering in 1895.

  • Swindon, of course, boasted the first railway restaurant because the locos were swapped here in order to handle the steeper climbs to Bristol.
  • THE son of a carver and gilder, George Measom (1818-1901) developed his skills as an engraver before publishing his first book in 1849, an illustrated religious themed tome. He then turned to descriptions of the railways and produced a string of Illustrated Guides over the next 15 years, starting with the Great Western Railway in 1852. By 1867 Measom’s beautifully illustrated “official guides” had covered the entire British railway network. He later dedicated his life to charity, including the protection of animals and was knighted for his public work in 1891.
  • ACCORDING to Measom, the entire operation – catering for swarms of passengers as they poured out of their carriages for ten minutes of tuck – was by 1852 executed with military precision along with “undeviating civility and a moderate tariff.” He goes on: “It would be difficult to find a place more admirably adapted by its construction for its purpose than the salons and hotel at the Swindon Station, or persons more nicely adapted to their busy occupation than the staff employed under the present proprietor. “Nor is their task an easy one when we recollect that the wants of two or three hundred hungry and thirsty souls are to be supplied in ten minutes. “Nothing but perfect aptitude could accomplish so much in so short a time. Here we have a close approximation to perfection…” One happy customer then.