I lived in Liverpool for 12 years. During this time, which I began as an undergraduate student and ended interviewing the cast of Hollyoaks (that’s higher education for you), I stayed in accommodation that moved sequentially further away from the city centre.
I found myself eventually living next to a disused railway line.
I stayed, not surprisingly, for as long as I could.
I discovered the line after I discovered the property. I hadn’t yet got into the habit of sizing up a place to live based on its distance from the nearest railway (operational or otherwise). It pains me to admit I didn’t have a clue at first why the line was there. It looked to me like a footpath. In fact, it was – and still is – a footpath. Formally, it’s part of National Cycle Network Route 62. Informally, it’s the old Liverpool Loop Line, which used to connect a string of suburbs and villages clustering along the city’s hem.
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.
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?
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.
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.