For those unfamiliar with this not-quite-an-acronym, it stands for the East Coast Mainline – the railway that links London to Edinburgh and, some might say, goes on to Aberdeen. For my money – and as they don’t allow me to ride it for free, it is my money – this is one of the world’s great railway journeys. It may lack vistas of majestic wildebeest or snow-capped mountain ranges but the traveller gazing out of the window is still offered a smorgasbord of visual treats, albeit of a more understated nature.
Some may feel that the eastern side of the country is boring and flat – and while the latter descriptor may have some truth (a truth probably rather less apparent to the cyclist on the ground) it is far from boring. For the power station buff, almost the full range of UK generation options is visible – from examples of coal, gas and nuclear powered stations to solar farms (a poor choice of word, as the sun isn’t grown there, merely harvested) and a veritable plethora of windmills. As the train heads north, the sights (perhaps) grow more obviously dramatic. As you leave York, there is often a chance to see a steam train in action round the back of the National Railway Museum. Inspirational views then come thick-and-fast:
- Durham opens the bidding with the stunning double-header of castle and minster,
- Newcastle responds with the Tyne and its bridges
- Alnmouth, a more distant view, raises the stakes and is just one of the most beautiful places on earth (I like to think on a parallel earth, another me is living there)
- Berwick offers the Tweed followed by a spectacular cliff-top ride before…
- The final stretch into Edinburgh closes the bidding with rising hills and views of the Firth of Forth.
Flying may be faster, and often cheaper – assuming you have minimal luggage (always my own, personal aim) and little need for liquids or blades (and I always feel naked north of the border without at least a Claymore at my hip) – but it cannot compete in the viewing stakes. The country seen from the air has a certain novelty value (and is something few of my ancestors could have experienced), but I like the chance to be up-close and personal with a view. In most flights, at some stage the Captain (or his First Officer) will come over the intercom and hope that we are enjoying the flight. I always feel ‘enduring’ would be a better word as I’m strapped into a cramped, uncomfortable seat in a metal tube many feet above the ground. On short flights, there is no entertainment laid on – except for the safety demonstration – and the food is generally unimpressive and expensive. Any fun that exists will be of my own making – and could have been arranged and enjoyed more readily at home.
The train is (at its best) a very different story: more space to sit and move around with an ever-rolling vista to enjoy out of the window. You can carry bags full of knives and carry your own bowser and nobody bats an eyelid. Travelling first class (as is my tendency for longer distances), I enjoy plenty of legroom and (by booking in advance) can easily eat and drink the modest difference in cost over ‘standard’ accommodation. I think the railways – away from commuter routes – have managed to maintain a little more of their historic romance than the airlines: though a lot has still fallen by the wayside over the years and was probably only available to the rich, even in the past. I do worry that the economic inequality of today is not generating the same level of romance as its counterpart from yesteryear (or perhaps it just needs the passage of time to work its magic – but I have my doubts).
I have ridden the ECML a lot over the years: for a while I commuted weekly between Newcastle and London and more recently have visited Edinburgh several times each year. The glory days were under GNER – when, by talking to the staff, I learned how to walk safely along a moving train and discovered that serving food and drink to passengers in First Class was a decent job (it may still be, but I’ve not had such detailed conversations with the “on-train team” in recent years). Sadly, those days are long gone, poor old GNER was finished off by issues in its parent company: this remains one of life’s little tragedies and a useful reminder that privatised rail companies don’t have to be dreadful. I fear I may be viewing GNER through the same rose-tinted glasses as an earlier generation views LNER: so if anyone knows that it was actually a dreadful corporation, please take pity on an old codger and keep this knowledge to yourself. Anyway, I must accept that those days have gone – and I must say that VTEC (the current franchisee) laid on a very fine journey north last Wednesday.
As a result of my somewhat regular transits, the ECML route is very familiar to me and arriving into London, Newcastle and Edinburgh all have the feel of a home-coming of sorts. In fact, I have come to realise that, for me, many journeys have a feeling of home about them – perhaps more than the static locations in which I have actually resided. As well as rail journeys, cycling into Sawston, the bus route from Edinburgh to my friend’s house and walking certain streets in Crouch End, Cambridge or Southampton all bring a feeling of belonging. Is it normal, I wonder, for the domestic realm to be extended out to take in a certain portion of ‘journey’s end’? For me, I think, this extended demesne forms an essential part of the feeling of ‘home’ – without it, the whole concept becomes too isolated and solipsistic. Or is this all just part of my continuing (and doomed) attempts to escape from myself?