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?
LAST WEEK I TOOK A TRAIN FROM Marylebone station an hour or so up the line to Wendover.
My plan was to spend an afternoon walking through the Chilterns, along the Ridgeway national trail, passing around Chequers, and ending up at the branch line serving the station of Little Kimble. Thanks to a rather convoluted choice of footpaths, I ended up literally on the branch line serving Little Kimble:
It’d been a long time since I’d stood on a railway line. I immediately thought of that scene in Stand by Me*; not the charming, carefree one of them skipping along the rails singing, but the terrifying one of them being pursued across a bridge over a gorge by what seemed, when I first saw the film, to be the most enormous train in the world.
“I’ll be waiting for you on the other side, relaxing with my thoughts.”
“Do you use your left hand or your right hand for that?”
Thoughts of railway lines had been in my mind all day, prompted by the slew of DIY banners and slogans adorning almost every house, tree and verge I encountered as I was leaving Wendover:
My default response to the possibility of the High Speed 2 railway is: yes please. I instinctively support any new railway anywhere, such is the dearth of existing lines across the country and the shameful under-investment by government after government during the last 50 years.
Yet the degree of opposition and, in some cases, venom suggested by all these homemade posters did make me question the wisdom of threading HS2 through this part of the countryside – countryside, moreover, that once I climbed up out of Wendover and into the hills soon revealed itself to look like this:
The campaign to stop HS2 is an uncompromising one. But later, when I investigated for myself just where the line will run, I discovered it really didn’t pass that near the stretch of the Chilterns through which I walked. Indeed it doesn’t create any new scythe through the Chilterns at all, merely following the broad sweep of the existing railway to Aylesbury and beyond.
In truth, opposition to HS2 is focused on the line’s construction, not its operation. This is because, as with the implementation of any important piece of national infrastructure, ugliness has to come before beauty.
So yes, lorries “thundering” down country lanes (in the language of protest they always “thunder”, they never simply “drive”) will inevitably spoil the peace of the neighbourhood – but only in the short term.
People need to see beyond their noses and beyond the next few years. When it’s finished, HS2 will be a marvel. And it will fit in marvellously to this patch of Buckinghamshire. Ultra-modern, ultra-fast trains gliding past every half hour or so will only enhance, not subtract from, a landscape that has long been a rich mix of the old and the new. I saw gliders, tractors, pylons and wind turbines while walking, and all felt just as much at home here as the swallows and red kites.
No, if you want something legitimate to grumble about, start with the likes of this:
*One of the greatest films ever made. Fact.