I am carless when I visit the UK, but this has never been a problem for me. To my mind, travelling by train offers the perfect combination of pleasurable solitude with potential for interaction if I feel so inclined. Not the kind of intense conversations between strangers I was up for in my younger days, like the time I met a gentle Vancouver guy en route to Paris, where we spent the day before moving onto our respective connections and futures. These days I value my privacy more as travel has become an opportunity to catch up on reading and writing, or simply recreating myself before the next microscopic identity shift between one culture and another.
Using public transport also allows me to tune in to my home country and small details in everyday life which have changed over the years. Things like the way language is used. Changing trains in Reading Station I am soothed by the carefully–enunciated train announcements. Recorded of course, and less personal perhaps, but much more accessible than the unpredictable live delivery of train managers reminding us that we now are arriving into rather than at Swindon.
In the UK, as long as you are prepared to walk to the end of the train, you can still reserve a seat in the Quiet carriage, where you will be spared tedious telephone conversations of people recounting the daily minutiae of their lives in loud detail. I remember a woman doing this on an Italian train, and as she finally said goodbye, a blind man sitting behind her quipping ‘ Signora, please do give your friend best wishes from the rest of us’
My most frequent train journey in the UK is from Paddington to South Wales, long enough to do some productive work, with time for a trip to the buffet for coffee and Kitkat, reassuringly still available alongside fancier refreshments. This route also has some stunning skies with changing light and cloud formations.
In the not so distant future I will qualify for a railcard (how did that happen?) but am excited by the opportunities for train travel that it will bring. I’ve got my eye on a sleeper train to Scotland and a few days in a remote pub in the Highlands. I might even take a John Buchan novel with me.