Britain by Train

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.

39 comments

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more! I use the train daily now, and as someone who grew us always driving, I couldn’t be more happy! Although the Brief Encounter years are over (what a pity!!!) there is still something so romantic and luxurious about getting from one place to another without having to think about anything other than what you are reading.

    1. I’m glad to hear it, Daniel! Travelling by train through Italy must be breathtaking… I quite agree. There is still something exciting about train stations and the whole process of beginning a journey, being whisked from one station to another while you sit back and relax.

  2. Rachel, beautifully put! Really echoing exactly how i felt when i passed my test and since! The price you pay for the freedom that driving brings is sometimes just too high when it means foregoing the joy of taking in what can be spectacular scenery.Of course, as the rain batters me today, im wondering if i was a little premature in getting rid of my car!!

    1. Thank you very much Trinh! Yes – there is the freedom of driving but you also lose the pleasure of looking out of the window, so it’s hard to tell whether it’s worth it, isn’t it! Obviously if you’re just going from A to B and aren’t bothered about the view, driving is marvellous, but when I’m doing a trip across scenery I’ve never been to before, I hate the thought of having to drive through unseeing!

  3. So right, Rachel. I wonder if there is any other country as small as ours which has such variety? For me, it’s the tiny fields edged with stone walls and the intimate scale of things that makes me love it so. You’ve said what I’ve always felt about Britain.

    Tell me, which is your very favourite part – if you have one? I think you may well answer: the place I’m in at the time!

    1. Thanks Chrissy! I don’t think any other country could possibly compare!

      That’s a tough question! I think my favourite region is probably Yorkshire, though I do adore the gently rolling Kent countryside. And Cornish fishing villages!

  4. “…the pale wings of windfarms rise up on the horizon, whirring softly above the swaying crops.” Very beautiful writing! And where did you find that wonderfully cozy railway car drawing with the white horse? I wonder which white horse it is…the Wiltshire one I think!

  5. I love that train ride up to Scotland, you wouldn’t even need a book there’s so much to see from the window – but I haven’t done it for years as it’s so much cheaper to fly. Which doesn’t seem right somehow.

    1. Trains are astronomically expensive, Mary. I always book well in advance and have a young person’s railcard so it’s not too bad for me but I have seen fares to Scotland at over £100. The train fares in this country are ridiculous.

  6. Lovely! For me the best part of traveling by train is getting lost in the scenery outside. It’s so easy to get immersed in it and just let your thoughts wander. I also like traveling when it’s dark, with headphones on. It feels so magical and otherworldly😉 And I’ll never get over how beautiful England is!

  7. The wonderful pull and tug between car and train could not be spelled out more fully than in Coming Home, by Rosamunde Pilcher. For me, it was a trolley and car.

  8. I don’t drive so I am always the person looking at the scenery and am so very glad and appreciative of this fact. So much to see.

  9. Many time I have had my mum in the car and she says look over there at that. Not whilst I am driving, Mum. I love being a passenger now and I seem to lap up watching all that is going on around me. I very rarely go on the train, but always enjoy the journey and wish that it is was one of this trains which had compartments and a corridor outside something akin to a Miss Marple story I suppose.

    I do enjoy these posts and I hope future children you teach will enjoy the magic you put not descriptions which both delight and educate.

  10. Alexandra Harris is fantastic. I read her biography on V Woolf a couple of weeks ago and am now 3 chapters into Romantic Moderns! I can’t wait to see what she rights next. One to watch!! I am also going through VW’s books chronologically to see the progression of her writing skills so only on The Voyage Out at the moment, but looking forward to your review of Between the Acts!!

    1. I hope you are still thoroughly enjoying Romantic Moderns, Jane! It is absolutely brilliant. I loved Between the Acts and it has made me want to revisit Virginia Woolf’s ouevre – I’m very interested in your project! Alexandra Harris’ biography of VW has tempted me as well and I am going to order it very soon!

