Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: The Suffolk man who was Jerusalem’s first English station master
My first feature of 2018 and an extraordinary tale it is too. Tracks in the Sand – A Railway Man’s War is the latest and weightiest tome from East Anglian publisher Jardine Press.
It tells the true story of a young railwayman from Suffolk who, in 1915 − typhoid and the Turks at Gallipoli having failed to kill him – recovered and returned to the fray, this time to Egypt. Here, he and his comrades began building a light military railway from Suez to the trenches.
Soon came a rather bigger project: constructing the standard-gauge Sinai Military Railway from Cairo to Jerusalem. The project became a race against time, and against the Turks, who were also building a railway of their own. He who finished first would win the war. The story is gripping enough. It’s also a forgotten piece of military history and a real banquet for steam railway enthusiasts.
As a publication, Tracks in the Sand could stand on these aspects alone. What really gives the book its greatness, though, is the fact it’s also a charming Edwardian-style romance conducted through the pages of the railwayman’s letters to his young wife back in Suffolk. The letters, over 200 of them, are always articulate, possessing all the courtly tendresse of a country lover to his lass.
“Could you but have been with me this evening, I would take you for a beautiful walk, for it’s a glorious moonlit night. We could go along the Jericho Rd. by the Virgin Mary’s tomb, through the Garden of Gethsemane and back through Siloam.”
Tim Foster, born in 1888 in Ipswich, was a young Suffolk railwayman. His story is told in letters and photos. On January 30, 1918, he wrote to his young wife Polly:
“This morning I had the most interesting journey of my life, through the mountains of Jerusalem. It was a wonderful ride, great giants the mountains are, and on the very tip top of one, I saw the tomb of Samson.”
Shortly after arriving at his destination, Tim, who would end his career as Brightlingsea’s station master, became Jerusalem’s very first English station master.
The written chronicle of his adventures is detailed enough. But Tim also left copious amounts of photographs which, extraordinarily, he seems to have developed by himself in spare moments snatched between railway constrictions and writing home. And what pictures they were, too. England does not make men of this calibre any longer, or, at least, it doesn’t seem to.
A century old this year, many of the photos feature landscapes of the biblical terrain in which Tim found himself. There are pictures of camels, men and railway bridges under construction. There’s an assortment of steam engines purloined from his homeland for military use on the desert railway.
One shot depicts crowds of local labourers, fully naked, awaiting a dip in a primitive de-lousing tank which will rid them of scabies, lice and other nasties prior to their joining the workforce. Their clothes, meanwhile, were steam-cleaned, utilizing steam harnessed from one of the railway engines.
All the while, the technical details, and locations (often censored by the Army), are augmented and lightened by Tim’s letters home to Polly.
“These are rough times out here – the grub is hard tack. The biscuits are very hard and the bully is stewed in its tin by the heat of the sun. Dust flows all day and smothers everything. Every mouthful is sprinkled with dust and flies...”
And then, by complete contrast, there is passion: “...we must meet all alone, all on our own, for it will take us half an hour to recover from our first embraces and then we shall want another half hour in which to compose ourselves.”
The textural and pictorial riches contained here are hard for me to adequately portray. The occasional vignettes of life in England a century ago during wartime are also fascinating.
Tracks in the Sand, in its entirety, has been painstakingly assembled by the publisher, East Anglian artist James Dodds and his wife Catherine. Between them they have transcribed into print their author’s faded pencil-written letters, at the same time as restoring Tim Foster’s photographs.
It’s been a long labour of love. Tim, who was James Dodds’s maternal grandfather, died shortly before James was born. The love letters to his wife and the cigar boxes full of tiny photographic negatives, along with rail timetables, tickets, adverts and other cuttings, have waited a century for their literary rehydration.
In a multi-faceted publication, here is history seen through the eyes of a quiet, capable East Anglian who strode confidently, if wide-eyed, into the yawning maw of the 20th century.
Young Englishmen have been travelling to the Holy Land for many centuries now and for many motives. Sometimes, with the right configuration of fate and circumstance, as Tim Foster had, they may do something really worthwhile. Tracks in the Sand is an amazing piece of work on all fronts.
n Tracks in the Sand, A Railwayman’s War is published by Jardine Press; hardback: £30