Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ticket to Rye

I have arranged to meet an old schoolfriend for a drink. He lives 85 miles away, in Kent, so we always meet in Rye, which is roughly halfway. Aside from the fact that Rye is a beautiful, historic town with many literary connections (Henry James, E.F. Benson, Radclyffe Hall and John Christopher, to name a few), it is also the perfect venue as our trains, which come from oppoite directions, arrive and depart within seconds of each other. It is as if the whole south coast rail network has been arranged so that we can have a drink.

I love the walk to Lewes station, even on a grey autumnal day like this. My route takes me past the Fifteenth Century Bookshop, down Keere Street (where George IV is supposed to have driven a coach and four horses down to the bottom for a wager) and across to the Elizabethan Southover Grange, the boyhood home of diarist John Evelyn.

At Southover Grange, a member of the local Stasi is on patrol, hoping to find a victim. The parking scheme was introduced to Lewes five years ago and I now how to pay £75 a year for the privilege of parking outside my own house.

Last week I received a parking ticket, placed on my windscreen at 6.35am, so it would be fair to say that I have a grudge.

A year after the parking scheme was introduced, it was decided to replace (at huge expense) the attendants' red jackets, as it was felt that this colour was "too aggressive". I would have thought that employing an army of unsympathetic, bonus-driven attendants was more likely to provoke aggression.

Before I get to the station, I pop into the beautiful Grange gardens:

Although it is now autumn, the gardens are still in colour and on a quiet morning like this, it is easy to forget that you are in the 21st century.

But something has gone wrong. The health and safety people have moved in and everywhere I look, there are warning signs, makeshift fences and stumps where potentially dangerous trees have been cut down.

What is the justification for this:


This sign can only be seen as you are leaving, by which time the warning will be superfluous. What possessed the local authorities to place such a garish notice on this mostly sixteenth century wall? They could at least have come up with a sympathetic pastiche; something like "An ille feyte betides those who take no heede of yonder waters."

I leave the gardens in a despondent mood. I'm a great believer in the small is beautiful principle and would like to see more local government, but not if the result is a lot of small-minded people with no vision issuing petty edicts and restrictions.

Railway stations aren't normally the most uplifting places, but Lewes Station cheers me up. In contrast to Southover Grange - a beautiful place made ugly by people with no imagination - the staff at Lewes Station have turned a purely functional environment into one that is full of delight.

From the station cafe that plays classical music to the carefuly-planted flowers, everything about Lewes Station is good. There is no litter or graffiti and the polite, helpful staff have an Ealing comedy cheeriness about them.

One day I was standing on the edge of the platform as a train was coming in and my rarely-used mobile phone rang. I was so surprised to receive a call that I jumped and inadvertently threw the phone up into the air. It landed on the track, narrowly missing being crushed by the arriving train.

In a London station, I would have had to miss my train, go to an office and fill out a form in front of some dour-faced apparatchik, but in Lewes I simply had a quick word with one of the staff and the phone was waiting for me later that evening.

The journey to Rye is ridiculously slow, taking an hour and ten minutes to travel 43 miles, but I don't mind. Most of the journey is through empty fields - for such a densely-populated corner of Britain, there are still plenty of open spaces - and at one point the railway line reaches the coast, passing rows of beach huts.

My carriage is remarkably quiet until a woman gets on at Bexhill. She is in the middle of a phone conversation and talks in an annoying transatlantic accent. Some transatlantic accents are pleasing to the ear (Cary Grant and Alistair Cooke spring to mind), but others are hideous. I was reading a book*, but all I can hear now is "Yah, well I think we're going to have to go back to BLT. I mean, we were quite firm with them about what it involved...yah...yah..."

At first, I thought that she was talking about a sandwich order, but it transpires that BLT is a company. The woman she is talking to sqeaks like a mouse from the receiver and she responds with further yahs, then the train briefly enters a tunnel. She redials. "Sorry, I just lost you there. We went through a tunnel. Yah. Anyway, we'll get back to BLT and...hello?"

We are in another tunnel. A long one. One minute she is connected to a global network of Serious People doing Very Important Things. Now she is alone.

I look round and see a short, rather plain woman on the cusp of middle-age, wearing a cheap-looking flanelette track suit. Not what I was expecting. She gets off at Hastings and I wonder what she is going to do there.

The journey from Hastings to Rye takes us through countryside that looks more like East Anglia, with flat empty fields and muddy drainage ditches. Even on a bright, sunny day, there is something depressing about this landscape.

In Rye, my friend's train arrives five seconds after mine. We go to The George, where we begin a conversation that becomes more opinionated and less articulate with each drink. By the third pint, I can sense a decline in my cognitive abilities and I drink more slowly, but it is always too late. My memory of the evening is hazy, but I feel a happiness that will sustain me for days to come.

I arrive at Lewes Station just after 9.00. The walk home takes me past houses that are hundreds of years old. I don't believe in the supernatural, but there is a tangible presence in these buildings, whispering "Memento mori...memento mori..." Next time I'll stick to soft drinks.

*The book was the superb "Seasonal Suicide Notes", by Roger Lewis. If the transatlantic woman hadn't boarded the train, I would have read an account of the making of a film set in South Wales starring, improbably, Faye Dunaway. One of her co-stars was Mark Benton - an actor I had never heard of, but recognised in a photo as the fat bloke from the Nationwide Building Society adverts. If I had managed to read two more pages of the book, I might have been quite freaked out, as only half an hour later, Mark Benton entered The George for a lunchtime drink.


depesando said...

Lewes station is a joy, I have often suspected it has 'fallen off the map' and the Railtrack executives are oblivious to it's existence - hence it's ability to survive as a little pocket of respectability.

I could quite happily ride up and down that stretch of coastline looking at the beach huts and the lapping waves all day long, that section between St Leonards and Eastbourne makes the horribly long journey worthwhile - I'm sure you noticed that most passengers crown onto the 'sea-side' of the train when they get on.

Steerforth said...

It can only be a matter of time before some moron decides that if the staff have enough time to do landscape gardening, then the station is overmanned.

Either that, or they'll hand over the cafe franchise to Costa Coffee.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

But we might have missed out on a stunning description of your trip to Rye!

Yes I remember the pleasantness of Lewes station. It is so rare to find places that people still take a pride in, let alone pride themselves on customer service as well.

Thomas said...

I spent a nice weekend in Rye in 1992. Had my picture taken in front of the house that they used as Miss Mapp's House in the TV series Mapp and Lucia.

Is "transatlantic" your nice way of saying American? LOL

Steerforth said...

I loved the series of Mapp and Lucia.

For me, transatlantic is neither American or British, but some weird hybrid.

Who was that British man who did the America's rich and famous programme? He had a very strange accent.