‘Having timed her by her only possible train, he locked the door about mid-day, and crossed the hollow field to the verge of the upland by the Brown House, where he stood and looked over the vast prospect northwards, and over the nearer landscape in which Alfredston stood. Two miles behind it a jet of white steam was travelling from the left to the right of the picture.’
Jude the Obscure
My brave ‘little iPhone that could’ was poised and ready. The scene that unfolded below me was like something out of a dream and I wanted to capture it. In the valley, a steam locomotive chuffs and puffs into view; churning streamers of billowing white. The still waterway beneath the land bridge, darkened by dusk, silvered by frost, reflects the curling steam and plays it back as airy clouds. A flock of geese, startled by the roar of the approaching train, erupt in a scatter of pepper-like patterns against the horizon, then subside again on the water.
Where are we? When are we? Are we really in a Thomas Hardy novel?
Is this 1869 London, in a scene that would become part of Henrietta Creswell’s Victorian memoir Winchmore Hill, Memories of a Lost Village…?
Or perhaps, chugging up the steep hill in NightMail, we have found ourselves in the year of 1936; watching the plucky 6115 Scots Guardsman steam locomotive make its way to Glasgow…
Have we lost ourselves in a radio play of 1945, dreaming on a train like young William did…and waking up to find Anthony Trollope staring at him?
Are we on the Orient Express with Hercule Poirot, heading into a large snowdrift with murder afoot…?
None of the above. We are in the present; the delightful present. This is Portland, and we are watching the old Southern Pacific 4449 steam across the Oaks Bottom wetland.
In this city, we are privileged to have a working society devoted to bringing back the thrill of steam engine trains. Portland boasts a premium selection of ‘rolling stock’ as it is called (differing from static display, which is a fully retired locomotive).
The Oregon Rail Heritage Facility oversees the preservation of three city-owned steam locomotives:
Southern Pacific 4449 (SP 4449),
Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700 (SP&S 700), and
Oregon Railroad & Navigation 197 (OR&N 197).
These three beauties also give Portland ‘the distinction of being the only city in the United States to own operating mainline steam locomotives.’
Vintage steam locomotives instantly transport you to another time. Their appeal continues to affect a broad range of enthusiasts, from toddlers to hipsters to grizzled old softies. The sound of a steam whistle gives a thrill in my heart that is somewhat akin to listening to a Rachmaninov piano concerto performed live. It’s what we like to call A Moment.
As a little girl, I was generally supposed to like dolls. I certainly received enough. My interest in dolls was extremely limited, however. For one thing, they were made of plastic and never altered their stare.
I had four brothers and, as fate would have it, none of them were interested in trains. But oh how I wanted a train set. The substantial metal kind. I loved the black engines and I loved the red cabooses. And pretty much everything that fit between. I wanted it to run into every room of the house on a track that was built over our heads. This dream was never realized for a number of reasons—likely expense was one, but the fact that it would be difficult to dust was a deal breaker.
The whistle of a steam engine is unlike anything else. It is terrifying at close range, evocative and moody when heard from a distance. At night the sound carries farther, and you no longer listen as though from a distance, you hear an echo that seems to resound from within your own DNA. Somehow, like my sweet tooth, my petite frame, my nerdy wordsmithing tendencies, I also inherited this crazy love for trains.
Since the steam engine came to birth in Britain, and it is so intimately connected with some of our favorite English literature, we tend to pair it with other aspects of English culture that are iconic. (Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, besides taking place in Europe, and starring a Belgian detective, still manages to be very British in tone!).
The allure of Angela Thirkell’s villages of Barsetshire, for example, are chiefly powered by the chuffing, perky trains which regularly decanted new romantic prospects at the station and into each book—enough to guarantee a bit of a romantic kerfuffle and at least two weddings by the end of the story.
In August Folly, written in 1936, Thirkell describes your approach by train into the sleepy village of Worsted:
‘When your train comes backwards into the station, often assisted for the last few yards by a large grey horse and its friends and hangers-on, you may take your seat in a carriage which has never known the hand of change since it left the railway shops in 1887….As your train pulls out on the single line which joins Winter Overcotes to Shearings, a small junction fifteen miles away, you are back in the late Victorian era. Engines and carriages are a striking relic of our earlier railways, and under their skimpy coats of paint may be read the names of long defunct systems…The line meanders, in the way that makes an old railway so much more romantic than a new motor highway, among meadows, between hills, over level crossings.’
(More about August Folly)
Thus we see that the idea of steam trains being romantic and nostalgic is certainly not new. Barsetshire, this fictional county lovingly endowed with warm and woolly names like Winter Overcotes, Shearings, Woolram, Lambton, Worsted, Fleece and Skeynes, was not invented by Angela Thirkell. She just made it her own, and famous in its own right.
