Britain's Coastal Railways with Julie Walters
You can’t move for celebrities on trains these days. If it’s not Joanna Lumley gosh-wowing on the Trans-Siberian Railway or Michael Portillo steaming across Europe with a suitcase full of freshly-pressed red slacks, it’s Paul Merton discovering Britain’s Secret Stations or Chris Tarrant… doing whatever it is he does on Channel 5. Probably catching the Stansted Express to Tottenham Hale, knowing their budgets.
But Julie Walters – now that really is someone you’d want to share a flask of Bovril and a Scotch egg with on a long train journey. And so it proved, as one of our most precious national treasures began her coastal railway tour with a Highland fling that proved the perfect showcase her salty, earthy humour.
‘Has Michael Portillo been on this train?’ she asked one crew. ‘I just thought I could smell Lynx.’ It’s the sort of line that might have been written for her by her old friend Victoria Wood. Admiring the engineering that went into the West Highland line, meanwhile, she concluded: ‘It must have been a bugger to build.’
At Fort William, she boarded the famous Jacobite steamer – immortalised in the Harry Potter films as the Hogwarts Express. ‘Finally, Mrs Weasley’s on the train!’ she cheered, having previously only got to wave off her young wizards from Platform 9 ¾.
As you might expect, Walters – who always felt drawn to the sea as she grew up in landlocked Birmingham – had a lovely manner with the various muggles she encountered on her travels, including a crofter called Morag in a town with more Highland cattle than people, and a man called Andy, with whom she enjoyed a flirtatious romantic interlude as they gutted herring together.
‘I’m such a speedy old fizzbrain, somewhere like this is heaven,’ she sighed, while exploring a deserted Skye. And that’s half the appeal of the show, which unfolds at such a gentle, ambling pace it makes Countryfile look like Peaky Blinders. In an age when life comes at us at the speed of a bullet train, sometimes it’s nice to puff along via the scenic route, in the company of a dear old friend.
From the cinematic John Ford landscapes to the local sawbones conducting an anesthetic-free amputation and a grizzled outlaw’s fire-and-brimstone sermon from the saddle of his horse, Netflix’s sumptuous, slow-burning new Western leaves no box unticked. The twist is that, with most of the men dead, it’s left to the likes of Michelle Dockery – a long way from Downton as a tough widow – to defend their town against lawless desperados. Carson will be frantic with worry.
The excellent series about disabled jobseekers began its second run by introducing us to Andy, the former MD of a motorbike school left partially paralysed by a stroke, and Ryan, whose desire to lead a normal life is constantly frustrated by his severe Tourette’s. By turns heartbreaking and inspirational (the tenderness shown by Ryan’s patient, supportive boyfriend was just lovely), it’s a sobering reminder of how far away we still are from that much-vaunted ‘inclusive society’.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, November 30, 2017
(c) Waitrose Weekend