The Watford Riddle

Prologue:  An article about Watford, my birthplace and hometown until April 2011.  Article written January 2010

Watford.  That’s the answer to your question.  You may not have asked the question yet, but that’s the answer.  You may not even know the question yet but I’m giving you the answer anyway, because for many people around these parts Watford pretty much IS our answer, its intervention in life’s milestones a foregone conclusion:  Born in Rickmansworth, moved down the road to Watford, 1989.  School, teenage drama and the metamorphosis into adulthood – they all took place in Watford.  I went to University up North, then I came back home to Watford.  I looked for a job anywhere, and ended up finding one in Watford, went to see a bit of the rest of the world…ended up back in Watford.    Alas, the move is coming and this will no longer be the area I live, but as I look back over the past 22 years of living here, I think about how I will remember the place.

Love it or loathe it, if you’ve grown up here then you’ll probably never be able to shake off the influence it’s had on you, but how?  It’s just an average town near London.  Lots of people have never heard of  it and even the people who live here seldom speak in loving tongues about it, so why do 80,000 people stay here?  Why does anyone move here at all, if it’s that bad?  It’s a bit like a mystery, a riddle, something that seems to be of little sense.

This article looks to unravel the secret of a town so full of flavour, some of which is absorbed lovingly by the palate, the rest of which can leave a precarious aftertaste, and celebrate the fact that in spite of the various misgivings we each may have about the town where we are from, we will always adore it.

Flora and Fauna:

It would not be fair to wholly describe Watford as being the concrete jungle that so many outsiders accuse it of being.  Ok… so a YMCA constitutes our tallest skyscraper, and Tesco Extra seems to take about 2 whole minutes to pass on the train to London Euston, but behind this somewhat cold looking armour co-exist some of the most beautiful areas of Southern West Hertfordshire.

Cassiobury Park and its surrounding woodland is a perfect example of one of the nicer areas of Watford, and it is an ideal place for family days out due to the range of exciting activities on offer.  For example, there is an ice-cream van.  Good old Tonino & Son.  Whose childhood wasn’t coloured by a summertime trip to the paddling pool followed by a cherry brandy flavoured ice lolly from Toni?  There’s also a playground, which up until a few months ago consisted of a set of somewhat antiquated climbing frames that could always evoke feelings of nostalgia when walking past.

If you have a spare pound, you could even take a ride on the mini-train set.  I’m pretty sure that when I was a child, back in the Stone-Age, it was only about 20p, but that’s inflation for you.  In fact it’s hard to be an adult and enjoy this train-ride for that very same reason.  Besides brief intervals in which to admire the surrounding foliage, you spend pretty much the whole duration of the ride feeling disappointed that this is not quite the same experience that you had as an infant.  Your friend agrees with you, as you glumly meander through the trees before realising that you probably shouldn’t even be on this ride at your age in the first place!

Shopping:

Ahhh, the Harlequin!  Shopping inWatfordpre 1992 – how was it done before the existence of everyone’s favourite shopping centre, with its 140 strong shops and eateries.

One of the most popular shops in the Harlequin is of course Primark.  The Mecca of Watford– people will travel for miles to get to it. A wonderful shopping experience, and possibly the only clothing store which I feel merits a designated ‘5 items or less’ queue.  The floor is covered in clothes, as items which were once piled up neatly have fallen victim to customer frenzy… “I simply MUST find these lovely brown trousers in my size”, they’ll cry, whilst chucking the bits everywhere for some poor assistant to have to gather up later.  It’s impossible not to get involved in this frenzy yourself, as you spend 15 minutes trying to untangle a slightly nice looking necklace from a rack, only to become so frustrated that you end up having to hot-foot it to Costa Coffee for a refreshment.

