by Jaime Doward)
It was the train journey that inspired one of Philip Larkin's best-known poems. Half a century after his seminal collection, The Whitsun Weddings, was published, the book's title poem, about the 200-mile trip from Hull to London King's Cross – a drowsy train ride "all windows down, all cushions hot" – is to be recreated in a unique event that will further confirm Larkin's reputation as one of the nation's favourite poets.
Described by the Times Literary Supplement as "one of the best poems of our time", the poem tells of the weddings that Larkin observed through the window of his carriage as his journey progressed one Saturday in June, the train picking up newly married couples on the way to the capital for their honeymoon.
"Every time you stopped fresh emotion climbed aboard," Larkin said years later. "And finally between Peterborough and London when you hurtle on, you felt the whole thing was being aimed like a bullet – at the heart of things, you know. All this fresh, open life. Incredible experience. I've never forgotten it."
Larkin fans will be offered the chance to recreate the journey on Friday 6 June – two days before Whitsun – when they can board a train from Hull to London that will feature exclusive recorded readings of Larkin's poetry by Bill Nighy and performances by other actors recreating some of the characters.
At several stations en route actors playing brides and grooms will board the train after being waved off by family and friends dressed in the clothes of the day. Once on board, they will share their stories of married life, love, joy and heartbreak from the past 50 years. The journey, for which tickets cost up to £65, will also feature a soundtrack of Larkin's favourite jazz music.
"This will be one of those events that will forever stay in the minds of those that join us on board," said Andrew Pearson of the Hull theatre production company Ensemble 52, which is putting on the performance in conjunction with the Philip Larkin Society and Larkin 25, a group dedicated to commemorating the poet's life and works. "It will be a very special journey and a chance to celebrate the anniversary of a truly great collection and a poet whose life and work is intertwined with Hull, the UK City of Culture 2017," Pearson said. "This will be a unique event – a rare opportunity to experience theatre on board a train. We're delighted that Bill Nighy has got involved as this will be the only opportunity to hear Bill reading these poems. They will not be commercially available at a later date."
The event will be followed the next day by the unveiling of a commemorative Larkin plaque at King's Cross station by Baroness Virginia Bottomley, the High Sheriff of Hull.
Mounted on a wall next to the first-class lounge on the main station concourse, the plaque, carved by Martin Jennings, the sculptor who produced the statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station, will display the final lines of The Whitsun Weddings, which ends with typical Larkin melancholy: "A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain."
The unveiling of the plaque will complete a sequence of installations that began in 2010 with Jennings's statue of Larkin and the associated poetry roundels and bench seat at Hull's Paragon Interchange train station.
"It is fitting that Hull organisations are taking culture that is made in Hull to London in this way," said Steven Bayes, a Hull city councillor who holds the City of Culture portfolio. "Hull culture is not just for Hull, or for 2017. It travels well, stands the test of time, and celebrates roots and routes and the 'Hullness' that is integral to the quirky theme of our original bid document."
He acknowledged that the plaque would be a useful marketing tool for Hull as it attempts to assert its cultural credentials. "It will be a permanent reminder of one of Hull's most popular literary exports and another means of helping us tell the world about Hull," he said.