The Reader’s Gazetteer: N

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This is a surprisingly difficult letter. I struggled. Wikipedia’s List of fictional countries and List of fictional towns in literature both look hopeful, but a closer inspection of the N sections reveals that most of the locations either appear in a medium that I’m not including, or don’t pretend to exist in the world as we know it.

The exception is Norland, in a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which has little identifying detail beyond a sufficiently substantial submarine division to be a credible threat in the early 1920s. Even Thomas Hardy’s Wessex can only come up with Narrowbourne, in a short story I haven’t read. Novel-length works featuring settlements beginning with N? The internet fails me.

Why? New and North between them ought to yield plenty of plausible towns. I wonder whether calling anything fictional ‘New’ is a bit too much of a lampshade for something that’s meant to be set in the world as we know it. Perhaps it draws attention to the fact that the place has existed mere months, or, at the outside, decades, in the author’s head. (Or, conversely, one or more fictional Newports is slipping past me because I’ve mixed them up with the real ones.)

However, my father was able to point me at North Bromwich, and so it’s back to the fictional West Midlands, perhaps a little bit further west of where we were last time. He has a lovely set of blue-and-gold Francis Brett Young hardbacks, which no doubt I’ll read my way through at some point, but in the meantime Project Gutenberg came up with a couple. Of these, I’m reliably informed that The Young Physician spends the most time in North Bromwich, so off I went.

In fact, most of the first half of the book finds our hero, Edwin, at school in Sussex, with occasional visits home. And there’s a lovely train journey to get him there, which I can’t resist including at length, even though the Home Counties and Victoria and Paddington stations and Reading and Oxford are real enough. I’m going to say that it’s the careful positioning of the fictional place with reference to the real ones that makes it work:

By this time the region of downs had been left far behind.  They were gliding, more smoothly, it seemed, through the heavily-wooded park country of the home counties.  Stations became more frequent, and the train began to fill with business people hurrying to London for their morning’s work.  They settled themselves in their carriages as though they were confident that their seats had been reserved for them.  They were all rather carefully, rather shabbily dressed: the cuffs of their coats were shiny, and the cuffs of their shirts fringed, and one of them, a gentleman with a top-hat half-covered by a mourning-band, wore cuff-covers of white paper.  They all read their morning papers and rarely spoke; but when they did speak to each other they used an almost formal respect in their addresses which implied that they were all respectable, God-fearing people with responsibilities and semi-detached houses.  Edwin they ignored—not so much as a wilful intrusion as an unfortunate accident.  He began to feel ashamed that, by starting from the terminus, he had occupied a corner seat to which the gentleman with the paper cuffs had an inalienable right.

In a little while the villas from which this population had emerged began to creep closer to the track, and by the seventh station their backs were crowding close to the embankment with long, narrow gardens in which the crimson rambler rose seemed to have established itself like a weed.  The houses, too, or rather the backs of them, grew more uniform, being all built with bricks of an unhealthy yellow or putty colour.  Soon there were no more buildings semi-detached.  The endless rows seemed to be suffering some process of squeezing or constriction that made them coalesce and edged them closer and closer to the railway line.  Soon the gardens grew so small that there was no room in them for green things, only for a patch of black earth occupied by lean cats, and posts connected by untidy pieces of rope on which torn laundry was hung out to collect the smuts or flap drearily in a night of drizzle.  Then the gardens went altogether; and the beautiful and natural love of green things showed itself in sodden window-boxes full of languishing geranium cuttings or mignonette.  The very atmosphere seemed to have been subjected to the increasing squeeze; for the mild air of the downs had here a yellow tinge as though it were being curdled.  To complete the process the train plunged, at last, into a sulphurous tunnel, emerging amid acrid fumes in a sort of underground vault where the door was opened by a ticket-collector with a red tie, tired already, who shouted “Tickets, please.”

None of the respectable suburban gentlemen took any notice of him, for by purchasing season tickets they had rendered themselves immune from his attentions; but he glared at Edwin, and Edwin passed him his ticket, which was handed on as if it were a curiosity and a rather vulgar possession by the gentlemen on his side of the compartment.  The door was slammed.  The man with the top-hat placed it carefully on his head and adjusted the paper cuffs.  Others folded their morning papers and put them in their pockets.  One, apparently recognizing a friend who was sitting opposite to him, for the first time, said “Good-morning,” and the train passed amid thunderous echoes under the arch and into Victoria Station.  All his fellow-passengers were adepts at evacuation, and before he knew where he was Edwin was alone in the carriage.

He was very lonely and yet, somehow, a little important.  Usually, at term end, he had crossed London with Widdup, whose westward train also started from Paddington.  He hailed a hansom, and one that was worthy of its name: a shining chariot, all coach-builders’ varnish, with yellow wheels and polished brass door-handles and clean straw that smelt of the stable on its floor.  The cabman was youngish, mahogany-complexioned, and ready to be facetious.  He called Edwin “My lord,” and Edwin hardly knew whether to treat him seriously or not.  “Geawing to the races, my lord?” he said.  The Lord knew Edwin had had enough of races for a bit.  He said “Paddington.”  “Ascot or Newbury?” said the cabby, climbing to his seat.

It was a great moment.  The movement was all so swift and luxurious, the hansom so delicately sprung that it swayed gently with the horse’s motion.  The polished lamps on either side were filled with wedding rosettes.  Inside on either hand were oblong mirrors in which Edwin could almost see his own profile: a subject of endless curiosity.  There was even a little brass receptacle for cigar-ash.  A Cunarder of a cab!  The cabby whistled “Little Dolly Daydreams” with a ravishing tremolo.  The cab, which had jolted a trifle on the setts of the station-yard, passed among a flight of feeding pigeons out of the iron gates into the bowling smoothness of the Palace Road.  My word, this was life. . .  .  …

The streets were so wide and clean, the green fringe of the park so pleasant: through the railings he could see men and women on horseback taking an early ride, enjoying, like him, the coolness of the morning air.  He wondered at the great white stucco houses of Park Lane, standing back from the wide pavement with an air of pompous reticence.  Before one of them, remnant of a summer dance the night before, a tented portico, striped with red and white, overstretched the pavement.  Edwin did not know what kind of people lived in these houses, but in the light of this morning it seemed to him that theirs must be an existence of fabulous happiness, all clean and bright and shining as the morning itself or the rubber-tired hansom, spinning along with its yellow spokes beside the neat park railings.

Once again the resorts of elegance were left behind.  The hansom, heaving heavily, was checked on the slope of the gradient descending to the departure platform at Paddington.  Opposite the booking-office it stopped, and Edwin was released from this paradisaical loosebox.  The cabby, wishing him the best of luck at Goodwood, patted his horse, whom he had christened Jeddah, and climbed up again to his seat whistling divinely.  Edwin was disgorged upon the long platform at Paddington that rumbled with the sound of many moving trollies below a faint hiss of escaping steam, and smelt, as he had always remembered it, of sulphur mingled with axle grease and the peculiar odour that hangs about tin milk-cans.  He was thankful to be free of it, sitting in the corner of a third-class carriage opposite a stout woman with eyes that looked as if she had been crying all night, and a heavy black veil, whose hat was surmounted by coloured photographs of the Memorial Theatre at Stratford and Brixham Trawlers waiting for a Breeze.

This train ran out of London more easily than the other had entered it.  The area of painful constriction seemed more narrow, and in an incredibly short time he found himself gliding along the Thames valley with the ghostly round tower of Windsor Castle on his left.

At Reading, where the sidings of the biscuit factory reminded him of teas which he had “brewed” with Widdup, the woman opposite took out a crumpled paper bag, and began to eat sandwiches.

The sun, meanwhile, was climbing towards the south, and the railway carriage began to reflect the summery atmosphere of the green and pleasant land through which the train was passing.  It made golden the dust on the window-pane at Edwin’s elbow and discovered warm colours in the pile of the russet cloth with which the carriage was upholstered.

It was a country of green woods and fields of ripening mowing-grass from which the sound of a machine could sometimes be heard above the rumble of the train.  It all seemed extraordinarily peaceful.  A cuckoo passed in level flight from one of the hedgerow elms to the dark edge of a wood.  In the heart of the wood itself a straight green clearing appeared.  It reminded Edwin of the green roads that pierced the woods below Uffdown, and he remembered, poignantly, the walk with his mother in the Easter holidays when they had reached the crown of the hills at sunset… another sight fell upon his eyes and filled him with a new and strange excitement: a small cluster of spires set in a city of pale smoke, and one commanding dome.  He held his breath.  He knew that it was Oxford.

This, then, was the city of his dreams.  Here, in a little while, he would find himself living the new life of leisure and spaciousness and culture which had become his chief ambition.  This was his Mecca: “That lovely city with her dreaming spires,” he whispered to himself.  It was indeed merciful that the vision of his second dream should come to cheer him when the first became so perilously near extinction.