Aside from all the standard High Street chains, there’s also a market.  Whilst one strives to furiously refute the common misconception that Watford is the town where Eastenders is set, the Market manages to oppose this denial with its strong similarities to that featured on the popular BBC1 soap.  I’m pretty sure many of the fashionable garments on display around Watford market will later on in life turn up on Stacey Slater’s Clothes Stall, probably in a scene involving the theft of a gold sequined boobtube from right out of Mo ‘Arris’s ‘ands.  The fish stall is also a defining feature of Watford Market, utilizing its dominant scent as a marketing strategy to lure hungry customers over.  And just where else in Watfordwould you go looking for that Herring rollmop, hey?

And what about Tesco EXTRA?  As somebody who used to work in Tesco Extra, many moons ago, I can vouch for just how popular the place is… and that’s probably because it sells ANYTHING and EVERYTHING.  Clothes hangers were probably the most surprising of popular sales, “I can’t believe it!” the customers would gleefully proclaim as I’d scan their new toys over the counter, “20p for 20 clothes hangers is amazing!! I’ll be telling the girls all about this!”  Customer satisfaction – it couldn’t help but make you smile yourself.

In all, you’ll probably find everything you need to buy in Watford, and a whole lot more you don’t need.  It just probably won’t be the most relaxing or revolutionary moments of your life!

Nightlife

With the relatively recent opening of Oceana, nightlife in Watford has experienced a rejuvenation of magnanimous proportions.  Where predecessor Destiny had begun to lose its appeal with the town’s young clubbers, Oceana, with its sleek blue lighting and suave interior, managed to give Wabiza a whole new lift.

You can imagine that when top celebrities like Bianca Gascoigne and the seasonal ‘young hot bloke’ from Eastenders come to Oceana they probably feel more than special queuing up next to Iceland, enjoying the sights and scenes of Sainsburys and the back of Yates’.

Elsewhere in Watford you have the standard chains… Revs, Walkabout, Lloyds… and the token StickySpoons… aka ‘The Moon Underwater’.  It’s hard to imagine Watford without the Moons, a pub which has unfortunately seemed to succumb to the colloquial trend of having a random ‘s’ shoved onto the end of it’s name.  The place itself is like walking into some kind of large, urine-soaked sticky toffee pudding, and all the tables are wonky, but it’s okay – you love the place anyway.

Or, of a similar pricing scale up the road, there is Lloyds, aka ‘Colombia Press’, aka ‘ForFucksSakeWhyisitnowcalledColombiaPress!!’.  The bar at the epicenter of The Great Name Change Scandal of 2008, I still don’t think anyone really knows the reasoning behind its new moniker, but nonetheless it is always a popular choice for partygoers.

Whether you’re a fan of the bars and clubs or not, there is always a lot going on along Watford High Street, particularly on Friday nights and Saturday nights, and Thursday nights, Monday nights, Tuesday nights, Wednesday nights and Sunday nights.

Eating Out:

Like any big town should, Watford offers a wide range of places to eat, catering for all varieties of taste.  Most restaurants can be found at the top of the High Street, aka the green, picturesque part of the town centre (because it has a pond, you see).  Most of your standard pizza/pasta places can be found here, for all those civilised meals before those nights out!  L’Artista fills the High Street with the noxious scent of garlic and the deafening sound of cymbals and trumpets played in honour of some poor diner who happens to have a birthday.  And who probably won’t speak to their friends ever again since they arranged this cacophonic humiliation!

Pizza et Pizza is another decent option.  It always seems to be empty but you’ll always be put at the chilly table next to the window anyway.

Alternatively, those who are more reluctant to spend their shillings on food may opt for a bit of grease from one of Watford’s many fast food stores, possibly the ONLY fast food stores that require bouncers on the door during the middle of the night as hoards of party-goers all queue up to get their cheesy chips post-partying.

Needless to say, whilst you’re inWatford, you’re never too far away from an enjoyable eating experience.

Public Transport:

Buses – Those looking to travel round Watford in this fashion should remember that bus timetables are not based on fact; but merely on the predictions made by a group of schoolchildren in year 6 who were having an Algebra lesson one day when they were approached by representatives from Arriva Bus Services and asked to string together a load of random numbers that might look somewhat comprehensive on a big sheet behind a piece of glass.

