The ancient wooden signal clatters down and there’s a friendly wave from the guard. It’s time to climb aboard the little branch line train, pottering along an idyllic Cornish valley to a perfect seaside fishing village.
Here, through the train window, England’s green and pleasant land can be viewed in all her springtime finery. The morning sun is firing up the cherry blossom after the harshest of winters. The sea on the horizon is bathed in the brilliant azure light that can only mean summer is on its way.
Aboard the freshly painted carriages, with newly washed windows sparkling in the sun, the tickets are inexpensive and the staff courteous. In the station buffet a jolly lady serves freshly cooked breakfast. “Would you like me to stop the train for you at the next halt, sir?” asks the guard.
Surely this must be some nostalgic fantasy. Maybe a Thomas the Tank Engine theme park? Or perhaps a jaded commuter’s Monday morning dream?
Shhh! I’m going to let you into a secret. This lovely, little-known railway at the extreme fringe of Britain is as much part of the national rail network as the overcrowded and delayed trains that we have all come to hate. Rip-off fares, unexplained delays, broken toilets, irritating announcements, indigestible catering on our national rail system have all become part of the lexicon of modern British life.
But not everywhere. I came across the Liskeard-Looe line – and many other secret delights of our often-maligned rail system – during a 30,000-mile odyssey around Britain to find the best rail journeys in the land, as the fiftieth anniversary of the infamous Beeching Report approaches.
There are few love affairs more intense than that of the British with their railways. As a nation we invented the passenger train, and pride in the great heroes of the Railway Age – the Stephensons, Trevithick, Brunel – runs through our national DNA. Yet somehow, it always seems to go wrong. No more so than back in 1963 when a plump, balding physicist with an authoritarian moustache and an obsession with the bottom line, took an axe to a third of Britain’s rail network.
Richard Beeching had been recruited from the chemicals firm ICI to produce his infamous report, The Reshaping of British Railways – and his proposals were draconian. Most stopping trains would be discontinued. Some 2,350 stations would be shut, along with 5,000 miles of track. No area would be spared. Almost all of Devon, Lincolnshire, Cumbria, Wales and the Highlands of Scotland would be robbed entirely of their passenger train services.
The arguments about Beeching still rage on half a century later. Did he deploy his brilliant scientific background to drag an inefficient nationalised industry out of the steam age and into the modern era? Or was he, as the Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts claimed in a recent book, a “foolish slasher-and-burner”, who dumped our railway heritage into the bin, like cold leftovers? Either way, the wounds are still raw.
Fortunately for most of us, the Evil Doctor’s brutality did not always prevail, and like the villagers of Titfield in the famous Ealing comedy, The Titfield Thunderbolt, communities across the land rose up, fought back and frequently won. Branches such as the Liskeard to Looe line won a last-minute reprieve. Today many of the loveliest railway journeys across the most scenic and historic landscapes of Britain are still with us, to be enjoyed for the price of an often inexpensive day return.
“There is an English dream of a warm summer evening on a branch line train,” wrote the famous railway writer, Paul Theroux, author of the Old Patagonian Express, thirty years ago. “Just that sentence can make an English person over 40 fall silent with the memory of what has become a golden fantasy of an idealised England: the comfortable dusty coaches rolling through the low woods, the sun gilding the green leaves and striking through the carriage windows; the breeze tickling the hot flowers in the fields, birdsong and the thump of a powerful locomotive; the pleasant creak of the wood panelling on the coach; the mingled smells of fresh grass and coal smoke…”
Fortunately – minus the smoke – Theroux’s idyll is still there to be discovered in today’s Britain. And it’s not a “fantasy”. In spending two years searching out the best journeys in the land I enjoyed relaxed travel that I can guarantee would instantly reduce the blood pressure of the hordes in traffic jams on motorways this Easter as petrol prices head into the stratosphere.
Here is the “train to the end of the world” running for more than four dramatic hours through lake, loch and moorland from Inverness to Wick, the most northerly town in Britain. More modestly, I joined the single-carriage train along a perfect country branch line tucked away in London’s commuterland. The rural charms of the Marston Vale line in Bedfordshire are almost unknown except to a few insiders.
There is another treat aboard one of the slowest services in the land along the shores of the lovely Dovey estuary, around Cardigan Bay to Aberystwyth and Pwlleli, where the train runs precariously along cliffs, perched above frothing seas. This is a journey that will take you along a single track into dramatic mountains and echoing valleys, past busy seaside resorts and tiny coastal villages on the edge of vast sandy beaches with glimpses of ruined castles and abbeys, passing ancient hill forts with views across ocean and hills.
