There is nothing better than a train ride to cleanse the soul; unless you’re not a fan of thinking, that is.
Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings was where I first saw train journeys as something other than a means to an end. Before sitting in that A level English lesson, trains to me had merely equated to a packet of cheese and onion and a can of coke on the way to Glasgow, running through Victoria because I was late (again), or being way too early for my departure because mum was in charge of the tickets.
After leaving school however, train journeys changed for me and they became the only way to reach the men in my life; I enjoy long distance, and my own space, it seems.
I started seeing a guy on my gap year who was in his second year at Durham, so naturally I decided to go and visit him for the weekend. The four hour train ride up there consisted of me feeling nervous, ticking off a mental checklist about all of the things hidden in my way-too-large-for-three-days bag and growing excited about the historic sights of the north. The return journey was somewhat different. A four hour trip turned into an eight hour test of endurance due to (probably three inches of) snow and a completely unprecedented delay; a tut for every single person who visited the buffet cart to grab their complementary drink due to weather conditions and a chance to reflect on the god-awful weekend I’d just had and how much I wouldn’t fit into Durham life for love nor money.
I then set off for university myself, where my next experience of trains was with the same guy. We were clearly too young and stupid to realise that weekends away didn’t work for us, ending up in him travelling for over ten hours from Durham to Exeter to see me, only to turn around after a further, excruciatingly bad, twelve hours to complete the return journey ahead of schedule. It was at this point that we called it a day. However, all was not lost as he did make the effort to text and tell me how beautiful Wales looked at that time of year and thankfully for him, he still had his untouched cheddar ploughman’s from the journey down to keep him company.
Throughout my university years, the train line between Paddington and St Davids was my time to cope with things; be it the transition of moving from home to a life in halls, an essay that I’d left to the last minute or a never ending break up. It was the place where I did most of my thinking as it was when I was at my most sober and I actually had a minute to stop and think about how weird being a student actually was. Each time I landed at either destination I would feel as though I didn’t belong and missed the former, but for those couple of hours, all of that didn’t matter because it was just me, my music and a mediocre cup of tea.
Being British, I obviously didn’t want anyone to sit next to me, I still feel a completely irrational pang of guilt as the ticket inspector makes his way through the carriage and I never pay for a first class ticket because, well, why would I? Trains are far more poetic than journeys in the sky or on the road, so what more could an extra fiver get me aside from a hot chocolate that tastes like… well… chocolate?
Travelling is a time to reflect, to read, to do the things that you can’t do at home or at work because they seem outdated or a waste of time when you could be checking Instagram; that’s why I pity those who take their laptop along for the ride. Train carriages are that half way house where you’re always leaving something behind and heading towards something else. You’re transient, for the four, five or fifteen hours spent on that train track and it’s a small chunk of time that you have completely to yourself, unless you’ve managed to book yourself onto the same carriage as a BYOB stag do en route to Leeds, of course.
Although you might not realise it, the Great British Railroad is a beautiful thing that connects us all. It’s very easy to forget when you’re surrounded by concrete that, although it might not be aliens, there really might just be something else out there beyond the 9-5 or your morning flat white fix.
So embrace the railway and explore our greener pastures, even if it is through a rain sodden train window en route to a raucous weekend in Newcastle. After all, life is totally about balance.