There’s not been a lot of time for two or three-wheeled ambling recently. Instead, a pretty solid wall of work-borne rush, stress and frustration has kept me off the bikes. So, with an unaccustomed free Sunday afternoon and some sun, I decided to stop beating my head against it, hoiked the keys off the peg and helmeted up.
The saddle of a motorcycle is not generally a place for wool-gathering. Back lanes with no traffic and the Ural are fine though. And soon, like most riders, in time with the clacking of the engine, I found myself humming contentedly. All sorts of tunes seem to push themselves forwards as candidates when you’re on a bike. There’s no knowing whether it’s going to be Bach or Bragg.
Today, it was Flanders and Swann’s Slow Train. Fitting, with the 50th anniversary of Dr Beeching’s “The Reshaping of British Railways”. No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat.
As I turned past Clanfield’s Plough, I got a nod and a smile from an old gentleman kneeling to tend the war memorial. He was trimming already immaculate grass. Making sure that the edges by the white limestone kerbs were neat, regimental and correct.
I stopped just outside the village, climbed out of the saddle and rolled out the tool kit. As I snugged down the brake arm adjuster to take the slack out of the linkage, something red, noisy and two-wheeled screamed past, it’s rider’s wide eyes fixed on the next apex. Slow Train seemed even more suitable.
Here he is – you can just about catch him by the ever-present Oxfordshire 30mph sign.
I don’t ride a bike to go fast. It’s partly lack of desire, but mostly lack of ability. I have the cornering skill of a novice yak on stilts. I brake for corners on motorways at double-figure speeds. I sometimes wonder if riding the Ural isn’t just a substitute for having stablisers. But Slow Train it was, and I bimbled on smiling, brakes adjusted.
There’s a tiny, barely sidecar-wide lane that leads out of Clanfield. The flatness of the Oxfordshire countryside is only broken by the gentle rise of bridges, spanning the now disused Fairford branch line. No whitewashed pebbles, no up and no down.
I stopped at the base of the first bridge and climbed off for a look around. From the top, you can still see the line of the tracks, even if the metal has long gone. The GWR brickwork is still in fine order. The wreck of some sort of old flatbed trailer looks as though it hasn’t moved since the 1960s. The railway is closed now, though, with a firm “Private – No right of way” notice in case you stray. Even given my congenital lack of respect for rules and bossy little notices, I stayed out and rode on.
I followed the old trackbed through the lanes, crossing and re-crossing on similar redbrick bridges. The gentle rise and fall of each edged with spring leaves – that fresh green that only May brings.
Eventually, I reached Lechlade. I’d hope to find coffee, maybe a cake or two. But Lechlade was mostly shut apart from a gleaming new Co-Op petrol station supermarket. I can’t say the architecture, or the bank of CCTV cameras that would have pleased the Cold War Kremlin, appealed. As the single, dead eye swivelled to scrutinise me, I wonder what trouble they were expecting in Lechlade-on-Thames.
I stopped to ask if anyone knew where the old station was. The staff seemed surprised that there had even been a station, but a man in the queue spoke up. “It was just up the road by the bridge. Can’t see much now. You’ll see even less in a couple of months – going to be a housing estate.” I won’t be going again on the slow train.
I thanked him, and passed on the machine-dispensed ersatz Costa coffee with its blinking digital readout as I walked back to the carpark and the bike. The man from the queue followed me out and we talked for a while in the sun about Beeching and the anniversary of his report that was a death sentence to so many rural lines. The chap was planning a website of photographs showing what the old station sites looked today. Enthusiasm for the railways clearly still burned.
I rode on to see what I could find of the old station at the end of the line, Fairford. Another planning notice promising “executive apartments” and an industrial estate was all that stood there now. As wonderful as trains and steam would have been, time has lent a rather rosy romance to the old branch lines that I’m not sure they wholly deserved.
Looking at satellite maps, you can still follow the Witney-Fairford line still clear and arrow-straight. It runs across newly-ploughed fields and joins the dots of housing and industrial estates from Fairford to Witney. It doesn’t seem likely it’ll be forgotten soon.
I turned the petrol tap back on, kicked the bike into life and retraced my meandering, lane-bound tracks.
As I pulled up outside the cottage with the bike ticking and cooling, I could just hear an accordion and fiddle weaving their way through The Fool’s Jig. It’s nearly Whitsun, so the village’s Morris sides are practicing in various pub gardens. It seems a pleasant sort of practice, usually involving beer, plenty of joshing and some serious dancing. Bampton station and its line may be long gone, but some older traditions are very much alive.
No-one departs, no-one arrives, from Selby to Goole, from St. Erth to St. Ives. They all passed out of our lives, on the slow train.