The enduring delight of nostalgia

Nostalgia, says the old joke, is not what it used to be.

When applied to rail, the concept is as old as rail itself. Doubtless there was a time when putting a roof over a carriage or effective brakes beneath was seen as ‘new fangled’ and the first step towards the damnation of modernity.

Michael Williams has done well from nostalgia. He’s created the next generation with his 2010 book On the Slow Train which saw him journey today on what will surely be the nostalgia of tomorrow.

Williams is to railway writing what is his namesake Portillo is to railway television (although thankfully I’ve only ever seen one of them in a lurid jacket). His latest book, The Trains Now Departed, takes the reader back into the ‘heyday’ of a few of Britain’s lost lines and services. I use the word with caution. I’ve no doubt restaurant cars had a heyday but wonder if their food was ever a match for what’s served today by First Great Western? Was the “Roast Saddle of Southdown Lamb” deliciously moist and pink or dry and grey? I do not know but given Britain’s school dinner tradition of catering I could hazard a guess.

I struggle to believe that the Stratford-upon-Avon & Midland Junction Railway had a heyday. Nor does Michael, it seems, from his description of it being a basket case from the very beginning and evoking little enthusiasm today. Unlike the Lynton & Barnstaple with its followers intent upon its recreation. But the L&B was never a commercial success and Michael quotes my esteemed colleague Chris Leigh: “A large part of its charm and character came from the era in which it was created, and that most important, mystical ingredient could not be recreated”.

But Michael succeeds in recreating the charm of the period. His words leave me with a longing for what’s lost but also sufficient reality to know that it went for a reason. I’d love to cross Stainmore by rail and gaze upon the gorge at Belah from a train’s window. But I’d want the line to exist for a reason beyond my whims – railways must exist because there’s enough traffic to make them successful.

This sense of the genuine comes through in The Trains Now Departed. Michael is looking for real railways performing real work (however badly or ill-advisedly) and for this reason comes away less than satisfied with preserved lines. Their trains are real enough – and the graft of working with steam is certainly real, even without the unending nature of it before 1968 – but, he notes, they’re for pleasure rather than being a genuine transport service.

His book apes his subject. Picture your bucolic branch line gently taking you to your destination. Lulled by the rhythm of jointed track and the dipping wave of telegraph wires, all seems well in the world as fields or farms pass you by. Gently and pleasantly Michael guides you through a lost world, helpfully pointing out the provenance of this or that unassuming clump of overgrown nature.

Only at one point did my reading jar. I’m sure the third class carriages of the early Great Western Railway did little for their occupants’ comfort but to form a link between them and the stock used for trains to Nazi death camps is, for me, a step too far. If this link were dropped for any coming paperback edition, I don’t think anyone would miss it.

Michael’s back at his best with his essay on the ‘Withered Arm’, the erstwhile London and South Western Railway route to Padstow in Cornwall. He lauds the through service from Waterloo and rejoices in the attention the route garnered from that most melancholic of rail aficionados, John Betjeman. Yet there’s still that does of realism when he describes the line as being “a circuitous route north of Dartmoor and a clutch of rocky, windswept, underpopulated destinations”. No matter the pull of Rick Stein’s restaurant in Padstow today, there’s no return for the Withered Arm.

Revel in what we’ve lost and wonder how on earth we ever had it. A perfect book for a leisurely, long rail journey. If the scenery leaves you uninspired then read a chapter, refresh your mind and gaze once more from your window.

This review first appeared in RAIL 774, published in May 2015.