At train stations I always start dozens of imaginary journeys alongside my real one. Trains to loved places, places we have lived: always conjured up by names on the illuminated departure boards. Sometime even the mention of nothing more than the mention of a journey’s necessary midway point is enough: you can’t get to Windermere from the south without paying your respects to Lancaster on the way, so that small, provincial city’s name comes to stand for the whole of the wild Lake District. The same with Carlisle, when coming from the north: pay your dues at this border city’s red gates and you may safely pass to the south.
Some places are more potent, richer with past and potential journeys, than others. Peterborough stands for the whole of the East Coast mainline – York, Durham, Newcastle, Edinburgh. Each one keep a memory suspended in time’s vitrine: a couple waiting for a baby to arrive, a brother studying, a lover living, our latest home. I am reminded of E.M. Forster’s description of the emotional potency of London’s main stations:
‘she had strong feelings about the various railway termini. They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return. In Paddington all ; Cornwall is latent and the remoter west; down the inclines of Liverpool Street lie fenlands and the illimitable Broads; Scotland is through the pylons of Euston; Wessex behind the poised chaos of Waterloo.’
I have always loved this passage, recalling in it the long New Year train trips to Cornwall with a boyfriend, trains taken home to Suffolk, the sleeper to Scotland which I was almost too young to properly remember. My first relationship was conducted through their spiders’ webs of rails: the late train to Newcastle after school on a Friday and then in reverse on Sunday, the rush to the west to visit his home and his family.
Stations come to me in dreams too. I spend dark hours waiting for trains that slip silently by without my ever being able to catch one. Like metal moths they evade the net of my sleep-slowed needs. I look at endless departure boards and can’t read a single letter of the destinations. The clocks’ hands move far faster than they ever do in life, minutes melting into hours. Time and again I am there on the platform, waiting for trains to places I know, but never climbing aboard.
On the real trains I do manage to catch, and I have never yet missed one myself, though have occasionally been thwarted by delayed connecting services, I slip into parallel time. Whatever the purpose of the train journey – leisure, pleasure, work – the time it takes to make it is a gift to myself. I can do whatever I like once I’m there. I am purposefully engaged in getting somewhere, so I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to. I can read, or loll sleepily with my head cushioned against the window with a jumper, or write, or simply sit there. If I have a train picnic, a luxury I often allow myself in the form of packets of treats from Marks and Spencer, I have to eat it as soon as I get on the train, otherwise the knowledge of its presence won’t let me rest.
Ferries have the same effect on me as trains. I sometimes fall asleep, which can result in drooling and stiff neck, but usually I bury myself in a book. Sometimes I listen to radio podcasts, or I write. I feel like this is time I can do anything in, because it is both productive (I am on my way) and completely free – I don’t subject myself to any internal guilt about what I do during this travel-time, it is simply time for me to spend as I like.
The Railway Station by William Powell Frith, RA (1862), Royal Holloway, University of London.