In the summer of 2017, Vicki Pipe and Geoff Marshall visited every national railway station in Great Britain. All the Stations was crowdfunded, with regular updates posted on YouTube. I followed their progress at the time, and thought The Railway Adventures would be a kind of book of the trip, setting out the project and providing more information about the railway of 2017. I was wrong about The Railway Adventures: it’s a different book entirely and all the better for it.
The front cover gives you a clue: a silhouette showing the controversial Pacer train which became a kind of mascot for the whole trip, a ruined castle, a viaduct, the Forth Bridge and some scenes of past industry. This is travel writing in which the railway plays a strong but not overwhelming part, and it contrasts strongly against other railway-based memoirs where the train lines themselves provide the narrator with a ready-made progression. Instead, there is an attempt to be thematic, considering the concepts of place, station, network, people and trains. We come across a mini-chapter on castles before we find out what Geoff and Vicki actually did, and this will be no surprise to their many YouTube followers. I did, following normal style here at Cafethinking, initially type Marshall and Pipe rather than Geoff and Vicki, but such is the the strength of their online personalities that it just felt wrong.
At first, I feel that the authors’ approach doesn’t really work. I enjoy their observations and anecdotes (and am delighted by the unlikely coincidence that I happen to have visited the Greggs in Ebbw Vale and share their views about it), but find that the narrative doesn’t provide much hard information. I’m half way through the book when I realise that this is precisely the point: our intrepid duo take apart their project and open it out. Their adventure was crowdfunded but it was also crowd produced: they visited places based on the recommendations of people they met online and in real life. They describe the ways in which changes in railway services affect the places concerned, but through talking to local campaigners rather than news reports. Their love of whimsy (including but not limited to ‘quaintness’ – and with an excellent focus on the often neglected world of the seat moquette) seeps through the pages.
What we really get is a sense of multiple types of community. There is the online community which followed the All the Stations project, members of which provide tea, or lifts, or cake or even craft gifts, or come together at network oddities such as Shippea Hill. There are those who come together to support their local station or service. There are communities that make the most of the opportunities that the railway provides, such as the hikers and explorers who use places like Corrour as their base. The one topic of conversation that divides those they meet is Brexit, though we’re reminded that the adventure ‘took us to places we’d never seen before and introduced us to people we’d otherwise likely never meet’ – an observation of the power of the railway to widen horizons that those of us who have a regular commute often forget.
The Railway Adventures, then, is a very personal account of exploration. I found that it provided the most pleasurable of challenges: where would I explore next, and why? Where would I recommend similar explorers to spend their time (the answer, by the way: Norwich to Lowestoft which features some show-stopping scenery). It’s a book that reaches beyond the railway enthusiast and invites us all to go somewhere new.