Slow train

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.

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7 Responses to “Slow train”

  1. Evie Says:

    Thanks so much for that, Gareth – I hadn’t heard that Flanders and Swann song before. I too love both train travel and English place names – and even though I’m a good bit older than you, I am too young to have felt the impact of Dr Beeching’s scythe, and yet feel a nostalgia for such days. I grew up in a town with a disused railway station, so did feel some of the practical impact, but not in terms of nostaliga for something I once experienced.

    Perhaps it’s watching old films – such as Brief Encounter – and contemporary adaptations of older novels – The 4.50 from Paddington, for example, or Poirot and Hastings en route to Keswick – that helps instil nostalgia in me. I travel by train quite a lot, and do love it, as long as I get a double seat to myself! I am not small, and hate being cramped. But trains are marvellous for thinking, reading, looking at the countryside without other traffic detracting from the view or the experience. I don’t drive, and while I would sometimes very much like the freedom afforded by a car, I know I would miss travelling by train, and the other freedoms it offers.

    I still find the tube scary – I wonder more people do not fall onto the tracks, for example – but the names of the underground stations are in themselves magical, London itself a magical place, that amid the scariness and the dirt and the long walks between platforms, the difficulty of getting a seat and the frequency with which Circle Line trains seem to falter, there is always a frisson of excitement too.

    • Gareth Says:

      Thank you so much for that – you’ve identified so many other magical things. I’d forgotten films, but they are another source of stimulation for the romantic spirit where trains are concerned. Brief Encounter above all, perhaps, and another that jumps to mind is the Lumet film of Murder on the Orient Express with its shimmering score by Richard Rodney Bennett. A magnificent example here:

      Also Clockwise. It’s hardly ancient, – made within my lifetime, at least, and I probably first saw it only two or three years after it came out – but still somehow the scene in the train feels from at least a semi-bygone age. Probably because it’s set in a first-class carriage, which is still mysterious to me. Curtains in a train! The luxury of it. Trailer here:

  2. Mike A Says:

    I don’t travel so much by trains nowadays, but used to a lot, and used to do a lot of reading on trains (I distinctly remember reading Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” on the train between Croydon and Eastbourne). When I read (as when I write, or paint or anything like that) I tend to lose all track of time – which can be very dangerous on a train. I have been known to miss stops, or alternatively to leap out in a panic at Clapham Junction thinking I’m at East Croydon already.

  3. Evie Says:

    This may or may not make you laugh!



    • Gareth Says:

      Not sure why your link didn’t work first (or second) time, but I’ve tidied it up. Yes, wonderful! I saw it quite recently, probably around the time I was writing the post and looking for clips on Youtube. I love those Flanders and Swann parodies – vulgar though they are, they always seem affectionate and somehow respectful of the original. Occasionally during the spoken introductions Ben Miller makes a marvellous simpering motion that is Donald Swann personified.

      • Evie Says:

        One of the comments on youtube claims that Michael Flanders’ widow cried when she saw them, as they reminded her so much of the real thing!

        Thanks very much for tidying up my posts. :0)

  4. Yesterday’s world « Somewhere Boy Says:

    […] By Gareth I pondered in passing, when writing a year ago about the Beeching cuts, the subject of feeling nostalgia for something that existed before one’s birth. It’s a […]

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