Author Stuart Campbell set out with companion (and railway route planner par excellence) John to travel the length and breadth of mainland Britain by train. The aim was very specific: to cover every mile of railway track in the country by train, passing through every station. The result was a remarkable series of journeys, during which the two companions covered well over 15,000 miles of railway track and passed through or stopped off at over 3,000 railway stations. Actually, "two companions" isn't quite accurate, for there was a third. The author took with him a well used copy of Daniel Defoe's "A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain", first published in the 1720s. The observant will notice that this long predated the railway age, but Defoe nonetheless had views, often strong views, to offer on many of the places visited or passed through by Stuart and John. And he still does, for Defoe repeatedly crops up as an active presence in the events recounted in this book.
Stuart goes out of his way to talk to fellow travellers, striking up conversations with over 250 of them during the course of the journeys. The encounters range from the weird to the inspirational. The result is a book it is hard to describe but which is strangely fascinating. There are multiple strands at work throughout. The pace and structure is driven by an itinerary that would have been found taxing by anyone, and must have been all the more so for two men of pensionable age. Journey follows journey, and station follows station. There is some interplay between Stuart and John, but the latter is mainly there as a journey planner and supporter. Daniel Defoe is a much more prominent character, and features throughout. The contrasts and comparisons between the Great Britain of the early 1700s and of today can be fascinating. And then there are the people Stuart talks to, chosen at random, who add character to the places passing by the train window.
The author's wry observations add greatly to the entertainment value of the book: "The Sheffield to Lincoln train itself was at the forefront of a national experiment in suspension-free travel and a vigilant and attentive team of osteopaths, chiropractors and Indian head masseurs were in attendance, or should have been." Did he succeed in covering every mile of track? Not quite: there were odd bus or taxi replacements, and one short line was omitted because it only carries one train each week, but the journeys together amount to a remarkable achievement in which we can now share.
We'd opened "Daniel Defoe's Railway Journey" expecting something a little Bill Bryson-esque, but Stuart Campbell has a style and approach that is all his own. In recent year's he's written a couple of excellent novels, but this book harks back to his highly entertaining "Boswell's Bus Pass", published in 2011, in which the author followed the route of Boswell & Johnson's 1773 tour of Scotland using his pensioner's bus pass. The canvas is, obviously, larger in the latest book, and the itineraries are fuller and more frenetic as a result. Nonetheless, if you want a view of modern Britain unlike any you've ever seen before, then this is certainly the book for you.