'I remember the thrill of riding on the tram'

Brian pretended he was the tram driver as a young boy in the 1940s. Photo: Supplied

I still well remember riding in the trams of Bristol in the south-west of England, when I was a little kid of about four or five. It was always a great thrill for me, to ride on the upper deck, right above the driver, and imagine I was actually driving the vehicle myself, metal wheels clanking loudly on the rails and the armature above me spitting and crackling as it picked up the power to drive us along.

The poor man driving the vehicle had no seat to sit on, as bus drivers do today, he stood on a small, semi-enclosed platform at the front, with no weather protection, apart from any waterproof clothing he might have, and his mandatory Bristol Bus Company cap on his head. (I expect the company had a different name in those days, but I can’t remember what it was!)

In wet weather it was no more comfortable for any passengers who had decided to ride ‘upstairs’ either; the trams had no roof up there, not even any sort of temporary cover, so you just got wet, or went downstairs, which of course was an admission of defeat! To make certain the passenger was totally uncomfortable, no matter what the weather was like, the seats were slatted wooden benches, just like the ones you see in parks, but without the fancy wrought iron on the ends. We were bred tough in those days!

Of course, the trams ran on rails — they’d have been called trolley buses otherwise — and turntables for reversing the direction the tram was going in were few and far between, so all trams were double-ended affairs, with a full set of controls at each end. When the terminus was reached, the driver had a couple of duties to perform, one of them being to move to the platform at the other end of the tram; but he also had to use a long pole to reach up to the armature above, unhook it from the wires, then turn it round so it pointed in the opposite direction and re-connect with the wires. This was so that the armature was always being dragged, rather than pushed along the wires, avoiding all sorts of nasty situations due to damaged cables, etc.

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Sadly, all the trams disappeared in about 1942, when the vast array of iron rails that the vehicles ran on were torn up to be melted down for armaments.

A lot of other nice ‘stuff’ ceased to exist at that time, as one of the major casualties of the awful war, wrought iron fences, which surrounded virtually all the parks of Bristol disappeared pretty well overnight, as did the balustrades on the Georgian houses Bristol was so rich endowed with, and even the wire and metal post fences around schools went the same way, all to feed the war effort!

I often wonder how much of that metal actually finished up as armaments, rather than being quietly dumped somewhere out in the country, but at least it gave everyone a self-righteous sense of having ‘helped the effort’, and anyway we all knew it would all be ‘put back as it was’ when the war was over. (Ha!Ha!Ha!)

Virtually the entire centre of Bristol was destroyed during the war, most of it on one hellish night, when the Nazis seemed to throw every aircraft they owned at Bristol, all of them heavily loaded with bombs.

I have no idea why Bristol was hit in this way, as far as I am aware there was very little of strategic value there, the BAC aircraft works were miles away, outside the actual city. We called it ‘the blitz’ and at the end of hostilities, in 1945, work had to begin, not only to clear away all the thousands of destroyed buildings, but to rebuild.

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This job, unfortunately, was planned and carried out by a team of bureaucrats who simply wanted to get buildings back up and get business operating again, with no consideration for the long-term appearance of the place, or the quality of the work.

The result was, a city from which virtually all beauty had disappeared to be replaced by acres of featureless concrete buildings, most of which only lasted for a few years before they had to be knocked down and started all over again — with more ugly concrete!

But I’m getting onto a pet hate of mine now, so I think I’d better stop before I start using words I shouldn’t.

Did you ride on the trams when you were younger? Were you or a loved one involved in World War II? What memories do you have of growing up?

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