Peter Ellis sees the unfolding of England’s long history on a short railway journey.
Romsey is the perfect model town, made real. Looking down from Squabb Wood, it nestles in the Test Valley, hugging the grey stone cruciform of the Abbey, with its squat Norman tower. Close by is the pretty town square. Red bricks make large Georgian dolls’ houses, neat Victorian terraces and the towers of the old brewery, now converted into modern flats.
When King Henry made himself the head of England’s church, he gave the nuns’ place of worship to the town for its parish church. Royal, loyal Romsey. King’s Charles’s men saw off the Roundheads here. Broadlands, boasting the best salmon fishing in the south, was home to Earl Mountbatten: Uncle Dickie, the Royal Family’s favourite. Prince Charles and Princess Diana chose it for their wedding night.
The railway station looks as if it has been crafted by a kind, avuncular hand. The wooden eves have been lovingly carved and painted white. The ticking of the clock promises the train won’t be long and all’s well with the world. Northwards, the line follows the River Test, over chalk downs to Salisbury’s Cathedral’s spire, thence across the Cotswolds to the honey-stone crescents of Bath. Southwards, it’s only one stop to the terminus at Southampton.
Take the journey south and see England. Near the town, well-tended green baize is given up to cricket and football. Hedgerows provide homes for birds and badgers and separate the sheep form the wheat. Narrow lanes wind in and out, great for walking the dog. Gentle wooded slopes rise up from the valley’s edge to blue skies and white, fluffy clouds.
Presently, the swell of the chalk hills fall back as the valley widens out. The old River Test twists and turns in tired meanders as it approaches its end and the sea. The train hugs the side to avoid the mud and flooding marsh, thick with rushes. The piers of a medieval bridge are blackened by the retreating tides, flying above are the concrete pillars of the motorway.
America’s founding fathers sailed from Southampton. It saw the maiden voyages of the Queen Elizabeth and the Titanic. During the War, German bombs flattened the City, only to be rebuilt in the sixties with wide boulevards and wide-eyed optimism. Now young families and the upwardly mobile flock here for jobs in computers, good schools and nice houses.
The port is too busy to welcome the traveler by train. With their backs to the line, huge cranes hunch over incoming ships. Walls of stacked containers protect their international trade and their international money. On the other side of the tracks are large council estates, huge comprehensives and small shopping parades. At the end of the line is the tall, white Cleopatra’s needle of the City Hall clock and the buzz of the High Street.
It only takes ten minutes from Romsey to Southampton. Ten minutes to move from pasture to port side, downland to marshland, ancient to modern. It’s one of the greatest smallest railway journeys of the World.
Illustration by Peter Ellis