They all laughed at us. All we wanted to do was take the train to Wales, but still they laughed.
"That's a four-and-a-half- or five-hour trip," scoffed John Harvey, after I'd told him about our travel plans. Lynn and I were sitting in the Harvey's lovely back garden, staring at the fishpond and trying to recover from our overnight flight. We were on our second bottle of white wine, I believe.
"And when are you planning to come back?" Eve asked incredulously.
"The next day," I replied. "We're taking the morning train out of King's Cross for Haverfordwest. We'll stay overnight with Greg and Catherine and then ..."
"And then come back the next day?" John sputtered.
"... take the train back to London in time to catch a connection to Stevenage for Precursor," I continued.
"You realize," John said, shaking his head and jerking his thumb over his shoulder, "that Stevenage is about ten minutes away from here, don't you?"
"Of course," I lied. I had absolutely no idea.
"You're only in the country for a day and now you're going to spend most of the next two days sitting on a train?" My host rubbed his temples rhythmically. "I just don't get it," he muttered quietly to himself.
"What my dear, deranged husband means," Eve explained, dropping her cigarette butt into one of the empty wine bottles, "is that you're travelling halfway across the country and back, just to end up in the Exact Same Place! It doesn't make any goddamn sense."
"Eve! Listen to me!" I said sternly, grabbing her by the shoulders. "This is Fandom, damn it, it doesn't have to make sense." Eve, in turn, gave me her famous Yeah-Right-Pull-The-Other-One look.
So I took a deep breath and tried again. It was really just a matter of context, I explained. To them, our expedition to Wales was a journey of epic proportion -- we were travelling most of the way across Britain, and back again, in only two days. But to a couple of road-weary Colonials like Lynn and myself, the four-and-a-half-hour train ride was insignificant. In America you can't get anywhere in four-and-a-half hours. A train trip to New York City takes longer than that. Hell, in some parts of the United States it takes longer than that to get a pizza delivered.
The next morning, John and Eve graciously drove us to Stevenage to catch our train into London. They had failed to talk us out of our plans. John parked the car and led us towards the station. As we walked across the parking lot he directed my attention to the nearby Tesco supermarket. "The Precursor hotel is over there," he told me, "right behind the market."
"As you can see," Eve joined in, "the station really is right next to the con hotel." There was even a ramp that led directly from the station to the street in front of the Hertfordpark Hotel. "Are you sure you want to take this trip?"
I assured her that our minds were so well made up that they had military corners (and could easily pass the quarter test). But Eve still seemed to doubt our sanity.
"Don't think of it as a journey all the way across the country," Lynn said soothingly, "think of it as the world's longest hotel corridor and we're just going to a party at the far end of the corridor."
"Yeah," I joined in. "We'll be back as soon as the beer runs out." This seemed to soothe her and we were soon on our way.
I loved King's Cross station immediately. As we came up the stairs fromt the Underground I suddenly realized just where the hell I was. Great fucking Britain. The U fucking K. I was im-fucking-pressed. It all looked so authentic. The station itself was one of those majestic, arcane structures that just doesn't exist in America. It was part cathedral and part spiderweb -- its great arched ceiling a latticework of steel girders. The waiting area was enormous and jammed with people swarming in every direction. Some hurried to catch waiting trains, while others wandered around the many small shops that were set up like native huts in a Tarzan movie across the huge station floor. In the middle of them was a large staircase that descended through an equally large opening in the floor into the station's nether regions.
It was so romantic that it took me quite a while to realize that a few things weren't quite what they seemed. The first thing I noticed were the people themselves: they didn't look right. Everywhere I looked I saw weird people with those nose rings and funny hair -- and that was just my wife! I didn't see one person in a tweed suit. I didn't see any sailors or soldiers on furlough or a single Red Cross nurse. I didn't even see any bowler hats. I didn't see any anguished lovers enveloped in billowing plumes of steam. Hell, I didn't see any billowing plumes of steam, period.
Yeah, that's right. No bloody clouds of steam. What a gyp! And, as if that weren't bad enough, the trains themselves did not have those cool exterior doors either. You know the ones I mean, those doors that open directly into each passenger compartment from the platform. In fact, the trains didn't have compartments at all, just rows of boring seats. I had expected to walk down long, narrow corridors of polished wood, but was crushed to find nothing but a pathetic aisle running down the middle of each car. There were no helpful Negro porters to take our bags, and there was no sign of anybody chasing even one of the Beatles.
What a disappointment. By the time we boarded and found our seats I was an emotional wreck. "Who would have thought," I said to Lynn through my tears, "that England would have forsaken the charms of the Age of Innocence?"
