Today, the Cotswolds village of Adlestrop was celebrating 100 years since the poet Edward Thomas’s train stopped at the tiny station there, inspiring him to write one of the most loved poems in the English language It was a special period in time – and here’s what I wrote about it in my book On the Slow Train:
THERE are few things more evocative of the British landscape than the country branch line. A little engine chuffs along a single track, a few wisps of steam drifting across the fields, the sun glinting off its copper-capped chimney. There might be a couple of elderly carriages and perhaps a milk tank or a cattle truck in tow. Nobody much comes or goes on the immaculately tended platforms. Somehow here, it always seems to be summer.
At least, that’s how we like to imagine it. Of course, Britain’s railways haven’t been like this since Dr Richard Beeching, one of the great bogeymen of modern times, came along with his axe in 1963 and shut down more than 4,000 miles of track. Back then, the comedy songwriting duo Michael Flanders and Donald Swann caught the mood of the nation in their song Slow Train, mourning the closure of “all those marvellous old local railway stations with their wonderful evocative names all due to be axed and done away with one by one”. “No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat at Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street,” they sang. “No one departs and no one arrives from Selby to Goole, from St Erth to St Ives. They’ve all passed out of our lives…”
Flanders’ and Swann’s song was an elegy for the passing of a less hurried way of life. But fortunately, nearly half a century on from the publication of Beeching’s The Reshaping of British Railways, we have learnt to love and cherish our local railways again. Slow trains on local lines offer an unrivalled way to travel around Britain in a hurried age – and they have always been more than just a way of getting from A to B. As the historian David St John Thomas observed, the local railway has always “provided more than transport. It was always part of the district it served, with its own natural history, its own legends and folklore, a staff who were at the heart of village affairs, its stations and adjoining pubs – places for exchange of gossip, news and advice. Its mourners recognised that more than British Rail’s statistics would be lost when it died.”
Luckily for us, many secondary lines didn’t die at the hands of Beeching and are still here to offer the modern traveller some of the greatest journeys in Britain, and sometimes the world. There is no longer any talk of shutting Dreamingham-on-the-Marsh or Sleepytown-in-the-Wold. On the contrary, a report from the main train operating companies in 2009 urged the reopening of 14 branch lines that had been closed by Beeching. Meanwhile passenger journeys in Britain are up by half since privatisation, and while the little old steam engines and wizened porters may be gone, many of the lines and stations that survived the cull have prospered as never before. Local railways these days often thrive as “community rail partnerships” where everyone in the locality – from the town hall to the elderly lady volunteer who plants out the geraniums in the station platform tubs – can have a stake in the future of the line.
Even though we hear a lot about high-speed rail lines expanding all over the world, the pleasures and delights of relaxed rail travel have never been more appreciated. In almost every way, the slow train journey is more pleasurable than a fast one. Think of Edward Thomas’s poem Adlestrop, where his express train stopped “unwontedly” one June afternoon at an Oxfordshire country station. What he saw and heard was nothing special: the hiss of steam, an empty platform, a man clearing his throat. Yet suddenly a blackbird sang, summoning up for Thomas a profound sense of the timelessness of the English countryside. Or perhaps the most evocative slow train journey of all, Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings, written on the afternoon train from Hull: “Not till about/One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday/Did my three-quarters empty train pull out/All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense/Of being in a hurry gone…”
Both poets were foreshadowing the now fashionable concept of “slow”, which has gained momentum since the establishment of the “Slow Food” movement in Italy in the 1990s. Now there is even a “Manifesto for Slow Travel”, which declares that it is “about deceleration rather than speed. The journey becomes a moment to relax, rather than a stressful interlude imposed between home and destination. Slow travel re-engineers time, transforming it into a commodity of abundance rather than scarcity”.
The great railway journeys of Britain are often the slowest – a single railcar dawdling along a Cornish branch line, a stopping train making its leisurely way through the remote heart of Wales, a vintage steam engine at the head of a Pullman train on a secondary line, where its passengers are enjoying a proper meal in the style of the traditional dining cars of old. How often have we peered from a local train trundling over city rooftops into back gardens and windows, catching momentary and mysterious flashes of other people’s lives? The Britain perceived from the window of a slow train is quite different from the one seen from a high-speed express racing in a blur through the countryside at 180mph.
This is not a book for rivet counters or number spotters. Nor does it claim to be a history of the railways or a conventional tourist guide (although every one of these journeys can be precisely followed just as I travelled on them – simply by buying a ticket on a regular service). Rather, the book attempts to distil the flavour of Britain as glimpsed from the windows of slow trains and especially through the voices of the people in the communities they serve. Here are timeless journeys through spectacular mountains and pretty seaside villages, through gritty industrial landscapes and gently rolling hills, through city and suburbs. I have chosen them because each is special as a Great British Train Journey in its own right.
I hope you will settle back into the cushions, either of the train or your armchair, and enjoy the ride.