Part 2 – Trains
This is the second blog in a series where I look at the real historical events and facts behind my Clearwater Mysteries Series. Today we talk about my love of train travel, how it features in the books and are joined by my personal Railway Guru, Andy.
There is a lot of train travel in The Clearwater Mysteries, and for two reasons. Firstly, in the era in which the books are set, there were no cars or aeroplanes, travel was steam-powered, horse-driven, by sail, or you could walk. Secondly, I’ve always had a thing for travel, maps and routes. Within that is an interest in steam trains, though I am no expert. It must be in my blood, this thing about locomotives, and if it is, I can identify a good reason why.
The Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway: A Childhood on the Tracks
It’s ironic, maybe, that I was born in 1963, the year the first Beeching report was undertaken. ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’ sought to streamline the nationalised railways industry and was responsible for identifying 2,363 stations for closure (55%) and 30% of route miles. It’s also interesting that when I was born, my small, fairly remote hometown still had a railway station, and steam trains were still in use on mainlines, although they were being replaced by diesel. However, I can honestly say that the first time I ever travelled by train, it was pulled by a steam locomotive.
A mile from where I was born (in a petrol station and car repair shop, by the way) was, and still is, the central station for the world’s smallest passenger-carrying light railway. That’s the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway (RHDR), a 13.5-mile steam railway on a 15-inch gauge. The line was opened in 1927 and later expanded, much used by the military in WWII, and runs today as a popular tourist attraction. When I was at school, my classmates from out of town used it to get to school, and when I was growing up, it was part of my playground. I have childhood memories of not only riding on it but also being at the stations among the steam, playing on the tracks and simply watching the locomotives trailing steam and smoke across the marsh.
As an aside, at some point in the 70s, my godmother, The Dowager Lady Alvingham (on whom Lady Marshall is based in the Clearwater books), showed an interest in buying a castle that stands on a hill overlooking Romney Marsh. At the same time, my uncle, who had a passion for model railways, showed an interest in buying the RHDR. Their plan was to sit in Aunty Dolly’s castle, watching Uncle Hugh’s ‘toy’ trainset chugging across the flatlands below. Sadly, it never came to fruition, but my uncle did give us the model layout he’d built, and my father installed it in our attic. It was a vast landscape about 12 feet by four, had houses with working lights, the Flying Scotsman with real smoke, and provided hours of endless fascination for my brothers and me.
My interest in train travel is still chugging along. In fact, it is my preferred method of travel. There is something romantic in planning a journey, and sometimes I think I am a frustrated travel agent. I don’t mean popping into Expedia and booking a flight and hotel; I mean looking at a map, working out what railways will get you there, finding the timetables and working out the connections.
A few years ago, Neil and I decided on a Central European holiday. It was my fault, really. I wanted to travel a few countries by train, so I got out the atlas, Googled a bit, and set to work on a route. Because we live on an island, we had to start the journey by boat and fly to our first destination, Vienna. We were met by Neil’s brother, who lives there, and travelled into the city by train, so that was a good start. After a couple of days there, we moved on, and in the space of a couple of weeks, went from Vienna to Prague to Budapest to Belgrade on a variety of train journeys, some more classy than others.
Before this, we had been to Romania for my 50th birthday, flying into Bucharest and then taking the train into the Carpathian Mountains to Sighisoara, the alleged birthplace of Vlad Tepes on whom Stoker based Dracula. We also travelled by train to Brasov and stayed there on the way back to Bucharest, and we did all this first-class because, in Europe, ticket prices are often a tenth of the price they are in the UK and elsewhere.
I mention all this because, in the upcoming novel ‘The Clearwater Inheritance,’ some of the characters find themselves travelling by train and visit, among other places, Vienna, Budapest, and Brasov, and they journey through the Carpathian Mountains.
One of my life’s ambitions was to travel across Canada by train, a five-day journey from Toronto to Vancouver. (We passed through a place called Clearwater, and stopped at a place called Collins.) This we achieved last year, just before the world was overcome by the virus.
