There was a man from Somerset in this morning’s congregation. To have a visitor from anywhere in our quiet corner of rural Ireland is unusual; to have a visitor from Somerset seemed very long odds. There were a few brief moments to spare before the morning service was due to start.
Shaking hands with him, I asked, “Where are you from?”
“Somerset”, he said.
“Yes, I’d heard that, but where in Somerset?”
“Between Shepton Mallet and Castle Cary. Do you know them?”
“I used to have friends in Shepton Mallet and used to be able to get the train from Castle Cary to Paddington for £3.15 return”.
“£3? I used to get the train from Evercreech Junction to Bristol for three shillings”.
“Evercreech Junction? There’s a memory. Do you remember John Betjeman’s ‘All Change at Evercreech Junction’?
“I do indeed”.
“I would have loved to have travelled those lines”.
It is my ambition in retirement to visit all 180 Somerset stations. I once confessed this to the lady of the house.
“Oh, joy”, she muttered, “I suppose you’ll want a flask of tea”.
“Yes”, I said, “and a rug for having picnics.”
Being honest, there aren’t 180 stations in Somerset; there are only thirty, and eleven of those are on a railway preservation trust’s line, but there once were. The three Somerset counties – Somerset, North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset – had 180 stations on a web of different lines. Many of them were never viable, built distant from towns and villages in places where the population was sparse.
Railways have a special fascination, even for someone who knows nothing about engines or engineering. Maybe they represent an ordered world, a safe world structured by timetables. Maybe they were from a world where people were still courteous and the country had not been franchised out.
Maybe it’s just a case of being a grumpy old man who thinks that John Betjeman’s England was not the worst of places.