Welsh Railways

Border Country

Paul Slater discusses the work of Raymond Williams

Border Country is the title of a novel by Raymond Williams. Once, in a questionnaire, I listed it as one of my three favourite novels, and there is no doubt that when I first read it in the middle or late nineteen-sixties it made a great impression on me. To a certain extent autobiographical, it tells of a boy growing up in a Welsh border village, below the Black Mountains in what was Monmouthshire. The boy's father is a signalman, and the novel describes his work on the railway as well as his hobbies, his friends, his marriage and the world of the people in the village. The story begins after the First World War and ends in the nineteen-fifties, with the boy - now an academic in London, with a wife and a young family - having to go back to his home village when his father becomes seriously ill. At the end of the novel, the father has died, and his son says goodbye to the village and returns to his life in London.

Border Country can be enjoyed as a social and political novel, and the General Strike of 1926 and its consequences form one of the book's main themes, but I enjoyed it as a novel about railways - there seemed to be very few of those - as a regional novel set in an attractive countryside, and as a novel about growing up, leaving home, then going back and remembering. The setting of Border Country - Abergavenny and the valley to the north where the main road and railway from South Wales climb to pass between the Black Mountains and the isolated hill of Skirrid Fawr - was a stretch of country I had never visited, and it became one of those places which I knew well from reading without ever having set foot there.

In due course I read two other novels by Raymond Williams, but they did not appeal to me as much as Border Country, nor did I find much of interest in the sections of two of Williams' political books, Culture and Society & The Long Revolution, which I had to read as part of my librarianship studies. I do remember, however, a scathing comment on 'Take It From Here', one of my favourite radio comedy programmes from the nineteen-fifties, to the effect that it was an example of the most corrupt culture in contemporary Britain.

On days out with my parents I did eventually glimpse the attractive countryside which is the setting for Border Country. When the railway through Abergavenny began to be used on a fairly regular basis by special steam trains, I thought of an interesting idea for an excursion with both railway and literary appeal, and on a chilly February day in 1983 I was at Abergavenny to see two of the Severn Valley Railway's steam locomotives hauling the "Welsh Marches Pullman". Quite early in the story of Border Country the main characters remark on the way the main road through their valley is being widened and straightened and is starting to take traffic from the railway; in 1983 the new Abergavenny by-pass gave me a splendid vantage-point for watching the engines doing run-pasts with their train and then climbing noisily, with much smoke and steam, up the gradient into the fringes of the Black Mountains. Banking engines were commonly used here on goods trains in steam days, and the central incident in the General Strike episode of Border Country concerns just such a goods train and its banker. I watched the "Welsh Marches Pullman" climb into the hills; my map showed the remains of two stations on this stretch of the line, Llanvihangel and Pandy; either could have been the basis for Glynmawr, the station in the novel, but both had been closed for some years and I did not bother going in search of them.

Just over a year after I had seen the "Welsh Marches Pullman" at Abergavenny, I climbed Skirrid Fawr, and on a beautiful warm sunny Easter Monday I looked down at the landscape of Border Country from the summit of what appears in the novel under the name "the Holy Mountain". The young hero of the tale sometimes climbed the hills around his valley to enjoy the magnificent views, and I felt a definite sympathy with him that day. Far below, a diesel locomotive slowly climbed the gradient out of Abergavenny with a northbound train.

A few years later, I read in the newspapers of the death of Raymond Williams. The obituaries concentrated on his sociological and political writings, his Marxist-influenced thinking and his involvement with left-wing student protest, but I associate his name with Border Country first and foremost.

I read Border Country to my wife in instalments as a "Book at Bedtime" quite recently, and it was interesting to see how its appeal had stood up to the passing of time. I still enjoyed it as a railway novel; I still loved the descriptions of the countryside and the life of the villagers, but the business of growing up and returning home with nostalgia did not come across so strongly, and the political and social aspects of the story, and the relationships between the characters, were much more noticeable. The relationship between father and son, and the intensely moving account of the father's final illness and death, had rather passed me by at the first reading, but now seemed much more important.

While staying at Crewe a few years ago, I took the opportunity to ride all the way down the Welsh border line; I had never travelled the section south of Hereford before. Much of that line passes through pleasant countryside, but the most attractive part of the whole journey is the stretch north of Abergavenny, the Border Country of which Raymond Williams had written. I noted with pleasure the first distinctively Welsh-looking cottage beside the line, and admired the views of the Black Mountains. Returning some hours later, I sat on the other side of the train, and looked out at the hills of the border lit by the sunshine of a beautiful June evening. I realised that the train was definitely climbing north of Abergavenny, and I thought of the steam goods trains and their bankers. Trees had grown up along the by-pass, and I did not recognise my vantage-point for the "Welsh Marches Pullman" in 1983, but I could clearly see the summit of Skirrid Fawr where I had stood the following Easter and looked down at the Border Country. I saw old-fashioned signal boxes and semaphores still in use at several places along that line, but between Abergavenny and Pontrillas there were none; I could see no trace of a station that could have been Glynmawr or a signal box that might have been the one where the boy's father in the novel worked. As the train gathered speed on the downgrade towards the border with Herefordshire, I looked back across the fields at Skirrid Fawr and thought of a man whose writing about this stretch of countryside with its people and its railway had once captivated me.