Thursday, May 6, 2010

I Like Trains!

I have spent the past two weeks travelling and there is much to catch up on in my blog.

My journey started in Toronto two weeks ago attending the fascinating Travel Law Day. This annual event, offered by the Heifitz, Crozier, Law partnership and the Baxter Travel Press is a rarity, and a valuable day. The travel industry, perceived by outsiders as unmitigated fun and frolics, offers a complex web of relationships from the end supplier to the traveller. Within these parameters are such issues as liability, so well highlighted by the recent volcanic eruption, application of taxation, jurisdiction and so many other issues. The Travel Law Day offers one day to ponder, discuss and think about these issues, away from the daily noise.

This done and my head full of thoughts and ideas, I headed to London on the Day Liner flight from Toronto, departing at 0850 and arriving in the UK at 2100. What has always been a gruelling overnight flight with a long, long day turned into a short day; an arrival in London in the early evening, a quick restorative at the local pub before closing time (well, two actually) and a good sleep left me feeling better about the first couple of days in Europe than usual.

Off to two weeks of professional challenge with my father’s estate, endless election campaigns on the television, in the streets and throughout the newspapers, some rather fine dining, I have to say and now, with one day left, I am going to York.

Mostly, I have to add, randomly; I have a day left on my Britrail Pass, and most work completed, so looked to railway timetables and where I could go and be back in time for a late-afternoon appointment. York sprung to mind, and as I type, I am hurtling north at about 100 mph, in a most comfortable carriage belonging to the wonderfully named Grand Central Railway.

In the confusing world of Britain’s trains, now that British Rail is a long-distant memory, there are a number of “franchises” operating various routes and regions; one such operator is the Grand Central. Its motif, resplendent on the front of the train is a reminder of Days Gone By in North America. The train now operates a single route between London and Sunderland in the (post)-industrial north east, and has as its first stop from London, York. The train is fine, but not really “grand”, the route is north-easterly rather than “central”, but it is a railway, so we will give them two out of three for that.

The windows are clean; a minor observation perhaps, but I really can’t stand being in a nice, shiny train unable to see through a few weeks of grime; because looking out is what it’s all about, isn’t it? Watching towns, distant church spires and gorgeous scenery, wondering what on earth people do for fun in some of the more utilitarian “new towns” that also litter the landscape. There are oddly inserted flashes of the past; a long-boat manipulating a lock on the canal, a heavily-timbered farm house with cart horses in the yard and an old man in a deer-stalker hat fishing a small pond; all rather lovely.

I am not really sure why I like travelling by train, or why I seem, as so many readers have pointed out, that I seem to prefer to be moving somewhere than staying still. Somehow, train travel seems to allow one to become incorporated into the landscape; at any given moment one is captured into the frame; the windows are screens that display an unfolding world outside but yet we remain an integral part of each moment in time; we can almost observe the passage of time; the speed of the train as a counterpoint to the timelessness of the grazing sheep, and always the promise of a new destination, and a new idea.

Today, as in the twenty-first century rather than May 6th, the smooth ride of the train is wonderful; gone is the remorseless clickety-clack of the past, now continuous weld track offers a seamless ride, yet it makes one wonder how on earth they replaced the stuff. I mean, doing two or three miles is one thing, but replacing the thousands of miles that make up Britain’s railways is quite another.

The last time I rode these rails, actually, was only a year or so ago. I travelled from London to Edinburgh on a steam train which was fun, but today’s ride is different. A carriage full of business people heading north to do something or other, or returning home after a day of more’s commerce in London rather than the atmosphere of stolen-fun that the Edinburgh run had.

As I glance out of the window now, just past Huntingdon, I see endless fields of green and yellow, hedges, farmhouses and periodically, a village; and as I look forward, I see a large poster of Marilyn Munroe dominating the carriage’s decor.