A Nostalgic Trip on the Scotch Express

By Gardiner, Leslie | Contemporary Review, September 1996 | Go to article overview

A Nostalgic Trip on the Scotch Express


Gardiner, Leslie, Contemporary Review


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. …

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