Some historical geography of the railways of the British Isles

My family swirls around the railways. I have always loved them, and this has played a big part in my career trying somehow to articulate the feelings and excitement around movement, speed, being transported somewhere new. I inherited this from my father who worked for British Railways and like seemingly everyone who did was an enthusiast for all things connected to the permanent way.

In the deeper past my own existence, the connections that brought my ancestors together and into place, is dependent on the railways, their construction and the opportunities for movement and employment they gave working people in nineteenth-century Britain. This is the how and why of the various strands of parts of my family coming together in the early to mid nineteenth century.

Before the railways and other industrial development people were more closely tied to their village and the land. With their advent, labour was needed in new ways, and as cities boomed people could move to them.

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My great-great-grandfather – he and I have the same name – devoted his entire working life to the North London Railway, working as a guard on their routes from the docks at Poplar around what is today’s London Overground line and more than likely to points beyond. His father, another Thomas Hall, was a railway labourer, or a navigator: a navvy. With his brother William, and thousands of others, he dug the early railways into existence.

In doing so he left his home in Staffordshire, spent time in Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire where he met his wife, who he appears to have left in a workhouse while he went off to work somewhere, elsewhere, then moved to Islington and on to Bow. Part of what WG Hoskins called ‘a vanished race of men’, his work would have been incredibly hard, and may account for his early death. Along the way he must have made good enough connections to get his son a job on the North London, as their record books say.

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The images of the life of navigators are reminders in themselves of the remoteness of this time and this way of life. Queen Victoria was not yet on the throne when railway building was having its first boom. By the death of Prince Albert much of the country’s lines were in existence. Their toils predated photography, and are captured in long-view sketches of giant earthworks. The London to Birmingham Railway was described as the greatest human achievement since the pyramids, and while this is fanciful the scale of labour is comparable. The popular image of navvies is that they fought and drank their wages away by night after herculean efforts by day. Along with their faults to modern eyes they were heroic working men. This Thomas Hall may or may not have done these things. He may have just excavated railways, took his wage and gone home at the end of a gig. There aren’t records but there are grainy illustrations to stare at with no clues.

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In this picture navvies are guiding barrowloads of earthworks up a rather steep embankment along a trackway of planks, assisted by a rope pulled by a horse. All the illustrations here are from an old copy of The Railway Navvies by Terry Coleman.

All this is like much family history a little mind-blowing. Another great-great-grandfather met a grisly end falling from scaffolding on a gasometer in Dublin, not long after fathering his only child, my great-grandfather. All quiet voices from the past that have brought my family and I to this point. The impossibility of knowing these people, the distance from their lives is fascinating and in some ways troubling. Any life has crossroads, decisions and milestones. Pass the pickaxe will you? It is time to dig on.

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December

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Night swim early in the month

A week of dark moments. Three swims. The last on Saturday morning at 7am, on the last day before a couple of months of 7.30 openings to compensate for later dawns. I’ve left the house alone, my family in sleeping silence, only a light under Harry’s door suggesting he’s awake and quietly reading. The roads are near empty and Millfield Lane is still, apart from a fellow swimmer waiting until the last moment in his black cab. An ever-receding part of me still asks what I am doing here. This question is easily enough ignored.

Inside the compound, even though it is still just before seven, three men are already swimming, and I walk through to join them. They must leave the water while I am in but I don’t notice them. The only light is the bright lamps of the compound beyond the reach of which is impenetrable still-night. The lifeguards are eating cereal beneath their own thin illumination. A swimmer looms out of the dark, steaming and grinning. Out on the jetty it is very noticeably not near dawn, and I have not warmed up, but I dive in anyway and puff through the water with no-one else in it. Rain falls and sparks the water into life, and me as well. Things move in the darkness, cormorants, terns, the week rolls past my eyes, hard and testing, the water uncompromising, unwelcoming, compelling. The wind whirls an eddy across the dark surface. Out, then in again, then finally back into the changing area, then out onto the heath.

Shivers all the way home. Still feeling cold at 8.34pm, and thinking about the morning.

