Nighttime on Still Waters

A train in the distance ('Night Mail')

January 29, 2023 Richard Goode Episode 112
Nighttime on Still Waters
A train in the distance ('Night Mail')
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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Canals and railways are often very close near neighbours and so trains can be a frequent part of the canal soundscapes. This week we explore why the sound of a train in the distance (thanks to Paul Simon) can be so evocative which gives me the opportunity to reminisce about my childhood and revisit some wonderful poems. 

Journal entry:

  24th January, Tuesday.

“Racing head. Not much sleep.
 So I am out here, trying to walk it out.

The ground crunches and splinters into Icy shards.
 The kingfisher pool has now frozen over.
 Today, the ice, the cold, seem to exhibit a deliberate malevolence.

In front of me the morning sun emerges above the trees
 Making the canal ice and frosted towpath glitter with golden fire.
 I stride out of the woods.
 Today, for a while, I walk on jewels and sun light. 

Episode Information:

In this episode I read the following poems:

Philip Larkin – ‘Whitsun Weddings’ (excerpt)
Edward Thomas – ‘Adlestrop
Paul Simon – ‘A Poem on the Underground Wall’ (excerpt)
Robert Louis Stevenson – ‘From a Railway Carriage
WH Auden – ‘Night Mail

You can watch the film, Night Mail, free (and I highly recommend it!) at the BFI website: Night Mail.
You can watch Vanessa and Zephyr on The Mindful Narrowboat.

For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters

You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at It will also allow you to become more a part of the podcast and you can leave comments, offer suggestions, and reviews. You can even, if you want, leave me a voice mail by clicking on the microphone icon. 

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to

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 24th January, Tuesday.

“Racing head. Not much sleep.
 So I am out here, trying to walk it out.

The ground crunches and splinters into Icy shards.
 The kingfisher pool has now frozen over.
 Today, the ice, the cold, seem to exhibit a deliberate malevolence.

In front of me the morning sun emerges above the trees
 Making the canal ice and frosted towpath glitter with golden fire.
 I stride out of the woods.
 Today, for a while, I walk on jewels and sun light. 



The sky is overcast and there is a filling moon somewhere behind it. The air is chilly, but not freezing. It's the sort of night you need owl eyes to navigate your way. The canal is mirror calm, A few sheets of ice drift untethered. This is the narrowboat Erica narrowcasting into the night to you whereever you are. I am so pleased you are here, thank you for coming. The stove is on, the cabin is warm. There's hot water in the kettle and the biscuits have been restocked. Come inside and welcome aboard.  



After last week’s episode the temperatures (particularly at night) took another dip, with the canal once more solid with thick ice. Even those sheltered spots that I had mentioned were once again locked in ice. The little pool that the ducks have been keeping clear got steadily smaller, but, at least, it never froze over completely. However, it would have been totally unsuitable for kingfisher and heron. Nevertheless, by midweek, we were treated to slightly milder, or at least, less cold air flows. Whilst we experienced frosts at night and woke to ice, the thick ice cover began to slowly melt. Nevertheless, even today, there is still a significant amount of ice cover. Large sheets floating loose, drifting on the surface. Enough to dissuade the swans from visiting. Earlier this morning, I saw one of them on the canal north of us. It was a stretch that was relatively free of ice and I could see him or her (I was too far away to see which one it was). However, the nearer they approached the more ice there was, glassy plates that had come loose from the sides. It was probably possible for a swan to break through – and ours, the female particularly, are adept at doing that. But it must take a lot of effort – and possible discomfort from sharp shards of broken ice – so I wasn’t surprised to see it turn round and paddle back up stream.

Having said that, later this afternoon, they were both down here. A dayboat had passed through and forged a clear path through the pack ice. I am not sure whether they had used this or whether the ice had continued to melt enough for them to break their way through on their own. Whatever the case, they were both high on the bank, foraging through the grass.

