Philip Larkin statue, railway station concourse, Hull, (Photo By: Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Rail tracks

Tom Chesshyre on songs and poetry inspired by trains

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On my study wall hangs a framed poem I bought at the tiny post office in the village of Adlestrop in the Cotswolds. No prizes for guessing the title. I had visited the village (population 120) for no other reason than to see the spot immortalised by Edward Thomas in his classic train poem, Adlestrop, published in 1917 and based on his brief stop at its station on 24 June, 1914 while passing by on the Oxford to Worcester express.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw Was Adlestrop — only the name.

The poem goes on to describe “willows, willow-herb, and grass,/ And meadowsweet and haycocks dry” with “high cloudlets in the sky” above countryside alive with birdsong. Thomas’s carriage window snapshot has such clarity and brevity (96 words) that the reader is left haunted by the potency of its flow.

Poems and trains go together like the feeling of motion and the clatter of wheels on the tracks. Thomas is just one of a pantheon of train poets, from John Betjeman to Seamus Heaney, W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, Wendy Cope, Ruth Stone, Robert Louis Stevenson, Helen Dunmore and Philip Larkin, among many more.

Then there is the poetry of a thousand train songs: Woody Guthrie (“This Train is Bound for Glory”), Bob Dylan (“Slow Train”), the Rolling Stones (“All Down the Line”), the Doors (“Black Train Song)”, to name just a few. Trains, dreams and the American West have inspired many a lyric and riff.

But back to Adlestrop and Thomas, who died aged 39 in the First World War. Adlestrop station closed in 1966 after the infamous Beeching cuts. The old station sign now adorns a bus stop. The tracks (and trains) still run by — and the poignancy of Thomas’s poem, fleeting words from a fleeting life, seems stronger than ever.

Poems and trains go together like the feeling of motion and the clatter of wheels on the tracks

Larkin’s marvellous The Whitsun Weddings, about catching a train from Hull to London one “sunlit Saturday” as newlyweds board on their honeymoons, has an intriguing backstory. His inspiration was in fact a ride from Hull to Grantham on his way to visiting his mother in 1955, when he noticed, from the whoops on the platform, that brides and grooms were joining his train. The idea for a poem formed, taking him three years to complete, with the destination changed to London, from where honeymooners might travel to the south coast or the airport.

The brilliance of the poem comes from the accumulation of glimpses: “a street of blinding windscreens” in Hull, “short-shadowed cattle” on a farm, “canals with floatings of industrial froth” in the Midlands, and, in the London suburbs, “postal districts packed like squares of wheat”. A mental picture of the ride emerges as the honeymoons begin and Larkin installs an uneasy sense of what may lay ahead for the couples.

Yet it is the imagery of his window observations — the bread and butter of train poetry — that carries the verse. With “someone running up to bowl” on a village green, you wonder: what next? But as with the newlyweds’ lives to come, you never, of course, find out.

I was lucky enough to meet the late Jean Hartley, who along with her husband George, ran The Marvell Press in Hull and who published Larkin’s first volume of poetry, The Less Deceived. On our last encounter we took a tour of sites mentioned by the poet in Hull, beginning in the foyer of the Britannia Royal Hotel, where I was staying.

This hotel, connected to Hull’s Paragon station, was the inspiration for his short, vivid poem Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel — one word longer than Adlestrop at 97. Larkin describes businessmen heading back to Leeds, “leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room”, “shoeless corridors” and, in the dining room, “a larger loneliness of knives and glass”.

Jean told me that the salesmen would return to Leeds at the end of each week as the city was “where it was all at” back then. “Hull is so isolated, but Larkin saw this hotel as a symbol of civilisation. It was a place to go for tea and coffee or booze. It was a welcoming place, a little intimate corner of Hull to take his guests in the city.” It makes a perfect port of call on a Larkin pilgrimage to Hull, Friday night or not.

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