(james benedict brown) on the road

The Idea of North

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 1 December, 2008


On journeys to the northernmost extremities of the countries I’ve lived in or visited, I have always travelled by train. In the early winter of 1997 or 1998 (I have very little documentary evidence to remind me) I pushed further north than I’ve ever been since, arriving in St. Petersburg (59º 56’N) on a stiflingly hot sleeper train from Moscow. Then in May 2006 I travelled north from Winnipeg in Manitoba to the remote town of Churchill on the frozen shore of the Hudson Bay (58º 74’N). The journey took about forty hours, snaking up through prairie farmland towards thick forests and remote native settlements, before striking the bleak tundra that rolled on for hours until we reached the end of the line. The pair of locomotives that hauled me there (in the thrice-weekly rake of refurbished fifties passenger carriages) are seen above, rumbling away during their twelve hour layover before the return journey south. The engines of these trains always idle when stationed in Churchill in case the sub-zero temperatures seize them up and they can’t be restarted. And they always pull the train in tandem, no matter how short or lightly loaded the train is, since breakdowns cannot easily be rescued.

On Saturday I pushed further north in the British Isles than I’ve ever managed before, and unsurprisingly enough I did it by train, riding on Britain’s most northerly railway.

It should be considered a national disgrace that British trains don’t have the same majesty, sophistication or drama of Russian or American locomotives. The Far North Line from Inverness to Thurso (58º 59’N) and Wick (58º 45’N) traverses some of Britain’s remotest and most beautiful landscapes, taking four and a half hours to cover some 280-odd miles. But it now does so under the almost exclusive service of frankly piddly little two-carriage Sprinter railcars, the noisy, rattly, overcrowded and cramped scourge of my old cross country commute between East Anglia and Sheffield.

But then again, the scenery more than makes up for the discomfort of the journey. This was perhaps the coldest weekend of the winter so far, with the BBC expecting inland temperatures in the Highlands to drop as low as -15ºC. On Saturday only a light frost had touched the remote moorland seen from the train (above); my relatively busy train from Glasgow to Inverness had earlier crossed the Drumochter Pass in thick snow.

But by Sunday afternoon and the return journey, a heavy snowfall had covered the northern Highlands. We rattled across unwelded track (that’s what makes the clickety-clack, don’t you know?) and I sank into the seat, recalling Glen Gould and endless wintry skies.