The Railway Children was written by Edith Nesbit and published in 1906. In the book, the Waterbury children: Roberta (Bobbie), Phyllis and Peter relocate from London to the Yorkshire countryside after their father mysteriously disappears.
Their mother, who knows the truth of her husband’s fate but keeps it hidden from her family for most of the novel, moves them into a house known as “Three Chimneys”.
Unfortunately, the Waterbury’s arrival in the north of England gets off to a rocky start when, after arriving late at night, they find “Three Chimneys” dirty, neglected and infested with rats.
To add insult to injury, the supper they were promised on their arrival is non-existent and there isn’t anything in the pantry but “a rusty old cake tin and a broken plate.“
Travel-tired and hungry, the children begin to complain, but, their mother encourages them to be cheerful, instructing them to light candles and straighten the house as best they can. Then, after they’ve set the table, she lays out a make-shift supper, cobbled together from the bits and pieces in the packing cases that arrived at the house before they did:
Everyone was very, very tired, but everyone cheered up at the sight of the funny and delightful supper. There were biscuits, the Marie and the plain kind, sardines, preserved ginger, cooking raisins, and candied peel and marmalade..The Railway Children, E. Nesbit, 1906, Chapter 2
All of this is washed down with:
ginger wine and water, out of willow-patterned tea-cups, because the glasses couldn’t be foundIbid
The description of this make-do meal and the way it turns around a bleak arrival in a new destination has stayed with me for years, and I’m reminded of it most when I travel.
I think most of us have had that experience of arriving in an unfamiliar city, late at night, and feeling too tired, too jet-lagged, or maybe just too afraid to head out and look for something to eat.
Or maybe we just booked a budget hotel that turned out to be in the middle of nowhere and now our dining options are limited to the half eaten bag of peanuts in our bag and the vending machine in the lobby.
So we make-do, scraping together our own versions of a “Railway Children Supper” and, sometimes, if the vending machine Gods are smiling on us or we’re travelling with a group of people, they’re not half bad. Memorable even.
But, at least in my experience, they never quite match the loveliness of the one described in the book.
Tinned sardines and all.
You can read The Railway Children for free (and legally) thanks to the Gutenberg Project who digitise and provide free Ebook versions of novels and writing that have moved into the public domain. Here’s the link to the site:
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