STOPPING-TRAIN BRITAIN, A RAILWAY ODYSSEY by Alexander Frater, photographs by Alain Le Garsmeur; published 1983
Bookcase 9, shelf 3, book 8
I have to confess a weakness for trains.
No, nothing truly embarrassing like a tendency to fondle steam engines or collect large pieces of railwayana: I just like trains. Admittedly not the 7.15 to Blackfriars, but happily those commuting days have gone since I upped sticks and left London with cries of glee and a big party. Now, when I use a train, it’s the Cambrian Coast Line. By a curious coincidence that is one of the railway lines featured in this book, which I encountered years and years before I ever dreamed of actually using the line myself.
This book grew out of a series of articles in the Observer. Alexander Frater wrote for them and, trains or no trains, I would have picked this book up anyway because he had written it. I often reread his Beyond the Blue Horizon – following the route of Imperial Airways Eastbound Empire service – and Chasing the Monsoon, which does just what it says on the tin. He’s an excellent travel writer, curious and sympathetic, and his style is one I find clear and equally sympathetic.
Stopping-Train Britain was written at a time when many local railway lines were still under the shadow of more Beeching-like cuts. Cars were dominant; by and large you only used a train if there was no alternative, or if you needed to commute to school or work. Green issues were not a factor and oil would last for ever or, if not forever, for the foreseeable future. Local railways either had no future or only a limited one, and an elegiac note pervades the book. ‘Many rural railwaymen,’ says Frater in the introduction, ‘are convinced that within a decade or so, they will have no trains left to operate.’ Now, three decades on, the Settle to Carlisle line is secure; the Cambrian Coast Line is busy with people going to the doctors or out to a celebratory lunch or visiting the market in Machynlleth…
This is a journey back into a recent past.
Frater started off rather romantically – he always does; it’s one of the things I love about his writing: a realism, but a romantic realism – with Edward Thomas’s Adelstrop ringing in his ears. (‘When the country trains have finally gone, that, I suspect, is how many of us will choose to remember them – the last survivors of an age of innocence,’ he adds.) He also started rather haphazardly, which is why the lines he and Alain Le Garsmeur took are somewhat random, both the famous and the more obscure. And they’re not spread across the country either; there’s a collection in the north-west, a couple in Scotland and here in Wales, one in Norfolk and one looping around north London.
But the lines they followed weren’t always like those of Seigfried Sassoon’s or Edward Thomas’s pre-WW1 journeys. A surprising amount remained of those rural lines alive with birdsong, of small trains pottering through woods or over high moorland, but the more modern world had intruded. One line largely owed its survival to the transport of nuclear waste from Windscale (aka Sellafield); another ran though a bleak landscape of abandoned mills and dilapidated housing. And whatever the landscape, the photographs are just right.
Each journey is much more than a simple record of a trip from A to B. It’s the people as well as the lines, the people who both work and travel on rural railways.
Travelling by train gives you time to observe, time to reflect and time to chat, and it’s particularly the latter that brings this book to such vivid life. Frater discovered a community of railway people he liked and admired, people with ‘a strong sense if identity … They had good stories to tell. Patagonia? Who needs it? For a writer there are equally rich veins waiting to be worked in East Anglia or the Western Highlands.’ The other thing he discovered was a deep admiration for the railways:
‘And the more they talked, the more I became aware of the astonishing complexity and richness of railway history, lore and language. It slowly dawned on me that the little diesel rattling along between, say, Shrewsbury and Hereford, is only doing so because for a century and a half generations of engineers have been obsessively solving millions of problems in the cause of a single principle. Every artefact … has been considered, reduced to its logical elements and then resolved, often with surprising elegance and simplicity.’
Maybe I should start collecting railwayana (the spellchecker keeps changing that to ‘railwayman’ – now there’s a thought)… or maybe I should simply celebrate the fact that those railwaymen were wrong when they predicted a fairly swift end for rural rail. Thirty years on from the publication of Stopping-Train Britain I can take a ten-minute walk down the hill, raise my hand to stop the train and go and do my shopping.