A pair of converging railway viaducts

THERE IS A FASCINATING pair of railway viaducts at Chapel Milton, near Chapel-en-Frith in the Peak District. Constructed in about 1860 and then 1890, the viaducts support a place where two railway lines diverge. The viaducts, which join each other at a bifurcation were built at different times as the dates suggest. One of the arcades consists of 13 arches and the other of 13.

Allow Wikipedia to explain:”The Midland Railway opened a new line via Chapel-en-le-Frith Central and Great Rocks Dale, linking the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midland Junction Railway with the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, in 1867, giving it an express through route for the first time between Manchester and London … The eastern section, essentially a second, mirror-image viaduct in an identical style, was added in 1890 to allow trains to travel between Sheffield and the south via Buxton and the Midland’s own line.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chapel_Milton_Viaduct)

Riding high above London

DOLLIS BROOK IS one of the two main tributaries of the River Brent, which in turn is a tributary of the River Thames, which it enters at Brentford. Dollis Brook rises near the A1 dual-carriageway at Mote End Farm and then flows southwards towards Brent Park, where it is joined by another stream, Mutton Brook. Both brooks are lined with pleasant green spaces containing footpaths that follow the streams. Thus, they are lovely green corridors providing much-needed rustic relief from the relentless built-up suburbia through which the streams flow.

Nether Street is road running west and downhill from Finchley Central Underground Station. After reaching a small roundabout, it continues as Dollis Road. The latter descends ever more steeply until it runs under a tall brick arch, part of the Dollis Brook Viaduct (also known as ‘The Mill Hill Viaduct’). The road runs beside a stretch of Dollis Brook, which at that location is only a few feet in width – rather a miserable little stream. However, the viaduct with its 13 arches, each with spans of 32 feet, traverses a veritable steep sided gorge, maybe created over time by the waters flowing in the humble Dollis Brook, or, more likely, by glacial drift (“Nature”, 9th of November 1871: http://www.nature.com/articles/005027c0.pdf). This amazing viaduct, a masterpiece of brickwork, carries Underground trains on a spur of the Northern Line running between Finchley Central and Mill Hill East stations.

Designed by John Fowler (1817-1898) and Walter Marr Brydone, who was Engineer-in-Chief for the Great Northern Railway (‘GNR’) from 1855-1861, the viaduct was constructed between 1863 and 1867, when the first train ran across it. The line that now carries Northern Line trains over the viaduct was originally built by the GNR, as was the viaduct. As trains traverse the viaduct, they are at one point 60 feet above the ground. This point must be close to where both Dollis Road and Dollis Brook pass beneath the arches,

We have often driven beneath the viaduct, but it was only in August 2021 that we decided to park near it and examine it as closely as we could. We had recently visited the impressive granite railway viaduct near Luxulyan in deepest Cornwall and been amazed by its grandeur. We had not expected to find a bridge in north London that is almost as awe-inspiring.  As I gazed upwards at its tall arches, I admired the Victorian bricklayers, who must have had to work at ever-increasingly dizzying heights as they constructed it. The viaduct is certainly a sight worth seeing, and whilst you are in the area, much pleasure can be gained by taking a stroll along the paths that run close to Dollis Brook.

Station with no trains

THERE ARE NO MORE trains running to the picturesque town of Clare in Suffolk. Between 1865 and 1967, trains running on the Stour Valley Line between Marks Tey (in Essex) and Shelford (in Cambridgeshire) stopped at Clare Station. In 1961, you could leave London’s Liverpool Street Station at 8.30 am and reach Clare at 10.44 am (www.disused-stations.org.uk/c/clare/).  

On a recent visit to Clare in August 2021, we decided to take a look at what remains of Clare Castle, which was built shortly after 1066 by Richard fitz Gilbert (1035-c1090), who took part in the Norman invasion of England (1066). To reach the remains of this structure, we walked across a large car park, at the far end of which is the attractive Clare Castle Country Park. The north side of the park is occupied by a tall conical mound, the motte of the former castle. On top of this, there is a short length of ruined, curved walling. Running east from the base of the motte, is a length of wall with one archway, presumably a wall that formed part of the castle’s bailey. These features are all that can be seen of the former castle. Exciting as this might be for historians, the park contains some other structures of historic interest. They are not as old as the castle, but fascinating, nevertheless.

