One Way to Necropolis: The coffin trains beneath Waterloo Station

BBC Radio 4 Extra's documentary about the coffin train which ran from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetary makes for sombre theatre, writes Antonia Quirke.

A documentary about a coffin train that ran from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetery near Woking between 1854 and 1941 (3 August, 7.30am) told us of the subterranean waiting rooms and lifts, the coffin workshops and porters going quietly about their business, careful not to pant and strive like the platform employees in the main station – they were instead caught up entirely in the sombre theatre of their tasks. “Corpses, pauper: two shillings and sixpence”, an in-carriage advert informed us. “Corpses, artisan: five shillings.”
 
Female passengers were by law devoid of any ornament. Black and perfectly plain was the dress code – nothing to capture the gaze, nothing to shiver or shine, no thin lines of beads sewn into the fabric, no lucky opal winking on their finger. (Was even the folded handkerchief, ready for a surreptitious dab, black, too?) At Waterloo – in the 1850s the biggest station in the empire – general passenger and freight trains chugged day and night, dominating all human life. Moving into death with the London Necropolis Company and its dedicated trains and countless coffins and mourners was inevitable. “Everybody would take this train at some point,” someone said, almost under his breath.
 
The voice of each person interviewed – a historian, a gravedigger at the modern Brookwood Cemetery, a former tea lady at the café who served passengers in the 1920s – was faded out rather than cut, sliding away sweetly and politely, a fantastic way of putting the programme into a kind of swoon or trance, as though its makers were acknowledging that we all have something important and interesting to say but sooner or later blood pressure or hypertension or an unwise dash into traffic gets the better of us and our voices stop.
 
Or do they? There were moments that sounded almost like radio frequencies getting muddled, earth-side and nether-side (as packed, perhaps, as a mainline station at rush hour with the bored and irritated deceased) crossing wires. But none of it was depressing or disconcerting. There was no under-note of corrosion and damp; there were no places you’d rather not be.
 
The programme was more like a low, mass sigh and never more so than when someone came across a grave in Brookwood of a Victorian bookseller who had died at 27. “Young in years,” read his epitaph, “but old in sad experience.” It was such a tragic sign-off that the person reading it was forced to repeat the phrase in different, increasingly prosaic ways, as though querying a grocery bill. Some things are better unsaid.
A Parisian funeral tram - with coffin compartment on one side. Photograph: Hulton Archive via Getty Images.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Eyes on the peaks and a heart in the valley

During the summer months, the Swiss Alps offer one of nature’s most gorgeous spectacles.

Usually, whenever I arrive in Switzerland (where I am currently enjoying a brief summer respite), I cannot wait to ascend to the top of the nearest peak, whether on foot, or by some kind cable car, or a combination of the two. At this time of year, the flora seems more interesting the higher I go and, to my mind, few sights are as beautiful as a high Alpine meadow in full flower.

A possible comparison might be a desert at its most floriferous, but it is hard to predict when that occasional abundance will come. If you get to the mountains between June and late July, one of the most gorgeous spectacles in nature is close to guaranteed. Some years are better than others, but there is something about wandering an Alpine meadow, or crouching at the edge of a mountain chasm to peer down at a clutch of faintly scented mountain flowers, that renews the spirit.

The other great pleasure in being up, as opposed to down, is the view. Everyone appreciates that view, even if it is only from the visitors’ centre or the café terrace: the land laid out all around, its most intimate secrets revealed, sheep and people and houses like tiny specks on the valley slopes. The river is a ribbon of light, making its way through the lower meadows, past the cement works and the little Valais towns, each with its own shop and train station, its people polite and reserved, speaking a variety of German that most German-speakers barely understand. When people here meet, they say not “guten Tag” but “grüezi”. Goodbye is “Widerluege”. If you can remember how to pronounce it, there is a delicious, cheesecake-like dish called Chäschüechli. However, my favourite titbit of Swiss German is that, whereas Hochdeutsch has one term for walking uphill (“aufwärts gehen”), Swiss German has two: “uälaufe”, which means “to walk uphill” and “ufälaufe”, which means “to walk uphill and get to the top”. Or so my Swiss friends tell me – although, in matters of language, they do like to play games.

True or not, this is an important distinction, especially here in Valais. At the top are the Blüemlisalphorn (3,661 metres) and Weisshorn (4,506 metres) peaks, which are out of my range, but even the less demanding ones (the gorgeous Illhorn, for instance, which rises to 2,716 metres) can be a challenge for the occasional hillwalker that age, desk work and appetite have made me. It’s worth it, though, for the views and the flora. Or so I thought – but there are some who would agree to disagree.

Rainer Maria Rilke discovered the Valais region in 1919 and returned there to live a short time later. He was drawn by the beauty of the landscape, the flora, the simplicity of local life and the view of the mountains – but he rarely climbed to the top, preferring the valleys and the slopes to the peaks. A favourite place was the Forêt des Finges, on the floor of the valley. “Outside is a day of inexhaustible splendour,” he wrote to a friend in 1921. “This valley inhabited by hills – it provides ever-new twists and impulses, as if it were still the movement of creation that energised its changing aspects. We have discovered the forests – full of small lakes, blue, green, nearly black. What country delivers such detail, painted on such a large canvas? It is like the final movement of a Beethoven symphony.”

From Finges, one looks up and sees the mountains. It was looking up, rather than looking down, that seemed to give Rilke the power to renew his vision. It was here that he finally completed the Duino Elegies, among other works. His mind reached for the peaks but his home was in the valley. He asked to be buried in the village of Raron, where the church is perched on a rock above the river: a choice spot from which his soul might gaze upwards to the delectable hills.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt