It is Tuesday, 25th of October. There is a chill in the air and a patchy fog hangs among the treetops. I have a journey to make today. A return trip by public transport from Wisbech, Cambridgeshire to Market Harborough, Leicestershire. As the crow flies, about 70 miles, but thanks to the rail network it will take just over 3 hours each way. Going up and down by rail in this sceptred isle is fast and regular, going cross country is slow and annoying!
I have caught the X1 bus to Peterborough.
Nice bus, double-decker with leather upholstery and free, if patchy, wifi . The driver seems to be channeling Ayrton Senna as we barrel west along the A47. Foggy flat fertile Fenland fields whiz past my window. It is a route I am so familiar with I can do it with my eyes closed (and frequently do, enjoying a little nap time as I head home each day.) We divert into the lovely village of Thorney. For so long choked with A47 traffic , a new bypass made it much quieter and more charming. Lovely Victorian cottages, a magnificent abbey church and a nice park where Little Bloke and I have played in the past. For a village so close to Peterborough it has so far managed to escape new housing developments. Give it time though.
We reach the traffic of Peterborough and its never ending roadworks on the Parkways. Thanks to our drivers heavy foot though we’ve made good time. I have a few minutes here so I’ll have a little wander before I catch my train.
I quite like Peterborough. It has some lovely buildings including the magnificent cathedral. The bus station though is not necessarily the best way to arrive. Nobody has ever used the sentence ‘arriving at the elegant and beautiful bus station’. Is there a class divide thing there? Train stations are used by upper and middle class travellers, busses by the working class. Is it telling that during the IRA bombing campaigns in England, rubbish bins were removed from Train stations but not from Bus? Make of that what you will.
Anyway, slap bang in the middle of Peterborough is the cathedral, a building I adore. I don’t believe in god. To misquote Groucho Marx I wouldn’t want to belong to any religion
that would have me as a member. And any god I did believe in would not reside in such a grand house. However, what this building shows to me is the soaring aspirations of humankind, of what we can achieve in a common goal; such magnificent, talented workmen creating in stone an elegy to their faith, using technology so basic as to defy belief to us now. All this within a stones throw of a Starbucks.
I’m a bit of a building geek. I love good architecture. How style and art can be incorporated into a building beyond its mere functionality. Mrs Bloke once rolled her eyes in despair when, one evening, watching the local news, I identified where a man being interviewed was stood, purely because I recognised the style of airbrick on the wall behind him.
Anyway, time cracks on, from this magnificent edifice to Waitrose to stock up on supplies. I can’t afford a mortgage payment to buy a drink on the train.
Peterborough train station is….is….not lovely. It has recently been tarted up with a modern interior that will looked dated in less time than it takes the foam on a double chocco latte to go flat. Busy as always, I find my way to platform 7 where I repeatedly get in the way of a lady putting the drinks trolleys on and off the trains.
On the train. Two whole carriages, crammed full of half-term travellers. I grab a seat which I immediately offer to give up to a young mum and family who are having to split up to find seats She declines my chivalrous offer and plonks her six year old down next to the old man sitting opposite me, to the delight of neither I suspect. They are getting off at the next stop of Stamford. This cross country train runs through Stamford, Oakham, Melton Mowbray and Leicester where I get off. It then runs all the way to Birmingham New Street. It runs hourly I think and is always crammed. Given the popularity of the route, would it really hurt to add an extra carriage?
What I like about this journey is how the flat dreary landscape of the fens morphs back into the gently rolling hills of my childhood. All of a sudden you notice the horizon is getting closer and it sticks up a bit more.
First stop is Stamford, a nice country town, with many buildings built in the lovely honey coloured local stone. I once went for a job in Stamford but on the interview day I had the flu and couldn’t get to it. Who knows what might have happened had I made it? (Sigh. Trains make me wistful.) Oooo, big tunnel into Stamford and a nice old fashioned station. One can imagine Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard having a moment on the platform. (Or a snog behind the bike rack.)
Oakham is the next stop. I know precious little about the town really. Near to Rutland Water I ended up here stranded one Sunday morning after getting lost walking around the reservoir. (You would have thought ‘keep the water on your left’ would have done the trick. I should add I was, on that occasion, hungover.) There is a bit of a castle left here and something about horseshoes? Also famous for its public school unless I’m thinking of Uppingham?
I witness one of those lovely interactions between people you get on public transport, where, as a rule, everyone does their best to pretend all the other passengers don’t exist. The old man sitting opposite me makes a fuss of giving the now empty seat next to him to a lady of pensionable age, about 70 I’d guess. Clearly liking his chance the old devil tries to engage her in conversation to which she responds politely, but clipped, making no attempt to continue the conversation. She pulls out a paperback book. (Fatherland by Robert Harris, good choice.) He starts trying to impress her with the fact he is 90. She nods, smiles, opens the book and pointedly removes her bookmark in the international gesture of ‘This conversation is over’.Still, fair play to him. If I’m still alive at 90 I’d like to think I’d have the spirit to have a crack at a woman twenty years my junior.
