At nine in the morning there passed a church,
At ten there passed me by the sea,
At twelve a town of smoke and smirch,
At two a forest of oak and birch,
And then, on a platform, she
Faintheart In A Railway Train – Thomas Hardy
Railways have long inspired poets. Often, as with the Hardy poem quoted above, it is the tension between the senses that intrigues; the gap between vision and touch experienced by the individual gazing from the window of a train. What would happen if Hardy’s traveller got off at the “wrong” station? In the poem the man/poet doesn’t act and instead moves on with the train, remaining, quite literally, a passenger in life’s carriage.
Other famous examples of the poetry of rail include Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings, Auden’s Night Mail and Edward Thomas’s Adlestrop. A recent Faber & Faber anthology Train Songs brings together many others.
A fascination with the view from a train carriage isn’t something that’s confined to poets. The rest of us may be more concerned with where our train is taking us and when it will arrive, but even if you’re stuck on a commuter train, there’s something about the circumstances that almost compels you to regard the world a little differently.
Looking out from the crowded carriage you are free to daydream, free to switch in and out of focus as you reflect on the scenes flashing past but also to turn your thoughts inward.
Most mornings I travel in to work by train and although the urban backdrop of streets, parks and buildings is pretty much the same every time, the cast is always different. A smoker standing out on a tiny balcony in the rain, a jogger taking a breather against a tree, a group of builders deep in discussion in a mud-churned back garden, an allotment and a murder of crows; the burnt out engine of a stolen car – abandoned on a side-street, school kids chasing pigeons, someone in a bedroom, in a tower block, staring at their half-naked body in a fitted mirror, oblivious to the watchers from the train: A series of Edward Hopper style paintings strewn across a slice of city.
At Gordon Grove, between Loughborough Junction and Elephant and Castle there’s a car breaker’s yard that always seems to arrive just at the point where I glance up. Aside from the rows and rows of vehicular refugees all collapsed and defunct, real life exemplars of the decrepit automotive imagery in Springsteen’s song The Angel, there’s the strange sight of a large buddleia bush strung with old inner tubes – an accidental, post-industrial art-installation.
There’s a whole strata of London and other big cities that exists alongside and underneath the railway tracks and arches. Not exactly edgelands, as these places are mostly in the heart of the city rather than the outskirts, but thresholds, liminal places nonetheless. The viaducts, tunnels and arches form a kind of interior borderland, dividing up neighbourhoods, with the spaces in between filled with clubs, bars, cafés, workshops, depots, shops, art galleries, studios, market stalls, store rooms, lock-ups, and venues for alternative theatre productions.
Francesca Foy in her blog Understanding Space, says that there are around 10,000 arches in London, most of them owned and leased by Network Rail and TFL, together forming a ‘parallel’ rental market that’s cheaper than other property, thus more attractive to small businesses.
The economics combined with the way they are constructed, means that railway arches “function almost like ‘industrial high streets’. This makes them very different from industrial estates, which are often segregated from the surrounding urban fabric”. She also notes that “In some places the arches support specialised economic clusters. Interestingly this reflects a phenomenon noted by Peter Ackroyd in his London Biography of types of industry/retail moving together…[while] in contrast, the arches in Mentmore Terrace, Hackney host a more diverse set of firms, including bakeries, a brewery, fitness clubs, metal workers and a furniture shop. Following the development of a particularly successful local bakery…”
My personal favourite place in London’s railside netherworld is the City Farm at Kentish Town. There’s something delightful about being able to step off a built-up North London street and into a farmyard.
When I lived closer, we used approach from Gospel Oak, cutting through the cottage style houses off Mansfield Road, in Oak Village, passing blocks of flats and into Grafton Road, where behind a big green gate on Cressfield Close is the city farm.
Bound by two railway lines and the houses on Cressfield Close the farm is certainly no secret garden, as it’s very much of the city – inside you can look over one set of train tracks North to the flats on Kiln Place, West to more blocks on Vicar’s Road, then on the other side of the higher level tracks to the south is City Scaffolding and the Royal Mail Kentish Town Delivery Office.
Smack in the middle of all this is a working farm. A house on the left as you enter, education block to the right, then sheds for pigs – on one side, a cow, and sheep on the other. The pig, a Gloucester Old Spot called Margie gave birth to a litter of nine piglets on January 4th. Nearby, ducks and geese are waddling around. Further on there are stables for several horses, gardens, goats, a paddock, duck pond and under a railway arch, more sheep.
The horses were the reason I first visited, as my oldest son had a toddler obsession with them – which hasn’t quite faded entirely. Seeing them in this apparently incongruous environment got me thinking about an older London, before the train then the car became ubiquitous, when city transport was dominated by the horse. In the Victorian era, not far down the road from Kentish Town in what’s now Camden Stables Market, animals injured working the canals used to be taken to a horse hospital. All over London – in some places where now eye-bogglingly expensive mews properties stand – horses once lived and worked. According to W. J. Gordon in the 1893 book The Horse World of London, in the Victorian period, Omnibus companies alone employed something like 10,000 horses.
Last time I was at the City Farm I spoke briefly to John Langan, Stockman since 1983, who told me a little bit about the place – Including the fact that he’d been around long enough to have helped build some of the houses in the nearby estate.
Kentish Town was the first of the city farms, founded over 40 years ago in 1972 by members of Inter Action, who were renting a cottage and bungalow on the land at the time, then a timber yard known locally as Gloster Parquet.
In the eighties the farm management went their separate ways from Inter Action, but today the original spirit behind the venture is still very much alive.
More than a generation since opening, Kentish Town City farm continues to play a vital role in the local community, serving its primary purpose of allowing local kids and others to meet live farm animals close up and learn how to handle and look after them – something they might never otherwise have experienced.
Maybe those poets really were onto something.
Links & References
Railway Arches: A lifeline for industry in London? Francesca Froy
View from the mirror – A taxi Driver’s London
Secrets of the viaducts: Walking the London to Greenwich Arches Part One
Poems of Thomas Hardy, Macmillan, 1974
Train Songs, Don Paterson and Sean O’ Brien (Eds)
The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute, John Grant, St Martin’s Press, 1999