I’ve always had a fascination with railways. Part of this might be because I was born in London and grew up there. London, of course, has an extensive rail network. I can still just about remember working steam engines on what was then British Railways (steam was withdrawn in 1968, when I was four-years-old). Since then I’ve traveled on railways all over the world. This includes traveling by train across the old Soviet Union to China (on the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian – I had two close escapes from death on that trip), and going coast to coast by rail in North America. Such journeys were very lengthy, but one of my favourite rail journeys was a short hop in the south of France back in the early 1980s. The following is a short excerpt from a tale called Down and out in Paris and Rotterdam, from my first memoir When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn – Travel tales from a misspent youth:
My cousin Andre and I were backpacking in the south of France. After a couple of weeks we found ourselves in Saint-Tropez and had a meal in a restaurant on the beach. It looked like an inexpensive place and we ordered the cheapest menu; or so we thought: young, stupid and still unable to fully grasp the French language, the sumptuous four courses were in fact an a la carte menu. The bill made us wince, but we had to pay it and luckily we could just about cover the 1100 franc tab. They didn’t get a tip. After the weeks spent traveling along the Riviera, 1100 francs was just about everything we had left. That night we slept on the nearby beach.
The next morning we brushed off sand, then pooled and counted our spare change. Depressing stuff. We couldn’t even afford a bus to Marseille, let alone a train up to Paris, from where we did have a ticket to London and home. With a weary air of resignation we walked to the outskirts of town and began hitching for a lift. Breakfast was a luxury that we couldn’t really afford. Andre had half a loaf in his rucksack; stale of course. We stood on the side of the road and masticated bread as the millionaires drove by.
The eastern part of the French Riviera, from Fréjus and Saint-Raphaël along to the Italian border via Cannes, Antibes, Nice and Monaco and Monte-Carlo, is very busy. The coast here is almost continuously built-up. The western part of the Riviera, from Saint-Raphaël and Saint-Tropez to Toulon, is much more rural and quiet. Here, the main coastal highway and the railway line are far inland leaving a somewhat isolated stretch of coast known as the Côte Varoise. The Côte Varoise was developed for tourism much later than the rest of the Riviera, and by that time there were much stricter planning laws in place: there’s no high rise tourist accommodation here.
Sounds nice, but not if you’re skint and hitchhiking. It took Andre and me all day and well into the evening, with three different rides, before we were finally dropped off on the outskirts of Toulon. Now all we had to do was get to Marseille, which was less than an hour’s drive away. We bought some croissants for dinner and a cheap bottle of vin rouge, then stuck our thumbs out.
The coastal railway line lay a short distance from the road. A slow moving goods train was going by. From here there were only two directions: east along the coast towards Nice, or west to Marseille. The goods train was heading west. Andre and I looked at each other, then grabbed our rucksacks and ran over to the tracks. Climbing onto a moving train can be a tricky business, especially when you’re carrying a heavy rucksack. We managed to position ourselves at the end of a hopper wagon near the back of the train. There didn’t seem much chance of anyone spotting us as it was dusk; also, the curved ends of the hopper formed a sort of cave in which we could hide. Our biggest worry was that the train might be terminating in Toulon, which is a large town and port; but no, it trundled through without stopping and continued along the coast, giving spectacular views of sunset over the Mediterranean.
Just over an hour and a bottle of vin rouge later we reached Marseille. After a few stops and starts the train finally came to rest in sidings right near the main Saint-Charles station. We didn’t want to attract attention to ourselves by walking along the tracks, so instead we climbed a high fence that enclosed the sidings and made our way to the station by road. Of course, we didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket to Paris. Back then, though, it used to be fairly easy to ride French trains without a ticket. If you told the ticket collector you were broke they would take your name, address and passport number and you’d be billed when you got back home. However, this did not stop them throwing you off the train before you got to your intended destination, so the key to it was to use an express train. We glanced at the departure board. The next Paris train was at ten minutes to midnight, stopping only once at Dijon. Perfect. It was always easier to avoid ticket collectors on overnight trains, and if we could do so until after Dijon we knew we’d get to Paris.
End of excerpt
At about the same time that Andre and I were slumming it in the south of France in the early 1980s, the English poet John Betjeman kicked the bucket, aged 77. Betjeman was a lover of railways and in this respect is best known for his documentary Metro-Land, which was first broadcast by the BBC in 1973. John Betjeman made a number of programmes about railways, and this little gem about the Somerset and Dorset Railway was put out by the BBC in 1963. Watching the somewhat tubby Betjeman puffing away on full strength Capstan cigarettes, it’s amazing that he made the age of 77…