New Trains on the Western Region

The “new” Great Western Railway (as opposed to the “classic” Great Western Railway which was abolished on ideological grounds at the end of 1947) has recently been introducing some new trains.

I have been in various minds over whether to make any blog-based comments on these new trains, but having spent the afternoon enjoying one of the particular delights of January weekend rail travel (empty trains) I thought I’d feature a few pictures and some comments.

The Intercity Express Train

Didcot 2This was ordered by the Government as part of the Intercity Express Programme for the Great Western and East Coast mainlines, which will replace the IC125 High Speed Trains on both routes plus the bulk of the IC225 Class 91+Mk4 sets on the East Coast. The Government is very proud of it, and the train operator is contractually obliged to be very proud of it as well.

From the immediate passenger perspective it is actually a pretty good bit of technical kit. With the pantograph up and electricity drawing they accelerate like rockets, even when over 100mph. Longer trains mean more seats than can be squeezed into a HST without having to squeeze them, so the Western intercity traveller once again gets legroom and tables. There are more plug-in points and the train is equipped with modern passenger information screens.  Some extra seating space has been found by ceasing to heave around a full purpose-built kitchen/ buffet car with counter, so while there is still a kitchen (in the nose beyond first class) general catering is provided from a trolley. The trolley doesn’t show off the range as well as a buffet car, but no longer does the solo traveller have to choose between “no coffee” or “sorry, MI5 came round and took your luggage away because it was unattended”.

There are various underlying features relating to railway politics, general politics and operations management on which its precise benefits may be more debatable – the contract for buying the trains has a bit of an industry reputation for being pricey, which the Government fed by not releasing enough data to shut the journalist up; the Government isn’t really supposed to be imposing rolling stock solutions on an ostensibly privatised industry, particularly as the operators had an idea of their own at the time (but that’s Transport Secretary Alistair Darling for you); and the electro-diesel facility, while previously used by the Southern Region, has now reached the eyes of the Secretary of State for Transport and been used as an excuse for canning a load of worthwhile electrification projects which another Transport Secretary abruptly pulled out of his hat six months before a General Election (which he lost) and imposed on an industry not really equipped or trained to do 500-odd route miles of electrification in five years.

But the electrification debacle is not the fault of the trains, and while it would be nice for the Government not to be able to can electrification because they’re stuck with a fleet of electric trains it is also rather handy that a) canning electrification doesn’t mean having to can the new trains and rush the HSTs off for a second mid-life overhaul and b) when electrification progresses at a more realistic pace it can be taken advantage of as various bits go live. It does mean that these lightweight electric units have to lug diesel engines and fuel tanks about, and one hopes that before the end of their lives some of them will have the engines removed and their full capabilities revealed. (Not that their full capabilities are that bad to begin with. Passengers paying attention who haven’t spent time with electric trains before should lose very little time in becoming “Sparks” converts.)

The arrival of the IET has the small embarrassing feature that the Government insisted it be a multiple unit because loco-hauled trains are inherently unreliable only for the first IETs to come into traffic two months before Anglia’s loco-hauled trains were announced to have topped the intercity train reliability tables. But this is embarrassing for everyone (except, obviously, the fitters at Norwich Crown Point who have finally managed to turn the Class 90 into a decent traction package a mere three years before it gets scrapped), so is not something to hold against the IET personally. (One suspects the people who wrote that statement were thinking of Cross Country’s then-recently-retired Class 47s, which by 2002 were inherently unreliable.)

Presently the trains are coming into traffic as pairs of 5-car sets each replacing one HST (except on Worcester, Malvern & Hereford services, where they run as 5-cars). This results in a small gap in the through corridor, and is a bit of a pain all round. It also creates a 260-metre long train, which makes platforms look a bit short. A second tranche of 9-car sets will look more logical and allow the 5-cars to go off doing more 5-car-ish stuff.

Reading 23 JPG

And I forgot – my personal gripe – not enough cycle spaces.

Overlooking that:

Reading 24 JPG.jpgFirst class, through a window. Now marked by a white strip at cantrail (roofline) level rather than yellow. ScotRail, “Thameslink Southern Great Northern” and Anglia still use the once-standard yellow stripes, but otherwise yellow stripes are obsolete. The blanked windows beyond cover the kitchen. Underfloor equipment is neatly panelled away – in this case generic equipment, but other vehicles have engines tidily tucked in. The engines are there, sometimes noticeably, but are not as loud as Turbos or Voyagers.

IET interior 1.jpg Standard class interior. Seats are currently a bit grey – the design spec was for a blank train with grey interiors and white paint which the operator could discretely brand for the length of their franchise. The idea is to save rebranding costs at franchise changes or, indeed, when the franchise holder realises their brand is doomed. The result is a bit dull. Some bright green branding and the rather continental-railway beechwood saloon ends lighten things up. The saloon end doors are worked by overhead sensors so open automatically. This is what passengers expect (unlike the foot-worked sensors on the HST, which were always hilarious when someone was standing just off them waving their hand at a non-existent overhead sensor) and is hands-free (unlike the push-button doors on Voyagers, which are rather less hilarious when they firmly close themselves after 30 seconds on queues of passengers and their luggage). It does have the effect of eliminating the value of the useful skill of stepping over the HST foot sensor when crossing from one side of the vestibule to the other.

IET interior 2.jpgA picture to show that the luggage racks have some depth to them. The squared-off roof at the end of the saloon is for the pantograph well. There is a bit of variety to floor height in the IET vehicles – coaches with engines have higher floors. This means that more care is needed in some vehicles than others to avoid banging one’s head on the glazed racks. Need to bring the Giant Rucksack along one afternoon and try it for size…

IET interior 3.jpg The end-of-saloon luggage rack. Some vehicles have seats here instead; my personal preference, as a window-lover with a Giant Rucksack, would be for more luggage space. Not that I like using end-of-saloon luggage racks when I can avoid it anyway. The IET version is not quite as tall as the HST equivalent.

IET interior 4.jpgThe Universal Access Toilet, in the vestibule under the pantograph. There is one of these at each end of each IET (under the pantograph in both cases) so both first and standard class passengers have access to one in their own bits of the train- in accordance with the law. Awkwardly the 5-car sets don’t come with a Universal Access Seating Space in standard class for the person requiring a Universal Access Toilet to sit in. Oops. Still, better than the last HST refurb providing a space for a wheelchair in first class that a) was off the platform end at half the stations and b) didn’t come with matching toilet. It’s understood that people who need a wheelchair space will get an automatic upgrade, and the toilet is here in case someone later decides to make a space in standard or just wants room for baby-changing. Slim-line toilets are provided in the intermediate vehicles, tucked in between the external doors and the gangway to the next coach. In this regard the IET is laid out rather like the Regional Railways Class 158s. Note the map of the toilet at top left.

IET interior 5.jpg Inside the toilet. Not a picture I would have tried to take had anyone else been travelling in the coach. The baby changing table is folded up behind the seat; changing the baby for another one is generally considered a more sociable solution to the “screaming baby in the quiet carriage” problem than, say, strychnine.

IET interior 6.jpg Look! Table bays! GW HSTs have them too, but not in any numbers in most standard coaches – they were sacrificed in the 2006 refurb for a fairly minimal number of extra seats. Table provision is one of those things which highlights the difference between the quality of the train as a technical package and the balance of comfort and capacity struck when the saloon was laid out. IET table bays are rather wider than HST table bays, allowing a bigger table. The downside is that the table is further away. IETs also come with window blinds throughout, replacing the first-class-only curtains on HSTs. The small grey clips on the wall can be used for coats. Overhead is the bright red button of the passenger alarm.

IET interior 7.jpg Under an airline seat (IETs have these too, for people that prefer them). The chair leg by the bodyside/ heating panel is a bit of an annoyance, but can be worked around. Two under-seat plugs are provided in place of the one on the HST (and they are always under-seat, unlike the HST where table plugs are at the window end of the table). Various views are expressed on the seat padding, but personally I find the base quite comfortable – although the upright seat back is another matter. Armrests are provided throughout.

IET door 1 JPG.jpg An IET door, belonging to unit 800 009. The label to the left of the door shows seat numbers most easily reached by this door. Upper right is the bodyside camera for Driver Controlled Operation. To the right of the door is the control button with the emergency handle in bright green at lower right. White door rims and bogie pivot points highlight that 800 009 is painted white and vinyled into GWR green. Sliding doors are provided, retracting into a bodyside pocket which precludes windows within three feet of that side of the external door. This means no more droplights, so no more fighting with outside door handles, no more bashing people with slam doors, no more doors gently swinging shut on people when the coach is on sloping track, no more decapitations on signal posts or lost hands on tunnel walls (yes, I have been on a train delayed at Chippenham because someone stuck his hand out of the window in Box Tunnel and half of it got shredded off – blood everywhere apparently), no more photos out of the windows and no more sniffing the fresh Cornish air on the moors between St Austell and Truro.