Yes, you say, but what about North Bromwich? We’ll get there, I promise.

“This rack is intended for light articles only.  It must not be used for heavy luggage.  This rack is intended for light articles.  Only it must not be used for heavy luggage.  While there’s life there’s hope.  While there’s life there’s hope.  While there’s life there’s hope.”

So, in the pitiful whirl of Edwin’s brain, foolish words re-echoed, and in the end the empty phrase seemed to attach itself to the regular beat of the train’s rhythm as the wheels rolled over the joints in the rails.  Mesmerised by the formula he only dimly realised that they were now roaring, under a sky far paler and less blue, towards the huge pall of yellowish atmosphere beneath which the black country sweltered.

Soon the prim small gardens told that they were touching the tentacles of a great town.  A patch of desert country, scarred with forgotten workings in which water reflected the pale sky, and scattered with heaps of slag.  A pair of conical blast furnaces standing side by side and towering above the black factory sheds like temples of some savage religion, as indeed they were.  Gloomy canal wharfs, fronting on smoke-blackened walls where leaky steampipes, bound with asbestos, hissed.  The exhaust of a single small engine, puffing regular jets of dazzling white steam, seen but not heard.  A canal barge painted in garish colours, swimming in yellow water, foul with alkali refuse.  A disused factory with a tall chimney on which the words Harris and Co., Brass Founders, was painted in vertical letters which the mesmeric eye must read.  Another mile of black desert, pools, and slag heaps, and ragged children flying kites.  Everywhere a vast debris of rusty iron, old wheels, corroded boilers, tubes writhen and tangled as if they had been struck by lightning.  An asphalt school-yard on a slope, with a tall, gothic school and children screaming their lungs out, but silent to Edwin’s ears.  Endless mean streets of dusky brick houses with roofs of purple slate and blue brick footpaths.  Dust and an acrid smell as of smoking pit heaps.  More houses, and above them, misty, and almost beautiful, the high clock tower of the Art Gallery.  A thunderous tunnel. . . .  The clamour of the wheels swelled to an uproar.  “While there’s life there’s hope.  While there’s life there’s hope.”  Under the gloom of the great glass roof the train emerged.

The art gallery gives us the clue to the real-world equivalent of North Bromwich. Later we discover that the Mayor has presented it with an ‘unrivalled collection of Madox-Jones cartoons’. I went on a school trip to Birmingham Art Gallery, to look at the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Botanic Gardens, to look at plants, when I was twelve. I don’t remember much about it, except for a rather magnificent Lady of Shalott (not that one, a different one) who was on loan from somewhere else. Since then I’ve only ever been through Birmingham on the train, or changed at New Street. (By the way, the obvious London station to leave from would be Euston; I’m not really sure why Edwin goes via Oxford. Any ideas?)

As Edwin settles back in, and starts shuttling between his home of Halesby and the city of North Bromwich, we get to know it better, from, shall we say, various different points of view:

The city of iron stands upon three hills and its valleys were once watered by two rivers; but since the day when its name was humbly written in Doomsday these pastoral features have disappeared, so that the hills are only known as tramway gradients that testify to the excellence of the Corporation’s power station, and the rivers, running in brick culverts, have been deprived not only of their liberty but even of their natural function of receiving a portion of the city’s gigantic sewage.  The original market of North Bromwich has been not so much debauched from without, in the manner of other growing towns, as organised from within by the development of its own inherent powers for evil.  It is not a place from which men have wilfully cast out beauty so much as one from which beauty has vanished in spite of man’s pitiful aspirations to preserve it.  Indeed, its citizens are objects rather for pity than for reproach, and would be astonished to receive either, for many of them are wealthy, and from their childhood, knowing no better, have believed that wealth is a justification and an apology for every mortal evil from ugliness to original sin.

The narrative is quite concerned with water and where it goes, and what goes into it. Earlier in the book Edwin meets a labourer who’s working on the pipeline getting water from Wales into North Bromwich. (This, too, sparks vague childhood memories for me. I think we had a picnic next a Welsh reservoir somewhere.) Now:

the rain of the Savaddan watershed, which geology had destined for the Wye and later for the Atlantic, must now traverse eighty miles or more of conquered territory, and after being defouled by the domestic usages of North Bromwich, must find its way into the Trent, and so to the German Ocean, as the Romans thoughtlessly labelled the North Sea.  “Water,” said the Mayor, who was also known as Sir Joseph Astill, the brewer, “water is one of the necessities of life.  It is our duty to the public to see that they have it, and that they have it pure and unadulterated.”

Actually, I think he has a very good point. People need water. This fictional city, overlaid on a real one, needs its fictional plumbing and fictional sewers (not to mention its fictional railway lines) to make it function.

Books mentioned in this post

The Young Physician, Francis Brett Young

Danger!, Arthur Conan Doyle

Life’s Little Ironies, Thomas Hardy

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A Poet’s Bazaar (Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Grace Thornton) #EU27project

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On Friday I thought that I really ought to get going on the EU27 project before Article 50 became irrevocable and the wheels were set in motion for leaving the EU. This was one of (I think) two options that I had readily available, and as a narrative of a European travelling in Europe it seemed particularly appropriate in itself.

This book covers Andersen’s journey south from Copenhagen, via Germany, Italy, Malta and Greece, to Turkey, and back again up the Danube, in the early 1840s. It’s very much a travel narrative, but we don’t forget about Andersen the teller of fairy tales. Occasionally a particular landmark results in a self-contained story embedded within the text; sometimes Andersen remarks that some experience might prompt a story; most often it’s his lovely lucid style that reminds us that this man knew how to tell a story.

Sometimes his experiences felt very familiar to me, and I was pleased when he reached Pressburg (Bratislava in my time) and his boat moored in a stretch of the Danube that I’ve looked out over. And this, though it’s from the very earliest days of rail travel, captures exactly what I like about travelling by train:

Just look out! The nearest fields go by in an arrow-swift stream, grass and plants run into each other – one has the feeling of standing outside the globe and watching it turn. It hurts one’s eyes to look for too long in the same direction; but if you look somewhat farther away, other things do not move any quicker than we see them move when we are driving at a good pace, and farther out on the horizon everything seems to stand still – one has a view and impression of the whole district.

This is precisely how one should travel through flat country. It is as though towns lie close together, now one, now another! The ordinary travellers on the by-roads seem to be stationary. Horses in front of carts lift their feet but seem to put them down again in the same place – and so we have gone by them.

Replace that horse and cart with a car, and that’s still what a train journey feels like. At other times, it’s evident how much things have changed – not least when Andersen talks to some of his fellow travellers about the most famous Dane in history. They agree this is Tycho Brahe; nowadays, of course, it would be Andersen himself. On the practical level, Andersen’s journey is hampered by ten days of quarantine, and in certain places on the Danube his boat has to be pulled upstream by teams of men on the shore. Earlier in the journey, he learns that there’s considerable unrest in Rumelia (now part of Romania), there are rumours that the couriers of the post from Belgrade to Constantinople have been murdered, and he wonders whether to cancel the Danube leg altogether. I got a distinct sense of a Europe that has always been in turmoil at one or more of its edges.

There are inevitably a few ‘man of his time’ moments, including a particularly eyebrow-raising visit to the slave market in Constantinople. Leaving those aside, however, it’s a very enjoyable read, and makes me think that I’d enjoy swapping travellers’ tales with Hans Christian Andersen.

This counts for Denmark in the #EU27project. And it’s my sixth book of the year/in the TBR20.

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The Grand Tour 6: I’ll take you home again (north)

(Part 1: can’t you hear that whistle blowing?)

(Part 2: rise up so early in the morn: north and east)

(Part 3: I spent cities like a handful of change: south)

(Part 4: you’re so ambitious for a juvenile: west)

(Part 5: I walked alone: west again)

4 May 2018

I was still limping the following morning, and my foot had come up in a spectacular bruise across the base of my toes. However, movement was less painful than it had been the day before, and I made it down to the station with only a token amount of wincing and cursing.

No train this time, though. I was taking the OuiBus – a very convenient service, which I’d booked online on John’s recommendation the previous day, and which would take me to Geneva airport. This was a much quicker way of getting back into Switzerland than retracing my journey to Martigny, spectacular as that had been.

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Mont Blanc came out from behind the clouds just as John was waving me off. It seemed to be my luck with mountains. The OuiBus ride was a pleasant run through the foothills of the Alps, all green in the sunshine, and put me down in Geneva at an entirely sensible time to buy lunch before the next train.

French-speaking Switzerland was less mountainous than the parts I’d travelled through so far, but was still lovely. I let it slip past the window – Neuchâtel, Lausanne – lakes, narrow, pointed buildings, and a gentle green landscape.

