WC2, commuting, and small flats

This winter, I changed jobs. Everything about the new job is an improvement on the old one, but one thing that’s so palpably better that it makes me want to weep with the relief is the location. Until late last year, I was commuting from glorious Herne Hill to the wilderness of White City, a journey of roughly ten miles, all of them unwelcoming and frenetic. In comparison, my 45-minute hop up to the West End on the reliably speedy number 3 bus seems like unimaginable luxury, although I suppose I might tire of it eventually, and since my destination is now only 4.5 miles away my average speed of 6mph could probably be improved upon, unless I’ve got the maths wrong, which no doubt I have.

Whatever, the point is that once I get to WC2 I am in WC2, which is a place of surprise and adventure. It’s an area of London I’ve known for as long as I can remember – what Londoner hasn’t? – but being there daily, and relying on it for my everyday chores and routines and treats, is something else entirely. I have learned which sandwich shops always use fresh bread and don’t charge obscene tourist prices (naturally, I’m not telling you which they are), and I’ve found a friendly and charming woman called Rita who will do my eyebrows, which are terrifying to behold in their natural state and need a firm hand, and I am on nodding terms with an elderly man who lives in the flats that overlook the open-air pool on Endell Street and spends his days in the café where I go for lunch after I’ve been swimming. Suddenly, in myriad small but miraculous ways, this corner of the city belongs to me.

And I love it. Tucked away between Leicester Square and Covent Garden are more shops, galleries and restaurants than I ever expect to have time to investigate. I could eat somewhere different every day. I have read the spines of a tiny percentage of the books for sale in the secondhand shops along Charing Cross Road and already found fifty books I want to buy, although so far I have limited myself to an Agatha Christie and the Observer’s Book Of Weather. I have discovered a gothic church I’d never seen before, two proper sweet shops, the Equity headquarters and a part of Neal’s Yard I never knew was there. And I haven’t even started yet.

But back to that commute. As I mentioned, 45 minutes for a journey of four and a half miles is not, in the scheme of things, an impressive rate of motion. But I’m coming from a commute that lasted 75 minutes and involved a walk, a tube, a change, another tube and a walk, or, if I wasn’t in a hurry, a shorter walk, a train, a change, a tube and a longer walk. Either way, the journey was crowded and unpleasant. So relatively speaking, my new journey is a breeze.

I think it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of relativity when it comes to health, wealth and happiness. I had a horrible commute for eighteen months, so this one makes me happy. If you’re ill, getting better makes you happy. If you’d given me £50 when I was a student you’d have made me happy. Now I’d just think “fine, that’ll go towards this month’s service charge”.

All of which gives me great hopes for the future, because the longer the beloved and I share a flat that’s barely big enough for one, and a bed that was never designed for two, the happier we’ll be when we get to live somewhere that’s properly big enough for a couple and has a BATH. I hope I never get everything I’ve always dreamed of, so I can always gleefully anticipate the day when I do.

Days off

I work a nine-day fortnight, with every other Friday off. When I came to this arrangement I thought that I would use the free day for chores and writing, and waiting in for people to come and fix things. I do use it for all of those things, but I also use it to get my hair cut, because I have to get Koto the genius hairdresser to cut my hair. I have crap hair: it is not straight or curly, it’s quite thin, and it’s going grey. Only Koto can give me a haircut that doesn’t look awful within a week. So every few free Fridays, I take myself off on the train and go and visit her in Bromley.

I never used to like Bromley. If you lived in Beckenham, Bromley was the place you went to at weekends because it had a slightly better range of shops, and a McDonald’s, and pubs where you wouldn’t bump into your parents’ friends who knew you were fourteen. Tell someone you’re from Bromley, and they look at you sympathetically. The beloved and I had a drink recently with a friend who introduced us to her new-ish boyfriend, who lives in Bromley, and we spent most of the evening commiserating with one another. Bromley isn’t a place, it’s the punchline to a joke.

But, you know what? Bromley’s kind of OK. The high street is mainly pedestrianised, so market stalls have sprung up, and in the sunshine today it looked like somewhere you might want to go and have a look at:

Bromley High Street

The introduction of PAYG to South Eastern trains didn’t make my journey as easy as it should have done. I forgot to touch in at Herne Hill, so when I got to Bromley South, where there are barriers, I asked the guard if I could buy a paper return ticket to Herne Hill, which would both retrospectively cover the journey I’d just made and allow me to get back again later. Although it wasn’t strictly within the rules, she could see that it was the simplest solution, and fortunately was not of the breed of train guard who lives for being able to charge people a fine for being idiots. So I queued up and bought my return ticket, forgetting that I’d already arranged to go and see my parents after visiting Koto, so I wouldn’t be making the return journey by train. So I queued up and paid for a journey I’d already made, and a journey I was never going to make. These are the ways I fill my time.

I have a hen weekend to go to tomorrow. There will be games. I will post photos next week, if I survive the experience.

The TfL graffiti challenge

TfL is running a poster campaign as part of its Art on the Underground initiative. It consists of a series of quotes which, according to the website, “provoke thought on life in the city”.