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I did not relish the prospect of today’s swim, nor did I enjoy it particularly. But I needed it. The wind is cold, the air is cold, the water is cold. The sun is behind a cloud and not playing today. I arrive in the mood for a scrap, bruised leg from falling off my bike, and get one.

I get out and attempt to stare down the east wind blowing across the water. It carries on and I stomp off, having fought to a standstill and not won, but not lost.

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21-22 December

This has been a magical December, with a clutch of pre-dawn swims curving to and then away from the shortest day.

Winter Solstice itself brings an evening visit to the Lido under a bright full moon, almost the only light on the water. It is wonderful to dive in and swim some lengths with Imogen, who in her gloves and boots looks quite the part. She is a winter swimmer who has effortlessly taken to the water this year and is a much better swimmer than me. This festive occasion is enlivened by a lifeguard sampling a sausage roll dipped in brandy butter. Seemingly thinking the condiment is hummus, we enjoy his very north Londonish confusion.

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The following morning, but before dawn at the end of the longest night I am at the pond again, walking round the paths on the perimeter waiting for it to open. Early Saturdays have become unmissable and I shall miss the dark drives over, the silence and emptiness of the Heath, buying the Times on the way home and relishing the crosswords to come.

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There are only a handful of swimmers at this time. They all seem to know each other well. Perhaps that is what another ten years will get me though I am happy in my own company and probably show it. One other man puffs around, awkwardly front-crawling, head above the water. His slow progress is undeniable though. Mine is of a similar pace, and progress is somewhat shocked by even the marginal change in the water temperature. As ever, the pond is colder and softer than the lido. In the half-light the brightness of the winter snowberries catches my eye.

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Christmas Eve, swimming with a pale dawn starting to glow in the corner of the sky, another shining moon with its distant landscape visible from the water. Sometimes it tries to hide behind bare, leafless trees but remains a sentinel on this circuit. Compliments of this season. The usual gentle flow of morning swimmers fools me into thinking that this is a normal day. It is a shock then at how empty the roads are running down to Kentish Town, and it becomes apparent that I’m the only one in a hurry to get things done this Monday morning. Nothing is open. The Thames still dozes with only a pair of ferries ghosting round below Blackfriars Bridge, the moon still there, a constant companion of late.

1984: three songs

In 2018 I’m not sure there has been a single great song written. Perhaps there was and I missed it. In 1984 there were at least three that have echoed down the decades. All came from England, and all from very different bands.

The Smiths – How Soon Is Now?

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By 1984 The Smiths has been together for two years, and in short time had established themselves as the darlings of the indie scene, or bedsit rock if you prefer such a strange-sounding title. Does anyone even live in a bedsit anymore? Then again, is there an indie scene now? Still, The Smiths had thumped out a few singles and made enough of a hash of recording their eponymous debut album that they’d had to have another go. They still didn’t get it right. The Smiths remains one of the great almost-was albums.

Hatful of Hollow, on the other hand, is a compilation of radio sessions full of the bite and edge that (I understand) characterised the bands’ live performances. And here’s How Soon Is Now? in all its non-rhetorical glory, an awkward and strongly-worded exchange in the first person, brooding over an unending dirty chord, with siren sounds and thumped drums. Or rather that was where I first found it, a teenager getting hung up on The Smiths and paying £5.50 at Camden’s Record & Tape Exchange for a copy of this life-changing record. It was second hand. Someone had sold it! Anyway, How Soon is Now? This song debuted as a b-side to William, It Was Really Nothing. On the cover is a man who could indeed be in a bedsit. A b-side, but one that must have astonished anyone who flipped over the jangly a-side to come face to face with some of Morrissey’s greatest lines. The opening line repeats and drifts through the song: ‘I am the son and the heir…’

Not only does the chorus rage of ‘You shut your mouth, how can you say, I go about things the wrong way/I am human and I need to be loved – just like everybody else does’ rightly stand in the ranks of Smiths lyrics as possibly their defining words, they are run close in the same song by the angst of the drizzling night that seethes and rages: ‘there’s a club if you’d like to go, you could meet somebody who really loves you/So you go and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home and you cry and you want to die.’ Oh and it’s seven minutes long. It provoked such a reaction that it was re-released as an a-side and also grafted on, barbarically, to the end of the first side of The Smiths. Perhaps we should close the book on the greatest song of the 80s right there. Or perhaps not.