Clare railway station

The Country Park contains the platforms, station buildings, and the goods shed of the former Clare Station. These have all been preserved well and employed as leisure facilities for visitors to the park. The main station buildings on platform 1 contain a waiting room with its old fireplace and ticket office. Built in 1865 to a standard design used in 30 Great Eastern Railway stations, this building now serves as an eatery and café. Across the grassy strip, where the tracks used to be laid, is platform 2, with its own waiting room, now used as a visitors’ centre and souvenir shop. A short distance away from the old platforms, the former goods shed still stands. With an old-fashioned goods crane outside it, the shed contains toilets and other facilities for visitors. Clare’s signal box no longer exists as it was destroyed by fire in the late 1960s.

The line that used to run through Clare was closed in 1967 as part of a plan devised by Dr Richard Beeching (1913-1985), who became Chairman of the British Railways Board in 1961. Beeching was instructed by the British Government to devise a plan to increase the efficiency of British Railways. This was eventually executed and involved the closure of many stations, including Clare, and of many miles of track, including the Stour Valley Line. The last passenger train to stop at Clare was on the 4th of March 1967. Although trains used the line for a short time after this, none ever stopped at Clare again.

A visit to Clare is worthwhile because it is small town with many historic buildings and an attractive parish church. We visited recently on a Saturday morning when a small street market was in full swing. The town has several shops selling antiques and a few cafés, apart from that in the former railway station. We had visited Clare several times before, but it was only on our latest visit that we came across the old railway buildings. In this period when there is great concern about global warming and ‘saving the planet’ seeing the station and its platforms reminds us that Beeching’s plan to close so many lines was short-sighted because a good network of mass rail transport could contribute to reducing the current dependence on road transport and might reduce pollution. Thinking back to the 1960s, the time of Beeching’s plan, I do not recall that there was much concern about the future of our planet in those days.

A tunnel, a bridge, and a round building

IF THE RAILWAY authorities did not prevent people from wandering along the track as many people do in India (for example), taking a photograph of an amazing construction at the base of London’s Primrose Hill would be simple. But, wisely, they do not encourage people to risk their lives on tracks that carry high speed trains from London’s Euston station to places north of it. The remarkable edifice to which I am referring is the eastern entrance to the Primrose Hill Tunnels that originally carried lines of the London and Birmingham Railway (‘L&BR’) underground between Primrose Hill Road in the east and Finchley Road in the west. Short of trespassing on the tracks, the best place to see the entrance is through the railings on the north side of King Henrys Road a few feet east of Primrose Hill Road.

The Roundhouse

The Primrose Hill tunnels were the first railway tunnels dug in London and some of the first in the United Kingdom (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1329904). The tunnels had to be built strong enough to withstand the weight of houses that were to be built above them. The land beneath which the trains pass is part of the Eton Estate (owned by Eton College). When the railway was being laid in the early 19th century, the Estate raised objections initially, worrying that running a railway through a deep cutting would reduce the saleability of the land, the Chalcot Estate owned by Eton, through which it ran. However:

“The L&BR bought off any possible College obstruction by agreeing to put the line in a tunnel through the Chalcots Estate. From an engineering viewpoint this was unnecessary as the rails were never more than 50 ft below the ground surface, and side slopes of 1 on 2 were specified initially. A tunnel had the merit of using no land, the surface being preserved for building …” (http://www.crht1837.org/history/tunnel).

Digging the tunnels was not without danger. Workmen got killed. When this happened, their bodies were taken at first to be laid out in a local hostelry, The Chalk Farm Tavern. This place in Regents Park Road was rebuilt in 1853-54 and its new building is now home to Lemonia, a popular Greek restaurant. So, next time you are enjoying a plate of tzatziki or a souvlaki, just remember that years ago there was a mortuary for railway navvies near your table.

