I live with a very young train fan. The kind who can identify all of the Thomas the Tank Engine characters even though he can’t read, who understands I live with a very young train fan. The kind who can identify all of the Thomas the Tank Engine characters even though he can’t read, who understands about buffers and branch lines and would happily live at the Train Museum if we let him. It would be easy to blame him on my growing interest in train history, but to be totally honest, although he’s sparked a current curiosity, trains have been interesting to me for a very long time. I blame all those British boarding school stories I’ve read.
So when this book popped up in yet another ‘end of 2014′ article, I decided to check it out. The premise behind the book is fairly simple – the author tries to retrace famous train journeys on modern trains. However, while we see the modern journeys, the author also takes us back in time, exploring not only the journeys but other topics related to the trains, towns, track features and people who were involved in the journeys. It’s a lovely piece of social history, framed by the modern journeys.
Looking at five well known ‘named-trains’ – The Golden Arrow, The Brighton Belle, The Cornish Riviera Express, The Flying Scotsman and The Caledonian Sleeper – Martin finds them almost universally diminished with time – or in some cases, nearly impossible to retrace at all (the train, boat, train experience of The Golden Arrow in particular, since people can now just go under the English Channel). To be honest, Martin is a little bit of a snob, with a yearning for the ‘good old days’ – however, he comes across as good-natured about it (with the exception of annoying, loud and public mobile phone conversations – I’m with him on that) almost poking fun at his own preferences.
The strength of the book, though, is not in the modern journeys – it would be a bit boring if that was all the book was about. Instead it’s the wonderful way he weaves history through the book – from stories of trains which went on boats, to explanations of how different train lines worked, to tales of murder (and how people tried to hide murder) on the trains – which, by the way, is not a section to read before bed. There were times when I was struck with ideas I’d never given thought to before – in the age of electric railways, we think nothing of express journeys. However, when you relied on coal, a long express journey meant taking all your coal (and sometimes a second driving team) with you – suddenly the excitement around express journeys really makes sense.
I’d highly recommend this book to those interested in railways or in British social history. It was a really enjoyable read and a great example of interesting approaches to non-fiction.
AT first I was scared to read this book - the second series is still showing in Australia and I didn't want to be spoiled. But I was pleasantly surpriAT first I was scared to read this book - the second series is still showing in Australia and I didn't want to be spoiled. But I was pleasantly surprised. This isn't a typical media tie in, instead a historical look at the society, dress and world between 1912 and 1919. It's interesting and well written, though history buff that I am, I could have done with even more information. Highly recommend for Downton fans, a nice taster for history buffs who may not know much about this era....more