A MAN who has worked on the trains for more than 50 years says “the railway
A MAN who has worked on the trains for more than 50 years says “the railway brought me out of my shell”.
Norman Topsom, 68, of Gainsborough Hill, Henley, is retiring in September having worked at stations in Henley, Twyford and Reading.
Mr Topsom, who lives with his brother Richard, was born in Henley and started working at the old town station when he left school in 1962.
He is well—known around the town for his trademark bushy sideburns and moustache, with children regularly remarking that he looks like Father Christmas.
Mr Topsom said: “I’m Henley born and bred. My mum’s family were a Henley family, my grandfather was even in the newspaper 100 years ago for poaching!
“I went to Gillotts School but back then you could leave at Christmas so I went and didn’t know what I was going to do. My father Harry worked on the railway in Henley on the tracks so I found myself in the station master’s office one morning and that was it.”
Mr Topsom was one of about 40 people employed at the old station before it was reduced in size in the late Sixties. He was a porter and his jobs included helping passengers with bags as well as general jobs at the station.
He said: “Little did I know I would be the last person employed at the old Henley station. Back then the station was big and the railway was the main carrier of people. Everyone went on trains and it was always busy.”
After two years at Henley, Mr Topsom moved to Twyford station. But he said he “hankered for the big time” and two years later left to go to Reading station, where he worked for 23 years in the parcel depot.
Mr Topsom said all manner of peculiar packages would come through the depot, including exotic creatures in cages.
He said: “I often got coffins with dead bodies and there were a lot of animals, usually mice, rats and the odd snake but I also had fully—grown boars and rams. I once held an alligator — that was one of the most unusual.
“I remember a man coming in one day with a little box and I could hear it rustling so I asked to have a look inside. He opened it and there was an enormous spider! He asked me if I wanted to hold it but I’m terrified of spiders so I told him to get out of the office straight away!”
In 1989 Mr Topsom was told he was front runner for the job of station chargeman at Twyford. He applied and got it.
He said: “It was a step up, I’d gone from a porter at Henley and Twyford to a station chargeman. It’s different to how it is now, I had to work the points and signals when they failed and work the trains in place of the guards if they didn’t turn up. I was doing anything and everything, looking back I was a workaholic. If I had it on my list I’d do it, it made the job interesting and the more you had to do the more interesting it was. Even now when I walk in the door I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
One of his roles included dealing with people who were hit by trains and he even witnessed cars getting struck at the level crossing in Shiplake.
Mr Topsom said: “I had to deal with fatalities and stopped a few as well. You have to talk them down or away — you aren’t going to stand aside and watch when you could talk and listen to them.”
Mr Topsom, who was awarded an MBE in 2005 for services to the community, says he has become a popular figure at the stations, as much for his conversation as his trademark sideburns.
But he claims he has never been very confident speaking to people and learnt to do it for the job.
Mr Topsom said: “In a job like this you’ve got to talk to people. By doing that you make friends and meet interesting people. I’m not actually a very good conversationalist and I was very much a loner at school. The railway brought me out of my shell.
“In a job like this you can’t be a loner because you’ve got to talk to people. In a place like Twyford it’s a high profile job because on a small branch you can’t fail to get to know people.”
He has met some famous people, including actors Robert Morley, Simon Williams and Rodney Bewes, who have all stopped to chat.
Mr Topsom is also a bellringer at St Mary’s Church and looks after its clock.
In 2012 he came top of 138 locals to win the “Face of Henley”, a competition to mark the 10th anniversary of The Face of Henley charity, which raises money for people experiencing tragedy or hardship.
Portraits were hung at the Old Fire Station Gallery in Market Place and more than 611 visitors cast votes for their “favourite face”.
Mr Topsom said: “It was a nice surprise when I was named face of Henley but again it’s the nature of my job, it’s high profile and people recognise me.”
A keen amateur historian, Mr Topsom says he wants to go travelling and write a book on Henley station.
He said: “I’ve got a whole list of castles and cathedrals I want to see and I can travel free on the train any time or take the bus. My first stop is Chichester Cathedral because I’ve never been down that way and I fancy going along to Bosham.
“I also want to write about Henley station and the staff who worked there when I was there.
“I’m going to have a look through all the old Henley Standards at the library. It’s information that will be lost when I go but for the first week I want to chill out and do nothing, just take stock. That way I can decide what I want to do next with myself.”