Beneath A City Most Ordinary
by Graham Ettridge
(A taster of the beginning of the first chapter)
There is always a story behind every tale, a myth behind every legend, a memorable moment behind every anecdote. Every story, every myth, every memorable moment deserves to be told.
After many years of being asked why I like London so much, and after over indulging in many hours recounting my adventures and memorable moments, I have decided (along with the endless naggings from my friends and family) that it is about time I captured these precious observations and occurrences on paper. It is about time I gave the world the opportunity to experience London, one of the planet's most magnificent cities, though my eyes and my musings. If you, the reader, take even one thing from this book, and see just one thing different in London next time you visit her then, my dear reader, my task is achieved satisfactorily.
Whenever I travel I become intoxicated by the sensory overload of sights, smells and sounds. Everywhere I look I see the extraordinary that lies beneath the ordinary, the unusual in the everyday. Everywhere I walk I hear a concofany of sound, with each location having a unique melody and lyric. Everywhere I visit has a platform of scents and smells, whether it is the wild flowers growing in a meadow, or the fumes of diesel from the traffic in a city obscurely mixed with the smell of pork sausages and caramelised onions wafting from a street vendors' cart. It is like a perfect dish, if you remove just one of the magical sensory ingredients, the whole experience just isn't the same.
Chapter One - Outward bound
The journey from Swindon to London always feels ordinary. A short taxi ride takes me from my non distinct 'bijou' 1970's mid terraced two bed house in the suburbs of the once bustling railway town of Swindon in Wiltshire, and on towards the railway station in the town centre.
Swindon is an interesting yet often characterless town. The die hard locals are extremely patriotic about the town yet are very welcoming of new comers. I have often joked over the years that Swindon is not a great town but instead is an ordinary town situated in a great location. However, when I dig deeper I discover that Swindon is actually completely the opposite. It is awash with deep and fascinating histories that go as far back as Saxon times when it was a mere settlement right up to being the resting place of Ian Flemming, the author of the James Bond books. And that is without even mentioning the almost endless list of celebrities that have an association with the town, or the rather entertaining "Magic Roundabout" that is the butt of many jokes from passing visitors.
Swindon is situated in a defensible position on top of a limestone hill at a crossroads between two Roman roads. It is referred to in the Domesday book as Suindune, believed to be derived from the Anglo Saxon words "swine" and "dun" meaning "pig hill". The towns wealth came from the quarrying of local portland stone, the market and the agricultural trades - corn merchants, leatherworkers, millers and brewers as well as the widespread but less legitimate trading of smuggling. Swindon was also a distribution centre for the brandies, tobacco and lace run ashore in the secret coves of the south coast, but destined for the midland counties. A honeycomb of tunnels and cellars lay beneath the elegant houses, humble cottages and busy coaching inns of eighteenth century Swindon. However, long gone now are the ducking stool and stocks of mill pond and the gallows that used to haunt the crest of Kingshill in the Old Town area.
The Industrial revolution was responsible for an acceleration of Swindon's growth, with the construction of the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal acting as the catalyst. This was soon superseded by the arrival of Isombard Kingdom Brunel, who set up the local railway repair works for the magnificent steam locomotives that ran along the famous GWR line between London and Bristol. The ticket office for the railway station once stood pride of place in Old Town, with a short horse and cart ride down the hill to catch the train. The ticket office is no longer, instead stands the ivy clad Goddard Arms Hotel on the edge of a busy road that connects Old town with New Town. My childhood memories are full of the sound of the hooter that used to bellow across the town twice daily like a fog horn, acting as an alarm clock in the mornings and a reminder that our dad would be arriving home shortly in the evenings.
After an uncomfortable few minutes of silence in the Taxi, the usual pleasantries begin to pass between the driver and myself. "What weather we are having for the time of year?", "How is the taxi trade lately?" and "Where are you heading today?". On arriving at the railway station, I pay the taxi driver for achieving his goal of getting me there on time and in one piece. As always, the cost of the journey is too close to ten pounds for me to count out loose change with a small a tip on the side, but far enough away for me to feel slightly uncomfortable in passing over a ten pound note and saying "Keep the change". None the less, each time I end up leaning forward, handing over a whole crisp ten pound banknote, wishing the taxi driver a successful day and climbing out onto the the curb of the street. On some occasions I am sure I have caught the Queen's glance looking up at me from the bank note, smirking at my weakness as my hand finally lets go of my hard earned cash.
