Tales Of The Country: Now we really are going off the rails

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The Independent Online

As I write these words, I am sitting in a hot, stuffy carriage on the First Great Western 07.51 service from Worcester Shrub Hill to London Paddington. It is a service I have been using once or twice a week for the past 11 months, yet I can count the times it has arrived on schedule on the fingers of Abu Hamza's right hand. The explanation - always offered too damn cheerfully for my liking - is usually signal failure just outside Slough, except when it's a broken-down locomotive north of Oxford. Coincidentally, I have just read The Independent's front-page report on the disarray of Britain's railway system, and would be nodding vigorously except that it is altogether too hot for vigour. A woman opposite is fanning herself with her ticket.

The Tannoy now bursts into life, operated by the buffet attendant who introduces himself as our "customer host". I am aware that a degree of Meldrewishness seems to be creeping into this column, but still I think it needs saying that "customer host" is one of those pseudo-American job titles introduced to British service industries to convey the impression that everything is slick and wired, when sick and tired is closer to the truth.

All of which brings me to Ken Matthews, a former railwayman from Swindon now pushing 70, and with the high waistband and rolling gait that only railwaymen, or former railwaymen, seem to have. Ken lives a couple of miles from our house, down a narrow country lane and through a couple of dingly dells, at Fencote, a remote branch line station out of use since 1952. He and his late wife Barbara bought the place in 1986 and lovingly restored it, installing 200 yards of track and an old inspection saloon, a rather swish carriage used by track inspection teams in the days when the track needed a sight less inspection, but got a sight more, than it does now. Ken has fitted the saloon with a loo, a shower and two double bedrooms. When his lucky grandchildren visit, that's where they stay.

Fencote is open to the public only by prior appointment, although Ken is planning an open weekend next year. It stands both as a monument to his passion for Britain's railway past, and an indictment of Britain's railway present. One of many fascinating bits of paraphernalia he has on display is a timetable from October 1944, which records that the journey from Worcester to Leominster, stopping at eight little stations all now defunct, took one hour and 20 minutes. The same journey now takes two hours, and requires at least one change. It is sobering to reflect that the quality of life in north Herefordshire, at least in terms of access by train to the rest of the world, was greater in 1944 than it is in 2003.

"The concept of service has gone," lamented Ken the other day, as he led me up some wooden steps to show me his cherished signal box. "Everything's run by accountants now." And all the poorer for it, I said, before asking him whether he has had any offers for Fencote. "Yes, quite a few. An American came here once and said he would give me whatever I wanted for the place, and let me and the wife stay on to look after it." Was he not tempted? A chuckle. "No, I'm too steady a bloke for that sort of thing."

At last! Proof that lichen can grow on you

It is sometimes said that living in the country contracts the mind. I can say with authority that this is utter compost - compost being just one in a wide range of subjects I know infinitely more about now than I did a year ago. Others include chickens, gravel, nettles, ha-has and septic tanks. Not to mention lichen, of which there are 1,800 species in the United Kingdom.

I know this because on Monday I looked out of our kitchen window to see four people, wearing an interesting variety of hats, scrutinising our old cider press through magnifying glasses. One was our neighbour Will, the wildlife consultant. He introduced the others as two distinguished lichenologists and an expert on moss. "A mossologist?" I said. They laughed as I have rarely seen people laugh outside an Eddie Izzard gig, clutching their sides and gasping for air. Eventually they recovered sufficiently to tell me that the study of moss is called bryology.

Anyway, they found several varieties of lichen on the cider press, and more in the orchard. All this was dutifully noted down for forwarding to Bradford University's lichen-recording project. An abundance of lichen means that the air quality is good, they told me. "It tells us how things are changing. Politicians can lie, but lichens can't."

I asked one of them, the ever-smiling and aptly-named Joy, whether there was one particular lichen the discovery of which in our orchard would cause them great excitement? "Yes, if we found Lobaria pulmonaria here then we would be celebrating for years to come," she said, happily. Sadly, they didn't. But they did find some Lecanora soralifera, which gave them - and having been infected by their enthusiasm, me too - a little buzz of satisfaction.

Manure or manicure?

Others may disagree, but apart from one slightly narcissistic metatarsal, I don't think I have a vain bone in my body. That said, I have always had a thing about my fingernails, keep them clean and neatly clipped, and I am mildly distressed that country living seems to be making this harder. Increasingly, for all my pairs of gloves, and as hard as I scrub, my nails are those of a man with a vegetable garden. Tips would be welcomed.