Do you ever do that thing when you’re on a plane and wishing you weren’t, and you pretend it’s not a plane at all, but a train? So it’s not going to fall out of the sky after all? No? Just me then…
(Actually I was just being poetic, there aren’t any boats, just trains and planes…)
People assume that we go on trains a fair amount because the Resident Engineer is a steam buff, what with spending every Wednesday volunteering in the Loco Shed at the Mid-Hants Railway, familiarly known as The Watercress Line. But those people are wrong. I like trains too, I always have. When I was little I used to like to stand on the wooden bridge over the level crossing in the middle of Poole High Street and let myself be enveloped in a cloud of steam as the train left the station. Bliss. Smelly, but bliss.
I have to admit that I didn’t notice the passing of steam, the advent of diesel or even the entrance of electric trains on to the world stage – they’re all trains to me and it’s the journey, the experience that excites me. Back in the dim and distant, even before I started school, my granny and I would take a train to Wareham and change into the little train for Swanage. Corfe Castle was our destination and it was a happy little girl (and an elderly one, as well) who discovered that they were still running the ancient rolling stock left over from the carriages they’d scraped together during the war. In particular I loved the carriage that had no corridor and instead of eight seats there were six (or maybe seven, it’s a hundred years ago) and instead there was a tiny loo tucked across one corner. I’ve never seen anything like it since but I know they were real and I was fascinated.
Anyway, trains. (And yes, you guessed it, the dreaded holiday photos – but don’t worry, there aren’t many and they do have a slight literary association). Last year we did a trip to the USA, part of which is chronicled on here somewhere (and although Keri showed me how to do links I can’t remember, but it was in May 2013). After a weekend in Washington we travelled by Amtrak to Chicago and then Chicago to Denver, using the overnight sleeper on each stage. It was great. A double decker train where our ‘roomette’ was high above the track and we could watch the various states trundle past until it was time for dinner (included in the fare) and back to our seats now turned into bunks. The passengers were friendly though we did find one lady disconcerting as she went in to breakfast – she sat at our table – wearing her dressing-gown. She had also not felt the need to put her front teeth in so conversation was slightly surreal, as was the moment when she fished out a Tupperware box and scraped the rest of her hominy grits into it, presumably as a little snackette for later. (Anyone familiar with The Vicar of Dibley on TV would have seen a startling likeness to the mad old biddy who makes horrible cakes!)
The reason for our fascinating train odyssey was, as so often with me, grounded in books I had read. In this case it was the Katy books, the series of five books about Katy Carr and her family, published much the same time as Little Women but surprisingly much more popular in Britain than in the author’s (Susan Coolidge’s) native America. The last two books in the series deal with one of the daughters of the Carr family who has to undertake a long and daunting journey (in about 1870-80ish) from Burnet (a pseudonym for Cleveland) to Colorado because her younger brother has a ‘shadow on his lung’ and must live in a high altitude to avoid TB taking a hold.
I first read this book, ‘Clover’, when I was a young mum as I’d previously had no idea it existed and at once I vowed that one day I’d follow in Clover’s footsteps and take the train from Chicago to Denver. In the book, the journey takes three days and nights and a stroke of luck means the two young travellers can travel in a luxurious private carriage. Ours was less glamorous, much faster, but still a marvellous way to cover vast tracts of America. When they reach Denver they catch a local train to ‘St Helen’s’, which is a cover for Colorado Springs, so that’s where we headed – and pretty fabulous it is too! (This photo is The Garden of the Gods, on the outskirts of the city.)The Engineer was happy with the idea of the holiday, without any inducements, but what got him really excited was the number of heritage railways in the region so we planned the trip around them. I’m happy with the social history of the railways anyway, and was fascinated by the south western country and it was astonishing to be told, in early May, that tickets for the rail trip up Pike’s Peak mountain would be at a reduced price because we could only go up to 12,000’ – the last two thousand feet of track being covered in deep snow. (Down in the valley the temperature was up in the mid- 30s).
I was surprised and sorry to find that it’s true – Susan Coolidge is definitely not a prophet in her own country. Even in the museum in Colorado Springs they had never heard of her. Such a pity – because her books inspired us to have a fabulous holiday.
Yes, you really did think I’d walked up all those stairs, didn’t you? (At Seven Falls, another of the locations mentioned in ‘Clover’)
And finally – The Engineer in front of the Manitou Cliff Dwellings, probably the most fascinating place of all.