Sunday, 3 February 2008

Things seen from trains

Because Liverpool Street Station appears to have taken an extended Christmas and New Year break, not reopening on January 2nd like everyone else, I ended up coming home to Norwich via Cambridge instead of on the regular line through Colchester and Ipswich.

Around Waterbeach, I was gazing out of the window when I saw the most amazing derelict farm buildings. At least I think they were derelict, though in East Anglia you never can tell. I thought to myself; those are just the kind of buildings I love photographing. And there and then I promised myself that when the weather gets a little better, I'll go out on the motorbike and try to find that farm...

Later on that same train trip I gazed out at the wilderness of Lakenheath Fen. Lines of trees, punctuated every hundred yards or so by a tree that's fallen, tearing its roots out of the soft peat, lying aslant the rows. The humpy mounds of the dykes that portion off the fen. Reeds swaying in the wind. Two deer in a field, perfectly still when all around them reeds and branches were swaying in the wind.

There's something special about things seen from a train. They come, you perceive them, they are gone. And as soon as they are gone, you want to find them again.

And then there's that little matter of the railway being a world of its own. How can you find these things again? They're not on a road, or if they are, you will have to twist and turn, over and under the railway, across level crossings, finding byways and back roads. Hardly anywhere does the road parallel the railway, so finding these places on a map is difficult; you need to triangulate, to somehow bring the road and footpath and railway worlds into a momentary planetary conjunction. It's a kind of alchemy. The view from a railway window transmutes the base metal of everyday experience into gold.

Once in Austria I saw a roe deer standing on the slope of a steep hill, just at the height of the train window and about five yards from me. It was a moment of strange intimacy; for two seconds I looked straight into its eyes. Then it was gone.

Sometimes, towards Shenfield on the Norwich-London line, I see a train heading along a  lower track  not quite parallel to our own. Sometimes, a train goes underneath our track, or starts to climb up a gradient beside the train I'm on, and then over our heads. Sometimes two trains vie with each other for speed on two parallel tracks, and the race can go on for five or ten minutes, the two trains changing position, one slipping back, the other gaining, then slipping back in its turn, till the tracks diverge and the other train is gone. Once I saw the driver take his cap off, reach across and put it down in the cab.

And most mysterious of all, trains that pass in the night. You see the people inside their little capsule. Brightly lit faces. One man in his City pinstripe suit, asleep. A woman reading a newspaper spread out across the table.

I have never seen another face looking out towards my train.

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