  11. You write so beautifully and evocatively – I want to go on a train journey from one end of the country to the other now, but I’m afraid I want the whistle and steam and station tea room and porters.

  12. This reminds me slightly of Portillo’s Great British Railways! I hope that doesn’t cause offence!!😉 I love that programme!
    I also love trains and the beautiful views you can see when you take a journey. I particularly like the stretch between York and Edinburgh…the coastal path is so stunning and not at all like the view you get on the motoway! And the steam trains in Pickering…I do so miss the North sometimes!

    1. Absolutely not, I take that as a compliment! I love that programme too!

      Yes – the York – Edinburgh line is enchanting. I was transfixed the whole way and hardly read any of my book!

      I swear one day I will live in the North. It calls to me.

  13. Oh how wistful for England this post makes me! Riding the train around England was one of my favorite things — I always wished I could do more of it. With my Young Person’s Rail Card (or whatever they’re calling it these days). Whenever I’m on a train in England, no matter where I’m coming from or where I’m going, I always want the train ride to last forever.

  14. I totally agree with you. I do love travelling by train. And I am pretty sure I was on a few trains with slamming doors back on my first trip in 1989, but certainly no porters. You must know about the historic train lines that one can ride for fun. There was one down by Great Dixter and another up near Winchcomb that use steam engines etc. We didn’t ride either of them. Apparently the one near Great Dixter recently reenacted train life during WWII with different stops dressed up as differed WWII platforms, like Paris, etc. Sounds kind of fun if done right.

    As much as I love trains, it wasn’t until this trip in the rental car where I feel like I finally, after about 12 trips to England, feel like I actually saw England. So, as much as I didn’t like the car experience in England, I definitely see us doing that again. Although I think I want to plan a rambling vacation where we just plop down in a pretty spot and do lots of walking. The Lake District maybe.

    1. Yes you would have been, Thomas – a few lines still have slam door trains. The London to Brighton route still had slam door trains when I was a teenager and might still have them. They are inconvenient though as you have to scramble across people’s legs when you get in – there’s no vestibule!

      I LOVE heritage railways. My great granddad built trains so we used to go on them all the time with him when I was a child. The one at Haworth in Yorkshire is the station where the Railway Children was filmed. I didn’t get to ride on it when I went though and I was so disappointed!

      I’m glad you got to do so much travelling on this trip and also kind of conquered your fear of English roads. If you can drive down a country lane, you can drive anywhere!

      I always recommend Yorkshire – so much to see and do and the walking is spectacular. Though the Lake District could hardly disappoint!

  15. Lovely post – made me think of Philip Larkin’s wonderful poem, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’…

    That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
    Not till about
    One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
    Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
    All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
    Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
    Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
    Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
    The river’s level drifting breadth began,
    Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

  16. I know that train journey well, so nice to see all the scenes I associate with holiday excitement. I think someone else has already said it but there is still some romance about train stations. I love the station names counting down your journey and the few hours of acclimatising to either being away or going home.

    1. I definitely think there is a romance about train travel. The bustle of a train station always stirs something in me, even if I’m only going on a short journey.

  17. Your post evokes all that is the beauty of England, Rachel, or any countryside and byway for that matter. I love your sense of adventure and the simple pleasure you exude of the love of watching life. Wonderful post.

  18. The book tucked into my bag for any train ride I have ever been on is always neglected. Like you, I wonder about everything that whizzes past. I even want to know what that fellow walking across his field ten acres away is up to! The desire to appreciate the heritage and landscape of Britain still draws thousands of tourists to your beautiful countryside every year. Perhaps some of its own citizens are taking their gift for granted. Case in point, Taylor took a bus our to Herne Bay last Saturday and her English friends couldn’t be bothered *sigh*.

    1. I could just imagine you on your train ride from Kent to London, Darlene!

      I hope Taylor is educating her friends. It’s such a shame that people become so complacent about their own locality. I never miss a chance for a walk even if I know the streets like the back of my hand – I never fail to notice something new!

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