Felt – Primitive Painters

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While The Smiths were still four solutions in search of problem rattling round Manchester, Lawrence (just Lawrence) had with Maurice Deebank (not just Maurice) long ago formed Felt in the West Midlands village of Water Orton. Mining a love for Television’s Marquee Moon and Deebank’s classical guitar flourishes they’d already knocked out three albums by the time Robin Guthrie agreed to produce Ignite the Seven Cannons, Felt’s 1984 long-player. Guthrie proceeded to do what he did with the Cocteau Twins and cover everything in a haw frost glinting in the sunshine of an early morning. And for that he got labelled a goth!

This ‘ethereal swirl’ made this record sound very different to other Felt albums, and the keyboard work by Martin Duffy hinted at the band’s future direction once Deebank had left. But while this album was viewed as both a missed opportunity (1984: a year of swings and misses?) and ‘unbalanced’ by Lawrence to such an extent that he remastered and reordered it comprehensively for the 2018 reissue, it contained some of Felt’s best songs and the one for which they are best remembered. This is the mighty Primitive Painters. Like How Soon is Now?, its opening line sets the tone, and leads the song through an labyrinth of twists and turns, clouds of noise, Liz Fraser’s vocals duelling with Lawrence’s and the bands’ dismantling of the song, yet it remains to my ears coherent and singular throughout. And those words? ‘I just wish my life could be strange as a conspiracy.’ Later on, as Fraser’s wounded Calypso melodies waft over the noise Lawrence plays with words ‘This is a new trance – and an entrance too.’ Perhaps it makes sense after one listen, perhaps after dozens. 20 years after first hearing it – as the opening track on Absolute Classic Masterpieces Vol. 1, which otherwise runs backwards in time through Felt’s early years – I still listen to it most days and marvel at it. It is also better than most Cocteau Twins songs. I can only think of Lorelei, Fotzepolitic and Carolyn’s Fingers that even come close.

Echo & The Bunnymen – The Killing Moon

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There’s still more melodrama to be found on Echo & the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon, the third of 1984’s triumvirate of the titanic. The Bunnymen’s commercial success may put this for some in a slightly different bracket. It shouldn’t. It’s utterly fabulous. In 1984 it seemed touch and go whether E&TB or U2 would become the biggest band in the world, until Ian McCulloch and co decided they’d rather not. Sadly U2 managed it. Or perhaps it’s not a shame. The Killing Moon sits though in a curious bracket. As part of Ocean Rain, it carries the same sense of windswept grandeur as the rest of that album, but stands out like Primitive Painters does on Ignite the Seven Cannons and How Soon is Now? as a b-side. Instantly striking, demanding attention, hanging off one line, one which came to Ian McCulloch, incredibly, in a dream one night. Again, The Odyssey made new, gods and goddesses offering visions and guidance.

‘Fate, up against your will, through the thick and thin’

Here’s a sense of inevitability, of foreboding, of something made and recorded and handed down to new ears that is very much of the time it’s from, but a record that would be a hit in the decade before it and this one, even if it feels like it could only be written when it was. McCulloch repeats, then exclaims these lines at the end of the song, with Will Sergeant’s guitar dancing round it, the song tailing off like it’s still playing on a boat that’s leaving the harbour. I was seven in 1984, but I got there in the end.

Brighton London

The space in between.

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South of London there’s all this. There’s Surrey, and Sussex, and roads to the coast. Lots of people ride from London to Brighton, but my far north London base meant that this has never made any sense at all as a cycling outing. Slog through the suburbs for a couple of hours then have to do the same on the way back as the train will drop you back at Victoria.

Not that I feel like I’ve really given the south coast a chance. My entire experience of Brighton has been watching Ride and The Charlatans play a great concert in 1994, then drinking cider by the seaside rather than touring Oxford colleges the same year, then not going for 20 years until Arsenal played Brighton in the FA Cup a few years back.