Today, there are two tunnels commencing at Primrose Hill Road. The northern one, nearest Adelaide Road, was the first to be built, in 1837. The southern one, nearest King Henrys Road, was built about 40 years later. Part of Eton College Estate’s requirements of the L&BR was:

“… the mouth of the Tunnel at the eastern end shall be made good and finished with a substantial and ornamental facing of brickwork or masonry to the satisfaction of the Provost and College…” (http://www.crht1837.org/history/tunnel).

The portals at this end of the tunnel, which can just about be seen from King Henrys Road, are grand and impressive examples of neo-classical Italianate masonry. The northern portal, the first to be constructed, was designed by William H Budden, who was appointed as an office assistant to the L&BR in May 1834 (https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/16826/1/Railway%20tunnels%20recovered%203.pdf). The newer southern portal is a replica of the earlier one.

The graffiti-covered iron railway bridge that is 530 yards east of the tunnel, quite close to the house on King Henrys Road once occupied by the Indian politician and lawyer Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), is easy to see, but far less attractive than the tunnels’ magnificent portals. Now a pedestrian and cycle bridge, it carries the northern section of Regents Park Road across the tracks. The present bridge, made of iron, was constructed in 1846 to replace an earlier one built in brick in 1839 (http://primrosehillhistory.org/?p=388). Until 1992, passengers could board and disembark from trains at a station at the northern end of the bridge. Opened in 1859, this station was named ‘Hampstead Road’, then ‘Chalk Farm’, and finally ‘Primrose Hill’.

Whereas the Primrose Hill Tunnel portals can only be glimpsed with great difficulty, the largely brick-built Roundhouse, a few yards south of Chalk Farm Underground Station, is impossible to miss. Located close to the railway tracks a few yards east of the Regents Park Road footbridge, this circular building was built as a railway locomotive shed in 1846-47. It was designed by Robert Benson Dockray (1811-1871), who had been an Assistant Engineer during the construction of the pioneering Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1835 (https://www.locallocalhistory.co.uk/ctown/p001/pages39-42.htm).  The building was made circular because in its centre there was a turntable for moving the locomotives that were stored on tracks radiating out from it.

In 1967, the then disused Roundhouse was converted into a huge theatre. From the 1970s onwards, I used to attend occasional performances there. Amongst these, I particularly recall a somewhat raunchy show put on by the Grande Magic Circus, a French company, and many years later, an incomprehensible performance of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummers Night Dream”, which was performed in a variety of Indian languages by a troupe of acrobatic gymnasts. In recent years, a sculpture by Antony Gormley has been placed on the roof of a modern annex of the Roundhouse.

Private functions are also held in the Roundhouse. On one occasion, we were invited to a bat-mitzvah held there. Drinks and canapés were served in the circular upper floor gallery that runs around the circular auditorium. I was extremely surprised when one of the other guests came up to me and after looking me up and down, said:

“You must be in the fashion business.”

For a moment I was flattered, then I wondered whether he had had one too many or was visually impaired.

Ulysses and the underground

THE IRISH AUTHOR James Joyce (1882-1941), author of “Ulysses”, “The Dubliners” etc., lived at number 28B Campden Grove in Kensington in 1931. While living in this flat, he worked on his novel “Finnegans Wake” (published in 1939) and married his long-term companion and muse Nora Barnacle (1884-1951). A blue plaque, which I had never noticed before during the 28 years I have lived in the area, on the house records his stay in Kensington. Joyce was not keen on this dwelling. In 1932, he wrote to Harriet Weaver Shaw:

“’I never liked the flat much though I liked the gardens nearby. That grove is inhabited by mummies. Campden Grave, it should be called. London is not made for divided houses. The little sooty dwellings with their backs to the railway line etc etc are genuine; so is Portland Place. But houses like that were never built to be run on the continental system and as flats they are fakes.” (quoted in http://peterchrisp.blogspot.com/2019/05/campden-grave-james-joyce-in-london.html

A few yards further west of Joyce’s temporary home, I spotted something else that I had not seen before and is relevant to what Joyce wrote.

