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Monday 17 January 2011

On the Rails

During the Autumn and winter of 2010 I spent a lot of time exploring the delights of the Brampton Valley Way cycle track. It's a great route to cycle for those new to cycling (ie me!) with plenty of scenery and not too many hills. It runs along a former railway line and there is also a stretch of line still run and maintained by Northampton and Lamport Railway which has a team of dedicated volunteers who run the service, bookshop, cafe - you can eat on the station platform or in one of the stationary carriages. The volunteers also repair and maintain the line and restore the rolling stock. Near the entrance to the Brampton Halt and Cycle Track is the Brampton View Care Village.

I've been thinking a lot about the ways we get ourselves from A to B, there are huge and increasing demands on a diminishing energy supply, we have been encouraged to see the future as a seamless progression, societies moving forward, further, faster, higher. But what if the future requires us to visit older forms of transportation - could we go back? Is this why I am constantly drawn to canals, rails and pathways? What if cycling becomes necessity rather than recreation. My father remembers travelling from Kennington (with cycles) by train to Witney and then cycling with is father from Witney Station to Bibury to visit his grandparents. He cycled to work before the advent of Ada a converted Ford van (very early type). I remember riding on the crossbar of my dad's bike, on the way to the park in Edmonton - I always felt perfectly safe but he was roundly admonished by our GP for adopting this rather unsafe practice!

Cycling off-road certainly gives you the opportunity to move whilst dreaming - there are pitfalls and hazards, there are walkers, dogs, horses, children, potholes, mud, thorns etc to be mindful of, but there is enough space for everyone. There are benches and secluded lay-bys which seem to appear just at the places they are most needed. I wish I'd started cycling sooner, before carpel tunnel and bad circulation set in. Getting all of me the right temperature for the best possible ride, especially in the colder weather, has been a challenge.

The route is punctuated by a series of way markers and the journey breaks into neat segments

Rolling stock awaiting restoration. Photos by Andrew Rushton

The weather this winter has also made me think more about how we move through the country, I don't love driving in snow having once been caught in a white out. It took me 8 hrs to complete a journey which would normally take 20 minutes and I hated every minute. The promise of more snow before Christmas encouraged me to abandon driving and to take the train to Cheltenham to visit a friend from Canada. Things took more time, there were several changes, but it was all smooth. On the train from Birmingham to Cheltenham the conductor went and got me a coffee from the trolley detained several carriages up - a small friendly thing which brightened the journey. The trees in passing fields were laden with great balls of mistletoe, perfect, sculptural tangles against the greyed out skies.

The year's ending seemed to be full of recurring motifs - station platforms and rail networks


The collision of new and old architectural details on station platforms

The sense of travelling through rather than traveling across

The weather reports were amazingly accurate and just as forecast, the snow arrived in Cheltenham on the morning of my departure, taxis weren't running so there was a hurried scramble to catch a bus to the station, then a train home whilst they were still running. By the time I reached Derby all signs of snow had disappeared, there were many conversations on the train between people in various parts of the country trying to get to London for parties or family gatherings, now held up in traffic jams and snow drifts. My friend's journey to London by coach was much more hazardous, the snow was falling thickly, conditions were treacherous, there were delays and detours and we were all keeping everything crossed that her plane from Heathrow to Canada would get her back to her family in time for Christmas. It did - many others weren't so lucky.

26th December 2010, back at Brampton Halt,
on foot, snow having become crystalline particles,
crunching underfoot, bitterly cold,
staggeringly beautiful

Frost forests captured on static carriage windows
remnants of the breath of excited children
after all the mince pies and Santa Specials had
rolled on for another year

Icicles and rust
hold-ups and signal failures

Mysterious Deer prints

and frozen blooms

lay scattered across the snow.

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