September 29, 2008

Railway nostalgia

Filed under: railways, trains, travel — Tags: , , , , , — podtourz @ 10:28 am

Long railway journeys do have a certain romance to them. Now, another journey joins the Orient Express, the Trans Siberian and the Raj Heritage Train  – the Danube Express.

The Telegraph gives a glowing account of a voyage on this train. It sounds as if the worst extremes of nostalgic snobbery  on the one hand and designer fashion so sharp it will cut itself on the other have been avoided.

And this must be a fascinating journey for its Central European heritage. Decades of cold war – and fervent nationalism immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain – obscured the fact that the area shares a common  background.  (If in doubt, ask any Central European brewer where they buy their equipment from , and what language the manuals are in. Almost certainly German.)

But I have my doubts about whether I’d want to travel this one. First of all the price tag. Over a grand for what is basically a long weekend break? After all, I can get a ticket from Paris to Madrid for just 300 euros. That’s not a luxury sleeper – I shared a compartment with five noisy hen party members on my way back to Paris – but the train gets you there just the same.

And secondly, the lack of flexibility. I really wouldn’t want to be limited to a few hours in Prague – I’d want to stay a few days.  And while you can do that at the ends of this route, you can’t do it in the middle.

I do rather wonder whether this emphasis on luxury trains is blinding us to the fact that railways were invented as a cheap and effective means of mass transport. Yes, I know it’s a big world, and there’s room for all sorts of transport in it – but you never see the Times or Telegraph talking about taking ordinary trains in India or Africa.

The one I’d want to take, definitely, is the iron train from Zouerat to Nouadhibou, in Mauritania. Not one for the timid – it’s cramped, there’s a fight to get on, there are no creature comforts, and there’s a view of ‘nothing’, desert all around. (Though regular readers of this blog will know how much I like ‘nothing’.)


February 21, 2008

Tube maps redefined

Filed under: london, maps, railways — Tags: , , — podtourz @ 8:07 pm

The straight lines and elegance of the London tube maps has often been admired. Clean lines – like Eric Gill’s typography and Edwin Lutyens’ architecture; simple, manly, clean, all the values of a world fit for heroes (and colonialists).

But we’re living in a more rainbow coloured age – one that doesn’t necessarily respect logic and manliness, but prefers the right-brain,  the creative, the feminine. We might prefer flow to rules, synthesis to taxonomy. Beck’s map is lovely but perhaps it’s time for a rethink.

And to my great joy I find someone has been doing that rethinking and come up with a wonderful map that throws its tentacles in wild abandon to the outer rearches of Metroland like some mad outer space sea anemone  looking for David Tennant… Glorious, isn’t it? I particularly love the not quite heart shaped finial on the eastern end of the Central Line, and the way the centre of London comes out not as a ring, a doughnut, or a rough rectangle, but as a squashed and wavy irregular form which reminds me of a prehistoric earthwork or a puddle of viscous liquid.

Elsewhere the splendid Max Roberts, designer of this intriguing new map, shows the accurate (in its day) tube map produced by London Transport in the 1930s and 1940s. What I find really lovely about it is that it shows the way the railway lines relate to watercourses, parks and forests – the manmade and the natural in relationship to each other. You never get that idea from the standard tube maps, which see the actual fabric of London and its boroughs as an irrelevance.

February 3, 2008

Things seen from trains

Filed under: canals, England, railways, travel — podtourz @ 1:36 pm

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.

January 4, 2008

An opportunity missed

Filed under: architecture, london, railways, travel — podtourz @ 2:22 pm

Oh dear. After the rapturous reception given to the new St Pancras development in the press, I thought it would be a great experience using it.  I was very disappointed.

First of all, it still isn’t finished. To get to the terminal from King’s Cross involved crossing a wide area of rough concrete, divided only by temporary barriers and traffic cones. The front entrance isn’t open (at the moment) so you have to go all the way down to the modern part of the station, then walk all the way BACK to the front of the station to get to Eurostar.

And the ‘downstairs’ part of the station is crammed with retail. A triumph of consumerism. Plywood fascias where shops haven’t been finished.

The e-ticket machines don’t work. Having come with my booking reference and bank card, I then have to queue for fifteen minutes  in the Eurostar ticket office because the machine refuses to print the ticket. The ticket office of course is nowhere near the machines, and the signage is inadequate, so I waste about ten minutes looking for it.

The ticket office doesn’t even have a queuing system installed. It’s chaos; no one knows which ticket desks are free and the clerks have to shout to see if anyone is waiting.

I can’t see the interior facade of the hotel block, a fine piece of Victorian Gothic, because a crappy 1960s purple and yellow banner covers practically the whole facade, slathered with the names of retailers. This is a shopping centre that also has some trains; a bit like the much derided V&A advert – “an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached”.

The  modern extension on the back is typical modernist brutalism. Its girdered roof, rectilinear and low, runs with the beams at right angles to the Victorian train shed almost as if it’s saying “Sod off, you arty-farty aesthetic crap”. The outside looks interesting, but inside, it’s typically mean and without aspiration – the low roof is depressing, there’s none of the airy, ambitious feel of Barlow’s great train shed.

