An Afternoon in the Great West

It’s a balmy Friday afternoon in May, the weekend of the first Bank Holiday of the year, and I’m sat on board a Great Western Railway train at Paddington, waiting to depart for the long journey down to Cornwall, the southernmost tip of the UK.

I’m content because I have my snacks, my notebook, my MP3 player, my train wine and most importantly – my seat.  Had I not booked the tickets in advance, this would not have been guaranteed, and as the carriage becomes increasingly busier with the bank holiday rush I have to say an internal grace to good old  Not only am I – and everybody else who’s seated –  the envy of the masses who are having to stand awkwardly in the aisles, but they took on board (get it?) that little tick I put on the booking form about preferring a window seat.  That almost never really happens.

A young, smartly dressed gentleman asks if he can sit at the seat next to me, just until Reading, from which point it has apparently been reserved by somebody else, according to the little ticket sticking out of the headrest.  Obviously I say yes, and have a giggle to myself about how quintessentially British that brief exchange was; we ask for permission to sit at seats as though the passenger next to them owns them, or brought them in from home.  I have never before wondered why we do this, and cannot think of the reason even now.  It’s not like we can really say no.

Mind you.

Mind you…

As the smart young gentleman suddenly produces a Tupperware of what can only be described as an acrid-smelling food stuff of some dreadful orange mushy sort I begin to wish that I had made up a fib about having an acquaintance who had “just nipped to the loo” when asked about the empty seat.  My nostrils are being completely violated by his lunch, and as the train meanders through West London suburbia I begin to count down the minutes until Reading, and am aghast at just how bottomless the content in the Tupperware appears to be.  I know those things can hold a lot, but sacre bleu!  The mound of mush is just not getting any smaller!

My heart reaches a lofty level of delight never previously encountered when we finally arrive at Reading, and a lady who looks like she should have taught me English Literature in the late 1990’s approaches row 35 and finally displaces the man with the smelly food.  This lady seems far more easygoing a train buddy, for all that she has to whip out of her bag is not a Tupperware of vomit but a book about Queen Boudica, complete with laminated bookmark that has a calendar printed on it.  Fortunately, bookmarks don’t really have a scent and I am able to continue gazing out the window without any further nasal disruption, as she quietly enjoys her book.

I didn’t research this train journey prior to making it so am largely unaware of the route, but slowly I begin to recognise the names of places we pass through, and gather that we are in Somerset.  The scenery – a sprawling patchwork of greens and yellows – is expansive and synonymous with what I would have always imagined it to look like.  A mum and her young son, in matching wellies, wave at us from an allotment as planes leave their cloudy trails in the skies above.  The lady next to me takes a break from her book to finish off a packet of M&S mature cheddar and red onion crisps and then – to my awe – produces a Wet Wipe to clean the crisp dust from her fingers.  “WET WIPES FOR CRISPS?! How incredibly organised!”, I think to myself, recollecting all the times I’ve eaten crisps on a train and never been quite as responsible.  If you should find Frazzle dust on your seat next time you travel with South Eastern then that would be my lethargy at play and for this I apologise.

The clouds pick up and the grey skies begin to contrast with the acidic yellows of the rapeseed in such a way that it seems reminiscent of what is a fashionable colour scheme in contemporary kitchens and living rooms.  We pass a cricket field somewhere in the Taunton area that represents just one of many that we will pass by on this journey, and when we stop at the station there, the main observation will be that almost all of the women on the platform are wearing a floral top.

The population of the train increases by about a third at Taunton, and in a carriage that was already busy enough it goes without saying that there is to be an issue with the seats.  A lady who has just joined us squabbles with the girl in the row behind me about who should be sitting where and for the first time on this trip, I begin to pick up on that West Country dialect so long associated with this part of the country:                                

“Aye think yerr sittin’ in may seat”

That curving accent and visions of pink sunsets over freshly harvested fields are pretty much all I knew of Somerset before making this journey, and, well, remain all I know of it now.  Cider too I guess.  Apples and all that jazz (jazz apple. Ho ho).

harvest(Image taken from

Before too long, the train is stopping at Tiverton, Devon.  Lots of people seem to disembark here and so I conclude that there must be lots of Activerton this weekend.

