‘Safe–in a world of trains and buttered toast
Where things inanimate could feel and think.’  —John Betjeman

Welcome to part 2 of ‘Fade in Train Noises’. (Part One can be found here)

Just to briefly recap: The title is taken from a radio play by Elizabeth Bowen, broadcast in 1945, when England was hungry for nostalgic images of their heritage, and everything that could now be called ‘the days before the war’. In the radio play, the train takes sleepy William on a dream trip to the fictional county of Barsetshire, a shire of Anthony Trollope’s creation. Significantly, much of Trollope’s writing was done while traveling by train, which is why Bowen chose a train in motion as her setting. Plus—she was a lover of trains.

‘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.’

In my Part One post we made a brief stop at the station in Angela Thirkell’s version of Barsetshire, and explored some other literary references, ending with a slight hint: not all train lore was charming.

‘For time has softened what was harsh when new
And now the stones are all of sober hue’  — George Crabbe


The arrival of the coal-powered steam trains into the British countryside was vigorously resisted—mostly by women. This is not surprising, given that, in those crude gashes through green pastures, in the hard iron sides, the constant belching of sooty smoke, those loud gushes of alarming steam— women sensed a masculine world encroaching with frightening violence.


Regarding the ladies of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, Cranford, they had ‘vehemently petitioned’ against the ‘obnoxious railroad’. And sadly, as though validating all their fears, it was the means by which their dear Captain Brown met his end.

Still in the world of fiction, we find similar prejudices echoed in George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch:

‘In the hundred to which Middlemarch belonged railways were as exciting a topic as the Reform Bill or the imminent horrors of Cholera, and those who held the most decided views on the subject were women and landholders. Women both old and young regarded traveling by steam as presumptuous and dangerous, and argued against it by saying that nothing should induce them to get into a railway carriage.’

The sentiments expressed reflected actual circumstances.


John Betjeman (Sir John) was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1972 until his death in 1984, but more pertinent to the subject of trains, he loved trains, old architecture, and was nostalgic for anything that harkened back to English life before the war. He was known as a ‘passionate defender of Victorian architecture’. Railway stations were a prime example of the kind of unique-to-a-period-and-function architecture he worked hard to save.

He was chosen to author English Cities and Small Towns, part of a Britain in Pictures series that was produced during the war years, in an effort to bolster British morale. I’ve been enjoying Betjeman’s poetry of late, and his tender, nostalgic view. (I’m in love with this little movie clip of Betjeman here in which he recites some of his poem Summoned By Bells)

In English Cities and Small Towns, Betjeman wrote fondly of the surpassing beauty of even the humblest English village, and then, with supreme understatement:

‘The great change came with the railways.’

Before the railways, people might live their entire lives within the confines of a small valley, never knowing who or what was just beyond the next ridge a few miles distant. While some changes were beneficial, the railway also quenched some of the social apparatus in place that kept small communities thriving and self-sufficient. Business enterprise on a large scale—or the possibilities of such—now entered the picture.


In other words: Next stop, Suburbia.

‘Thereafter the center of business shifted to the neighbourhood of the railway station. The market square became less important than the goods yard. The old inn decayed and the smart new railway hotel with its gas light and billiards saloon drew the commercials and the Victorian business men. Clumps of houses gathered round the railway…Some towns, especially old country towns whose mayor and council preferred the horse to the steam engine, refused to co-operate with the railways. When they learned the line was coming, they refused to let it near the town.’

Betjeman goes on to elaborate that such a resistance to the railroad more often than not ended up in the death of the village. An opposite effect from that which was intended. Such was the power of the new iron horse.

Would you like to take a train ride in 1910 and see the beginnings of these suburbs? A fascinating trip back in time can be found here

‘When exploring, for the first time, one of these pockets of English history, local pride, and marked character, the approach I like to make is by railway, for from the railway line you get an impression of the surrounding country, undisturbed by the adjuncts of a main road. The space before the station is lined first by a row of once successful shops, now less successful as the station has come to be less used….Few railway stations were built after 1910.’

Betjeman the poet has given me confidence to add ‘puff and shunt’ to my vocabulary. What better way to describe the sound of a steam engine?

“Here from my eyrie, as the sun went down,
I heard the old North London puff and shunt,
Glad that I did not live in Gospel Oak.”


Another favorite reference book is The Echoing Green, Memories of Victorian Youth, by Gillian Avery. It’s a collection of excerpts from diaries and memoirs, that showcase a variety of young person’s lives in the Victorian era.

We return to the sweet and simple memoirs of Henrietta Cresswell. The book is titled Winchmore Hill, Memories of a Lost Village. (It is a regional curiosity, produced in small quantity.) By 1912, when Henrietta picked up her pen to record the vanished world of her childhood, Winchmore Hill had already become absorbed as a mere suburb to London, its identity forever lost as a snug, self-supporting little hamlet. She writes of the railway’s devastation on their landscape. The labor force were ‘invaders’ to be resisted, sometimes by clandestine means of removing a boundary line out and away from a kitchen garden.

‘The pretty row of cottages where the Grandmother lived were pulled down, the great ash arbour ruthlessly destroyed, and the garden devastated; the holly hedge, dense as a wall, was grubbed up, scarcely anything remained but the tall yew and a golden-knob apple tree, which for years after blossomed and fruited, on the top of the cutting Vicarsmoor Bridge. The lane was closed for traffic, and a notice board proclaimed, ‘This Road is stopped time the Bridge is being built.’


And then there was the village Doctor and his house and garden:

‘It was not till 1 January, 1870, that the Doctor’s house was given over to the invaders and he moved to Grove Lodge. It was then all deep snow, and the cutting was so close to the side of the house that the garden shrubs were constantly slipping over the edge and having to be brought back and replanted.’

