Paddington station, still a mainline station, ...

Paddington station, still a mainline station, was the London terminus of the Great Western Railway. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a deep, dark secret. I try to keep it quiet, but occasionally I make an almost involuntary utterance that gives the game away. It is a secret shared with my Dad. When Nan and Grandad were alive, we often used to stay with them.

One evening, Nan gave me a pile of books to read. They used to belong to my Dad. Most of them were unremarkable; the sort of reading material you might expect an adolescent boy to read. In among the smattering of comics and adventure books was the evidence that he shared my secret.

It was about an inch thick and the cover was missing. The binding and the pages showed signs of heavy use. Inside, every page was crammed with listings. I took a sharp intake of breath once I realised what they were. They were listings of locomotives. Many of them had been underlined in blue biro. My dad was a trainspotter. Swindon was a good place to be one because it was pretty much the heart of the Western railways. Many locomotives ended up there for maintenance, so there was a good chance of seeing a wide range of rolling stock.

I’m not a card-carrying, anorak wearing trainspotter, but I do like trains. Occasionally, when we are doing the crossword, I let on that I know that the foldy thing on top of the train that connects to the power lines is a pantograph and that an electric train made up of a small number of motorised carriages is called an EMU (or Electric Multiple Unit). There is a diesel equivalent too, but DMU is not a word.

Sometimes I can’t help myself. Before I know it, I tell people that the train gauge in the UK is 4 feet 8 and a half inches because of Stephenson, but if Isambard Kingdom Brunel had won the gauge wars, our trains would be bigger, faster and more comfortable because the gauge would have been 7 feet and a quarter-inch.

At its peak, the UK’s railway network had 37,000 kilometres of track. It must have been fantastic to have the freedom to travel from almost any town in the country to almost any other and trains used to always be on time. Thanks mainly to the axe of Dr Richard Beeching, today we have about 16,000 kilometres.

For reasons that make sense to someone, we have a separate company responsible for track and train operating companies responsible for trains. Our trains are the most expensive in Europe and they seldom run on time.

I guess that’s progress, but I still like trains. Just don’t tell anyone.

The Industrial Renaissance

Teenage mutant ninja turtles

Teenage mutant ninja turtles (Photo credit: cubedude27)

I have to confess that the names Michelangelo and Leonardo make me think of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles long before I think of Florence and all the amazing architecture and artwork. Even so, it’s an amazing place. We spent a day there and marvelled at all the sights. Our tour guide was a short, round man who sported a massive pink umbrella which he held aloft for us to follow. One of the first things he told us was that he was homosexual. At first I wondered what relevance his sexuality could possibly have, but as he took us around all the beautiful buildings he pointed out, he told us a little about the famous renaissance men.

The way he explained it, they were all lovers and they spent their spare time, whilst they weren’t painting masterpieces or carving marble, sleeping with each other. “It was a marvellous time” he told us in his squeaky Italian accented voice. “There was love everywhere and that’s where the inspiration for all these masterpieces came from.” Whatever it was that inspired those great artists, they did a fine job, even if it does mean you get fleeced everywhere you because you are in the presence of greatness.

Although they are very nice works of art and Florence is a beautiful city, I have far more respect for another period in history. If I could travel back in time, the period of choice has to be the Industrial Revolution. In less than a century, a number of inventors transformed the world. Great advances in textiles, metallurgy and energy made more of an impact than any other period that came before (and arguably afterwards). Isambard Kingdom Brunel built God’s Wonderful Railway and if he’d won the argument about how wide apart the rails should be, we would have much faster, safer and more comfortable trains today. Instead, Stephenson, another Victorian engineer won out. Railway lines spread out across the country in a frenzy of navvies.

It was an age that saw the first postage stamp, the first pedal bicycle and the first flushing toilet. Telephones and typewriters were invented along with petrochemicals. For those with a sweet tooth, someone invented jelly babies and ice cream. Pasteurisation meant you could eat the ice cream without fear of being poisoned. The electric light bulb came along to light up our lives. For those with an ear for music, along came the gramophone and the wireless. Children all over the world (as well as some grown up children) give thanks for the invention of the comic book.

Maybe we will look back at the last hundred years and think it a revolution of a different kind. The internet revolution, although undoubtedly profound, somehow pales in my mind when compared with the achievements of our Victorian forefathers.