Authors: Michael Williams
About the Book
Renowned railway writer
takes us on twelve of today's most captivating and historic British railway journeys â harking back to an era when travel meant more than hurrying from one place to the next in crowded carriages, before small country stations with their milk churns, porters and slumbering cats on seats were replaced by the modern world of security announcements, âleaves on the line' and Burger King.
On the Slow Train
reconnects with the long-missed need to lift our heads from the daily grind and reflect that there are still places in Britain where we can stop and stare. In its pages you will find many things: a love of railways, a love of history, a love of nostalgia, a love of the exuberance of people, and a love of life.
About the Author
Michael Williams writes widely on railways for many publications, including the
Independent on Sunday
and the railway specialist press. He is a Fleet Street journalist, having held many senior positions, including Deputy Editor of the
Independent on Sunday
, Executive Editor of the
and Head of News at the
. He is currently Senior Lecturer in the School of Journalism, Media and Communication at the University of Central Lancashire. He commutes regularly by train on the 440-mile return journey between his home in London's Camden Town and his office at Preston in Lancashire.
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 âSlow Train', mourning the closure of âall those marvellous old local railway stations with their wonderful evocative names all due to be axed and done away with one by one'. âNo churns, no porter, no cat on a seat / At Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street,' they sang. âNo 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 â 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 âprovided more than transport. It was always part of the district it served, with its own
history, its own legends and folklore, a staff who were at the heart of village affairs, its stations and adjoining pubs â places for exchange of gossip, news and advice.
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 â 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 fourteen 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.
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 âAdlestrop', in which his express train stopped âunwontedly' 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 âWhitsun Weddings'
written on the afternoon train from Hull: âNot 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 âslow', which has gained momentum since the establishment of the Slow Food movement in Italy in the 1990s. Now there is even a âManifesto for Slow Travel', which declares that it is âabout deceleration rather than speed. The journey becomes a moment
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 â 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, its passengers 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?
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 the journeys can be precisely followed just as I travelled on them â 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 in its own right.
Since publication of the first edition of this book, the philosophy of slow travel was given an unlikely boost by the eruption of an Icelandic volcano in spring 2010. The ensuing ash cloud grounded flights across Europe, arousing fury and frustration among air passengers. But there were joys discovered by other travellers, who returned home with tales of scenic rail journeys on lines they never knew existed. As the essayist A. P. Herbert once observed âSlow travel by train is almost the only restful experience that is left to us.' This new edition brings my journeys up to date, and includes changes suggested by readers, for which I am hugely grateful.
Settle back into the cushions, either of the train or your armchair, and enjoy the ride.
THE 09.05 TO ST IVES â THE LINE THEY COULDN'T CLOSE
St Erth to Lelant, Carbis Bay and St Ives
Everybody has dreamt of a land where the sun always shines and has never proved harmful, where it is always warm, but never enervating, where we may bathe in the winter and take active exercise in the summer. We had to have a name for this Elysium, so we called it the Cornish Riviera
THIS MORNING I
am officially standing in Paradise. Well, actually I'm on the platform of St Erth station in Cornwall, the remotest junction in the most westerly part of England, with the Great Western Railway's famous 1934 guidebook
The Cornish Riviera
in my pocket, from which this quote is taken. It's a bit chilly even on a July morning in this Elysium, but we must believe what we are told because the book is published with the imprimatur of âSir James Milne, General Manager, Paddington Station, London'. As every schoolchild with any knowledge of the railway system knows, GWR stands for God's Wonderful Railway.
But there is another special reason for being here today. Michael Flanders and Donald Swann proved remarkably prophetic in their song âSlow Train'. Ultimately, most of the little stations and lines they sang about closed down, but there was a major exception â the branch from this unspoilt little Victorian station to St Ives, seven miles from here along the Hayle estuary. âFrom Selby to Goole,' they sang, âfrom St Erth to St Ives. / They've all passed out of our lives.' But they didn't all disappear, as it turns out. The little cerise-coloured Class 150 diesel railcar humming in the bay platform is proof of how much has changed in nearly half a century since Beeching, and just how wrong the former BR
got it. Not only has it outlived the good chairman, it is one of the few rural branch lines in the UK to make money.
These days, with St Ives transformed from a backward pilchard-fishing village to a cool international resort, with its own branch of the Tate Gallery, the railway has resumed the same central place in the town's life as it had when it was built in 1877. If only Flanders and Swann could have lived to see it. Passenger numbers have more than doubled in less than ten years. And not only that; we are in for a visual treat. The St Ives Bay line may be only four and a quarter miles long, but many regard it as the most scenic short railway in Europe.
But first a flapjack and coffee served by the homely lady in the privately run buffet by St Erth's little bay platform. A notice on the wall proclaims it to be No. 4 in the
's list of Britain's top ten railway station cafes. Pelargoniums and petunias tumble from hanging baskets outside and there are lupins and zinnias in the platform tubs. At one time I might have arrived here aboard the most famous train in the land: the Cornish Riviera Express. Leaving Paddington sharp at 10.30 in the morning behind a burnished King Class locomotive, all shining brass, copper and Brunswick green, the Cornish Riviera was the one train above all that inspired young boys to become railway enthusiasts â probably first encountering it on a summer Saturday, trailing tin buckets and spades along the platform, heading for sunny destinations such as St Ives, Falmouth, Newquay and Weymouth. Until the end of steam in the 1960s, I might not even have needed to get off at St Erth to change for St Ives. The âLimited', as it was known, was so busy it ran in several portions, including one direct to St Ives. The Great Western's managers reserved the company's very best Dreadnought coaches for the train, with the biggest windows, the widest aisles and the plumpest cushions the company possessed. I have a faded 1950s picture of the Paddington train, ten coaches long, being huffed and puffed along the branch by three little Prairie Tanks â one at the front and two
at the back. Boys in their best blazers and girls in freshly ironed Ladybird dresses fill the carriages, waiting to jump straight onto the beach, which sits alongside St Ives station.