So a meeting with a Brighton-based colleague, blessed with the sense to flee the capital that I don’t have and doubt I ever will presented something of an opportunity. Head down by train, I thought, have the meeting then steal a few hours and ride back home again. 65 miles, or thereabouts, and no fiddling round taking trains and riding back home from the middle of town. Having stared at the map for long enough to convince myself it was just enough of a foolish thing to do to make it worthwhile I committed to the journey.

A fiddly ride to Victoria got things started. I find it an odd station, really two stations in one, and stuck in a remote part of west-central London but completely facing the river and points beyond. It promises adventure – and used to be the starting point for services as far afield as Constantinople – but today never really delivers and Brighton is about as good as it gets from here. Still, the deserted morning Gatwick Express service got to the south coast fast enough. On arrival I rolled down to the seafront where the grey-brown waves were dealing with a storm. The wind was blowing from the south. It was time, soon, to head for home again.

Once my meeting was concluded I made my way out of Brighton, aiming first for Ditchling Beacon. In my experience anything even remotely challenging in the south of England gets talked up to Alp-sized levels of difficulty, and I found riding up this to be an enjoyable thrash with the wind at my back. It seemed pretty steep on the way down and I don’t doubt its fearsome reputation for Brighton-bound riders. The views, glimpsed, were tremendous and it is an ongoing regret I’m not better at pausing on rides like this and taking in what’s around a little more.

 

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A couple of happy hours later, once past pretty villages like Lingfield and miles of long, straight running and I crossed the M25, marking a formal entry into Greater London. Here the imposing bulk of Whitehill Lane asked more serious questions of tired legs and probably inappropriate gears and. I wheezed the last 50 metres or so wondering if that was me, the hill or the time since riding the Fred. Probably all of them.

 

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Still to come, crossing London. Across places I had no prior knowledge of – Caterham, Coulsdon, Wallington, Mitcham, then the semi-familiar Tooting, Earlsfield, Wandsworth. At times the Wandle meandered sweetly around me. Most of the time I was fighting heavy traffic, seemingly static for miles on end, a sporting ride in the country now brutally shoved into a commuter slog, and on it went. At some point I crossed the river, and on and on through gridlock, reaching a sweaty apogee climbing up past Vale of Health on Hampstead Heath. All of London just a traffic jam. From this point on, 70 miles in to the day’s riding I just wanted to go to sleep.

It is an odd feeling having ridden home, and both warped time a little and seen the landscape and scenery change in slow motion, yet still get home using only my own legs.

Dawn swims

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More change. Can you feel it in the water? At the pond change is everyday. It’s never the same twice, and would be disappointing if it was. On Friday I pretend its winter and run up and over Highgate village. Dawn stretches to the east over the city and far beyond, but the sun isn’t high enough to do more than poke through the trees once I’m in the water. Still, summer lingering on, warmer water than you’d expect and the ropes staying out, far out.

Two days later on the stroke of 7am and walking out along the jetty in dark grey rain. It’s still busy, but I forget some people swimming now don’t stick it through the year and have one of those conversations where you sound like a bit of an arse going on about cold weather. Yes, those conversations I really like. Remind me to bore you sometimes. You mean you don’t?

Swimming again in San Francisco Bay

There are doors, and there are doors.

One of the great doors of the world is the unassuming entrance to the South End Rowing Club, standing in the middle of Fisherman’s Wharf and North Beach overtourism. Hundreds and possibly thousands pass the door of this and neighbouring Dolphin Club each day without stopping to read the sign that proclaims it is open to non-members, with the implication being that all you have to do is work out how to pass through the portal to the other side.

I’ve done so twice now, and both times it was a similar experience. Like the first time, I stood at the door for a moment, which rattled when pushed but did not open, then rang the bell and waited. And waited. And wondered if I should give up and/or run for the hills. San Francisco has lots of hills. Eventually someone let me in, I introduced myself and declared I was hoping for a swim. I was beckoned inside. Sign up, pay your $10 and you’re in. And as soon as I was it became clear that I had passed into an extraordinary place. A clubbified Men’s Pond for all genders, its bottom floor is a boathouse, home to a collection of beautiful rowing boats that give the club its name.

