Sunday, 5 February 2012

The low rumble of trains

The place was still bare apart from the new bedroom furniture and the freshly laundered towels in the bathroom. It felt zen and minimalist and brimming with new opportunities. The rest of my things would only be moved in later that week. But even though the old bed was still there, I didn’t want to spend the night at the other house anymore. A typical case of Chapter Closed. Possibly even padlocked. I was perfectly content sleeping under a throw on the plump new mattress, stretching and snuggling like my inner cat. Just lying there in the comforting dark, enjoying the feel of my new home, with its different smells and different sounds. A new leaf. Every now and then I could hear a faint low rumble, like distant thunder, that added to my contentment. It was confirmed. I had actually moved. 

I live near my town’s main train station. It’s a new, up-market area, with a fresh and modern look and feel. Very nice to live in if I say so myself. Still, every time I tell people from around here where I'm at, their initial enthusiastic reaction is mostly followed by something along the lines of ‘shame it’s so close to the railroad tracks though’.Yes. Quite annoying. Especially when you haven't even started to properly gush about your new place. Plus there's the fact I do really disagree with them. To me, the railroad bit is actually more of an added bonus. 

I love trains. I love train travel. As a child, it felt adventurous to board a train, not really knowing where it would take me and what I would get to see on the way. I thought it was wonderful to watch the world roll by while I could just sit back and relax, take in the scenery or day dream to the rocking motion. Or, being a child after all, run through the carriage trying to look at an intriguing site for longer. Often my parents would point something out to us and tell us the story behind it. And those tales of drowned princes, great battles and secret trysts all stuck.

More often though, I would make up my own. Is it me, or does the rythm of a train put you in a more relaxed state of mind, in which you are more open to thoughts and ideas that come to you naturally? I'm sure J.K. Rowling would agree. Wasn't Harry Potter born while she was travelling on a train? Oh wait. It may have been standing still at the time - there goes that theory! I still suspect she may have a bit of 'a thing' for trains though - having created the fabulous Hogwarts Express. A steam train to take children to wizard school. Stroke of sheer bloody brilliance.

And speaking of steam trains - as you would expect from a real train aficionado, nothing could ever beat travelling by that most glorious of industrial inventions. These days it's a rare thing, but whenever I'm at a train station and get a sudden whiff of a unique, sooty smell, I crane my neck and start looking around frantically - where is it, where is it??

An other author felt the same way, many years ago:

And how I love trains, anyway! Snuffing up the sulphurous smell ecstatically - so different from the faint, aloof, distantly oily smell of a boat, which always depresses my spirits with its prophecy of nauseous days to come. But a train - a big snorting, hurrying, companionable train, with its big puffing engine, sending up clouds of steam, and seeming to say impatiently: 'I've got to be off, I've got to be off, I've got to be off!' - is a friend! It shares your mood, for you, too, are saying: 'I'm going to be off, I'm going, I'm going, I'm going...'

She got it! This was Dame Agatha Christie of course.

I've got a number of steam train trips on my wish list. Abroad that is. There's nothing wrong with the Dutch landscape, but it does tend to give you the 'more of same' feeling at one point. Flat. Green. Neat rows of trees. Neat canals. Cows. All very organised and orderly. Well, the cows not so much perhaps.

No, I've got my heart set on more spectacular scenery. I would for instance love to take a trip on one of the Great Little Trains of Wales. Or go for a rather more posh experience on the Royal Scotsman. I admit I would really enjoy dressing up and then boarding a train to the haunting notes of a bagpipe. And then start on 'a journey that takes you straight to the heart of the Highlands, through landscapes of towering, pine-clad mountains reflected in mirror-still lochs'. To visit places like Achnasheen, Kyle of Lacholsh, Kingussie, to name but a few. Those types of names are enough to make a romantic linguist like myself quiver with delight.

But, of course, there's one trip that must still be the Holy Grail of train lovers. You know the one I mean.

A lot has been said and written about the Orient Express. The name immediately summons up a feeling of romance, adventure, but also intrigue, suspense and of course... murder. It would be hard to find a person who doesn't know Agatha Christie's famous novel - or at least one of its film adaptations. I always wondered though what Christie herself felt about travelling on the Orient Express. Yeah alright, I did already have a hunch.