For a while, as the ice was thawing a skim of water later on top of it. The ducks looks really strange, stomping their waddling way across the surface ankle deep – sort of walking on water, but not! One morning, this week, I saw a rook making his way across the ice, ankle deep. One of the boaters took a photograph of a robin doing the same. They must have been desperate for water by then and so this huge welcoming shallow birdbath must have been paradise for them. Last year, I remember watching a couple of wagtails doing something very similar. How do they know it’s safe? And also, how do they know that it is now no longer safe for them to land here? Whatever the reason is, they do seem to be able to tell.

On Friday we had a really wonderful time when Vanessa and Zephyr from The Mindful Narrowboat vlog came to visit us. Of course, Mr Mindful came too, but for some reason our sofa (which adapts into a bed) kept throwing him off. We can’t work out what was going on, it’s never really happened before, well, not with the alarming regularity of last Friday! Zephyr, as anyone who has watched The Mindful Narrowboat will know, is a real superstar and soon found the warmest and comfiest places to take possession of – but always with good grace and a cheeky grin. It was lovely taking them all on a short, if somewhat muddy, tour of the locality and point out some of the places I mention in these podcasts.   



Today I cannot hear the bird song. All I can hear is the noise of traffic. Days can be like that; filled with so much noise that you cannot hear the birds. I can see them. Vague shapes flickering in shadow in the undergrowth. Sometimes a gull or a jackdaw cutting across the sky above me. But this morning is filled with the white noise of traffic.

My head is busy. I’m feeling discombobulated. The new teaching term starts this week and I feel thin and brittle. I don’t know why. I don’t usually feel like this. I usually like this semester. It’s the one I look forward to. It’s the semester when dissertations are finished and I love working with students on topics they are enthused about – exploring new worlds (often for the both us) with them. It might also be this is the term that leads us into summer. But this year I feel different. I try to put my finger on it – perhaps it’s one of the modules I run. It’s one I am quite proud about, but it does pose challenges for both students and myself. Perhaps, this year, I don’t feel up to it. I am not sure. Perhaps it’s nothing to do with teaching. And that’s how my mind runs. Competing with the traffic noise – an endless racing – I can no longer hear the birds.

Some days will fall like that. Tomorrow, or the next day, or perhaps the one after that, all I will be able to hear is bird song riding, like Manannán in his chariot, over the roaring ocean, and I will wonder how I could have missed it. Just because I cannot hear it, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not there.  

I force myself to listen – to tune out the roar. But all I am aware of is that my big toe is beginning to feel numb.    

So, I take my seat on the frozen ground beside the browny-glaze of the canal on which lie thick greyish slabs of broken ice, welded to it by another freezing night. Every blade of grass, no matter how stunted from rabbit and pony cropping, is stiffly coated with ice: Spikily tasselled by a fringe of hoar frost. Green and white like some exotic variegated species. Even the flung, jack-straws, clutter of twigs and broken sticks that scatter the ground, and the thorny ropes of bramble runners are also transformed with their rime of white starlike spikes.

I look out for the redwing in the little cave of ivy across the canal from me. I think I will always look for the redwing in the ivy cave, but she is not there, neither is the sun – just a hard steely diffused light, filled with tiny water droplets that pearl the fibres on my hat and gloves.

