Children’s authors Sam Sedgman and M.G. Leonard write great stories about their train travelling hero Harrison Beck and his uncle Nat. Their latest book Kidnap on the California Comet is available now.
Why do you think children like trains so much?
Trains are just magic. Especially steam trains. The smell of coal dust, the joyful whistle, the huff of their pistons. But all trains are magic. They promise adventure – after all, a train is a machine to whisk you away to somewhere new. And what machines they are – enormous, loud, characterful, masterpieces of design. Who wouldn’t be obsessed? And that’s without the stories trains have baked into their very being. Why is this railway line here? Who built it? How does it cross this river? Where does that fork of track go? Who are all these other passengers, and what secrets are they hiding? Trains are magic.
What’s been your favourite rail journey?
I will never tire of taking the Great Western railway down from Paddington to visit my family in Devon. After Exeter, the line crawls along the coast beside sandstone cliffs, and the windows fill with nothing but sea and sky. On a windy day, choppy waves catch the train with spray, and I feel like I’ve entered a new world. The line also goes through Reading, where I grew up, so the journey means a great deal to me. That’s why the climax of our first novel, The Highland Falcon Thief, is set on that very line.
What country have you most enjoyed visiting by rail?
Before the pandemic, Maya and I went on a cross-Europe railway adventure from London to Germany, to research one of our future books. We went through Paris to Berlin, and down to the Harz mountains on the Harz Narrow Gauge Railway which winds through the steep forests to reach the summit of the famous Brocken mountain. It was our first railway adventure together, as authors, and it brought us very close. We really enjoyed noticing details that we wanted to put in our story.
Can you remember your first ever train journey?
My parents always took me on amazing steam railways when I was small – which really sowed my love of trains deep into my childhood. That’s something I’ve always tried to recapture in our books. When I was a teenager, we visited Australia, and I took my first sleeper train from Brisbane to Cairns. It was so exciting to be rocked to sleep by the rails, to eat in the dining car and watch wallabies jumping about in the rolling forest.
My dad got weirdly excited about termite mounds, which littered the ground like gravestones. He always pointed them out to us – there must have been thousands! My mum and I just wanted to play Scrabble in peace. Journeys like that one are part of the reason I associate train travel with my family.
Where would you like to travel to by rail?
When the pandemic subsides and rail travel is easier, I have plans to reach Lisbon by train, stopping for a few days at all the beautiful cities along the way. I’ll take the Eurostar to Paris, and the TGV to Lyon – I’ve never been and I can’t wait to try the food. I’ll travel the beautiful route through the Pyrenees to Barcelona and spend some time at the beach. Then the AVE to Madrid, and the overnight Lusitania Express to Lisbon, for some beers on a rooftop looking out at the sea. I can’t wait.
Are there any particular train trips you’d like to take?
I have never been to Japan, and I’m desperate to go there and explore the country by bullet train – as well as all the wonderful local trains that can take you to hidden towns in the mountains. You can get almost anywhere in Japan by train. I’m particularly enchanted by the culture of ‘ekiben’ – special bento boxes of meals designed to be eaten while travelling. Each station has its own speciality ekiben, and people travel the network just to sample the different delicacies. That’s my idea of a holiday.
What’s the best thing about taking a train journey?
Trains make me aware of how the world fits together. I can see the landscape change out of the window, see the line follow a river, see hills gather and fall away. You see the outskirts of towns, into people’s living rooms, hear snatches of conversations across the aisle. Train travel makes me feel like I’m a part of the world, and that everything in it is connected. Trains make me feel alive.
What do you always take with you on a train journey?
Headphones, a good novel, my notepad to jot down any stray ideas, a water bottle, and usually an apple. If it’s a sleeper train, I’ll be spending a lot of time with my shoes off, so I make sure I have an excellent pair of socks.
Have you ever skipped your fare travelling by train?
I had no choice but to skip paying when I took the train from school sometimes – there was no ticket machine at the station and often no guard on the train. I paid 10p for a Permit to Travel (remember those?) and got all the way home. I think a lot of people – especially young people – feel inclined fare dodge because our trains in the UK can be so eye-wateringly expensive. I’m always blown away by how cheap train travel is in other countries.
Your latest book uses the California Zephyr for inspiration. Why did you pick this train?
We knew we wanted our second book to be set in America, and the California Zephyr is the most iconic American railway journey there is. It charts the course of European settlers’ journey westward, into the mountains, forests and deserts of this enormous continent. The line that ties the two sides of the country together made the journey from East to West a matter of hours rather than months, and really created the modern understanding of these truly “United States” as we understand them today. It was the perfect choice for the story that became Kidnap on the California Comet. The landscape is incredible, the places it connects are so interesting, and the train itself is so beautiful and fascinating in its own right. It seemed the perfect place to set a dynamic adventure that children and adults alike would love.