The railway line between Canterbury West and Ashford International may as well be a secondary address of mine.
As a rough estimate, I have made the journey 536 times within the past year and a half since I started working in Ashford. (That’s something like £2200 spent on the pleasure of travelling with South Eastern trains – whom incidentally I hold solely responsible for this year’s motivation to start learning to drive again). Over time the journey has become somewhat etched into my mind, and each time the train sets off from Canterbury I prepare myself to look out for the various mapping points that will define it: the creepy water tower of the former St Augustine’s asylum which looms out of the distant trees to your left shortly before you pull into Chartham, the amusingly titled Bagham Barn antiques at Chilham, the peculiar building next to the station at Wye that looks like some kind of gigantic sweetener dispenser, and the house near Ashford that has a bunch of school-lockers in the back garden, to name but a few.
By all means, it’s not an aesthetically unpleasant journey. The sun setting over the North Downs Way often serves as a wonderful way to welcome in the weekend after a busy week of work; and likewise in Winter – when the morning mist rises up from the Great Stour against a backdrop of stone-washed sky – I find myself being thankful to the fact that I am now living in the Garden of England and not the junkyard of London. The train journey from Watford into the capital was never as beautiful as this, and on those trains you also had to contend with a couple of other unpleasantries, namely the overpowering stench of the Wrigleys Orbit remains that had been idly stuck to the bottom of the seats, and a view out of a window the pane of which had been obliterated by rude words innocuously engraved into the plastic.
Yet despite the pleasant surrounds of the Kentish commute, there is something resoundingly tiresome about this journey – something that has somewhat invisibly gnawed away at me over the past few months, eventuating in my desire to drive a car to work instead – but what is it?
Recently, I have begun to identify those recurring themes; not just those permanent features on the other side of the window but those within – those things that gradually build up and start to define my daily experiences with South Eastern trains – those most annoying things about my commute.
1) People Who Have Exceptionally Loud Conversations
Either attached to a mobile phone or sat with companions, these are some of the worst kind of people to share a commute with.
I try not to let it affect me. Time and time again you’ll find me celebrating whichever entity first invented the noise-isolating earphone; but occasionally I must endure those tragic moments when the battery of my MP3 player goes flat leaving me with nothing to entertain my ears besides the warbling racket of other peoples’ conversations. I often think I would prefer to listen to an orchestral medley of chainsaws, vacuum hoovers and Adele rather than other peoples’ conversations, and here are some recent examples of overheard snippets that can perhaps demonstrate why:
“So e’s sent me this teeeeeeeext, and it says, ‘You’re so fick that if you puked up Alphabettispaghetti you still wouldn’t be able to spell a word’ “
The worst thing about the above – besides the fact it was emitted into the air at such a tumultuous, honking volume – is that it doesn’t even make sense. Errr…I don’t think that even Einstein himself had a talented knack for regurgitating pasta snacks at Spelling Bees, but whatever. What do I know! Either way, such dialogue fails to romantically juxtapose the rolling hills surrounding us, so hush to you – girl in glasses who is speaking loudly!
“SHE WAS ALL OVER ME ON SATURDAY NIGHT!!” – Caps Lock to demonstrate the volume with which one particular man on the 06:50 to St Pancras the other week declared his weekend activity to his friend. As far as I could see, the friend didn’t seem to be attached to anything resembling an auditory aid, so I can only assume that the desired audience for this cacophonous broadcast was not just him, but the rest of the carriage too. Listen up, everybody on the train! We have a studmuffin in our midst. Kent today, Playboy Mansion tomorrow!
“Mummayyy, I need a big toilet…Mummayyyyyyyyyyyyyyy, MUUUUUMAYYYYYYY!!!!”
For Christs sake, little kid. You may be sweet and innocent and all that jazz, but this is not the kind of vocal accompaniment that my music needs. Wait until you get to Canterbury West where, in a Russian roulette of sorts, you may pick the one toilet which locks properly, has loo-roll AND isn’t clogged up in order to relieve yourself. For now, please pipe down, and hold it in!
I would at this moment in time again like to give thanks to my MP3 player which most of the time manages to obscure the above sounds, hence making this perhaps one of the least-most annoying things about my commute.
2) Getting Stuck Behind People in Impractical Footwear
Most people want to look smart and professional in the office, I get that, but the office and the commute are two totally different landscapes, the latter of which will almost always host a whole variety of hazardous gradients and terrains. I am always baffled by women who may look the picture of professionalism in their suits and killer-heels, but who when alighting the train begin to morph into towering wind turbines that sway around, looking as though they could topple over at any minute from a misplaced step.
As they wait for the doors to slide open, you can see them nervously clenching firmly onto the handles, before stepping out slowly onto the platform. Once balanced and composed, they begin to walk on – slowly – footstep by tiny footstep. It is painful viewing; I often fear for an onslaught of wind that may blow them over completely. That just cannot be comfortable, right? Heels so high they could be lopped off and used as skewers for pieces of seasoned lamb and shallots. It becomes annoying when I find myself stuck behind these women as they totter slowly down the stairs at Canterbury West – arms outstretched to gain the kind of balance that would have any yoga teacher screaming “ASTANGA VINYASA!” in horror, leaving no room for anybody else to get past,just as I’m itching to get home after a long day… It all makes me wonder, why don’t they just do what most sensible people do and swap their shoes around then they get to work?
