Adventures: Time to take the train

It's possible that my mother, and British Rail, are solely responsible for my passion for rail travel.

Snacking onboard Swiss Rail includes local cheeses

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.

Follow the Cloverdale Reporter on Twitter and Facebook. View our print edition online.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Cloverdale businessman funds wells in Cambodia

Revive Washing in Clayton Heights donates three per cent of profits to charity

Surrey addictions officials say pandemic funding is wreaking havoc on those in recovery

Governments’ kindness taking its toll, recovery operators say

Police asking for help to find 11-year-old last seen in Surrey

Shauntae Joseph has been reported missing two other times since October 2019

Influx of cross-border visitors to Peace Arch Park sparks concern COVID-19 could spike

Police, parks officials say patrols, education and signage have all been increased

Vancouver Island bride held wedding in seniors home so dying stepdad could walk her down aisle

Ceremony held amidst pandemic in order to fulfill bride’s wish to have stepdad give her away

B.C.’s police watchdog probing death of Richmond man in alleged shoplifting incident

Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is asking any witnesses to come forward

PHOTOS: U.S. cities brace for increasing unrest over police killing of George Floyd

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has fully mobilized the state’s National Guard

Aldergrove zoo to reopen Monday with new COVID-19 safety measures: spokesperson

June 1 reopening to be ushered in by words from Darryl Plecas, Legislative assembly Speaker

Help the ‘Cloverdale Reporter’ continue its mission to provide trusted local news

Facing changes together: Your community, your journalists

$200,000 Maybach impounded after ‘L’ driver caught excessively speeding in Vancouver

Meanwhile, the supervisor sat in the passenger seat, police said

COVID-19 cancelled their wedding plans, so they married on a B.C. mountaintop

Ceremony was live streamed to friends and family around the world

Yukon ready to lift COVID travel restrictions with B.C. in July: premier

Premier Sandy Silver says the territory’s health-care system can cope with the virus.

‘It is dire:’ Study finds B.C. logging continues on critical caribou habitat

The federal Species At Risk Act requires provinces to identify critical habitat for caribou herds

Most Read