Many, many years ago, when going to the Riviera or to Paris, I used to be fascinated by the sight of the Orient Express at Calais and longed to be travelling by it. Now it has become an old familiar friend, but the thrill of it has never quite died down. I am going by it! I am in it! I am actually in the blue coach, with the simple legend outside: CALAIS - ISTANBUL. 

I felt so connected to her when I read that. And how wonderful that she, no matter how famous she had become or how many times she had made the trip, still kept that child-like ability to feel wonder and amazement about it.

I've now been living in my apartment for the better part of a year. And I still enjoy my occasional background rumble. Although I have to admit that once you're out on the terrace, it stops being in the background and becomes rather more audible. So when my dear friend Naeem came to visit a while back and got ready to indulge in his guilty pleasure (the apartment is a smoke-free zone), I felt it only fair to warn him he would be exposed to a bit of noise from the trains once he'd step outside. 

I needn't have worried. His eyes sparkled as he started on an enthusiastic tale about how it only added to the atmosphere of the neighbourhood. And how trains mean adventure and excitement.

Thank heaven. Another one who gets it.

Text in italics is taken from 'Come, tell me how you live', Agatha Christie's account of how she and her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan fared on digs in the Orient. It is a little gem of a book that I can't recommend enough - starting with the most fabulous humorous poem of her own making 'A-sitting on a tell'.  

Photos are stock photos from, except the last one, that I can't seem to find the original source for. 


  1. Another thing we have in common. I love trains. And I have always lived near train stations, always. Even the house we had by the sea was near a train station. my parents hated it, I loved it. Now, being in open country, the train station is quite far, but the railroad comes by just down the road!! I can see the trains passing by from my terrace and I can see them from my garden in winter, when the trees are leafless. It's far, but the wind brings the noise up to here. And yes it means adventure, and also movement, not standing still, change, new situations. I used to travel a lot by train for work and met wonderful people (also strange ones, but those are everywhere). And it's wonderful to let go your thoughts while the train rolls, or listening to music while gazing out the window. Or read, of course.
    Anyway, whenever you are tired of your neat and organized country, come to messy Italy. You'll change your mind in a second.

    1. I knew you'd get it Bobbi - I was sure of it! You're my long lost twin after all. And how true - it does mean change, not standing still, movement. And oh, the people you meet on trains - I should really write a book on that.

      I didn't think you'd be able to see or hear trains from your house, it looks so remote and rural (and lovely!). But I love it that you can. Makes your Cat Cottage sound even better.

      I do love our serene and neat landscape, it's very soothing and calm. But sometimes the heart just yearns for something a little more wild and rugged! ;-) Come on over and we'll go travelling Holland by train.

    2. The place where I live it's called 'Le Valene' and it means 'little windy valley' in some kind of ancient Italian. And it's always very windy, that's why I can hear trains, even if they are far! And I can see them but it's like I look at a miniature, which makes it even more lovely. The first month I lived here I couldn't believe the disproportion there is between how I can hear the noise of trains and how I can see them! I imagined them to be a lot nearer every time, but then I looked out and they were as big as my thumb!

    3. What a lovely name - suits the idyllic environment! And I love looking at trains from a distance - and then wonder where they're going...

      Your story reminds me of a place I would take you if you ever make it to NL!

  2. I love trains too. There are no passenger trains around the area where I live anymore and I think that's really sad.

    1. That's such a shame Deb! Your area does look very lovely - even though you say it's out in the sticks! ;-) I love that whole rural feel. But yes, if I were there I'd secretly miss the trains...

  3. It's a shame my local train service doesn't use steam any more, the modern service is crap and I know this is hard to believe but 15 minutes slower than when IT was steam.

    Had a funny experience at my local station. A brand new steam loco!!! was due through and the place was swarming with kids.
    When the engine (called Tornado) made an appearance it was very impressive (similar in class and size to the Flying Scotsman)and it wasn't hanging about. Cue most of the kids bursting out crying - Thomas the Tank Engine it wasn't, it frightened them to death ;-)

    1. All I can say is: if I would ever have kids they would NOT cry at the site of a brand new loc! It would not be in their genetic material. Humph.


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