A guest post from Jack Cooke on the storied melancholia of walking a forgotten East Anglian branchline.
No one departs, no one arrives
From Selby to Goole, from St Erth to St Ives.
They've all passed out of our lives
On the Slow Train, on the Slow Train.
(Flanders & Swann)
Ducking in behind the pawnbrokers on Saxmundham High Street the footpath leads north, following a sheltering embankment of cow parsley and crisp packets. After a few hundred feet and glimpses of neat allotments, I emerge alongside rails, picking up speed like a train pulling free of the town. Ahead of me, the track splits, the Lowestoft service passing on up the coast. How many of its passengers ever spot a sister track, half-hidden behind gravel sacks and wire? This forgotten line curves gently away to the east, disappearing into the hedgerows. I cross the rails, a necessary trespass to follow the old route to the sea.
Board a train anywhere in mainland Britain tomorrow and you have roughly eleven thousand miles of track ahead of you. You can coast along steels to every city, a thousand towns and even the odd village. Yet if you yearn to travel by rail into the small corners of the British countryside, you have missed your train by a margin of fifty years or more.
From the moment the first steam engine berthed in the 19th century, British railways spread fast across the length and breadth of the islands. At its peak the system extended over twenty-three thousand miles of rail, hundreds of branch lines diverting from the main trunks and journeying into lonely valleys and onto isolated headlands. As the network expanded it became increasingly eccentric, with different operating systems and burgeoning costs. With the rise of the roads after the First World War, traffic from many of the smaller tracks found other means and some branch lines ground to a halt. Following nationalisation in 1948 this programme of closure accelerated but, by the 1960s, the warp and weft of the network was still haemorrhaging over three hundred thousand pounds a day.
In the midst of this deepening crisis, two opposing forces came head-to-head on the spider-web of British rail. The infamous Dr Beeching, rationalist and man of science, newly appointed Chairman of the British Transport Commission, and John Betjeman, romantic and man of letters, soon to be appointed Poet Laureate. These men were emblematic of polarised attitudes, on one side the desire to modernise Britain’s sprawling rail network and cut its crippling deficits, and on the other a passion for preservation, for conserving a rural and industrial past and the communities served by the branchlines. The ‘Beeching Axe’ was victorious. Link-by-link most of the remaining tracks were torn up or cut off; they became fading constellations in a universe of shrinking steel.
Trains that end in the sea have always had a peculiar romance. As the ground falls away to the coast, the traveller seems to pick up speed, accelerating to meet land’s edge. For one hundred years and six, a small railway branch on the East Suffolk coast serviced fish, coal and passengers. Leaving the Lowestoft line it looped away from a junction, breaking for the sea on a long descent through small towns; Leiston, Thorpeness and finally to the shore at Aldeburgh.
Today, it is a half-track, four miles of rail and four more of farmland. The dawning of the nuclear age has saved the first section as far as Leiston. The A, B, and coming C of Britain’s nuclear power complex at Sizewell beach provides enough traffic, construction and radioactive waste, to keep the steels in place. Beyond, the old track is marked only by its absence. There is little evidence left of the thousands of tonnes of fish sacks or coal stacks, or the people who used the line.
I wanted to recapture the views of fifty years long gone, to come to the sea as a tourist might have done half-a-century ago, not funnelled up a tarmac corridor but flying over the flatland. By following the line from beginning to end, along the repossessed nuclear railway and then on, to the traces etched in crag path and clearing, I hoped to rediscover a lost perspective on familiar country. I wanted to conjure, just for one day, the steaming splendour of ‘The Eastern Belle’, ‘The East Anglian’, and other trains that once took this track, loaded with ice-cream anticipation, sea visions and thoughts of escape.
Turning off down the branch line, the track is well ordered. New Magnox rivets secure the sleepers and steel and, once a year, a ‘weed-killer’ engine comes shunting up these rails, lacing the embankment in a chemical cocoon, keeping the passage clear for nuclear flasks passing in the night. In photographs these toxic containers look just like the classic cash boxes of great Hollywood heist movies; treasure chest-shaped and lying in state on single carriages. Their innocent form cloaks a dead weight of fifty tonnes, steel casing and lead linings housing radioactive waste in transit. I try to imagine the flasks passing me on the track, mistaken for holy relics washed up by the sea; a funeral procession on its way up the line to some inland place of rest.
The track is sloping toward the seaward horizon now. Elated calls of mating birds blend with the distant curses of lone farmers, spring bringing sex for one and toil for the other. I am walking in the long shadow of Good Friday, though the parish churches I glimpse from the embankment will be observing it in small, solemn congregations barely filling single pews, much like the last passengers on this branch line nearly fifty years ago.
My legs were not manufactured for this gauge of railway. Just too short to bridge sleepers with a single stride, I fall between the cracks, boots scudding on the aggregate and clipping alternate ties. After a mile of this halting pace, I catch a rotten sleeper and fall headlong with hands outstretched. I make to rise, looking back between my legs and ahead, embarrassed by my mistake. Then I remember where I am, exposed but alone, and settle back onto the railroad, balancing my head on the warming noon steel.
