Why does it take such a long time to get out of Wales on a train? It seems to take forever. There are frequent stops as the train ambles across South Wales and the M4, when it is on its best behaviour, can be just as quick.
It makes you realise how impenetrable Wales must once have been and how remote parts of it must have seemed. When the story of Sarah Jacob hit the papers in 1869 with such tragic consequences, people from London would travel down on the train to visit the farmhouse where she sat in bed receiving visitors. You can read about Sarah on page 108 of Volume One of Stories in Welsh Stone. She was of course a curiosity. She provided a glimpse of another world, a primitive alien place into which modern values had not yet reached. Hers was a world that still believed in fairies.
We must never forget either the impact of that other issue. The Welsh were Welsh speaking. To Victorians living in London it would have seemed very exotic that something so odd should now be within easy reach of the capital as a result of the sudden expansion of rail transport. The train might seem slow to us but it was a modern marvel to them.
Wales has always been a different world. I was reminded of this when I went up to London for an English Examiners meeting on Wednesday (11 June 2009). A great deal of the Welsh heritage is preserved in the peace of the countryside. In London some of the heritage can seemed confined and overwhelmed. Look at All Soul’s Church in Langham Place.
It is a beautiful church – the last surviving church built by John Nash who developed Regent’s Street. It was completed in December 1823 at a cost of £18,323 10s 5d. It was built of lovely Bath stone and has17 columns and a 12 sided steeple. It was originally derided as a “deplorable and horrible object” but we are much more kindly disposed towards it. The BBC broadcast their daily service from there between 1951 and 1994.
Nash himself is a very interesting figure. Some have claimed that he was born in Cardigan in Wales 1752 but today it is generally accepted that he was born in London, the son of a millwright in Lambeth. But there is certainly a Welsh connection. He spent a long time in Wales as an architect of country houses following the collapse of a business venture. He developed parts of the house on the remarkable Hafod estate near Aberystwyth which was destroyed in a catastrophic fire. I have written about the estate and hope that it will feature in Volume Two.
Nash eventually returned to London and made a huge contribution to the landscape of the capital. He did some work on Buckingham Palace. Marble Arch and the Haymarket Theatre amongst his work, as well as the Brighton Pavilion. Some of the things we remember about London were left behind by Nash.
All Soul’s is one of them. It is a beautiful structure, and yet now it is overwhelmed by the buildings around it – and there are cranes beyond showing that there are others to come which will cast an even greater shadow.
London has always changed and changes so quickly. When I am there I stand and stare as everyone else rushes around full of business and pressure. It isn’t like home.
Perhaps that is why the train slows down in Wales. We live life at a much gentler pace down here. And perhaps we should be grateful.