(Also no more burning brake block smell. IETs have regenerative/ rheostatic brakes combined with modern friction brakes that make squealing noises.)

Paddington 7 JPG.jpg At Paddington, providing a comparison with a HST. The IET nose is longer and more has been done with the windscreen. Rounded glass has been possible for years, but after fitting 1950s multiple units with rounded windscreens (notably classes 123/ 303/ 309) British Rail rapidly went off the idea due to the costs of replacing the curved sheets of glass when they got smashed. There have been exceptions, but generally flat sheets have been normal since then. The HST nose always exudes mass and power, while the IET looks rather powerful from some angles and a bit thin from others. What it does manage to avoid is the rather bug-like look of a Voyager. The small black pole sticking out of the coupling cover is a bit of the coupling which features on every European train with a covered automatic coupling, but which the coupling designers have no enthusiasm to remove. The HST does not have such a hole because behind the HST’s coupling cover is a conventional drawhook – a long-standing flaw with the design as drawhooks are supposed to come with buffers and be prominently displayed. The HST (usually) has no buffers and hides the drawhook so it’s a bit of a pig to use.

Class 387

The 387 is the latest in a long line of electric multiple units built at Derby by the site’s owners, all branded as Electrostar. Aside from being Built In Britain, they are pretty apolitical things so don’t need much of a run-in.

The Electrostar started off looking like this:

Fenchurch Street 2 JPG.jpg

Then they looked like this, after someone had decided that through gangways were jolly useful (and, on 100mph square-fronted trains, not inclined to wreck attempts at streamlining):

Folkestone Central 1 JPG.jpg

And now they look like this – with neater light clusters and the ribbon-glazing replaced by something easier to maintain:

Acton ML 1 JPG.jpg

But the manufacturer has withdrawn them from the product catalogue, so that’s it for the Electrostar.

They’re replacing the Thames Turbo units ordered for Great Western suburban and lower-loading medium-distance services in the early 1990s. These are perfectly respectable trains, but were based around a high-density travel concept so have 2+3 seating with no armrests or tables. This is good for peak commuter traffic, but not so ideal for leisure flows in the Kennet Valley or business travel to Worcester and Hereford.

Paddington 8 JPG.jpg This is a Turbo. This particular example is named after Roger Watkins, a GWR planner who was involved in their introduction to the Thames Valley. It is looking obligingly slightly grubby, thus making the 387 look flasher and newer by comparison.

So the Kennet Valley and Worcester, Malvern & Hereford services are going IET, the suburban services are being electrified so the 387s can take over and the Turbos are off to Bristol, where they can replace smaller and (slightly) older Sprinters.

Inside the 387 is absolutely nothing like a Turbo.

387 interior 1 JPG.jpg General interior view. This is the standard GWR seating colour scheme, also seen on GWR-refurbished HSTs, Sprinters, Pacers and Turbos. The seats are the current standard for suburban stock, which the odd commentator will refer to as “ironing boards”. For the duties that they work, which is stopping services out of London, they are perfectly good seats. They are laid out in 2+2 formation and come with seat-back fold-down tables and armrests. The large blocks reducing a couple of window heights are the bodyside passenger information panels.

387 interior 2 JPG.jpg A 387’s luggage rack. Two levels, sloping backwards to stop stuff falling out. 387s have swing-plug sliding doors, so there is no internal door pocket and therefore no dead bodyside to put racks against, so the luggage gets a window view.

387 interior 3 JPG.jpg A vestibule – specifically for the Universal Access Toilet with Universal Access Seating Spaces and Universal Access Bin (which some people bother to use). The toilet is set up differently to the IET and doesn’t come with a map.

387 interior 4 JPG A table bay – there are a couple of these in the smaller saloons at the vehicle ends and also one at each end of the main saloon, next to the vestibule. Under the table are a couple of plug sockets. Over this particular table is the emergency “hopper” window for use if the air conditioning breaks. The table bays mostly line up neatly with the windows, although the ones directly behind the cab get a smaller window.

387 interior 5 JPG.jpg The vestibule, with bin and standard door controls. Doors are placed at what is usually described as “one-third and two-third” intervals, although in practice since about 1990 designers have favoured one-quarter and three-quarter intervals.

The 387s run more enthusiastically than a Turbo and of course offer all the standard electric train benefits regarding quiet running – there is just a slight whine from the motors and wheels.

They largely run in 8-car formations, which in the peaks mostly offsets the lower per-vehicle official seating capacity than a Turbo and off-peak means lots of lovely room. No longer will commuters have to brave the middle seat of the line of three. During an awkward period when electrification ran from Paddington to Maidenhead 387s were used on Paddington to Maidenhead stoppers – peaks only in the week and all day at weekend, interworked with Turbos running on to Reading and Oxford. The ordinary day-to-day passenger might not have been bouncing up and down with joy that their train now had a pantograph, but they were appreciating the table bays. (Of course Turbos consisted almost entirely of seating bays, but 387s come with tables for putting drinks and crisp packets and magazines on.)

Electrification now terminates at Didcot, which is a trifle awkward because it means the Paddington to Oxford stopping trains now have to terminate at Didcot too. Turbos connect there to continue to Oxford and Banbury, with the happy upside that the Banbury stoppers now run through to Didcot for easier connections.


Well, actually, the 387s and IETs are the new train designs for Great Western services (Crossrail will be bringing along the successor to the 387s, the Class 345 “Advenza”, in a few years time for stopping trains between Paddington, Heathrow and Reading) and the 387s are all in traffic, so that is It as far as surveys of the designs go.

But IET introduction is yet young, and there are rather more of them to be introduced over the next year. Some of the HSTs will also be staying around with fewer coaches and new doors for inter-regional services. Other HSTs are already heading off to Scotland to provide a welcome replacement for intercity Turbostars. The balance will be available to anyone looking for novelty garden ornaments.

Paddington 9 JPG.jpg Enjoy while it lasts – four HSTs line up at Paddington station. This will be the sight at Glasgow Queen Street in just over a year, by which point Paddington will be a hub of IETs and 387s.


Travel Costs

An amusing little distraction for Christmas – whether you, dear reader, have spent this year travelling in the most cost-effective manner.

Let us imagine that two adults wish to travel from suburban northern Newport (Casnewydd) to spend a day walking Cwmcarn and Twmbarlwm, the signpost to which is pictured below:

Twmbarlwm 1 JPG.jpg


The drive is fairly simple, being around the suburban roads to the A467 and then straight up the Ebbw valley at a theoretical maximum of 70mph. As the AA reckons it’s 10 miles and takes 21 minutes the average is slightly under 30mph.

A car which is bought for free, does not need insurance or MoT and does 60 miles per gallon on start/ stop running will manage about 14 miles per £1, or £1.50 for the round trip. This is a grotesque under-estimate of the actual costs, which on a moderate-mileage car including depreciation/ hire-purchase costs, maintenance and insurance will come to around 50p per mile, or £10 for the trip. To this should be added a £3 parking charge. Total calculable cost is thus £13. Other costs relating to atmospheric pollution, accident rates, health problems caused by inactivity travelling in a cramped box and alternative uses for car parking have not been properly assessed as the transport planners would rather not calculate them.


The area is hilly. The run is not unduly challenging, being on suburban roads, but the cyclist may not be in much of a state to do a serious walk afterwards. Still, if planning to go mountain-biking at Cwmcarn this is the logical way to transport the bike.

About every thousand miles the bike will fall due for an overhaul encompassing bike light batteries (£5), two new tyres (£60), two new gear cassettes (£60), a new chain (£30) and a half-life on a new helmet (£25). To this should be added periodic cleans (this run is on tarmac so will not require a one-off extra deep clean) and a £50 bill for getting someone else to do the overhaul, possibly bodging it in the process. Divide the depressing total (£180, not employing the mechanic) by 50 for the share incurred by a 20-mile run, multiply by 2 for two bikes and get £6.40.


The bus is operated by Stagecoach South Wales and will in all probability be a 151 to Blackwood. This is Traveline’s preferred solution.

