Peter Ashley’s top 10 railway poems

Peter Ashley is the editor of Railway Rhymes, an Everyman collection of poems celebrating the railway and published to coincide with the opening of St Pancras International. Here, Peter Ashley picks his favourite poems from the anthology.

1. The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin

“That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.”

It really doesn’t get much better than this. Larkin perfectly captures the feeling of being on an afternoon train – the ‘sunlit Saturday’. The progression from the flatlands of the Humber estuary to the soot-caked walls of a London termini is as measured as the poet’s train timetable.

2. Pershore Station, or A Liverish Journey First Class by John Betjeman

“The train at Pershore station was waiting that Sunday night
Gas light on the platform, in my carriage electric light,
Gas light on frosty evergreens, electric on Empire wood,
The Victorian world and the present in a moment’s neighbourhood.”

Betjeman usually makes an ideal travelling companion in his railway poetry but on this journey we would discreetly move to another compartment to leave him alone with his thoughts. This is the perfect evocation of the Sunday Fear, that dead time when thoughts crowd in of Monday’s business. The sound of evening bells are as melancholy to me as the Antiques Roadshow theme tune.

3. Railway Rhymes by CL Graves

“When books are pow’rless to beguile
And papers only stir my bile,
For solace and relief I flee
To Bradshaw or the ABC
And find the best of recreations
In studying the names of stations.”

This poem was fortuitously discovered after I’d settled on the title for my anthology. This is a jolly romp through a railway gazetteer, seeking out station names that not only scan but also give us a sense of the decidedly odd in English topography. I’ve always loved the name Stogumber, (good name for a Dickens’ curate perhaps), still on the West Somerset line.

4. Harviston End by Peter Ling

“I looked out of the train,
And I suddenly saw the empty station
As we hurtled through, with a hollow roar . . .
‘Harviston End’ . . . It was dark and dead”

A quiet hymn to all that we’ve lost. It’s all here, the sights, sounds and smells of a country station about to close. I’ve searched my railway book shelves to see if Harviston End existed, but it appears not. But the word ‘end’ in the title goes much further than the white-pebbled station name.

5. Adlestrop by Edward Thomas

“Yes, I remember Adlestrop
The name because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontendly. It was late June.”

I wish we could still make unexpected stops at country stations and sense the countryside coming in from open windows, instead of staring out through hermetically-sealed glass at flourescent-jacketed staff not having a clue as to what’s going on.

6. Restaurant Car by Louis MacNeice

“Fondling only to throttle the nuzzling moment
Smuggled under the table, hungry or not
We roughride over the sleepers, finger the menu,
Avoid our neighbour’s eyes and wonder what”

Watching waiters doing their staggering ballet down the aisles of restaurant cars with plates of roast beef and gravy jugs is a rare pleasure. As first class passengers stare meaningfully into their laptops, we steerage ‘customers’ queue for our red-hot microwaved sausages in flaccid buns.

7. On the Departure Platform by Thomas Hardy

“We kissed at the barrier; and passing through
She left me, and moment by moment got
Smaller and smaller, until to my view
She was but a spot;”

Trust Mr Hardy to come up with a gloomy departure. How many times have ‘We kissed at the barrier’? At least here there is an untypical ray of hope at the end of the poem, albeit with the observation that nothing is ever the same again.

8. The Send-Off by Wilfred Owen

“Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.”

Some railways journeys were both sickening and mind-numbingly frightening in equal measure. One thinks of those trains of death approaching the watchtower gateway at Auschwitz. Here Owen, possibly the greatest first world war poet, drives home the experience of the ordinary soldier travelling to incomprehensible horror.

9. The Tourist’s Alphabet by Mr Punch’s Railway Book

A is the affable guard whom you square:
B is the Bradshaw which leads you to swear:
C is the corner you fight to obtain:
D is the draught of which others complain”

The sadly lamented Punch magazine was always fertile ground for railway ribaldry. This ABC is rich in comedy with its juxtapositions of details like kettles and lemon drops with train crashes.

10. Changing at York by Tony Harrison

“A directory that runs from B to V,
the Yellow Pages’ entries for HOTELS
and TAXIS torn out, the smell of dossers’ pee,
saliva in the mouthpiece, whisky smells – ”

Oh we’ve all been here. The guilty phone call from a freezing phone box at a station. I once fell asleep on a train and had to get off at a place called Sole Street, and nearly died of cold when nobody came to pick me up. Serve me right, she said.


Full article: