Saturday, 3 April 2010

The long journey north

It’s a long way to Inverness and, with the first glimpses of spring in the south, I wonder whether my journey will deliver me back to the last remnants of winter. There is something special about long distance train travel through open country and it always makes me re-evaluate the beauty of the British countryside. Trains take you to parts of the landscape removed from roads; they follow contours and cross wide floodplains. Of course, this is no substitute for actually being out there; immersed in the landscape with its smells and sounds, being buffeted by a chill wind or bathed in the warmth of the sun’s rays.

To my mind, travelling by train is very different from travelling by car. Whereas a train journey through open country is usually bordered by nothing more than a thin wire fence, that on a road is hemmed in by banks and barriers and you rarely get the chance to look at the landscape in any detail.

This particular journey is one of contrasts; from the open landscapes of the fens, with their endless fields of deep and dark peaty soil, it cuts north through England before finally reaching the towering mountains of the cairngorms, covered in the last remains of the winter’s snow. My favourite part of the journey is the last leg, a two-hour haul from Perth north to Inverness. Here the train passes through some of the most striking scenery to be found in Britain, a mixture of raging upcountry rivers, steep hillsides and high peaks. Patches of snow remain in the deeper gullies but the volume of water in the rivers underlines just how recently much of the snow has melted. Herds of Red Deer graze close to the railway, shuffling uneasily at the train but no doubt used to the steady stream of passing machinery.

One reason that I find train travel so engaging, in terms of the way in which it connects me to the landscape, is that these long journeys give you plenty of time to think. By watching the landscape you can shut out your fellow passengers and really take in the detail of what is scrolling by outside of the window. You can follow the lines of rivers, wonder at the contents of dark patches of woodland and seek out signs of the larger wildlife that lives in the landscape through which you are passing. And when the train passes through some of the more dramatic parts of the countryside you can question your place in the wider scale of things. While train travel enables you to look outward, car travel seals you into a bubble and shuts you off from the world around you.

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