Two more books which are worth taking with you on holiday.
Chris Arnot; Small Island by Little Train; ISBN 978-0-7495-7849-7.
Tom Chesshyre; Slow Trains to Venice; ISBN 978-1-78783-299-2.
The first of these two books, by Chris Arnot, is the story of a meandering journey round some of the narrow-gauge railways of the UK. It is published by the AA in hardback. The dust jacket says: “From stalwart little locomotives of topographical necessity to the maverick engines of one man’s whimsy. Britain’s narrow-gauge steam trains run on tracks a world apart from it regimented mainlines. They were built to carry anything from slate to milk churns, and go where mainline trains could not go – around sharp bends, up steep gradients, or rolling downhill for miles all the way to the sea. And they have not just survived against the odds, but thrived.”
Chris Arnot has been a freelance journalist and Author for around 30 years, writing for the Guardian on everything from arts and travel to education and social issues. His material has also appeared in most of the other broadsheets and he has written a number of books of his own. In this book he provides a delightful, gently observed commentary on his own journeys along narrow-gauge lines around the UK. The most northerly line he visits is the Leadhills and Wanlockhead Railway in Lanarkshire, the most southerly, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. Five chapters cover lines in Wales. A short chapter covers a day visit to Graham Lee’s amazing private 2ft/2ft 6 inch dual gauge line, the Statfold Barn Railway, with his extensive collection of narrow-gauge locomotives.
Two long-lost favourites warrant a chapter each – the Leek and Manifold Railway and the Lynton and Barnstaple. As do the South Tyndale Railway, the Bure Valley Railway (Wroxham to Aylsham in Norfolk) and the Southwold Railway.
The Bure Valley Railway is in private ownership and now returns a significant profit. The Southwold Railway continues to look forward to a day when a line can be relaid between Southwold and Halesworth but has managed to create Steamworks, a Visitor Centre building with cafe, shop, toilets, museum and engine shed, a 7¼ inch gauge miniature railway plus 11 chains of three foot gauge track, including a run parallel and close to the site of the original track as it approached Southwold Station. 
Arnot comments: it is easy to think “that the UK is becoming more uniform. But trundling around its more remote parts has proved to be a way of reminding myself that … This small island was anything but uniform. It remained a place of infinite variety, and its contrasts, from Devil’s Bridge to Dungeness, Wroxham to Ravenglass, were best savoured through the window of a sedately paced narrow-gauge railway.” (p251)
Arnot further reflects: “I’d seen a desire to get close to those [narrow-gauge] engines among many who’d visited these railways, and not just among those old enough to remember when steam trains ran on the main line. … [I] met people of all ages and both sexes who’d become fascinated by a precious part of our history. And while I may have sometimes cursed the lengthy journeys to visit those lines, I’d revelled in meeting most of their passengers as well as the volunteers and indeed the paid staff who kept them running. … Just as enjoyable had been sitting back to savour the scenery beyond the windows confirmation that, when viewed from a little train, this small island still has breathtaking variations in landscape, a marked contrast to the corporate and municipal uniformity that has taken hold of large parts of our towns and cities. But then, unlike so many of our towns and cities, rural landscapes have remained largely unscathed. … And those parts of the landscape that were ‘scathed’, particularly by mining, have largely blended back into their natural surroundings, adding layers of fascinating industrial history in the process. Those contrasts in landscape … struck me forcibly. … Were we still on the same small island?“
In the second of these two books, Tom Chesshyre heads abroad, seeking to wander his way through Europe to Venice with his route dictated by whim and the availability of trains. This ends up being a 4,000 mile adventure. “Escaping the rat race for a few happy weeks, … [he] indulges in the freedom of the tracks. From France ( dogged by rail-worker strikes), through Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland, he travels as far east as Odessa by the Black Sea in Ukraine.” He then heads back, “via Hungary, the Balkans and Austria. Along the way Tom enjoys many an encounter, befriending fellow travellers as well as a conductor or two.”
Simon Calder (The Independent) says that Tom, “relishes the joys of slow travel and seizes every opportunity that a journey presents: drifting as a flaneur in Lille, following in the tracks of James Joyce in a literary exploration of Ljubljana, cosseted in luxury on a trans-Ukranian express, all decorated with a wealth of detail and intrigue.”
I enjoyed his humourous reflections on his encounters. I found the manifest nationalism (if that is the right word) of some countries enlightening. Most of all, however, I found that I discovered a sense of freedom in following his meandering tale. An entirely appropriate thing while on holiday myself!
And finally. …. One short section of the book took me back to a holiday in Slovenia quite a few years ago. We were staying in Bled, not far from Lake Bled which Tom Chesshyre missed out on. We travelled a few times to Ljubljana. On one of those occasions, we found our way to the Railway Museum of Slovenian Railways which Tom Chesshyre also stumbles across. We arrived at the gates of the museum, which happened to be open even though the museum seemed closed, and decided to try our luck and ambled in. After a short while, we came across someone who invited us to wander round the whole site. We managed to get through every door that we tried but we did not get chance to speak to the Professor!
Some reflections on Slovenia can be found at:
- https://www.southwoldrailway.co.uk/trust-projects/southwold-station, accessed on 8th September 2021.
- https://www.southwoldrailway.co.uk, accessed on 8th September 2021.