“Imagine, all those people wanting to be together!”

Not one for venturing far from home, especially once the leaves leave the trees, I was a reluctant traveller a few weeks back.  Despite wriggling and pleading like a piggy off to slaughter, I was insistently told I had to be there.  Where ?  London !! Can you imagine !? Me, lowly Welshwaller, used to narrow empty lanes and wide open hills with only sheep for company, dragged screaming into that melee, it was nothing but an afront to my human rights !

Do you have the slightest idea how many people there are in London !?  They are everywhere, on all the streets, in every shop, railway station, on every bus, driving at 0 mph along every street…. it’s CRAZY !!  Believe it or not, for just a few hours, I ENJOYED myself, well, kind of…

Paddington Station

Paddington Station, beautiful and horrid at the same time.

Any journey from the south of Wales to the capital by rail entails riding the Great Western line into Paddington.  It is one of the first routes which good old Isambard built and utilises the astonishing underwater structure that is the Severn Tunnel,  a brick built wonder of the Victorian era.  Now as the son of a railwayman who regularly ran the line from Wales to England I know a thing or two about that tunnel.  For one thing it is actually two tunnels, one on top of the other, the bottom one is there to collect all the water that leaks into the first one and pump it out – before everyone drowns !  The pumping station can still be seen with its large chimney just to the side of the modern road-bridge on the Welsh side.  Yes folks, it LEAKS, it leaks like crazy !!  It is no surprise that most Sundays they have to close it …..

Not for me that five minute zoom through the blackness, I can’t hold my breath for that long neither can I stand tiny wet dark holes – I managed to get out of one a lifetime ago and I ain’t going back in !  No Sir, for me it’s a matter of joining the train on the English side of that waterworld.  Fortunately and perchance, I now have an offspring living in Cirencester so I can jump on the GWR train to Paddington from the quaint little station at Kemble.  Marvellous indeed ! (It still cost best part of £100 for a day return !! Absolutely guaranteed to get folks out of their cars don’t you think !?)

The GWRline at Kemble in Gloucestershire.

Kemble station in Gloucestershire.

It is indeed a throwback to the old days of steam, the great water tank still stands at the end of the platform where it quenched the mighty thirst of Castles, Manors and Kings as they took a breather after hauling their massive loads from London.

From Kemble it is but a short hour and a half or so into Paddington, there are but three stops, (Swindon, Didcot and Reading) familiar names to those of us who spent hour after hour standing on platforms along the line spotting and recording engine numbers in those far off days of steam.  It always amuses me that references to that ‘Golden era of Steam’ conveniently omit that it was also an era of thick smelly sulpherous smoke and soot covered everything !  My own father spent ten years or so on the footplate and died an early death from lung cancer as did many of his old work colleagues.  Sure, the twenty or so fags each day aided the tumours but I’m sure the roots of the cancers were laid down in those days of breathing that smoke on the footplate of those magnificent machines.  He often told the stories of how they would be halted in the tunnel so the heavily laden goods train did not become a victim of the Luftwaffe bombers as they blitzed Bristol and the Portishead docks. For long periods with the engine puffing merrily away and the smoke with nowhere to go but into the cab, he and the driver were obliged to sit breathing in that perilous concoction.  Passive smoking ? You’d better believe it !

My journey by train was, as it always is, a nostalgic undertaking.  My summons to the City was to attend a meeting of the Canal and River Trust and the Help for Heroes project folk with whom I have been working this past year.  Fitting then that the irresistible attraction of engines should deliver a fine siting of an aptly named monster, given the reason for my visit !

I have some old friends who were ‘bootnecks’, I don’t hold it against them though I was astonished to find they were quite that old !  Fitting that the hard men who wear the green beret and the Globe and Laurel are commemorated by a sixty ton loco ! (Have you seen what they have to do to get that beret !?  They are all LOCO !!).

So, with no little trepidation I alighted at Paddington, nervous as to my ability to locate the tube station and then the correct line and then the correct train going in the correct direction.  Fortunately I had no need to deal with getting an Oyster card – I have had run-ins with those on the DC metro ! – as my daughter, who of course had done all the arranging,  had got me a day-roamer ticket for the journeys in the city.

