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I know I’m a bit of a saddo for being into the history of railways, but please stick with me here, I promise that they’re interesting. What I find especially interesting is the social history – how the railways changed the country and our society, and this book is rich in that as well as more factual railway information.

The book covers the whole history of British railways, from the opening of the first ‘proper’ railway, the Liverpool to Manchester, through the Edwardian golden age, through the Beeching cuts and privatisation (which Wolmar disagrees with, or at least disagrees with the way it’s been done) of the railways and the channel tunnel link.

Through this Wolmar weaves the social elements, bringing the narrative to life. So, we hear about opposition to the railways from interested parties, and how the railways transformed life. Villages that had been remote and cut off from the world suddenly had links to market towns, regional cities and even the capital. Goods which had expensive because of transport costs became affordable to everyone. Perishable food items could be brought into the heart of conurbations, so that even the poor could have fresh milk and vegetables, and there was no longer any need to have cows roaming the streets of London.

And then the decline: the growth of the car, the rise of subsides making railways look unaffordable to government, and anyway they were old-fashioned. But now we have come full circle again, and railways are seen as a clean alternative to cars and lorries, often providing faster journey times than on crowded roads. Christopher Wolmar paints a bright and necessary future for rail, and he, and I, are pleased about it. 

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Mayle’s book is now over 20 years old but still remains a classic of travel writing and has spawned many (not so good) imitations. At the time I stumbled arcoss this book, in the sharing library of an English vineyard we were staying in, I was vaguely aware of its existence but had never greatly desired to read it.

Looking for some light escapism, and given that our surroundings appeared more continental than English, the book seemed a perfect choice. I wasn’t disappointed. Mayle’s easy prose and gentle meanderings through the months  required no deep thought but were immediately entertaining. His wrangling with various tradesmen, difficultly in becoming accustomed to French time, and various ploys to escape English acquaintances who rapidly tried to become his best friend after his move delight. Even more fulfilling is his obvious delight in French cooking and wines, and despite being a vegetarian I was often reduced to mouth-watering approval. There is no conclusion at the end of this book, no lesson to be learnt, except perhaps that of living each day to its fullest and taking pleasure in the minutiae of which life is composed: and perhaps that is one of the most important lessons of all.