52 Trains of thought
Adrian Dangar reflects on how, in the 19th century, our railways opened up country sports in the Highlands to a wider audience
Adrian Dangar reflects on how, in the 19th century, railways opened up country sports in the Highlands to a wider audience
MENTION trains to the modern field sportsman and the reaction is unlikely to be favourable. Railways not only cut hunting countries into pieces, they regularly threaten hounds with a similar fate and hundreds of miles of overgrown embankments offer haven to hordes of game and vermin beyond the reach of gun, dog or hound. It wasn’t always thus.
Although the novelist R. S. Surtees predicted, in 1834, that railways would consign hunting to history, the sport quickly took advantage of a new and easy way of transporting hounds and horses around rural England. Within 40 years of Surtees’s gloomy prophecies, Brooksby’s The Hunting Countries of England was offering advice on where to hunt with reference to stations and train times and several accounts of great hunting runs in the 19th century mention that hounds arrived by train.
Art and literature from the period also bear witness to railways opening up sport in the formerly inaccessible Highlands. George Earl’s oil painting Going North, King’s Cross Station offers centre stage to sleek gundogs held by gamekeepers in front of guests waiting to board the train for Scotland. Sporting paraphernalia is scattered about the platform in a scene that captures the timeless excitement we still feel at the outset of a sporting adventure.
The same subjects depicted a few weeks later in Coming South: Perth Station are wrapped in capes on the chilly Highland platform, their dogs leaner and subdued following hard work in the hills. The 1895 painting portrays game and antlers as trophies from a trip that would never have taken place without the train.
Equally evocative is A. M. Harbord’s Victorian ode to the distant—and, for the writer, unreach-
I spent many happy hours rabbiting in the railway embankments
able—sporting paradise of the Highlands. With lines that take the reader straight back to Earl’s station platform: ‘Stranger with the pile of luggage proudly labelled for Portree,/how I wish this night of August I were you and you were me!/think of all that lies before you when the train goes sliding forth.’ The writer lyrically describes romantic and faraway places he may never see again: ‘Rowdy Tummel falling, brawling, seen and lost and glimpsed again!’
Nowadays, only the most intrepid of travellers would board the Caledonian Sleeper with guns, fishing rods and dogs, although my wife did reach Inverness safely last year with three children and a cocker spaniel called Sid in tow.
The cosy relationship between trains and fieldsports vanished with the advent of reliable motorcars and roads built to carry them, but these unlikely bedfellows have occasionally and happily combined in the post-second World War era. Not so many years ago, a train driver on the Helmsdale line in Sutherland stopped to watch a fisherman playing a salmon downstream of Kildonan station— after the fish was successfully landed, the train sped off with a congratulatory blast of the horn.
Yorkshireman Bill Baldwin remembers his father shooting at Newtondale in the 1950s, where a railway line runs the full length of a deep valley. A shot pheasant fell onto the track and, before it could be retrieved, a goods train came chugging around the corner and screeched to a halt. Speechless, Maj Baldwin could only watch as the fireman leapt out and grabbed the bird before continuing his journey. When he found his tongue, it was to condemn an act of theft as, in postwar Britain, pheasant was still something of a treat. The JP had to wait for the party to reach Levisham station before he could reclaim his prize. ‘’Ang on a minute, major,’ said the fireman, before reappearing with the roasted bird on a coal shovel. ‘Father didn’t have a response for that,’ recalls Bill. ‘He was thoroughly beaten.’
I cherish my own memories of the same line, a few miles closer to Whitby, where the track runs parallel to the River Esk. As a child, I spent happy hours rabbiting in the railway embankments with terrier and ferret. The Goathland hounds used to cross the line with impunity and, apart from one bitch that famously lost her stern, I don’t recall an unhappy incident.
I do, however, remember someone falling off jumping the fence onto the line during a good hunt. At that moment, a train appeared, stopped to take the horseless rider on board and let him off again a mile later when his mount finally came to a halt. Although that incident took place less than 30 years ago, I couldn’t imagine it happening now—more’s the pity.
A bygone world: sleek gundogs, fashionable guests and sporting paraphernalia take centre stage in George Earl’s Going North, King’s Cross Station