At Euston Station, a heavy police presence. Red faces, red hats, red clenched fists corralled into one end of the concourse. No change here. Manchester United are passing through. I ask a fellow-passenger if football fans had destroyed that dignified old landmark, the Euston Arch. He says no, that was done by politicians and planners and bureaucrats.
In the new first-class lounge you find some compensation for the loss of the Arch. Smart decor, free tea, coffee and newspapers, telephones, fax machines and photocopiers, two small satellite lounges for private meetings or cocktail parties . . . in the eyes of the returning exile it transforms Euston. It lifts her out of the Cinderella category, it is a step on the way to making her a gateway to romance, as every London terminus ought to be. I almost wish I had booked a seat on a later train.
In the old days one could hardly wait for the departure to Scotland, the start of the holiday adventure. One of the last journeys I made from Euston was on a winter night in wartime, embarking on the interminable trip to Scapa Flow. Even then I recaptured the holiday mood, as the smoke and blackout gave way to the dawn. Always on that route it seemed to be morning, and youth going places in the sunshine.
When one has rarely travelled by train since those far-off times, InterCity is an experience. I miss the dark red coaches of the LM & S, the plush seats from which clouds of dust rose as you sat down, the anti-macassars stained with hair-grease, the grit and grime of window-frames, the rapid three-ha'pence-for-tuppence of the wheels. It was considered quite a luxurious way to travel.
Coaches had their name-boards then. Every fast train out of Euston brightened the day for small boys who hung over country bridges all the way to the north: Royal Scot, Irish Mail, Mancunian, Manxman, Welshman, Merseyside Express. The Lakes Express puzzled us. Destination Carlisle or possibly Barrow, one supposed. The Pines Express was even more of a mystery. A railwayman told us that it started in the north and ended up at Bournemouth. I used to think that naming trains would be a career worth having.
Railwaymen generally seemed to be infected with the romance of the iron road. The porter on Stafford station, who had probably never been farther than Wolverhampton in his life, paced the platform when the northbound train was signalled, crying: 'The Scotch Express. Next train to arrive is the Scotch Express for Glasgow Central, calling at Crewe and Carlisle only. The Scotch Express.'
On that same station the stationmaster patrolled his patch in a morning coat and shiny silk hat, a privilege of stationmasters at the most venerable provincial stations such as Rugby, Stafford and Crewe.
Every draught and jolt, every bang of flange on curve, every sway and rattle reminded you that hauling people long distances was no joke. Today there is no suggestion that effort is involved. It is as though we are being drawn northward by a magnet. Already Willesden and Watford are behind us. Wembley Stadium, Whipsnade Zoo and the Ovaltine factory, major landmarks of a bygone age, have gone by too swiftly to be identified.
Those serious topographical features, Berkhamsted Gap and Tring Cutting, as formidable to young eyes as passes through the Rockies, present no problems. The transit of the Chilterns is accomplished so smoothly that one is hardly aware of having passed through a range of hills.
No use trying to read the names of stations in the old leisurely way, or count heads in a passing train. Bletchley went in the blink of an eye. A short sharp shock wave, at which we flinch, denotes the passage of an oncoming express train at a relative speed of 200 mph.
Shall we stop at Wolverton for milk churns, the way we did in former years, at least on the early morning trains? Unlikely. Wolverton has been swept away to the last gallon of milk. Milton Keynes has swallowed it up. Just north of the New Town, as though for old times' sake, a herd of cows, larger than life, peers at us from a lineside meadow. They don't turn their heads. They are concrete sculptures.
The Grand Union canal touches the line, drifts away and drifts back. That transport system, though obsolete, is anything but run down. Lock-gates glint with fresh white paint, the frequent pubs have coloured umbrellas, lupins and pots of geraniums in their gardens. I cannot locate the pub which used to stand on the very brink of the waterway, where the towpath went straight through the public bar for the convenience of the bargeman, with an ingenious detour for horse and towrope; but I think I see Stoke Bruerne, nowadays a rendezvous of inland voyagers, bristling with cruising motorboats. Does any very old person remember when the only traffic one expected to see was a slow-pacing barge, a floating pyramid of salt or coke or china clay, its motive power a white-faced chestnut horse?
People who travel this way by train and are aware that Britain is a densely-populated country, must by now be wondering where all the inhabitants are hiding. Euston to Glasgow is an astonishingly rural ride. It does not surprise me that R.B. Cunninghame-Graham, in his great short story about the Borderer railing it home to Scotland to die, got his whereabouts confused and put the Black Country to the north of the Potteries. In the train you go nowhere near either of those industrial complexes. One of the few man-made features of an agricultural landscape is the three-spired cathedral of Lichfield, the 'Ladies of the Vale'. Another is a black-and-white cottage, showing signs of restoration at various periods because locomotive sparks used to keep setting the thatch and the half-timbering on fire. An InterCity train never set anything on fire. Izaak Walton's cottage is safe now, and the Compleat Angler may sleep quietly beside Shawford Brook, the stream on which he 'lingered long hours'.