At Basel I changed onto a train going north into Germany, and found myself in a compartment littered with newspapers and food wrappers. The landscape outside was not much more inspiring: cuttings lined with dusty concrete, with a few half-hearted trees here and there. We were approaching the Black Forest, though I had to say I couldn’t see anything of it. Why am I sad? I asked myself, and came to the conclusion that it was time to go home. I reached Karlsruhe, just as rush hour was getting going. I checked and rechecked the map: I had no desire to walk in the wrong direction on my injured foot.

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It was the last night of my three weeks abroad. I’d been comparatively frugal up to this point. I couldn’t walk far on this foot of mine. For all these reasons, I’d booked a room in the Schlosshotel, and hadn’t flinched when the price went into three figures. The area in front of the station entrance formed an oblong, with the station and the zoo forming the long sides, and the hotel one of the short ones. I checked in – entirely in German, to my gratification – and took the lift up to my room. The lift was, I understood from a sign, an historic monument, but it still seemed to work all right.

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My room was on the top floor, and looked over the square – which meant that I had a fantastic view of the trams. It seemed appropriate for the last night: they’d been a running theme of this trip. I took a shower and had a look at my foot. The bruising had come up in an even more impressive purple, but it wasn’t hurting so much.

[warning: after the picture of the tram, there is a picture of my bruised foot]

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Then I took the lift downstairs again and limped a little way around the square, peering through the gates of the zoo to see what I could see (flamingoes, mostly) and looking for somewhere to eat. In the end I ate dinner in the hotel restaurant: a celebratory meal of pancakes with the local asparagus, and a glass of fizz. I enjoyed my own company, as I had, I supposed, most of the time.

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5 May 2018

For the last day of my journey I’d planned to head north via Mannheim and Cologne, taking the slower route along the Rhine. Getting to Mannheim was easy enough. I tripped getting onto the train, but didn’t sustain any further damage to speak of. When I got there, however, I discovered that the train I had my eye on was running late, and if it got much later then I wasn’t going to have time to do things the interesting way.

I hung around on the platform, watching other trains, and tried to dislodge the earworm that the name Mannheim installed. Many hymn tunes are named after places, and I’ve spent enough time in church choirs to be able to match them up without really thinking about it. Aberystwyth: Jesu, lover of my soul. Wareham: Jesus, where’er thy people meet. Much closer to home, Coe Fen: How shall I sing that majesty? Mannheim is Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us.

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My train got later and later. I realised that I was not going to get the leisurely journey alongside the Rhine. Not if I wanted to catch the Eurostar I was booked on. No, it was going to be an express train dash to Frankfurt. I dragged myself grumpily onto the ICE and resigned myself to a boring journey on a boring fast line. A complimentary packet of locomotive-shaped gummy sweets mollified me a little.

When I got to Frankfurt, I realised. In my end is my beginning. Of course I had to go back via Frankfurt. The towering glasshouse of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof was where it all started, over a decade ago when I was an au pair in Germany. Back then, I was mostly using the Hauptbahnhof for the S-bahn. I only went outside the city by train twice, once to see a friend who lived in Würzburg, and once on my first great continental railway journey, back to England for my future sister-in-law’s wedding. But that wasn’t really the point. The first time I’d looked at a departures board and saw trains listed to Fulda (another hymn tune), Bruxelles-Midi, Stuttgart, and realised that I could go anywhere, that was Frankfurt. And the book that had won the prize and funded the whole trip, that had begun here, too. The first map of Stancester, the first diagram of the different relationships between the six characters at Alma Road, those were drawn out on my aunt’s dining table in Ober Erlenbach.

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Between finding a postbox and feeding another euro into the lavatory gates and buying a cheese roll and dragging myself and my suitcase along platform 18 to zones D to F, I thought of my twenty-two year old self and wondered whether she would have believed that we’d actually get here. She might have done. She dreamed big. She wasn’t necessarily so good at making things actually happen, but that’s fine. I’ve learned how to do that over the years since.

On that first Frankfurt-London journey, back in the autumn of 2007, I went all the way from Frankfurt to Brussels. This time I had to change at Aachen, and get a rail replacement bus to Welkenraedt. Back through the Ardennes, back through Liège, back to Brussels.

On the Eurostar, I got out my diary, and I wrote:

I’ve just been sitting watching the northern French landscape go by, all lush and green, and golden in this evening light. When I came out the trees were more or less bare.

This isn’t the end of anything. This is about understanding that it’s all mine for the enjoying, that much more is possible than I ever thought, that in fact I can have both/and.

The couple opposite me are celebrating 44 years together and (I think) 38 years of marriage. Four children, six grandchildren. They’ve just been in Bruges. Loved it.

People say I’m brave, coming out and going around on my own, but it’s never felt like something I couldn’t do. My confidence with regard to specific tasks has improved (today I went to Sam’s Café in Bruxelles-Midi, which I didn’t have the nerve to do three weeks ago) but I always knew I’d find a way around it all.

Little moments of luxury elevate the whole thing. Last night at Karlsruhe, today getting a meal in the Eurostar, and the stale rolls and decaying tomatoes, the frayed carpet and cracked washbasin at Hamburg, don’t seem relevant. I’ve had my fun. And how. Another time I might… but that’s the thing; there can be another time.

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The Grand Tour 5: I walked alone (west again)

(Part 1: can’t you hear that whistle blowing?)

(Part 2: rise up so early in the morn: north and east)

(Part 3: I spent cities like a handful of change: south)

(Part 4: you’re so ambitious for a juvenile: west)

28 April 2018

As we climbed upwards and to the north, the stations became bilingual, with German added to the Italian. The frontier is at Brenner, at the pass that bears its name. I had some time to wait between trains, so I went out to the front of the station, bought an espresso in the café, and sat at a table outside, looking up at the snowy mountains.

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The journey down the Austrian side of the pass was equally beautiful, but I was tired. I felt faintly guilty for not appreciating the scenery, but, overall, relieved to get into Innsbruck.

It was a long, hot, sticky walk from the station to the youth hostel. The road crossed the river and then struck out through a never-ending residential area. Parts of it were being dug up, and I had to haul Hazel’s long-suffering suitcase across gravel and around plastic barriers. I’d probably gone less than half way before I regretted not taking a taxi.

The youth hostel had been built for the Winter Olympics of 1976, and indeed had a magnificently seventies feeling to it. There was a good deal of concrete about the outside and wood about the inside, and the dormitories were cramped. I was fourth woman into mine, which meant that all the lower bunks were gone and I had to climb up a frankly terrifying set of footholes cut into the board between the two sets of bunks. I decided against anything resembling heavy drinking that evening.

And it was already evening. By the time I’d unpacked my things and worked out the locker mechanism and had a shower, it was easily time to go out and look for some food.

The youth hostel was next to a petrol station, and next to the petrol station there was a Tyrolean cultural centre, which mostly looked like a tavern to me. This seemed the likeliest bet for food, and I got as far as going in and asking, ‘Kann man hier essen?‘ ‘Aber naturlich,’ said the man, but he didn’t explain how I should go about this, and wandered off before I could ask. I went a little way further into the building and sat down at a rare unoccupied table, but nothing happened, and the whole place was crowded and noisy, and after a minute or two I decided to seek food elsewhere.

There was a pleasant-looking path alongside the river. I followed it. I followed it for a good half hour without finding anything more promising than blocks of flats. One of them had a café on the ground floor, but it was closed. I kept on walking. The light was beginning to fade. Surely, I thought, there must be something soon. And yet there wasn’t. I kept walking and walking, getting more and more tired and more and more hungry, and it got darker and darker, and there was still nowhere to stop to buy food.

I became so miserable that I phoned Tony to whinge. Hungry, Angry, and Tired, I couldn’t do much about, but I could at least remedy the Lonely part of the HALT acronym. I walked as I talked, and explaining the whole horrible situation brought me as far as a bridge. I crossed it, hoping to find something open on the other side. Dark, empty streets – and then – under an arch of the railway, warm lights, and tables on the pavement, and people. I rang off and went to investigate.

I found myself among friends. Literally – I’d stumbled across a group of people who were just having a drink together in what I’d think of as their local – and they were incredibly kind to me. At first they wanted to direct me somewhere else, but when I managed to explain that I was tired and hungry and just wanted something to eat and drink, they put in the order for me, wrapped me up in somebody’s jacket and sat me down. Nobody there spoke much English, but I discovered that my German wasn’t actually all that bad. It was an evening of Wiener schnitzel, beer, plum liqueur, and, above all, kindness. At the end of it, they ordered me a taxi.

Back at the youth hostel, I phoned home again to say that things were much better, but that I thought it might be a good idea to take a day off trains. I worked out a schedule for the next few days. After playing with various possibilities, I booked two nights in the youth hostel in Zug, and one in the one in Interlaken.

29 April 2018

In the morning, I felt much better disposed towards Innsbruck. The standard continental youth hostel breakfast set me up for the day, and I even coped with the discovery that the reception staff had managed to lose my Youth Hostel Association membership card – which was going to be a problem when it came to checking into the Swiss hostels I’d got booked. We agreed that it was a good thing that it hadn’t been my passport, but suspected that if it had been my passport then it probably wouldn’t have got lost. On the practical level, a replacement membership card assuaged my concerns, and I checked out in a better mood than I’d been in when I checked in.