Upstairs, as shown by the chap who opened the door and who had immediately taken on the role of host and guide, a rag-tag changing room with space for hundreds to change. I made my excuses when he offered for me to join a collection of very laid-back swimmers lounging on big chairs who, I suspected, would swim for miles once in the water, and headed off by myself.

South End has its own access to a small beach, quiet and calm where a few yards away is crowds and chaos from the late-summer visitors to the city. I was still slightly (very) jetlagged, and had had a pretty stressful day, and after pausing to speak to a lady warming up for her own swim walked straight into the cold water. It took a while to get the measure of the water, pulling me this way and that, and to take in the mighty ships moored to my right and the long line of buoys running parallel to Aquatic Bay. The idea is you swim all the way along, then back, or around the Bay, or out to the mouth and back, or whatever. I aim for ten minutes, which is quite enough for me in my state. It is a marvellously solitary experience. The bay is home to old ships, a beach and distant view of the Golden Gate Bridge, with the fog rolling onto and over its northern end and across the high points of Marin County. What a lovely place for a swim.

The shower afterwards induces shivers, but as much as anything I rejoice in the sense of quiet privacy of being left alone in the club. Though I’m tempted to go back to the guys in their armchairs I don’t linger but head off straight uphill, which in this city means great stupidly steep gradients, and continue on another San Francisco institution, the seemingly unnecessarily yet also inevitable long and hilly walk back to my own neighbourhood.

Far north, old things

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In the still green silence of Northumberland, England’s biggest sky, we find fragments of the past at every turn.

A tiny road heads dead straight, almost due north, from somewhere small and not known to an equal point. The road is pitted and bumpy. It ends at a t-junction that is, in fact, a crossroads, for the road continues ahead. The Devil’s Causeway is still here. It’s not hidden, it runs for 50 miles or more, and is marked on maps. Here it runs through a grassy field. I put my hand into the grass – clumps of stone, roughly shaped. A Roman Road, but north of Hadrian’s Wall. Perhaps someone can explain to me how that worked.

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Later it becomes clear the village we turned right at existed as a crossroad between the roman road and the path that monks travelled between Holy Island and Durham. And Iona too? A junction of obscurity. Were they the only traffic? Was it a highway of celebrity monks, Aidan, Cuthbert and their like? Just up the road is Ancroft, with a sign pointing to an 11th century church. Remarking that we’ve never stopped there despite driving past 20 times we do, and discover something. Squat and ageless, it predates Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Crusades, and is barely younger than England itself. Ancroft. Aidan’s Croft. The strange monkish atmosphere. It may account for all the silence.

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On another day we go looking for the road again, further south, near Chillingham’s haunted castle. We find a ford, crossed also by a wonderful wooden bridge, and a standing stone, marked out presumably to stop a farmer ploughing into it. Winnie tells us here that ‘the Romans used wee to wash their hair’. After a mile or more the countryside drops away towards the Cheviot Hills, and a dramatic bridge carries the causeway away again.

It is hot and it is a strange sensation to be seeking ways to cool down in a place where you can look south to Scotland. We are wedged up against the border but free to wander over, usually via the Union Bridge. Once across there is the lovely River Tweed, and the chance to swim. The water is perfect and the river is broad. The kids splash in the shallows while Imogen and I take turns to swim part-way across, never quite brave enough to complete the international swim, but enough into disputed waters to be able to say we’ve done it.

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A friend puts in our heads seeking out Twizell Bridge, a mighty medieval span which carried English and Scottish soldiers across the Till. Just down the road, Wark Castle guarded a section of the Tweed. Today it’s a pile of rubble that appears to sit in a few people’s back gardens who aren’t that happy to see us drive into their bit of town. It may be the place where Edward III first got the idea of the order of the garter, greeting hooting partygoers who mocked a lady who’d removed hers by putting it on and saying ‘honi soit qui mal y pense’ (‘evil be to him that evil thinks’. This phrase is so famous now it appears on the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom. And here’s Wark Castle, a forgotten pile of old stones. Perhaps it wasn’t here. No-one knows to say it wasn’t. We all make remains and words and gestures live on.

On our last night thunder and lightning cracks the weather open, as if we’ve started something with what we’ve turned up.