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

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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

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