There was a taxi waiting at the entrance to the fuel station. I had learned my lesson. I took it.

I had the best part of the morning to play with. Having put my luggage into a locker at the station, I set out to explore Innsbruck. In daylight, this time. Mostly I followed my nose, with mixed results. On the one hand, I saw quite a lot of Innsbruck, working my way down one side of the river and back up the other, and then away from it and up the hill. It was a quiet Sunday morning; the streets were almost empty. I found the botanic gardens, and spent a peaceful quarter of an hour wandering around them, watching the goldfish in the ponds and the bees in the flowers, and a delightful, unexpected lizard scampering out on a rock.

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On the other, I ended up typically footsore and achey, and only found the stuff I was meant to be looking for, like the famous golden roof, at the very last minute. I strode through the old town and back towards the station, where I found that I had plenty of time to retrieve my suitcase and buy myself a poppy seed pastry and an iced tea (this transaction completed entirely and pleasingly in German) before my train left, because it was delayed. It proceeded to get later and later; but I was, eventually, able to leave Innsbruck.

This was one of the trains where I felt I really got my money’s worth. First class was spacious; coffee was ordered from a little menu; the view was spectacular. Human interest was provided by a small girl who asked all the other passengers, ‘Wie heißt du?’ several times over. Which, after my conversations the previous night, was a level of German that I could cope with easily.

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Notwithstanding the delay, I reached Feldkirch, the last stop before Liechtenstein, at a sensible time for lunch. I didn’t have the right change for the luggage lockers, so I wheeled my suitcase into town with me. I sat on a bench in the square to eat my milk rolls and runny cheese, and felt rather jealous of all the people with ice creams. The ice cream shop seemed to be the only place that was open: it was at the opposite corner of the square from where I was sitting. I did not buy an ice cream myself: the thought of getting myself and my suitcase and my other encumbrances up the step and into the place and then out again with a dripping, sticky confection added to it all was just too much.

I got another train coffee instead. This was largely because Europe By Rail informed me that I could easily make one cup of coffee last for longer than it would take to cross Liechtenstein, and I thought I ought to test this statement. It was indeed the case. The coffee came with little milk pots with garish views of European landmarks, which seemed entirely appropriate.

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Liechtenstein looked pleasant enough, green and mountainous, and I told myself I might come back and explore it properly some day. In the meantime it became the only country I would pass through on this trip without setting foot in it.

After Liechtenstein came Switzerland and passport checks. I became very conscious of the fact that I had no Swiss francs. This was not immediately a problem, but I was planning to spend several days in Switzerland, so it at least had the potential to become one, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to get any more coffee until I’d dealt with it.

Switzerland looked much like Liechtenstein and the Tirol: mountains, reaching up and up, with the trees wearing away to grey rock, with sometimes a heart-gladdening crown of snow; and flat-bottomed green valleys marked into neat fields. The passenger trains were white, with initials arranged in triplets: SBB CFF FFS. I saw a few locomotives with red paint jobs, the Swiss flag. Lakes came into the landscape as we approached Zurich.

Zurich itself felt big and intimidating. I thought that maybe I ought to leave the station and take a look around, but it all seemed like a bit much. I found a cash machine, and then, after wandering around aimlessly for a little, the train to Zug. This makes a lovely pun in German. It made a somewhat ironic one, given the fact that I was planning to spend an entire day and two nights in Zug, taking no trains at all.

I came out of the wrong side of the station, because I always do, looked at Google Maps, and went back through the station to emerge onto a quiet residential street and follow it onto a long straight road with a lot of office blocks. Stopping every few hundred metres to check my location, I made my way down this road (which seemed an unlikely location for a youth hostel, but then most of them had been) and then turned down a gravelly track. The youth hostel lay between the road and the railway, and beyond that was the lake.

I checked myself in. My dormitory was on the top floor, the other side of a set of double doors, so it took me a little while to find it and I felt foolish. Whether it was that, whether it was delayed stress from the day before, whether I just needed a rest, I don’t know, but I was feeling fairly down, and berating myself for failing to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime trip to the fullest extent possible.

I took myself out to dinner to cheer myself up. A couple of minutes’ walk took me to the edge of the lake, and I followed the path clockwise around it into the town, in the teeth of a lively breeze. The first eating place was an Italian restaurant: I ate pizza and had a conversation with myself in my diary. I wrote,

So Zug is the only Zug I’ll be in tomorrow. After that – Interlaken. And, if I can get my act together, the rack railway up to Jungfraujoch. Because if I am having a once in a lifetime trip – which, incidentally, I feel I’m not, I’m doing research for subsequent adventures, though who knows whether they’ll ever come to pass – I might as well have a once in a lifetime experience, because that certainly would be.

I fretted a little about whether or not I’d managed to lock my locker properly, but as it turned out it didn’t matter: I had the whole dormitory to myself.

30 April 2018

For most of the day I had the whole youth hostel to myself. I wandered back into town along the lakeside, looking at waterfowl on the lake, and little Japanese deer in an enclosure, and pristine flowerbeds. It being a Monday, most of the things that I might have looked at were closed, but I didn’t mind too much. I bought a mobile phone charger to fit Swiss sockets, and then went back to the youth hostel to read. Then I went out again to get something for lunch, and then back again to read some more. I sat in the garden, watching the trains passing along the end of it, until it got too hot; then I sat inside, in the dining room. I booked myself tickets on the Jungfraujoch train, wincing a little at the price, and texted my brother to organise a stopover at Saint-Gervais, where he was working.

I finished The Mill on the Floss. I’d somehow never been spoiled for The Mill on the Floss, and found the ending pretty devastating. I read Passing Strange (beautiful and almost heartbreaking); I read a very long Carmilla fanfic in which Carmilla was an assassin and Laura was a journalist. I had the dormitory to myself that night, as well, and considered that I had got a very good deal.

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1 May 2018

The next morning I left Zug to head deeper into Switzerland, and stopped an hour or so down the line at Lucerne. After some messing around with cash machines and change machines I managed to get my suitcase stowed in a left luggage locker and stepped out of the railway station to find myself in the bus station. This was a good place for transport nerds. There was a paddle steamer moored at the side of the lake, and there were trolleybuses with three pieces and two bends.

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I left a message on my father’s answerphone. ‘I thought it was important that you should know,’ I said, ‘that there are tripartite bendy trolleybuses in Lucerne.’

I then walked along the covered bridge, and took a look into a church. Then I looked at my phone. Two missed calls. I called back. No answer.

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It began to rain. I considered my options. These included returning to the station to extract my umbrella from the left luggage locker, but I couldn’t quite face that. I looked at the outside of a museum about the canton of Lucerne, and thought that it sounded interesting but I wasn’t really in the mood for a museum. The one thing that I really wanted to see was the Lion of Lucerne. I consulted a handy map and set off through the shopping district to find it.

On the way to the Lion I passed a large cuboid building with a dome sticking out of the top. On the side it said, ‘PANORAMA. The French army at the VERRIERES. 1870-71 FRANCO-GERMAN WAR 1870-71. Painting of 6600 square feets.’ I wondered vaguely whether this was still extant.

I got to the Lion – a huge, sad, sculpture carved half-way into the wall of rock – got my phone out to take a picture, and found that the game of phone tag was ongoing.

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My father and I eventually managed to be on the same call at the same time, and he recommended:
– that I look for the Lion (easy enough)
– that I look at the Panorama, which was Something To Do With The Franco-Prussian War;

requested:
– that I look for a flag of the canton of Lucerne, as my brother had sent him one of the canton of Geneva, and he wanted to start a collection;

and told me:
– that he had seen the Lion and the Panorama fifty years ago, and that his father had been to Lucerne and seen the Lion and the Panorama fifty years before that.

We also discussed the trolleybuses.

After ringing off, I investigated the nearest souvenir shop in search of flags. Besides Lucerne (white and sky-blue vertical stripes) I found Bern (a black bear on a yellow ground with red corners) and Uri (a black bull’s head on a yellow ground). I’d said that it was a pity that I hadn’t know about this new project before I left Zug; still, everything had been shut in Zug, and anyway it didn’t seem to go in for exuberant selections of tourist tat in quite the same way. Bern and Uri made up for it, though, and Zug would only have been stripes of white and sky-blue arranged horizontally rather than vertically.

Then I trotted back down the road to the Panorama.

It’s a quite remarkable painting. One stands inside a giant cylinder. Here, there are houses. There, a railway line. Over everything, snow, and, coming from all directions, soldiers in blue and red, wrapped up in sacks, riding on wagons or marching two by two. Context is provided by a voiceover in four languages, one after another, and an exhibition downstairs. I spent some time in there, looking at the tiny details in the huge display.

