Imagine if your rush-hour commute faded away to a surreal moment picking blackberries, and viewing a cross in the sky. It happened when my busy train stopped, reminding me of Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Adlestrop’… (below).
For a couple of weeks in 2000 I caught the 19:00 train from Charing Cross to the coast at Deal. The elderly electric trains took – to the minute – the same amount of time as the 19:00 train from King’s Cross took to Brough a hundred miles farther and with a change at Doncaster. I’d been surprised to discover that when I visited a friend there.
Yet dawdling was fine, as it was Summer and the Kent countryside shone gloriously in the evening sun. Then besides, twice, something magical happened at Headcorn. The long busy train juddered to a halt, the Headcorn travellers would hurry off home to the sound of doors opening and slamming and then…. well nothing. The train stood. And stood still: even the vacuum brake pump faded to silence. Bolder people would alight and light a cigarette and casually leave their doors swinging open. Those on the train realised they had stopped overlong and glanced up from their Evening Standards, suddenly mindful of the pause. Through open doors and windows for 20 minutes wafted birdsong and Summer evening scents. Blackberries ripened near the platform fence. This was a scheduled stop to allow two Eurostar trains to whir past on their way to Paris and Brussels.
A couple of times I stood on the quiet platform enthralled, for across the tracks was Headcorn Aerodrome: famous for aeronautic displays. This particular evening propeller planes practised loop-the-loops and wing-tip rolls and, vividly as a sign from God, one plane hung in the air at the top of its bank and caught the sun’s golden setting rays. For seconds like hours it hung still, looking every bit like a gold cross of fuselage and wings against blue sky, before veering stalling into the dive and repeating.
Then rushing out of the sunset along the straight came a Eurostar train, rocking the old stationary train in its platform and vanishing east: Brussels-bound. Blackbirds chittered. The passengers coughed and rustled newspapers more impatiently, frowning at the passengers who stayed nonchalantly on the platform until the second Eurostar hurried past: Paris-bound.
As the Paris train clattered east, cigarettes were stubbed, doors slammed and the whistle blown for our own journey to resume slowly coast-bound; towards the shadows’ farthest tips. I picked a blackberry pip from my teeth. It was an odd but magical rush hour, repeated a few times over a few weeks, whose memory is triggered sometimes by a sight of brambles on a platform.
Even as I stood on the platform at Headcorn, these innocent and tranquil moments carried into my head the words of Edward Thomas’s 1914 poem Adlestrop. He was sadly killed at the Battle of Arras just 3 years later. My own experience of the Iraq War also means that – to me – these Headcorn moments have acquired a rather prelapsarian quality of olde England.
Yes, I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.