Ben le Vay uncovers the history behind one of England's oldest railway lines.Read more...
There’s a magical romance about trains that no other form of transport can ever capture. Gathering speed through city, town and country, swooping across viaducts, rattling across junctions and whistling through tunnels. At long last you are in a small Sussex beachside halt, or a Welsh valley country station, beside a quiet Norfolk waterway, or winding through a remote forest high above a Scottish loch, and you dreamily think: do those same twin ribbons of steel really lead all the way back to the greatest city in Europe? Can this really be the very same seat?
Coming the other way, waiting on the planks of an isolated halt beside a Scottish beach, gazing for miles across rough sea and rocky islets, the huge skies bringing grey squalls across to the miles of majestic mountain faces across the water. The only other mammal you can see in this huge space is a seal basking on the shoreline. Lonely beauty.
Looking down the long single track into the gathering dusk, a welcoming hoot sounds from under a distant bridge and the headlights of a train heave into sight, reflected on the shiny rails … the train that leads back from this moody isolation to bustling coffee bars, theatres, department stores, bookshops, fine dining and great pubs. A magic carpet. Or waking up in your crisp linen sleeper berth as the train rolls across the gigantic Forth Bridge, soaring way above the rooftops and high above the white horses of wind-whipped waves. Or rolling across the bogs of bleak, high Rannoch Moor while wild red deer stand in the wilderness and stare back at this long metal interloper into their wilderness.
As you look ahead from your dining-car seat, your excursion train takes a sweeping left curve south through Banbury. The platform ahead is crowded with commuters who shrink nervously back as the now-unfamiliar steam loco shrieks a warning whistle and roars through the station at 82mph; an unstoppable elemental force, followed by 700 tons of metal going badang badang, badang badang, badang badang, badangrapidly over the joints. And then silence as the stunned, deafened bystanders are left open-mouthed and shrouded in a cloud of nostalgic steam and smoke. They had a glimpse of a sooty-faced driver in blue overalls peering intently ahead, the fierce yellow-orange glow of the firebox, glinting silverware on fine white tablecloths, and helpful uniformed attendants; so different from the humdrum train they were expecting. You take another piece of Yorkshire pudding from your roast dinner, a slurp of excellent Merlot, and happily keep a lookout down this heavenly valley for Oxford, where pudding is promised.
None of the being treated like cattle in huge, ugly airport terminals with endless queues, prodded by security goons. No having to be there stupid hours in advance and answer endless intrusive questions. None of that divorce from reality as a plane plonks you down somewhere with no concept of the changes in the landscape on the way. Or the despair felt as your car rounds a motorway corner to see the brake-light trail of a jam, having just passed the only turn-off for 20 miles.
Just a gentle ride interrupted only by a pleasant visit to the dining car and perhaps a contented snooze, and then a comfortable ringside seat for the greatest scenery this wonderful kingdom has to offer.