Plein speaking

It’s one of Amsterdam’s most potent attractions. Mostly hidden from view, it exists as much in people’s minds as in the flesh. A mysterious, alluring way of life, its roots go back to the heady 1960s. It trades on exotic confections of light, colour and above all smell. To sample it is to experience a deluge of unfamiliar, even queasy sensations. And it is a habit that certain generations, even now, find tiresome, suspicious, and above all baffling.

I’m talking, of course, about Amsterdam’s underground scene.

By which I mean, of course, the Metro.

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A railway runs under it

The English Channel: sailed across by the wise and stately; flown over by the rash and foolish.

For many years I held that belief. I spouted it widely, to ever-narrowing minds. Then, like all the other demented dictums and moist-eyed theories you concoct as a teenager, I dumped it.

I still think it’s silly to fly over the Channel. What changed was the arrival, in 1994, of a third option.

What sort of person, I now wondered, chose to travel under the sea by train? More to the point, who had the means to do such a dazzling thing?

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High land, hard rain

It may be a month since Robert and I spent a week riding Scotland’s railways, but the memories are still strong. Such as…

Kyle of Lochalsh station

Kyle of wonder

I’d got a sense of how enchantingly remote and enticingly melancholy this place might be from Michael Palin’s 1980 Great Railway Journey for BBC2, where he travelled all the way from Euston to Kyle in order to collect a frankly preposterous piece of signage.

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Night males, crossing the border

Just 24 hours before I found myself being tossed around a metal container at 80mph, I was watching a sack of letters undergoing the same treatment.

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To the end of the ends of the lines

LONDON’S RING OF RAILWAY TERMINALS sends hundreds of trains hurtling a similar number of miles across the country every day. You can leave King’s Cross at 9am and be in Thurso, the most northerly point on the network, ready for a late-night snack. (Note to self: must try this some time).

But there are also a few trains that set off from the capital only to come quickly to a complete halt.  They brush up against and sometimes tiptoe over the edges of county boundaries, but go no further. These curious stumps of branch lines, sprouting so promisingly from the likes of Liverpool Street, Victoria and Waterloo, wither rather than plunge out across south-east England. They expire in high streets, leafy glades, cul-de-sacs and, in one case, open pasture.

Inevitably, these ends of the lines started catching my eye on the map. Inevitably, I became intrigued by their existence and location. And inevitably, I have now visited them all.

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