I wasn’t a 16th-century seafarer poring over charts in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, or a Victorian explorer studying documents to locate a lost city in the jungles of South America. And I wasn’t a modern-day mountaineer looking at a map of the Alps, Andes or Himalayas in the hope of finding a new, untried ascent of one of the world’s highest peaks. Nevertheless, as I examined a map of England and keyed in some search instructions on the National Rail Enquiries website I couldn’t help feeling some of the same, adventurous, pioneering spirit. It was a few days before Christmas Eve and I was planning my journey to the place I would be staying for a few days, just over the border with Wales in the historic county of Radnorshire.
The official advice was to travel via Birmingham and Shrewsbury, but to my eyes this looked like a very circuitous route. Relying on my own experiences of regular visits to Hereford, a train journey to the cathedral city and then north for a quick change at Craven Arms appeared to be much more direct and sensible. Although I confess I didn’t know much about the place, in the cobwebs of my mind I seemed to recall that Craven Arms was known as the “Gateway to the Marches” and was an important railway hub. I was therefore confident that, thanks to a bit of initiative on my part, I would have a much quicker journey and I felt a surge of pride at my decision to “go it alone”: had he tamely followed the guidelines of others, rather than discovering numerous islands in the Pacific and becoming the first man to circumnavigate New Zealand, Captain James Cook would have laid anchor in…Shrewsbury.
So it was, late in the morning on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve, that I alighted (that seems to be the way to leave trains) on the platform of Craven Arms railway station. Although there were two long platforms, with a footbridge over the rails connecting them, I could tell immediately that this wasn’t anything like that other famous railway centre, Crewe. There was no ticket office, no waiting room, no cafe, no shop, no customer service kiosk, just a speaker that occasionally crackled into life like someone clearing their voice but then deciding not to speak, and an electronic sign that informed me with devastating clarity that my connection was not due to arrive for another hour and forty minutes. My ship was trapped in pack ice; it was becalmed and in the doldrums of a tropical ocean. I was like a polar explorer with nothing to do but shelter in his tent until the arctic storm has passed.
I suppose it served me right for not checking the times of trains. If I had been the poet Edward Thomas I would have put my delay to good use and written a poem about it:
“Yes. I remember Craven Arms -
The name, because one afternoon
Of cold the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late December.”
Instead, scenes from a number of Hollywood films inexplicably passed through my mind: “Bad Day at Black Rock” where Spencer Tracy arrives in a mysterious small town and uncovers a terrible secret; “North By Northwest” as Cary Grant leaves the bus on a deserted highway prior to the famous crop-dusting scene; “High Noon”, with the town marshal played by Gary Cooper tensely awaiting the arrival of a gang of outlaws on the 12 o’clock train (even the film’s theme song “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” started playing in my head).
The only other people present were a girl seated in one of the small shelters reading a book, and a young man who arrived on the platform, sat on a bench for 15 minutes, then got up and left the station. I couldn’t see anything of Craven Arms the town, but perhaps there was nothing else to do. Several minutes later another man appeared, climbed the steps of the bridge and walked to the centre of the structure. There he paused and very deliberately looked both ways down the line. It was as if the railway had suddenly appeared one day and no one quite knew what it was for.
I never thought I would say this, but thank goodness for mobile phones. I knew that my brother-in-law would jump in his car and come and rescue me, but he must have been shocked to hear a desperate voice shouting “May Day! May Day!” when his ring tone sounded and he pressed “Accept”.
As a result of that experience my immediate resolution was, in future, to make sure that I followed the official travel advice. Later on, though, I changed my mind, and decided that next year I would do exactly the same, but this time fill the hour and forty minutes with an exploration of the town. I am sure there will be plenty of interesting things to see: an ancient church, perhaps, or a market cross, and an old inn whose grey, ghostly guests arrived on the train many years ago and never left.