Or you can head north to buy a ticket on the stopping train across the Pennines from Morecambe to Leeds, on a line with so few services that its glorious scenery is a secret known only to the regulars. I stopped off for a little weep in the famous tearooms at Carnforth, almost unchanged since Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson said their goodbyes in David Lean’s 1945 film of Brief Encounter – one of the most romantic movies ever.
You can take an idyllic journey, too, on the Bittern Line in Norfolk, an inspiration for Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles and the Tarka Line in North Devon, where the sharp-eyed can spot the otters that give the line its name, frolicking in the gleaming waters of the River Taw. Vampire-lovers might want to sample the Esk Valley line from Whitby to Middlesbrough, a journey once taken in a coffin by Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel.
There are plenty of other eccentricities, too. Train services on the Isle of Wight are operated by 70-year-old London Tubes. How surreal to survey cows in fields and thatched cottages from the windows of a train that spent much of its life in the darkness of a Northern Line tunnel! And fans of the record books can take the train from Britain’s busiest station (Waterloo, with 86 million passengers a year) to one of the quietest (Chapelton in Devon, with fewer than 400).
But we must not forget the grandest journey of all. Climb aboard the “Deerstalker Express” from London to Fort William and you can retire to your berth amid the din of the Euston Road and wake up next morning amid Highland lochs and glens, with stags at the lineside pressing their noses at your window.
Not all the most splendid journeys run along quaint routes through rural Britain. For the price of a ticket costing less than a fiver, the futuristic, driverless trains of London’s Docklands Light Railway will sweep you on a rooftop panorama of history along the Thames, from the Tower of London, past Dickensian warehouses, to the elegant Greenwich palaces of Christopher Wren, via Canary Wharf and its brash monuments to Mammon.
One theme that unites these journeys is that they all embody the infinite delight of slow travel in a hurried and fretful era. “There was always more in the world that men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast,” wrote John Ruskin more than a century ago. “The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a man no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.”
Those modern slow train travellers, Paul Theroux and Michael Palin, put it more pithily. “Looking out of a train window,” writes Theroux “… is like watching an unedited travelogue, without the obnoxious soundtrack.” For Palin, the mantra is even simpler: “If travelling’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in a leisurely manner.” Even old rock legends seem to find gentle train travel therapeutic. “On the slow train,” wrote Bob Dylan, “time does not interfere…”
But the charm of travelling slow does not just lie in the scenery. During my tens of thousands of miles of travel round the network, I encountered hundreds of ordinary people who found the time to chat and share a little bit of their lives with me. These “strangers on a train” were unfailingly kind and helpful. Some offered hospitality and even accommodation. Maybe there is something especially civilised about trains – but from my experience I believe no one could accuse the British nation of losing its sense of courtesy.
Midway through my journeys around the network, in the early summer of last year , the case for slow travel received, literally, a gift from the sky when an ash cloud from an erupting volcano in Iceland grounded flights across Europe, causing fury and frustration among air passengers. But there were others who returned home thrilled at the discovery of the pleasures of leisurely travel on scenic branch lines and byways they never knew existed.
All this makes it less likely that, in our environmentally and socially conscious age, that there will ever be another Beeching. But who knows? We mustn’t forget that the Settle & Carlisle line, hewn by Victorian navvies out of the Pennine rock and now one of the most famous scenic railways of the world, would have been axed by Beeching if tough-minded Yorkshire and Cumbrian folk had not risen up against the threat of closure.
Nor should we get over-sentimental, given the many frustrations facing modern-day rail travellers. The train company that operates the delightful branch lines of Devon and Cornwall is the very same one that runs what are officially the most overcrowded trains in Britain. I squeezed onto the notorious 07.42 from Reading to London Paddington (which regularly carries 300 passengers more than it is designed for). As one commuter observed: “There are regulations for transporting sheep and cattle – why not for us?”
In my travels around the network, I encountered other annoyances. Train company websites can be so complex that you need a degree in computer science to get the cheapest fares and avoid paying stratospheric prices. I’ve witnessed heartless ticket collectors who mug old ladies with hefty penalty fares when they have left their railcards at home. I have been dumped with heavy luggage in the middle of nowhere to continue my railway journey by bus because of “over-running engineering works”.
And why is it that the buffet car still always seems to close before Watford?
But none of this should be allowed to dim the joy of slow trains as an unrivalled means of getting to the heart of our beautiful land. As the days become longer and the sun gets higher, I’ll be back aboard those little carriages, rumbling through spectacular mountains and pretty seaside villages, through gritty industrial landscapes and gently rolling hills, where there are always new pleasures to be discovered through the train window.
As the essayist A. P. Herbert once observed: “Slow train travel is almost the only restful experience that is left to us.”
On The Slow Train Again: Twelve More Great British Train Journeys is published this month [April] by Preface Publishing, price £14.99. The updated paperback edition of the companion volume On the Slow Train is published at the same time by Arrow Books, price £8.99