A train trip through the UK's industrial past

Railway signal Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption A diverted train took Peter through both his past, and that of industrial Britain

The train stopped in the countryside. The signal was sticking out at 90 degrees.

It was not a red light, but one of the old-fashioned semaphore arm signals was barring our way. Not something you encounter very often today.

I was on the way from Newcastle to London on a recent, golden, Saturday afternoon. At Doncaster the train was diverted via Lincoln because of engineering work on the line. Diverted into my past.

I suddenly realised that the town bathed in late sunlight across the river I was staring at as we waited for the signal to change was one of those Lincolnshire places I grew up in.

It was Gainsborough, on which the fictional town of St Ogg's was based in the George Eliot novel The Mill on the Floss. The river was the smug and silver Trent.

Lots of memories, and they have a business thread to them. Gainsborough's history is an epitome of Midlands engineering expertise.

Tractor town

I grew up in a cold 19th Century bank house behind the Midland Bank in the town's market place. The house had a big walled garden, stables for the bank horses, dog kennels, cherry trees.

There used to be a big orchard, but it had been commandeered some time before we arrived as an open-air parts store for one of the main industries in Gainsborough, Marshall Tractors.

Marshall's dominated the town. Founded as a local engineering firm in 1848, William Marshall expanded with a range of celebrated tractors and big road rollers. The company built the vast Britannia Iron Works in a central position in the town.

It was said to be for a time the largest factory in Europe. It was glimpsed in an unlikely encounter by the author Virginia Woolf, who likened it to the Doge's Palace in Venice.

It was certainly imposing. Through the works gates ebbed and flowed thousands of workers, like an LS Lowry painting. The factory hooter told the time for the whole of the town, work starting at 08:00, a lunch break and then a final hoot at 17:00.

Image caption Gainsborough was once a significant industrial hub

There were violent ups and downs in the company's 150 years of history, but it stayed true to its engineering origins, with a flow of mighty steam rollers, naval guns, tea processing machines, farm tractors and (in World War II) midget submarines.

Once a year there was an open day at the Marshall's plant; visitors (like me as a small boy) came in queues to wonder at the iron founding process and the great machines that made other great machines, and the bustle and glow of it all. In the Doge's Palace, it felt so secure, so permanent.

But it wasn't, and Marshall's closed in the 1990s, defeated by big company competition, and advancing agricultural technology. Quite by coincidence I went back soon afterwards to make a programme.

Pie trip

Symbolically, this palace of engineering had become a kind of heritage collection of Britain's industrial past. The new occupants of the vast plant were a business selling second-hand industrial equipment, mainly for export to the developing world.

There were dozens, if not hundreds of metal tables for precision work, big cranes and vast lathes bought at knockdown prices from old shipyards. They could have gone for scrap, but there was a big market for old machine tools in newer countries.

This huge works had employed as many as 5,000 people making armaments in the War; now it had only 25.

We did the interview in a fine wood panelled boardroom with high windows, like the Phillip Larkin poem. The head of the second-hand machinery company told me that he had heard that on Fridays at Marshall's, the company car used to be sent down to Melton Mowbray to bring back an authentic pork pie for the directors' lunch.

One hundred miles there and back, a rather modest symbol of corporate extravagance, I would have thought. Even so, it had impressed him enough to retell it years later.

I have also no idea whether it is true. But the story added to the poignancy of that encounter with an outpost of Britain's former manufacturing glory, then being sold off bit by bit abroad.

In 2007 the Britannia Works changed again. It has been converted into a retail experience - 29 largely chain store shops in what is now called Marshall's Yard. Once they built powerful tractors with the glorious name of Field-Marshall there. Now they sell clothes.

Image caption Gainsborough has a literary past, and was the setting for The Mill on the Floss

There were other notable Gainsborough industries in my childhood, too. Rose Brothers made wrapping machinery that was exported all over the world.

It began in the 1880s when William Rose, something of a prodigy, invented what some people say is the very first packaging machine - to wrap tobacco, until then sold loose and packed on demand behind the counter. The company added cigarettes and confectionery as well, and even made a few cars.

Like Marshall's, Rose Brothers was busy and inventive during both world wars. The company helped with Barnes Wallace's famous bouncing bomb, delivered to its target in Germany from a Lincolnshire RAF base by the Dambusters.

But as with Marshall's, international competition began to bite into Rose's success in the post-WWII era. After mergers, the Gainsborough factory closed in 1987. But the Rose name lives on, bought by a local company called AMP in 1990.

Engineering was deep in the blood in Gainsborough. In the 1950s the town's model railway club was said to be the biggest in the world. Its annual show attracted hundreds of silent, wondering spectators.

One year a quiet visitor brought a small portable folding railway layout on which he spent the afternoon shepherding his trains around the hilly landscape of the model of the Isle of Sodor, his invention. He was utterly absorbed in it. I do not remember many onlookers paying particular attention.

But this was the man who created a publishing and later TV phenomenon - the Rev W Audrey. The thin controller devotedly manoeuvred a tiny model of his beloved Thomas the Tank Engine round the small circuit he brought with him, packed in what was probably his Morris Minor, driven up from his Cambridgeshire vicarage for the day. A journey further than that of the pork pies.

But that was a long time ago. The other day, after five minutes of waiting, the signal clanged up to "go". The train slowly gathered speed. We crossed the river, and Gainsborough edged by, gilded by the setting sun. The past is another country, and we did things differently there.