The rear outer wall of number 1 Gordon Place is best viewed from near the end of Campden Grove just before it meets the northern end of Gordon Place. That rear wall is unusually shaped. Its windows are set into a concavely curved brickwork wall rather than the normal flat wall.

Today Gordon Place extends southwards, then briefly joins Pitt Street to run east for a few feet before making a right angle to continue southwards, crossing Holland Street and then ending in a picturesque cul-de-sac lined with luxuriant gardens. This has not always been its course. A map surveyed in 1865 shows Gordon Place as running between Campden Grove and Pitt Street. The section of today’s Gordon Place that runs south from Pitt Street to Holland Street was called ‘Vicarage Street’ and the cul-de-sac running south from Holland Street was then called ‘Orchard Street’. A map complied in 1896 reveals that Gordon Place was by then running along its present course. Vicarage Street had become renamed as part of ‘Gordon Place’.

Aerial views of the curved building, number 1 Gordon Place, show that its curved rear wall forms part of a deep opening that extends below the ground. Maps compiled from 1865 onwards show the presence of this hole and within it short stretches of railway tracks. The hole is a ventilation shaft for the Underground tracks, currently the Circle and District lines, that run just below the surface. Standing on Campden Grove close to the back of number 1 Gordon Place, one can hear trains clearly as they travel below the hole in the ground. How deep is the hole? The corner of Gordon Place and Campden Grove is 86 feet above sea level and High Street Kensington Station is at 43 feet above sea level.  The railway lines do not slope too much between the ventilation shaft and the station. According to Transport for London, between Notting Hill Gate and High Street Kensington, they descend by 12 feet (www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/70389/response/179967/attach/html/2/Station%20depths.xlsx.html). Using the information that we have, we can estimate the depth of the shaft to be at least 43 feet (i.e. 86-43 plus a little more because the rails are several feet below the surface).

The Metropolitan Railway that included the stretch of track between Notting Hill Gate and High Street Kensington stations was laid before 1868, and from the 1865 map, it was already present before the date when the map was surveyed. According to a detailed history of the area (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp49-57), houses near the corner of Camden Grove and Gordon Place (and in other locations nearby) had to be rebuilt after the railway was constructed between 1865 and 1868.  The 1865 map shows no house at the site of the present number 1 Gordon Place. This building with its concave curved rear wall appears on a map surveyed in 1896. It would seem that the developer who constructed number 1 did not want to waste any of his valuable plot; he constructed the rear of the building right up to the circular edge of the ventilation shaft.

So, now we have an explanation for the curiously curved wall and for Joyce’s comments about houses with their backs to railway lines. Some friends of ours own a house with an outer wall that forms part of another ventilation hole on the District and Circle lines. They told us that should they need to make repairs to the outside of the wall that overlooks the tracks, they would need to get special permission from the company that runs the Underground and that many precautions would be needed to protect the workmen and the trains running beneath them.

Life is often far from straightforward, but London is endlessly fascinating. James Joyce preferred Paris to London, where most of his books were published. I hope that it was not his experience with trains running close to where he lived in Campden Grove that influenced his preference.

A brief video that I made gives another view of the ventilation shaft described above: https://youtu.be/js87XIWn1gU

The programme of the trains

I AM AN INVETERATE COLLECTOR. During my childhood, I collected all kinds of things especially if they related to travel. For a long time, I hung on to my collection of used travel tickets: bus, air, rail, boat, tram, etc. I do not know what ever happened to my hoard of salt, pepper, and sugar sachets, and ‘sickness’ bags collected whilst on air flights. Likewise, my bags filled with London Transport bus maps have been long lost. I thought that I had mislaid my collection of exotic toothpaste tubes, but some of these, including those I bought in Albania in 1984, resurfaced recently. My extensive collection of printed airline timetables has disappeared, but not my library of railway timetables, most of which are safely locked into a storage unit. Let me tell you about some of them.

 

BLOG TIMETABLE toothpaste

Some exotic toothpaste found in Serbia in 1990

I was in my late teens when I began collecting railway timetables, both British and overseas. One of my earliest gems was a paperback containing the timetable of CFR, the state railway system of Romania. Many decades later, when I was practising dentistry, my boss, Andrew, had a dental surgery assistant from Romania. Knowing that I had visited many places in south-east Europe, Andrew said to me:

“Adam, you must surely know a bit of Romanian. Say something to Cristina.”

