A perfect Ghost story for a dark winter’s night, The Signalman perfectly conjures up the atmosphere of Higham Station on the Hoo Peninsula, the gateway to the marshes.
Even today the little station has a feeling of being lost in a different age, with it’s ornate metal footbridge, friendly staff and addition of a quirky book swap and art gallery. It is still an outpost and a place where I have collected many a confused Londoner to take them for a walk across the North Kent Marshes.
Dickens would have known the station well as he travelled between his London residence and Gad’s Hill Place, his country retreat, where he wrote many of his later books in the Swiss chalet in the garden.
For Dickens the railways were both a huge convenience and a source of fear, hardly surprising, after he survived a fatal train crash at Staplehurst where he was one of the first on the scene to help the wounded and dying passengers. It is little wonder that this story is full of the dangers of train travel.
The story starts with the narrator calling down into the steep cutting to the Signalman below, who diligently carries out his duties from a little wooden hut beside a long dark tunnel leading beneath the cliff face.
Dickens takes us into his world and we shelter with them in the hut from the mists of the damp railway siding and watch as the signalman checks his dials and charts and waves flags to signal to the passing trains.
The signalman is on edge and we soon learn that he is haunted by a ghost at the tunnel entrance who has twice prophesised disaster on the railway and has now come again.
Dickens, as always, does a marvellous job of creating atmosphere and painting a picture of the world of the signalman in rich detail and we are treated to some lovely florid Victorian imagery of young women dying in railway carriages for no apparent reason. At times the formality of language, which is a feature of the times, makes things a little clunky and, I was left a bit confused by the twist in the tale but Dickens paints such a fantastic picture that I won’t ever visit Higham Station again without looking for the ghost standing under the red light by the tunnel.
New Year’s resolutions have started early and I have created my first Nature Notes vlog. Follow me on a tour of St Mary’s Church, Lower Higham. It was here I began and ended my book On the Marshes. I plan to do many more of these tours in the next few months so keep your eyes peeled.
Visited the Shorelines Literature Festival of the Sea today at Leigh on Sea in Essex. A festival dedicated to the sea and the wonderful estuary landscape in both Essex and North Kent. I found the festival both inspiring and depressing. Inspiring because of the really interesting stories people are telling about a landscape which I love but which is so often derided as ugly and valueless by people who judge beauty by some Cotswold, middle England set of values and depressing because of the scale of destruction taking place.
The Thames super port development is currently hoovering up the Thames seabed causing fish numbers to plummet, ancient oyster and muscle beds to be destroyed, beaches to erode at alarming rates and spewing tons of sludge containing heavy metals and untold other pollutants into our water. Why? so yet more cheap goods can be shipped in from the Far East.
Also at the festival I bumped into Joan Darwell and Gill Moore, friends from my previous life with the RSPB and long term campaigners against the destruction of the Hoo Peninsula to make way for London’s Super airport. The latest scheme, beloved monster child of London’s mayor Boris Johnson, will see the whole of the peninsula and most of the Thames destroyed to create an airport far larger than Heathrow and a 6 lane motorway joining it to London. This will be built on some of the most important habitat for wildlife in England and one of Britain’s premier literary landscapes which inspired Charles Dickens to write Great Expectations.
The trashing of Britain’s countryside, traditions and history in order to line the pockets of the super rich is just beyond belief. These people will undoubtedly go down in history but maybe not in the way their super sized egos dream about. Boris Johnson will no doubt be taught about in schools in years to come but probably as a super villain who should have been stopped.