“What might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present…” T S Eliot
Journeys – beginning, end, destination, escape.
London Paddington to West Wales. I have done this train journey hundreds of times now, in part at least. It has been a backdrop to my life, until recently taken for granted. Usually it is a useful time to concentrate on reading, uninterrupted except when other people impinge on my solitude. time seems suspended. I am still but the world is moving past. I have always found journeys to have a positive creative effect, allowing the mind to drift freely.
Although I have occasionally taken the odd photograph, usually because of a particular light, sunset or cloud pattern, or even a few times tried doing a quick sketch, I have never concentrated on the journey as whole, recording my impressions. Snow alters appearances, makes the everyday unfamiliar, both sharpening contrasts and reducing distractions of colour and tone, a monochrome world emerging. This could be a starting point, to set against future journeys, a benchmark.
So, Paddington Station – I forget to take a photograph, another time maybe, I should make a start. These are unedited, unaltered images, random thoughts.
Grey day, bright lights in the carriage, reflecting in the windows, Trellick Tower, landmark looming nearby, used to be deeply unpopular now sought after address, suburban London, soon Slough – home of Mars, Horlicks. Taplow station, first of childhood landmarks – my father commuted to London from here when we lived in Maidenhead by the Thames, which I manage to miss this time. My one insertion into the flow of images above – a golden glow, captured a previous time, as I always do look out for the river as we pass over Maidenhead Railway Bridge designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, hero of the Great Western Railway, now run by First Great Western, clinging on to past glories. The maps above are from an old Great Western guide-book. They had a flourishing publishing business in those days.
Maidenhead, the closest I have ever lived to the Thames, age seven or so to fifteen. Floods in those days too, worse before the Thames Barrier, my father coming home in a punt with the weekly shopping. Two red kites are circling over the centre of Maidenhead, spreading from their Chilterns stronghold, not far in fact. Wales is their other stronghold of course. Dark outline with unmistakeable tail shape. Two more just before Didcot – good scavenging weather maybe.
Didcot Parkway – cooling towers. My appreciation of industrial archaeology, and indeed architecture came from my father, a civil engineer. Next the Ridgeway, although I am sitting on the wrong side for it this time. An uncle and aunt lived near here. I remember going out to look at wildlife with my uncle, who worked for the Nature Conservancy, as it was then. Archaeological sites too – humps and bumps, burial mounds. The White Horse is invisible today anyway. Endless freight trains today though, make me think of USA, hobos and Woody Guthrie. Snow covered rails though always make me think of Auschwitz, not my memories but borrowed. Primo Levi, and W G Sebald, more recently, less directly. I can feel that suspension of normal time and space affecting me.
Swindon – I commuted here from London for two years, the reason why this section is so familiar. More Great Western history of course – I worked in the old drawing office when it became the home of the National Monuments Record, having relocated from Savile Row in London. My office is visible in the photograph, near the relief panel of a train. Next door is Steam, part of the National Railway Museum. That was there years ago too – I remember the enamel badges of engines I got there on a childhood visit. Still a lot of empty industrial buildings though. The shopping centre was meant to be the big draw.
Bristol doesn’t really impinge on the railway line now – another Parkway. I’ll save the Bristol family connections for another time. Soon after is a first glimpse of Wales, today snow covered hills in the far distance. Tunnels unfortunately under the River Severn, this is one part of the journey when the coach is more scenic. Croeso y Gymru sign soon after, then Severn Tunnel Junction Station. Newport, Monmouthshire, famous transporter bridge, the river tidal with muddy banks, Civic Centre looking proudly out over the town, 1930s Art Deco by Cecil Howitt, Grade 2* listed. He also designed many Odeon Cinemas.
Soon comes Cardiff, where my mother was born and lived until she was married (in her local church Llandaff Cathedral). The place I knew as a child, visiting grandparents, I may even have lived here briefly, has of course changed. I remember the parks. No one thinks about the view from the train – neglected, rubbish strewn, back gardens and yards. The water tower, between the station and the Millennium Stadium, had a daffodil mural on it more recently which has sadly disappeared. Old industrial Wales interspersed with rural emptiness passes by. Port Talbot looks reminiscent of Alpine towns lining the roads to the mountain passes, except for the Fish and Chip shop. Swansea, birthplace of Dylan Thomas of course, time to change trains for Carmarthen. Down to one carriage now, no longer First Great Western. This is normally the high spot of the journey, one of the best railway journeys in Britain, but not today. It is packed and I can’t see a thing. A brief glimpse of the sea. End of this train journey for me, Carmarthen, with another Brunel bridge and the River Towy, both right by the station.
“In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.”
“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.”
From the Four Quartets by TS Eliot.