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People and the railway: 75 years of Brief Encounter


On Valentine’s Day 2020, we marked 75 years of a British romance classic that today draws thousands of visitors to a small railway station in Lancashire.

The popularity of a tourist attraction at the working Carnforth station follows about £120,000 of grants from The Railway Heritage Trust, which is funded by Network Rail.

Brief Encounter – about two married strangers who fall in love after meeting at a station – was shot at Carnforth between February 5 and February 16 1945, shortly before the end of WWII.

The film has been a significant draw to the area – about 50,000 people visited Carnforth Station Heritage Centre, north of Lancaster, last year, according to its manager, John Adams.

The heritage centre at the station features an exhibition about Brief Encounter. It opened in 2003 after a sensitive restoration of parts of the station, which had become derelict before benefitting from the funding from The Railway Heritage Trust, according to Andy Savage, its former executive director.

The trust aims to bring listed railway buildings back into practical use across Britain. Its projects have ranged from memorials to railway workers who served in WWI and WWII to entire restorations of historic stations.

At Carnforth, the partially trust-funded restoration benefits more than visitors to the heritage centre – the station itself remains open for passenger services so those catching trains can enjoy the improvements.

The Railway Heritage Trust described the restoration in one of its annual reports as “stunning”. It said: “This is the last ‘baronial hall’, the original Victorian Tudor Gothic ticket hall that has been opened out and restored… Throughout the buildings, original features such as fireplaces and the large kitchen range have been carefully restored and retained within the new finishes.”

Image credit: Carnforth Station Heritage Centre

Read more about how funding from The Railway Heritage Trust helps communities across Britain:

People and the railway: The Railway Heritage Trust

Proud to support The Railway Heritage Trust

The railway industry and heritage

A British classic

Brief Encounter is from two of the era’s biggest names in film, written by playwright Noël Coward and directed by David Lean, who went on to direct Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

John said: “Brief Encounter is an iconic film – [it] always features in lists of best films ever made. The heritage centre reflects bygone times and visitors flock to see where part of the film was made.”

Fans visiting Carnforth will notice it has changed little since the 1940s, with its distinctive platforms and clock that feature heavily in the film.

Carnforth station’s famous clock – just was it was in the 1940s. Image credit: Carnforth Station Heritage Centre

Lean shot Brief Encounter’s exterior station scenes at Carnforth station, with its refreshment room scenes, where lead characters Alec and Laura meet, filmed in a studio. Lean had decided the station’s real refreshment room was too far from the platforms for the actors to reach quickly enough.

Visitors can still immerse themselves in the Brief Encounter atmosphere at the heritage centre’s tearoom. John said: “The refreshment room was restored to be as close as possible to the set seen in the film. There was a refreshment room on the platform when Lean was filming but it did not fully suit his needs so internal shots were at Denham Studio.”

The Brief Encounter connection and heritage centre have had a significant positive impact on the local community. John said: “As the major tourist attraction in Carnforth (some might say the only one) our visitors are bound to be important to the local economy – hotels, cafes, the famous bookshop and shops in general can all benefit.”

Why Carnforth?

The production was originally intended to take place at a station in London but the Ministry of War Transport decided Carnforth was far away enough from the capital to be safe from enemy attack.

Reportedly, Lean chose Carnforth because of its slopes from the platforms to the station’s subway. This allowed the actors to run up and down easily.

The station needed a main line passing through it for express trains and a local line for stopping trains to Churley and Ketchworth.

It also needed little or no traffic between 10pm and 8am so trains wouldn’t disturb filming.

Source: Carnforth Station Heritage Centre

Read more about our heritage:

Film: the magic of the Glenfinnan Viaduct

Film: discover the Network Rail archive

People and the railway: reconnecting Scotland

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