Look on my viaducts ye mighty, and despair

'He said he couldn't go on with the interview, as there seemed to be a nuclear explosion at my end'
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The Independent Online

For the past 13 years, I have lived beside a railway line, a branch line that goes from Bath down to places such as Weymouth and Portsmouth. I like living beside the line because I like trains. The trains go past the garden about once every 20 minutes, making a sudden whooshing noise, which none of us really notices much any more, so used are we to it. Most of them are little Sprinters, which all make roughly the same noise.

For the past 13 years, I have lived beside a railway line, a branch line that goes from Bath down to places such as Weymouth and Portsmouth. I like living beside the line because I like trains. The trains go past the garden about once every 20 minutes, making a sudden whooshing noise, which none of us really notices much any more, so used are we to it. Most of them are little Sprinters, which all make roughly the same noise.

For the most part, I no more notice the trains rushing by than people notice cars going past in the street. When visitors come here for the first time, they sometimes jump suddenly in the air when they are peacefully ensconced in the garden and say words to the effect of: "Jumping Jehoshaphat, what in tarnation was that?" as a train whooshes past, and I look puzzled and say: "What was what?" because I genuinely haven't heard anything.

I was once doing a phone interview with someone on Radio 4, sitting at my garden door in the sunshine with the phone at my ear, when the interviewer said he couldn't go on with the interview because there seemed to be a nuclear explosion at my end. It was, of course, a train whooshing past, which I hadn't noticed, and I had to move indoors and start all over again.

(Have you noticed that I have to use the insufficient word "whoosh" to describe the noise of a train? Since the demise of steam engines, trains no longer chuff or go "choo choo", but what do they do instead? The only identifiably different noise a train makes is the slight rattle of wheels over the join in the tracks, but if you try saying to anyone: "A train went past, going 'diddly-dum... diddly-dum... diddly-dum... ', they tend to look at you oddly. I tackled a 10-year-old child head-on with the problem the other day. "What noise does a train make? How do you imitate it?" I said, perhaps a little threateningly. "We don't imitate trains," he said coldly. "Why should we want to?" That child has now been struck out of my will, even though he undeniably has a point.)

I like my railway line and never thought I would be jealous of anyone else's line, but one weekend not long ago I went to stay with my brother in Devon. He has recently moved to a house in a forgotten valley between Exeter and Plymouth. If you walk down a track from his house into a large piece of parkland, you see at the end a huge viaduct carrying the main London-Plymouth line.

That's all there is in the meadow, apart from a few cows and a vast expanse of grass fringed by woods: a huge railway viaduct. In fact, when you get closer, you see there are two huge railway viaducts, side by side, one used and one disused. I gather that the disused one was the original, pre-Brunel viaduct and the current one is the genuine Brunel beast. Be that as it may, both sets of viaduct-legs still rear a hundred foot in the air above you, with sundry woodland creepers growing up them, rather like the legs of Ozymandias.

The odd thing is that if you stand directly beneath the viaduct, you cannot see the trains passing above, only hear them, yet in a way it is even more impressive to hear them than see them. They are audible for about half a minute before they come on to the viaduct - from some way off you can hear the approaching roar of the train, and back in the Victorian era it must have been the nearest they ever came to witnessing powered flight, because when the roar materialised into a visible train, they would have seen the 4.20 to Plymouth flying over their heads, like a plane coming into Heathrow to land.

But it wouldn't have sounded like a plane coming in to land. A steam engine sounds great, but it doesn't sound like anything that ever flew. A modern train, however, does. The one advantage of going "whoosh" instead of "chuff chuff" is that you do sound as if you're flying. That may not be of much help to Railtrack in its current beleaguered situation, but there is a railway viaduct near my brother's place in Devon where you'll believe that trains can fly.

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