Adventures: Time to take the train

Snacking onboard Swiss Rail includes local cheeses, of course.  - Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo
Snacking onboard Swiss Rail includes local cheeses, of course.
— image credit: Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo

May 1, my late mother’s upcoming birth date, prompts me to reflect on the possibility that she, and British Rail, are solely responsible for my passion for rail travel.

I first rode the rails from the Orkneys (where my naval officer father was based) to Ayrshire during WW11. Mother was pregnant (with me), and the Caithness to Saltcoats trains were packed with optimistic young servicemen shipping out to fight for king and country. Lurking in mother’s cabin luggage was baking, a luxury in rationed Britain, from her landlady for the long unpredictable journey.

“Those boys looked so young,” she recalled wistfully. “I knew many wouldn’t be coming back, and treats would be in short supply where they were headed. So, I just opened the luggage, fished out the cake tins, and shared the wealth.”

“I was also lugging Judy (my father’s Pekinese),” she chucked. “We later discovered she was also pregnant. Presumably a parting gift from the landlady’s Skye Terrier.”

Years later, my cousin and I were shuttled between Scotland and England “In care of the guard”. I was 11 and Isla was nine. We travelled in the guard’s van (caboose), shared his tea, and were met by family in Leicester hours later. My retired cousin, Euan, travels only by train. We suspect he never gets off. A return ticket and a backpack. That’s it.

Like most British children of my era, I was an enthusiastic Train Spotter. Riding the rails with Mom meant hanging out in narrow carriage corridors with other kids. Train numbers were painstakingly inscribed in crumpled note books for cross-referencing later in little Train Spotter books. In sooty carriages we’d compare who had seen, or travelled on, the most famous trains. Sighting The Flying Scotsman engine, which has served London to Edinburgh since 1862, was a big deal. A sense of history, mystery, and excitement prevailed. I wonder how the iPad generation would have reacted.

When I was 12 we immigrated to South Africa. A, mother and I rode the rails – this time from Cape Town to Johannesburg with South African Railways.

I scored the upper bunk in our compartment, viewed the passing Great Karoo curiously, and for the next couple of days ochre dust and train soot was sluiced from my sweltering body down the plughole of our shiny fold-down tin sink. De Aar, half way between Cape Town and Kimberley, was more primitive than today, but equally as important. It was my first introduction to shrill melodious penny whistles played by dancing barefoot African children as we chugged through shimmering January heat into the old wood railway station. Think Elspeth Huxley and The Flame Trees of Thika, but further south.

[Bellinzona, located in the narrow valley enroute to the Swiss Alpine passes of St. Gotthard, San Bernardino and Lucomagno, is easily rail accessible. – Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo]

As during our train travels in Britain, Mom, a freelance writer and inveterate adventurer, shared history and social commentary hoping some of it would ’stick’. To both our surprise, it did.

My teenage years were spent travelling the same route to International Girl Camps, and on holidays from Johannesburg to Durban through Zululand. All remarkable, but that first introduction to the Cape, Orange Free State and Transvaal lingers on.

Decades later, while working in Montreal, I clambered onboard CP Rail bound for Vancouver. The fare was $99 (including tax). I could break the journey, if desired, at no extra cost. Unlike my previous train journeys, picture windows framed prairies, lakes, wildlife, and eventually acres of evergreens. My seat was wide, comfortable, and reclined. Pillows and blankets were complimentary. A conductor asked; “Would you like to see a mountain grow?” Sure enough, as we glided around a curve one mountain appeared to emerge from the other to loom overhead.

Other rail journeys have followed, but undoubtedly Switzerland’s Gotthard Railway from Luzern to Lugano is, for me, the big cheese. Snaking through picture-perfect valleys and round awe-inspiring peaks passengers are literally put in the picture.

[Saltcoats Railway Station in Ayrshire, Scotland]

The Gotthard BaseTunnel, being blasted through an Alp and due for completion in 2016, will be another Swiss engineering marvel.

Nature provides the rest. Armed with my Swiss Pass efficiently effecting transfers from rail, to bus, to cruising on Lake Luzern I am undoubtedly – thanks to Mom – on the right track for more rail adventures.

If you go:

British Rail

Swiss Rail Pass:

Whistler Mountaineer:

South Africa (Shosholoza)

– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a British Columbia-based writer and photographer. She will be a presenter at Word on the Lake in Salmon Arm in May 16-18.

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