Tag Archives: UK Trains

London Heels

Once I knew I was going in the right direction, settled back and enjoyed the lovely landscapes along the route.  The word “sweet” comes to mind when I gaze out over the English countryside.  That may sound patronizing but it’s not meant to be.

If you like rugby you will probably want to put Twickenham on your bucket list.  I made a mental note to avoid it on game days.

As we rolled into London there were some great views.  For once I have an excuse for my poor quality photos—taken from a moving train.

Waterloo would be my toilet stop every time I came into London.  This sign was still in place a month later, so “as quickly as possible” really meant, “someday, maybe.”

The sign made it clear that your 30p got you one visit to the toilet.  I wondered if someone had sued them, insisted they had bought a lifetime pass.

Then I was on the underground, which whisked me under the Thames toward Canary Wharf, where I would exit and try to find my meeting.  I was anxious about finding the building.  What if I took the wrong exit out of the tube station?  What if I got turned around?  They had sent me a map, which was even more out of focus than my photos and really just a jumble of unhelpfulness.

It showed a picture of the building, but how would I find it among all the other buildings?

The first time I came to England, 30 years ago next year, I had stayed somewhere in the vicinity of Canary Wharf.  Then, it was all gritty warehouses, Pakistani immigrants and elderly Holocaust survivors and native English speakers whose English I could not understand; street stalls selling tiny apples and pet goldfish suspended in plastic bags and possibly dodgy cassette tapes by Billie Ocean, Bananarama, and New Order.

Now it looks like this, according to a local news site:

I stepped out of the tube station and saw this:

Of course it didn’t have a giant black squiggle on it but you get the idea.  When will I ever learn to stop worrying and trust that I’ll be able to find things, especially when I have a map and a photo of the building?

I had dressed and accessorized carefully, making the best of what I had.  I had bought a really cute top in Cornwall that was suitable for a country holiday and I thought I could make it work paired with dress pants, my good jewellery, and an up do.  I felt professional when I left the house.  When I entered the building I immediately felt like a schlumpy schlimazel, which is just what it sounds like.

I waited in the gleaming lobby furnished with sleek Danish modern furniture.  I was sure the water glass the attendant handed me cost more than my entire outfit.  The reading selection on the table included The Financial Times, Economist, Wall Street Journal, and International Business Times.  All the headlines were about rich people making deals that would make them richer.

I noticed my heels were a bit worn.  Note to self: Buy new shoes before next work meeting.

One of the people I was meeting with arrived.  She was 30 years younger and 30 pounds thinner than me, blonde, and dressed in stilettos and a killer designer outfit. Mercifully, it was all over in 30 minutes.

I have been to meetings with foundations and corporations.  I’ve been to Ford and Open Societies Foundations in New York.  At Chiron Corporation in Silicon Valley.  And so on.  I normally carry myself well in these meetings and I had come carefully prepared.

But then I spilled my water and as we were wiping it up, my nose started running like a garden hose and I had to ask them for a tissue and blow my nose in front of them. These people were lawyers and I don’t know if they were on the clock but they were clearly impatient and possibly appalled by me.  I managed to maintain my dignity, make my points and ask my questions, but I was relieved when the revolving door swung closed behind me.

Stopping and Going

Summer is my favorite season anywhere, but there is something about an English summer that gives me joy even more than a Minnesota summer.  Maybe it’s because I’m away from my usual surroundings and routine and everything—woods and streams and vines and birds but also even the sidewalk under my feet and the bus stops and the street signage—are different, exotic, even after many visits.  I love new and different, the sense of being an explorer.

But there is something else about the English countryside; many other writers have tried to capture it, to greater or lesser degrees of success. You might say, “Oak trees are oak trees, and meadows are meadows wherever you go, right?” So why go anywhere else but home?  But they do differ.  The English countryside is greener.  Saturated with green, drenched in green.  Probably because it is wetter, if that’s a word.  The trees are much older.  They are covered in shiny ivy and holly vines.  These are parasites but they add to the greenness.

And there is something about seeing a view of the English countryside from the top of a hill that makes me feel Everything is Okay, because I know it’s the same view that someone would have seen here 50 or a hundred years ago, and if I return in 50 years it will in all likelihood be the same.  In the US, we chopped down 90% of our trees to make way for farms, and now farms are rapidly being bulldozed over and replaced by suburban sub divisions or light manufacturing parks.

So I love things new (to me) and old and England ticks both boxes.

After a few days of idyll I had to go into London for a meeting at a big corporate foundation.  I had been wearing the same clothes for six weeks and felt pretty scruffy but I didn’t have time to buy anything new.  I spent an hour anxiously plotting how I would get there, and in the end it was easy but you don’t know that ahead of time, do you?

Anyone who thinks companies can do anything better than government has never used the UK rail system.  I use the word “system” generously.  I am not an expert on UK trains, but from what I understand the system has been parceled off to private companies, so I took Southwest Rail into London but one would take a different company’s train from London to Oxford, and a third company served the east coast, and so on.

This was my first time into the city and I was nervous.  I knew I had to get off at Waterloo to switch to the Underground.  There was no choice for “Waterloo” on the automatic ticket dispenser, so I went to the manned ticket booth and waited in the queue.

When I mentioned the glitch in the machine, the bored attendant’s response was, “Waterloo is called ‘London Station’ in our system.”

“But how would anyone know that?” I asked.  She shrugged and jerked her head for the next person.

Soon after we pulled out of the station, the automatic announcement said, “This is a Southwest Rail train for Windsor and Eton.”  “For” means “to” in Britain.  Hmmm…Windsor and Eton was our departure point, not our destination.

“The next stop is Vauxhall.  This train will stop at Clapham Junction, Putney, Sunnymeade, Twickenham, Staines …”  My palms started to sweat and I flashed back to my train journey in Italy the previous year.  The stops seemed to be in the wrong order but I wasn’t sure.

The announcement repeated three times that we were going for Eton and Windsor, not from.  It listed more stops whose names I couldn’t make out.  Grittam and Raysbury turned out to be Whitton and Rosebury.  I had the urge to jump off, but I was also pretty sure that if I just Stayed On the Train I would eventually arrive at Waterloo.

A live person came on the overhead speakers.  “Ladies and gentlemen, we do apologize for the automated message, which is backwards.  The next stop is Datchet, not Vauxhall.  Vauxhall is the last stop before Waterloo.  Thank you for your custom.”