Then, because the ticket to the panorama also got me into the Glacier Garden, I headed back up the hill. The Glacier Garden was a delightful mixture of geology, history (while the lower floor of the building was devoted to glaciers and relief maps, the upper floor set out the typical household of a Swiss worthy) and frivolity. I went around the hall of mirrors twice, and saw white rabbits in the garden.

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Lunch was a vegetable pastry eaten on the way back to the station. There I retrieved my suitcase and got myself onto the Zentralbahn for Interlaken.

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This was a very pleasant narrow-gauge railway with lakes on the right and mountains on the left, and, ahead, what I thought were some impressively steep gradients. I had not seen anything yet.

If Hamburg had felt a little bit like Reading, Interlaken was almost overpoweringly reminiscent of Harrogate. It was that wide expanse of grass with the two churches that did it, combined with the sense of nineteenth century respectability. Hotel Victoria Jungfrau, for goodness’ sake. I wouldn’t have been surprised to meet the ghosts of my great-grandparents promenading down the Höweweg. I couldn’t help giggling at how weird it all was.

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It only occurred to me the next day that on a clear day, with the Jungfrau dominating the skyline (or, indeed, visible at all) Interlaken would look nothing like Harrogate.

I’d had a dormitory to myself for the last two nights. It looked like I was on for a third at the time I went to bed. But I was woken at about half past eleven by somebody coming in. Her name was Ems, and she was Norwegian, she said; she was sleeping in the youth hostel as an emergency measure. I pointed out the things that it had taken me a while to figure out, like the light switch, and went back to sleep fairly swiftly.

2 May 2018

In the morning I heard more of her story, which accorded depressingly well with other things I’ve heard about the hospitality industry. Her boss had sacked her – illegally – while she was on sick leave. Even aside from that, he had been appalling. ‘There was only one person who liked him,’ she said, ‘and that was the guy who used to smoke weed with him.’

We wished each other well, and I went off to catch the train up the Eiger.

This turned out to be, like many mountaineering exploits, an impressive if possibly unnecessary feat of human ingenuity and perseverance. Not my catching it, I mean – that was very easy, because the youth hostel was just in front of the station – although I did check and double check and triple check that I’d got the right pass and that I was getting onto the right train.

No, I mean building a railway up inside a mountain. Why would you do that? ‘Because it was there’, indeed. Or so that tourists with prize money burning a hole in their pocket could ride on it a century later. So I did.

I checked my phone over and over, to make sure that the wallet app worked and that I’d got the right time and the right train and that I could flip the virtual tickets around to show the appropriate side.

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It was a pity about the weather. The fog hung stubbornly around the mountains, hooding the tops. We climbed up, towards it. Changed at Grindelwald. Through it. Came to the snowline and kept on going. The lineside snowbank grew deeper and deeper. The chill crept into the carriage and I wondered for the first time if my shoes were up to the task. I reassured myself that I needn’t leave the platform.

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We emerged through the top of one cloud to find ourselves a little way outside Kleine Scheidegg. Here we would change to the Jungfraubahn. Above us reared the Eiger.

I headed a little self-importantly towards the gate for those with reservations. Here technology failed me utterly: the sensor on the gate couldn’t read my ticket. A member of staff let me through, and I boarded the train and sat in lonely state in the reserved section.

After a wait of a few minutes the train left the station and headed across the snowfield towards the mountain. It sat at the next stop for a while, and I alternated between squinting at my first glacier and watching a couple of men unloading pallets full of supplies from the goods wagon ahead.

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Then came the bit I’d really been looking forward to. We kept on up the mountain. Into the mountain. The next station was Eigerwand – the Eiger Wall. We didn’t stop there. A couple of squares of light showed where windows had been cut into the face of the mountain.

I thought of poor Toni Kurz, the last victim of the 1936 Eiger disaster, suspended on a rope that he no longer had the strength to climb, while the rescuers inside the mountain could see him but not reach him, and the spectators at Kleine Scheidegg could see everything and do nothing.

The record for the ascent of the north face of the Eiger is now less than two and a half hours. My train abandoned the attempt about halfway, and headed sideways towards the Mönch. It kept going, the track levelling off but remaining within the mountain, until at last it stopped in a lamplit station. We got off the train and climbed out and up into the Top of Europe building.

I didn’t much like it at the top; I felt wobbly and headachey, and very aware of the inadequacy of my shoes. So I put my head outside the door to feel the wind and see the snow, and then I came back down the mountain again. I reflected that on this trip I’d now been higher than ever before in my life, as well as further north and further east.

I went down the other way: the Wengernalpbahn. I associate Wengen with downhill skiing, catching the tail end of events when I’ve turned on Eurosport to watch figure skating or biathlon. For school story fans, it’s the location of the final iteration of the Chalet School. More to the point, it was absolutely stunning: a deep green bowl of a valley, with waterfalls plummeting hundreds of feet from the rim to the floor.

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Back in Interlaken, I returned to the youth hostel to eat lunch (pasta al pomodoro) and retrieve my bags from the luggage room. I strolled back to the station once more, feeling very well-disposed towards the youth hostels of Switzerland – if still slightly bemused by Interlaken.

Just as I was leaving, the mist lifted off the Jungfrau.

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The journey towards the French border took me through a series of monosyllables and a long tunnel. I got on a train bound for Brig, and got off it at Spiez. Then I got off the next train at Visp. The tunnel had taken me into French-speaking Switzerland: the languages were the other way round on the signs. I took a picture of what I thought might be the Matterhorn, and bought a rather fine postcard which was a relief map of Switzerland in moulded plastic. After all those huge relief maps in Lucerne it seemed appropriate; also, the geography was confusing me.

Martigny was where I had to change to board the narrow gauge train into France. The station felt a little run-down. I bought an espresso, a bar of chocolate and a little pastry tart in the stationer’s while I waited.

The narrow gauge train was named, rather optimistically, the Mont Blanc Express. I would not actually have wanted it to go much faster than it managed. Leaving the Rhône valley by the shortest possible route, it struck an ambitious upgrade and kept going.

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I couldn’t believe how well I’d organised my railways: they’d just kept getting better and better. The Elbe valley, then the Semmering line, then the Adige valley and the Brenner Pass; the Inn valley, the Zentralbahn, Grindelwald and the Jungfraubahn, and then the Wengernalpbahn on the way down again. Now this. It might not go up inside a mountain, but clinging to the outside of one meant that there was all the more to be seen. I spent the journey peering out of the window, marvelling at how far up the mountains went, and how far down, the valleys. It had the feel of a working railway rather than a tourist line, reminding me as much of the FEVE along the north coast of Spain (itself one of Franco’s vanity projects, but well used by locals) as anything Swiss.

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We crossed the frontier at Le Chatelard, and then bumbled on through Chamonix towards the terminus.

At St-Gervais-le-Fayet I stood up, collected my things, and immediately fell down a step that I’d forgotten existed. I picked myself up again and got off the train.

‘Did you see that?’ I asked my brother, who had come to the station to meet me.

‘See what?’

I explained.

‘No, you got away with that one.’

But I hadn’t. Over the course of the evening, through dinner, through the Champions’ League football game we watched, I was uncomfortably aware of a sharp pain in my right foot. When it came to going to bed, I could hardly get my shoe off. I crawled into bed and did my best not to wonder how I was going to get back across Europe in this state.

3 May 2018

I woke at some horrible hour of the morning in the sudden, awful, knowledge that my leg was about to cramp and that there was nothing that I could do to stop it. It did. I rolled around swearing and rubbing at my calf for a bit, and, finding the idea of standing up too much to contemplate, drifted back to sleep after a while out of sheer boredom.

I was able to limp to the lift, which meant that I at least got as far as breakfast. I even considered the forty minute walk to Saint Gervais-les-Bains before reluctantly deciding that it was a bad idea. John drove me there instead. We managed a coffee in a sports bar and half a circuit of the town before I had to admit that I was defeated and sit down on a kerb while John went to get the car. (A few weeks later, back at home in front of the television, I watched some of the great cyclists of our time take the same streets rather faster, in the Criterium du Dauphiné.)

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We trundled back to the town centre and ate lunch at a restaurant on the square. Mine was a ‘tarti’mlette’ – a satisfyingly hearty omelette stuffed with potatoes and cheese; John’s, a vegan burger, to his rather pleased surprise.

After that we returned to the hotel. I made it down the road to the Tabac to buy postcards and a cloth patch for my blanket, and then retreated to the hotel bar, where I spent the afternoon on a sofa, with my foot propped up on a pile of cushions and draped with a bag of ice begged from the bar, and read The Woman in White.

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After dinner I joined the staff outing to the cinema, where we watched Avengers: Infinity War. This was probably not the ideal introduction to the franchise, but I’d seen enough fanfic headers to have a reasonably good idea of who was who, even if their motivations were a mystery; besides, reading the subtitles was useful French practice. And what else can you do in the French Alps with a dud foot?

