I love trains. Or, if not the things themselves, then at least travelling on them. I’m sure it originates in experiences from my first few years. Thomas the Tank Engine played some part. I had some of the books and, if memory serves, a train set with a wind-up Thomas, attachable Annie and Clarabel and possibly other engines too. It all seems utterly soulless now, but it must have held some appeal at the time.
My early experiences of train travel itself were more viscerally exciting. I remember the thrill, when going to see Cats in London at the age of 5, of using the tube – very dangerous, it seemed to me, for such a small person as I was then, even with adult supervision. The gap, which I was urged to mind, seemed almost infinite. Cats is also part of the mix. Trendy (and sometimes easy) though it is to sneer at Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats more than any other of his musicals contains much that is praiseworthy, and in “Skimbleshanks” possesses one of the great romantic songs about trains. The passion inpired in me by “Growltiger’s Last Stand” and tube travel for London place names is a subject for another day.
Then there were the trips to Bristol on inset days to visit the much lamented Exploratory, and occasional family train journeys to Leeds when we couldn’t go by car. The excitement of a four-hour journey stretching out ahead, of the games in store, of the prospect of sitting at a table are all still vivid, as is the sequence of stations as we moved further north, through Birmingham New Street, Derby, Chesterfield (crooked spire visible from the train window), Sheffield, Wakefield Westgate (a mixture of excitement and disappointment at being nearly there) and finally Leeds.
The romance persists. I still get excited at the prospect of a long train journey, and have happily been spared so far the routine of commuting which I expect often induces fatigue and disillusionment. One of the most beautiful and saddest songs written in the English language is Flanders and Swann’s “Slow Train”, which consists largely of a list of railway stations that fell victim to the cuts imposed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s. These include the enigmatic Trouble House Halt in Gloucestershire, the only British railway station constructed specifically to serve a public house. The stations mentioned are catalogued fascinatingly here.
How is it possible to feel such an aching nostalgia for something one hasn’t experienced oneself? The social historian Joe Moran has already analysed the question insightfully in this blog post. For me, much of it has to do with the place names – Mortehoe, Four Crosses, Mumby Road, Cheslyn Hay – which are so indescribably and inescapably English. If occasionally I feel frustrated with Britain and the people who live here, it is songs like this, which could not possibly have been written by anyone from another country, that make me realise how much in my national heritage I have to be thankful for.