Hilaire Belloc

On railways and things

Railways have changed the arrangement and distribution of crowds and solitude, but have done nothing to disturb the essential contrast between them.

The more behindhand of my friends, among whom I count the weary men of the towns, are ceaselessly bewailing the effect of railways and the spoiling of the country; nor do I fail, when I hear such complaints, to point out their error, courteously to hint at their sheep-like qualities, and with all the delicacy imaginable to let them understand they are no better than machines repeating worn-out formulae through the nose. The railways and those slow lumbering things the steamboats have not spoilt our solitudes, on the contrary they have intensified the quiet of the older haunts, they have created new sanctuaries, and (crowning blessing) they make it easy for us to reach our refuges.

For in the first place you will notice that new lines of travel are like canals cut through the stagnant marsh of an old civilisation, draining it of populace and worry, and concentrating upon themselves the odious pressure of humanity.

You know (to adopt the easy or conversational style) that you and I belong to a happy minority. We are the sons of the hunters and the wandering singers, and from our boyhood nothing ever gave us greater pleasure than to stand under lonely skies in forest clearings, or to find a beach looking westward at evening over unfrequented seas. But the great mass of men love companionship so much that nothing seems of any worth compared with it. Human communion is their meat and drink, and so they use the railways to make bigger and bigger hives for themselves.

Now take the true modern citizen, the usurer. How does the usurer suck the extremest pleasure out of his holiday? He takes the train preferably at a very central station near the Strand, and (if he can choose his time) on a foggy and dirty day; he picks out an express that will take him with the greatest speed through the Garden of Eden, nor does he begin to feel the full savour of relaxation till a row of abominable villas’ appears on the southern slope of what were once the downs; these villas stand like the skirmishers of a foul army deployed: he is immediately whirled into Brighton and is at peace. There he has his wish for three days; there he can never see anything but houses, or, if he has to walk along the sea, he can rest his eye on herds of unhappy people and huge advertisements, and he can hear the newspaper boys telling lies (perhaps special lies he has paid for) at the top of their voices; he can note as evening draws on the pleasant glare of gas upon the street mud and there pass him the familiar surroundings of servility, abject poverty, drunkenness, misery, and vice. He has his music-hall on the Saturday evening with the sharp, peculiar finish of the London accent in the patriotic song, he has the London paper on Sunday to tell him that his nastiest little Colonial War was a crusade, and on Monday morning he has the familiar feeling that follows his excesses of the previous day…. Are you not glad that such men and their lower-fellows swarm by hundreds of thousands into the “resorts”? Do you not bless the railways that take them so quickly from one Hell to another.

Never let me hear you say that the railways spoil a countryside; they do, it is true, spoil this or that particular place—as, for example, Crewe, Brighton, Stratford-on-Avon—but for this disadvantage they give us I know not how many delights. What is more English than the country railway station? I defy the eighteenth century to produce anything more English, more full of home and rest and the nature of the country, than my junction. Twenty-seven trains a day stop at it or start from it; it serves even the expresses. Smith’s monopoly has a bookstall there; you can get cheap Kipling and Harmsworth to any extent, and yet it is a theme for English idylls. The one-eyed porter whom I have known from childhood; the station-master who ranges us all in ranks, beginning with the Duke and ending with a sad, frayed and literary man; the little chaise in which the two old ladies from Barlton drive up to get their paper of an evening, the servant from the inn, the newsboy whose mother keeps a sweetshop—they are all my village friends. The glorious Sussex accent, whose only vowel is the broad “a”, grows but more rich and emphatic from the necessity of impressing itself upon foreign intruders. The smoke also of the train as it skirts the Downs is part and parcel of what has become (thanks to the trains) our encloistered country life; the smoke of the trains is a little smudge of human activity which permits us to match our incomparable seclusion with the hurly-burly from which we have fled. Upon my soul, when I climb up the Beacon to read my book on the warm turf, the sight of an engine coming through the cutting is an emphasis of my selfish enjoyment. I say “There goes the Brighton train”, but the image of Brighton, with its Anglo-Saxons and its Vision of Empire, does not oppress me; it is a far-off thing; its life ebbs and flows along that belt of iron to distances that do not regard me.

Consider this also with regard to my railway: it brings me what I want in order to be perfect in my isolation. Those books discussing Problems: whether or not there is such an idea as right; the inconvenience of being married; the worry of being Atheist and yet living upon a clerical endowment,—these fine discussions come from a library in a box by train and I can torture myself for a shilling, whereas, before the railways, I should have had to fall back on the Gentleman’s Magazine and the County History. In the way of newspapers it provides me with just the companionship necessary to a hermitage. Often and often, after getting through one paper, I stroll down to the junction and buy fifteen others, and so enjoy the fruits of many minds.

Thanks to my railway I can sit in the garden of an evening and read my paper as I smoke my pipe, and say, “Ah! That’s Buggin’s work. I remember him well; he worked for Rhodes…. Hullo! Here’s Simpson at it again; since when did they buy him? …” And so forth. I lead my pastoral life, happy in the general world about me, and I serve, as sauce to such healthy meat, the piquant wickedness of the town; nor do I ever note a cowardice, a lie, a bribery, or a breach of trust, a surrender in the field, or a new Peerage, but I remember that my newspaper could not add these refining influences to my life but for the railway which I set out to praise at the beginning of this and intend to praise manfully to the end.

Yet another good we owe to railways occurs to me. They keep the small towns going.