This will take anything between three-quarters of a hour and a hour, depending on precise location relative to the bus route through Newport. The bus journey itself takes about 20 minutes. A return for two adults costs the same as a return for a group, which is £13.20. A South Wales Explorer ticket allowing return from Cwmbran after walking over the hill (more interesting than simply returning to the car) is £15.80.


The canal coincidentally terminates at the entrance to Cwmcarn Forest Drive, having been truncated on its way to Crumlin to make way for the A467. It has also been breached in several places to allow access to housing estates.

Aside from the costs of procuring a canoe and carrying it round the obstructions, plus the question of how to stop someone from walking off with it while it’s parked in Cwmcarn (and of course the challenge of an 18-mile round paddle) this is a fairly low-cost option. The waterway owner may appreciate a donation reflecting a proportion of the savings relative to other options. A journey time of three hours each way would be reasonable.


There are multiple walking options, the simplest of which is to go straight up the canal towpath. It is also possible to head straight up Twmbarlwm without going to the Cwmcarn visitor centre at all.

This will take about three hours each way, though can be viewed as part of the walk.

Make some sort of allowance for shoe leather.


This is an hourly service from Pye Corner to Crosskeys, taking 12 minutes. Bikes are carried. Trains are usually 4-cars, providing 4 cycle spaces and about 250 seats.

The option exists to vary the trip by using Risca station to approach Twmbarlwm from a different angle or incorporate parts of the Raven Walk.

The fare for two adult passengers with railcards (assuming weekly use of a £30 annual railcard at a sunk cost of 58p per week) is £5.08, or £6.80 without a railcard.

The rail network as a whole receives about 40% of its revenue as subsidy, being the replacement for shareholder investment in capital spending. Were this support to be removed and the railcard be withdrawn, the fare would rise to £11.35.


Overall costs for return trip:

  1. Walk: Shoes + 6 hours
  2. Canoe: Boat + 6 hours
  3. Train with railcard: £5.08
  4. Cycle: £6.40
  5. Train without railcard: £6.80
  6. Train charged at full commercial rate without any industry subsidy or railcard: £11.35
  7. Car: £13
  8. Bus (return): £13.20
  9. Bus (rover): £15.80


If you don’t want to walk all the way the train is cheapest.

Declaration: This post was brought to you by a member of the rail lobby.

Martin Luther Day

It’s 500 years (ignoring the effect of the Calendar Act 1750 and continental equivalents) since Friar Martin Luther sent his Bishop a list of 95 reasons why the Catholic Church shouldn’t sell indulgences. Indulgences are a pay-per-use means of getting off sins and Purgatory and gaining quicker access to Heaven, which generates the standard “progressive” objection that they allow the rich to buy salvation while the poor have to sit in Purgatory for years. (The rich point out that the Scriptures say “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” and they therefore need as much help and support as they can get.)

Luther reportedly also attached these reasons (“theses”) to the Parish noticeboard on his church, which happened to be the church door.

None of the laity will have had a clue what the theses were about beyond something regarding the existing controversy regarding indulgences, St Peter’s Basilica, etc., as they were based on detailed interpretations of the Bible which was in Latin and therefore inaccessible. (The inaccessibility being the Point by this stage. Some of it had been translated into English, but Luther lived in Germany where they didn’t speak that much English, and in any event the translator had died and then been dug up and burned at the stake for heresy, which made his books a trifle less available in the ordinary authorised bookshops.) However, the Bishop did know what it was about and told Luther to recant, Luther refused and the Church was tragically obliged to excommunicate him. (He wasn’t burned at the stake, because he got kidnapped by a friendly noble and locked up in the Wartburg Castle until he translated the Bible into German.)

So to commemorate, here are ten things you can put on your parish noticeboard.

  1. The contact details for the vicar;
  2. The contact details for the flower-arranging committee;
  3. A warning about the church being Smartwater protected;
  4. The details of the next service;
  5. The Parish newsletter;
  6. A promotional feature about the good work that the church’s fundraising is doing in Africa;
  7. A further promotional feature about the need to fundraise to stop the 12th-century tower falling off;
  8. An invite for passers-by to enter God’s Home for a moment of contemplation and wider understanding;
  9. An invite to the cake sale next Tuesday;
  10. A long and detailed attack on a specialist and largely unimportant part of Church teachings that causes a major schism in the Church which will still be causing small wars, substantive differences of opinion and general controversy as to whether you were right five hundred years later.

EU Negotiating Positions

The Torygraph is, perhaps optimistically, reporting that the European Union may be about to reorganise its stance on negotiating Brexit.

Broadly, and based on my understanding, negotiations since Article 50 was triggered in April have gone as follows:

  • Britain took the view that a contribution to the EU budget and ongoing costs was part of the final settlement and future relationship.
  • Whereas the EU took the view that the contribution to the EU budget and ongoing costs is part of past commitments and the final settlement is part of the future, so will be discussed in the future once the past has been straightened out.
  • So the Government decided to prove that the Prime Minister was about to be really really popular and win a huge Parliamentary majority for her negotiating position in a snap election, thus showing that Europe had to do what she wanted. Of course she then lost her overall majority, and made her Government look really not very brilliant by leaving a distinct air that the only reason she stayed in post was because nobody else in Parliament would be any better at the job. Evidently Tony Blair’s legacy to politics (not a career choice for anyone who knows how to make a difference, or do anything at all, with perhaps a couple of exceptions who are keeping their heads down) is ongoing.
  • Meanwhile the British position was compared to membership of a golf club, where members can resign their subscription and make no further contribution to the new clubhouse and revised green mowing arrangements (and play golf however they like).
  • Whereas the EU preferred the concept of a highly emotional and rancorous divorce, with alimony to be paid on an ongoing basis.
  • Britain made a very quiet and unspoken move towards the EU position that the divorce bill would be discussed first, followed (if the bill went well enough by, say, September 2017) by discussing the future relationship.
  • Britain then raised the suggestion of a transitional arrangement of some point for three years.
  • Whereas the EU began talking of a £100billion payout towards the hole left in the remainder of the 5-year budget (that Britain agreed to) as a result of Britain going.

It is the transitional arrangement which has become rather fun in all this. The transitional arrangement would of course involve paying the EU something, which obviously would most sensibly be what we would have paid anyway in exchange for most of the benefits of being inside plus most of the benefits of being outside. This would be a temporary semi-informal cake-and-eat-it scenario, with no immediate attractions for other members because a) it would largely be so they can have our money, and therefore unlikely to be repeated for Italy because the immediate cash savings following formal withdrawal would rather appeal to the EU; and b) after the three years we would be Out, without the benefits of being inside.

But if we’re going to pay what we would have paid anyway over those three years, we meet our commitments to the EU Budget and so there is no lump sum divorce bill.

This of course means the lump sum divorce bill is not relevant until it is decided there is no transitional period, but the transitional period is a technical affair that will lead from the In state to the Out state and the Out state has to be established before the transitional period can be properly considered. Thus the transitional period’s relevance doesn’t arise for some time, and the lump sum comes up when that has failed.

Perhaps more seriously, the lump sum has been progressively rising as the EU finds more and more costs that the UK will not be paying after April 2019. One major question which arises from this growing lump sum is whether the EU can afford the UK’s departure. Some months ago a bunch of Euro politicians were happily banging on about all the things they can do now the UK is off, overlooking that standing armies, worldwide diplomatic missions and proper integrated financial regulation are extremely expensive. If they are to be £100billion short of current spending in the 2020 Budget, the attitude should be towards retrenchment and lining up gigantic programme cuts that will make Tory austerity look like the insignificant fiddling of small but painful slashes that it is – not expansion of the Imperial power.

Britain meanwhile has been querying the lump sum and asking to see an itemised bill. From the response, it seems that people on the Continent are very honest. When you get your house rebuilt in, say, Belgium, it appears the builder will simply present you with a bill for €9000 and you simply sign the cheque, without asking the builder to point out what’s been done. In this country it would be called an excuse for embezzlement.

The problem for the EU is if at the end of September the view remains “No lump sum agreement by September = no deal”. Because if there is no deal, that includes no lump sum payment. By the end of this month, the EU would have committed to a position where in April 2019 we simply withdraw from the EU and begin the lengthy process of deporting the unattached EU citizens who, owing to the absence of a citizenship deal, no longer have any right of residence in the UK.

And the EU? Is, by its own maths, some £100billion out of pocket.

That’s not a good position for a bunch of supposedly brilliant negotiators to find themselves in – negotiating the other side into not paying you anything.

How you sell to your population that they are now £100billion poorer because you thought being paid by instalments over an extended period was an unacceptable compromise is an interesting question.