The honor of Barsetshire’s creation goes to Anthony Trollope, who, as it is known, did much of his novel writing while riding, in what? A train, of course.
Writer Elizabeth Bowen not only loved trains; admitting ‘an enthusiastic naiveté’—she also championed the work of Anthony Trollope in a time when his novels had fallen out of popularity as too stuffy, too Victorian.
She chose to use an old steam train as the setting for her 1945 radio play Anthony Trollope: A New Judgement. The directions for styling the opening scene to the play are as follows:
‘Pause: fade in train noises…rather accentuated, as of train taking up-gradient. Gradually fade in, on top of these noises and in their rhythm, voice saying ‘A picture book, a picture book, a picture book’….the words should gain slowly, more with each time of speaking, over train noises.’
The idea of putting singsong words to the rhythm of the train is as old as the trains, themselves. In a memoir published in 1912, Winchmore Hill: Memories of a Lost Village, Henrietta Creswell writes of fifty years earlier when the railroad first came to her sleepy village that is now a London suburb. She describes the first steam engines that began to arrive on the newly laid track, and how each one the villagers came to know as ‘a personality’, a separate voice…
‘Fox informed the world there was ‘such a hurry, such a hurry.” Hunslet, a tank engine, was particularly clear in her enunciation, informing all the world of her huffy temper, though I never heard she was ill to deal with as a worker—“I’m in a huff, I’m in a huff!” she puffed on her way along the line. Progress, who laboured at the Wood Green end, proclaimed continually the name of the chief engineer—‘Mr. Claringbull, Mr. Claringbull,’ she shouted with a strong accent on the last syllable. Ferret seldom left the Enfield portion of roadmaking, perhaps because everything was ‘such a heavy load, such a heavy load’.”…
Obviously, the personification of steam locomotives can be traced back to the early days of the railways–in this case, 1870, when the newly minted tracks, and the newly birthed engines were just beginning to become a familiar feature of the countryside. Just a few years before Elizabeth Bowen wrote her radio play in 1945, the temptation to personalize a locomotive was still well in place.
In 1936 a film documentary, entitled Nightmail, was commissioned that paired poetry and music to the sounds of a train. The busy London, Midland and Scottish Railway was powered by the beloved engine Royal Scot 6115 Scots Guardsman. The poem begins slowly, imitating the clickety-clack of wheels on the rail, then picks up speed until at the end the narrator is reciting at a breathless pace.
Does this sound like a fun, ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’-esque sort of venture? Not at all. It was a serious endeavor, and is now considered a classic. The poetry for the piece was written by none other than W.H. Auden, the music was scored by Benjamin Britten, and the film was directed by the brilliant Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti. An amazing trifecta of talent commissioned to honor a steam engine…You can see the video here.
‘This is the Night Mail crossing the border
Bringing the cheque and the postal order
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor
The shop at the corner and the girl next door
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb —
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shoveling white steam over her shoulder
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses
Birds turn their heads as she approaches
Stare from the bushes at her black-faced coaches
Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across
In the farm she passes no one wakes
But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes…’ W.H. Auden
Before I leave the subject of Britain and trains I just have to mention my new dream, slightly more ambitious than my little girl dream of room to room (undusted) train travel. I would love to go to Hampshire, England and ride the Watercress Line….Who wouldn’t want to ride a train called the Watercress Line?? It’s an old steam train that now regularly runs a twenty or so mile route in the beautiful Hampshire countryside. One of the stops is near Chawton, Jane Austen’s home territory. The Watercress Line––though officially named Mid-Hants Railway––is named for the fact that in former days the train was used to take watercress from local farms into London markets, presumably for all those English teas with neatly trimmed cucumber and watercress sandwiches. How Oscar Wilde. (How I suddenly feel like Algernon and want to ‘scoff the lot’ before Lady Bracknell arrives.) Says the website enthusiastically:
‘There is nothing quite like the sound, smell and power of a steam locomotive in full cry!’
I quite agree. But this gets us to the other side—the historical aspect of trains. The charms of a vintage train have not always been so. It has not always been considered charming, it has not always been vintage. At its inception, it was ‘new technology’. It was everything that was new, disruptive, dirty, destructive, and scary loud. Not to mention immorally fast.
‘Quaint’ and ‘adorable’ are adjectives that would not have been employed in any discussion of railroads in Cranford, the fictional village created by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1851. These venerable ladies of Cranford—themselves quaint and adorable—were decidedly against the encroaching railways.
In part two of ‘Pause: Fade In Train Noises’, we’ll visit Cranford, see how the ladies are getting on, make a few other literary stops, and go chuffing our way through a bit of English fictional countryside.
I hope you’ll join me!