Trains: laugh or cry?

I stumbled into a ‘commuter sit com’ yesterday… the cast included tubes, trains, buses and a woman without a shoe. I had to laugh or I’d have cried.

It was a sultry afternoon in the big smoke and I’d planned to leave an hour or two earlier, but found myself juggling and then dropping luggage en route to the tube. This included a pulley case, a large handbag that wanted to slide off my shoulder and a 6ft poster partly encased in a cardboard tube. I was pleased to bump into a colleague also off to the station and as we stood on the platform we discussed tube routes and places to live and work in London. The platform was filling up and after we’d been chatting over an announcement, we were puzzled to see everyone leaving both platforms and heading back up the stairs to the entrance. What else could we do but follow? There were no underground staff in sight to give advice or point in the direction of helpful buses. Luckily my colleague knew the bus routes and we strolled for half an hour through beeping traffic and people-lined streets. The poster was getting shirty and as I tried to slide it back under my arm the white lid at the bottom popped off and rolled along the pavement. As my colleague skipped towards it, we both sighed as it toppled into a deep brown puddle and disappeared from sight.
“It’s OK no problem,” I said, thinking, “Crap, crap and double crap,” or words to that effect, as the poster slid through the tube again and I hoisted it up against my shoulder. When we eventually arrived at the bus stop for number 18, there were no buses in sight and the iphone showed three or four all bunched up some miles away. We sweltered on the pavement as successive buses with eights in came and went. Number 228, number 28, more 228s – no number 18. Eventually it arrived and sitting on the back seat with my poster safely stored and carry on case at my feet we were making good progress. All I had to do was watch the electronic ticker screen for the right stop for Baker Street… meanwhile we were moving again, so all was good.

About 10 minutes later, as we gazed at the screen instead of the next stop the words ‘terminating’ flashed up and seconds later the bus had pulled in at some traffic lights and the driver said everyone would have to get out and catch one of the posse of buses behind. I secretly reckoned he needed a loo stop. We sighed and back out in the sunshine there were no buses in view, but there was a tube station just across the road. Having worked out which line to pick up to get to Victoria we found ourselves in a huge crowd pressed together waiting for a lift to the platform. More tube, case and bag manoeuvres followed as I knocked a few grumpy commuters on the head with the poster and also tried not to drop the bankcard I was using as a ticket.

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After letting one tube go because there was no way my poster, bags and I were fitting into the sardine tin that was masquerading as a carriage, we eventually squeezed into a slightly less packed train and a few stops and changes later I was filtering towards the way out. The route to the escalator was packed with people moving at a snails pace and the mainline station was the same. All my trains south had ‘delayed’ next to them and I found myself very hot and waiting with a throng of other frustrated would-be passengers for news of two possible trains without a platform number. When it eventually flashed up half an hour later I trudged towards the snake of coaches and started counting carriages to avoid the first four, which were heading to Bognor.

I found a seat and settled down, but still wasn’t sure if I was in the correct part of the train. I wasn’t. It was that kind of journey. Before it set off I trundled bags and poster down the length of the train to carriage number 4 of 12, which involved a lot more collisions with other people’s bags and heads and arms and legs that were blocking my route, scattering sorrys as I went.

Thankfully I secured a seat and we were off. It was a direct train to Emsworth… well that’s what I thought. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as the journey the day before when I’d arrived at the station to find my train had been cancelled? I had to change twice, only just getting to my meeting on time.

A few stations on there was a commotion behind me next to the doors as someone screamed, “My shoe, my shoe! I’ve lost my shoe – it’s fallen down  between the train!” People were looking concerned and hoping no-one was going to try and be heroic and reach down to fetch it. There were no rail staff in sight and the wailing and worrying continued from the distressed passenger. Her friends were shouting out for someone to help, until one piped up. “You’ve got more shoes in your bag haven’t you?”
“Yes,” she said, “Of course I have more shoes, but I want my shoe, I’ve got a flip and I can’t flop now!”

The doors closed and we were moving. A lone flip-flop was abandoned on the tracks below. The ‘one-shoe’ woman’s party of 40 somethings were Bognor-bound and continued to discuss the missing shoe loudly. They then realised they were in the wrong part of the train. What followed could only happen on an English train. The five or six women, carrying clanking bottles of booze, cases and a blackboard of instructions, including ‘take off your bra’ and ‘sing a line from Queen’, pushed and shouted their way down the corridor of hot standing commuters. An elderly lady with a stick opposite looked astounded at the conversations and another one at the table put her head in her hands as the shouting for people to move out of the way and questions over whose luggage was blocking the corridor echoed round the carriage. Eventually the carriage doors closed and their piercing voices faded to a muffled clamour. “Lock that door,” snapped a man with a closely cropped beard sitting on a single seat. Everyone giggled. Then the singing started and the automatic doors occasionally opened to treat everyone to a full volume rendition of, ‘Like a virgin,’ and other memorable tunes.

