I’ve always loved trains. Oddly enough, my first experience is with electric trains. I thought the steam things were a bit scary. I’ve only been on a steam train twice. Once was the Snowdon Mountain Railway. It chuff chuffed its way up through the levels of beauty I used to see from walking.
I miss the walking. The staff were snotty and arrogant but I won’t start harping on about the Welsh speaking Welsh when they hear an English voice. The second one was the Welsh Highland Railway. They were nice people.
It was awesome.
In the early days, the Liverpool to London train was a real occasion. To get to the capital in two and a half hours in quiet and comfort was amazing. For economy reasons, I usually endured the endless drone of the National Express coach. Sometimes I actually planned things and took something to drink.
Less attractive were the football specials. A delightful ritual: Shoved on some cattle truck by surly faced guards and policemen. Treated like some wanton delinquent.
Dirty filthy toilets which had lost the will to flush. Herded like sheep as you were frogmarched to the ground. Corralled into some shitty away end only to face a repeat performance on the way back. Dumped back in Liverpool to wait for the tunnel bus, stone cold sober, hoping your dad had left a can of beer out for you. All because some bell ends couldn’t be trusted. At least on a coach, it was easier to bung a bottle of vodka into a litre bottle of lemonade.
It’s a far cry from the Victoria boat train to Lyon. We took the edge off the gruelling overnight trek to Paris with a few pints at the station and a skinful on the boat. Standing on the top deck at first light, I looked over the sands of Dunkirque.
It was a big history moment. But there was no time to dwell. Trying to sleep on a train seemed impossible. This old dog rattled its way through Northern France packed with over-excited inter-railers completely clueless about their up-coming adventures; to be treated like savages and ripped off like suckers. Just like the hapless fans on the footy specials really.
For the last half hour of the journey, we sauntered through suburban Paris. It was grey. Even in the fresh sunlight of a new day, it was grey.
I rehearsed my lines: “Deux billets pour la metro s’il vous plait.”
At the ticket office in the Gare du Nord, I took out my 50 centimes. I’d never spoken French to a Frenchman before. My French was mumbled. But he gave me my tickets. We were off for the big one.
The TGV to Lyon.
Oh, that bit about not sleeping on a train paled into oblivion. I slept.
The journey back involved a day in Paris. We had a few trips on the Paris Metro. It was like the tube but without the class. I could have sworn the Paris’ ne’er do wells treated it as a mobile drinking den. On the boat, I stood outside watching the morning sun shed its glorious new light over the white cliffs.
I thought of second world war pilots returning from overnight raids.
After that crazy week in Lyon, the train was often used to shift me from Liverpool to London. One late Saturday afternoon, my mate Pete and I took that train for a Sunday FA cup tie. We placed our cans of beer on the table and the group opposite changed seats in a huff.
Coming back from an away match, having consumed a good amount of Youngs Special Bitter, I was on my way to the buffet car when the consequences exploded from my bottom. I looked back into the coach to see genuine trauma. There were multiple accusatory looks flying about the carriage.
How about Liverpool to Exmouth and back in one day? I had an interview which I didn’t get. I was on the 7.30 AM to Birmingham New Street. By the time I was on the local diesel between Exeter and Exmouth the sun was out and the scenery spectacular as I chugged along the Exe estuary towards the mouth.
At 10 PM, I was a lonely figure at Crewe. I love the whole drama of that final wait on a deserted station. I was glad a nice old man woke me up just before. Lime Street at 11.30 was equally desolate.
The best memory of that day was hearing a West Country man saying “Oohh arrr” to his grandchildren. He wasn’t in a smock, sitting on a rustic gate and chewing a piece of grass but you can’t have everything.
One bleak Sunday in July I was emerging drenched from a tent in Anglesey. I was helping out on a school trip but none of the teachers spoke to me. At first light, I packed up and started walking. Modern technology shows me that it was just under ten miles from Holyhead Station. All I know is that it was a long walk with a suitcase and a wet tent on my back. The causeway to Holyhead was like walking over thunder, The train back along the Welsh coast was marvellous.
All those places I’d seen on day trips and holidays. I’d looked longingly at that train track and now I was on it.
What can top those two epics? In 1996, I went to Inverness on the overnight sleeper from Euston. Unlike other years our traditional summer half-term trip to Scotland was not going to involve driving until the next day, waking up refreshed in a jaded hangover sort of way in Inverness. This meant meeting in Euston bar getting our taste buds going with a few drams. On the train, we ensconced ourselves in the bar and hit the cans. There was a stag party on the train going for a weekend of golf at Aviemore.
We picked up our hire car and did that fantastic route up to John O Groats. All the time, we had the sparkling sea to our right as we dipped between the cliff side drives.
John O Groats was worth a pint before the ferry to Orkney. The journey back took us over the Forth rail bridge. History and spectacle in one hit. From Edinburgh to London I saw the causeway to Lindisfarne.
And that’s what I love about the train. Every journey oozes with memories. You get another view of places visited and loved.
Long may it continue.
Thank you for reading.