Reading David St John Thomas’s ‘Railway Season‘ in a single sitting, the journeys he described evoked memories of times when trains were the only option for a student without a car; times when the British Rail student railcard was as essential an item in the wallet as the plastic bank card card which allowed withdrawals from ATMs, where a black plastic roll that went backwards and forwards behind a screen (like the destination board on a bus), was the precursor of the current electronic display.
A journey in June 1981 remains vivid. It began with catching the District Line train from Kew Gardens to Waterloo, carrying a case that could only be moved in fifty yard bursts, the weight of books being so heavy. The tube train defied the label ‘underground’ as it made its way through the scenery of west London, only dropping just below street level as it approached the centre, like an uncertain swimmer not wanting to get out of their depth; being overtaken by the speeding trains from the Piccadilly line which did not hesitate to dive deep into tunnels.
Buying a single ticket for Yeovil Junction and lugging the case into a compartment of one of the old Southern Region carriages that were still pulled up and down the line to Exeter; there was poetry in the list of stations called out by the British Rail station announcer: the next train from Platform 10 will be the 1435 for Exeter Saint Davids, calling at Basingstoke, Andover, Salisbury, Gillingham, Sherborne, Yeovil Junction, Crewkerne, Axminster, Honiton, Exeter Central and Exeter Saint Davids. A man walked the length of the train, swinging closed the carriage doors, each resounding thud bringing nearer the moment of departure. A shrill whistle and then we pulled out, heading south through Clapham.
The compartment was empty except for myself; I leaned against the glass and watched the grey suburbs which were followed by the greenness of English shires on a June afternoon.
The train pulled into Yeovil Junction at twenty to five; opening the door meant sliding down the window and leaning out to turn the handle. My Dad stood waiting on the platform and moved to help with the weight of the suitcase. We walked up the stairs and over the bridge to reach the car park.
Having dropped out of college after two terms, and having returned twelve months later for the summer term in order to complete the first year, that arrival at Yeovil seemed like the end of a very long journey. We called at my grandmother’s West Coker home where tea was made; its taste as memorable as the sound of the carriage doors.
The sheer number of railway books one could buy evince the capacity of railways to evoke memories and emotions in a way that may never again be possible.