18 February, 2006

Carriage return

I'd rank travelling by train as one of my all-time top five favourite pastimes. So speaks someone who doesn't have to commute for a living, you cry, and well you might given that's shortly about to change. But for now, at any rate, train travel is one of the most amiable and reinvigorating experiences in the world.

I'll always remember Michael Palin's astute observation, on returning to this country after his 80-day round-the-world trip for the BBC, that "there is no better way of getting reacquainted with Britain than over afternoon tea and the view from a train." You're soaking in the landscapes and environments segueing endlessly past your window, watching for resonances of the familiar and reassuring, processing glimpses of the unusual and unexpected...and all from the privileged position of just sitting still and letting quiet towns, serene meadows, tiny villages, sprawling cities and towering urban sprawls come to you. It's bliss.

You may worry about where you're going, but you don't have to give a moment's thought as to how you're getting there. Trains don't hide the peripheries and non-essentials and all the minutiae of everyday life from your gaze like aeroplanes, which transport you from one soulless cargo bay to another with only seven hours of cloud for company. No, trains take you from right in the heart of one place to right into the heart of another, allowing you an unfettered panorama of all the lies in between, grim or graceful, majestic or miserly.

Train tracks snake their way through the most remarkable scenery and equally astonishing feats of architectural engineering, alternately teetering on the edges of cliffs or seafronts then charging deep underground or high above valleys and across estuaries. Train passengers are also the most well-meaning and resourceful you'll ever find, not blinkered and pissed off like air travellers, nor selfish and single-minded like car drivers. They may not say much to you, but that's because they know to respect your relationship with what's going on outside the window, or the dialogue inside your head between you and your thoughts.

When you board a train, moreover, you know you're going on an adventure. Anything could happen: unexpected landscapes, unexpected diversions or delays, unexpected incidents taking place inches from your nose, unexpected glimmers of distant memories far on the horizon.

Getting on a train to a new place is the biggest thrill of all. You'll arrive right in the heart of an entirely unfamiliar place with all its sights and sounds laid out before you, ready for the taking. If you like the place, you can stay a while. If you don't like, you can board the next train and try the next stop down the line.

Before privatisation you could buy special tickets that let you travel on any train in any region of Britain over a set period of time. You could even get one that allowed unlimited travel right across the nation. Those days are long gone, sadly, along with notions of pride and respect for railways that ensured they were promoted and maintained as a primary means of public transport.

Still, one of my ambitions remains to go on a grand railway journey from one end of the country to another, partly for the same reason that people climb Everest (it's there) but partly because I know it will showcase all of the above and serve up an unforgettable cavalcade of impressions and associations. And I reckon it'd be the perfect way of discovering your country and rediscovering your self.


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