The International Steam Pages

Patrick Leigh Fermor travel writer, 1915 - 2011

Robert Hall writes affectionately about another one of his great heroes, someone of whom it can truly be said "they don't make them like that any more".

Something which steam-railway-lovers of a certain kind, might see as an oddity -- touching and affecting to them in their aforesaid capacity, in a way in which the author of the book wherein it occurs, would probably never in a million years have envisaged on the part of any potential reader.

The book is "A Time To Keep Silence" by the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915 -- 2011). The author -- though not a religious believer as such -- had a fondness for spending time as a guest in monasteries, finding the experience valuable for psychological de-cluttering vis-a-vis twentieth-century metropolitan life "at the sharp end". The book -- published 1957 -- recounts and reflects on various such monastic sojourns of the author's. He tells of his first discovery of this therapeutic expedient; at a time when, rat-race-beset, he sought "somewhere quiet and cheap to stay while I continued to work on a book that I was writing." Fermor -- who although he writes, in my opinion, exquisitely; often found the writing a slow / difficult / frustrating process -- was in autumn 1948, en route from Paris to a Benedictine abbey in Normandy.

He writes: "I had spent an abominable night in Rouen in a small hotel near the station where a procession of nightmares had been punctuated by the noise of trains arriving and leaving with a crashing and whistling and an escape of steam and smoke which, after a week's noctambulation in Paris, turned my night into a period of acute and apparently interminable agony".

It is perhaps salutary for such as us, to reflect that a busy steam-worked railway had -- for people not captivated by it for its own sake -- a number of downsides: largely -- smell (that of coal smoke, not delightful for everyone), dirt, and noise. Over an approximate century-and-a-half, the last of these especially must have inflicted on very many folk worldwide, prolonged wretchedness comparable to Fermor's as described by him. Nonetheless: one man's interminable ordeal is another's too-brief night of bliss -- a railway-and-steam enthusiast might well have revelled in such a night in that Rouen hotel seventy-four years ago.

Reading that short passage by the author, brought home to me that a steam-y experience of this kind -- be it hellish, heavenly, or anything in between -- is as at 2022 or '23 effectively not to be had anywhere on Earth: not as an ordinary, quotidian, "this is how matters always are" thing. (Somewhat-disturbed nights in rail-adjacent accommodation may not be totally, no more -- but one sees it as generally reckoned that diesel traction does its stuff more quietly than steam ditto; and electric, quieter still.)

I've been a -- characteristically, delighted -- recipient of this experience a number of times in my life -- including, in France. My most recent -- and final -- incidence of it was one of which I have told elsewhere in these Pages: in Chengde, China, in 1996 -- hotel near the station, room (which we deliberately went for) overlooking the goods yard; in which throughout the night much shunting and attendant whistling, with class JS 2-8-2 chiefly officiating, took place. Said thing undergone, is one which now, a billionaire rail-and-steam enthusiast could not have -- it has vanished from the planet. Such a billionaire might commission for a night or two, on one or another "preservation" scene, a simulation -- but per my feelings about all such matters, that would be utterly phony and thus totally unsatisfying.

Supposing that Patrick Leigh Fermor now continued to be among the living -- a spry 107-year-old, still "all there" mentally, and still up to modest travels (including monastery stuff) and writing brilliantly about them; were I to contact him expressing envy for his miserable night in Rouen three-quarters-of-a-century ago, and explaining my reasons for feeling thus -- I'd rather expect his rejoinder to be, "Sir, I suggest that you seek psychiatric help."

Rob Dickinson