Interview with Tom Chesshyre, travel author
Tom Chesshyre, author of eleven books – mainly about train travel – has had more experiences by train than some have had hot dinners.
Where he finds the time to write about them in between his day job we don't know! Tom Chesshyre worked on the travel desk of The Times for 21 years and now contributes to The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday and National Geographic Traveller magazine.
Tom has always enjoyed trains as he believes that you get a much better feel for landscapes (through carriage windows) and the people who live in them (through chance encounters) when travelling along the tracks. It is difficult for him to pick his favourite all-time journey, but he did tell us his favourite in Britain.
So, while we've managed to get him to put his pen down (for just a minute), Emily talks with Tom about where it all began, and more.
Interview by Emily Roberts
When did it (your passion/love affair) all begin?
After the low-cost airline boom began in the 1990s, the damaging effect of flying too much became obvious. One pence flights were possible to places you had never heard of (or could spell) in Eastern Europe – and long-haul trips to the likes of Thailand and Mexico became as commonplace as trips by ferry to France.
Reacting against the world seeming to shrink on pollution-pumping planes, I took a series of trains around Britain to explore 'unfashionable' spots such as Slough, Coventry, Milton Keynes and Salford for a book entitled 'To Hull and Back'. I loved trundling off along the tracks exploring my own country and visiting places that are not often featured in the weekend travel supplements.
What is it that fascinates you most about rail travel?
Rail travel takes you to places you might never otherwise see. On my recent journey round Spain for a book entitled 'Slow Trains Around Spain' the carriages rattled and creaked across plains and through valleys that felt a million miles from the Costas or the big cities.
Places like Almaden in Castile-La Mancha, an old mercury mining town with streets of closed shutters and a couple of small tapas bars, or Huesca, up in the north in Aragon, close to the trenches George Orwell served in during the Spanish Civil War – a far cry from the usual guidebook write-ups. Along the way, you see countries from the carriage windows (you're not zooming 30,000ft above or whizzing along a motorway worrying about people tailgating you). You also get a chance to meet people on board... to hear their stories.
What is your favourite rail journey in Britain? Why? What makes it special?
The ride from Inverness to the Kyle of Lochalsh in Scotland. It passes beautiful lochs and sweeping countryside and feels a long way removed from the bustle of Britain. From the Kyle of Lochalsh, the Isle of Skye and many other islands await exploration. It is such a tranquil journey.
Which lines are on your must-travel list (in Britain)?
I would love to take a ride on the Settle-Carlisle Railway. There is a little, seven-mile narrow-gauge line in the southwest Lake District – the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway – that I'd like to go on. I would also like one day to try the Caledonian Sleeper service.
Any plans to write a book solely about rail travel in Britain?
None right now, but it would be a treat to do so.
Overnight sleeper trains, have you travelled on any in Britain, if so how do you sleep?
The only one I have been on is the Paddington to Penzance sleeper service. I slept like a log, although admittedly I had been out in Soho the night before meeting an old journalist friend and I was more than ready to drop off straight away! It was magnificent waking up and seeing the coastline, as though having been transported by magic from central London, with St Michael's Mount rising mysteriously from the sea in the final stretch.
Do you tend to chat to others when travelling or keep your eyes on the window?
It depends on the situation. If I am sharing a breakfast table on an overnight Amtrak train in the US, well it's hard not to start chatting to your new companion. Likewise, if you are on the Kalka to Shimla 'Toy Train' service snaking through the foothills of the Himalayas, it's easy to get talking to fellow travellers, sharing in the delight of the scenery. For train travel writing, stories of others add to the colour of the rides. Although it is wonderful simply to stare out of the carriage window, neighbours can be just as interesting. The joy of train travel comes from within (the carriages) and outside, too.
Favourite British station?
This has to be St Pancras, with the excitement and delicious anticipation of a journey by Eurostar to the Continent. Up by the statue of John Betjeman – who fought to save the beautiful Gothic station from demolition in the 1960s - looking down across the tracks and knowing that in an hour or so you will be in France is marvellous. I also have a soft spot for Crewe Station, as that was where I began my book 'Ticket to Ride: Around the World on 49 Unusual Train Journeys', which was such a huge undertaking, and it all started there, down by the end of platform number five...
Thanks Tom for your time and fascinating insight into all your train travels.
If you are inspired to read one of Tom's books head on over to www.tomchesshyre.co.uk/books
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