Hans Christian Andersen – Danish Journal 1976
Travelling by train
Andersen travelled by every available means by carriage and stage coach, on foot, on horseback and by mule, and increasingly, as the railways spread across Europe, by train. He welcomed this technological advance lor its speed and comfort . The following description of the pleasures of train travel is from his travel book A Poet’s Bazaar, published in 1842.
…The first sensation is of a quite gentle tug at the coaches, and now the chains which hold these together are tensed, the whistle signal sounds again and the journey begins, though slowly; the first steps go gently, as if a child’s hand were pulling the small coach, The speed increases imperceptibly; but you are reading your book, or looking at your map, and are not really aware yet that the journey has started, for the coach glides like a sleigh on the level snowfield. You look out of the window and find that you are tearing along, as if with horses at the gallop. It gets even faster, and you seem to be flying; but there is no shaking here, no air pressure, nothing of what you imagined as unpleasant!
What was that red which flew close by like lightning? It was one of the signalmen standing with his flag. Just look out, and for the nearest ten to twenty yards the field is a stream, swift as an arrow! Grass and plants merge into one another, leaving an idea that you are outside the earth, seeing it revolve. It hurts the eye to keep it in the same direction for long; but a few fathoms farther away you see other objects moving no faster than we see them move when driving well, and farther out towards the horizon everything seems to be standing still. You have absolutely the view and impression of the whole country.
That is just the way to travel through flat lands! It is as iftown lies close to town; now comes one, now yet another! One can well imagine the flighting of birds; in this way they must leave the town behind. The ordinary travellers one sees on the side roads seem to be standing still; the horses in front of the carriages lift their feet but appear to put them back again in the same place; and we are past them.
There is a fairly well-known anecdote about an American who travelled by steam coach for the first time and, constantly seeing one milestone rush by after another, thought he was travelling across a cemetery and seeing monuments. I would not quote it but for the fact that it perfectly characterizes the speed, and I had it in mind, though here we saw no milestones, they must have been the red signalling flags; so the same American could have said here: ‘Why is everybody out with red flags today?’
I will say, however, that when we sped past a hoarding which I saw foreshortened to a plank, a man seated next to me said: ‘Look, now we’re in the principality of Cothen.’ The man then took a pinch of snuff, and offered me the box. I bowed, tried the snuff, sneezed, and then asked: ‘How long are we in Cothen?’ ‘Oh.’ the man replied, ‘we were out of it when you sneezed!’
And yet the steam coaches can go twice as fast as here. Every moment you are at a new station, where passengers have to be set down and others picked up. The speed is thus reduced; we stop a minute, and waiters hand us refreshments through the open windows, light or solid as we prefer! Plums fall literally, at a charge, into our mouths; and then off we speed again, chatting with our neighbour, reading a book, or contemplating the scenery, where often a herd of cows will turn round in astonishment, or some horses will break loose and flee at the sight of twenty coaches able to get along without them, faster indeed than if they were to help. Then suddenly we are under cover again and the train of coaches stops; we have travelled our seventy miles in three hours, and are in Leipzig. The same day, four hours later, it will be a similar distance in the same time, but through mountains and across rivers, and we shall be in Dresden.
I have heard several people say that with the railways all the poetry went out of travelling, and that you rushed past what was beautiful and interesting. With regard to the latter, anybody is free to stop at any station he likes and look around there till the next train of coaches arrives; and as for all the poetry of travelling being lost, I am of the exact opposite opinion. It is in the narrow, cramped carriages and stage coaches that the poetry vanishes; there one grows listless, plagued at the best time of the year by dust and heat, and in winter by bad roads. There one does not get nature itself in larger portions, though perhaps in longer draughts, than in the steam coach…