In her first piece for Caught by the River, Nell Frizzell looks back on the London-to-Cornwall overnight train journey she undertook earlier this month
I’m not Philip Larkin, but I know a good train journey when I slide into one.
There’s something near-supernatural about going to bed, tucked up into a top bunk of an old British Rail train, in the bricked up orifice of Paddington Station, only to wake up with the sea in your nose and St Michael’s Mount on the horizon. By dint of living on an island barely the size of a scone, I’ve rarely taken night trains, and never in England. And yet, earlier this month, I found myself walking across the aubergine-coloured moors of the north coast of Cornwall at nine in the morning, less than 12 hours after I stepped off Platform One of Paddington Station and onto a train. To paraphrase that bald old uncle of post-war poetry:
That Friday, I was late getting away:
Not till about
Ten o’clock in the inky black night
Did my three-quarters-full train pull out,
All windows dark, all beds down, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Down the west of the country, crossed fields,
Of coal-coloured silhouettes, felt the train rock; thence
The night’s drifting end began,
Where dawn and sea and railway meet.
I know it was an old British Rail train because, behind the small length of grey plastic someone had stuck across the top of our mirror, the BR insignia still showed through – like a ghost of the long-lost, much-mourned nationalised railway.
“Would you like a bacon sandwich, croissant or muesli?” says Steve, our night guard, with his navy fleece gilet and accent as thick as clotted cream. That’s right – book yourself a berth on the Night Riviera to Cornwall and you not only get your very own towel, bottle of water, access to the first class lounge and all the snacks therein – you also get a wake up call and breakfast. I order coffee and muesli, feeling like a character in an Agatha Christie novel; either about to inherit a fortune or be brutally murdered with a fountain pen.
Our berth is a wingspan wide and carpeted up to nipple height in grey polyester. I roll up the blind above the large, square sink and watch a Hammersmith and City Line train pull away, the interior lit up like a stage play. The passengers are bathed in yellow light, tired, puffy-eyed – I’m in blue striped XL pyjamas, propped up on my elbows, more excited than a 32-year-old woman has any right to be. An old man shunts a ladder back into its storage rack on the platform opposite, doors slam, the hot, fuzzy air of the train starts to drag me into fatigue and, with a rocking like a cradle, we’re off.
The lights of London slowly give way to warehouses – large dark rectangles surrounded by stacks of timber or empty palettes – and then, finally, to fields. I’m too excited to sleep. From between my starched, white sheets, I lean down, a striped cotton bat, to look at the indigo landscape as we slowly roll west. Because it travels through sleep, the Night Riviera is slower than most trains, meaning the stops don’t jolt and the corners barely register. I wake up, briefly, at Totnes and hear my boyfriend’s breathing, sleep-deep, like the crashing of waves against sand.
Having set my alarm for 6.30 am, I am startled awake by a brief knock on the door before our breakfast is delivered. “Thank you Steve!” I say, barely conscious, before rushing out of the berth to see a pheasant clatter out of a hedgegrow just outside St Erth. As I slumbered, the landscape all around me turned green and, with something like euphoria, we soon slide along the coast until the sea fills half of our small window. On the horizon sits St Michael’s Mount, the long curve from Black Rock to Penzance punctuated by the opening of doors and rolling of suitcase wheels. A woman who I spied last night walking down the corridor in a set of brushed flannel pink pyjamas is now wearing a smart grey trouser suit; the unmade beds that smell of sleep are no longer hidden behind closed doors and a fresh morning breeze whips in in through an open vestibule window.
As I step off the train, the sea air crashes over my head like music. In the wink of an eye, the dent of a pillow, we have reached the edge of the map. Over there, where the seaweed gives way to water; that’s where England stops. In our dreams we have travelled from the blue metal fumes of Euston Road to the slate grey sea of Penzance, only to wake up and realise it’s true.
And so, just an hour later, after catching a bus the size of an icecream van, we find ourselves striding down a thin gravel path past Zennor church and onto the cliffs. It smells of cow shit and heather and wet grass. The salt in the air turns my hair to curls and snowdrops brush against my ankles. We follow a rushing stream past little waterfalls and dry stone walls until, suddenly, a sea the colour of turquoise rises up in front of us. The sheerness of the rock, the brightness of the sea and the jagged line of coast reminds me of the Faroe Islands. I stand on a tussocky lump of long grass and gaze down at wet, grey rocks getting slapped and tickled by waves.
It’s been 12 hours since our train pulled out of Paddington and here I am, on a beach, naked, wind tickling round my neck, walking slowly into the sea. A swell slides over my bare shoulder and I slide under, into a thick, salty world. I come up to see my boyfriend, up to his knees in the waves, splashing towards me.
You don’t get this shit with a Ford Fiesta, I think.
Nell Frizzell is a freelance journalist with just enough sub-cutaneous fat to keep her running, swimming and sleeping outdoors in all weather. With any luck we’ll have something new from her soon, but in the meantime you could follow her on Twitter.