To travel north from Cape Town via railway into the wilds of Central Africa is to discover mile upon mile of veld stretching interminably as far as the eye can see – a vast ocean of grasses and trees that goes on for days.
Traveling by air can’t even compare – what can you see from 40,000 feet? That kind of journey doesn’t make much of an impression on the mind, let alone the soul.
But train travel is a different story. The slow rocking of the carriage on the rails brings a sense of peace and timelessness: three days of suspended animation in which the demands of the modern world are laid aside. Back to the era of Burton and Speke – and Rhodes? Not quite that far – but far enough to realize we have seriously compromised ourselves with the modern fads of ‘fast’ and ‘instant’.
This land teems with wildlife, rarely visible in quick glimpses from the train – and much less so today than formerly. But the wildlife is there, as it has been for centuries – living out its own dance on the hot, shimmering plains that would swallow us up if we were to step away from the lifeline of the two slim, steel rails beneath us.
Digital – vector art. For more details, click on images.
It begins in the City of London, right in Regents Street. It was there in one of the greatest and busiest cities of the world that a very small girl found her favorite haunt on the top floor of a wonderful toy shop – was it Hamleys or Gammages?
My mom, dad and I were living in Chelsea Barracks close to the Thames and Big Ben. Even as a small child I got used to looking for the light on top of Big Ben that showed Parliament was sitting.
We were part way through a whirlwind of army life. I realized later at the age of 16 I had lived in 16 different houses scattered through the country in towns as far apart as Derby, Caterham, Aldershot, Windsor, London and Aberdeen.
What I didn’t know then was that much more travel was to follow.
In fact, it was some years before it dawned on me that travel was (and still is) the always recurring theme in my dreams. Whatever else appears In my sleep, I am usually going somewhere, traveling along a road or trying to find my way… Journeying.
Model Railway – Hamleys or Gammages?
Back to Model Railways. We used to frequent both Hamleys and Gammages. In all of those enormous stores, with all their floors and dazzling displays of toys, my favorite place was right up on the mezzanine under the roof where the toy trains lived in – I think it was Gammages. Strange that it wasn’t the dolls departments – or even the teddy bears. I much preferred teddy bears to dolls, which I didn’t have much time for. But no, it wasn’t even the teddy bear department that drew me like a magnet. It was the model trains.
I could have stayed for hours – and probably did – watching the trains come and go, walking around the huge oval model railway display that circled right round the balustrade of the mezzanine floor. In and out of the little stations they clattered, along the winding tracks, through the tunnels in the hilly landscape. YES – those hills: for some unexplained reason, they had a fascination for me. Gammages’ train tracks were beautifully landscaped and I was fascinated by the green, paper mache sculptured landforms that made the journeys of those little trains such a joy to watch.
I always wanted a train set. I never got one, and in all truth if I had, it would probably have been a disappointment. Without all those wonderful hills and tunnels, I doubt that it would have really satisfied.
My dad with his artistic skills could have made a landscape for me – if he had the time. I remember an indoor target range he made for the London Scottish regiment with a green landscape made of plywood flats where tanks and other targets appeared and disappeared, running on hidden rails between the hills – quite like the trains, in fact. The night he took me to see that still sticks in my memory.
I was a city girl, born into a Brigade of Guards family, used to living in barracks around London and Windsor and used to hearing my father drilling troops on the square daily. The only hills I had seen were on train journeys between Derby and London – visiting my dad before we moved up to London to live with him in barracks – and of course at Gammages. Now, I am a lover of steam railways and vintage British Rail Posters.
Then when I was 8 we moved from London to Aberdeen, living initially in a suburb on the edge of town and later moving to the village of Peterculter, on the Deeside road to Balmoral. There I had my first encounter with cows – right over the fence of the small house we lived in. The hills didn’t make any great impression though – that was to come later.