In Transit. The Lure of Travel

I probably don't include commuting in this, but I really do get excited at the prospect of going somewhere.

Today, for example, I had the option of sitting at a desk and getting on with some writing (which I should have been doing) or figuring out the pictures I want to show at Artweeks in May (which I also should have been doing), instead I opted to get up at 6 AM to go into London to spend a day pottering around there.

The X90 from Oxford to London (other busses are available) may not qualify as classic travel but it does involve going somewhere.  I'm now sitting in a Starbucks (other coffee shops are available) in the City typing - at one level its indistinguishable from my local Starbucks, but at another level the buzz is different and the overheard conversations in Headington rarely include references to liquidity or over-hedging.

The change from the routine (which is why I excluded commuting earlier) is for me the essence of travel.  When I think about past journeys, or imagine future travels, I find myself concentrating on the novelty.  I recently wrote about the attraction of rail travel - this is the perfect example of continuous novelty, the landscape unfolds around you, there's always something new to see and to try and understand.

So how long do I need to be doing something before it becomes routine?  When I'm planning travels I always get torn between the desire to properly explore somewhere and the lure of moving on to the next place or thing. Is this a recipe for being superficial? Just occasionally I find myself (perhaps against better judgement) having booked into one place for a week. Is there going to be enough to do? Maybe I can do day trips to somewhere else.

Maybe I'm just a tourist at heart.  If I look through my CV maybe it has the same sense of travelling on rather then spending too long doing one thing.  Maybe even my career choice reflects this, I've always looked for new things or new technologies to work with.

But maybe this is all getting too profound for a Friday morning in a coffee shop when I should getting on with some writing.

Journeys of Character

I’ve just put another long-ish European train journey in the diary.  In a few weeks I’ll be heading to the Tyrol in Austria via the Tunnel, Brussels, Frankfurt and Salzburg.  And I’m looking forward to the train days at the beginning and end of the trip almost as much as the mountain days I’ll get in between.  Reflecting on this I’ve been recalling other train journeys over the years.
As a student in Bristol I used to regularly ‘commute’ back to Northern Ireland via train (to Stranraer) and then boat to Larne, and I can still remember the nights spent on slow trains as they chugged their way slowly through the north of England and southern Scotland.  
Forsinard Station - Far North Line

During the summer vacations I used to head in the other direction and use Inter-rail tickets to explore Europe – as far east as Vienna one year, and as far south as Taormina in Sciliy on another occasion.  I still have the mental images (this was in the day before digital photography meant that we snapped and shared everything) of going round Paris by train at night, of waking up in the Swiss mountains and peering out from a claustrophobic six-berth couchettes to see snow-covered peaks, and of rolling slowly into Venice.
Later on I can recall being on the Caledonian sleeper between London and Edinburgh and on the Far North line across Caithness; and further afield on the Shatabdi Express between Delhi and Agra (where we couldn’t see anything through the steamed up double glazed windows) and the slow train between Bangalore and Vellore (in southern India) where we could see everything clearly because there wasn’t any glass in the windows at all.
And later still, touring Scandinavia by train from Stockholm to Oslo and Bergen, and north from Olso to Trondheim and Bodo, and the sleeper from Narvik in northern Norway to Copenhagen in Denmark.   Again (and admittedly these aren’t so long ago) I’ve got vivid memories of the journeys, of the landscapes I was passing through and of the people I met on the journeys and the conversations I had.

Oslo to Bergen in the sunshine

So why are these train memories so vivid? I think it comes down to character – train journeys just have more to make them memorable than do journeys by boat or plane.

Narvik Station

Narvik Station - end of the line.

Over the years (no, to be honest it’s decades) I’ve been on lots of long (and less long) air flights and quite a few boat trips too and in general these just aren’t such vivid memories.   On planes the trips usually just blur together – and on long haul you often only get to see the movies since there seems to be an insistence on darkening the cabins so everyone else can only see the movies. In that case, neither the vehicle nor the journey are very memorable.  There is a difference between a 777 and an A380, but not enough to be memorable once you’re sitting down in your allocated seat! 

Wengen Station, Switzerland
On boats there can be memorable episodes  – and the boats themselves are usually unique  (unlike the planes) - but in general the journeys are usually pretty unmemorable unless the weather decides to intervene with one patch of open sea probably not being too memorably different to the next one. The notable exceptions are coastal voyages like the Hurtigruten up the coast of Norway - am tempted to give this particular voyage honorary 'train journey' status!
On trains, the vehicles themselves are like planes, pretty unmemorable (unless you wind up on one of the restored historic trains) but the journeys themselves are memorable.  
The relatively slow pace and the proximity of the landscape gives you stuff to remember.   The train also doesn’t trap you in your seat – you can wander around and talk to people other than the ones in the allocated seats around you.   

Paris, Gare de Lyon

The slow pace also means that you can see the landscape around you evolve. You pass from urban to rural landscapes, you move between industrial and agricultural and maybe from coast to mountain. You get the chance to understand the geography of a country – travelling at 100 mph makes the transition understandable, travelling at 500 mph makes the transition too fast (even if the clouds keep out of the way).  

Basel, Switzerland

And there are stations!  And stations have place names – I can recall lots of occasions peering out of plane window and trying to figure out which city or bay I’m seeing 30,000 feet below.  Even if the train doesn’t stop as it heads through the station you can usually figure out where you are!
So does this mean I’m always going to travel by train – probably not, but where I can I do.  If there is time I’ll opt for the train rather than the plane for European travel.  For Paris and Brussels it’s pretty much a no brainer (at least if I’m starting in southern England), for other destinations it’s not always quite so clear cut.  

And one day, I’ll get to do real long-haul by train and do Oxford to Vladivostok all by rail.