It’s not that I don’t know my way around London; I did actually spend quite some time there years ago and happily drove or flitted about on the public transport system – TFL as it is now called !  Over the years my hard-drive has become clogged and much slower and thus to try to retrieve files on tube stations of the District or Bakerloo lines or indeed which destination the train I want is heading to (is Ealing Broadway east or west ?) is extremely difficult.  Added to that is the problem I now have in reading the damn map but as I struggled to see where my station was on the map displayed along the side of the tube carriage a strange event occurred.  A person spoke to me, yes, truly, he spoke to me !  Yes, it is also true he had neither ear plugs nor a hand held device of an electronic nature (and certainly no newspaper- I didn’t see anyone reading a paper !!) so he was obviously an alien like myself.  He had clearly recognised my difficulty and (rather sardonically I thought) pointed to the scrolling electronic message above and pointing to his ear, indicated I should listen to the message being broadcast by a lady of indeterminate origin, both of which were telling me what the next station was going to be !  Whoever thought of that idea should be knighted !

I was heading for ‘Monument’ which I guessed was something to do with the Great Fire of London and thus must be right in the heart of the City.  From Paddington that required a change of line at Embankment which, despite some serious wrong turns in the labyrinth of tunnels, I completed accurately.  However my self-congratulation was short lived when, on alighting at ‘Monument’, I saw the Tower of London !!  No monument but the Tower !!

Tower of London from Cheapside.

Tower of London – not the monument I was expecting ! Nevertheless it was nice to see it, from the outside !

This was very confusing indeed, and before all those smart-Alecs amongst you say “why didn’t you use your ‘i’phone and google maps?”,  I want to say I did have a street plan showing my destination from the station (I am not yet up-to-speed on using my ‘i’ phone for much beyond telephone matters !).  The problem was, and I’m sure many of you can identify with this, there is no way of knowing which exit from the station you have popped out of and so it can be difficult to get a bearing – especially as the sun was not visible to ascertain south !!  By pure chance I stumbled upon the road I needed and although it took me half a mile to realise I was walking the wrong way along it, I eventually arrived at my destination.  I was even there first and as the others arrived, suitably astonished and impressed that I was there at all, I brushed aside their concerned questions as to my possible difficulties – it had apparently been a matter of common knowledge that I was somewhat nervous about my trip into the unknown.

A quick two hour meeting and it was all over; back out into the raging torrent of hurried humanity.  I had arrived post-morning rush-hour, not that it looked like that to me.  How many more people can you get into a tube !?  The one good thing about negotiating the tube is that the stream of  rushers you are swimming in are all headed in the same direction.  A sort of one-way journey into the bowels of the earth.  Similarly, coming out of the underground is another white-water ride up and up the endless escalators and along white tiled tunnels carried along in a long endless busy line of ants but all headed in the same direction.  That is not how it is on the outside.  Oh no Sir, no-one out there is going in the same direction.  The pavement (that’s ‘walkway’ to you on the other side of the Atlantic !) is a hop-scotch game, a practise run for the Artfull Dodger, a side-stepping snakes and ladders of minimal forward and maximum side-way progression.  I was taken back half a century to the Quadrangle of West Mon School where, in break times, a dozen-a-side game of touch rugby took place within a fifteen metre box using a rolled-up exercise book (the ‘rough’ book’ or Pill as it was known) as the ‘ball’.  Playing in that tight confined space required guile, swiftness of hand and the ability to throw an opponent as does the Matador deceive the bull.  Throwing a ‘dummy’, dipping a shoulder to effect a ruse and commit the most outrageous of side-steps was the only way to ever score a try.  So it was on that cold December morning in the thronged streets of the City of London that those long forgotten yet innate skills came to the fore to get me along the likes of Pudding Lane and Eastcheap.

