Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Night Train to Madrid

cafe near the gare de Lyon

There’s an ineluctable magic about those words – night train, train de nuit, treni di notte, these great carriages with only one or two lights showing in the bar/restaurant, where insomniac passengers sit, their glass of red wine or Pernod or brandy in front of them, watching the darkness flash past. Or so they might be seen from outside, a throb in the night air, a whistle, a slight vibration in the ground.

The train was empty when I got in at Port Bou, just across the border into Spain. That feeling of excitement and anticipation as I put down my pack, arranged pillow, sheet and blanket, took a last look at a sky growing dark with threads of pink and silver, and stretched out on the couchette. This was luxury indeed. The night before had been spent on a coach from London to Paris, with a ferry crossing in the early hours of the morning. I stood on deck for a while, padded with warm layers, hood pulled over my head as the wind whipped and tugged. Later I lay down on the floor on the lower deck but didn’t sleep. Back on the coach I fell asleep almost instantly, only waking up three hours later on the Paris périphérique, and it was still dark.

Only half light by the time I reached the Gare de Lyon, Paris, so there was still this atmosphere of things taking form, destinations and purposes, directions and decisions, all murky with the mysterious smoky morning half-light, the night lights outside the station still glowing, still to fade into invisibility.

Sometimes I do wonder why I travel this way. I forget the tiredness, the carrying of a heavy back pack, the irritation of the petty rules, such as, after paying 50 cents to use the wash room the wash-hand basins are only for washing one’s hands in. One time after an overnight coach trip, I’d brushed my teeth in the basin and got shouted at by the attendant. I snapped back – there’s no sign to say you’re not allowed to brush your teeth. She pointed triumphantly to the sign that said you could only wash your hands there. I spat out the toothpaste in disgust, and she sighed loudly and raised her eyes heavenward.

But when I go to make my reservations, the young SNCF man is friendly and helpful. He sniffs frequently, a nervous mannerism, and I find it hard to keep focussed on the seriousness of the operation. For it is a serious procedure, these rules. The first possible train can be booked up to Port Bou, but there are no spaces left on the night train. So he tries the next one, and yes, there are spaces and a reservation can duly be made, and since a reservation is obligatoire, I can legally board the train. The only thing I have to remember to do now is to compost all tickets before boarding.

As the TGV swept south, the clouds disappeared, the sky became blue and cloudless and I tried to stay awake. 


Mesdames et messieurs dans quelques instants nous arrivons a Nîmes....ah Nîmes – memories of the little train from Vauvert, changing to go to Arles, the intense heat of summer, changing to go to Carcassonne, the arena, the second hand bookshop, going to the hairdresser’s to have my hair cut.... 


Then there is Montpellier, Sète, Narbonne, Béziers, and Perpignan, where I changed trains for Port Bou. Perpignan, el centre del món, the centre of the world, the Pyrenees, the peak of Canigou, rising behind it. 


From the steps outside Port Bou station you have a view out over the sea, there is a sense that the mountains have come right to the edge of the land and have peered over, and people have perched their homes and their lives on the toes of the mountains, leaned against the mountains’ feet, and walked under the hot sun and waded in the warm water of the Mediterranean.

- Why is this not the centre of the world? I ask the night spirit who presides over trains.
It has a safe, secure feeling to it as if it has arrived here and there is nowhere else it needs to go.

- Because there is nowhere else it can go. Unless you head out to sea, or bore tunnels through the mountains, as has been done, for this train to pass through. You may think the mountains make it secure, but they press close in. What protects can become a barrier if it comes too close. But at Perpignan, there is a sloping plain and then foothills between you and the mountains. So you can feel encircled and protected but not hemmed in. And you can also feel the way the mountains call to you, should you wish to climb up onto higher ground, and expand your vision....

- Ah....

Port Bou

At Port Bou I remember why I travel this way – to watch the sky darken, with its few clouds and its clear light. To pull back the clean sheets of the couchette, to stow one’s things and know that after a glass of Spanish red, one will sleep and that the train will rock slightly and hum to itself and in the morning one will be transported by magic and will wake up somewhere else.

