A journey to the past

An Irishman’s Diary: Looking up Cook’s timetable for 1939

‘Cook’s Continental Timetable for 1939  has an incredible feeling of transience about it, quite apart from all the detail about long-forgotten possibilities in rail, steamer and air journeys around Europe and further afield.’ Above, holidaymakers amuse themselves  while waiting for a train at Euston Station, London in August 1939. Photograph: AJ O’Brien/Fox Photos/Getty Images

‘Cook’s Continental Timetable for 1939 has an incredible feeling of transience about it, quite apart from all the detail about long-forgotten possibilities in rail, steamer and air journeys around Europe and further afield.’ Above, holidaymakers amuse themselves while waiting for a train at Euston Station, London in August 1939. Photograph: AJ O’Brien/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Tue, Oct 8, 2013, 01:00

One book I have at home that provides constant inspiration is a copy of Cook’s Continental Timetable. The date of publication is especially poignant, August, 1939. The month after it came out, the second World War started and many of the railway journeys listed were no longer possible and indeed, never resumed.

The book has an incredible feeling of transience about it, quite apart from all the detail about long-forgotten possibilities in rail, steamer and air journeys around Europe and further afield. For Dublin, the book lists the old Thomas Cook office at 118 Grafton Street, telephone 21036. It was close to the main entrance to Trinity and for years it was a mecca for long-distance travellers. Years ago, I went there on many occasions to get travellers’ cheques. They have long since become almost obsolescent.

While the book lists all the diplomatic representation in London in that fateful year, 1939, it has no listings for Ireland. It includes all the renowned golf courses across Europe and beyond, from Algeria to Turkey, but again, there’ s no mention of any in Ireland. At least in terms of diplomatic representation and a plethora of fine golf courses, we’ ve long since put those omissions right. But the book does point out that a telephone service is available between Great Britain and Ireland and all Continental countries, except Albania. That was long before the days of direct dialling to anywhere in the world! The book made no mention of how long it might take to get through, via an operator, to some far-flung destination in Europe, a connection that now takes seconds.

Some of those 1939 railway journeys are still possible, like Berlin to Moscow and on to Vladivostok; the book described how you could continue this particular trip by travelling a further 508km from Vladivostok to Harbin in China. From Harbin to Tokyo took another four days, continuing by sea and making a journey time close to a fortnight.

Once we had a glimpse of what those old-fashioned long distance expresses were like, when we travelled on the Moscow to the Hook of Holland express, the carriages kept warm in the middle of winter by great stoves, installed at intervals in the train. If you fancied taking the Star of Egypt express from Cairo to Luxor, going to Jerusalem by train, or in Europe, taking the long distance steam-hauled train all the way from Berlin to Cannes, it was all here.

One of the most appealing trains was the Cote d’ Azur express, departing Paris at 10.15, arriving Menton, 23. 10. The sheer glamour and romanticism of those trips, as listed in the Thomas Cook book, is potent stuff. I well remember the first long-distance train journey I did on the Continent, an overnight express from Paris to Rome. Seeing the sun rise as the train sped through the Italian Riviera, close to the sea, was an unforgettable experience. I had never before seen sunlight of such intensity and brilliance. More prosaic journeys are also here, like the LMS trains from Euston to Holyhead, finally delivering passengers to Westland Row in Dublin, and the Great Western Railway service from Paddington to Fishguard and on to Rosslare. The Fishguard to Rosslare Harbour ferry service had begun in 1906. Bus journeys,too, were included, really esoteric stuff, like links to obscure places in Norway. Air services, too, were listed, like London to Deauville in 60 minutes and Amsterdam to Java and Australia by KLM three times a week. All sorts of steamer services are there, including the German and Hungarian river steamers and the Pharaonic Mail Line from Beirut to Alexandria, Tripoli and Marseilles. Interestingly, the book lists all the electric railways in Switzerland, a significant innovation for the time, although it doesn’t have the Drumm battery train between Dublin and Bray.

Some of the advice still holds good. In 1939, Thomas Cook strongly advised passengers to insure their baggage at very low premiums. As it turned out, this 1939 book was the last that Thomas Cook produced in the format it had launched in 1873. For the duration of the war, publication was suspended and with the war, so many of those great long distance express train journeys simply vanished into history, never to be resurrected.