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On the Slow Train by Michael Williams

For our third instalment of our Recommended Railway Reads we have the pleasure of sharing an excerpt from ‘On the Slow Train’ by best-selling author Michael Williams, which takes you to the very beginning of the book and finds the author at the remotest railway junction in the most westerly part of England! The success of this book led Michael to write a follow-up On the Slow Train Again and his other notable railways reads include Steaming to Victory and The Trains Now Departed. Michael is a journalist and academic – writing, broadcasting and blogging on transport, society, the media and other issues of the day for the national media and many other outlets, including the Independent, the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, and the New Statesman. Michael is also a leading travel writer, reporting on journeys around the world for a variety of publications. In his academic role, he is co-editor and author of the book The Future of Quality News Journalism. He lives with his family in Camden Town, London. Here is Ffestiniog Travel’s introduction to his work.

On the Slow Train cover“Everybody has dreamt of a land where the sun always shines and has never proved harmful, where it is always warm, but never enervating, where we may bathe in the winter and take active exercise in the summer. We had to have a name for this Elysium, so we called it the Cornish Riviera”

This morning I am officially standing in Paradise. Well, actually I’m on the platform of St Erth station in Cornwall, the remotest junction in the most westerly part of England, with the Great Western Railway’s famous 1934 guidebook The Cornish Riviera in my pocket, from which this quote is taken. It’s a bit chilly even on a July morning in this Elysium, but we must believe what we are told because the book is published with the imprimatur of “Sir James Milne, General Manager, Paddington Station, London”. As every schoolchild with any knowledge of the railway system knows, GWR stands for God’s Wonderful Railway.

But there is another special reason for being here today. Michael Flanders and Donald Swann proved remarkably prophetic in their song Slow Train. Ultimately, most of the little stations and lines they sang about closed down, but there was a major exception - the branch from this unspoilt little Victorian station to St Ives, seven miles from here along the Hayle estuary. “From Selby to Goole,” they sang, “from St Erth to St Ives. They’ve all passed out of our lives.” But they didn’t all disappear, as it turns out. The little cerise-coloured Class 150 diesel railcar humming in the bay platform is proof of how much has changed in nearly half a century since Beeching, and just how wrong the former BR chairman got it. Not only has it outlived the good chairman but is one of the few rural branch lines in the UK to make money.

Michael WilliamsThese days, with St Ives transformed from a backward pilchard-fishing village, to a cool international resort, with its own branch of the Tate Gallery, the railway has resumed the same central place in the town’s life as it had when it was built in 1877. If only Flanders and Swann could have lived to see it. Passenger numbers have more than doubled in less than ten years. And not only that, we are in for a visual treat. The St Ives Bay line may be only four and a quarter miles long, but many regard it as the most scenic short railway in Europe.

You can find out more about Michael and his work and books at https://www.michaelwennwilliams.co.uk/ or follow him on Twitter @mikewwilliams

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