The solution is very simple – to forget the £100billion lump sum and focus on getting a transitional arrangement which will result in Britain paying that over a three-year period, very quietly and with obvious benefits to both sides. And, of course, with a recollection that this makes David Davis’s job much easier because he can go home and say “I got rid of that stupid bill today,” and after that can agree more or less any rubbish wanted.

It looks like some portions of the EU may be realising this. It would have helped of course if someone had suggested it more loudly at the outset.

EuroParl Strasbourg 1 JPG.jpg The European Parliament building in Strasbourg, showing the immense interest displayed by the citizens of Europe in their unified democratic institution. (At least, the interest displayed on a Thursday afternoon in September.)

Women-only carriages

This came up in 2015, when I wrote a long blogpost trying to delicately dismantle it that, in the end, I didn’t hit “post” on and which you have, therefore, not read.

Anyway, it has come up again:

Mr Williamson is obviously not a rail-using MP, otherwise while out and about on the trains around his Derby North constituency he would have encountered a certain operational flaw in his idea called the Class 153:
Knighton 1 JPG.jpg

So once this carriage is women-only, where do I sit? On the roof?


Jane Austen: 200 years late

The conversation in the adjacent vestibule petered out and the gentleman, seeking other entertainment, came through to find me leaning up against the coach end, leg cocked back against the bulkhead to take the weight off that foot, shoulder tucked into the corner against the door hinge and book in hand.
“Hey captain,” he remarked, “what’re you reading?”
I lifted the book for him to see the author and title across its pale green cover while I continued to read of Mr Elton’s enthusiasm for the emerging portrait of Miss Smith.
His face changed.
“What do you want to read that for?” he asked. “Is it for a college or university project?”
I said it was funny; – he took a doubtful pull on his vape-stick; – I discreetly lowered the droplight and turned a page, reflecting that for the second time this year I had seemingly passed for somewhat younger than my actual years.
He had come into my vestibule with two objectives; being proffered the unspoken suggestion that further vaping would be unpopular he would persist in the other of them, so while the air cleared I was obliged to abandon my perusal of Miss Austen’s Emma and engage in a discussion of her relative merits to Tolkein – a conversation that would have come much easier if I could ever have read any of his works.

– a recent rail journey with Emma, by Jane Austen (1814)


There are some five classic authors in English of sufficient stature over a sufficient duration to be regarded as the language’s classic fiction writers. They are Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens. To these may be added, sooner or later and depending on longevity across the next century or so, the names Agatha Christie, Joanne Rowling and Terry Pratchett. The eight give a pleasingly even male/ female split.

Of these it is Jane Austen, who died in Winchester 200 years ago today, that this essay covers. There is generally little argument with assertions that she was one of the English language’s foremost writers. In her regrettably brief lifetime she basked in pleasing anonymity, even to the degree that her publishers did not always know who was writing for them; it was only after her death (though not long after) that her brother Henry finally exposed her identity in a particularly sweet summary slightly at odds with the tone of her works and surviving letters. The tombstone in Winchester Cathedral that her siblings arranged for her – in that they procured both the stone and that she should be buried there – is much noted for completely omitting to note amongst its praise that the person beneath wrote anything at all.

Austen was an early beginner with her writings; this summary will take them broadly from the top.

Three nicely-bound notebooks found their way into Jane’s possession in her younger years, into which she copied some of her youthful writings. There is nothing especially long in these writings; many are incomplete. Most are exceedingly funny. The below are a selection.

Frederic and Elfrida
This is dedicated to Miss Martha Lloyd for finishing Austen’s muslin cloak. It actually tells as much of the lovely Charlotte, who felt an obligation to oblige everyone – to the point of accepting two rather random offers of marriage within fifteen minutes. The resultant fall-out is described briefly and to the point, excepting a remark on Charlotte’s epitaph that “These sweet lines, as pathetic as beautiful as were never read by anyone who passed that way, without a shower of tears, which if they fail in exciting in you, Reader, your mind must be unworthy to peruse them.”

Austen would later improve her sentence structure a trifle.

When Frederic responds to Elfrida’s protestations of love and declarations that they should marry on the morrow with “you may marry tomorrow but I shan’t”, Elfrida ends up suffering from a series of fainting fits, where she barely has time to recover from one before falling into another. Fainting fits were obviously popular in late eighteenth-century literature, since they commonly arise in Austen’s rather satirical early works.

Love & Freindship
This is the story of Laura, told through a series of letters, of her travels around the country (starting in Usk, of all places). It is very silly in its own right, but has a definite air of the sort of send-up which benefits from knowing all the jokes.

Usk 4 JPG.jpgUsk, from the castle site.

The first feature evidently intended as a joke is that, excepting Letter the First, the entire story is told from the perspective of Laura – and therefore might as well not be letters at all, excepting that they give Laura some sort of (apparently unreciprocated) reason for writing. What her within-novel audience makes of the story is never remarked upon. There is then the aside that Laura cannot return home because her family suddenly died somewhat previously, and until that point unnoticed by their daughter. Then we have Augustus and Sophia blushing at the idea of paying their debts (until Augustus is of course arrested, at which point Laura and Sophia “sighed and fainted on the Sofa”). Not to mention the abrupt reunion with a long-lost relative. And so on.

The short (though complete) tale seems unlikely to find its way onto the silver screen, not least because the title has been poached for the film adaptation of Lady Susan.

Lesley Castle
Again told through letters, this story is incomplete. It is named after the castle owned by the Lesley family, who provide the majority of the leading characters. This castle is located about two miles from Perth, high up on a rock. (Austen was probably not that familiar with the area, but there are several hills around the city which would suit. The most dramatic would of course be on the southern flanks of Birnam Wood, where the Highlands abruptly end along the Highland faultline a few miles to the north of Perth.)

But despite being Lesley Castle, the most memorable feature of the story is the character Charlotte Lutterell, who writes to both of the (mutually antagonistic) Lesleys and passes remarks on her sister’s wedding. She had just finished doing all the cooking for it when she was horrified to hear it had been called off – what is one to do with the food? A running joke ensues of the various people it has been fed to, and the need to persuade the tearful bride-that-was-to-have-been of the need to leave her bed for long enough to consume some of the cake.

Rohallion Lodge.jpg Not the worst of matches for Lesley Castle, Rohallion Lodge lies amongst the trees of Birnam Wood, north of Perth. The wood is rather patchy, much of it having gone to Dunsinane in 1057.

The History of England
Pity the people obliged to grow up in the same house as an aspiring satirical author! James Austen had a nice copy of the four volumes of Oliver Goldsmith’s sensible, mainstream, Anglican History of England. One can picture his little sister expressing an interest in it and James letting her take it away for bedtime reading. Far from ensuring Jane came back properly informed on English history from a proper viewpoint, the volumes came back littered with marginalia taking a vehemently pro-Stuart, pro-Catholic agenda. Shortly afterwards this was followed by The History of England, by a Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian. Jane had some opportunity to meet other historical viewpoints at the time, but the precise lines taken suggest there is either a desire to be highly perverse (in an Anglican rector’s daughter, too!) or an extremely sensitive nose to detecting biased rubbish – or both.

As well as Goldsmith, Jane also had access to Shakespeare’s plays, which inspire various comments about “it is to be supposed that Henry was married” (in the absence of any appearance in Henry IV by the King’s wife) and otherwise provide something else for her to twirl on its head.

It is impossible to draw out specific brilliant quotes from The History of England without simply quoting the whole thing – from its opening remark that Henry IV ascended the throne “much to his own satisfaction” via Richard III being a York and so a “very respectable man” through Henry VIII dissolving the monasteries to benefit the English landscape via a Sharade on James I that might be now considered a bit risque – “My first is what my second was to King James, and you tread on my whole” – culminating in the unanswerable argument that Charles I was an honourable man unsuited to be executed “because he was a Stuart.” (And remarks about James I allowing his mother’s death, when he was a year old). Footnotes in certain editions can be inclined to over-expand on the jokes.

The History is illustrated with miniatures by Jane’s sister Cassandra. These seem to be based on various members of the family. Their mother is the basis for a most unflattering image of Elizabeth I (which Queen the Prejudiced Historian is particularly cruel about). Alongside is a picture of a pretty young lady, with alert features, red cheeks and flowing blonde hair. The basis for this image of Mary Queen of Scots is reckoned to be Jane herself; one of just two pictures done during her lifetime, and the only one completed. Unfortunately it is also the one with much artistic licence.

