I live with a railway line. It runs from Bidston to Wrexham and it has two trains an hour, one in each direction. There is also a goods train, usually twice a day. When we first moved into the house, the heavy goods train carrying steel, usually hauled by a Class 66, would shake the house. However, following track repairs, the smooth-running trains no longer do that and if the windows aren’t open, we don’t notice it.
There are a few disadvantages to living next to a railway. Very rarely, loud youths wander along the track, but this is very rare indeed. A bigger and unique problem was when Network Rail renewed the track during the winter, which gave us multiple nights when my newborn twins and the rest of the family were disturbed by the loud noise of the giant machinery used to lay the gravel and the rails. One night, the tamping machine and track-laying equipment were making such heavy vibrations, it shook my car off its handbrake and it rested into, buckling my garage door. The handbrake was still on, so I know it wasn’t me forgetting to put it on. What can you do? But this is minor stuff in the long-run.
Railways in the Family
The advantages of railway living are massive. Railways are part of my upbringing: my father earned his living on the railways. We always travelled everywhere by train and we never owned a car. Railways are ‘in my blood’ in that sense. I love the sound of trains, it is a punctuation, rather than a constant. The trains are slow and the noise is comforting and familiar. Less than 40 seconds per hour is taken up with the sound of the railway, and this is far less than the cars on the quiet cul-de-sac on which we live.
Moreover, my son loves the trains and a regular reoccupation of his day is shouting ‘choo choo’ when he hears them. If inside, he climbs up on window sills or stands on beds to catch a glimpse of the passing train. If in the back garden he will peer through holes or chinks in the fence to see the train. If in the front garden, he will run to get the best view as it passes, waving all the time. Some of the drivers know him now and toot the horn for him. A real railway child.
My girls also like the trains and we have adapted a nursery rhyme ‘horsey horsey’ to: ‘choo-choo train running down the track, always goes forward, never goes back; clickety clack down the rails it slides, it has a yellow front and a bluey-green side’. Not exactly brilliant, but the best my ad-libbing can get to. Even better, my in-laws also live next to a railway line, so my kids get to hear and see the trains there too.We aren’t far from the station, so we often make short trips into Wrexham by train, easier than bus or car, either to go shopping, visit the park or simply so my kids can enjoy the ride.
The Railway Commute
Railways are also the way I get to work. I have two options. For a few years, I have been cycling a few miles into Wrexham General and then getting the train to Chester. However, in these summer months, I have been getting the train to Shotton every morning of a work-day and cycling 7.5 miles, either along the beautiful path alongside the River Dee, or along the cycle path that follows the abandoned railway line from Hawarden Bridge through Blacon into Chester. Eitherway, the mix of train and bike is a perfect way to focus the mind en route to work and chill out on the way home.
In terms of our daily life, the railway is very useful. It means that one side of our house we have no neighbours, so railways mean privacy. Having recently been called a misanthrope, I guess it won’t surprise anyone to hear that I think this is a major advantage in my life.
Railways also mean recycling. It means that occasional clippings from the garden don’t have to go in a compost bin or a ‘green waste’ bin for collection by the Council, they can be offered as votives to the railway cutting. I assure you dear reader, we have no intention to creating the mess one sees approaching some UK major cities where railway cuttings are used for extensive fly-tipping by those with bordering properties.
But the railway line also means wildlife. Amazing wildlife. Trees, bushes, flowers, birds and beasts. We watch a cat walk along the railway, not on the ballast, not along the sleepers, but along the rail. We see foxes running up the cutting and through the estate. In this summer weather, the railway cutting outside our house is nothing short of idyllic. Across the country, thousands of miles of railway line create unique habitats and routes by which plants and animals can spread.Now you wouldn’t like this to pass by as an ‘archaeodeath’ posting without a little bit of archaeology and a little bit of death, now would you?
The field of railway archaeology is a growth one, looking at the traces of many hundreds of disused railway lines, as well as the historic components of working railways as well as the heritage industry of steam railways. However, there are fives types of archaeology of railway lines that interest me, connected to my mortality interests in part.