I put in my earphones and began to enjoy the view of passing fields and hedges. Everyone in the carriage agreed that when the train divided we’d all be happily waving farewell to our band of women heading for that 40th birthday bash in Bognor. Lucky old Bognor. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. The allotted station came and a guard slammed doors and turned keys assertively. We expected to be shunting off soon. Then the dreaded announcement…“This train won’t be dividing now due to staff shortages… wait for further notices.” Everyone was phoning friends and family to tell them of further delays to the already delayed train.

Some time later I was standing on a platform again – poster, wheelie case and now an apple core in my hand. It was nearly 8pm and I’d left the office just before 4pm… the journey had turned into a marathon. Two men beside me talked about their attempt to catch a train at 3.30pm from London. “My wife’s driving over to pick me up, do you want a lift to Chichester?” They disappeared down the steps from the platform and I looked after them dismally, wishing for a car. There was confusion amidst the crowds on the platform, but no one was panicking. We’re British. We cope and grin and bear it. But this was Friday night and everyone just wanted to be home. How we all loved English trains at this point and Southern Rail in particular. It wasn’t too long before another train slid in beside the waiting crowd on the platform and my wheelie case, poster and bag (minus apple core which had joined the breeding ground of missing shoes on the tracks below) were safely transported to Emsworth. It was the end of a very long journey. Luckily fish ‘n’ chips were waiting… Laugh or cry – you choose…

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Remember Remember

Damp sparklers and soggy rockets! That’s what the weather forecaster said last night and it looks like it might be true. The skies are grey and the kind of fine misty rain that England does so well looks set to stay. It’s a day for sitting beside a log fire (if you’re lucky) and making soup and mugs of hot chocolate after a walk with the dog – or cat in our case. He proved himself ‘more dog than cat’ by joining us on a walk beside the sea the other day. The problem is he’s pants at fetching sticks and won’t swim out when we throw stones in the water.

Although it’s November 5th and the mantra is “remember, remember”, I’m trying hard not to remember balmy clear nights with fireworks and entertainment in Cyprus last year with no rain to dampen the party spirit. Instead I am cheering myself up with thoughts of train journeys and pop-up cafes.

The other week I discovered a little gem at the local train station in Emsworth. Arriving with time to spare at this quaint Victorian station, which has a Railway Children look about it from the platform, I thought it would be too small to have a café. But a blackboard just inside advertised coffee and cakes at Carriages. I wandered in to the former waiting room which has been transformed into a Cath Kidston style café with spotty plastic table cloths, bunting and pot plants, all in pastel shades of pale pink, yellow and duck egg blue. I was so surprised about it not being ‘Costa’ or another chain that I wondered if they’d even have takeaway cups. No fear, there was a smiling barista happy to help and a row of tempting cup cakes lined up along the counter. We chatted about her new venture to acquire the empty rooms and start up a traditional café on the platform. I was only sorry there wasn’t time to sit at one of the pretty tables to soak up the café charm – another day hopefully. Standing on the platform a cup of latte steaming in my hands I felt so pleased that there was somewhere like Carriages and that a couple of people could still start up a ‘business with a soul’ in this little community. I’m sure it makes commuting a happier experience.

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I met another bit of beautiful British entrepreneurship a few days later after a walk along the cliffs in Dorset. It had been a sunny afternoon, one of the last warm autumn days as it turned out, and we’d enjoyed a picnic with a panoramic view of Harry’s Rock with Poole and Bournmouth in the distance. We decided to wander down to Studland beach before heading home and I was wishing I’d packed a thermos of tea or coffee. I needn’t have worried. At the bottom of the lane just beside the beach was a little shack with it’s blackboard sign for tea and coffees propped up outside. It was almost 5pm but the café was still serving tea and not just tea, but tea in proper mugs that you could enjoy on the picnic benches overlooking the beach. At the top of the slope leading onto the sand beside a beach hut was a large container filled with buckets and spades and beach toys. Instead of a price for hiring or buying, there was a little notice which said, ‘please borrow and return – we like recycling.’ I was impressed and touched all at the same time. This seemed like a local family offering a brilliant service for visitors and locals alike. A young girl from the cafe was tidying up the buckets and spades to pack them back in the beach hut and I helped pick up a few left on the shore. There is something special about letting people borrow things without a charge and it was incredibly refreshing and simple. It made me want to live somewhere like that, where it isn’t all about money and charges.

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Although we may have to contend with soggy sparklers and a smoking bonfire tonight, at least there’s plenty of tea and other charming seaside cafes to seek out in the future. I’m looking forward to sampling many more. There should be a ‘rough guide to UK seaside cafes’ – now there’s a thought…