“Surely it was always summer when we made our first railway journey,” wrote the historian Hamilton Ellis, “and everyone who has ever loved a train has a favourite railway – the first one we ever saw.” For many of us this nostalgic vision would almost certainly include a little seaside branch line train with burnished steam engine chuffing to the coast – eager small boys in short trousers and girls in Ladybird dresses, tin buckets and spades at the ready for a sunny fortnight digging on golden sands.
But that gentle age of innocence is gone. In the 1960s Dr Beeching swung his axe and eliminated 4,000 miles of track. Then along came John Major with his rail privatisation, and a hard-headed bunch of bus operators took over the running of the railways with an eye for a quick buck. At the time of Beeching, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann – an eccentric couple of middle class, middle-aged men in suits – wrote a song called Slow Train, which today remains fixed in the national psyche. “No more will I go to Blandford Forum or Mortehoe”, they sang. “On the slow train from Midsomer Norton to Mumby Road. No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat at Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street. We won’t be meeting again on the slow train.”
The song was more than just a roll call of country stations with quaint names that were to close; it was a lament for a gentler, slower way of British life that seemed to be disappearing for ever. But did it? Taking my cue from the title of Flanders and Swann’s song, I spent a year travelling on slow trains around the rail byways of Britain – and it was a joy to find how little had changed.
Still with us are the three most magnificent long-distance country railways – the Settle and Carlisle railway, the Heart of Wales line from Shrewsbury to Swansea and the West Highland line to Mallaig. Their supporters fought and won against closure plans and now they offer some of the greatest rail journeys in the world. Many tiny branches, such as from St Erth to St Ives in the far west of Cornwall, are now so busy that no more trains can be squeezed onto the track.
In fact, the best railway journeys of Britain are often the slowest – a single railcar dawdling along a Cumbrian branch line, a stopping train making its leisurely way through the remote heart of the Fens, 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 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.
I took timeless journeys through spectacular mountains and pretty seaside villages, through gritty industrial landscapes and gently rolling hills, through city and suburbs. I stayed the night in a snow hut at Dent, the highest station in England, and I rode on a train from Huddersfield to Barnsley where the driver had laid on a jazz band to entertain the passengers. On the Isle of Wight I travelled on former London Tube trains more than 70 years old and still going strong
In almost every way, the slow train journey is more pleasurable than a fast one. Think of Edward Thomas’s poem Adlestrop, where his 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 to King’s Cross: “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…”
Rejoice, too, in way our slow trains fit in with the British landscape – bridges and viaducts so weathered that they could always have been there. So perfectly integrated, in fact that a Victorian guidebook writer summed up one of the defining images of the English summer as “white puffs of steam against green countryside.” What better image to urge you on your own slow journeyings…
On The Slow Train: Twelve Great British Railway Journeys by Michael Williams is published by Preface, price £14.99