The train left Port Bou with that almost imperceptible tug and sense of movement, soundless except for a little squeal and faint grinding sounds and I take this to be the train’s squeal of joy at being in movement again and the grinding hiss is its breathing out with the sense of relief I felt too. A slight rocking motion, the rhythm as it picks up speed. The sense of abandonment to utter security as the sky grows dark outside as one is carried by this sleek and massive creature, fashioned by the god Hephaestus, so it is as if the god himself is holding you as you hurtle through the landscape, underneath the stars.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Old Railway Track

Having at last acquired a detailed local map, I set off to explore another old railway line. I have to take 2 buses to get there. I nearly miss the second one because the route has been changed, although there is no sign saying this. But the lack of traffic makes me feel something is not quite right, so I head for another, more populated street, wondering if I’d missed it, as it’s ten minutes later than the scheduled time. But just as I arrive at the bus stop, it pulls up. This is such a good omen that I’m sure the gods are with me but as soon as I get on and sit down, this feeling of confidence is slightly challenged. The bus makes a continuous strange clanking sound as if something vital is about to fall off. Still, it does not appear to impede its progress, as it rattles swiftly along the road. But a few miles short of my destination, the driver pulls into a lay-by and announces that the engine is overheating, so he’s going to wait for a few minutes, to let it cool down. Remembering my recent trip to Carlisle I begin to wonder ...

But the bus soon resumes its rattly route and I arrive at the small town where the old railway track is supposed to start. First of all I buy some coffee at a garage on the outskirts then go in search of the track, rejoicing in the little symbols on the map that mark it clearly, sometimes shown as ‘dismantled railway line’ sometimes just a dotted line. With such obvious markers, how could I possibly fail to find my way?

And in fact, to my great surprise, because I am adept at losing my way or the way or just about any way, only once did the trail die out, when I was faced with a clear and flat field, no sign at all that there had ever been an old railway running through it. I climbed the fence, and walked along the edge of the field, to the corner, then turned and continued. And further on, the old track reappeared on the other side of the fence, green and weedy, a clear bank running along the edge of another field, where an interesting-looking flock of sheep had gathered, with pale brown silky looking fleeces, and curved horns. They looked at me at first a little expectantly, then turned tail and ran away.

Fancy brickwork on the bridge roof

But right at the beginning of the track, I found another of these slanted-roof bridges, similar to the Secret Bridge, but much smaller, going over a little river, which I reached by clambering over a dry stane dyke, topped with irritating wire. I balanced my costa coffee on top of the dyke before stepping slowly and carefully over stones and wire. And that was the only slight difficulty in the whole walk. Up the embankment, and over the bridge, I was now on the old straight track. The fields were harvested, round bales were lying there, or being picked up by tractors with fork lifts. There were sheep in some of the stubble fields, and when they sensed my presence, they moved away, and the sound of the stubble clipping against their hooves was like bursts of rain on a corrugated plastic roof, little rustling waves.


A few kilometres further on the track ended at a small village of old stone houses, with an ex-pub and hotel and a village shop. And a bus stop. Someone else was waiting at the bus shelter, a man who had the most amazing eyes, one blue and one brown. His manner was pleasant and friendly so I involved him in my deliberations as to which bus I should take (either direction being possible, but with varying connection times). 

As our conversation centred around transport, he mentioned that several of the buses he’d taken recently had broken down and I told him about the overheating one I’d taken in the morning.
I suppose it’s the difficult financial climate I say, lack of money to repair buses.
He also told me why the bus route had been changed.
The road’s subsided he said, I’d noticed for a while, driving up that road, that there was a large crack in it which got wider and wider. Eventually they must have decided it was unsafe, and so all traffic has to take another route. 


I have a brief vision of moribund rusting buses lying unattended at the sides of roads whose surfaces were fissured with gaping holes. With grass and wild plants growing in the gaps and around the ancient shells of buses. Perhaps it won’t be long before these once roads look like the old railway line I’d just walked along. Before he left, he thanked me for telling him about the railway line, and mentioned another walk, along an old drove road, that went all the way to Gifford. He left with a cheery see you later, as if he really meant it. And yet, I thought, it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever see him again.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

National Poetry Day - The Star

Buddha Amida, Japan

To the Herbalist’s...

To remind me, with its symbol of the snake and staff,
that Asklepios teaches – not just the cure for illness,
but its meaning.
The cure then becomes a path,
a journey, a slow unwrapping
of the unknown.

It can make your heart pause
then flutter – pause, then glide
and shift, as if it stretches
in its skin, then steps out -
and enters all of your perceptions.
It can be difficult to walk along the pavements
when they glow – when people glow
and buildings glow, like this.

It doesn’t matter that apothecaries
of the present day don’t drop herbs
into alembics, mutter incantations
as they stir; that potions are sold
across the counter by bright-eyed
healthy-looking young people – the potency
is unchanged; though I regret
the passing – in this country – of the symbol -
the snake twined round the staff -
a reminder of where the power comes from.

Medicine in my bag, I then remember
there’s a jadeite axe
I’d like to see, in the Museum.
But it’s not displayed, I’m told.
Instead, I see this being
of serenity, shrouded in lotus calm,
protective guardians behind him.
And – of course – he’s glowing.