A Journey in the Dark

“There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.”   – H. G. Wells ‘The Time Machine’ (1895)


It was a dark time of year. Here in the Northern Hemisphere we’d just passed the Winter Solstice and the nights were about the longest they could be. The weather, although not seasonably cold, was fairly grim too. I could think of better things to be doing with a stormy Boxing Day evening than sitting for eight hours on a bus from London Heathrow to the bottom of my road in my Cornish hometown.

Night travel is different. There is a sense of dislocation induced by the surrounding darkness. Roads and railway lines often feel devoid of a sense of place by dint of the fact that they are the physical points or maybe trajectory-places where we only ever are when we are going. I sometimes think however that certain routes or journeys, especially familiar ones, have their own identity, different from but not unlike the sense of place one might associate with a fixed location.

Except at night. At night one might as well be travelling underground. There is no sense of where you are within the landscape save for the passing lights. The roadside sideshow rolls by with its local distinctions of hills and rivers and field shapes and soils benighted and unreadable. The streetlights, headlights, taillights, townlights of London, Surrey, Berkshire look much the same as those of Somerset, Dorset, Devon. Perhaps this is how space travel feels. Nothing to gauge your progress but lights and absence.

I cup my hand round my eyes and press my face to the window to better see out into the dark. Most of the lights within the coach were dimmed to avoid distracting the driver and allow passengers to sleep. The guy opposite me had even brought a pillow. It occurred to me what a good idea that was about the same time that I realised I’d had the same thought two days earlier travelling up by train when a guy in the seat in front of me had also thought to provide himself with a pillow for the journey. Come to think of it he’d had the exact same pillowcase as this guy on the bus… Clearly I wasn’t the only person skirting meteorological disasters on public transport every Christmas.

Towns appeared and passed like sulphur star fields. Raindrops on the windows when we slowed refracted headlights from without and reading lights from within. Catseyes red and green on the sliproads. A house with Christmas lights hung on its eaves. The coach clock threw my brain with its reflected digital display sending us forwards and backwards in time. Perhaps this was less like space travel than time travel. Space is only time visible in a different way. Time had as little meaning as space. I felt like I had been travelling a long time, and yet in some respects no time at all. There seemed to be no sense of proportion in the dark.

When I was in my first year at university I accidentally went to a spatial geography lecture on the space-time continuum. As memories have a habit of turning up at the oddest of times I recalled during my journey in the dark the notion that distances are only relevant when placed in context with how long it takes to travel between them. Thus the world is a smaller place than it was a hundred  years ago because modes of travel are more readily available and affordable that can transport us hundreds, thousands of miles in the amount of time it might previously have taken to travel a tenth, a hundredth of that distance.

Then again distance is always relative. How far is ‘far’? People asked me if I had ‘far’ to travel [from Cornwall] for Christmas. Not too far. Only Reading, I replied. Five hundred odd miles or so in total. 10 hours, 2.5 days, 8 hours then 6 hours sleep and back to work. Neither far nor long? In some respects London and Falmouth are as far removed as London and New Delhi. So far, and such a long time. And I dare say there’d be more leg room on a long haul flight than on the National Express.

Then again if I were to spend 8 hours travelling on foot, how far would I get? It would depend a lot on the terrain of course. Maybe fifteen ‘coastal’ miles? Who knows. In the army distances between two places were traditionally measured in the length of time it would take to cover the ground rather than miles or kilometres. Space is a relative dimension in time. Or should it be time is a relative dimension in space? Actually a TARDIS would be really useful to avoid long distance travel by public transport in unfavourable weather conditions. And there’d definitely be more legroom than the National Express…

The final leg took us along the A38 from Plymouth through Saltash, Lostwithiel, Par. I tried aimlessly to guess where we were by the houses we passed. St Blazey? Grampound Road? The relief-anticipation of the homecoming stretch from Truro was masked until from the heights of the A39 past Treluswell the floodlit keep of Pendennis castle, the red light atop the tallest yacht mast in the docks, and the nightlit shape of the Falmouth peninsula gleamed in the not-too-distance below the windows of the bus.

More on this?

‘Things I Didn’t Know I Loved’  : a poem  by Nazim Hikmet about looking out of a train window as night falls on a journey from Prague to Berlin, translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk.

You may also like on Open the Curtains:

Paper Trains
6 days. 3 rail journeys. 1001 thoughts from here to there to here and back again. 2000 words, 14 hours and 23 minutes. That’s a lot of landscape and whole lot of thoughts between Reading and Par.


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