The Railways: Nation, Network and People – Simon Bradley
I have always been a bit of a railway buff. I have used the train as a way to get to work and travelled thousands of miles on the network. It is my preferred mode of travel for leisure purposes, particularly now I have a senior rail card. One of my earliest memories is standing on the railway bridge at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch with my father as the express trains thundered through on their way to Holyhead or London and the smoke billowed into my face.
I also used to do a bit of train spotting and still have my ABC train spotting book published by Ian Allan, although there are very few numbers crossed out, the sign that you have seen the locomotive. And even in these green, environmentally aware days there is something intrinsically romantic about a steam-powered locomotive chugging through the countryside. And judging by the BoJ1 its romance still appeals to our youngest generation if only through Thomas the tank engine but I am hopeful that I will have an excuse to rediscover the delights and frustrations of an electric train set.
So I am the ideal customer for Simon Bradley’s marvellous book about all things connected with the railway. The book falls into two halves – the first exploring the development of the railways, its locomotives and carriages and the second deals more with its impact on the landscape and architecture. And the railway truly was revolutionary on its effect on our way of life. It made travel easier and cheaper, although conditions on the early second and third class carriages were truly awful. It allowed people to enjoy their leisure time.
But more importantly, perhaps, it standardised time throughout the land, revolutionised the reach of industry – Bradley argues that the distillation of whisky was turned from a cottage to a national industry by the arrival of the railways in the Highlands and that scotch was truly a drink of the railway age. It improved or at least harmonised diets so that foodstuffs which were restricted to local consumption because of the difficulties of carriage reached a wider, national audience. It spawned the first chain stores, the ubiquitous W.H.Smith, and facilitated the boom in advertising.
But part of the glory of the railways was the determination and perseverance of the original pioneers and the engineering skill required to cross ravines, tunnel into hills and bridge rivers. Bradley is particularly interesting on the effect of the railway on the landscape. Clearing areas previously populated by woods and fields to allow the railway to pass through created areas in which seeds of plants such as buddleia and rosebay willowherb took root. From there their seeds were transported throughout the land to become a staple feature of many of our gardens and parks.
The train and more particularly the railway carriages which were compartmentalised offered malefactors ample opportunities to commit a wide range of crimes ranging from theft to murder. Bradley is particularly interesting in recording the development of railway-related crimes and the modifications – corridors, alarms and the like – that were gradually introduced to counter them. And mundane matters such as how you relieved yourself – a pressing concern for many a traveller, particularly those at the older end of the age spectrum – are treated as fully as the glories of railway station and hotel architecture.
Reading Bradley’s book is rather like going on a railway journey. There are sections, particularly in the first half, where you easily get up to full speed and rattle through whereas there are other parts where you feel that you have got stuck behind a slow train and are in danger of coming to a halt or being diverted into a siding – I found the discussion on sidings, marshalling and coupling and uncoupling techniques hard going. But overall it is a rewarding experience and even if you have little interest in the railways you will realise what a transforming effect it had on British life.