Repeated rescue missions of shrubs that had plunged to their doom might have taken more courage than sense, when you look at the depth of some of the sharp gullies that were cut for laying the tracks.

More feared than the effects on the landscape were the ‘navvies’, as they were called. These toughened workers, representing various countries and skill levels, were particularly dreaded by the villagers. The stories of the violence and moral depravity the navvies brought with them to a village were frightening. They plundered, murdered, and rioted, drank heavily and constantly, their drunken exhaustion often leading to horrific accidents. In the earliest days of railroad construction, such workers were little more than lawless armies living in the numerous shanty towns that had sprung up along the route of the torn earth and ribbons of steel.

Gillian Avery concludes:

‘By 1836 the navvies’ way of life had become such a scandal that it was generally agreed something must be done….It was the action of the contractors that at last civilized the armies who worked for them….Working hours were regulated, pay was given in money, not beer and provisions; men no longer worked fuddled with drink and fatigue. Twenty years more and the navvy was transformed in the minds of the British public. He was no longer a bloodthirsty brute who terrorized the district unlucky enough to have railway workings; he was the salt of the earth, the honest English labourer….’

The memoirs of a young navvy, known as Dandy Dick, are quite colorful in recollection. He ran away from home in 1835 to work on the railways. He recalls working in tunnels at times hundreds of feet below ground.

‘There was no day there, and no peace; the shrill roar of escaping steam; the groans of mighty engines heaving ponderous loads of earth to the surface; the click-clack of lesser engines pumping dry the numerous springs by which the drift was intersected; the reverberating thunder of the small blasts of powder fired upon the mining works; the rumble of trains of trucks; the clatter of horses’ feet, the clank of chains…air murky with the smoke and flame of burning tar-barrels, cressets, and torches.’

Getting back to the early twentieth century, train travel was about to pick up nefarious speed and spawn a new era in literature.

Writers such as Agatha Christie were quick to see the potential in a steam engine’s cry that could mask the scream of a woman, or the opportunity for mayhem as the train approached a dark tunnel. Not to mention the convenience of body disposal while the train—and murderer— went hurtling away. The clickety clack of the rails, paired with the click, clack of Miss Marple’s knitting needles, her steely gray gaze missing nothing, is forever paired in my mind.

Graham Greene published his thriller Istamboul Train, which took place on a train that might sound familiar—The Orient Express. (the American version of his book was actually called Orient Express.) About a year later, to the great confusion of reading audiences everywhere, Agatha Christie published her classic of all classic train stories, Murder on the Orient Express. Orient-ExpressHowever, relatively few know of Graham Greene’s book, whereas few today can hear ‘Orient Express’ and not immediately call to mind a certain Belgian detective, a train stuck in a snow drift, and the brilliant twist on ‘whodunnit’.

What I didn’t know until researching this subject, was that Agatha Christie actually was marooned for twenty four hours on the Orient Express. She wrote from her own experience, and even used some of the people on board as inspiration for the characters in the novel. (she was returning from her husband’s archeological dig in Nineveh…I could only dream of such adventures…)

from my explorations on an old Pullman car; a sleeping room with wash up basin

from my explorations on an old Pullman car; a sleeping room with wash up basin

Strangers on a Train, a psychologically terrifying novel written by the equally terrifying Patricia Highsmith, caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock. He turned the book into a masterpiece of film noir. (years later it would spawn Throw Momma From the Train!) Hitchcock later made a screenplay from the novel The Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White.

The movie from this ‘espionage meets murder on a moving train’ story was called The Lady Vanishes. IMG_8791Apropos of nothing, I will forever link this movie to being marooned in a virtually empty airport while waiting for a late flight, hanging out in the airport bar watching this weird old black and white Hitchcock movie. Later I watched it again with my film student husband—with a bit more appreciation for Hitchcock’s mastery of directing.

But we are emerging from the dark tunnel, all bodies present and accounted for, the scenery flashing past our windows; we’re wondering, idly, how many socks have been knitted on trains…which sounds like the kind of question I would have asked my dad when I was young: (“Dad, how many socks have been knitted on trains since the beginning of time?”…I was always interested in subjects as measured from those hazy beginnings…) My dad, in turn, hero rock star that he was, would have fielded with an even more interesting question that would have distracted me from my original unanswerable one.

What now greets our gaze are ribbons of green meadows, dotted with white sheep, and hills rolling away in gentle undulation as far as the eye can see. The railway station around the next bend is reminiscent of a Swiss Chalet, swathed in a blanket of pink roses, quite out of a Claude Strachan painting.

What idyllic spot is this? Stay tuned for Part 3! Next stop: the fictional Wellscombe Halt.



Here is another link to a film clip of John Betjeman on a train–it is wonderfully nostalgic, even if (gasp) the train is being pulled by a diesel engine, not steam!

On wiki it notes:

‘John Betjeman Goes By Train is a 1962 short documentary film made by British Transport Films and BBC East Anglia. The 10-minute-long film features future poet laureate John Betjeman as he takes a memorable journey by train from King’s Lynn railway station to Hunstanton railway station in Norfolk, pointing out various sights and stopping off at Wolferton station on the Sandringham Estate and Snettisham station, where he extolls the virtues of rural branchline stations.[1] An early example of a Betjeman travelogue film, a similar idea was later used for his 1973 documentary Metro-land.[1]’

3 thoughts on “Fade In Train Noises: Part Two

  1. Rod McKuen’s “The Art of Watching Trains” is a wistful homage. I had it on an LP 35 or so years ago. If you can find it, you’ll love it.

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