Friday, May 21, 2010

Take the Slow Train. . .

Maybe this was an odd choice of book to read on an airplane, but it certainly made my recent trip out to Calgary fly by.

On The Slow Train: Twelve Great British Railway Journeys by Michael Williams is part travelogue, part fond, nostalgic look at the great days of British steam trains, and an entertaining profile of the many Britons who still devote their time, and in some cases significant money, to their obsession and love of railways.

The "Slow Train" refers first to a philosophy that mirrors the global Slow Movement, where, as Williams writes, "the journey becomes a moment to 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." It also recalls a 1963 song called "Slow Train" by the British comic duo Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, written during the year when over 4,000 miles of track and many local stations were permanently shut down under the reign of Richard Beeching - a short-term solution to funding problems. The song was an ode to all those old, local railway stations that would no longer be in use. Fortunately, despite the cuts, some of these were saved after public protest and still exist today, although many communities still don't have any access to service.

Williams picks his favourite slow train journeys around England, Scotland and Wales, and certainly makes you want to go out, buy a BritRail pass, and pootle along. They range from the short - the picturesque St. Ives Bay line along the Cornish coast, just four and a quarter miles long - to the "Deerstalker Express" from Euston to Scotland. He'll tell you why London tube trains are running on the Isle of Wight, which route travels around "Dolly's Nipple", and which viaduct the Hogwarts Express rumbles over in the Harry Potter films. Along the way he gets out at some extremely deserted yet still functioning stations, and meets an assortment of odd, yet passionate guides to the local history and topography. One of the most intriguing journeys, and one I certainly will take next time I'm in London, is a trip around the city itself on the North London Line, from Stratford station to Richmond. It was also the route that experienced the first murder on a British train, back in 1864. Grisly details also come in the form of descriptions of various train accidents and in the number of deaths involved during the incredible engineering projects building the tunnels and bridges that in its heyday, allowed the train to dominate the British landscape. Many of us fell in love with trains through books or the movies - as a child I was hooked on the Thomas the Tank Engine series and Brief Encounter remains one of my favourite films - and this book is filled with nods to the frequent absorption of railways into British culture.

Reading this book had me daydreaming about a future trip to England which only intensified when I got back from Calgary to find a copy of Great British Walks: 100 Unique Walks Through Our Most Stunning Countryside by Cavan Scott on my desk. I really like the format of this guide. Each walk gets a double-page spread. On the left is a written description of the walk, helpfully pointing out sites of interest at various stages. On the right is a blow-up of the ordinance map for the area with the route clearly marked out. Length both in distance and time is indicated along with the level of walking difficulty. The walk on Chesil Beach has just been added to my bucket list.
And I think you can get to the start point of many of these walks by train.

Have a great long holiday weekend. Get out on the bike. Take a long walk. Spend some time with friends and family and sink into a comfy chair and finish those one or two or three books you're currently in the middle of. Those at least are my plans.


Amber said...

I love that Flanders and Swann song. The way they enjoy the language of those funny old so-English placenames:

"On the main line and the goods siding, the grass grows high/ At Dog Dyke, Tumby Woodside, and Troublehouse Halt/ The sleepers sleep at Audlem and Ambergate/ No passenger waits on Chittening platform or Cheslyn Hay..."

Maylin said...

Yes, the bits that are quoted in the book sound lots of fun. I will have to get my hands on a recording.

michael said...

I'm the book's author, and I was delighted to find your comments, serendipitously, on the web. In truth, I didn't have North American readers in mind when I wrote the book. But how nice to find it has some appeal! I am just on the last stage of another odyssey around Britain for the companion volume 'On the Slow Train Again', to be published by Random House in April 2011

Maylin said...

I'll look forward to the sequel!