How far back can we remember?

In teenage years, I would have been confident about the location. Had I been asked by someone where they could find Yeovil Junction station, I would have sent them out along the road that ran west from the town.

“Why?” asked my mother. “Why would you have sent them that way? Yeovil Junction Station is not in that direction. The station on the West Coker road was Hendford Halt, but it closed when you were a child.”

Hendford Halt was on a branch line that closed when I was three years old, but remnants of the station and line would have remained afterwards, perhaps explaining why I had imagined it might be the location of Yeovil Junction.

Other memories of that line, however, are more easily dated.

Passing through Martock in my father’s car, heading toward Long Sutton, we came to a stop at the level crossing where the gates had been closed to allow a train to pass. The station closed to passengers in June 1964 and to goods the following month, although, before its complete closure, the line was used for training in the winter of 1964/65. I could not have been more than four years old when the red and white painted gates kept us waiting.

A memory of a moment standing on an empty platform with my mother at Langport West station must date from before 13th June 1964, because that was the Saturday on which the last passenger train departed from the station. My mother tells me that we were going to Taunton to visit my father who was in hospital. The oldest I could have been, in that clearly recalled scene, was three years and eight months old.

Perhaps it was the noise and the smoke and the steam of those railway locomotives that embedded them in the memory. To a small boy, they often seemed to be fearful machines, prone to making noise, or sudden bursts of steam, when they were not expected.

Sometimes, memories owe as much to what we have been told at later times as to what we can remember ourselves from the time.

Perhaps it is fearful memories that we remember most for ourselves. Perhaps fear causes a memory to linger longest, or to surface most easily. A day trip to Weymouth is recalled not only because a train went along the line that went through the streets on its way to the harbour, from where ferries left for France and the Channel Islands (in itself a surprise for a boy who did not expect to see a train travelling along a street), but also because a fire engine, its bell ringing loudly, passed us on its way to a call in the town.

Do our earliest memories all involve fear or surprise?

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