1. Local Railway Archaeology
First there is the archaeology of the abandoned railways in NE Wales. I have already reported a bit about these in a blog posting about Moss Valley. But there are all manner of traces of past railways, as well as tramways such as those in the Vale of Llangollen and Glyn Ceiriog.
Close to home, not only do I live next to a real railway line, but in front of our house is a nineteenth-century railway embankment, now landscaped but still following a clearly defined route. You can see the foundations of the bridge that took the line over the surviving one. Therefore, I don’t simply live next to a working railway line, I live in a railway historic landscape! This railway served Brymbo and cut across the Bidston line heading for the Chester line.
2. Railway Deposition
Second, there is the deposition that goes on the tracks. Much of it is rubbish, but houses next to railway lines create interesting spaces where material culture accrues. I am going to post on my only ‘archaeology of railways’ looking at contemporary deposition in future posts, looking at railway stations and my own property where the railway has created an inaccessible space where the builders’ rubble accumulated during the building remains untouched. What an archaeological treasure trove!
3. Archaeologies of Forgetting: Rail Deaths
Third, well this is the mortuary bit. Local newspaper reports give accounts of suicides on the railway line close by us, one from 2005 was clearly related to mental illness, one from 2008, might also relate to distress and personal difficulties. The same applies to the verdict on a death last year a little farther away near Ruabon; it can only be interpreted as suicide of a young out-of-work man from the local area. Only recently, we heard the sirens of emergency services called to our local station where an old man was hit by a train, although the news does not report on the scenario. This month, I learned of a recent deaths on the tracks a little farther from us, again at Ruabon. Apart from the horror and trauma these deaths inflict on families and friends, as well as the poor train drivers, whether the death was judged accidental, suicide or some other cause, these deaths rarely leave a permanent trace. This is interesting in itself.
Of course, there is no reason to worry about these occasional accidents and deaths. Railways are far more safe than our roads, where pedestrians, cyclists and motorists are regularly maimed and killed. Perhaps for this reason, and the very public, repeatedly used and anonymous nature of railway stations, and the inaccessible (in legal terms) nature of the railway lines themselves – the place of death – involuntary memorials of flowers and cards, and permanent memorials to rail deaths, are the preserve of only a few large-scale disasters. I am unaware of a similar memorial tradition to the roadside memorials that pepper our towns and countryside mourning deaths on the roads. If they start, I suspect that they are rapidly cleared away, simply not tolerated.
4. Commemoration on the Railway
However, there are a range of ways in which railways provide a medium for mortuary commemoration of deaths taking place elsewhere. Engines can be named after famous individuals as well as famous places. For humble common people such as ourselves, heritage lines can attract memorial benches and ash-scattering, for those with an affinity with the sites and nostalgia for the days of steam. On working railways, one is more likely to encounter the memorials to significant rail disasters than individual accidents. Also, railway stations often incorporate memorials to railway staff who died in the World Wars.
There are even memorials to animals: such as the stuffed dog ‘Station Jim’ at Slough station.
5. Commemorating with Railways
We may be a society dominated by the car, but railways still form part of our cultural memory, and not only in terms of the heritage tourism of steam railways and the broader nostalgia for our Victorian past. Toy trains are used to commemorate children, as well as adults, in municipal cemeteries and crematoria. Representations of trains can be found on grave-stones. In public spaces of commemoration, trains can be readily found in a wide range of capacities. A good example, is the National Memorial Arboretum, near Alrewas, Staffordshire. At the NMA, railways form the memorials to the victims of the slave labour involved in the construction of the Sumatran and Burmese railways. Furthermore, railway workers have now received a collective memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum, bringing railways alongside the military in a complex landscape of commemoration. Unsurprisingly, the memorial is the shape of a steam engine, mixing nostalgia with the present in its attempt to celebrate lives and deaths in the rail industry. Finally, the experience of the NMA is configured for those with mobility issues by the ‘land-train’ that ferries you around the principal memorials.