In Praise of Rails was sparked off by a poetry competition organised by the National Railway Museum in 2011. I submitted a poem called Sleek Beast That´s Sir Nigel Gresley, and although it didn´t win I wasn´t in the least bit disappointed as the actual winners fully deserved their prizes. In the process of researching material for that particular poem, I found that memories about this iconic locomotive came flooding back as one of my best friends in Yorkshire has an amazing print of it steaming at full tilt and I am always mesmerised by its brutal beauty. This rekindled my interest in trains and since then untold hours have been spent visiting numerous heritage railways and museums taking photos, researching, learning technical jargon, visiting some of the mentioned lines to hit my target of fifty poems … what an enjoyable way to ponder, relax, write and regain a passion for trains.
Where did this love for all things trains start? Somehow, lovely memories of engines have always been there somewhere in the subconscious. I can still vaguely recall standing lineside when I was in primary school watching laden coal trucks trundle past being hauled by a filthy tank engine from Ifton Heath coal mine before it closed.
This engine may, or may not, have been a shunter called Hornet. More vividly, I remember being sent on obligatory cross-country runs in all weathers from secondary school along the now disused and trackless Ifton Pit to Weston Rhyn sidings line. We slid down the steep embankments, bare legs getting bramble-ripped to pieces then ran through the muddy woods and icy streams before the uphill trek back again to school. We also used to walk along this same line in the opposite direction at a weekend and watch the annual Dragon Rally Hell´s Angel hordes on BSAs, Triumphs and Nortons pass underneath the long-gone iron bridge over the A5 as they revved en-masse to the north Wales coast.
Of course, like most of my peers I had Hornby and Tri-ang sets as a teen. We didn´t realise their future worth at the time, we just played with them until they were wrecked and thrown out. Once I´d left school I got a job as an apprentice draughtsman at Hathaway fire engine pump manufacturers in Gobowen, Shropshire and many hours were spent doodling and daydreaming out of the window as the trucks arrived from the ARC Stone quarry in Llynclys and were shunted by a little diesel, then got hauled away by a rumbling Deltic-type bigger loco on the main Chester to Wolverhampton line.
At seventeen, four of us school friends went camping alone for the first time at Towyn and the thunderous rumble of engines, that also looked like Deltics to my untrained eyes, shook the flimsy tent harder than our headmaster had ever shaken us for being regularly naughty as they hauled boat trains up to Holyhead. A couple of years later I travelled alone to catch a boat train to Weymouth so I could visit a girlfriend in Guernsey.
When I watched the YouTube clips recently it brought back heavenly memories of hanging out of the push-down windows as the train squeezed its way along the quay. As an adult, I´ve been underground at Llechwedd slate mines, got spooked on the Halloween train at Elsecar, been astounded by the sights in the National Railway Museum at York, taken groups of Spanish teenagers for their first-ever experience of steam at Bowness and Kinneil on the Scottish coast, witnessed Thomas the Tank replicas turn kids and adults hysterical as it arrived at Llangollen or Elsecar, even walked parts of the disused Woodhead line in South Yorkshire with my dog.
However, not all train trips were good; I´ve been terrified as a decrepit football special was bricked to pieces in a cutting at Leeds, and often went from Wales on Saturdays to watch Man Utd, getting off at grubby Oxford Road or Manchester Victoria. Once I took the lazy route up Snowdon and got blasted by the icy winds and sudden hailstone early summer shower as the carriage was pushed up to its peak.
Looking back now at the pleasure trains have brought throughout my lifetime, I realise how lucky I am to have had so many sporadic opportunities to experience different aspects of Britain´s unique railway heritage and hope that I´ve produced poems that will inspire and encourage people to ride on the mentioned trains and lines, explore the museums and all the great things there are to be found around railways.
Each of the fifty poems can be analysed and dissected if readers particularly want to, sometimes just a name hides so much detail and interesting information, and to this end there are pages of explanatory notes at the end of the book which will hopefully aid those seeking answers to some of the more obscure references. Once I decided to limit the scope of this collection to the UK only I spent innumerable, enjoyable hours venturing into half-unknown waters to gather railway-specific vocabulary, read numerous books, researched historical facts and design details, found anecdotes about people, places, events, engines, checked out YouTube and Flickr for photos or videos of railway activity and watched Great British Railway Journeys until my eyes went square.
I would like to thank Margaret Rowland, Kathy Rollinson, Douglas Hill, John Edwards and Iarla Mongey from Stanza Mar Menor in Spain, plus Lorraine Mace from The Writer´s Bureau. I owe them all a huge debt for keeping me on track because without their advice and constructive support (or helpful nagging!) I doubt I would have ever crossed the finishing line with this mammoth poetry writing project that took almost three years to complete. I would also like to thank John Wardle for his excellent front and back cover sketches. Matching poetic style and rhythm turning jumbled thoughts into finished verse relating to particular trains was difficult at times and if I have made any mistakes, then I wholeheartedly apologise to any nerdy people who pick them up and can only offer this in my defence – If you can do better, do it. If not, get a life!
David Leslie Urion
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