A cross-country journey of 720 miles and over sixty years... by Rosalie Warren

Row17 [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ]. This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. The copyright on this image is owned by Row17 and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

 Aberdeen, Stonehaven, Montrose, Arbroath, Dundee, Leuchars, Cupar, Ladybank, Markinch, Kircaldy, Inverkeithing, Edinburgh Haymarket, Edinburgh Waverley, Dunbar, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Alnmouth, Morpeth, Newcastle, Chester-le-Street, Durham, Darlington, York, Doncaster [or Leeds, Wakefield Westgate], Sheffield, Chesterfield, Derby, Burton-on-Trent, Tamworth, Water Orton, Birmingham New Street, Cheltenham Spa, Gloucester, Bristol Parkway, Bristol Temple Meads, Taunton, Tiverton Parkway, Exeter St David’s, Dawlish, Teignmouth, Newton Abbott, Totnes, Plymouth, Liskeard, Bodmin Parkway, Par, St Austell, Truro, Redruth, Camborne, St Erth, Penzance.

You may recognise these as the stopping points on the Cross Country rail service in the UK from Aberdeen in the Highlands of Scotland to Penzance at the tip (almost) of Cornwall. Train journeys have a special place in the hearts of many people and I’m no exception. Recently, I heard this list read out by a Radio 4 announcer as part of a trailer for a forthcoming programme about regional accents, and before I knew it I was standing there at the kitchen sink with tears streaming down my face.

Why? A whole lot of reasons, too many to tell you about, but I’ll select a few, starting down in Cornwall – not quite as far west as Penzance, but pretty close, in Newquay on the Atlantic Coast. Between the ages of two and four I travelled the Newquay-to-Par-to-Sheffield route many, many times, changing trains in Bristol and then changing again in Sheffield for the final leg of the journey to Pontefract, where my grandmother lived. My dad was in the RAF and was stationed at St Eval, near Newquay (the aerodrome where he worked is now Newquay airport, beloved of surfers). The journeys we made by train usually involved just Mum and me, when Dad was on one of his short postings overseas. I can remember steam billowing past the windows (that’s how old I am) and the elegant British Rail mirrors and light fittings in the carriages, as we called them in those far-off days. All very Victorian and a little intimidating but enormously exciting, at least to me. It was a long journey, especially for a young child, and took us most of the day. I can only hope, for my mother’s sake, that I slept some of the time, though I suspect I didn’t. 

I have a dim memory of the downward journey on one occasion, when I think there was some flooding at Par and we had to get off our train and wait for another one. I remember walking on the beach, seeing rocks and rockpools and the sun going down in a red sky. Unless this memory has got muddled with a dream... So many of my early Cornish memories (we left for good just before I turned five) are mixed up with dreams – like the steep switchback road with rounded hills on either side, shrouded by woods where a dinosaur and an elephant lived – those latter creatures, on reflection, probably were a dream! 

Later in my childhood, after we’d moved back to West Yorkshire, or the West Riding as it was then, we would take the train from Pontefract to Scarborough, sometimes changing at York. Not quite part of the Cross Country route, but not so far off. I still associate getting on a train with that intense feeling of excitement and anticipation of the holiday to come. Cars, buses and planes are just not the same.

Even later, but still only twenty-two, I travelled by train with my new husband, from Pontefract via York to Edinburgh, two suitcases each, to start our married life. I remember climbing Waverley Steps from the station up to Princes Street and being overwhelmed – not just by the freezing July gale but by the scale and bluster and beauty of it all. I didn’t know it then, but I would have twenty-two years in Edinburgh – years in which our children would be born and grow up, and I would go back to university and find a new career, and write my first (no, actually my second) book, and so many, many changes would take place until eventually, in the last year of the century, I would sell the house, pack up my things and move even further north, to bonnie Dundee.

Before I actually made the move, I travelled many times by train on the Edinburgh to Dundee bit of the route, over the Forth Rail Bridge, up past Burntisland to Kircaldy and beyond – often seeing a stunning sunrise on the way. On other days the mist lay over the fields. I wasn’t happy in my first year in that job and I used to want the journey (sixty-four miles – no meagre commute) to go on forever. I even wondered, once or twice, what would happen if I didn’t alight at Dundee but simply kept going to Aberdeen and perhaps beyond. But the thought of my children, now sharing their time between me and my ex, stopped me doing crazy things like that. If I had stayed on the train, I’d have travelled past the broad sweep of wonderful dune-clad Lunan Bay, a place that became a favourite haunt of mine when I moved to the village of Monifieth, just outside Dundee, the following year. (If you’re interested, I eventually wrote a book called Low Tide, Lunan Bay, which was published by Robert Hale in 2009.)

I also did several Dundee to York journeys, visiting my son when he was studying at university in York. I was amazed by how long that journey took. I suppose I always think of York as in the north, and Scotland as just a bit further “up there” – but Dundee is actually another four hours.