…One of the few setbacks of traveling alone is that there is no audience for any dreadful puns you may concoct in response to funny place names, so I log it in my notebook, and vow to include it in my write-up instead, where even then I will probably remain the only person amused by it.

The landscape of the Devon that runs alongside the railway line reminds me of something from Postman Pat, with all its hills, single-track roads, and perfectly-rounded red brick footbridges that cross over the line.  Absorbing all of this beauty, I start to question Kent’s usually undisputed status of the Garden of England.  Right now, Devon is giving that title a run for its money, and its endearing sequence of streams and rivers are almost starting to give it the lead.  My eyes are loving everything they’re seeing right now, especially the sheep roaming around happily on the hillsides.  As fields go, I bet they’re happy they live on these ones.

Civilisation resurrects itself when we stop at Exeter St David’s, a station that hosts all the hustle and bustle on the platforms that you would expect from a University city.  Commuters scroll through their phones as they stand waiting for their trains, and Pumpkin’s double doors swing back and forth in time with needforcaffeine related emergencies.  On the walls of a nearby pavilion building, somebody has spray-painted the words, ‘Devon Knows’ in bright yellow.  A later Google search will tell me that this particular piece of graffiti was commissioned by Exeter City Council a few years’ ago, and pays homage to Ambrosia custard, as well as a couple of other things that perhaps only locals will appreciate.  I only understand the custard part, but it’s amusing enough.

Powderham Castle comes into view to our right as we head south towards the coast, in parallel with the marshy banks of the River Exe.  The castle grounds are speckled with large oak trees that immediately conjure up images of our ancestors galloping to battle on horseback in heavy winds.  I have absolutely no idea whether it was that kind of castle, but it satisfies my imagination to believe it so.

A short while later and the expanse of water within the River Exe that had been running alongside us has transformed into a full-blown sea.  This signifies that we are reaching Dawlish, and the part of the journey that many people enthusiastically encouraged me to pay particular attention to.  For several minutes, all you can see out of the left hand side of the train is the sea, and it’s pretty impressive.  This is the part of the UK that you have no doubt seen on the news during periods of heavy rain and flooding, for back in February 2014 much of the track was swept away in the storms, requiring significant levels of repair that virtually annexed this part of Britain from the rest of it.

Dawlish                                                 (Picture from official Met Office site)

We are rattling through the stations now.  As one of the main modes of transport down here in the South West, the stops are becoming more inclusive, taking in places like Newton Abbot, which seems to be a popular place for people to get off, and Totnes.  Amongst our travels round here we go past a miniature platform for the South Devon railway.  It’s decorated in bunting, a telltale sign of a quaint English visitor attraction, and there’s a steam engine nearby too no doubt.

The carriage is full of activity.  The lady next to me (not the probable English teacher.  She and her Boudica book got off at Newton Abbot and her seat was swiftly re-occupied) asks me if I know in which carriage she can find the buffet cart.  The man in front of us overhears, and tells us it’s out of stock anyway.  It seems that this really is a much busier service than usual.  Clearly everybody else here is also looking for a sunny weekend break with an ice-cream.  In the meantime, two pals from the University Rugby Club (a massive assumption, I admit) bump into one another unexpectedly in the aisle, and say hello with shoulder slaps so hard it’s a miracle that neither of them will alight the train with a dislocated scapula.  I gather they haven’t seen one another in a while.

As we approach Plymouth, my nostrils are overcome with an intensity of scent not felt since vomit-in-Tupperware guy, who by now – as we enter what must be the 3rd or 4th hour of the journey – seems like a feature of a previous century.  Instead all I can smell now is a mass of waterproof jackets that have probably spent the past Winter in the confines of damp, under-stair cupboards, next to boxes of spare washing powder and kitty litter.  It’s not an unpleasant odour by any means, more the smell of childhood holidays and the outdoors; and cottages you might have once rented by the sea that were furnished with worn-leather armchairs in shades of deep maroon.  We’ve all stayed somewhere like that at some point, I’m sure.  We took our buckets and spades but it ended up raining every day so we stayed in a lot watching the likes of Casualty and This Is Your Life whilst mum struggled to work out how to light the hob in order to heat up a tin of soup that nobody was expecting to eat.  We all know that smell.