The traffic roars on and I sit here beside the stand of dead willowherb stems that line the bank’s edge. Some of the stems are quite thick – over half an inch in diameter. They are a soft terracotta brown. The dried spears of their spent seed heads are the colour of warm earth. A few still have remnants from last year’s smoke, bedraggled and matted, forlornly clinging to them. Their withered leaves, sear, hang limply. Once again, I am reminded of Buddhist prayer flags. In fact, their very presence here seems to be like a silent prayer. The prayer of the earth. The prayer of the elements. To whom? Who knows, but if they’re there, I am sure they’ll be heard. For there is something deeply profound about them. Silent, but not voiceless. The sound of a gong being struck, a bell reverberating into silence, a wheel turned, the smoke from incense, a river running, and the rag-like flutter of dead willowherb leaves. Silent, mute, but they seem to fill me with so much re-assurance. This line of died-back willowherb. If they were in a garden – if they were allowed in a garden to begin with, but, if they were allowed in a garden – they would have been ripped out at the end of autumn. Useless. Untidy. Unwanted. Stalks and stems for the burning. But here they are. Silent prayers beneath a sky of hard light. Sheltering me with their presence. I feel a sense of solidarity with them. Even now. Unseen, out of sight, there is something unknown going on beneath the frozen ground.    





“Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance” wrote Paul Simon and I think it is true – well, it is for me at least!

When the wind is in the right direction, you can hear the trains passing. It’s not particularly invasive or even, during the day, noticeable. From time to time, they run a steam train down this line  – terminating at Stratford upon Avon. The whistle floating on the summer winds across the sheep and rook pasture. Mainly, its commuter trains, shuffling passengers up to Birmingham. A few freight trains pass through as well, but I generally see passenger ones. The first time we went over Edstone Aqueduct a train passed by underneath us. The driver waved and gave us a thumbs up. We’ve tried to replicate it since, particularly when we’ve had visitors aboard, but so far, we have been unsuccessful. There’s something of an occasion about it, sailing above a train in your home.

Trains are a familiar and often frequent sound for canal-life. Canals and railways often run adjacent to one another. It’s not really surprising. The routes for the canal and railway systems require much the same geographical terrain and even very similar destinations - As flat as possible. Linking working hubs. The canal planners of 150 or so years earlier had done the leg and (quite literally) the spadework for them. Therefore, where there is a canal, you are very likely to find, nearby, a railway (or the remnants of one).

Although passing trains now sound more like very low flying jets, I still quite like the sound. I think it's more about what that sound signifies. Particularly at night. I takes me back to when I was a lad. My bedroom had one window and it was a dormer one, that perched on the slope of the roof over the porch like an eyrie. It gave me a feeling of separateness, of distance from the rest of the world. As if I were among the roof-tops looking down. This was heightened by the fact that the line of houses was located on quite a high bank above the road, which in turn was above a field that sloped down to the canal at the bottom. On the other side of the valley about a third of the way up the hill – almost at the same level as my window – was the mainline railway track. The valley was wide – a rolling U shape that accommodated a field, the canal, and a series of small lakes, before another road ran parallel and then the hill began to climb up to the railway. It was distant enough to soften the noise, to rub the sharp edges off it. The gentle murmur of conversations when no words can be heard.

On warmer nights – and I think, knowing mum and her love for fresh air, on some of the cooler nights – my bedroom window would be open. The sound of the passing trains would send me off to sleep. That and the sporadic traffic that would pass – the odd lorry or motorcycle. Sometimes a car racing its way up through the gears as it passed the houses and onto the more open stretch. I’d lie in bed an imagine where they were. Tracing their night time journey into the night. Coaches, buses. I used to love buses. The 301 and 302 with name boards fixed to their upper deck with place names both familiar and unfamiliar. Turners Green sounded so exotic. But it was the railway that formed a lullaby for me when I grew too old for human lullabies. Passenger and freight trains. But it was the freight trains that I waited for the most. The clunked and clanked slowly across the horizon of my bedroom and my sleepy mind. I treasured those sounds and drew them into me – straining my ears for the very last tiny clank. Perhaps that’s why some of my favourite CDs are Peter Hanford’s late 1950s recordings of steam trains. They are masterpieces of audio. Capturing not just the steam engine, but the whole soundscape in which it is located. Cocks crow and a cuckoo calls on a spring morning at a rural station. Rain begins to spatter onto moorland bog on a blustery day of sheep call and the bubbling pipe of curlew song. On one recording at a home counties station, there had been a heavy fall of snow in the night. The recording picks up shrill excited voices of a group of school boys sighting their train approaching while waiting on the platform. Meanwhile, a car, on the way to work, gets stuck in a snowdrift. There’s a sound of engine revving and men’s voices. When sleep evades me or when I am really stressed, I immerse myself into these worlds - and it is always the sound of the freight trains, pulling their clanking trucks that comforts and stills my mind the most. 

