Unseen Britain – Kings Cross to York


The automatic ticket machine in the small lobby just started to print out my tickets to get to Scarborough when an announcement came over the tannoy:

‘The thirteen hundred Kings Cross to Scarborough calling at Peterborough, York, Darlington, Newcastle and Edinburgh will be leaving from platform……’

The last part, the platform number, was lost by a sudden rush of noise on the station concourse. Close by were two platform staff who pointed us towards the right platform. The train was leaving in four minutes and we were on board in just over two rushing past the guard who already had one foot in the train and one on the platform and whistle in his mouth. We jumped on in the first of four first class carriages and so had to manhandle ourselves and two suitcases through four coaches before we could even think of looking for a seat. Coach F was ‘Standard Class’ and just inside the door were two seats facing a table. The area had a notice up on the bulkhead saying ‘This is a priority area for wheelchair users and their carers’. There were no wheelchair users on the train so we took up squatter’s rights and sat in the two available seats.

On the back of mine was a small card stating that the seat had been reserved by a Mr Dillon Gilbert for the journey from Kings Cross to Darlington. The train started to move and I felt reasonably safe in Mr Gilbert’s seat.

Then, there was an influx of passengers trekking through from first class just as we had a few minutes ago. We had cut it fine getting on the train but this tribe had cut it even finer. I tried to make myself look small as they traipsed past in the hope that if Mr Dillon Gilbert did appear he would not notice his reserved seat and me in it.

Each time a male passenger entered the carriage I carried out a mental check on them. He has a black skull cap, no, most likely not Mr Gilbert. Uuhhmm, he looks kind of funky like his name…..Afro hairstyle, bright red shoes, dark glasses and headphones on. No, not Mr Dillon. Man in a suit carrying a laptop bag. Might be but no, he has gone past and not returned.

Soon we were approaching Peterborough. My side of the train looked down on to a piece of waste ground between some apartment blocks and the station. A lonely figure carrying some shoppi9ng bags shuffled their way across the parched gravelly surface along a path worn by the passing of countless pairs of shoes. The way the figure was dressed and the increasing distance between us made it impossible to discern any gender. As they did not speed up their walk as the train went by I assumed that were not going to be catching this one. As the train pulled out I looked back the lonely figure and thought of the paintings by the artist Lowry showing figures against a harsh urban and industrial landscape.

Passengers were finally settled and Mr Dillon Gilbert had not appeared to claim his territory. I was safe until we would get off the train at York so out came the sandwiches and John Steinbeck’s and Robert Capa’s ‘A Russian Journal’. I had just reached the part of their travels around Russia in 1947 where they were in the wheat fields of the Ukraine in August as the harvest was being gathered from the bread basket of Europe.

John Steinbeck described how, less than two years since the end of World War II, the harvest was being gathered largely with the use of manual labour. No one in the farming community was spared from this back breaking task which involved intense manual labour as what farm equipment these farms had before the war was either broken or scrapped and the metal converted into military hardware. An antonym rendition of the proverb ‘swords into ploughshares’.

Despite the hardships of their lives the Ukrainians were still able to give Steinbeck and Capa a welcome felled by copious amounts of vodka, tables groaning under the weight of food and respect, not as American visitors but, as ‘people’. I felt that they would always give up their seat on a crowded bus to a person older than themselves even though they themselves may be exhausted from their work in the fields.

From just before Peterborough and onward towards York the country on either side of the train between urban and industrial development expanded towards the horizons in fields of mono crop wheat. Acres of wheat wafted restlessly in the breeze soaking up the sun waiting to be harvested. Acres were just being harvested by combine harvesters throwing short lived clouds of dust into the air, loose straw on to the golden stubble and kernels of wheat into trailers escorting their progress. Acres where the wheat had already been harvested were now having their loose straw collected and consolidated into bales bounced back on to the ground and awaiting collection to a barn for the winter.

Between Doncaster and York the landscape became increasingly undulating and then hilly. As this shift in landscape happened the fields of wheat became smaller and bordered with traditional hedges creating the patchwork pattern of fields we hark back to as ‘traditional’. It appeared that not one acre that could grow wheat was wasted. Even scrappy looking fields with bald patches of earth held a harvest in waiting.

We pulled into York in warm sunshine not knowing or caring if we were early, on time or late. The important thing was that we had arrived and the bulk of our journey to Scarborough was behind us and we just couldn’t wait to check in at The Grand Hotel .


About alangrenville

I live in southern Britain near the fabulous New Forest. While studying for a BSc in International Studies I have developed a strong belief in 'NIBAW' or 'nothing is black and white'. Hence my favourite saying "Too often we...enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought" (John F Kennedy).
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