Actually, we left Vancouver at the end of the Canadian leg of the journey, the day after the country went into lockdown. Although our trip wasn’t over, we had to cut the London and Athens legs short as there was no point in going there; everything was shut. Rearranging flights at two in the morning while sitting in an airport, buying boat tickets, finding hotels, and wondering whether we might have to travel from London to Athens by hire car or train… Well, for me, that was like a weird dream come true. The travel agent in me kicked in, and we became like continents on ‘The Amazing Race.’
You won’t be surprised to learn I am keen on ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ by Jules Verne.
At this point I thought it would be fun to invite my good friend Andy over tell us a little about himself. He has become my Railway Guru, always willing to answer my questions and check facts for me as I research the series. I asked him where his love of trains came from and how that seed grew.
I first became interested in railways at the age of 10 when my parents unwisely bought me an “ABC” locomotive spotting book to shut me up on an interminable family holiday rail journey from Birmingham to Ilfracombe. They came to very much regret doing this as my bedroom filled up with railway magazines, models, and bits of actual railway equipment. I was already interested in buses as there was a major bus depot a few minutes walk from my house. Through the teenage years the interests became more advanced with much borrowing of books from the library, and at the same time steam was disappearing from the UK national railway network. No doubt all that reading about how things came to be the way they were encouraged me to take a University degree in history, and then start a career in transport management (buses in this case). A switch to managing freight transport followed, and then manufacturing industry.
So great that your childhood hobby grew into your career. And I know that even now in retirement you have managed to carry on in a new capacity…
Yes, after semi-retirement I took up a part-time position at my local heritage steam railway as Booking Office Supervisor, surrounded by 1898 vintage buildings, real working steam trains, and a superb shop selling second hand railway books. I have also added looking at ferries and aircraft to my transport studies.
When not doing this I like reading fiction, often set in the late-Victorian, Edwardian, 1920/30/40s era, and sneering at authors who get their railway facts wrong (and so often their geography too). Being used as a consultant on your “Clearwater” series was immensely satisfying as a result.
Thank you Andy and I really think that maybe it will be your turn next to write a book!
So back to my writing and how I use trains in the Clearwater Mysteries.
The first time a train appears is in chapter one of book two, ‘Twisted Tracks’.
James Joseph Wright was born on January 10th, 1863, at the precise moment the world’s first underground train delivered its passengers to Farringdon station. As the locomotive puffed and fumed from the tunnel, James’s mother, some four miles distant, puffed and fumed through her own first delivery.
That’s the only time an underground train is mentioned in the series, but overground trains start to feature from then on. I started this book with an ending in mind. I wanted one of those classic ‘fight on the roof of a moving train’ moments and wanted to add in men on horseback riding alongside, someone (James) inching along the outside of the trucks, the villain doing away with the driver, and the train racing out of control towards a fiery end… And that’s exactly what you get.
Archer wasn’t far behind, galloping from the ridge to the rear of the train and encouraging his mount with his crop. The horse knew its purpose and worked with him, delivering him up the embankment to the backplate. The viscount drew level with the last car, stood in the stirrups, and grabbed the rail. With one great leap, he left the saddle and swung his legs across to the car. He landed first time and clambered aboard as the horse veered off and slowed. Archer wasted no time climbing to the roof, and James turned his attention to the engine.
‘Jimmy!’ Archer was above him, fighting the wind for his balance. ‘Warn the driver. Stop the train.’
Everything was shadows and speed, gusts and fumes as James fought his way to the next car. Wooden, it offered a narrow walkway, making it easier for him to pass, but there were no handholds apart from cracks in the planking where he dug his fingertips, pressing his body flat against the side. He didn’t know how many more cars there were before the tender, but the headlamps were still a way off. The driver was expecting to continue straight on and was steaming the engine hard. [Twisted Tracks, chapter 24.]
Fallen Splendour and Other Journeys
Trains appear again in book four, ‘Fallen Splendour.’ For this one, I wanted another tense sequence and included a race against time. In this case, I had to get James from London to the Welsh coast to collect Archer and get them both back to the High Court in London in as few hours as possible. Initially, I thought I had not left myself enough time and thought I might have to rewrite some chapters because the time I had given James to achieve his task seemed unreasonably short. Then I referred to my railways guru, Andy, and he told me about ‘specials.’ Apparently, if you had enough money and clout, you could have the railways put on a special train just for you, and this, they could do with a few hours’ notice. Perfect! Of course, being a Clearwater novel, I didn’t go for just any old special, which is why Archer finds himself steaming through the night in Queen Victoria’s royal carriage.
