Its mid February and in a London gripped by freezing temperatures for the past six weeks, a first glimpse of sun appears to have rendered the populace optimistic. It is barely ten degrees, but on the platform at Maze Hill station there are three people wearing shorts, each with a resolute determination not to be dissuaded by convention, like a child insisting on wearing a Spiderman costume for the weekly shop.
By the ticket office a family are crowded round the ticket machine trying to work out just what they want and where they are going. I try to offer advice, but they decline insisting they’ll only delay me. I go ahead, I save myself. “Don’t get that one its going to Cannon Street,” I hear them say as I cross the footbridge. They’re in for a long day, they all go to Cannon Street. Onboard the train bright yellow writing on an end of carriage advertisement boasts “It’s a salsa dancing lemon drizzle sky dive” I have no idea what the advert is for, but I vow never to get one.
Taking advantage of Sunday space on the commuter run the guy opposite has managed to sprawl out across six seats. He has even taken his shoes off to properly bed in. Across South East London the station announcements are greeted with unexpected responses;
“The next station stop is Woolwich Arsenal”
“Woohoo!” yells someone further down the train.
“The next station stop is Abbey Wood”
“I bet she would” growls an old man shuffling towards the door, a line from a sinister music hall act.
At Abbey Wood the guy opposite awakes, slips on his shoes and leaves, so too does the old man and a Nigerian woman who has been on the phone since I boarded, though for all the gaps in her speech she may as well be on a Dictaphone, leaving me alone in the carriage. High-rise flats give way to lower rise estates split with trees and the backs of Victorian terraces. Cats sit in net-curtained windows. Trampolines hibernate. On the left of the train the metal of estuary industry rises above the rooftops.
At Slade Green a boy stand on the footbridge staring out across the adjacent fields. Beyond the station, the houses cease; sheep graze on marshland and allotments cower beneath the shadow of a looming Victorian water tower. To the left the houses climb the hillside rising to meet the towers of Dartford Bridge and the chimneys of Thames side factories at the skyline.
The carriage repopulates at Dartford. A man with a bag of brightly wrapped presents takes a seat and leans into a copy of The Sun, adopting the stance of a ski-jumper only his face consumed amongst simplified conjecture rather than a visor. Somewhere behind my head, an expressive conversation in a language I can’t identify commences. An attractive young blonde woman as taken the seat opposite me, but she keeps her eyes firmly fixed on the window, accidental eye-contact seemingly her kryptonite.
Outside a strip of green, trees at the trackside and cattle on the hill-tops, separates Dartford from Greenhithe. Occasional slabs of white chalk jut out from the grey green landscape. The train skirts round the international station at Ebbsfleet with its frankly optimistically sized car-park as if we’re trying not to wake it and passes through a chalk-pit into Gravesend. As we pull into the station the man with the presents gives a cough so packed with phlegm I’m worried he may drown.
We pass through Gravesend, a soot-blackened brick gully cut through the heart of the town, only the ornate tops of the town’s huge Sikh temple and a withered ‘40th birthday’ balloon trapped in the fence are visible above the high sides of the embankment. Beyond Gravesend the land goes very flat and very green in comparison to what’s gone before as fields stretch off in either direction, meeting hills to the right and the ships of the estuary to the left.
Higham station sits in a disused chalk-pit, lying low like a squatter, at the mouth of a huge tunnel that deposits us at Strood and a station lifted above the town. As I stand on the platform waiting to change trains I watch a woman in the upstairs kitchen of the Steam Packet pub butter bread with a disinterested yet habitual efficiency like she’s fixing rivets on a production line.
On the final leg and by now the onboard train voice is uncharacteristically posh compared to the estuary accents around me, like an Eastenders cameo from Brian Sewell. A big woman gets on the train with a guy and a young girl yabbering into her phone as she does. “I’ll give you a call about five, alright at five? Make sure you pick up at five yeah, five, ok”. She hangs up and turns to the guy, “What did Fanny Ann have to say? I just left you to it, to chat her up you know.” The guy just gives a sigh in reply.
As we begin to roll out of Strood and down the Medway estuary the woman turns to the man and asks
“Where is this train going?”
“Why we going there?”
“Well… might as well”
“Well yeah, guess I can go down there and have a look round the market.”
Its seizure of the moment in a much more conventional, more British sense; unplanned opportunism cancelled out by pragmatism and melancholy.
“Anyway,” says the woman, “how you gonna spend your winnings? I heard about your lottery win you know” The man acts coy, trying to appear both smug and mysterious, playing down, but inviting the questioning. It takes five minutes, but it transpires he won a tenner two Saturdays back. I’d like to see the television advert where Hector Riva encourages you to play the Lottery before getting on a murky train through north Kent.
Across the river telegraph wires criss-cross green and brown fields that stretch away to white chalk cliffs. The penultimate stop is New Hythe, two platforms flanked by the flat concrete and rubble of a demolished paper-mill in which my granddad spent his entire working life. Men in orange workwear and hard hats stand waiting for the train to pass, as if once we’re gone, they’ll start dismantling the platforms too.