A curious railway company, running ‘funeral trains‘ between its own terminus just off London Waterloo, and Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey provides the backdrop to a fantastically atmospheric detective story [“The Necropolis Railway“, Andrew Martin (2005), London, Faber & Faber]. Brookwood was the largest cemetery in the world when it opened, and remains the largest in the UK today.
I’ve spent a lot of time in and around the area where the main character – Jim Stringer – moves to South London from the North-East, to make his way in the world, and within the railway industry. But the ‘Lower Marsh‘ where he lodges, and the ‘Westminster Bridge Road‘ where the ‘Necropolis Railway‘ has its HQ appear to find themselves mired in a darkness through a combination of fog, smog, coal dust, soot, steam and twisted, unfathomable motives which make it unrecognisable from the places I had the pleasure of knowing.
The book inspired me to want to find out more about Brookwood Cemetery, where the railway also had its own dedicated branch line. I lost myself on the massive site one afternoon, tracing the disused track lines, and seeking quiet corners now as good as ‘wildness’. Living less than 15 miles away from Brookwood, I discovered I was entitled to be ‘laid to rest’ there (it’s not overly far from where I live, over the border in Hampshire, and even closer to where my Dad worked in Surrey, but is in the opposite direction to our centre of gravity, which is why I’d never really visited before).
The visit actually helped change my plans for my own ultimate destination! Not many books can lay claim to that!
One of those books that I read a few months ago, but that somehow, I’ve managed to let a log-jam build up for posting a review – although a log-jam not quite as large as the ‘to-read’ pile growing by the side of my bed.
A book which combines an Edwardian period mystery with rich railway insights for a very specific kind of line (possibly too insightful for some), and shines a light on the ‘business of burial’ makes for a particularly dark tale. And it helped transport me to a dramatic venue, not only while I was reading it, but for when I really get to ‘The End‘ of my own personal life story!
“Alongside some broad strokes of historical detail…” notes Alex Clark in her Guardian review, “… Martin also displays a real depth of interest in his subject matter. You might not think that 4-4-0 tender engines and K10s will absorb you, but by the end, you’ll be at least semi-fascinated. It’s in no small part down to our sullied interest in today’s rail industry; one of the novel’s most gripping scenes comes as Jim frantically botches his passage through a signal, utterly unaware of whether he “he has the road” or not. Broken rails and self seeking board members also feature.”
If you commute out of Waterloo on South Western Railways towards Woking and beyond, you’ll see the route in a whole new light!