I replied:

“Well, actually the only words I know in Romanian are ‘mersul trenurilor’”

Cristina looked at me blankly for a minute or so, and then exclaimed:

“Aha, the programme of the trains.”

My first copy of “Mersul Trenurilor CFR” was given to me at the Romanian Tourist Office that used to be in Jermyn Street. A few years before I retired, I told a charming Romanian patient about my first two words in his language and how I had first encountered them. Some months later, he came to my surgery for some treatment and presented me with the latest edition of the timetable, which he had bought for me during a recent visit to his native land.

Another gem in my collection was a set of huge volumes containing the timetable of FS, Ferrovia Statale, the Italian railway network.  The hall porter at a hotel where the family regularly stayed in Bologna was the source of these outdated editions of the timetable. He also gave me a large volume containing the timetable of SNCF, French railways.

Soon, I had the idea of sending letters to foreign railway companies to request their timetables. I used to address the envelopes containing the letters with simple addresses like “Central Station, Moscow, USSR”. Moscow replied, sending me a hardback the size and thickness of the Holy Bible (both testaments). It contained the timetables for passenger trains in the USSR. The timetable of MAV, Hungarian state railways, was as large as that from the USSR. From the advertisements contained within it, I learned one of my first words of Hungarian: ‘fogkrem’, which means ‘toothpaste’.

Someone in Tunis sent me not only the slender timetable of Tunisian Railways, but also an extremely old book of regulations (in French) for the Phosphate Railway of Gafsa. Some kind soul in Teheran sent me a small glossy-paged paperback containing the timetable of the railways of Iran. This volume, sent to me long before the Shah was deposed, is prefaced by photographs of the Shah and some of his family. Other people sent me the large timetable of South African Railways and a smaller volume containing the timings of Turkish railways. I bought timetable for its neighbour Greece in Athens.

A letter sent to the “Central Station, Prague, Czechoslovakia” hit the jackpot. My correspondent there sent me any used timetables he could find – from East Germany, from Czechoslovakia, and several thick volumes from Poland. In return, I sent him used British stamps, which he collected. This went on for several months, and then ended abruptly. I hope that he had not got into trouble for communicating with someone in the West. The timetable for East Germany (DDR) had a page written in the Sorbian language for the benefit of those few travellers who were born into the Slavic Sorb race, which lived in the DDR. I was given “Red Vožnje”, useful in Yugoslavia, by the Yugoslav Tourist Office that used to be in London’s Regent Street.

In 1970, I joined the BSc class in the Physiology Department of University College London (UCL). It was then that I met and made friends with an Indian woman, who was later to become my wife. At the end of the second year, she went back to India to see her parents who were then living in Calcutta. Before she left, I asked her to do me a favour. Yes, you have guessed what I asked her: to get me a copy of the timetable for Indian railways. She said she would.

Some months later, a small parcel arrived at my home. The paper in which it was wrapped was falling to pieces, only being held to the package by the string tied around it. The parcel contained a thick paperback, the timetable of Indian Railways. It was only many years later that my wife revealed to me how much trouble I had caused her father. Always ready to take up a challenge and determined not to disappoint his daughter’s new friend, he had sent someone from his office, a ‘peon’ (a lowly clerk),  to Calcutta’s Howrah Station to obtain a timetable, but he came back empty-handed because the station had run-out of the current edition. Undeterred and unwilling to admit failure, my future father-in-law sent the peon back to the station at regular intervals until finally he obtained one to send me. Years later, when Lopa and I decided to marry, we telephoned her parents from my home (in Kent) so that I could ask their consent to our marriage. After Lopa had spoken to them, she told me what her father had said. He had asked her hesitatingly:

“Is that the boy … for whom … I had to search for a railway timetable?”

Even now, if I see a railway timetable during my travels (sadly rather limited during the Covid pandemic), I add it to my collection. However, with the desire to ‘save the planet’, printed timetables are gradually being replaced by paperless online versions.