There is a strange magnetism attached to walking a railway. Just as a train is bound to the limits of the line, after an hour walking between the rails I feel locked in and unable to deviate. A pedestrian on rails is melded in my mind with ideas of the American West; frontier towns, steel-driving men, endless horizons. As I press on down the old branch line the comparisons with springtime Suffolk do not seem so remote. The sporadic shotgun cases of farmers and poachers lie alongside the bones of predated rabbits in the track bed. On either side spreads flat desert with patchy trees and silent tractors, loose metal sounding in the wind. The pancake of coastal East Anglia becomes twinned with territories in Wyoming or Utah, all ‘big sky country’. On old ordnance maps, used when this line still carried passengers, some of these fields bear the same colouring as Saharan sand.
I come off the line on the outskirts of Leiston, next to the town cemetery. I have avoided the thousand pound trespass fine with no more than a hostile look from an old woman at one of the crossing cottages. I wonder if she has made a phone call and the British Transport Police block the next crossing, lazy blue sirens spinning on the verge. In my experience, there’s never been such a good way to meet people as trespassing on their property. You’ve immediately given them the high ground, which makes them a lot more sociable. You can then proceed to roll over like a dog. Everyone loves dogs.
Eating the remainder of my lunch, pulverised pork pie and sweet tea, I look back at the blank hedge behind me with no sign of the railway hiding under its blackthorn ridge. Like the Suez Canal, it takes a moving object to make you aware of what lies concealed in this landscape. The blackthorns form a ha-ha, hiding the margin into the next field and history in their shadow.
In 1872 an iron safe was installed in the Leiston ticket office. The volume of trade and passengers on the line had reached such levels that the Station Master regularly found fifty pounds worth of fares burning through his pocket at nightfall. In contemporary cash, that’s nigh on a grand. As I enter Leiston’s suburbs, walking in the shade of post-war housing estates, I try to conjure a cantering 19th century villain, shotgun under arm, cresting the rise ahead of me and bent on the day’s takings.
Beyond Leiston, I come to Crown Farm siding, where radioactive waste leaves the coast for its long journey North for reprocessing. In a gap at the end of the street, the titanic globe of Sizewell B sits, half-buried in its seaside bunker of sand and shingle. An elderly man, shuffling out of the adjacent Sizewell Social Club, looks at me suspiciously. “Yer awright boi?” he says, fag in mouth. Here men come to play pool and poker in the lee of the reactors, successive phases of British power sculpted by father and son. I give a thumbs up and scuttle off into the undergrowth behind the loading bays. There are no nuclear flasks lying upended in the scrub.
Past the bays and winches and the rails end abruptly, a sharp transition from steel to sand. Only rabbits use this railroad now, the old grooves providing perfect speedways for bunnies going about business. The ghost of the track remains in the landscape; rows of gorse bushes clinging to an unseen ridge; gate posts facing each other across fenceless margins.
Clouds gather and a light rain falls on a group of cabbage pickers, working under pylons in the field beside the track. Watching their progress I am surprised to turn forward again and find myself on a long, narrow lawn, running straight for two hundred feet toward a small bungalow. I pause outside, wanting to go in and compliment the owners on their well-mown piece of railway history. Beyond the bungalow, abandoned in a small grove is Thorpeness Halt, the penultimate stop on my journey. I find the platform buried in brambles. Ambitious trees have rooted themselves in its spilt lip and tall thistles are the only travellers, swaying as they wait for a train that will never come again. Somewhere beyond the weeds is the Meare at Thorpeness, the resort vision of John Barrie, and behind that the town and the sea washing its back. I kneel on the ruined platform, bewitched by the mummified air surrounding a station that no longer exists as a mark on the map. If you take express trains across Britain there is a degree of comfort as you speed past tantalising, half-glimpsed stations, that you might one day alight there. The only way to return to Thorpeness Halt is on foot.
Continuing on down the last seaside miles to Aldeburgh, something drifts across the path behind me, dry leaves and dust. All the absent elements of the old railway, the steels, the broken ties, the shifting rock of the embankment, reassemble in my head. The wind through the firs that line the path starts to gather strength and then subsides, like the memory of an engine that won’t start anymore. Is this the first whispers of a ghost train soon to come steaming around the weeds and deadwood? I conjure a gleaming Pullman bearing down on the dog-walkers, bird-watchers and cyclists, all trespassing on its route.
I arrive at the end of the line at nineteen minutes past four in the afternoon – a late-running service. A journey that once would have taken twenty-two windswept minutes has lasted five hours on foot and the sun is already low in the west. What it must have been like, to come rolling in at dusk with ducks skimming off the marsh and the lightships slowly flickering to life out at sea. On the promenade a wind whisks salt rain over the houses and clouds bunch overhead. The advent of a storm is imminent, but even under dark skies The Railway Inn at the ruined end of the line is full; beer and chips spilling out onto the street once home to the terminus. That business should be so good makes me wonder, did Dr Beeching destroy a sleeping fortune?
The scratched plastic of the shelter spots with rain as I wait for a bus back to the working rails and the city. My thoughts turn to the future on this stretch of coast. When East Anglia sinks into the mud of the North Sea, what will become of this small embankment; a barely-visible lip, breaking the incoming tides that flood the land around it? Perhaps in another hundred years people will swim across these fields, long since underwater. Looking down through clouded masks they may glimpse a strange line of aggregate, fading slowly into the silt. Who amongst them will recognise the golden age of rail, lost beneath the sea?
You can find out about more of Jack's writing projects on his website.