File:CassandraAusten-MaryQueenofScots.jpg Cassandra’s miniature of Mary Queen of Scots. Cassandra did all the History illustrations, apparently basing them largely on family members. Regrettably they are usually reproduced small and monochrome.

Two of the Austen siblings never sat for their portrait to be painted. One was George, who the family preferred to keep out of the way. The other was Jane, with the result that there is no professional picture of her drawn from life (the common portrait is a late Victorian creation). Cassandra did both portraits that we have of Jane. Aside from the “Mary” image, the other is a half-sketch of a figure with brown curly hair, sharp nose, folded arms and an air that she did not appreciate being used for drawing practice by her elder sister. As if to back up this assertion, the picture is primarily notable for being incomplete. Perhaps she never had the patience to sit for a professional artist either.

Its incomplete nature leaves the assumption that her clothing was never fully sketched out. As a result she seems to be wearing a T-shirt under an over-the-shoulder dress, combined with a bonnet of some kind. It is now resident at the National Portrait Gallery, which would no doubt please Cassandra on some level.

This sketch was done early enough to lack Jane’s spectacles, which were in the news in March 2017 due to considerations that she suffered from rheumatism, the “cure” for which was then to give the patient arsenic (which stops patients complaining about a lot of things), which in turn was suggested to be causing her to go blind. Also likely to have crippled her sight would have been sitting up in the evenings reading or writing by candlelight.

Lady Susan
Two Austen stories told through letters were finished and left in that state for Posterity; neither is very long. Love & Freindship was the first and this was the second. Neither was published in her lifetime. Love & Freindship appears in the Juvenalia; Lady Susan is usually published with The Watsons and Sanditon, which are both incomplete.

Lady Susan is a thoroughly amoral woman, who has created too much hot water for herself where she was living and has decided to abruptly move to stay with her in-laws in Hertfordshire. Her sister-in-law does not wish to see Lady Susan, and writes to her mother to say so. Meanwhile Lady Susan writes at length to her friend Mrs Johnson. This forms the basic frame for the story, which plays with the technique strikingly well – including letters chasing each other an hour apart with very different news.

This Correspondence, by a meeting between some of the Parties and a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post office Revenue, be continued longer. So opens the final chapter of Lady Susan – a narrative tie-up which settles most things quite tidily. It also ends Austen’s sole attempt to give an amoral character a true starring role. Lady Susan Vernon is strikingly well-fleshed out. It is a pity that the sarky, off-the-wall attitudes of History of England were not combined with this unpleasant sort of character again. Austen instead now settled on her small parties of people in a rural setting. In some ways though that is the more interesting concept – the lively, humorous books with a reputation for not seeing anything very much happen, which has made them entertaining escapism for two hundred years. Writing an interesting three-volume novel where nothing happens requires a remarkable grasp of the human condition. Writing sarky stories about unpleasant people who get everyone else’s backs up is much easier – though Austen gives Lady Susan a certain sympathetic power that does take an artistic flourish, particularly for a rector’s daughter.

It was recently used as the basis for a fairly faithful film adaptation, curiously named Love & Friendship instead of Lady Susan, where it turned out the book was almost the perfect length for film purposes. There is therefore unusually little left out.

Northanger Abbey
This is Austen’s first completed full-length novel. By the author’s own account, it was completed in 1803 and sent to a publisher. The publisher bought it, advertised it and then did not publish it. Jane Austen remained puzzled as to why someone should think it worth buying a book they did not think it work publishing, but was unable to raise funds to buy it back until 1816. It does not appear to have been edited much before its postumous publication at the end of the following year, beyond renaming the leading character from Susan to Catherine and the book from Susan to Northanger Abbey. The author’s account is still published with the book, although whether it was set or published in 1803 or 1816 is now of more academic note.

The other five Jane Austen novels can be enjoyed as they stand and used as an entry-point to the fashions and attitudes of the time. Northanger may be readable on this basis, but some degree of background is handy. At the very least one of the cited Ann Radcliffe novels should be read before picking up Northanger to get a grasp of Catherine’s attitudes and interpretations during the latter parts of the book (Romance of the Forest is good for this, Mysteries of Udolpho is also featured at length). There is other background study that can be carried out by people who wish to understand every joke going.

Northanger Abbey is especially notable – indeed, practically unique – for the moment when Jane discards the narrative, throws the characters aside mid-chapter, breaks the fourth wall and has a two-page rant direct to the reader about popular attitudes to the concept of novels. One is left to wonder how much, between writing the book in 1803 and its publication in 1817, she had contributed towards making this rant obsolete. One should also bear in mind that the tale is a joke about what happens to people who read too many books, particularly horrors or romances.

This sequence in particular, but the book as a whole and in general, benefits from being read aloud. This was how the stories were originally run past the Austen family. Reading at night by a flickering candle for the evening scenes in Northanger Abbey adds something to the proceedings as well. The Abbey does not appear until well into the second half of the book, by which point the story’s title is easily forgotten.

Catherine is horribly and uncomfortably relatable; the friends who wish to carry her along in their wild (and occasionally truncated) trips to Clifton give a certain tinge to the story as she tries to get in with Henry Tilney. A notable social feature is seen in both Northanger with Catherine and the Tilneys and later with Jane Bennet and the Bingleys in Pride & Prejudice; the girl might love the boy, and might really want to see the family primarily for the boy, but her “dear friend” whom she is invited to things by and is closely associated with (and through whom she gets to spend time with the boy on the side) is actually the boy’s sister.

Perhaps nothing happens in the way of alien invasions, or zombie apocalypses, or kidnappings on the streets of Bath – or Catherine being nearly murdered by General Tilney as she has grounds to expect after reading too much Gothic horror – but the book contains plenty of human incident, suspense and charm to carry the reader. Central Bath has not changed much since the story was written and the story can therefore be followed on the ground – something which Bath likes to play on. The other novels – Persuasion excepted – feature a greater degree of fictional locations which leaves more imagination to the reader.

Bathampton 1 JPG The view from the hills above Bath, overlooking the meadows at Bathampton, easily traipsed across thinking of Henry Tilney lapsing from politics to silence. 

Sense & Sensibility
For the person not overly familiar with early 19th-century literature it can be tempting to assume that many books of the era – or at least most Jane Austen books – have titles in this “Something & Something” style. It is an assumption much encouraged by the television series Blackadder the Third, for which the episodes are all titled in this style (“Dish & Dishonesty”, “Dual and Duality” and so forth). Further thought will generate only two books in this category – Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice.

Sense is Austen’s final coming of age – or the beginning of the production run of books – or however you wish to look at it. There is note in letters that she had previously written a manuscript called Elinor & Marianne, told through a series of letters like Lady Susan. This does not survive, but the matching character names suggest that it was reworked into Sense & Sensibility. The original title remains in one form; Elinor is the Sense and Marianne is the Sensibility.

With Austen now providing the narrator’s voice, the reader gets to enjoy her humour in a way that does not come across so much in Lady Susan. When Robert Ferrars is going on about the benefit of cottages, throwing plans of perfectly respectably houses on the fire along the way, Elinor can be remarked as deciding not to object because she does not feel his arguments deserve the compliment of rational opposition.

The suggestion of “not much happening” in Austen’s works seems rather inappropriate in Sense. A great deal goes up and down, including Marianne’s state of health – from youthful ideology and enthusiasm to the verge of an early grave. Elinor has barely an easier time of it, with the plot being bustled along by the machinations of Lucy Steele. A “handbags at dawn” scene would be out of place in an Austen novel, but there is no lost love between some of the characters. At the same time, after finishing the lively and amusing tale it can be rather hard to think of much that actually happens, except for the striking moment of Lucy Steele leaning out of the coach in Exeter, the ghastly moment when Marianne finally meets Willoughby in London (a man almost worse than Pride‘s Wickham) and the brilliant sequence early in the book where Mrs Dashwood talks her husband out of making any provision for his family at all, apart from something along the lines of a bit of crockery.

Both Elinor and Marianne can be tiresome at times; Elinor takes much delight in her level-headedness and Marianne spends much time in her bedroom sobbing. But Marianne also makes many remarks that polite society greatly deserved and her depression (and distraction) at Willoughby’s slow start in London is highly relatable. Where Love & Freindship is deeply scathing of the cult of sensibility, here it gets a more human and developed face.