Sadly, for various reasons, I never did get round to doing that final leg of the Cross Country route, from Dundee to Aberdeen – and I’m ashamed to say I still haven’t, though I’ve visited a number of places along the way, including Arbroath (home of smokies) and Montrose.

A few years further on, life took me back down south, or at least to the Midlands, to join my new partner and start a job at Birmingham University. This necessitated a further commute – an amazingly tortuous journey between our home in north Coventry and Edgbaston in Birmingham. It was only about twenty miles in total but somehow took almost as long as the train ride from Edinburgh to Dundee. Though I must say I did enjoy the actual rail journey, at least when I had a seat and could work, read or simply enjoy the passing countryside.

I once did a large section of the Cross Country route in one go – from Edinburgh down to Newquay, with my son and daughter, fortunately old enough to entertain themselves by then. My mother got on the train at Leeds and joined us for that holiday. I think the journey took about ten hours. The full stint, by the way, is thirteen and a half hours and covers 722 miles.

Another favourite train journey of mine was from Coventry up to Glasgow to see my daughter, who lived there for many years. Not strictly on the Cross Country route, but very special to me all the same – and I always found myself muttering the W.H. Auden poem Night Mail as we crossed the border and approached that marvellous city.

More recently I’ve taken a number of trips from Birmingham New Street down to Exeter St David’s, to visit a very dear friend of mine who lives in South Devon*. Nowadays, I usually make this trip by car, as the last leg otherwise involves a long spell in a bus, which I do not enjoy. The M5 trip is efficient but boring… the train journey, on the other hand, is always a delight. 

I think I now know why I cried when I heard that list of station stops. So much of my life, so many of the people and places that have enriched it, are encapsulated in that journey. One day, if I can bear it (and afford it), I must do the whole thing, end to end. Or perhaps I’ll stop off in some of those places on the way and relive old memories and dreams.

Looking ahead, I’d also like to cross Canada (my daughter now lives there) by train. Montreal to Vancouver – approximately 3000 miles overland. Sometime in the next sixty years…

All the best,

*Shortly after writing this, and a few days before it is scheduled to appear, my dear friend has very sadly passed away. I would like to dedicate this post to Jane. 

Follow me on Twitter @Ros_Warren



Wendy H. Jones said…
I often get that train from Dundee to Birmingham New Street. It's some journey if you're going from Aberdeen to Penzance. Especially if you want a cup of tea as there is no buffet until after Edinburgh. This translates to Berwick by the time they get there act together.
Dennis Hamley said…
Ros, what a lovely, evocative post, which awoke so may memories. Yes, I love Cross Country, even though the seats on the once relatively spacious Voyagers are now worse than on any low-cost airline I've been on. When I was little, Cross Country meant merely catching Newcastle - Bournemouth trains from Winchester to Oxford,to change on to the old line to Bletchley (now soon to be reopened), getting off at Winslow. Not far but to eight year-old me positively epic. But they went up the old Great Central through Leicester Central and Nottingham Victoria (a line long defunct and those huge stations no more). But we still use the service from Oxford, which uses the old Great Western main line to Birmingham, though going into New Street rather than Snow Hill. Now it's Banbury, Leamington, Coventry to Brum, and then onward either to Manchester via Stoke and Macclesfield (calling at Stockport where I used to live and teach) or up the WCML to Carlisle and Glasgow - or sometimes Edinburgh) Or it might reach out to the ECML for Newcastle, Berwick and Edinburgh. I was amazed that I could gt a direct train to Edinburgh which called at Wakefield Westgate (where again I used to live and teach). We use Cross Country a lot going the other way to get direct to Bournemouth. We often buy day returns to Bournemouth day for a walk along the beach and, once, the other way, to Carlisle to change for Gretna to suss out the prospects of eloping to get married. Actually to do the deed itself, we drove! The Birmingham-Bristol secton on the other (your) line is memorable because when I was training to be a teacher I used to travel from Temple Meads to New Street most weekends to see my then girlfriend teaching in Birmingham. And the memory of seeing the Bournemouth - Newcastle train come in hauled by a Southern King Arthur or a Lord Nelson and changing it for a Great Western Castle or Hall was so exciting! You don't get that nowadays!
Dennis Hamley said…
I should have made clear that the engine change was at Oxford. Ah, happy, dear, dead days!
Chris Longmuir said…
Thanks for a lovely post, Ros. I hadn't realised you were familiar with my part of the world. I regularly make the Montrose to Bristol journey. I still have family in Bristol, although my mother died last year at the grand old age of 101. Must have been the Bristol air.
Rosalie Warren said…
Thank you, Wendy, Dennis and Chris, for adding your own memories and experiences. It's a great way of discovering connections. Speaking of Bristol, Chris, I forgot to mention that my father was born in that city and we sometimes used to stop off there to see relatives.
Paul Mullings said…
Thank you Ros, I enjoyed your 60 year journey, not least for making me read Night Mail again....

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