"Queen Victoria is dead, dear," said my wife. "Get over it."
Despite my shattered illusions, rail travel in the UK turned out to be convenient, affordable and, after a fashion, enjoyable. Our trip to Wales presented us with remarkable scenery, including the site of the Reading Festival and the remains of a fortress that Catherine McAuley assured us was called "Castle Llansteffan."
Every inch of the trip was a tableau of the landscapes that made artists like Turner and Constable famous. Everywhere we looked were sheep and farmhouses, sheep and haystacks, sheep and nuclear power plants, sheep and ancient ruins and, of course, sheep. It was a stunning panorama that left me with a real appreciation of the English countryside, and, for some reason, a craving for mint jelly.
My first impression, that we were riding on the European equivalent of Amtrak, was throroughly dispelled by the unexpected appearance of a BritRail steward pushing a food cart up the aisle toward us. We watched in awestruck silence as he presented us with cold drinks, bags of crisps, and exotic delights like Chicken Tikka sandwiches.
"Toto," I said, nudging my wife, "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."
Even when our transportation wasn't ultra-modern, it was, at the very least, always interesting -- like the train we took on the last leg of our trip to Haverfordwest. Perhaps train is too strong a word to describe the vehicle that transported us out to the westernmost nub of the British Empire. Diesel Bus on Rails would be a better description. We transferred at Swansea, taking what appeared to be the local commuter train through the Welsh countryside. Perhaps commuter train is too strong a word ... Trolley Car with a Thyroid Condition would be a better description.
It was a large and awkward contraption that resembled a secondhand Lithuanian streetcar that drove like a dump truck full of gravel. As it propelled itself from village to village and town to town it lurched from side to side and rattled and squeaked like a cow in a blender. Periodically the engineer/driver could be heard actually shifting gears as we approached an incline and would rev up the motor to a deafening roar as we struggled uphill. At one point we actually stopped and turned around. It was the single most entertaining ride I've ever taken outisde of an amusement park.
Our trip two weeks later to Scotland was considerably more conventional by comparison. That train was crowded, required reserved seating and seemed to take forever. It was Bank Holiday weekend and the train was jammed with sweaty Londoners trying to get Out of Town. If it weren't for the amusing companionship of Martin "Mr. Baseball" Smith I probably would have slept my way to Glasgow. (Which is, come to think of it, how Lynn got there, but that's another story.)
Glasgow's Central Station was another one of those amazing rail cathedrals with an elaborate glass ceiling and a waiting room the size of Montana. In fact, the waiting room was so large that our hotel, The Central, was tucked away in one corner of it. Our room Number 530, a no (*snicker*) smoking room, looked down on the station's glass and iron roof and provided a stunning view of Glasgow's Victorian roofscape.
At night the station's glass ceiling seemed to glow like a beautiful antique lamp, and in the morning the mellifluous voice of the station announcer would drift up through our window to gently wake us up.
Everywhere we travelled in Britain we travelled by rail. It didn't matter if it was on BritRail, commuter trains, or the Underground, it was immediately obvious that trains are still a vital part of life in the UK. I was greatly impressed by their faith in rail travel and the way it seemed so integrated into their lives.
In the United States rail travel is a necessary evil that exists to transport the country's underfinanced (and other such chattel) from one decaying urban center to another. The trains are in crappy condition and offer few comforts. If you have a ticket and there aren't any more seats, you are invited to stand in the aisle. If there isn't any room to stand in the aisle, you are told to stand at the end of the car near the toilets. If there is no room there, you can stand between the cars, etc. If you don't like it, tough. Save your money and buy an airplane ticket like normal people.
And another thing: Nobody ever comes down the aisle to offer you a yummy Lamb and Chutney sandwich, dammit.
I guess it all comes down to context, really. Just like I told Eve Harvey on our first evening in England. America is just too fucking big to make train travel an efficient means of transportation. It isn't conventient to spend four days on a train to Los Angeles when you can fly there in five or six hours.
Fortunately, the English are different. Great Britain is small enough to make it all feasible and reasonable. In five or six hours you can zip from one end of the country to the other and still leave the train with most of the feeling in your extremities. In the States the railroads are considered a leftover artifact from another time. Trains are still in use only because they haven't figured out what to do instead. (Though the bigwigs do have high hopes for that Beam Me Up thingee from Star Trek.)
Imagining England without trains is an unthinkable proposition, but in the USA it is inevitable.
Maybe the British haven't forgotten about the Age of Innocence after all.