A pair of trainers and a comfortable power-walk home will, for me, always outweigh a need to look sexy, professional and….stupid, when stumbling down the stairs at the station.
Ok. I like bicycles. I like the idea behind bicycles. I like the dish who looks a bit like Scots musician Colin McIntyre who takes his on the 06:50 to St Pancras, who I shared an elevator with once after we both alighted at Ashford (It was not the romantic liaison it sounds, he scowled at me throughout our descent and I’m still not entirely sure why). Indeed, I sometimes take a bicycle on the train myself if I feel like cycling instead of walking either side of the train, so I’m not going to bash the idea completely.
But none of this atones for the fact that bicycles on trains can be a massive pain in the arse, particularly when their owners seem to be inconsiderate of other passengers who need to get off the train before they do, leaving their vehicles propped up against the carriage doors whilst they stay sat down, staring out the window whilst sweating into their Lycras and daydreaming about bicycle pumps.
And then later on, when leaving the station, they will choose to carry it up or down the flights of stairs away from the platform – its tyres like flailing ferris wheels that wave around mid-air, threatening to concuss any of those around them at any given moment. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this one of the reasons why we have elevators at train stations now?!
4) Automated Apologies for Late-Running Services
The saddest part is that even now, within the comfort of my own home, I can hear that sentence in my head as vividly as if I was hearing it at Ashford International station, in real-time, as I so often seem to be:
“We are sorry to advise that the *manually insert train time here* from St Pancras International is delayed by approximately *15 minutes*. South Eastern apologises for any inconvenience caused by the late-running of this train.”
I’m not sure who the lady is that records these automated messages but by Christ, what with this and doing something similar for the likes of BT and Orange, as well as announcing each individual stop on the London Underground, she must barely get anytime for herself, and any respite she does have is probably spent sat at home sucking on a throat lozenge after a busy day’s chatting shite to consumers.
I’m sure it wasn’t that long ago that announcements made at train stations were made by actual people who actually sat at the station, monitoring each of the goings on? I recall my sister telling me about the time a human voice boomed at her over a loudspeaker, instructing her not to lean against a flower-feature whilst waiting for a train at Northwick Park Underground station sometime in the late 1990s. Can you imagine such personal supervision taking place in this day and age? I for sure can’t; and those automated messages, whilst indubitably relieving the vocal cords of somebody, somewhere within England’s great rail system, only compound those feelings of frustration and rage that a tardy train can cause to the commuter.
Any enlightened individual will know that South Eastern trains couldn’t really give two flying figs about the inconveniences that have been caused in instances like this, that’s why they send generic response lady to deliver those faux-emblazoned messages of remorse. And that – more so than the additional waiting time itself – is what makes delayed train services so irritating.
5) Pointless coffee purchases
Any sketch of the modern day commuter will likely feature a briefcase in one of his or her hands, and a paper cup of coffee in the other. Indeed, in the years since trains have been a popular mode of travel by which to get to work, the barista on the platform and the paper cup of coffee have managed to evolve into a staple part of the daily commute.
If you can afford it, that is. I’m not sure of the current prices, but I do know that as of January 2012, when I became a commuter, the going-rate was something like £2 for a thimble of coffee – a shockingly deep excavation into my purse for such a small quantity of liquid. Furthermore, I couldn’t even enjoy it in the way I was hoping to. In the twenty minutes between Canterbury West and Ashford on the first day of my new job, my caffeinated thimble had still not cooled to a temperature low enough to drink without doing some serious damage to my tongue. I took my drink with me when I alighted the train and thought about how at least I’d be able to enjoy it on the walk to my new office. Unfortunately, the black ice on the pavement at the brow of the railway bridge I was crossing had other plans. Within minutes of getting off the train, my thimble of coffee was spilled out all over the pavement close to my pink earmuffs about 5 yards from where I was sat writhing in pain from a fall that has probably left me infertile. Indeed, this coffee was the epitome of a pointless purchase, and I vowed to never bother buying another again.
For me at least, that sketch of the modern day commuter rings untrue, and the disappointment that I cannot at least accompany such a monotonous journey with a cup of my favourite hot beverage forms the final of the most annoying things about my commute.
So there we are, the five things that have managed to define my daily commute through their ongoing existence in or around the train. Five of the things which I considered shortly before deciding to learn to drive again. Five of the things which – if ever I do get my driving license – I will not miss in the slightest.
I have no doubt that the A28 and I will become the best of friends.
Famous last words!?
Song of the Day: Mother Mother – Ghosting
Canadian indie-rockers Mother Mother have provided a musical accompaniment to my commute on many a journey, with this tune being particularly well-played lately.