Illinois Central

A TRAM RIDE IN the northern Portuguese city of Porto (Oporto), home of the drink ‘port’, evoked memories of Chicago in Illinois.

In Porto, we travelled along the riverbank towards the seaside in a very old tram. Most of its seats had reversible backrests so that a passenger was able to choose to sit facing the direction of travel or face the opposite direction. These seats had a mechanism beneath each of them that allowed the seat backs to be shifted manually. On close examination I noticed that the mechanisms had been manufactured in the USA.

Seeing these seats in 2010 reminded me of Chicago in autumn 1963. My father had been invited to spend three months at the University of Chicago. We sailed across the Atlantic in the then almost new SS France (launched 1962). Sadly, this wonderful ship no longer exists. It was sold to be turned into scrap metal by shipbreakers at Alang in Saurashtra (Gujarat, India) a few years ago in 2008.

We had high hopes of Chicago, naively expecting to be put up in ‘swish’ accommodation. The first floor (American 2nd floor) flat we were lent was far from swish. There was nothing wrong with it, but we were expecting something more up to date and in harmony with our preconceptions about America being at the ‘cutting edge’ of living standards. 5608 South Blackstone Avenue was a dowdy two storey house with a highly dubious looking wooden fire escape, which would have been the first thing to go up in flames had the house caught fire. I have recently learnt that our temporary home and its neighbours have been replaced by newer buildings.

At night, the air was filled with the sound of police car sirens almost continuousl and the occasional lengthy rumble of long freight trains passing close by on the railway that followed the shoreline of Lake Michigan.

This railway line near our home was used not only used by freight trains but also by passenger trains, both inter-city and local.

Our nearest station, a few minute walk from our flat was named ‘55th-56th-57th Streets’ and was both close to a superb Science Museum and served by the suburban trains of the Illinois Central Railroad. These rather antiquated trains carried us to the then terminus, Van Buren Street in downtown Chicago. The trains were electrically powered receiving current from overhead wires.
Often whilst waiting on the platform at our local station, trains heading towards or from Indiana, operated by the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad, would hurtle past us.

What interested me then, aged 11 years old, were the backs of the seats in the train carriages. They were reversible just like those on the trams in Porto, which I was to see about 37 years later in Porto.

It is curious the way that seeing one thing can trigger old memories to come to the forefront of one’s mind.

Picture of reversible tram seats in Porto from TripAdvisor

Hotel Lokomotiv

IT WAS 1982 WHEN THE ‘IRON CURTAIN’ still divided Soviet-controlled Europe from Western Europe most effectively. I was heading off towards Budapest from England in order to meet my friend and budding author the late Michael Jacobs, who was  becoming a renowned travel writer.

 

SOPRON 1

Before setting out on this trip, I had noticed that there was a railway line that began in Austria, crossed over the Iron Curtain into Western Hungary, and after running a short distance through Hungary, it crossed back into Austria. Intrigued, I checked whether it carried passengers, and found that it did. This, I decided would be the way that I would try to enter Hungary.

On reaching Vienna’s Westbahnhof, I travelled through the city to the Südbahnhof, where I caught a train that took me to Wiener Neustadt. When I disembarked, I noticed a diesel powered passenger rail bus standing on a siding. It was painted in a livery that I did not recognise. It was not the livery of OB (the Austrian State Railway), or of MAV (the Hungarian State Railway).  Two men wearing black leather jackets were standing next to it. I asked them in German whether this was the train to Sopron (just over the border in Hungary). With hand gestures, they motioned me on board. Soon, the two men boarded the train. One was its driver. We set off. I was the only passenger as the train drifted through vineyards and fields. After a short time we stopped at a small village called Wulkaprodersdorf.

The driver and his assistant disembarked, and so did I. From where I stood next to the ‘train’, I could see men in blue overalls working in a distant field. The two train men stood smoking and chatting to each other in Hungarian. An old steam engine with the logo ‘GySEV’ stood on a plinth, a memorial to times gone by. The rustic scene reminded me of lines from the poem ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas:

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop — only the name

 

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

 

And for that minute a blackbird sang…

Just change Adlestrop for Wulkaprodersdorf, and you will know how I felt waiting there.

