Can there be a better image to summon up the spirit of the British landscape than a country branch line? A little tank 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. There’s a friendly wave from the signalman as the train clanks by, but 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 think of it. Of course, Britain’s railways haven’t really 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 luckily, many of the lines that the dastardly doctor wanted to close are still flourishing, thanks to dogged ordinary folk in local communities who fought for their survival – and the satiric genius of this odd couple of middle-aged singers. (Who can’t still hum a few lines of “Mud, mud, glorious mud”?)
Although all the publicity this week [Mar 11] is about the government’s plans for a new 250mph line from London to the north, it is the branch lines and slow trains that truly offer some of the greatest journeys in Britain – and, indeed, the world. It’s now almost half a century since Beeching first swung his axe, and I have spent the past year travelling the length and breadth of Britain on the slowest of slow trains – not on preserved “heritage” railways, but on ordinary Network Rail lines using tickets bought from normal ticket offices. I wasn’t trying to seek out the shortcomings of the modern railway (though I discovered many), but to celebrate the endurance of one of this nation’s greatest achievements, our Victorian rail system.
Has there ever been a better way to view the landscape than through the prism of a railway carriage window? Is it still true that “the railway train has a place in British society unparalleled anywhere else in the world”, as a historian once observed? The wizened station masters with their fob watches and braid may have gone, but the answer is emphatically yes.
The greatest railway journeys in Britain today 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 brace of art-deco Pullman carriages on a secondary line, its passengers enjoying a proper meal with silver service in the style of the traditional dining cars of old. There is the unsurpassable pleasure of waking to breakfast on the West Highlands sleeper from Euston as it passes across the wilds of Rannoch Moor, the noses of curious stags pressing at the window. Or alighting at Berney Arms in Norfolk, the loneliest station in Britain, where there are no houses and the nearest road is three miles away. With just the birds and brilliant East Anglian skies for company, can there be finer spot in Britain to get away from it all?
Or take possibly the slowest trains in the land – the four-hour trip from Preston to Carlisle along the remote Cumbrian coast line from Barrow-in-Furness to Carlisle. The train picks its way along the shore where the waves crash savagely over the track, but the views across the Irish Sea to the distant Scottish hills are among the most sensational Europe. By the time it reaches its destination, through stations with names such as St Bee’s, Foxfield and Maryport, you could have been up to London and back on the main line.
The Settle and Carlisle railway through the Pennines, over the “roof of England”, reprieved after an almighty decade-long fight with British Rail, may have only six through passenger trains a day, but people flock from all over the world to ride across its greatest monument – the mighty Ribblehead viaduct. Not for nothing is it known as the “Gotterdammerung” of railway lines.
There are intimate insights, too, that can only be experienced from a train. Here’s a tantalising glimpse of the final overs of a village cricket match, the whites of the players turned to gold in the last embers of the setting sun. What the result will be, we will never know, since the train’s already passed by. How often have we peered from a local train trundling over urban rooftops into back gardens and windows, catching momentary and mysterious flashes of other people’s lives? A couple share a brief embrace, a mother prepares tea for her children, freshly home from school.
The Britain perceived from the window of a slow train is quite different from the one seen from a Eurostar racing in a blur through the countryside at 180 mph or from a motorway, where the walls on the viaducts are built deliberately high to stop drivers becoming transfixed by the scenery.
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, for at least two full generations in villages all over the land, all important comings and goings were on the local train. “The pair of rails disappearing over the horizon stood for progress, disaster, the major changes in life…the way one’s fiancé paid paid his first visit to one’s parents, one’s children returned for deathbed leavetaking, the way summer visitors came.” But the local railway has always provided more than transport, he points out. 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.
Many things, of course, have changed for the worse since then. The ticket offices nowadays are often closed and shuttered, and the local good sidings ripped up, replaced by juggernaut trucks that roar through the country lanes. Platform staff in many areas are extinct. Modern trains bear garish corporate liveries designed by focus groups, which clash hideously with the gentle pastels of the British landscape. The fares system is mostly impenetrable to ordinary passengers, confused by bureaucratic jargon and time restrictions, and deliberately designed to penalise those who want simply to buy a ticket and walk on.
