I didn't own a car until 1997. Before that time I either walked, rode my bike or, for longer journeys, hired a car but, most probably, took the train. It seemed a better, fitter existence, though maybe I was just younger and leaner and reaping the benefits of living in a city.
In those days (roughly 1986 to 1997) in order to get between Brighton and Rochdale, I used to take a marvellous direct train that snaked slowly but surely between Brighton and Manchester Piccadilly. I checked National Rail Enquiries this morning, this route doesn't exist any more and one is encouraged to take the commuter train to London, hop on the underground to Euston and then speed up to Manchester from there. It's a quicker journey end-to-end no doubt, but more bitty, and less leisurely.
I remember the Brighton to Manchester journey (and its reverse) being around eight hours but time may be playing tricks on me. Perhaps it only felt that long! There were plenty of stops, from memory - a selection - Gatwick, Kensington Olympia, Banbury, Birmingham New Street, Birmingham International, Stoke, Crewe, Wythenshaw etc etc. Back in those days there were smoking cars and non smoking cars. I sat in either depending on whether I was smoking at the time. Buffet cars existed of course. I actually liked and looked forward to my British Rail cheese and tomato sandwich on white bread. In those days I typically didn't drink alcohol on trains. I was corrupted by a friend one time who brought a four pack with him for the journey. After that...
The interesting thing about the train was that - with so many stops - people were forever getting on and off and the landscape of interaction constantly changed. You might strike up a conversation with someone between say Coventry and Stoke, flirt with a girl between Gatwick and Milton Keynes. Sometimes it was busy, sometimes empty, and this changed depending on the day and the station.
In those pre mobile phone days, what did one do for all these hours? Well, one read, of course. Books and broadsheet newspapers. One could write letters. Yes, people used to write letters to each other! As my journeying was usually prefaced by a leaving - either an end of term or the start of term, letters were what we did. I remember one time writing a letter to a friend on this very journey and stopping in Kensington Olympia, and briefly looking up to see Princess Diana strolling by my window. She was walking along the platform and passed right by me. She got on our train - I believe in a special carriage - though I may be wrong about this - and hitched a ride somewhere (not Brighton, I think). There was no phone to take a snap of her and so I only have my memory of her being so close, separated from me by just a pane of glass.
I do remember the eagerness one got, impatience even, as the last hour of the journey approached. For me, arriving in Manchester Piccadilly, if my parents weren't picking me up, was the start of another journey: a cross town bus to Manchester Victoria, slow train to Rochdale, and parents or taxi for the last leg.
I wish I'd have taken more pictures of these journeys. I look at the stock photos on the internet and they seem so old, so quaint, that one mixes memories with fiction, imagining white linen clad restaurant cars and Belgian detectives, efficiently run trains and brass buttoned ticket collectors with stamps and strange hats. Like all memories one edits - either consciously or though age and declining brain cells - what is recalled. Probably there was lateness, smoky carriages, boredom, inconsiderate passengers but then also there were no inappropriate phone calls either and although many had Walkmans (if the batteries lasted!) not everyone had white trailing ear phones attached to phones. So people did talk to each other and, given the era, there was more of a sense of homogeneity about the passengers - a shared story, culture, prejudices. Gone now. But so has BR, the route itself, my hair, the careless use of time, being out of contact for long periods of time. Yes, the past is a very different place, how strange it seems sometimes.
The idea for this blogpost came from Peter Hitchens and his - far superior - memories of trains in Europe both now and then.from his Sunday Express column 21/01/18.