Pride & Prejudice
“By the Author of Emma” announced one trailer for the 2005 cinema adaptation of this novel. One almost wonders who needs drawing into Pride & Prejudice by announcing the list of stuff that its author also wrote. The early 20th Century featured a view that the two periods of Austen’s writing each produced one classic. Readers can argue the toss between Mansfield Park and Emma for the second period. For the first, it is Pride & Prejudice. It has a reputation as one of the great works of English literature and a lightness of touch to its storytelling that completely belies any such concept. Classics are not supposed to be this much fun to read.

Originally it went by the title of First Impressions, and it was under this name when Jane Austen’s father submitted it to a London publisher called Thomas Cadell. He was a notable and honourable publisher who handled many great books. But his major claim to fame nowadays is that he rejected Pride & Prejudice.

He rejected it practically by return of post, so even if the line was there by then he probably did not peruse Austen’s remark that “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

And we’re off. Jane has written a namesake into this novel, though how much resemblance Jane Bennet bears to Jane Austen is quite another matter. Jane Bennet is the eldest of five daughters. Headstrong Lydia is the youngest; Catherine, or Kitty, is older than Lydia but nonetheless led on by her; Mary, in the middle, is a rather flat character that Austen justifies on the basis that she was a flat and characterless sort of person. And then there is Lizzie – the lively figure who walks across muddy fields to see her sister convalesing at the Hall and who develops a rapid prejudice against Mr Darcy.

Mr Darcy kindly reciprocates by showing too much pride to express interest in a girl who has a family like Lizzie’s.

There are three major points in their relationship – the outcome of which is perhaps inevitable, but that merely allows us to enjoy getting there. The first is the chapter of Lizzie reading Darcy’s letter; a long epistle that allows both her and the reader to see things from his point of view for a change. (While not first-person, the tale is Lizzie’s.) The second is the meeting at Pemberley – inadvertent, awkward and an opportunity to refresh opinions. Then towards the end of the book we have a beautiful chapter with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, where her Ladyship – backed up by the fawning Mr Collins, by post – proves to Lizzie that Darcy is still interested in her, and proves to Darcy when ranting on the conversation later that Lizzie would like to reciprocate. But the chapter itself is hilarious. Even if the rest of the book was terrible, it would be worth reading for that moment.

But it isn’t terrible. All jostles neatly together for a neat fairytale ending to an adult fairytale. A slight revision on Oscar Wilde’s definition of fiction, for the good end happily and the bad reformed.

For those who dislike Jane Austen, Pride is the ultimate symbol of her vacuity. For those who like her, it is often (though not always) the favourite. A strange range of people can be found showing enthusiasm for the book, up to the current prime minister. Much as the closest she might come to any of the characters is Lady Catherine – the supposedly-powerful woman who marches around knocking heads together, and whom it is terribly satisfying to deflate and ignore.

The Watsons
After finishing Susan, Elinor & Marianne and First Impressions Austen settled down to this little tale. Elements of it appear in the next three books here and there – mostly Mansfield Park – but it in itself remains nine-tenths incomplete. It is known where it was to go, but it never gets very near and its limited draft form awaiting fleshing-out gives relatively few indications of how it was to get to its destination. This is a pity, as The Watsons is a promising tale slightly out of the usual oeuvre of the author.

The heroine, Emma Watson, is freshly returned to her rather poverty-stricken family home after many years being brought up by a wealthy aunt and uncle (the concept of such wealthy relations taking on a fortunate child being present in Austen’s life and one that would be recycled in Mansfield Park). Her father is gravely unwell and usually trapped at home (which concept would be modified and recycled in Emma, along with the heroine’s forename and initials). She attracts a steadily-growing level of interest from several quarters, not all of them satisfactory. The next stage was to be the death of the father, scattering his family.

Sometime around when Austen was working up to this point in the book her father died. This had two impacts – writing about the death of a father was rather more personal, and the remains of his family were now touring the South of England looking for a home. The Watsons survives as part of Austen’s mass of manuscripts, but was never to be resumed.

Mansfield Park
For some years Austen was merely the author of three novels; one theoretically out for publication and the other two carefully carried from place to place as she, her mother and her sister looked for somewhere to settle down. With Sense and Pride thriving in the then-limited book market, Mansfield Park was the first of her second tranche of novels and the first written at her new home in Chawton (just outside Alton, Hampshire).

It divides opinion. There are people who sing its praises; people who will observe what a marvellous contrast it makes with Pride & Prejudice; people who will happy teach it as an introduction to Jane Austen. And then there are the people who will remark “it’s about the house of course”, people who will delicately observe on how none of the characters are very likeable and people who will leave it quietly nestling on the bookshelf.

The story goes through the upbringing of Fanny Price with her aunt’s family (her mother married inadvisedly and without this generosity Fanny has no prospects worth speaking of). It is a tale of things that happen to and around Fanny; she doesn’t manage to influence a great deal herself, although she periodically refuses to marry people.

From a point of view of social commentary – Sir Thomas’s views on slavery, Edmund’s explanation of the clergy, an enthusiasm amongst the idle gentry for putting on plays for their own amusement (James Austen liked doing this; sometimes one feels that his outlook on life could come off better in his sister’s novels) and the need for Fanny to be adopted by her aunt if she is to make any progress in life – it is a very worthy book. As an evening read it may end up being taken slowly. Readers who came into Austen via Mansfield and didn’t like it much are advised to pick up one of the others for luck (but readers who came into Austen via Mansfield and loved every page are reassured that this does not necessarily mean they won’t like the others).

Perhaps the problem is that it is too biting – too much of a social commentary, and therefore of course the perfect book for English students because it is more than just a book. To take one example, it features a long and splendid study of a modern corporate board meeting under the cover of deciding which play to perform.

Portsmouth 1 JPG.jpg Portsmouth, home of Fanny’s family and where she spends relatively little of her life. 

Mansfield Park 1 JPG Mansfield Park business estate at Four Marks, Hampshire.

After years of writing mock dedications in her juvenalia, Austen was finally obliged to write a genuine one. George, the Prince Regent, had acquired one of her novels and rather enjoyed it. Very heavy hints duly descended on Austen from the highest in the land that she might care to dedicate her next book to him.

Unfortunately Jane did not care for the Prince Regent that much, but a heavy hint from his Office is an instruction to be obeyed and so the book carries, to this day, an appropriately flowery dedication.

The title, at four characters, is one of the shortest in English literature. With the renaming of Susan to Northanger Abbey, it is the only one of her full-length novels named after its main character. Emma is a woman that Austen predicted “no-one but myself will much like”. She is one of the most human main characters in literature. There are no grand heroics and no great speeches of pride and pleasure. The long letters of Pride & Prejudice are missing, as is the usual involvement with London and travel far away. This is the definitive book for Austen’s self-defined concept of a few people in a village. It merely gives us the sight of Emma repeatedly, with great self-confidence and aplomb, lovably putting her foot in it on every possible occasion. She offends half the village; guides a girl with nobody else to turn to away from a mutually agreeable marriage; organises a great many things in the knowledge that she knows best and finally has to face the prospect of someone marrying the wrong person.

The happy ending comes suddenly, with a fair chunk of book still to go. For Emma still has her father to keep happy, her friend to apologise to and the vicar’s wife to watch being annoyed. This extension makes the book nicely rounded off – even more so than the final chapter of tidying in the first three novels – and gives a sense of how the book is more about Emma’s coming of age and awareness than it is about her romance (such as it is). It is certainly a happier ending than it could be said she deserves.

Numerous parellels can be drawn to Pride & Prejudice, particularly if the books are read consecutively. The treatment of the clergy is similar on both counts, although comparisons of the wives suggests Mr Collins is blessed with much better sense than Mr Elton (who can perhaps most reasonably be suggested as having been on a rebound at the time). The leading lady is intelligent, feisty and not wholly given to the concept of matrimony for herself. But Pride has the awful Mrs Bennet to hold the plot from sliding forward too fast. Emma’s mother is long dead and Emma is established as a good catch; her father’s hypochondria is a theme that would have appeared extensively in Sanditon had the author lived long enough to complete it. One is left to wonder how much this was based on Austen’s own mother. Emma also contains another Jane, in the form of Miss Fairfax, who has her own little subplots tangled in with Emma’s affairs.

The rather intermittant appearances of the piano after its sudden arrival – and the extensive typically Austen-esque discussion and speculation that follows said arrival – inspired a sequence in Jasper Fforde’s First Among Sequels where one of the characters redirects a piano into the previously piano-less Emma and it promptly gets itself wedged into the plot. (The sequence is worth remarking upon, but hard to explain. Go and read First Among Sequels for details; it also features a dastardly attempt on the plot of Pride & Prejudice.)