Ten minutes from Shallowford Cottage we slow down for Crewe, the great nexus and interchange of railway routes. In Izaak Walton's day there was no such place as Crewe, only a pond with the usual legend of marvellous pike and an Elizabethan house at the roadside with the inscription on its gable-end: 'Walk on, knave, what lookst at?' The house belonged to John Offley, ancestor of Lord Crewe and the friend to whom Walton dedicated his Compleat Angler.
How quickly the cars on the M6 fall behind our apparently lazy-rolling train. Barely two hours have passed and we are already across the Mersey. It used to be about five hours from Euston to Wigan, now it is five hours from Euston to Glasgow. Road traffic is heavy, another industrial heartland lies across our route. We see even less of it than we used to, because all the mill chimneys have gone. Bowland Forest and Pendie Hill, stamping ground of the Lancashire witches, over there; Morecambe Bay and the treacherous Sands of Dee over here, where Mary failed to call the cattle home. That was Carnforth, a passenger says, that is where they filmed Brief Encounter. They are brief encounters indeed, these blurs of small stations. That must have been Oxenholme, junction for Windermere, the exodus on slower trains for the backpackers and their iron-studded boots, which made the platform shudder. Shap was once a stem test for a locomotive steaming on coal. It is no problem for the modern unit.
'Passing the cottage where nobody wakes, But a jug on the washstand gently shakes' - the InterCity shakes no jugs, she takes Shap as smoothly as that heron in flight over the Eden valley.
A voice pipes up: 'Are we in Scotland now?' No, dear, we have to cross a no-man's-land, with somewhere a sort of land-drain marking the frontier. No wonder King James V died of a broken heart after his defeat at Solway Moss in 1542. Boredom and depression could finish you off in those marshes, being on the losing side accelerated your end. The train sneaks into Scotland like a rat in a sewer.
Halliday Sutherland, the 1930s writer and practical joker, used to tell fellow-passengers that there was one certain way of knowing when you had crossed the Border. Study the white insulators on the telegraph poles, he said. In England they faced south, in Scotland they faced north. Halfway to Beattock, your eyelids fluttering with the strain, it began to dawn on you that he was pulling your leg. He would not attempt to get away with it on an InterCity express. The telegraph poles themselves are hardly visible, let alone the insulators.
Many an hour we used to spend on the climb to Beattock, with many a pause for breath. A thump at the rear would indicate that they had sent out a second engine to give us a push. Today we are over Beattock without changing gear. Although I am looking out for Moffat in a cup of the hills to the east - end of the line for that old man in the Cunninghame-Graham story - I have only a glimpse of it; maybe it is not Moffat, at that.
A stream, briskly working through the peat, settles on a northerly course, where we can keep our eyes on it. 'Aye, that's the Clyde.' Sections of the journey up to now have verged on the humdrum, but at last we know we are in the land of the mountain and the flood. The turf and heather on these rounded hills, already dusted with snow, have been selectively cropped by the sheep, those stands of silver birch have been planted to protect them and the white-painted farmsteads, or 'fermtouns' as they call them hereabouts, from south-westerly gales of wind. Alongside us we now have a road as well as a river, a lightly-trafficked scenic motorway sculpted from the landscape, a Scottish motorway of the kind that southerners can only dream about.
Eastward, on the Tweedsmuir road, I miss the sight of the Bield Inn. It was demolished some years ago. 'From Berwick to the Bield' used to be proverbial, meaning more or less the whole length of the Tweed, the whole extent of the Border country. The poet Thomas Campbell secured lodging at the Bield one stormy night and at a late hour there was a knock at his door. The young girl of the house stood there in her nightie, holding a candle.
'Please, sir, can ye tak' a neebor intae your bed?'
'With all my heart,' cried the poet, moving over to make room for her.
'Oh, thank ye, sir. It's the Moffat carter, jist cam' in soaking wet, and we've naewhere tae put him.'
Exit the lovely girl and enter a huge reeking hulk of a man.
A Glasgow journalist once took the train to Beattock and walked across the moor until he found the springs of the Clyde, which bubbled out of a stone pot. He jammed a cork in the hole and returned to Glasgow, envisaging a dried-out river bed and all the ships lying on their sides in the mud; but in the city everything was going on quite normally.
It is all downhill to Glasgow now, like a descent on skis. The old-time clatter over the bridge on the Clyde, which Glaswegians call the Hielandman's Umbrella in remembrance of poor immigrants, was the alarm clock which woke up rail passengers in time for the arrival at the terminus. Our InterCity, true to form, glides across it without a murmur.
[Leslie Gardiner, a former naval officer, is the author of several books on naval history, biography and travel. In recognition of his contribution to Italian literature he was awarded the rank of Commendatore in the Italian Order of Merit.]…