There’s something about train travel that has inspired writers since its inception in the nineteenth-century. Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope (who often wrote his novels on the long train journeys he had to take as a Post Office inspector) were early exponents of the literary train journey, and their mantle has been taken up by many writers since. Train journeys seem to lend themselves to thrillers and children’s books, as well as poems: the transience of train travel brings disparate characters together for a short time with often explosive results.
The Orient Express: London to Istanbul
The Orient Express has all the connotations of old-school glamour and sizzling intrigue: numerous books have been set on it, including the famous Agatha Christie mystery featuring Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express. It also features in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Stamboul Train by Graham Greene, From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming, and Flashman and the Tiger by George MacDonald Fraser.
Although the original Orient Express closed its doors to passengers on 11thDecember 2009, the hotel company Belmond still operates the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, a luxury private train which uses refurbished carriages from the original. The journey takes you from London to Vienna, though a few times a year you can catch a ride to the original destination, Istanbul, or other classical stop-offs such as Florence, Berlin, Copenhagen or Rome. These days you are less likely to come across a moustachioed Belgian detective than a private steward, serving up champagne and lobster before you retire to your glamorous cabin to be rocked to sleep as the train lulls you eastwards…
Anna Karenina: Moscow to St Petersburg
As you’d expect from a country of over 17 million square kilometres, Russia has plenty of train tracks – and they feature in plenty of the country’s great works. Perhaps the greatest of these is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, where trains are a constant theme: many of the major plot points take place either on trains themselves or at stations. Recreate aspects of the novel – although hopefully not the famous finale – on the Grand Express overnight from Moscow to St Petersburg or vice versa. Slip into your bathrobe before enjoying room service as you watch the spectacular scenery outside your window.
La Bête Humaine: Paris to Le Havre
One of France’s great novels, La Bête Humaine by Émile Zola, is set almost entirely on the Paris to Le Havre train. The plot follows madman engine-driver Jacques Lantier, erotically obsessed with the train he drives and equally intent on murder. When he comes into contact with troubled couple Roubaud and Séverine, things begin to tip into a dark drama as the characters meet on trains, tracks and stations, each bringing them closer to the final denoument.
Le Havre itself is an often-overlooked industrial city on the Normandy shore, but is the home of the Musée d’art moderne André Malraux, which holds France’s second most important collection of Impressionist art. Take the three-hour train from Paris St-Lazare and enjoy the collection of Monets, Corots, Courbets and Matisses.
The Hogwarts Express: Fort William to Mallaig
Perhaps the best-loved of all children’s trains is the Hogwarts Express, which takes Harry Potter et al to their wizarding school at the start of every term. Fans of the famous series can take their very own Hogwarts Express across Scotland, from Fort William to Mallaig, covering 84 miles and some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country including Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, and deepest Loch, Loch Nevis – and, of course, the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct. There are two trips a day, and some of the carriages are even the same ones used in the film series.
Pershore Station: the Cotswold line
There are few train journeys you can take in the UK that don’t have a poem attached to them. John Betjeman is perhaps most intimately connected with English train travel – his work spans the country, with a focus on the West Country and the Midlands, and he presented the celebrated ‘Metroland’ documentary. Especially evocative is ‘Pershore Station, or a Liverish Journey First Class’, which contains the lines:
‘There was no one about but a conscript who was saying good-bye to his love
On the windy weedy platform with the sprinkled stars above
When sudden the waiting stillness shook with the ancient spells
Of an older world than all our worlds in the sound of the Pershore bells.
They were ringing them down for Evensong in the lighted abbey near.
Sounds which had poured through apple boughs for seven centuries here.’
Find this little station on the Cotswold Line, which runs from London Paddington, then stop off for tea in a quintessential chocolate-box village such as Moreton-in-Marsh, or book a night at the luxury Thyme hotel near Lechlade.
The Whitsun Weddings: Hull to London
Second only to John Betjeman when it comes to railway writing is Philip Larkin, whose best loved poem, The Whitsun Weddings, is set on his regular journey from Hull to London one hot summer Saturday, when the poet gradually becomes aware of all the newly-married couples joining the train on its southward journey, embarking on their lives together,
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.’
The poem conjures up a particular type of Englishness, on a particular type of English day. A poem to remember on a commuting train, about the marvels that you pass by every day without taking time to notice them.