The cotton tree (nothing to do with cotton I don’t think but it is at least a tree) seems to like the sort of sandy ground that exists between Sierra Leone’s beaches and its loamy earth and on its busy city centre roundabouts.
The cotton tree in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, is said to be as old as the city. Located beside the High Courts and instruments of state, it can also be said to be the heart of the city. A combination of oral tradition, hearsay and legend has it dating back to the arrival of the first freed slaves brought to the region from British ships, the master empire of slavery turning to become the poster-boy for its abolition.
Draped in fruit bats, it is the only tree I can think of which had its own railway station, a small red-tiled building that wouldn’t look out of place as a Cambridgeshire village hall, which today houses Sierra Leone’s National Museum. Much like in Britain and elsewhere, Sierra Leone saw a long argument over whether its railways were there to make profit, or to serve the people. The profit-seekers (among them the World Bank) won, and the railways were lost in 1974, when motorcars were still the future. So it’s no longer possible to take the narrow-gauge railway from the Cotton Tree to the cooler climes of Hill Station and the Presidential Lodge, or the standard gauge track to Wilberforce, Waterloo or beyond.
The spirit of the railway remains though. Not just in the lingering station signs, or the winding street known as Old Railway Line with its generally imperceptible gradient (a rarity in hilly Freetown) but also in the country’s National Railway Museum. It was opened in 2004 by British soldier and train-fanatic, Colonel Steve Davies, in the original railway workshop in the capital’s Cline Town.
I like trains. I’m not obsessed by them or write their numbers down in a little book, but I like them. Secretly, I think everyone does. A motorway just cannot match the magic of a railway line. With its information boards, enthusiastic staff (also a rarity in Freetown) and reconditioned engines, the Railway Museum managers to capture that magic. I could, for once, write an honest note in the comment book. I’ve put off visiting for four years, since I first travelled through Sierra Leone. Now I’m wishing that I hadn’t put off that visit, and that I could have travelled by train.