You see, the problem is no-one is looking where they are walking !  Hands are full, an electronic communication devise in one and a coffee-to-go held high in the other (why DO people carry their coffee so high ?  Does the airflow cool it or something ? ) and often hearing is impaired by ear-plugs funnelling Lord only knows what into their brain.  I lost count of the number of those subtle side-steps I performed, of the immediate halts I made to avoid a head-on, of rear-end shunts as the person in front suddenly decided she (sorry, it usually was a SHE !) needed to look into that window.  Eventually, after a dozen or more collisions with folk who were not at all engaged in the art of crowd walking but rather immersed in some ethereal communication, I decided to see just how many head-on collisions I could enact.  It was astonishing, clearly I had been the only person that was in anyway trying to avoid human face to face contact. Hit after hit, men, women and folk of indeterminate gender, all just careered into me.  At six foot three inches and wide as a bus I’m not exactly hard to see and before you ask, no, I was not wearing ‘urban camo’.  They just do not watch the road ahead !  One young lady whose high-held coffee-to-go came in, exocet like, at face level had the misfortune to soak the person walking to her left as the Costa cup flew out of her hand on impact and ejaculated its contents all over the hapless ‘rusher’.  I walked on, more and more enjoying the ‘battering ram’ status I had awarded myself.  I reckon on a total of seven high impact heads-on, which resulted in dislodging one or other items from the grasp of the victim, about eight screech-to-a-halt impacts of low velocity, often just resulting in an arm-to-arm defensive embrace and about three falls off the pavement as they tried to perform the sort of side-step only an accomplished touch-rugby player could possibly hope to do.  Only one of those actually resulted in knees hitting the road, one collided with a parking meter causing the de-rigeur CTG to spew everywhere, not least on a rather nice parked Jaguar and one other carried on ‘tripping’ and actually managed to get right across the other side without falling.  What a merry jape, I SO enjoyed my wander through the City !

I had a return train booked at around 3.30pm but was well on my way back to Paddington by 1.45pm.  Did I perhaps ought to take in some of the sights / sites ?  Did I perhaps ought to take advantage of Oxford Street and do some Christmas shopping, did I have time for a quick shufty in an incognito manner through the back-streets of Soho? Ahem …  Indecision overcame me and before I could barter with my doubts I was back at the grand old terminal.  I decided I would just have a wander around in the near vicinity and left the main concourse to enter the nearby street … and there I nearly freaked out !  It was an absolute riot of people filling the pavement, spilling into the road as others stopped to chat to friends well met or gazed into shop windows thereby blocking the anyway too narrow thoroughfare.   I stood, slightly panic stricken, wondering if I had either the need or the will to take the plunge.  Two minutes later I was happily seated in a quiet corner of the huge waiting lounge with my very own coffee-to-go and a rather good baguette !

London has its fair share of Welsh ex-pats, always has and thus it is not inconceivable that a familiar face might be encountered (in a population as large as Wales’ total of 3 million plus !) and sure enough, as I sat enjoying my lunch and watching all manner of folk walk by, my name was called out across the wide open expanse.  A ‘local’ from my home village saw me (he hadn’t seen me in many a year – which must mean I haven’t put that much weight on then ? ), a man I had played rugby with some twenty five years or so ago.  He had rode in on  the GWR all the way from Port Talbot, leaving at 6am that morning and was then about to make the 3 hour return trip.

I was grateful to board my train which slowly crept out of that wonderful structure of glass and iron and headed westward following the setting sun.  Even at 3.30pm it was a full train but just as in the morning, no-one spoke nor looked at anyone else.  Eyes glued to their screens they did not notice the suburbs flash by, did not see the fiery red of the sun-set nor the still waters of the Thames.  It is a strange world, this place where everyone is constantly communicating but no-one is speaking, this place where everyone is immaculately dressed and elegantly manicured yet is seen by no-one.  Invisible beings crammed into a metal tube hurtling them homeward, no doubt to flop exhausted and silent in front of an even larger screen or maybe sending texts to their friends whom they forgot to say “goodbye” to on the train …. “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare …”

I was not sorry to leave that place, glad to have an evening with a daughter I rarely get to spend what she calls “quality time” with (by which I presume she means without her lap-top or ‘i’ phone).  We wandered the old Roman city and found a quiet (!) little French restaurant on a street glistening with the lights of a Christmas to come.  I ate my fill and drank some rather good vino, slept a sleep any Roman would be proud of and headed west with the morning sun at my back.  Too long spent in that foreign land with all those people is not good for my soul.

I mean, imagine, all those people wanting to be together !

Happy Christmas merry readers.  Another year of battling with the musings of Welshwaller surely entitles you to have a GOOD  ONE !

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda.

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