Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Halt

The train seems to speed along a secret promontory in the landscape, away from which precipitous towns tumble toward their estuarine heartlands.  From its windows fields of flowering gorse are visible between tangled banks of brambles; in gullies crowded with stunted oaks and elder, moss covers everything.  Gulls roost in the empty golf courses.  It is a strange, arrested landscape: the climate’s urge towards lushness is halted by the sea wind which blows over everything, always.

Slowly the rain lessens and is replaced by a skimming of cloud and the thin sun intermittent on water.  A heron circles its own shadow and lands in the shallows of the river’s spread.  The splayed ribs of a sunken boat rise out of the water here, black as charcoal, like some reticulated beast.

At St Erth there are periwinkles tangling around the signposts along the platform.  Wooden railings painted in thick white paint separate the London – Penzance platform from the St Ives branch line.  There are flowers growing in concrete troughs, and in the old ticket office a little tea room sells scones and bacon rolls.  The smell of hot bacon drifts out onto the platform along with a muffled strain of Sinatra.  

Inside the walls are papered with romantic old railway posters of painted landscapes, their blues and yellows almost psychedelic in their brightness.  Penzance and Guernsey glow from their little squares alongside Whitby and the Lakes.  Next to one of the three small tables is one advertising Herefordshire ("Fair land of enchanting beauty!).  I choose a seat there, drinking hot chocolate that comes with two ginger biscuits balanced on the saucer. 

There is about the place a sort of self-conscious nostalgia, evident in the apologetic frowny-face drawn on the sign informing me they can take only cash; in the towers of wedge-shaped cake slices piled under plastic domes.  A young mother sits in one corner feeding her toddler Quavers one by one.  “Are we going to the sand?” he keeps asking her.  “Where is the sand?”  

Outside a wagtail hops about in the softened air.  The kind of drizzle is falling that remains invisible until you are wet.  Each half hour a train for St Ives pulls up to platform 3 with its dead end butted up against the little ticket office, disgorges three or four passengers, then moves off again the way it came.  The beleaguered lelandii along the track have grown enough to offer silhouettes like Scots pines to the sky.

Along the way, the old tin sheds and engine houses have been grubbed up to make way for a park and ride car park, but as yet only two long mounds of earth are in evidence, and a small bonfire of builder’s waste that burns in daylight with a strange pale flame that the wind makes furtive.  Later, from the St Ives train, curtains of light slide across the sands, touching wet rock and the sandpipers that move in that shifting ribbon of no man's land that is not the beach, but not yet the sea either.

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