Don’t pester me with “economics” on that point; I know more economics than you, and I say that but for the railways the small towns would have gone to pieces. There never yet was a civilisation growing richer and improving its high roads in which the small towns did not dwindle. The village supplied the local market with bodily necessaries; the intellectual life, the civic necessities had to go into the large towns. It happened in the second and third centuries in Italy; it happened in France between Henri IV and the Revolution; it was happening here before 1830.

Take those little paradises Ludlow and Leominster; consider Arundel, and please your memory with the admirable slopes of Whitchurch; grow contented in a vision of Ledbury, of Rye, or of Abingdon, or of Beccles with its big church over the river, or of Newport in the Isle of Wight, or of King’s Lynn, or of Lymington—you would not have any of these but for the railway, and there are 1800 such in England—one for every tolerable man.

Valognes in the Cotentin, Bourg-d’Oysan down in the Dauphiné in its vast theatre of upright hills, St. Julien in the Limousin, Aubusson-in-the-hole, Puy (who does not connect beauty with the word?), Mansle in the Charente country—they had all been half dead for over a century when the railway came to them and made them jolly, little, trim, decent, self-contained, worthy, satisfactory, genial, comforting and human [Greek: politeiae], with clergy, upper class, middle class, poor, soldiers, yesterday’s news, a college, anti-Congo men, fools, strong riders, old maids, and all that makes a state. In England the railway brought in that beneficent class, the gentlemen; in France, that still more beneficent class, the Haute Bourgeoisie.

I know what you are going to say; you are going to say that there were squires before the railways in England. Pray have you considered how many squires there were to go round? About half a dozen squires to every town, that is (say) four gentlemen, and of those four gentlemen let us say two took some interest in the place. It wasn’t good enough … and heaven help the country towns now if they had to depend on the great houses! There would be a smart dog-cart once a day with a small (vicious and servile) groom in it, an actor, a foreign money-lender, a popular novelist, or a newspaper owner jumping out to make his purchases and driving back again to his host’s within the hour. No, no; what makes the country town is the Army, the Navy, the Church, and the Law—especially the retired ones.

Then think of the way in which the railways keep a good man’s influence in a place and a bad man’s out of it. Your good man loves a country town, but he must think, and read, and meet people, so in the last century he regretfully took a town house and had his little house in the country as well. Now he lives in the country and runs up to town when he likes.

He is always a permanent influence in the little city—especially if he has but £400 a year, which is the normal income of a retired gentleman (yes, it is so, and if you think it is too small an estimate, come with me some day and make an inquisitorial tour of my town). As for the vulgar and cowardly man, he hates small towns (fancy a South African financier in a small town!), well, the railway takes him away. Of old he might have had to stay there or starve, now he goes to London and runs a rag, or goes into Parliament, or goes to dances dressed up in imitation of a soldier; or he goes to Texas and gets hanged—it’s all one to me. He’s out of my town.

And as the railways have increased the local refinement and virtue, so they have ennobled and given body to the local dignitary. What would the Bishop of Caen (he calls himself Bishop of Lisieux and Bayeux, but that is archaeological pedantry); what, I say, would the Bishop of Caen be without his railway? A Phantom or a Paris magnate. What the Mayor of High Wycombe? Ah! what indeed! But I cannot waste any more of this time of mine in discussing one aspect of the railway; what further I have to say on the subject shall be presented in due course in my book on The Small Town of Christendom [Footnote: The Small Town of Christendom: an Analytical Study. With an Introduction by Joseph Reinach. Ulmo et Cie. £25 nett.] I will close this series of observations with a little list of benefits the railway gives you, many of which would not have occurred to you but for my ingenuity, some of which you may have thought of at some moment or other, and yet would never have retained but for my patient labour in this.

The railway gives you seclusion. If you are in an express alone you are in the only spot in Western Europe where you can be certain of two or three hours to yourself. At home in the dead of night you may be wakened by a policeman or a sleep-walker or a dog. The heaths are populous. You cannot climb to the very top of Helvellyn to read your own poetry to yourself without the fear of a tourist. But in the corner of a third-class going north or west you can be sure of your own company; the best, the most sympathetic, the most brilliant in the world.

The railway gives you sharp change. And what we need in change is surely keenness. For instance, if one wanted to go sailing in the old days, one left London, had a bleak drive in the country, got nearer and nearer the sea, felt the cold and wet and discomfort growing on one, and after half a day or a day’s gradual introduction to the thing, one would at last have got on deck, wet and wretched, and half the fun over. Nowadays what happens? Why, the other day, a rich man was sitting in London with a poor friend; they were discussing what to do in three spare days they had. They said “let us sail.” They left London in a nice warm, comfortable, rich-padded, swelly carriage at four, and before dark they were letting everything go, putting on the oilies, driving through the open in front of it under a treble-reefed storm jib, praying hard for their lives in last Monday’s gale, and wishing to God they had stayed at home—all in the four hours. That is what you may call piquant, it braces and refreshes a man.

For the rest I cannot detail the innumerable minor advantages of railways; the mild excitement which is an antidote to gambling; the shaking which (in moderation) is good for livers; the meeting familiarly with every kind of man and talking politics to him; the delight in rapid motion; the luncheon-baskets; the porters; the solid guard; the strenuous engine-driver (note this next time you travel—it is an accurate observation). And of what other kind of modern thing can it be said that more than half pay dividends? Thinking of these things, what sane and humorous man would ever suggest that a part of life, so fertile in manifold and human pleasure, should ever be bought by the dull clique who call themselves “the State”, and should yield under such a scheme yet more, yet larger, yet securer salaries to the younger sons.


MLA Citation

Belloc, Hilaire. “On railways and things.” 1907. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 5 Nov 2008. 18 Jul 2024 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/belloc/railways_and_things/>.

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