Yes, Paul, you’re right, “Everybody [does] love the sound of a train in the distance.”

There’s something soothing and comforting about railways at a distance. Perhaps it’s because railways take us into a different world. Who hasn’t lost themselves as the gaze out of a carriage window as you sweep past the back gardens of terraced houses, each lit window containing entire novels of stories. Or dreaming as you pass through landscapes not your ow

Philip Larkin ‘Whitsun Weddings’


Much earlier, Edward Thomas had captured traveling by rail in the summer heat in his poem Adlestrop.


Yes, railways do take us to different worlds, but I think, for me at least, it is also something else. There’s something about the rhythm within the sounds.

 Paul Simon, again, evokes it so accurately in the lyrics of his ‘A Poem on the Underground Wall’.

“And the train is gone suddenly
 On wheels clicking silently
 Like a gently tapping litany”

Ever since I head those words – particularly the ‘gently tapping litany’ it has stuck. The London Underground train is acoustically very different from the clanking diesel and then electric freight trains of my youth, but there is that sense that these rhythms take you somewhere much deeper.

 Perhaps that is why I loved Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1885)

From a Railway Carriage


Wendy and I learnt it off by heart and we used to compete with each other who could say it the fastest without tripping up, as if we were making the engine speed faster and faster through the countryside.

However, there is one more poem that I love – perhaps in some ways the most. It captures that idea of taking the reader or listener to another world and also the use rhythms. However, it adds one more thing, unlike all the previous poems, this one is set within the magic of night and has been one of the initial influences for the audio landscape I want to try to evoke in these podcasts.


Night Mail by WH Auden

Written for the 1936 documentary produced by the General Post Office Film Unit. The film itself is powerfully evocative capturing, in some ways, a very different time.

Auden’s Night Mail – perhaps consciously takes the rhythms used in Stevenson’s poem and developing them even further, to include changes is speed due to gradients, and the rattle of the train passes over the points. However, what I like best about it is that the perspective is changed. Stevenson’s poem places the reader inside the train, looking out of the carriage window as the landscape rushes past outside. In a much slower way, Larkin uses this in the sultry and languid heat of his ‘Whitsun Weddings’. Auden, on the other hand, takes us outside into a world that is both familiar and, particularly now, increasingly unfamiliar. And it’s the tiny details that I find so powerful and takes me straight back to childhood – as the train passes in the distance ‘… a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.’

We lived too far away to physically feel the trains as they past, but that I had experienced it in some of my friends’ houses and could conjure up exactly that scene. But it is also the poem’s rhythms that I love and the way that it captures the clattering clanking noise that I found so comforting and formed put of the nightly lullaby that sent me to sleep.  

And it’s that sense of the night – beautifully conjured – that creates such a powerful feeling: That feeling of knowing that there are those at work, as the night mail steams its way north over the lonely moorland with its “wind bent grasses” – and on to the cities of Scotland, while we lie safe and warm in our beds.

Night Mail by WH Auden



This is the narrowboat Erica signing off for the night and wishing you a very warm restful and peaceful night. Good night.


Journal entry
Welcome to NB Erica
News from the moorings
Tuesday Morning, 5.30am
Cabin chat
A train in the distance ('Night Mail')
Philip Larkin 'Whitsun Weddings' (excerpt)
Edward Thomas 'Adlestrop'
Paul Simon 'A Poem on the Underground Wall' (excerpt)
Robert Louis Stevenson 'From a Railway Carriage'
WH Auden 'Night Mail'
Signing off
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