I make my way through the sliding station doors and into the long tunnel. A security attendant leans up against the wall reading the morning's newspaper. A number of commuters queue at the cash machine being mindful not to invade the invisible boundary of each others' personal space. A business woman in a ruffled suit stands in the middle of the tunnel entrance glancing from the screen displaying the train arrival times to her watch and back again. She is exasperated by the word "delayed " flashing next to her train time slot and is clearly in hope that if she looks at the timetable often enough, the "delayed" message will magically transform into "on time".
My fingers fumble in my worn black leather wallet as I search for the outward bound train ticket. I slide the yellow and orange striped ticket into the grey slot of the security turnstile before wandering down the tunnel, up the stairway on the left and into the waiting room. Once the pride of the British railways with the first ever railway station refreshment room, divided according to class, Swindon's waiting room is now restricted to a few plastic chairs, round tables and a convenience 'beverage and food' kiosk at the end of the room.
Stood on the platform with a cardboard cup of piping hot tea warming my hand, my normal 'London Trip' routine continues as I steal a customary glance up to the station clock that hangs suspended from the platform rafters. Long gone is the over sized round white faced analogue clock with two elegant hands surrounded by large black roman numerals, instead now hangs a characterless digital display. How long is it before the train arrives? Is there enough time for me to sit down or should I remain standing? Yet more of those insignificant "first world" dilemmas fleet through my mind. I look along the platform to observe other people, watching them standing motionless and expressionless waiting for their train to arrive. I take time to imagine what each of them are thinking? Wondering what their day has in wait for them? Wondering what is going on in their lives? The stale silence engulfing the platform is eventually broken by the muffled sound of a female voice over the tannoy announcing the arrival of the train.
The doors of the train clunk and swing open as the train carriage stops in front of me. I allow myself a sly grin as I let several passengers alight the train before I climb on. The thought of them spending the day in Swindon whilst I know I am going to be spending the day in London fills me with a rather warm feeling of satisfaction. Not in a harsh horrid way but simply in the way that I am escaping the rat race for a few hours and allowing myself a little bit of well deserved indulgence whilst others have to go to work. I make my way to my seat, trying not to spill the still piping hot tea, and get comfortable for the hour long journey to the the city.
The 09.05 train from Swindon to London is always full. A middle aged mother is sitting opposite me with her mobile phone appearing to be glued to her ear as she explains the intimate details of a recent operation to a friend on the other end completely unaware that, because of the rather loud tone of her voice, she is also explaining the gory event to the rest of the carriage. I start going through the list of my top ten favourite travel locations in my head, in attempt to block out the detailed graphic description of her scars. By the end of her telephone conversation I fear that I am going to know her rather well, even though we have never actually met. The extremely rotund gentleman sat next to me is clearly enjoying his morning baguette loaded with bacon, lettuce, tomato and cheese, with a side of salt'n'vinegar crisps and a doughnut, all being wash down with a can of coca cola. The intensity of the crunching, munching, belching and burping is exaggerated by the fact that I can't escape. It took him several minutes to squeeze himself between the table and the chair and to finally sit down, so I am in no hurry to ask him to stand up again to let me move. A rather pungent aroma of bodily odour is becoming rather noticeable. It isn't a particularly warm day so I begin to wonder whether he has bothered to wash this morning. I turn towards the window, my one salvation for the journey, and watch the world whiz by whilst supping on my now cooled tea, savouring every mouthful and permanently holding the cup close to my mouth providing the double benefit of refreshment and a filter from the lingering stench of bodily odours that grows more intense as the minutes tick by. Oh, the joys of an ordinary journey to London on the train.
The first indication of the train approaching London's Paddington station is the sudden shift in scenery. No longer are there sweeping fields, quaint thatched cottages, rivers and canals, woodlands and hills. Now sweeping over the horizon is a new dawn of high rise flats with washing lines full of clothes hanging over the balconies. Here come the graffiti filled walls, the large warehouses and office blocks. The terraced houses that line the sides of the railway track are so close that, even with just a mere glance, I can see into the world of their inhabitants like peering through the bars of a cage at a zoo. An uncomfortable feeling of voyeurism overcomes me, so I divert my gaze to further down the track. Neon signs and billboards fill the skyline, over sized letters engulf the sides of buildings like ivy creeping up a tree, as companies cease every opportunity to push their brand onto the unsuspecting commuter.
The journey in and around London continues soon...............................
If you have any views, critique or feedback on this wild ramblings of a beginning of my tales, then please be more than welcome to leave a comment below.