I love trains. In particular, steam trains. So atmospheric. So ponderous and noisy and smelly – so labour intensive and gloriously pointless – going nowhere, slowly. Full of days-gone-by. Of dreamy ‘what if’s’ and ‘maybes’. The ghost of “Brief Encounter”, wafting poignantly into the twenty first century. They remind me of my childhood – most of which, as the only girl to two older, railway-obsessed brothers, I spent, cold and wet, waiting on some god forsaken station for a magical train (with a coveted number plate) to finally arrive, so we could all, mercifully, go back home again. Nostalgia makes me dewy eyed. What bored me rigid then, enchants me now.
So my latest walk, last weekend, was a particular treat. It was preceded by a ride – with my friend Geoff, who likes a dreamy little, going-nowhere adventure quite as much as I do – on a tiny heritage railway, from Bolton Abbey, in the Yorkshire Dales, to Embsay. The journey was all of four miles. Then, after a twenty minute wait on Embsay station, whilst the little engine chuntered back and forth, to the click click clicking of the points and the busy, coal-faced scurryings of the volunteer drivers and guards… we went all the way back again, through the bluebell and primrose banks, to where we began. Into the station cafe for a cup of tea and a cake. Then, finally, off for a walk down the lane and into the hedgerows towards Bolton Abbey itself, a 12th century ruin now developed into a vast and glorious estate.
Everywhere the birds were singing fit to bust. And the lambs were picture book plump and curious, coming up close to peer at us through the brambles, occasionally breaking into a little skip and jump, but mostly lolling about by their mums, or snoozing in the impossibly juicy, grassy – quintessentially English – heartbreakingly beautiful, countryside green.
The combination of a very slow train and a very quiet walk to follow, was both mesmerising and reviving, all at the same time. Reverie is an essential tool in anyone’s life, and particularly that of a writer. We do need to dream. To enter a protected space in our heads. To let some kind of alchemy take place. And nature always helps that happen. Miraculously. Without fail. If you want something to change, to transform – get outside, take a journey, and walk.
The memory of trains has stayed with me since I’ve come back to my city house and daily routine. I remember iconic railway journeys I took long ago – like the train I rode from Budapest back through Europe on my honeymoon in 1996, seeing everything through a miasma of heat and happiness and a huge, pálinka induced hangover.
And before that, when I was a student of Russian, in 1976 – there I was, setting off, on a Soviet boat, with a huge hammer and sickle on the top, from Tilbury docks for Leningrad (now St Petersburg), navigating the choppy North Sea, via most of Scandinavia: only to find that the boat was overbooked, so a few of us were dumped in Finland, and had to go the rest of the way by train. I got the top bunk, with about three inches to spare between me and the ceiling. When we reached the border in the middle of the night, and a Soviet guard came bursting through the door demanding passports and visas and shouting “Stand Up!” like the rattle of a machine gun in full, merciless fire, I sat up so fast and banged my head so hard, I don’t think I’ve ever been in my right mind since. Which explains everything really. But doesn’t make me love trains – whether big and foreign and slightly scary, or little and local and charming – any the less.