I wasn’t at all sure about the train trip. A friend wanted to go by train to Birmingham. Quick and easy, she said. Well, to be honest, I like my car, my music, the solitude, the homely acoutrements; i-pod, mobile phone, apple, banana, the mints, the scribbled route instructions, all spread out on the passenger seat, a full tank of diesel and the freedom to go wherever the hell I want to.
Four hours north – Keswick, Derwentwater, Borrowdale. Two hours west – Swansea and the Gower. Two hours east – The Natural History Museum and London. Four hours south – Porthcurno and St Anthony’s Head, Cornwall.
But this time I gave in gracefully, what with New Street being bang in the centre of Birmingham and but a few paces from shops, restaurants, the Cathedral and the Symphony Hall.
I used to take the train four or five times a year from Gloucester to London. I’d book in advance, reserve a seat and get all organised. The journey became familiar; a comforting mantra of the best of Cotswold scenes. Gloucester, Stonehouse, Stroud station – once busy from all the wool mills in the valleys now passing Pangolin Foundry where Damien Hirst gets his big works made – sliding smoothly through the bucolic bliss of Chalford Valley before the darkness of the tunnel and emerging into the sunlit higher Cotswolds and arriving at the flower-bedecked Kemble station. Always plenty of hanging baskets and troughs at Kemble to cheer things up for the kind of loaded businesspeople with substantial properties in the Cotswolds and high-powered jobs in the City.
Then red-brick Swindon, workmanlike, no-nonsense and full of railway history which deserves nothing but respect, flat countryside and lakes to Didcot Parkway – which I always used to imagine would be the perfect place for a torrid clandestine affair – Reading – the London outskirts and then the marvellous backside of West London. Intriguing buildings, some derelict, some just dingy and undecorated. Four-storey flats with windows opaque with grime and then the retaining walls at the side of the tracks decorated with great thick bundles of long black cables containing god-knows-what, anonymous boxes and signs and railway essentials and the beginning of a platform that flows past the train indicating that you’re almost in Paddington.
It was ok but I never found a buffet car. Never dared leave my seat in case some swine nicked it. I’d often start the journey by having to find the politest way of ejecting someone from my reserved seat anyway, so another confrontation was the last thing I wanted. I never even found a loo, although there must have been some. Fortunately that I’ve never had the urgent need. Anyway what happens with the waste? Does it go straight down on to the track? Ew.
No-one ever tells you these things. Sitting at Gloucester station among proper travellers laden with suitcases, loaded rucksacks and sleeping bags I felt like an imposter anyway. I just had a handbag. I was only going with a friend for a lunch and a natter with some old friends.
Obviously there was some chatting which meant I couldn’t concentrate on the scenery and completely missed the bit between Gloucester and Cheltenham. From thereon, the journey was frustrating and disorientating. I didn’t have a clue where I was. The railway line seemed to run much further east than the M5. There were churches, villages – so much stuff I didn’t recognise.
“I haven’t a clue what’s out there. I only recognise the Malverns,” I told my friend. She couldn’t understand why I’d even want to know. Well, without knowing it’s all just random sheep, cows and green fields isn’t it?
Perhaps this desire to know is habit. I generally know where I’m going and even when it’s new territory, I’ve always looked at a map so I encounter the new places with a frisson of recognition, especially in Somerset where you have gloriously-named villages like Beauchamp Hatchbucket St George and Little-Othery-Under-The-Mendip.
It was even worse when we got near Birmingham. What were the outskirts? What was that incredibly ornate Victorian building? So much industrial history – and a hidden canal down there beneath the railway bridge that I knew nothing about.
All that vibrant, living world out there and no-one on the train has a clue. No-one even cares! There is no interpretation like those nice interactive maps on planes that show you where you know on a flightpath curving 36,000 feet above the earth and you know you’re gazing down on an arrow-straight road across the Mongolian steppe.
I’d mellowed a bit on the return trip. I was more accepting that I had no bloody idea what was out there aside from a burning autumn sun low on the horizon setting the hedgerows and trees all aglow.
A woman came by with a trolley selling things. I had some tea. The milk came in plastic tubes. Bit risky but I managed not to squirt it in the direction of my friend. No-where to put the empty cup though – which bore the sensible warning “Sip carefully – liquid may be very hot.” Jeez.
Bit cramped for my legs too, sitting at a table opposite a guy who didn’t look the type to be up for some footsie; a washed-out looking neat chap with lightly-pencilled features but no single strong one. Perfectly nice, probably but with a face that shrieked “anonymous.”
Not like the rather riveting cyclist chap I noticed as we changed trains at Cheltenham Spa. Tall, fully kitted out in attention-grabbing lycra (totally understandable with thighs like his) who stepped off the train, helmet already on, carrying beauteous elegant white Trek racing bike. Its immaculately clean skinny tyres barely touched the platform as he guided it swiftly through the melee of waiting passengers. I watched him skip up the flight of stairs to street level. I swear he had that bike balanced on the index finger of his right hand. (I paused there for a sec, wondering whether to type “poser” or “swoon.” Swoon is so juvenile – the language of a 12 year old’s diary. Poser is tongue in cheek. Ok, I decided. *Swoon*
The journey from Chelters to Gloucester was lovely. Familiar territory, you see. The pub above the station, the backs of the houses in Hatherley, and oh, my old school!!! The playing field where my country dancing partner – a trainspotter – used to run to the fencing next to the track to note down the numbers of the passing locos. And then Chosen Hill, where during cross-country sessions in the sun, a group of us girls would take a breather and indulge in forbidden topless sunbathing before we even had properly-grown breasts and then Gloucester and recognising precisely what was what and noting with some pleasure that everything was where I expected it to be.
I think maybe I’ve lived here too long. Happy at last!