A Golden Age of Transportation

James Howard Kunstler on getting around in upstate New York at the turn of the twentieth century:

There was a time just before the First World War when a person could get around this part of the world by train, trolley, boat, automobile, horse, or on foot, and in fact each mode of transportation had its place. This rich variety of possibilities is hard to imagine in our age, when the failure to own a car is tantamount to a failure in citizenship, and our present transportation system is as much of a monoculture as our way of housing or farming. Factory workers walked or took the trolley across the Hudson. Shoppers walked to market. Stores delivered orders too big to carry. Freight moved long distance by rail or boat, and by truck or wagon only locally. Anybody who had urgent business with the greater world at large could hop on a train and get to Albany in an hour or New York City inside of five.

From The Geography of Nowhere.

The Orient Express

In 1950 LIFE magazine published a photo-essay by Jack Birns on the Orient Express railway line—then past its prime but still wonderfully romantic. Birns traveled the classic route from London to Istanbul, detailing the entire journey. The vintage travel blog Retours has a multipart retrospective on Birns’s article including previously unpublished photographs.

The Orient Express was a favorite of royalty, diplomats, and spies—Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, King Leopold II of Belgium, T.E. Lawrence, Tolstoy, and Mata Hari were among the noted passengers at the turn of the twentieth century. The train entered popular culture through novels like Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train and of course Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

The first leg of the journey was the shortest—from Victoria Station in London to Folkestone in Kent, and from there by ferry across the English Channel to Calais.

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Victoria Station London

At Calais passengers boarded a train with the distinctive blue livery of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Arjan den Boer writes at Retours:

Wagons-Lits sleeping cars had a daytime and a nighttime setup. During the day passengers were seated on a comfortable couch, which was converted by the conductor into a regular-sized bed at night.

First-class travellers had their own sink cabinet with hot and cold running water. There were no showers and toilets had to be shared…

In addition to its sleeping cars, Wagons-Lits was renowned for its dining cars which were every bit as good as fine restaurants. Although the luxury of the interwar period had faded, in 1950 full meals with good wines were still served at fully-set tables. This was accom­plished by a seven man brigade, with three of them working in the kitchen.

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Albert Brenet, Le Train Bleu leaving Gare de Lyon in Paris, 1976
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Wagon-Lits sleeping compartment
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Wagon-Lits dining car
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Wagon-Lit dining car

Naturally, the journey through France, Switzerland, Italy, and the Balkans afforded views of beautiful scenery. And also a way of life that had survived both World Wars but was now disappearing. Arjan den Boer writes:

Until 1951, a stagecoach or sleigh ran over the Simplon Pass from November to June to transport passengers, mail and supplies to the villages on the pass. The difference with the train in the Simplon tunnel was huge: a journey of 20 minutes versus 10 hours over the snow-filled pass.

Jack Birns was intrigued by the coach and the coachman he photographed in the border village of Gondo. Six months later he returned to make a separate photo report on the Simplon coach, which shortly afterwards was replaced by a mail bus.

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The Orient Express passing Chillon Castle in Switzerland
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The Orient Express crossing the Simplon Tunnel
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Stage coach service over the Simplon Pass

Remembering Sir John Betjeman

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Sir John Betjeman left a towering legacy as a poet and preservationist. He wrote about the touchstones of British life, both grand and homely. As an Anglican Christian, who credited his conversion in part to Arthur Machen’s novel The Secret Glory, he was particularly concerned with English cathedrals and parish churches. W.H. Auden described him as a man who was “at home with the provincial gaslit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium.” Betjeman defended the branch line railways that fell to Beeching’s Axe in the 1960s. He was an advocate for Victorian architecture, which was deeply unpopular during most of the twentieth century. It is largely thanks to his campaigning that the magnificent St Pancras Station and Midland Grand Hotel were saved from demolition in the 1960s.

My favorite account of Betjeman comes from the Australian actor Barry Humphries. In The Telegraph, he writes:

John described himself not as a poet but as a ‘senior journalist’, and in his book-cluttered sitting-room, lined with green William Morris wallpaper and hung with pictures by Conder, Laura Knight and Max Beerbohm, he dispensed generous late-morning drinks, usually ‘bubbly’ in pewter tankards, to friends such as Osbert Lancaster, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and, not seldom, an Anglican priest or two.

It was a heady company into which I, a callow colonial, had been agreeably plunged. After a few drinks, and in an exalted mood, we would all repair to Coleman’s chophouse, in Aldersgate Street, where the atmosphere and appointments were immutably pre-war, and remained so until the enlightened mid-1960s, when the entire eastern side of that old thoroughfare was razed and replaced by council houses in the Brutalist style, now woefully shabby.

At Coleman’s we would all tuck into roast beef and Brussels sprouts, and drink more champagne. John always insisted on paying, which was just as well. His Collected Poems was a bestseller, and his masterpiece, the poetic autobiography Summoned by Bells, was a huge popular success, in spite of a few sniffy and envious reviews.

John was fond of exclaiming, with great merriment and that high, exultant cackle that his friends remember with such heart-rending affection, ‘Thanks to the telly, I’m as rich as Croesus!’ The poacher’s pockets in his jacket bulged with books and round canisters of Player’s cigarettes, which he liked to smoke because the ‘art work’ on the tins hadn’t changed in 30 or more years.

Sir John Betjeman’s former home at 43 Cloth Fair, overlooking Great Saint Bart’s, is owned by the Landmark Trust, which rents it out to holidaymakers.