It is a notable feature of the works of this rector’s daughter that her characters rarely go to church. There is an explicit scene in Northanger and references in Pride while Lizzie is staying with Charlotte. In Emma, the one obvious church reference is when Emma does not go to the Christmas service because of the snow. Did Austen not trust herself to take it seriously? – was it too boring? – not an opportunity for character displays? – simply too routine, like remarking on the characters breathing, and hard to work into a plot? – we presume she went herself. Nowadays it gives the agnostic portion of the audience less to distance the books from their own lives. There are a few strange chance features like this which give the books an unthinkingly current feel, leaving aside as read the lack of motor-vehicles, internet and Game of Thrones or Doctor Who speculation. Similarly Charlotte Bronte wrote of characters who would stand on the terrace with a cigar, but none of Austen’s characters smoke.

Film versions of Emma have the problem that on paper the reader can mentally tone Emma’s conduct to their own choosing – innocent, humorous, misjudged calculation. On screen there is no such flex. She stands before the audience, bending matters to what she thinks is her will. She is much more likeable on paper, and it is perhaps best to leave her there.

The last and shortest completed Austen novel was published with Northanger Abbey shortly after her death. It is split neatly into two parts, both focused on its heroine Anne Elliot. The first has her in Somerset, with a brief visit to Lyme Regis. The second places her firmly in Bath, and so Austen’s storytelling ends where it began.

Much of the plot is in its backstory. Anne was once engaged to the young Captain Wentworth. She was persuaded to break it off by her surrogate mother Lady Russell and, having fulfilled her duty, has been regretting it ever since. Now Captain Wentworth is returning to find Anne, now twenty-seven and generally viewed as past her prime, resigned to spinsterhood and yet with an air that if she dared hope so much she would still be waiting for him.

But she has to watch as he becomes a favourite with everyone else, while she is cautious about admitting to herself that she might still love him.

The conclusion is sudden and, as ever, beautifully played. If the book was intended to be fattened up later, this could not have included the conclusion. Its whole raison d’etre is its sudden explosion upon Anne, leaving the rest of the story to find its feet again in the sudden aftermath.

Persuasion in some ways has a certain grey air, perhaps simply reflecting the tale being played out over winter (a contrast to Emma starting in autumn and running through the following twelve months). There is also the element that Anne, being 27 and all, is doomed to a life alone. It brightens considerably in the final chapter.

From a construction point of view, the character of Mrs Smith in the “Bath” portion is useful for both developing Anne’s character and showing what a dedicated woman she is to former friends and planned appointments (shades of Catherine) but the chapter where they discuss Mr Elliot is, dramatic as it may be, rather too much of a plot dump.

A minor point of note is that Austen has inconsiderately called two characters in this story “Charles”. One is hoping to marry the sister of the other. They are therefore frequently mentioned in the same scene. Readers must be prepared for this to be mildly confusing.

Bath 3 JPG.jpg Bath in January. For all its old yellow stones, fairly consistent architecture and surviving Pump Rooms, the place has still managed to see some changes since Austen’s day.

Having brought Persuasion to some degree of completion, perhaps with ideas of going back later to fatten it up and smooth the odd point, Austen lost little time in getting going on the next book. This tale centres on the development of a new seaside community near Eastbourne, and in particular on its developers.

After six books on the idle rich – the landed gentry, of various degrees of wealth, whose status precludes them engaging in trade but whose land management no longer occupies all their time – we twirl to the things these people can do to keep themselves occupied when not playing cards, learning the piano or tilting at Pemberley. They can establish seaside resorts; – they can read more than they understand; – they can organise the lives of people that they have never met at considerable expense to themselves; – or they can pretend to be ill, spending their time in the fresh sea air closeted beside a fire with the windows closed. The only sensible characters to emerge in the early pages are Sidney Parker, who we barely meet; Clara Brereton, whose uncertain liaison only has the briefest chance to be remarked on; and the heroine.

A touch of the Juvenalia crops up with comments of the local men going out of their way in the hope of seeing the Miss Beauforts standing in their window. The humour generally has an extra spike over previous published works and there is little sign of the heroine’s love interest, though perhaps Sidney Parker would have developed into this role. It has a very definite air of being the doyenne of a further trio of books, distinct from the Mansfield/ Emma/ Persuasion batch.

Yet it has the tragic element that we are only just introduced to Lady Denham’s house when a page turn reveals a blank sheet of paper. Sanditon is unfinished, and revels in the relatively rare status of a book not abandoned for boredom, writer’s block or changing circumstances. Perhaps its commentary on uninformed literary criticism makes a good point at which to begin drawing this summary to a close.

We are left to wonder if perhaps part of the hypochondriac element of Sanditon is based on Austen laughing at herself for her developing physical weakness, decaying eyesight and blotching skin. Unlike the Sanditon brigade, who are written as being willing contributors to their physician’s pension fund, there was actually something seriously wrong with Jane. The pen had to be laid down in March 1817 and she travelled from Chawton “over the Alps” along what is now the A31 to Winchester for medical treatment. There she died, just round the corner from the cathedral, on the 18th of July 1817. She was forty-one years old.

Out of her and the three Bronte sisters – the great early-19th-century female novellists – she was the longest-lived. That by the standards of her career choice she was a ripe old woman of 41 says something, though what is quite another matter.

Jane Austen's House 2 JPG.jpg The last residence of Jane Austen – a stolid house just round the corner from the cathedral. Still a private property, and no doubt a slightly odd one to spend time in with the tourists stopping outside.

Winchester Cathedral 1 JPG.jpg Winchester Cathedral – a very old, grand structure, also the resting place of several bits of King William II.

Her brother Henry, having acted as her manager for some years, was instrumental in getting her buried in Winchester Cathedral, in arranging the tombstone that ignores her writing career and in driving the publication of Northanger and Persuasion. This remained her published output for some time.

Her papers and possessions ended up in the hands of various nieces and nephews. A biography followed, renewing interest and helping to cement her status, as did the unfortunate burning of rather a lot of her letters. It is perhaps a surprise that her unpublished manuscripts were not lost as well; certainly there was some question as to whether the appearance of, say, Lady Susan before the public eye would cheapen the reputation of the others.

Cassandra’s portrait of her sister plus her draft of a rarely-seen rear view of Jane sat on a Hampshire bank were used as the very loose basis for a Victorian portrait. Jane is shown as a demure, tidily-dressed figure in blue with pen and book to hand as indicators of her profession. There is perhaps something in the eyes and the straight Austen nose of the original picture. There is a slightly different version without the raised eyebrows, looking especially demure. The two have been combined into the attractive girl on the new £10 banknote. The blue-dress portrait completes the family’s official portrayal of her as an innocent, lovable figure who wrote delicate Victorian romance. And who happened to make rude comments about hypochondriacs, officious rectors and Britain’s brave boys – and whose Juvenalia includes a girl who spent a day stealing ices and refusing to pay for cabs.

Perhaps it was the publication of the bumpf that she tossed off in her youth, as fresh and lively as could be wished, which cemented her status. But despite its content she has now achieved the status of an establishment author who is forcibly taught to schoolchildren. There is a general body of thought that this is not the best way to introduce her to the next generation of readers, by forcing them to look at the social positions of Bingley and Jane rather than letting them laugh at the jokes and hope that, despite the fairly obvious social divide and the ambitions of Miss Bingley for a better connection than the near-penniless Jane Bennet, there will nonetheless be a happy union at some point in the next three- or four-hundred pages.

Failing such arguments swaying the National Curriculum, it is as good a ground as any for not doing an English A-level. It does not take much effort to find the names of the great authors around the place a few years later in life, and it takes particularly little effort for someone to come to Austen in their own time, courtesy perhaps of a pink-covered copy of Pride and Prejudice left for some reason in an office “please wander off with” corner…

Emma 1 JPG.jpgAn idle afternoon. Sunshine, Austen and ginger beer in a wineglass.

Trails from the Rails 10: Luxulyan to St Austell

  • Area: Cornwall
  • Local Train Operators: Great Western Railway, Cross Country
  • Length: About 10 miles
  • Points of Note: Luxulyan Valley, Par Harbour, the Cornish coast, docks at Charlestown
  • OS maps – Explorer 107 (1:25,000); Landranger 200 (1:50,000)

This is a simple and attractive walk, mixing level walking, uphill and downhill sections, woods, industrial ruins and coastal views before ending up pottering through suburban St Austell.

It is also particularly a “trail by the rails”. It is never much more than half a mile from a railway.