After a while, all of the workers in the field converged on the train and boarded it. I joined them in the now full train, and we set off towards Hungary.  To my surprise, we sailed past the rows of barbed wire fences, the sandy tracks, the watchtowers, the military men with dogs, without stopping. I had crossed the ‘Iron Curtain’ and entered Hungary without showing my passport. This was quite unlike any other time that I had travelled to Hungary by train.

The single carriage train pulled into Sopron’s station alongside a platform that had a barbed wire fence running along it. When I stepped out onto the platform, two uniformed guards came to meet me. How they knew that I was on the train was a mystery to me. They took me to an office, where their superior examined me and my visa, before stamping my passport. As the officials seemed friendly, I decided to ask them where I could find a private room to stay. Instead of directing me to the state tourist office, which usually arranged accommodation for foreigners, the official told me to come with him. He drove me to a house on the edge of Sopron, and told me to wait in its garage.

After a few minutes, he returned with a lady, who then took me to her house. Somehow, she managed to explain to me that I could rent a room from her, but I had to leave at 8 am in the morning. I rented her room for two nights.

On the following morning, I decided to try to ring Michael Jacobs at the number he had given me where he was staying in Budapest. I found a coin-box public telephone, but was completely flummoxed by the instructions which were only written in Hungarian. Undaunted, I entered Sopron’s fin-de-siècle central post-office. The large public hall was surrounded by desks each with signs above them in Hungarian. I looked for a desk with a sign that resembled ‘telephone’ or even ‘telefon’, but saw nothing remotely similar. While I was looking, a man in a suit and tie came up to me and announced in passable English:

Today is my day for helping foreigners. How may I help you?”  

I told him that I was trying to ring a number in Budapest, and he took me to a desk where I parted with a not inconsiderable amount of cash, only to discover that the call could not be made.

After that disappointment, my ‘helper’ asked:

You like wine?

I replied that I did.

Come with me then,” he said, leading me to a group of well-dressed middle-aged men.

“Visitors from Austria,” he said, leading me and his visitors to a minibus bearing the livery of OB, Austrian Railways. We drove through Sopron, and my new friend explained that he was hosting some Austrian railway officials who were visiting for the day.

We arrived at a wine cellar in a historic building in the heart of Sopron, and sat at wooden tables in a cellar with a vaulted ceiling. By now, I was getting quite hungry. My new friend sat me beside him, and for the rest of the time ignored his Austrian guests. In front of us there wooden platters with salami slices and what looked grated cheese. Greedily, I put a handful of this grated matter in my mouth, and sharp needles shot up towards my eyeballs. The ‘cheese’ was in fact freshly grated horse-radish! Wine was served, and all of us partook of it liberally.

During our drinking session, my friend said to me:

It is Vunderful. So Vunderful. You could have visited Paris; you could have visited Rome; you could have visited New York.  But you have come to our little Sopron. That is so Vunderful. So Vunderf…”

Eventually, it was time for the Austrians to return home. They piled into their minibus, and we waved farewell to them. Then, my Hungarian friend led me to a rather tatty looking faded green minibus, an East European model, and we entered. My host, an official of GySEV (Győr-Sopron-Ebenfurti Vasút) – the mainly Hungarian-owned railway company which had brought me into Hungary – drove me to a shabby hotel.

Hotel Lokomotiv,” he announced proudly, “now we drink more.”

By now, I had had enough wine, but insufficient food. I drank Coca Cola or its Hungarian equivalent whilst my friend continued drinking wine – all afternoon. After the sun had set, I decided that I should return to my room.

I will take you there,” he said slurring.

As we began walking through the town, I had to support my staggering friend, and also guide him through his own town. When we had nearly reached where I was staying, he said:

Next time you are in Sopron, you will stay in my house. I will put wife in another room. You will sleep in my bed.”

With that, we parted company.

I never took up his offer because the next time I visited Sopron, I was already married.