Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name.

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire."

THAT IS, PERHAPS, THE MOST FAMOUS ENGLISH POEM ABOUT RAILWAYS. It was written by Edward Thomas, a young poet who died on the Western Front in 1917. And yet, it isn't really about railways, and certainly has no connection with Wisbech, but sums up simply and directly what it was about rural railways that bound us all together and, in the days when most villages had a school, a church, a pub and a station, made us all part of the same body.

EDWARD THOMAS was buried in Agny Military Cemetery, in France.

WE DO HAVE A RAILWAY REVIVAL GROUP IN WISBECH, but to be honest, it is in intensive care, the graph of its vital signsis close to flatlining, and the anxious relatives have already made contact with the undertakers.

"It's passed on! This railway line is no more! It has ceased to be! It's expired and gone to meet its maker! It's a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! Its metabolic processes are now 'istory! It's off the twig! It's kicked the bucket, it's shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-RAILWAY LINE!!

THAT BEING SAID, Pickwick defers to no-one in his affection and longing for the lovely, languid, long-lost days of meandering steam railways, half-empty trains and lonely stations. When Pickwick were nowt but a lad, he would spend long summer days travelling up and down the  railways of Lincolnshire, courtesy of a Five Shilling (that's 25p to you…) rail Runabout ticket. It was a substantial rectangle of stiff blue card, with a map printed on one side, showing the rail routes available at the time. Hair Brylcreamed down, with a school satchel full of sandwiches, Ian Allen railway books and freshly sharpened pencils, Pickwick would set off with his friends, usually on the 8.07am train from Louth to Peterborough (North)
IT WAS ON THESE LONG, SOOTY, RATTLING, CLATTERING DAYS that Pickwick's passion for railways smouldered and flamed. And the supreme irony? One of his teachers was a perfectly decent but dull chemist called Ian Beeching. Whose brother……..was Beelzebub, Satan, The Arch-Fiend, The Great Defiler, Spawn of the Devil, The Son of Perdition, Belial, Baphomet, The Angel of Death…..Dr Richard Beeching. Beeching's mailed fist smashed down on Britain's ailing rail network and ripped out its heart.

WISBECH FELT THE FULL FORCE OF BEECHING'S AXE. First the tramway, and then anything resembling a passenger link to anywhere was closed. Anything that might resemble 'the built environment' connected to the railways was flattened and sold to developers. The line to March was kept open, but only to allow a dwindling goods traffic to operate between the Wisbech food processing factories and the rest of the rail network.
AND NOW, WHAT REMAINS? A festering, overgrown, rusted and partially tarmac covered permanent way that runs from somewhere within the bowels of Nestle Purina, and ends someway short of March station. Other than that, one has to rely on the brilliant enthusiasm and guardianship of people like Andrew Ingram, with his books and photographs, and one's own sense of landscape and feeling for how the past still lives and breathes around us.

THE TRAMWAY and the line to Watlington crossed Elm Road near the site of the Fire Station. The Harbour line shared the same crossing as the Watlington line, and wound its way north along the edge of Ramnoth Road. All that is left is the contours and shape of the landscape. The bend in the road is still there, as is the slight gradient.

A MAP FROM THE 1900s and an adapted satellite photo show how the railway lines fitted into the landscape.

IN ANOTHER 'THEN AND NOW' COMPARISON the only anchor point is the little railway cottage beside the Watlington line. It still stands on Ramnoth Road, but has been much changed over the years. Of the identical cottage which stood by the tramway on Elm Road, there is no trace.

THERE WILL BE NO ROLLING BACK OF THE YEARS, no return to a Golden Age, no opening of stations, no huffing and puffing as the 6.45 train to March chuffs off into the setting sun on a warm May evening. Instead there will be the hiss and roar of hatchbacks as they edge their way along roads laid over the ghost-lines of railways and canals. No piece of music better sums up this sadness than this song by Flanders and Swann - The Slow Train.


"Millers Dale for Tideswell, Kirby Muxloe,  Mow Cop and Scholar Green ….

No more will I go to Blandford Forum and Mortehoe,
On the slow train from Midsummer Norton and Mumby Road,
No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat,
At Chorlton-cum-Hardy and Chester-le-Street.
We won't be meeting again on the slow train.

I'll travel no more from Littleton Badsey to Openshaw,
At Long Stanton I'll stand well clear of the doors no more,
No whitewashed pebbles, no up and no down,
From Thornby Four Crosses to Dunstable Town,
I won't be going again on the slow train.

On the main line and the goods siding, the grass grows high,
At Dog Dyke, Tumby Woodside, and Troublehouse Halt.

The sleepers sleep at Audlem and Ambergate…
No passenger waits on Chittening platform or Cheslyn Hay,
No-one departs, no-one arrives, from Selby to Goole,
From St. Erth to St. Ives,
They all passed out of our lives, on the slow train, on the slow train.

Cockermouth for Buttermere
On the slow train.
Armley Moor, Arram, Pye Hill and Somercotes, on the slow train. Windmill End....."