Plymouth is a city of varying gradients; and so the slate grey roofs – from certain angles – are a little akin to the scales of freshwater fish… or the brushed up sequins of a dodgy silver skirt; either or.  There’s a particular street just after the suspension bridge at Saltash that makes my legs hurt just looking at it, in fact it would probably be a miracle if no parked cars had ever rolled down and submerged into the River Tamar!  I’m glad that Kent is comparatively flat by these standards.  I’m also delighted that I don’t live on a hill, and vow never to do so.  I can’t bear to imagine a life in which the daily walk from the doorstep to the local shop requires copious amounts of Lucozade and Kendal Mint Cake, fair play to those who manage that.  You’re good.  Really good.

It’s difficult to distinguish the point of the Devon/Cornwall border, but when the conductor announces our impending arrival at Liskeard we can gather that we must have passed it.  Where my ignorance of Somerset meant my understanding transcended little beyond accents and combine harvesters, my ignorance of Cornwall is probably even greater.  To me – right now – it’s a place full of beautiful beaches and Kelly’s ice cream that seems to have a language of its own, made up of words that all have ten thousand syllables and begin with the letters TRE.  I don’t quite know why.  Other than that, I am Cornish-ly clueless.

“Liskearde – for trains to Looe”  reads the sign at the station.  I could do with being at Looe right now after this whopper of a rail journey, but you can never be entirely sure what you’re sitting in when you use the on-board facilities so I’ve held off…

(There we go with another dreadful joke that nobody was around to hear at point of origin)

I’m very excited to finally be in Cornwall and satisfying the frequent hunger to visit new places.  Several people have told me that everything changes once you reach this county.  They speak of a single road that seems to serve the whole area, and now I guess they were probably talking about the A30.  There are certainly no motorways in these parts, and whereas in Kent (that ‘Garden of England’ remember) many of us are sandwiched between the M2 and M20, the nearest motorway to Cornwall is the M5, last seen way back in Exeter, some sixty miles away.  Now there’s a sign that you’re truly out in the sticks.

The next stop is Bodmin Parkway, which proudly proclaims itself a part of the Bodmin and Wenford Railway.  Bodmin became famous in the 1970’s when there were several reported sightings of an unusual panther-type creature (‘the Beast of Bodmin’) roaming around the area.  The case was never truly resolved, though the most likely explanation is that the creatures were pumas set free by animal trainer Mary Chipperfield upon the closure of Plymouth Zoo in 1978.   I highly doubt the Beast of Bodmin still exists, but it adds interest to the visit, and it makes it more fun to imagine that the ‘person’ who’s just got on the train will suddenly open their trench coat to reveal four legs and a body of thick, black fur.

‘Lostwithiel’ is one of the final stops of my journey.  Lost with what now?!  In my head, I assume that this is probably one of those regional words pronounced completely differently to how it looks phonetically, and with that, the train departs the place I will personally refer to – rightly or wrongly – as ‘Lozule’ forevermore.  I’ll remember it as the place with the beautiful barn conversions that sit between the railway line and the river behind them, that gave me considerable amounts of home-envy.

With only a further twenty minutes to go of my journey it is around this point that I decide to pack my notebook away and spend the final part of the ride sitting back and gazing out at this unfamiliar land.  It’s approaching 7pm and having got on this train at 2pm I’m feeling somewhat numb and ready for a pint of holiday Doom Bar by the harbour with my friend.

I go to bed later on thinking about all the places I’ve seen, and remember why I always prefer to travel by rail or road if I can.  The beauty of longer-distance journeys is seeing how the landscape unfurls with each mile that passes by.  A plane would have got me here much quicker, but I’d have only seen the clouds and smelt the choking mixture of fragrances on sale at the Duty Free.  In all honesty, I think I’d rather have smelt a pungent Tupperware and seen the sea, a dozen cricket grounds, and a bunch of happy sheep…

I won’t forget this journey.

Song of the Day: BOAN – Babylon

BOAN are an American synth-pop duo who released this song about 5 years ago.  I have only just discovered it.  Good song to drive to.