Melton Mowbray is next and is a town very proud of its food heritage. In fact the train station sign announces it as the home of Pork Pies and Stilton cheese. Not a hot spot for vegans I would imagine.I think I went to the theatre once in Melton. I could be wrong.
We arrive in Leicester station.We are 12 minutes late but my next train is running slightly behind as well so all is well. If I had a pound for every time I had caught a train here I could afford to advertise my blog, instead of relying on you lovely volunteers to spread the word! I was born in Leicester General, treated in Leicester Royal, ‘studied’ at Charles Keene College and had many, many nights-out here, not to mention all the connecting journeys elsewhere that required a change here.
I quickly manage to rack up my second gentlemanly act of the day. A very attractive young American lady asks in a slightly stressed tone if the train waiting on the platform is the train to London. I tell here that will follow on from that train and, for bonus chivalry, tell here it’s running 6 minutes late.She thanks me, but doesn’t appear to instantly fall head over heels in love so instead I take quick advantage of the facilities. Coming out the loo I walk past a man I am sure is an Auctioneer chap off those tv antique programmes, Bargain Hunt, Antiques Road Trip that kind of thing. Philip Serrell I think. Or possibly just an old bloke in a scarf.
And so the final stretch on the outward journey, to Market Harborough, my home town. Lovely market town groaning now under housing developments, as it is only an hour from London by train. It’s pushed house prices up and filling shops with expensive boutiques. But, it is still where I grew up and even though new houses and streets spring up, these pavements are very familiar to my feet.
My dear ma is picking me up at the station. First time I have seen her since my confessions in ‘The stoopid embargo’.
My favourite quote about the town, and one day I plan to steal it for the title of my autobiography, is from G K Chesterton who absentmindedly got off the train here and sent a telegram to his wife saying. ‘Am in Market Harborough, Where should I be?’
The journey home is retracing my steps exactly, but with the added excitement of only a six minute change from train to bus in Peterborough. Living life on the edge!
My ‘gentlemanly act’ count creaks even higher (I know, right? Who knew I was this nice?) Helping a lady off the train at Harboro with her luggage. Then again in Leicester I help a poor mother with pushchair, big suitcase and a 4 year old boy fight onto the train. We were all packed into the doorway section and it was really quite surreal. The little boy, whose name I learnt was Tyler, told me of the four trains he had been on that day and showed me his giant luminous green spider which I agreed was very scary. Meanwhile his mother was dealing with the toddler in the pushchair who kept pulling off his shoes and then started crying because he hadn’t got his shoes on. They had apparently come from the other side of Birmingham and she had the look of a woman who would do serious damage to a bottle of wine that evening. Also in this tableau, a middle-aged Man stood with his back to us, pressed against the door, with his foot raised up on a metal bar to strike a manly pose, and gave the overwhelming sense that he was exposing himself through the window to the whole of Leicestershire. Completing our set was the Train employee with his drinks trolley that he didn’t try to move, because he couldn’t get down the aisle we were so packed. Instead he was occupying himself apparently whittling a shiv out of a wooden drinks stirrer.
After Melton I got a seat next to a large man who held a sturdy looking briefcase out in front, clutching with both hands as if it were the Nuclear Football! He shifted not at all and I was so uncomfortable, squashed in my seat, I stood up again at Stamford.
All day long I was not listening to my Ipod, I wanted to catch some of those great overheard conversations and I finally got one. As we crept into Peterborough a girl stood to queue to get out, deep in conversation on her mobile. ‘Yeah, guess what she wants for Tea tonight…go on guess……McDonalds. I know right, after that story last night!………….It is a true story!…………..Got horny over the beef!’ I think we all know THAT story, which I suspect is urban myth, but you never know….
In theory I had six minutes to change from train to bus. My train was eight minutes late. Happily though my bus was five minutes late. I settled into my top deck seat to reflect on an interestingly mundane but enjoyable journey. Half way home though that satisfaction turned to weird horror as I realised the man on the seat behind me was clipping his fingernails. Snap..snap..snap. I was waiting for a piece to ping off my cheek. I don’t know why that grossed me out so much, but it bloody did!
Darkness was falling as we pulled into the Horsefair Bus Station in Wisbech and the sainted Mrs and Little Bloke were there to meet me.
It has been a while since I did a journey like that on my own, last few times have been with Little Bloke and luggage in tow and that presents it owns challenges. On my own I usually have my nose in a book and Ipod but, as I was chronicling my journey I thought I would listen to the sounds around me. It was an utterly ordinary journey but filled with those sights and people that make it charmingly memorable.
And I hope it was entertaining enough for you to read this long article, my gentle reader. I hope if you enjoyed it you will take a moment to tell someone. Share it on your Facebook page, or re-tweet the link on Twitter.I would love my words to reach a larger audience, to know if readers are actually enjoying it.
Who knows what exciting locations I may be off to next!
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