When I first learned to drive, I used to zip around all over the country, loving the freedom of the open road. The very same weekend I passed my driving test, I packed a bag, picked up a friend and drove the six hours up the M1 to Yorkshire. Being able to go where I wanted, when I wanted, without being at the mercy of a train or bus timetable was thrilling. However, once the initial excitement was over, I realised that driving everywhere wasn’t actually that conducive to getting to see the country I was travelling through. Not only was I prevented from staring at the passing sights by needing to pay attention to the road ahead and behind of me, but most of the UK’s motorways pass through very uninspiring patches of countryside and don’t provide much of a view beyond the odd field of miserable looking cows. The whole point of me learning to drive was to enable me to explore Britain more. For me, that doesn’t mean just enjoying the destination of my trip, but the journey too. So, in recent months I have left the car behind and returned to a more old fashioned and scenic form of transport; the train. There is no longer any Brief Encounter glamour about train travel; no tea rooms, no porters, no slamming doors, no windows to pull down and tearfully wave from and no steam to obscure your vision of the loved ones left behind on the platform. However, the spectacular views of the countryside and the tantalising blurs of villages, towns and cities that flash by outside of the train windows still exist. I have been delighted by them during my last few journeys that have taken me far from the streets of London and deep into the heart of England.
I love being able to catch a momentary glimpse of other lives as the train speeds past anonymous towns and villages spilling away from the railway tracks. Dense clusters of red brick Victorian streets, ancient church steeples, lonely farmhouses, estates of 1980s ‘executive homes’, spires of smoke rising behind hedges, ruins of old cottages left to rot at the edge of now defunct roads, the odd stately home perched amidst extensive parkland in the distance…they all provide much fuel for the imagination and remind me of how diverse and regionally marked Britain is. Speed through the home counties, and you’ll see densely built modern towns punctuated by stretches of flat, patchworked fields; speed through West Yorkshire and you’ll see gentle rolling dales criss-crossed by dry stone walls and villages built of soot blackened sandstone; speed through Northumberland and you’ll see dramatic hills and tantalising glimpses of the sea as the train nears the Scottish border. For such a small country, the differences in the makeup of the landscape within the space of just a few miles are extraordinary.
Even sights that would ordinarily be considered ugly – power stations, wind farms, factories, abandoned buildings, smoky industrial towns – look strangely beautiful from behind a train window. They rise from the natural landscape, man made features that show the changing use of the country as we as a society have developed over time. The derelict cottages, barns and farms that occasionally appear at the edge of fields demonstrate how much of a rural society Britain once was, with the majority of people making a living off the land. As industrialisation happened and villages became towns, towns became cities, and people migrated from their rural communities to find jobs in the factories rather than the fields, these farms and cottages were abandoned and fell into ruins. Large industrial centres like Leeds, Newcastle, Darlington and Doncaster, all of which I have passed through on the train, sprung up in the Victorian times, their tall factory chimneys belching smoke into the skies and their warehouses storing consumer goods that would contribute towards making Britain the centre of the greatest Empire on earth. Now the warehouses are designer flats and many of the factories are derelict, their windows blank, their chimneys redundant. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the increased need for energy and advances in clean power sourcing have seen the pale wings of windfarms rise up on the horizon, whirring softly above the swaying crops.
Sitting from my vantage point behind these panes of perspex, I can see the past, present and future of this little island flash by, framed, captured, suspended for a moment that passes in the blink of an eye. Each journey becomes a romance – even on a modern train with its plastic seats and electric doors and tinny recorded voices telling you to report any suspicious items to a member of staff – the countryside and cities alike put on their best clothes and come forth to charm you from your lofty position as surveyor of the landscape. I am reminded of Eric Ravilious’ ‘Train Landscape’; the white horse carved into the Sussex downland – when, and by whom, nobody knows – framed in the window of a modern steam train. Past and present intertwine in the viewer’s eye as the train itself steams forward into the future. Symbolic and beautiful, it is a celebration of the history and beauty of the English countryside and the joy of it being accessible to all – it’s no accident that the train carriage featured is third class, after all. This is how I feel about Britain whenever I travel through it; amazed at all it has to offer, grateful that it remains free and open to all, and that it is both never and ever changing, staying rooted in tradition while adapting to suit the needs of an evolving population. After reading the wonderful Romantic Moderns, which explores the 1930s love affair with domestic travel, and immersing myself in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, an elegiac and movingly affectionate portrayal of an England she feared would not exist after 1939, I have come to an even greater appreciation of what the landscape outside of the train window means and how deeply it should be appreciated. The heyday of British domestic exploration was in the pre war years, when it genuinely seemed that the history and culture of this sceptered isle could be obliterated in just a few years’ time. As such there was an almost desperate return to the land, to the traditions and rituals embodied in the countryside that had been dismissed as old fashioned and irrelevant by the fashionable set of the jazzy 20’s and 30’s. This sense of urgency, of desire to understand and appreciate the landscape and heritage of Britain, has all but eroded in our modern times. What a shame this is, when so much richness is right here on our doorsteps, and all you need to enjoy it is a ticket and a window seat.