I know Eurostar requires a certain amount of security but the way it has been done means it’s difficult to get a feeling for the wonderful space of the train shed; it’s divided up by high glass walls.  Light wells through to the shopping mall below further subdivide the area, so you feel as if you’re on a narrow ledge around the train shed – the expansiveness of the original idea has gone.

It’s this expansiveness that I think  was the defining characteristic of so much good Victorian architecture.  Ordinary people deserve light, space, ambition. Railways were about ambition, too – about the ambition to travel, to find new places, new experiences, new employment. That’s why these stations are such exciting places.

By comparison, the new blockish shed makes travel a functional and unpleasant experience. We are only common people. We don’t deserve light, space, or consideration; we’re just cattle, human cargo to be efficiently processed.

I’m glad St Pancras has been preserved. But how much better it would have been if only the modern architects had been able to share Barlow’s great railway dream.

December 17, 2007

Nerd’s delight

Filed under: railways, travel — podtourz @ 11:32 am

A wonderful new book offers transport nerds a rover ticket for all urban railway systems.

Masrk Ovenden’s Transit maps of the world has maps of just about every rapid transit system in the world. There are old maps, new maps, a history of urban rail networks – this isn’t just a book of maps, it’s much more.

And as always, we see how maps fulfil different purposes in different ways. Harry Beck’s fine map of the London tube, which reduces the geographical meanderings of the system to a neat diagram, is a case in point – personally I love to try to trace exactly where the underground underlays the London street system, but that’s not the point of his map; it’s getting passengers from A to B, and they really don’t need to know what they’re underneath at any particular point.

New York didn’t have Harry Beck on board. They got a visually lovely  map in 1979 – but they’ve replaced it; it just didn’t do the biz for passengers. So there is a tradeoff between visual quality and functionality – as so often in architecture and design – and following the tradeoffs is interesting, whether you’re a graphic artist or simply someone who enjoys investigating the multiple ways we can represent reality in visual (and other) media.

You can see how much transport nerds love this book from the reviews on Amazon – it gets five stars from just about everyone, together with nerdy complaints like ‘the map on p 86 is too small’ or ‘it would be more interesting to have the 1956 map’.

And here, I’m going to come out of the closet. Deep breath… I’m a transport nerd too.

I’ve really been repressing it for years. But when I look at the things I do when I’m using the Paris metro, I know … I am what I am.

I derive great enjoyment from perusing the metro map and trying to find a station I don’t know about. I’ve memorised the stops from Gare du Nord to Montparnasse (which is the quicket route from my home in Norwich to my home in Les Basses Lisieres). I even enjoy reading the history of the Paris metro that decorates the wall high above the conveyors at Montparnasse (including the story of the crickets who live on three of the Metro lines).

So please, would some kind person get this book for me as a Christmas present? Failing which, I may have to buy the book myself.

I did say this book has nearly every rapid transit system in the world. It misses one – the Ipswich Underground Railway.

We in Norwich like to think we are superior to Ipswich. But we haven’t got a metro. Mind you, Ipswich hasn’t got an underground any more either – it closed down years ago. But Simon Knott has done an excellent job of investigating the remains of this intriguing transit system.  His photographs are clear, his research detailed, and he has done architectural historians a huge service in discovering the contribution of Soviet architect Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky to the Ipswich Underground.

Surfers should however note the dateline on many of the photographs – April 1, 2007.

November 9, 2007

The ancient railway revived

Filed under: architecture, railways — podtourz @ 10:29 am

A marvellous post by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian about the opening of the St Pancras Eurostar terminal, which reuses the Gothic fantasy that is the Victorian St Pancras station.

What I love about this article  isn’t so much the puncturing of certain hypocrites who turned up for the opening while advocating the demolition of other, equally important monuments of the Victorian railway age. It’s the well researched, grateful roll-call of those who have helped to save the station, from John Betjeman to railway managers you’ve never heard of.

I do feel sad though in a way that the building has been so grandly ‘revived’. London used to be full of marginal spaces, half-ruins, areas where you could start up a shop in an old building for nearly nothing, where artists and actors and anarchists could live on almost nothing, where things could happen, where you could just hang out. King’s Cross, Bermondsey, Whitechapel, Spitalfields.

And now? There’s nowhere like that left. It’s all been cleaned up, formalised, taken over by gleaming buildings.

Spitalfields market for instance was a place I used to go at weekends for organic meat, second hand clothes, old books. You could rent a stall there cheaply and many people did, selling their own photographs, or second hand musical instruments. There was cheap food, there was space, you’d get drawn into an interesting conversation.

And now the space has been taken over by bright modern shops. Bright modern shops with bright modern rents. And the life has gone out of the area. Instead of informality, experiment, spontaneity, there are expensive brands, luxury, credit card symbols on every door.

London has lost something. I don’t live there any more and I’m glad; it’s not a city of villages any more, it’s a city of mortgages.

But with St Pancras revived, at least the city hasn’t completely lost its Victorian roots.

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