 

(Next part: I’ll take you home again (north))

The Reader’s Gazetteer: H

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What did I say when I introduced this series?

Do I believe that I, a normal human being with no powers more sophisticated than being able to hold a map the right way up and knowing how to use the Deutsche Bahn app, could get to the place?

But when an author’s kind enough to not only give me a real life station, but a date and time of departure, too, who am I to quibble because I’m not magic enough to get onto the platform? Let’s talk about Hogsmeade. You (if you’re a witch or a wizard on the way to school at Hogwarts) get there by catching the 11am from platform nine-and-three-quarters at London King’s Cross on 1 September. (Any other means of getting there definitely fall outside the scope of this blog series.) And it takes all the rest of the day to get there. Which puts it somewhere in Scotland, although, as ‘the only entirely non-Muggle settlement in Britain’, it seems to have developed its own distinctive culture:

Hogsmeade looked like a Christmas card; the little thatched cottages and shops were all covered in a layer of crisp snow; there were holly wreaths on the doors and strings of enchanted candles hanging in the trees.

Harry shivered; unlike the other two, he didn’t have his cloak. They headed up the street, heads bowed against the wind, Ron and Hermione shouting through their scarves.

‘That’s the Post Office -‘

‘Zonko’s is up there -‘

‘We could go up to the Shrieking Shack -‘

‘Tell you what,’ said Ron, his teeth chattering, ‘shall we go for a Butterbeer in the Three Broomsticks?’

But there, alas, you and I cannot follow.

I could quibble because nothing goes north of Peterborough from platforms 9, 10, and 11, but that would just be petty. Besides, there are all sorts of strange things that go on at King’s Cross. It’s got a fully functional platform zero, for goodness’ sake. And here’s a picture of a Festiniog railway loco in the middle of the concourse.

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The whole question of the Hogwarts Express got me thinking about train journeys in other school stories: they’re quite often used, as in Harry Potter, as a liminal space, to introduce important characters and answer the protagonist’s questions about the world that they’re about to enter.

What I can’t decide is how the trains themselves work: would it be most usual to have a charter train, or to add a couple of reserved carriages onto a regular service, perhaps making an extra stop at a station nearer the school, or just to have the students travel by normal services? I’d assumed that the trains that take students to Malory Towers (leaving, one assumes, from Paddington) were chartered, but I don’t think there’s any evidence either way. (Incidentally, my father points out that, in any book where Darrell arrives by train, then so do most of the others, and if she’s driven down by Daddy then everyone else arrives by car too.) The Kingscote girls must be travelling (from Victoria) in reserved carriages on a standard service, because the Head is concerned about what other travellers might think about their behaviour.

I haven’t any other school stories in the house to check, so let’s return to the East Coast Mainline, and take a look at J. B. Priestley’s They Walk In The City. The city in which they walk is actually London, but a substantial portion of the narrative takes place in Haliford, which is a decaying mill town along the lines of Bradford or Huddersfield.

Haliford, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, is a textile town. A hundred years ago it was of no importance at all; merely a little market town, with a few small mills dotted about the hillsides. It grew steadily during the Fifties and Sixties; then came the Franco-Prussian War – a godsend – and Haliford made money… and after that, in spite of a slump or two towards the end of the century, the town grew and prospered, until at last there came the Great War – and what a godsend that was – and… the town, though a little lacking in brisk young manhood, reached its peak. It started slipping and sliding down the other side, towards nobody knows what, early in the Nineteen Twenties. The world seemed to take a sudden dislike to Haliford and its undeniably excellent products. Now, most of the mills have begun to look old. Some of them – grim black stone boxes though they are – have even begun to look pathetic. You feel – as they say round there – that they are ‘past it’. In the watery sunlight of the Pennines, their windows sometimes look like the eyes of a blind beggar. The tall chimneys that are still smoking do it now in a leisurely fashion, like retired men making a morning pipe last as long as possible. Many of the chimneys have stopped smoking, not having known the heat of a furnace for years. The air above Haliford ought to be clear by this time, but somehow the old haze still lingers, perhaps out of kindness to the bewildered townsfolk below, who would feel naked without it.

These days you’d probably be able to get a very good curry there.

Priestley obligingly tells us how to get to Haliford – at least, he tells us how to get to London from there, so it’s easy enough to reverse the process:

Both of them knew all about the ten o’clock train. It took Haliford men to the wool sales in London. It took them to buy wool in Australia and South America. It took them to sell Haliford fabrics all over the world, from Paris to Shanghai. Some of these fellows, with bags fantastically labelled, were already settling into their corners of first-class smokers, frowning over their pipes at copies of the Yorkshire Post and Manchester Guardian… In [Edward’s] right-hand waistcoat pocket was a ticket to King’s Cross, London, to say nothing of Beauty, Romance, Riches, Glory, Love… The station itself, with its glass-covered altitudes of quiet  and indifference, its sudden snortings and red glares, its high echoing voices, its fascinating suggestion of only being half in Haliford, the other half being anywhere you would like it to be, diminished and engulfed them both in a not unfriendly fashion…

‘It only stops at Doncaster, Grantham and Peterborough,’ said Herbert solemnly.

And it will not arrive at platform nine, ten or eleven, I can tell you that much.

Books mentioned in this post

Malory Towers series, Enid Blyton

Autumn Term, Antonia Forest

They Walk In The City, J. B. Priestley

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K. Rowling

The Reader’s Gazetteer

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The Grand Tour 2: rise up so early in the morn (north and east)

(Part 1: can’t you hear that whistle blowing?)

14th April 2018

I walk through Saint Pancras every morning on the way to work, and often get a kick out of the signs – and, if I’m lucky, announcements – in French. It lifts the spirit to think that, if the prospect of continuing out the other side, crossing Midland Road and the piazza of the British Library, and joining the Euston Road, got too much for me, I could go to Paris or Brussels or Amsterdam instead. Assuming my credit card could cope, of course.

I never do. I head straight on through and go to work. It’s just nice to know that I’ve got the option.

This particular morning, however, I crossed Euston Road and sat down in Le Pain Quotidien with an espresso and a ham and cheese croissant. This was not a normal work day. It wasn’t a work day at all; it was a Saturday. And I’m never normally in London this early.

Nor do I usually step into the labyrinth of Tensabarriers, send my suitcase (I’m not usually trailing a suitcase) through the X-ray scanners, have my irises digitally compared with my passport, and end up in the closed off area under the Eurostar platforms. There are no windows. There are lifts and escalators that you’re not allowed to go up until you’re called, and loads of people sitting around on rows of seats. It’s like a portal fantasy. The Continent begins (at the time of writing) here.

I might have considered having a ceremonial glass of wine or beer to mark the official beginning of the trip, except it was a bit early in the morning, and anyway, I’d done that yesterday.

I left London on the first sunny day in weeks. It had been a depressing grey spring, punctuated by snowfall and chaos, and a dispiriting padding of cloud had been hanging around the place. This morning it had lifted and, though the trees were still bare, the tower blocks of London and the fields of Kent were washed in gold. Anyway, I was determined to like everything. I was delighted that my train would go on to Amsterdam, even though I wouldn’t. I was delighted by the fact that I could use the Internet underneath the English Channel. I was delighted by the dinky Eurostar coffee cups and the flat landscapes of northern France, and the sense of a beginning.

At Bruxelles-Midi, it all became a little terrifying. I spent some time wandering the station shops in search of a luggage label, buying some provisions in the Carrefour, and checking repeatedly to make sure that my Interrail pass and my passport were where I thought they were. Then to make sure that I’d written what I was meant to write in the pass…

If you’re trying to travel by train across Belgium into Germany without having made a reservation, you have to change at Welkenraedt and then Aachen. (Once you’re into Germany, you can stop worrying.) So what I wrote was 14/04, 1256, BRUXELLES, and WELKENRAEDT.

Eventually I had to stop fretting and get on my train. I appreciated for the first time that first class meant that there would be loads of space. I amused myself by alternately looking out of the window, reading the bilingual signs about being a considerate traveller, and anticipating the arrival of the conductor. The conductor punched my pass in the slot next to where I’d written WELKENRAEDT, and told a trio of young British men that the trick for recognising first class carriages (for which they didn’t have tickets) was to look for the stripe of yellow over the door. I hadn’t known this, and it was to save me a lot of looking over the next three weeks.

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Europe By Rail had recommended watching out for Liège Guillemins station. It’s foreshadowed by a similarly elegant white-painted bridge, but even so it’s a lovely shock, part greenhouse, part palace. After Liège, the train dawdled through tunnels and valleys in the Ardennes, and there were suddenly bright young green leaves on the trees, and the sky was blue.

The train from Welkenraedt to Aachen was a scruffy local affair with only a couple of coaches; it deposited me at the German border without fanfare. I decided that if I was going to be at all spontaneous on this trip, I might as well start now and go and look at where Charlemagne was crowned. I managed to speak (and understand) enough German to find out where the left luggage lockers were, and I shoved my bags and coat into one of them and walked very fast across the city.

