(james benedict brown) on the road

Back in the old country: part one

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 19 December, 2006

“This must be the coldest place on earth,” says the businessman in the heavy and expensive looking duffel coat. He is stirring sugar into his cup of coffee at the small platform counter of the L.A. Wild Bean coffee shop at Ely railway station.

I attempt to engage in some polite and mildly witty conversation, suggesting that actually the coldest place on earth is about two metres to his right, where I’m sitting on a steel and wicker garden chair, optimistically provided by the café management for al fresco caffeine consumption in comfort. But the businessman does not hear me. The pretty young woman of non-descript Eastern European origin who is making his coffee hads evidently distracted him, although somewhat pleasingly, he isn’t having any luck starting a conversation with her either.

Ely, and its famous cathedral, is built on a small hill in the middle of the Cambridgeshire fens, once a vast area of marsh and coastal inlets that has been reclaimed over the course of a few centuries. Ely railway station sits on the edge of this low protrusion from the fins, and from the platform waiting passengers peer out into the vast landscape of intensively cultivated fields. Not only is it very cold today (barely above zero celius at midday), but there is thick fog blanketing the countryside for miles around us. It appears increasingly unlikely that the sun will burn it away before descending beneath the horizon again. On the island platform across the tracks from me, lonely passengers wait for trains to London King’s Cross and Stansted Airport against a pitch white backdrop of white. To my left, at one end of the station, a busy road passes underneath the northbound railway lines. A strip of tall, bare trees line on side of this road as it stretches away from us into the mist. Each tree is markedly less visible than the one before it: half an avenue vanishes into the fog.

The road passes under a low bridge, so any vehicle taller than a Transit van has to climb a sharp incline parallel to the road and cross the railway lines via a level crossing next to the bridge. Unfortunately for the long line of trucks, lorries and vans, Ely is a relatively important junction between north-south and east-west railway lines, and the gates of the crossing sometimes stay down for fifteen minutes or more, as successive freight and passenger trains pass by. In this jolly country of the privatised railway, every identical three car diesel sprinter that comes by has been dressed up in a different set of colours for a different commercial operator. One green and white train belongs to the singularly mis-named and uncapitalised ‘one railway’, as does another which has yet to be re-liveried from the colours of ‘Anglia Railways’. A green train belonging to ‘Central’ rumbles in, burbles for a few minutes, and then rumbles off again, back in the same direction that it came from. Then a sleek and mildly whining red, white and blue train glides in, carrying passengers on a fast service to London.

Two noisy freight trains pass in quick succession, and finally the level crossing gates go up. A flurry of heavy goods vehicles shoot across the line, knowing that they could be help up for another quarter of an hour if they’re not quick about it.

My toes are cold, and my train is still fifteen minutes away.

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  1. The shelter belt « …ontheroad said, on 25 December, 2007 at 20:28

    […] between Liverpool and Norwich, collecting me en route at Sheffield and depositing me at Thetford. I didn’t have to change trains at Ely this time, staying on board the crowded and tatty two carriage Sprinter train all the way, watching […]

  2. […] The orange-suited driver paced the trackbed and reached under the train to remove more debris. Passengers for Peterborough and Scotland were directed to another train. Those of us going to Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool remained on the station, sunning ourselves on one of the first noticeably warm days of spring. Under a bright blue sky I remembered all the times I’ve been delayed at this fenland railway station. At least it was warmer than the last time I had a connection here. […]

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