Wishing for a rail journey

We went to see the Mappa Mundi, that artefact of a pre-modern world in which the mythological combined with the geographical and historical, that theological statement about the nature of Christendom.

Afterwards, I dropped them off at Hereford station, they to travel northward to Llandudno, I to drive southward and homeward. I should have loved to have made the journey back to Somerset by train.

Of course, railway travel has not the elegance that was once possible. The 1715 service from Newport to Taunton might once have had a locomotive and carriages, but, five years ago, when I last travelled on it the train was a four car diesel multiple unit. The seating was utilitarian, not built for long journeys.

Travelling eastward, lines joined from the right and the left, the reason for the convergence became apparent. Now gone without trace, the Severn Crossing toll booths on the M4 motorway were then still visible from the window, the lines joined to run through a tunnel beneath the Severn.

If any station has been omitted from the list of stops, it is hard now to recall what it might be. Once Bristol is reached there seem few possibilities that could have been overlooked. There is always a poetry in the way in which the stations are announced, a rhythm that lulls one into a sense of ease where the name of a stop might be missed: Severn Tunnel Junction, Patchway, Filton Abbey Wood, Bristol Temple Meads, Bedminster, Parson Street, Nailsea & Backwell, Yatton, Worle, Weston Milton, Weston-super-Mare, Highbridge & Burnham, Bridgwater, Taunton.

On approaching the great cathedral of railway architecture that is Bristol Temple Meads, the train slowed to walking pace. An announcer told us that the slow progress was because we were following a late-running service to Weymouth and that our routes would diverge at Bristol.

To have been travelling to Weymouth on that fine June evening would have been an enviable prospect, to have walked the promenade and to have sat on a bench and eaten fish and chips. The train passed so slowly through Stapleton Road station that, in days when carriage doors could be opened by the handle on the outside, someone might have run along the platform and leapt aboard.

Temple Meads is a wonderful declaration of Victorian confidence, a statement that engineering and science would shape the religion of the new age. The railways effected a revolution as profound in the Nineteenth Century as “smart” technology is in the Twenty-First.¬† Journeys that once took days now took hours.

Commuters filled the carriage at Bristol and the luxury of spreading a jacket, case, laptop and book across four seats ended. It was hard to imagine that they ever felt the need to give much  thought to Brunel and the ways in which his genius helped to change the landscape of the country and the fabric of ordinary lives.

It’s hard to imagine Brunel would have been overly impressed by the journey time of four and a half hours from Chester to Bridgwater, and would have been baffled that anyone might travel through the Welsh Marches to Newport before catching a train to Somerset when the obvious route would have been through Birmingham, but he didn’t have to cope with a fare structure that meant that it cost three times more to travel on the obvious route.

What was reassuring was that the trains were busy, that opportunities for spreading out, even in the rearmost part of the train, were limited, and that the poetry of railway station names will continue to be recited for at least a few years to come.

 

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