It really is a game of luck, but the bus WILL come, eventually, and you WILL, at some point of your journey, find yourself gazing out of the window at the grid locked cars ahead of you thinking “Should’ve just walked, innit.”  Indeed, often it is just quicker to walk.  Even if you were an amputee with a giant Pritt Stick for a false leg, you’d probably get there faster.

TrainsShould you find yourself desperate to get as far away from Watford as possible, in a very short span of time, there are two main stations you can choose from, Watford Junction, aka ‘the big one’, and Watford Met Station, aka ‘the other one’.  Both get you intoLondon though the fundamental challenge is choosing between the one with the hard seats and extortionate prices or the one that permanently smells of a cocktail of urine and Wrigleys Orbit Extra.  Living so close to the Met Station, I personally tend to take that option more frequently, venturing into the heart of the nation at a very slow pace.  My head bobs up and down as the locomotive twists and turns through the countryside into Greater London, whilst I study the names of gangs which have been etched into the windows and think about places like Moor Park and Northwood Hills.  It always used to amuse me thinking about what the various stops of the Metropolitan Line would be called if it suddenly became policy to spell every word backwards. Moor Park was particularly amusing.  Oh, the things one finds themselves thinking about on the line from Watford to London, the hypnotic effects of the purple, maroon and blue seating patterns coming into play!

PlanesAs yet, Watford does not have its own airport, although despite a very close proximity to Heathrow we often wish it did, probably because it would help engineer the possibility of a more immediate getaway to somewhere far away!  Perhaps this new decade might see the arrival of a long-anticipated ‘WatfordInternationalAirport’, where regular flights to the likes of Slough and Basingstoke could help putWatford at the forefront of this, our increasingly globalised society.

Sport:

Our football team is the one that plays in the yellow shirts.  Saracens rugby team and Watford F.C share the same ground.  It’s like some kind of incestuous disaster and a prediction for many stressed people on the ring road should the ground be hosting a game.

Alumni:

Geri Halliwell, Elton John, George Michael, Vinny Jones, Gareth Southgate, Roxy from Eastenders… these are all people who were either born in; or spent a significant portion of their lives; in Watford.  Just in case anyone is unaware of any of these personalities, allow me to clarify.  Geri was the flame-haired songstress who is remembered mainly for expressing national pride through the mediums of a revealing Union Jack dress. Elton plays a piano and wears colourful spectacles.  He’s the one we can blame for many of the mawkish ‘anthems’ that have swamped our media outlets for way, way too long. George had a string of chart-topping hits which were mainly of an erotic nature. Vinny was a footballer famous for his ‘hard man’ persona.  Gareth missed the penalty for England that caused us to crash out of the European Cup Championships in 1996 and Roxy from Eastenders is… well, Roxy from Eastenders, a few fictional pregnancies and marital breakdowns from being an historical Albert Square legend.

Even the two girls who won little known Channel 4 series Coach Trip were from here, so you’ll see how Watford really is the Land of Opportunity.

Final Word:

Watford, “the town that makes you want to travel” as it has been described several times in the modern day.  The place has a poor reputation and you probably won’t find many locals who don’t dream of living somewhere else.  Yet at the same time you can’t help but feel proud to come from here.  It angers you when people who aren’t from here ridicule it.  You’re particularly annoyed by people who roll out the same joke about your hometown being their port of call for petrol when they are in fact getting confused with Watford Gap service station, many miles away!

You find yourself standing up for Watford in all its grey-toned glory, and that’s because it deserves it.

Despite its various downfalls, Watford has been a fantastic place to grow up.  With its top class education, great leisure facilities and continuous efforts to improve the town as a whole, this is a place which we are lucky to live in.

I laugh about Watford, I cry about Watford and I’m glad to moving away from Watford. My new town will be better, but it won’t be as good.  It’ll be friendlier, but not as charismatic.  It’ll be cleaner, but not as…colourfully tainted with chewing gum… I’ll like it, but not as much as I love Watford.  I will always  love Watford.  And this is because its home.

And that, my friends, is the Watford Riddle.

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