If I had any doubt about spring having arrived here, the exuberant full-blossomed magnolia tree outside the cathedral dispelled it. The cathedral itself was surprisingly small, and very full of people. The walls and ceilings were covered in glittering mosaics, mostly blue and gold, and in the choir there was rich stained glass. It felt like being in one of those very superior kaleidoscopes.

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Germany would form a sort of hub on this adventure. I would spend several nights there, one way or another, and pass through it in various different directions. Part of that is the geography; part of it the freedom from mandatory reservations. But it was very appropriate. A little over ten years previously I’d been an au pair for my aunt in Frankfurt, and had spent some time hanging around the Hauptbahnhof looking at the departure boards, at all the places I might one day go to. My first international train journey had begun in Frankfurt, when I returned briefly to the UK to attend my sister-in-law’s wedding in Leighton Buzzard. The Eurostar came into Waterloo in those days: that’s how long ago it was. But Germany is still a good place to take a train.

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I took one from Aachen to Düsseldorf, and took the brief glimpse of a hot air balloon through the window as a vindication of all my life choices. At Düsseldorf I joined a train with an observation carriage whose panoramic windows stretched all the way up into its roof. There wouldn’t be much to see overhead on the way to Hamburg in the gathering dusk, but it had come from Switzerland that morning. Once more I was reminded of how far the mainland European rail network could take me. The evening drew in and the landscape got less interesting, and I turned to Barchester Towers.

I rolled off the train at Hamburg at half past nine with no other desire than to go to bed. Thirteen hours on the rails was quite enough for one day. I wasn’t remotely interested in Hamburg’s nightlife, anyway. I suspected it of being full of British stag parties.

I turned the wrong way out of the station, which was annoying but meant nothing worse than a walk that was slightly longer than it needed have been. After a little while I looked at Google Maps and retraced my steps. My hotel was possibly the tattiest one I’ve ever stayed in. The floor was imperfectly covered with two ragged-edged pieces of carpet; the washbasin was cracked, and the furniture was battered. Still, I didn’t need to look at it when I was asleep, and, other than washing a few items of clothing in the sink, that was all that I intended to do there.

15th April 2018

I put my suitcase into left luggage and then ate breakfast at a café a short distance from the station – a substantial array of rolls, ham, cheese, and a boiled egg. After that glorious sunny journey the day before, the weather had returned to grey drizzle, but it didn’t seem so depressing now I was on holiday. I watched the umbrellas go by outside the window (red, orange, pink, purple with a frill) and listened to the church bells. I thought about going to see the cathedral, but didn’t want to crash a service. It kept drizzling. I ordered a mint tea (real mint leaves!) and waited for it to stop drizzling. It didn’t.

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There was one thing that I really did want to do in Hamburg, and that was visit Miniatur Wunderland. It might be the best train set in the world. It’s certainly the biggest. When I’d finished my mint tea, I set out to walk to it.

For me, some cities remind me irresistibly of others; some quirk of geography or architecture draws a line between places hundreds or thousands of miles apart. I suppose it’s the same impulse that gives us the Athens of the North or all those Little Venices. For me, Hamburg had a sense of Reading about it, for no good reason beyond the watercourses and the wide, pedestrianised, shopping streets, and being there at the beginning of an adventure.

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I loved Miniatur Wunderland. Hundreds of model trains; thousands of little people; the cosiness of artificial nightfall, and all the little lights coming on. The only thing was, there was so much of it, and I had so little time there. Already I had an inkling that the whole thing was going to be like this: moving at varying speeds through different landscapes, knowing that I didn’t have a hope of seeing all the detail. In two hours I’d travelled through North America, the Arctic, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Night had fallen and day had broken seven or eight times. Really, though (I wrote in my diary) it’s all about the trains going in and out of mountain tunnels and over bridges – so I liked the Switzerland display best.

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A brisk walk back across the city, keeping an eye out for somewhere to eat, took me back to the station, where I ordered pork schnitzel and chips in one of the restaurants. I had to wolf it down, having got ‘half past two’ into my head, when my train in fact left at 1423. And I still had to get my suitcase back. And, because I was leaving Germany, I had a reservation on this one.

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I made it with about half a minute to spare and crammed myself into the vestibule along with a dozen other people. Once I’d got my breath back, I began to proceed along the train in what I hoped was the direction of first class. This was a Danish train, and even the standard class sections looked pretty comfortable; on the downside, I couldn’t work out the numbering of the carriages or the seats. I got to mine in the end, and was rewarded by being invited to complete a survey by a very pleasant chap. I don’t think the survey was particularly interested in foreign tourists, though, because it didn’t take very long.

We headed north. I looked out for the Kiel ship canal with some interest, having read The Riddle of the Sands fairly recently. The hulking cranes were about as close as I was going to get to Erskine Childers’ shifting islands and treacherous tides. The train stopped for a passport check at the Danish border. A quick change at Fredericia, and now I headed east.

I arrived in Copenhagen as twilight was falling. The railway station faces onto the back of the Tivoli garden. (‘Dead tacky,’ my manager, who had just been to Copenhagen, had told me, ‘but go in the evening because the lights are pretty.’) My hostel was on Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard, which runs parallel to the street where I now stood. I walked around one and a half sides of the Tivoli and then, inevitably, went the wrong way down Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard. Most of the buildings were plate glass slabs with nothing as helpful as numbers on them, so I had to go quite a long way before I could be sure that I needed to turn back.

Danhostel Copenhagen City was tall, and gleamingly white inside and out. Well, the reception area was grey-brown wood-effect, and the lifts (which recognised your keycard and then directed the appropriate lift to you, and you to it) were the usual stainless steel, but mostly it was white. Reading my key holder, I discovered that the building which was now the hostel had once been the headquarters of a major Danish trade union. Talk about a busman’s holiday. I was allocated a bunk in a dormitory on the thirteenth floor, and was very happy to take advice from the lifts. Out of the window I could see the whirling lights of the Tivoli, a long, long way down.

I went and had a closer look: I paid to get into the gardens and then wandered around, not going on any of the rides but just exploring, following illuminated paths, gazing up at lanterns in the trees and brilliant carriages whirling and corkscrewing above me.

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After a while, when I’d got thirsty and tired, I went back to the youth hostel and had a beer in the bar. I tried to order breakfast for the next day; some vital bit of the system wasn’t working, so the night receptionist wrote me a note to instruct the morning receptionist that I was entitled to buy breakfast at the discounted, preordered rate.

16th April 2018

The next day was, as it happened, Queen Margarethe’s birthday. The first sign of this was a pair of flags on each bus. It was still rush hour when I left the hostel; aside from the buses, there were vast flocks of cyclists making their way down the broad, segregated, cycle lanes either side of Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard. I was jealous: I live in Cambridge, which has as significant a cycling population as anywhere in the UK, and we have nothing so good.

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Hans Christian Andersen himself – at least, his statue – sat at the corner of a square adjoining his boulevard. I crossed it. My manager’s other recommendations had been the Round Tower and the boat trip (‘and don’t bother with the Little Mermaid because the walk takes ages and you see the back of it from the boat’). I set off through the morning mist towards the Round Tower. Along the way I found the cathedral, whose understated, austere, lightness I liked a lot. I liked the Round Tower, too: a former observatory, with a church, an art gallery, and a historical exhibition to look at on the way up, and a theoretical view from the top (it really was quite misty), it combined a lot of the things I’d usually visit in a city. Then there was the novelty of the fact that it has a spiral ramp, rather than stairs, almost all the way to the top. I resolved to report on it to my best friend, who uses a wheelchair, and my husband, who doesn’t like spiral staircases.

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I didn’t have time to look at everything, however; at least, not then. I was making my way back down the spiral to go into the church when I heard the sound of a brass band.

I knew it was the Queen’s birthday. The shop assistant in the art gallery had told me so, too, when I’d bought postcards. And she’d told me that the Queen would appear on the balcony at the Amalienborg palace at noon.

In London I would not be seen dead waiting outside Buckingham Palace for Queen Elizabeth to show. But here I was a tourist, and the guards were passing right there in front of me, and really it seemed like a waste not to. The guards looked strangely familiar, in their black bearskins and scarlet tunics. I followed them and the crowd, to faintly unlikely music including The British Grenadiers and Dixie (but not very much of either), along shopping streets and across squares, down gracious avenues; then followed the crowd past embassies and fountains, and into a sea of red, white-crossed, flags under the palace windows.

There were palace windows on every side of the square, and I wasn’t sure where to look until I noticed the open door at one of the balconies. We waited. It wasn’t quite noon. The square filled up some more. We waited a little longer. The Queen appeared: a pleasant-looking old lady with glasses, and grey hair in a bun, wearing a black coat. There was much waving of Danish flags and a cheer that went ‘Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!’

