When did you last take a train? I do not mean the cramped commuter trains that daily carry workers and shoppers into town. I mean the sleek Intercity trains that speed their way across the countryside for three or four hours or more. My Christmas plans to take a sleeper all the way past Glasgow to Upper Tyndrum were scuppered by the Covid restrictions. So the last time I took a long train journey was August 2019 when I travelled down past Winchester to Shawford. And the first time I took a train? Ah! That is beyond my recall because I was a baby. . . But when I was aged twelve I made my first train trip unaccompanied. My mother put me on the train at Leicester Station with strict instructions how to count the stops to get off at my destination, Reading. I was met there by her aunt. The first EPIC journey that I made by train was with my Family back in 1955 when my Father took up a university post in Salisbury, (now Harare). The Family comprised five children, two parents and my pet African Grey parrot, Polly. After disembarking from the mail boat at Capetown we needed to make our way across South Africa to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The journey took four days/ three nights. My Parents decided that John (12) and I (14) could travel in one compartment with our two little brothers (2 and 4) plus Polly, while they were in the next-door compartment with my sister (10). How we managed not to lose a toddler or the bird through the open train windows still amazes me!
In 1955 the Mail Train connected Capetown directly to Salisbury, its weekly departure inked to the arrival of the Union Castle liners from the UK. The first part of the journey was the most scenic, as the train climbed up the plateau to the Karoo, leaving behind the wine lands of the Cape. As I recall, the line was electrified as far as de Aar Junction. Then the electric engines were replaced by a steam locomotive. It was single track north from there, with loop lines to enable the southbound trains to pass. Every time the train stopped at an isolated station or on a loop line, we older children clambered down the steps from the carriage and jumped onto the tracks. We took our meals in the Dining Car while our Parents stayed with the toddlers to eat in the compartment. Looking back I can recall what I was wearing: a pale blue twin set with a coral necklace and v [black moygashel slacks but I cannot remember how we occupied ourselves during the slow progress across the almost treeless lands of the Karoo. When the train reached Bulawayo we had to change trains from South Africa Railways to Rhodesia Railways and this time the carriages were pulled by a diesel locomotive. This final part of the journey was made overnight. I’ll never forget my disappointment as we slowly pulled into the station in Salisbury. The train wound its way through the industrial part of the city and my teenage mind saw this as depressingly shabby and uninspiring. I am not sure what I had expected. The station itself was just another bustling cluster of buildings with porters pulling their loads up and down the platforms, transporting vast piles of cabin trunks, suitcases, tea chests and packing cases to and from the train to waiting taxis. Our Family plus parrot was safely deposited at our hotel. A few days later we travelled by car with all our trappings to a bungalow on the outskirts of the city and began to settle into the routines of family life. And Polly was able to leave the confines of her travelling cage for the relative spaciousness of her proper parrot cage.