Some of the trains deployed on rural branches, such as the “Pacers”, built in the 1980s from kits of parts of old Leyland bus bodies, are fit only to run in the Third World. (Which, indeed, some of them do, since the only other country apart from Britain that operates Pacer trains is Iran.) There are interminable announcements about “station stops” (what’s wrong with good old “stations”) and “keeping your luggage with you at all times” as well as dire warnings about having the wrong ticket. And beware the “jobsworths”. I was evicted from the platform of the historic station in the genteel Lancashire resort of Grange-over-Sands for taking a photograph of the view over Morecambe Bay– on the grounds that “I could be a terrorist”.
And yet the friendliness and sense of community that mostly infuses local branch lines all over Britain is hardly changed from the halcyon days of the golden era. In the many thousands of miles I travelled writing my book The Slow Train I met innumerable people passionate about their local railway. In the waiting room at Appleby station in Westmoreland I shared a pot of tea with Anne Ridley the “stationmistress” who looks after the passengers along with herd of cattle in the fields outside. The place was so spick and span, that “you could have eaten your tea off the floor”, as Alan Bennett, the playwright, might have put it. During a long lull between trains at Yeovil Pen Mill, Catherine Phillips, the local rail officer, offered to drive a couple to their destination in her own car rather than let them wait two hours after they had missed their train.
There was similar passion almost everywhere I went. At Stalybridge in Cheshire, I dined on home-cooked mushy peas with black pudding the size of a Greater Manchester police officer’s truncheon in what is indisputably the finest platform buffet in England, so perfectly in period that no one would have blinked if L. S. Lowry at walked through the door. On a train in the Yorkshire Dales I ate cakes from the trolley, lovingly baked by local farmers’ wives and in the Isle of Wight I stayed in a monastery where one of the monks prays for the well being of the local train service. At Chester-le-Street in Durham, the local stationmaster had rescued the station from closure and transformed the ticket office to one of the busiest in England by hiring staff who could explain the complexities of the fares system in simple language.
There is no longer any talk of shutting Dreamingham-on-the-Marsh or Sleepytown-in-the-Wold – indeed there has been a steady stream of lines that have reopened since Beeching. Mansfield and Corby, once the biggest towns in Britain without a station, have got their trains back at last. Only last month, the first turf was cut for the re-opening of the “Waverley “line through the Scottish borders, once the route of the legendary Thames-Clyde Express, and one of the great scenic journeys of the world until Beeching choked it to death.
That’s not to say that Beeching was wrong about everything. He did a necessary job in trimming the bloated bottom line of an inefficient nationalized industry. But how crazy was it to close the Great Central route from London to the north, the newest and best engineered line in Britain, that could have been a key freight route today? Or exterminating almost every branch line in Devon and Cornwall, leading to the traffic-choked roads we have now.
Even though we hear a lot about high speed rail lines expanding all over the world, the pleasures and delights of relaxed rail travel on secondary lines 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, in which 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.”
Be honest. Would you be enticed by a list of Great Motorway Journeys, or Great Domestic Air Services? Michael Portillo has just been presented a BBC TV series of great train journeys that has been so popular that a new one has been commissioned already. Thanks to the genius of Brunel and Stephenson and the other great Victorian engineers, train passengers get a close-up and intimate view of our green and pleasant land from slow trains that motorists cannot see, nor ever will be likely to.
What better idea, then, as warmer days begin to emerge from this bleakest of winters, to get into the heart of Britain on its country railways? The buds are bursting in the hedgerows, the fields are filling with newborn lambs. The coltsfoot, the classic wild flower of railway embankments, is already unfolding its sun-like petals. Climb aboard. (But make sure you’ve got the right ticket.)
(On the Slow Train by Michael Williams is published by Preface Publishing on April 15, price £14.99)