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The royal family left after a little while, and the crowd dispersed. I found my way to the harbourside and booked myself onto a boat tour. Because I did want to see the Little Mermaid. I’d been thinking of her story (the Andersen version, not the Disney film, which in fact I’ve never watched all the way to the end, having had to be removed from a screening when it first came out) a lot while I’d been wandering around Copenhagen, finding the tragedy of her ongoing self-destruction both moving and infuriating.

She was smaller than I’d expected. But it was clearly easier to see her from the water than from the land: she had a good couple of dozen tourists clustered around her. From the boat, we also saw the royal yacht, the opera house, some delicate lovely bridges and a whimsical assortment of spires, the latter plentifully decked out in Danish flags. The sun came out half way around.

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Back at the harbour, I ate a lateish lunch of various different sorts of fish (pickled herring; smoked salmon; shrimps; fried plaice) with rye bread and white bread at a restaurant across the water from two separate houses where Andersen had once lived. Then I ambled back across the city, looking in at an art exhibition in a church on the way, took another look at the Round Tower, collected my luggage from the youth hostel, and was at the station with plenty of time to buy some apples and still catch my train.

The journey to Malmö was significant largely because it took us across the Øresund bridge. A former housemate was a great fan of The Bridge, in which a corpse is discovered half-way along, making it the problem of both Denmark and Sweden. Nobody was murdered on this journey, however; there was a passport check on the Swedish side and then we proceeded to Malmö.

My sleeper to Stockholm was not due to leave until after half past ten, so I left the station and spent an hour or so wandering around Malmö in the evening sunlight, admiring its art nouveau architecture. I stopped at a coffee shop called ‘Condeco’ purely because the name amused me (it’s a deeply unpopular room booking system used in my workplace), and then drank a cup of coffee before returning to the station. There was still a while before I could board my train; I passed the time by eating some bread and cheese and finishing Barchester Towers.

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The sleeper was a new experience for me. I had been allocated the top bunk of three, which made it a bit of a scramble, and I couldn’t haul my suitcase up there with me. I did not sleep fantastically well, at least in part because of remembering about the Taunton sleeper fire in the early hours of the morning. I gave up on trying to sleep and turned to writing (my diary) and reading (The Secret of the Tower, a very obscure Anthony Hope novel) instead. We arrived in Stockholm – a little delayed – at about seven in the morning.

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17th April 2018

I was conscious of being very warm, very tired, and further north than I’d ever been before in my life. I shoved my case into a left luggage locker and got myself breakfast at one of the coffee shops in the station. It’s a lovely station, very light, with murals depicting the four seasons as they appear in Sweden. The coffee shop spoke English and didn’t take cash, which turned out to be the case in most places I went in Stockholm.

Before I went into any other places, though, I went for a wander. I’d helped myself to a city plan from the tourist information stand, and seen that a) most of the old town was spread over an island to the south of where I was now; and b) my hotel (which was actually a boat) was on the shore of another island to the south of that.

So I crossed the bridge into the old town. It was not yet eight o’clock, and almost everything was still shut. This didn’t particularly bother me (at least, once I’d worked out where the public lavatories were): I’d had breakfast, after all. I just wandered around and enjoyed the sight of the sun on the spires and the water, and regretted how cobbly the streets were. When I got tired of wandering I sat on a bench looking across the bay, and wondered which of the boats on the far shore was my hotel, and read a couple of excerpts of Lesbian Pulp Fiction. (This was an interesting anthology but, since the editor had understandably chosen the most exciting parts of each book, it was rather like eating pudding over and over again and never bothering with a main course. After a while I was craving a more balanced diet.)

The next time I passed through the old town the shops were beginning to open. I wandered some more, mostly following my nose. I’d asked a friend what to do in Stockholm. ‘Wander around,’ she said, ‘and eat cake.’ Well, I was managing half of that. The streets were narrow, and quite steep. A church with an open door turned out to be the cathedral; I went in. At the cash desk I was pleased to find Frälsarkransen for sale – ‘Pearls of Life’, the nearest thing to a rosary this very middle-of-the-road Anglican feels comfortable with. I’ve made a couple of sets in my time, but I did not pass up the chance to buy the official version, so to speak.

Then I passed into the cathedral, and found it deep, and light, with an appealing higgledy-piggledy feel to it. In the north aisle there was a series of sculptures depicting the Easter story, rather naïve; at the east end a huge, magnificent, George and the Dragon; in front of the altar, a display of the trappings from Queen Kristina’s coronation (missing the hundreds of gold crowns which had once adorned her cloak); next the exit door in the south aisle, a seventeenth century painting of sun dogs over Stockholm. It struck the balance between civic space and place of worship as well as many churches I’ve been in, and better than most.

After that, I found a café and drank a cup of coffee, and then set out over the next bridge to the next island. This one was much less touristy than the old town; it had charity shops and greengrocers and an awful lot of building works. My feet hurt, and my back hurt, and I was tired, and there was still a good three hours before I could check into my hotel. I had seen signs to Fotografiska, the museum of photography, on the way over; I decided to go and look at that, and then find some lunch, and then it would be two o’clock and I’d be able to check in.

Fotografiska was further than I’d hoped, and the path alongside the road around the edge of the island was subject to the building works. As far as I could make out, it was something to do with upgrading the harbour. I got there in the end, however, left my coat in the cloakroom, and plunged into the exhibition.

It felt rather liberating, being on my own in a foreign country, knowing that I didn’t have to report back, feeling free of the perceived obligation to pass judgement, to approve or disapprove, that weighs so heavy on me at home. Instead I could just look, liking things or disliking them, being attracted or repelled, responding with something closer to what I really felt than with what I felt I ought to feel, and not worry about whether Ellen van Unwerth’s photographs of women were too male gaze-y. Besides van Unwerth there was Christian Tagliavini, whose very staged portraits recalled Jules Verne (astronauts and aquanauts, all very steampunk) and Ankaret Wells (it was the 3D-printed hats on Renaissance characters that did it) and Hans Strand with some rather depressing landscapes showing the influence of exploitation by humans.

After all that what I was really feeling was hungry, so I went up to the restaurant on the top floor and, after a little dithering, ordered the hot special of the day, which was a delicious piece of aniseedy pork with red cabbage and crisp shredded potatoes. I ate it looking out over the water, and felt generally satisfied with life, although still tired.

After this I ambled back in the direction of the station. I went around the edge of the old town this time, not through the middle. I didn’t hurry. Of course, the sooner I got checked in, the sooner I could have a nap, but hurrying was just so energetic… I even sat down on a bench and finished The Secret of the Tower (not really anything special, but I liked the main character, a woman doctor in the early post WW1 years, a lot). But there was another island across the water, crying out to be explored. I followed the path around the edge of the harbour (noting en route that I was rather relieved that the National Museum turned out to be closed, so nobody could possibly have expected me to visit it) and crossed the bridge. I liked this little island a lot: I climbed to the top and could see out across all the islands and channels and harbours, and I had it more or less to myself.

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Eventually I got back to the station and retrieved my case. I didn’t feel quite equal to the metro, so walked all the way across the two islands and two bridges, a choice that I regretted particularly during the cobbled section. I wasn’t massively impressed to find that the harbour works had blocked off much of the pedestrian footway, either, forcing me onto the cyclepath.

But I got there in the end, along with the case, and found the correct boat, and checked in, and was then directed to another boat which was where my room – or cabin, I suppose – was. It was like a white Portakabin on the water, function (in the form of as much sleeping space as physically possible) having taken precedence over form. I wasn’t too bothered. I plugged my phone in to charge, took a shower, and then, finally, lay down for the nap I’d been wanting all day.

I spent the rest of the afternoon dozing, reading, and watching the sunlight on the water. The evening, too. I didn’t want to go far from the boat, and I knew from my exploring earlier in the day that there wasn’t much that was close. So I dined on a surreptitious roll with brie, and opened the window to let the smell out. I did go across to the other boat, thinking that I wouldn’t mind a beer, but the bar was deserted, and music was pumping out too loudly for me to think that I’d be able to enjoy my quiet drink. I returned to my own boat and watched the sun setting, and the moon rising, and the evening star.

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18th April 2018

The next morning the bar was full of people, and breakfast, and the view across the water was still lovely. I checked out, trundled my suitcase across town to the station, and set out to enjoy a last few hours in Stockholm. In a café in the old town I at last managed to fulfil the ‘eat cake’ part of my friend’s advice (a fabulous green marzipanny chocolatey thing), writing postcards in between tiny luxurious bites; then I looked around the dance museum, with half an eye on my watch all the time.

But there was plenty of time: time to see the museum, and time to get back to the station, and time to buy a salad for lunch and restock my supplies of rolls and apples and cheese, and time to retrieve my suitcase and get on my train, and still I had almost all of my journey still to come.

 

Next: Part 3: I spent cities like a handful of change