Saturday, November 29, 2003

Scenes from a railway carriage window 

First heavy frost of the winter. The air is still, the sky clear and blue; ice crystals crunch gently underfoot as I walk to the station. If people still had open fires, the smoke would be rising vertically from the chimneys; instead, steam condensing from central heating boiler flues drifts slowly upwards and outwards, forming miniature clouds adjacent to each house.

On the station platform, condensation also rises in little clouds as groups of people stand chatting. There’s a profusion of hats, gloves, scarves – scarves of every conceivable colour, texture, length (mine is purple fleece). Frost nips fingers inside thin gloves. As the train pulls in, the power pickup sparks and crackles from the ice that forms on the overhead power lines.

With the sun barely yet risen, colours are transformed into pastel shades by the covering of frost; a thin layer of mist hangs over low-lying fields; a few early morning dog-walkers leave a trail of footprints across the frosty grass.

As the sun warms and clears early mistiness and thaws the frost, colours intensify in the clear air. Sky is perfectly-graded blue; cobalt at the zenith, warm turquoise at the horizon; wisps of white cirrus add contrast and depth. Images flash by, the brightness of the sun gives clarity and brilliance to the dullest of scenes: lichen covered tree trunks glow bright luminous green; tarred wood railway sleepers glisten and steam; red brick, cream stone, grey slate – a row of modern apartments painted with colours from a child’s paintbox and with the bold outlines of a child’s drawing; woods in deep shadow, just the very tops of the trees glowing gold; an unexpected shaft of light reaches in and spotlights a mossy rock outcrop hidden amongst the trees; silver birch stands proudly living up to it’s name; a canal boat – primary red, blue, green yellow, polished brass fittings gleaming though the haze that still hangs over the river.

The train stops for a while, waiting for the single track line ahead to clear. This is an unusual stretch of railway. It starts life as the main line out of Paddington to the West Country, but gets diverted by the historical attractions of Oxford and then seems to loose its way in history, meandering through towns and villages of Middle England, reaching Worcester and eventually quietly coming to rest at Great Malvern. Occasionally, the voice announcing the station names has a distinct regional accent which adds to the rural flavour of some of the place names like ’unneeboorne (Honeybourne) and Morrt’n in Marrsh (Moreton-in-Marsh).

There are a few sections like this one where the normal twin tracks have been reduced to a single line - I guess this is part of the Beeching legacy. Back in the 1960’s Dr Beeching, against much protest, inflicted dramatic surgery on Britains railways, tearing up thousands of miles of branch line track, closing perhaps hundreds of rural stations, and ending the age of steam with one giant sweep of the executioner’s axe. Such drastic surgery may have been necessary for the patient’s ongoing economic health, but it was another nail in the coffin of rural Britain. My own childhood memories start just as this age was being drawn unwillingly to a close. Already, a whole set of images were being consigned to the pages of history books; steam-drawn goods trains chuffing merrily down sleepy branch lines, through leafy cuttings, smoke billowing under stone bridges; the Station Master in his peaked cap, king of all he surveyed; glossy painted station woodwork in old colours of cream, forest green, rich brown, maroon; immaculate station flower borders; white paling fences.

Now, the few rural stations that remain are a strange mix. Some still have the old buildings but fallen into disrepair and decay. Brickwork crumbling; paintwork cracked and peeling revealing rotting timber beneath; those flowerbeds of which the Station Master was so proud untended and full of weeds; waiting rooms locked more often than not – there’s no-one to keep them clean. Then those that have become too decrepit are replaced by incongruous modern structures of steel, concrete and glass. The old railway buildings blended, were part of the countryside; they had grown together, interdependent. These new structures seem stuck on top of the landscape, a piece of modernism plucked from the urban environment and dumped here where they don’t belong, standing out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Wait though, here’s a refreshing change – an old station that’s been well kept. Glossy caramel and rust-brown paintwork; a new slate roof, and best of all the original cast iron station name sign – white raised letters against a black background with a white border. So it can be done…

What is it about the so-called romance of steam? The main line from King’s Cross to Scotland runs half a mile or so from our house. On a still evening the sound of the trains is quite clear; very, very occasionally there is the unmistakable sound of a powerful steam engine at speed – perhaps the Flying Scotsman on a vintage run. I’ll run up two flights of stairs to our loft bedroom, with child-like eagerness to catch just a glimpse of the trail of smoke as it flies along just out of view. Why does that feel so good?

Now the countryside going past is changing character, reflecting the underlying geology of the region. We’re on the edge of the Cotswolds here. Gently rolling hills, a patchwork of fields and hedgerows, and the occasional farmhouse of beautiful Cotswold limestone – colours from honey-cream through mellow biscuit to warm grey. A small village, all the houses built of local stone; here a relative mansion – grand by local standards but compact and entirely congruent with the surroundings, with many tall ornate brick chimneys; now the village church, stone tower, yew trees in the churchyard. This is classic picture-postcard rural England.

The landscape flattens, the scene broadens – we’re moving into the Vale of Evesham, the valley of the river Avon. In Moreton-in-Marsh there’s a new housing development – modern construction methods, but thankfully faced in traditional stone and built to traditional styles. I wonder if they are built that way to satisfy local planning regulations, or because they command a premium price, or because that’s what the customers want? Whichever reason, I don’t mind – I’m just thankful the character of the village hasn’t been spoiled; it still retains an identify, it isn’t just one of countless villages blighted by identical off-the-shelf dwellings, the same throughout the land, added in the major construction periods of the 1930s and 1960s. Does their modern construction make them a fake? I don’t believe so. The houses they stand beside were modern in their own time; a century from now these new houses will have weathered, blended and be just as much a part of the landscape as their predecessors.

I have a sudden flashback to a similar day perhaps 30 years ago. I’m on a train going to Cambridge, for an interview at Corpus Christi College; it’s a day much like this – bright sky, clear air, early winter sun on the landscape – and I’m making notes just like today. I’d forgotten… 30 years forgetting to write… I don’t suppose I’ve got that notebook now.

What a landscape now! Looking out of the other side of the carriage towards the sun, the colours become shades of silver and gold; the horizon is low, the landscape wide open, acres of dazzling sky, the form of the few clouds accentuated by the brightness of the light. Rolling clouds low on the horizon are like a distant mountain range – Himalayan peaks and valleys as a backdrop to rural England.

I love travelling.

Back to current posts