Rush Hour Blackberries

 In Britain, Vignettes

Headcorn stationImagine if your rush-hour commute faded away to a surreal moment picking blackberries. My busy train stopped, reminding me of Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Adlestrop’…

For a couple of weeks I caught the 7pm from Charing Cross to the coast at Deal. These elderly electric trains took – to the minute – the same amount of time as the 7pm from King’s Cross took to the North Humber coast at Brough a hundred miles farther and with a change at Doncaster. I’d been surprised when I visited a friend.

Yet dawdling was fine, as it was Summer and the countryside shone gloriously in the evening sun. Then besides, something magical happened at Headcorn. The long busy train juddered to a halt, the Headcorn travellers would hurry off home to the sound of doors opening and slamming and then…. well nothing. The train stood. And stood still: even the vacuum brake pump faded to silence. Bolder people would alight and light a cigarette and casually leave their doors swinging open. Those on the train realised they had stopped overlong and glanced up from their Evening Standards, bemused at the abandonment. Through open doors and windows for 20 minutes wafted birdsong and Summer evening scents. Blackberries ripened near the platform fence.

Loop the loopA couple of times I stood on the quiet platform enthralled, for across the tracks was an airfield famous for aeronautic displays. Propeller planes practised loop-the-loops and wing-tip rolls. Vividly one plane hung in the air at the top of its bank and caught the sun’s golden setting rays. For seconds like hours it hung still, looking every bit like a gold cross against blue sky, before veering stalling into the dive and repeating.

BlackberriesThen rushing out of the sunset along the straight came a Eurostar, rocking the old stationary train in the platform and vanishing east: Brussels-bound. Blackbirds chittered. The passengers coughed and rustled newspapers more impatiently, frowning at the passengers who stayed nonchalantly on the platform until the second Eurostar hurried past: Paris-bound. They were oblivious of the aeronauts.

As the Paris train clattered east, cigarettes were stubbed, doors slammed and the whistle blown for our own journey to resume slowly coast-bound; towards the shadows’ farthest tips. I picked an odd blackberry pip from my teeth. It was an odd but magical rush hour, repeated a few times over a few weeks, whose memory is triggered sometimes by a sight of wayside brambles.

Goldfinch Line

Edward Thomas

Even as I stood on the platform at Headcorn, these innocent and tranquil moments carried into my head the words of Edward Thomas’s 1914 poem Adlestrop. He was sadly killed at the Battle of Arras just 3 years later. My own experience of the Iraq War means also means these Headcorn moments have acquired a rather prelapsarian quality of olde England.

Yes, I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas
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