Monday, May 11, 2009

The Iron King I

I have never understood why it is that railway lines join places and roads don’t. Why railway lines are permanent, still having a ghostly existence even when they have been closed and removed. Why the traces of old stations leave an indelible mark on the ground they stand on. Why any of this matters. Why they are more than simple means of transport. I do not understand why it is so, but it is.

It isn’t because of the beauty of some of the stations, bridges, or landscapes, nor of the trains themselves, although it contributes to the pleasure of contemplating the lines. It is true that there are many fascinating and deeply satisfying structures associated with the railways; the Victorian age seemed to produce great engineering design, but there is much that is not of any particular beauty. As I have said, the railway continues to fascinate even when it is no longer there. It is, in part at least, the link with history, the knowledge that people who died 150 years ago travelled those same lines, that they have seen houses built and demolished beside them, and whole towns grow up around them. The lines have seen changes in the etiquette of the people who travelled on them, in the clothes that were worn, in the goods that were transported, in the power that moved them, in the very reasons for travelling. And they remain, unchanged, through the centuries.

I’m not particularly interested in trains themselves. The form and detail of them are not part of what makes railways so compelling. However, their power and speed do matter. Something that moved like a carthorse would not produce anything like the same sensation. To the first people who heard about the railways, who saw them being built, watched trains go past, and then rode on them themselves, it must have seemed little short of magic, and that magic can still be felt today. (Like many people, I like steam trains. It’s common here to put them in parks as an ornament and a point of interest. But this is a different thing entirely.)

The south of Spain is dotted with simple, attractive whitewashed stone railway buildings, most no more than a ticket office, a small waiting room, and a locked door behind which the station master made his coffee and hid when there was a delay. Many now stand alone, the lines gone. Some are now houses, or warehouses, or impromptu discotheques and shooting galleries.

If there is an answer, it is probably in the stations. Roads have no meeting point, no start and no finish, nowhere that the hopes and dreams and fears of a hundred or a thousand people can mix daily, before each is carried away, and the hopes are dashed or fulfilled, the fears justified or confounded the dreams realized or destroyed. Airports are not connected to anything. Railway stations are steeped in humanity. Every sentiment is human, every feeling real. No one worries about trains crashing; the nerves are caused by the pain or the joy of leaving, by the worry that we may be late, that the train may be delayed, or the fear that we shall, inevitably, arrive somewhere we don’t want to be.

There is a fascination in the idea that these lines, a physical, immutable object, not an abstract concept, joins the place where you happen to be standing with innumerable other places where you have never been, whose names you have never heard, but which you could reach if you followed them. I like to walk beside lines, to follow them through built-up areas, to track them across country, to find old maps and uncover the original reasons for the routes that they took, and how those routes, once cast in iron, determined the way further growth took place.

And I walk along old lines, seeking them out on maps, then on the ground, walking where once the trains roared, again and again, with an enthusiasm that never dies, seeing what they saw, becoming a part of history, of the past and the future, because the railway is eternal.

The photo is of the old Clare Station on the disused Sudbury line in Suffolk, taken in September 2005.


Vincent said...

Your writing - at least in this post, is after my own heart. I too have written about old railway lines, for example here.

CIngram said...


Thanks for dropping by. There will be more posts of this sort, as I get round to putting my experiences, memories and sensations into a form that others might want to read.