Bitter Bloodline’ (book five) starts with a train crash. ‘Artful Deception’ (book six) takes us across the English Channel and on a relatively short journey to the Netherlands and back, plus another train journey to Derbyshire. In book seven, ‘Home From Nowhere’, Jasper encounters his first journey by train.
Jasper’s fear soon gave way to intrigue when the train moved, and became awe when it picked up speed. It wasn’t long before he began to enjoy the rhythmic trundling, and the only time he thought he was going to die was when they passed through a tunnel. The
‘ sound was deafening, smoke poured in through the window, and the carriage was plunged into darkness. It was over in seconds, leaving the footman struggling with the window, and Jasper shaking.
Train journeys are also featured in books eight and nine, but when we reach book ten… Well, that’s when I thought it was time to branch out from the domestic lines and go intercontinental.
The Clearwater Inheritance
You know how I am with ‘Dracula’, the epistolary novel to end all epistolary novels in my opinion… I employ a little of this ‘story in journals, letters, and other documents’ style in The Clearwater Inheritance.
Dracula opens with Jonathan Harker writing about his journey from Munich to Bistritz (now called Bistrita), travelling through Vienna and Budapest. Two of my characters take the same route because they are also travelling to Transylvania (though that’s got nothing to do with vampires).
I may have travelled on similar routes, but not, obviously, in the same century or on the same kind of trains, so I had to do some research into how such a journey would have been. You know how you sometimes get lucky? I put a search string into the search engine that read something like this: ‘Travelling in Europe in 1890’, and what should I find in a book collection?
Travels in Various Parts of Europe During the Years 1888, 1889 and 1890, Being a short and practical account, by Gilbert H. W. Harrison (with 24 illustrations).
I couldn’t have asked for anything better and was able to draw on first-person accounts of Folkestone, the channel crossing, Paris, Vienna, Budapest and parts of Hungary as they had been experienced in the same year as my story. I even have my characters stay at or mention hotels and stations Harrison saw and described.
Harrison was on a tourist route, however, and my characters follow the same route until they realise Thomas Cook & Son haven’t grasped the urgency of their journey. There are other delays, and backstory from ‘Banyak & Fecks’ comes into play at one point, as do other pre-mentioned backstories concerting Lady Clearwater’s Romanian/Transylvanian connections and other things to do with Archer’s past. Ultimately, my travelling characters need to get back to England in a hurry.
Again, I spoke to Andy about this side of the story and asked how long it would have taken from Bodmin in Cornwall to Brasov in what is now Romania in 1890. He came back with suggested times and routes. Finding original timetables is never easy, but I reckon, in the story, I am as close to what was possible as I can be. For the return journey, though, I needed to speed things up a bit and so looked into using the Express d’Orient, the Orient Express as we now call it.
A couple of chapters happen aboard this luxury train, but this is not an Agatha Christie, and the journey to and from Brasov is only one aspect of the story, but again, I tried to be as accurate as possible, at least with descriptions and distances. I had to reschedule the Orient Express to a different day, else the rest of the plot wouldn’t work, but apart from that, the race home is, as far as I can see, accurate, if a little tight. The characters have an awful lot of luck making steamers and ‘very early’ trains, but hey, it’s fiction and fact mixed, faction, you might say, and it was all possible.
End of the line
Is book ten the end of the line for Clearwater? Has the series finally reached its destination? All I can say is, running at 150,000 words, ‘The Clearwater Inheritance’ is the longest of the stories, and it does have a sense of rounding things off. It also has a sense of leaving something open for another series set in the same world, and it is that idea I will be considering once this book has been published.
Look out for my newsletter at the start of June, as there will be an extract from the book included as a special preview for those who sign up. (There won’t be any plot spoilers.)
I must go now, but I will add a list of references I have used for my railway research as a guide for anyone who is interested to know more.
Journal of the Society of Arts (1891), Austro-Hungarian Railways and the Zone System
London Daily News 1890 (and other newspapers of the time)
GlobalSecurity.org (on which my map of the route is based) https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/europe/orient-express.htm