Luxulyan station, the first stop on the Newquay branch since the closure of the station at St Blazey, is a neat little affair. It consists of a half-overgrown platform set on the central Cornish plateau slightly down the hill from Luxulyan itself. Its one and pretty much only claim to fame came in 1991, when the shortest-ever High Speed Train formation to run in passenger service terminated here after a somewhat unscheduled journey from the other end of Luxulyan Tunnel. The power car at the other end of the train had derailed in an isolated location and this was the simplest way of ferrying the handful of customers back to somewhere with road access. Luxulyan remains proud of this sight.

The powercar involved has spent the ensuing years making other appearances in the media, including as the last powercar in British Rail’s Intercity livery, as the star feature (under a faked “43001” number) at a First Great Western relaunch and as the rear powercar in the Ufton Nervet incident, which gives her the dubious status of being the last UK rail vehicle to be returned to traffic after being involved in a fatal accident.

But to return to Luxulyan.

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On leaving the station and meeting the road, turn left up into the village and right at the top of the hill.

It is possible to do the first leg of the walk off-road (look at the OS map for details), but it is usually extremely muddy and involves disturbing the peaceful repose of several engaging native species of bramble, so instead follow the road down the hill out of the village and turn right at the bottom by Gatty’s Bridge. Follow the back lane into the valley for about half a mile, then take the left onto the lane heading sharply up the hillside. Take the second footpath to the right and follow this as it makes a level heading along the hillside.

The first footpath offers similarly good views and a similarly level walk through the same peaceful woods, but the second path leads to Treffry’s Viaduct and is therefore worth the extra little pull. It is a twin-level viaduct, with a stream on the lower level and the course of the old tramroad on the top. A curious irony of this particular railway is that it replaced a tramroad that was better engineered than the railway.

The viaduct is built of solid granite and very, very impressive. Through the gaps between the blocks that make up the deck can be seen the stream flowing along its lower level. Underneath the arches, swinging around endless sharp curves at a pleasingly low speed, is the replacement railway. It is unlikely that there will actually be a train to be seen here, given the branch’s service level. At the western end the tramway heads into a sheer-sided cutting through the granite, complete with stream, on its way back to Luxulyan.

Luxulyan Viaduct 2 JPG.jpgLuxulyan Viaduct 1 JPG.jpg

Having admired the viaduct, return to the eastern side of the valley and continue walking away from Luxulyan along this high-level path, now accompanied by a stream and rather a lot of evidence that this used to be an upmarket tramway. This evidence includes most of the granite sleepers and several lengths of rail.

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After two-thirds of a mile or so this opportunity for pleasant reverie, ambling along through the woods beside the silently bubbling stream, is brought to a rather abrupt end. The stream ceases to be peacefully bubbling and instead forms a waterfall off the end of a chute that drops it over an absent waterwheel. The tramway meanwhile takes up the course of a long-abandoned rope-worked incline, the winding house for which has tumbled down and returned to nature. (Or had its nicely-hewn granite building blocks recycled by environmentally-conscious locals, as the case may be.)

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Follow the incline downhill, across the lower path (which returns to Luxulyan to the right and dead-ends at a gate to the left) and on beneath an unusual skew bridge to the bottom of the valley, where it emerges next to and slightly below the current railway.

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Follow the path as it swings around the end of the hill and across a car park to the point where the tramway turns into railway. Until the early ’90s there was a china clay drying facility here, lightly served by this upgraded stub of the tramway route branching off the Newquay line. Now the stub is much overgrown and the path runs alongside as the rails rise to join the working railway.

The path dips and goes through a very small adit to pick up the hill side of the railway. It then runs alongside, separated from the running line by a stream, down to St Blazey.

There is nothing very notable about St Blazey as a place – the housing is fairly typical housing and the railway doesn’t get up to as much as it used to – but the stream runs through it in a green corridor so there is not too much need to attend to it. The first road is the A390 from Lostwitheil, Liskeard and Saltash, which crosses the railway on the level. Next to the crossing is the crossing keeper’s house, sandwiched between railway and stream and in private hands.

The path is now neatly gravelled as it runs down a fairly straight leg to the second level crossing. Here it is necessary to cross the railway, as on this side of the line the onward path plunges straight into St Blazey’s semi-moribund marshalling yard.

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Having crossed the railway, turn right (the first right, separated from the railway by a scrap of fence) and continue alongside a second stream that turns out to have been hiding on the other side of the railway (the railway losing no time in crossing the first stream, diving into the marshalling yard and vanishing behind a hedge). Follow this second stream down past the back of a wooded park. About halfway down the railway is crossed on the level as it curves sharply out of St Blazey yard and twirls up a 150-degree-or-so bend towards Par station. Continue to the end of this leg of the stream, where the path turns into a couple of dusty yards and a back alley before joining the A3082 to Fowey.

From here Par station is a left turn to pass under the railway and then another left turn on the other side to follow a gulley to the station forecourt. To continue to St Austell, turn right here instead and pass over the level crossing conveying the St Blazey Harbour branch (and former line to Fowey) across the A3082. This one retains not only its crossing keeper’s house but also a handsome set of classic crossing gates.

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Once over the railway, turn left and pass beneath the mainline on its low stone viaduct. The road promptly swings round to the right and a short, disagreeable bit of pavement-walking ensues, trapped between harbour boundary wall to the left, road to the right and Cornwall Mainline above.

After the harbour gateway the road dips to pass under the railway and the footpath diverges, running between railway and harbour before turning left to pass through the tail end of the harbour and clay dries complex.

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The path runs down to the seashore and turns right, following the cliffs and a sign marked “South West Coast Path” along the edge of a golf course. This offers some rather good views back towards Gribbin Head:

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On winter afternoons the sun also shimmers quite handsomely across the passing trains as they sweep round the curves on the climb towards St Austell:

Carlyon Bay Golf Course 1 JPG.jpg

Less pleasing were the views of the abandoned Coliseum on the beach at Carylon Bay. These ruins have now gone, thereby mildly improving the view.

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Swing across the car park, sticking close to the cliffs, and rise around the coast side of the Carlyon Bay luxury hotel. The coast path runs across a grassy area and tries to avoid a spate of suburbia by going around the cliff side of several back gardens. These attempts are almost successful, though a brief stint on Sea Road admiring the houses is necessary.

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But Sea Road is private, so no time is lost dropping off it again and running round the back of some more houses before falling down the hillside to Charlestown’s little harbour. Slightly unexpectedly, this will usually be occupied by a classic ship or two.

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Work around the docks and pick up the main road towards St Austell, leading directly up the hill from the left-hand dock. This is long, fairly straight and steadily climbing in a way that, for all of the mixed architecture, has been a bore for a bit when it finally passes the Penrice Academy and hits the A390 on the fringes of suburban St Austell.

Pass straight across the roundabout and follow the pavement into town. This is a classic Cornish suburban road which, apart from the car designs and traffic levels, has not changed much in forty or fifty years. The telegraph lines have a pleasingly cluttered air. At the bottom of a dip a slightly staggered crossroads is handled by a pair of mini-roundabouts, where Victoria Road emerges as Alexandra Road.

Alexandra Road is followed for barely a quarter of a mile up the hill to a discreet, carefully-signposted gulley off to the right. This leads up between a couple of garden walls to the railway and then follows the same to a footbridge over the three tracks of the mainline. The overgrown third line, swinging sharply away to a buffer stop, is the former access to St Austell’s goods yard. Cross the bridge and continue along the path, now on the other side of the railway but still following it with much the same dedication, to the road.

The railway station is straight ahead; trains to Par and Plymouth are down the road ahead and across the old yard, while trains to Truro and Plymouth are better reached by crossing the railway by the road bridge and running down the pavement to the station forecourt. The forecourt is strikingly built-up on the steep hillside above the town and provides a rare bit of level open space for the bus station.

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Long a beautifully-preserved harmonious mid-19th-century/ early-20th-century wayside mainline timber station, St Austell has been not wholly sympathetically renovated in the 21st century. In 1999 the Down platform building was flattened and replaced by a building that in other circumstances might have seemed modern and vibrant instead of severely out of keeping – such as if the opportunity had been taken to remove the subsequently-derelict Up platform building (replacing it with something that matched the new Down building) and the old signalbox (closed 1980, which looked in keeping with the old station and now doesn’t). A new footbridge, appearing high enough to be future-proofed for electrification west of Plymouth (stop laughing), took so long to appear that styles have moved on so it doesn’t really match the new building.

On the other hand, the station is still here and is moderately looked after.