One of these is a quote from Gandhi, which I’ve seen proudly displayed at various points along my commute to work. It reads


As I spilled off my overcrowded Jubilee Line train after waiting an unfathomably long time at London Bridge, and squeezed my way on to the Central Line only to spend five minutes sitting in a tunnel, it occured to me that the expression of this particular sentiment is rather brazen on TfL’s part. I am very well-behaved and couldn’t possibly consider breaking the law myself, but I hereby offer £20 cash money to the first person to send me photographic evidence that they have found one of these posters and added the line


Paris photo, and a miniature railway

Here is my photo of Paris in the Schmapp Guide:


I notice they didn’t straighten it out. Never mind.

We’ve just got back from a wedding somewhere in deepest Sussex: I didn’t concentrate too hard on where it was precisely, because my dad was driving and my beloved was navigating, so my mother and I sat in the back and ignored the road.

Anyway. The wedding was lovely, as weddings are, and especially lovely because the couple in question had fought for years to be allowed to live in the same country, and spent many months apart over that time. I don ‘t know how they did it, but I’m so pleased for them now they have overcome every last bit of red tape and can get on with normal life like the rest of us.

But really, I wanted to tell you about the miniature railway which we took a damp ride on in between the service and the reception. The wedding was held at Bolebroke Castle, which is an attractively rundown sort of stately home (I wouldn’t really call it a castle: no turrets) set in rolling grounds, with lakes and bowers aplenty, and the aforementioned miniature railway which, the railwayman told us, runs for some three miles into the surrounding countryside, though most of the line is only open to members of the associated club (if you’re keen, you can find out how to join here).

The route we took ran around the side of a lake, over a bridge, through a tunnel and alongside an enormous uprooted tree which must have shaken the castle”s foundations when it fell (perhaps that was the reason for the leaking roof which dripped into the main hall during our meal).

It started to rain as we arrived at the departure point, and got a bit heavier as we started out, but since we had a two-year-old boy in our party we persevered, and it was well worth it. The ride takes under ten minutes, but it’s very picturesque and mildly thrilling in a very tame funfair ride sort of a way. Our party consisted of self, beloved, parents (mine), an old school friend, her husband and their offspring; said two-year-old. In our cocktail dresses and suits, and clasping glasses of champagne, we probably weren’t a typical group of passengers, but the taciturn operator of the train took it all in his stride.

I’m not sure I’d suggest a trip into Sussex just for the railway, but it’s just up the road from the Ashdown forest, where you can play Poohsticks on the original Poohsticks bridge, and the surrounding villages are acceptably pretty, so if you’re in the area, you could do worse than to drop in. Accompanying child not essential, but you might feel a bit less silly clambering on to the tiny train if you have one with you.

Bolebroke Castle, incidentally, is where Henry VIII met Anne Boleyn. We all decided this should be interpreted as a good omen for the marriage.

In praise of Croydon

I found myself in Croydon town centre a week or two back for the first time in years.  It’s de rigueur to deride Croydon, and I expect you think I’m still going to, but whenever I’m there I remember why I think it’s got one of the best-designed centres of any town I know.  It’s not wildly pretty, true, but it has its moments (the old hospital on the corner of the high street and George Street is one; the station at East Croydon is another), and most of all, it just works.  Whether you come in on foot, in a car or by public transport the system is designed to get you to where you want to be quickly and with the minimum of fuss.  The high street is pedestrianised along most of its length, and there are two indoor shopping centres (the Whitgift is older and a little more run down; Centrale, which replaced the old Drummond Centre, has a silly name but almost all the shops anyone could want to visit), so that it’s an uncomplicated and stress-free place to shop whatever the weather or time of day.  The main car parks are just behind or under the high street and cars are deposited there via a system of bypasses and tunnels, so that pedestrians and vehicles rarely meet one another, which can only be a good thing.  And the public transport is a dream: there are three mainline stations, countless buses and a speedy and reliable tram network (run by those good folk at TfL).

And it still has an Allders.   Bromley’s Allders, where you could buy almost everything, became a giant Primark.  Croydon’s goes from strength to strength.  Sometimes all you need is a shop with a really good haberdashery department.

More election worries

My main concern about Boris – aside from the embarrassment of living in a city that has Boris Johnson as its mayor – is not that he’ll introduce madcap, ill-considered transport policies, but simply that his essential lack of interest in public transport means we’ll lose momentum on what has been, for the last eight years, a quite incredible series of improvements and innovations. The mayor has a lot of power – more than almost any other civic leader – and it’s because of that power that Ken’s been able to introduce so many changes in such a short time. What he’s done here has been visionary, and it looks as though we’re about to lose that for the sake of a weak punchline, which as far as I can judge is the main reason people have voted for Boris (staunch Tories aside). It’s just like the population census we had a few years ago, when everybody thought it would be hysterically funny to declare themselves Jedis. Only worse, because at least then people didn’t have their lame laugh at the expense of something worthwhile.

No congestion charge for NYC

Inhabitat carries the depressing news that the proposal to introduce congestion charging (or “congestion pricing”, as it seems to be called over there) in New York has been voted down. Their headline says all that need be said, I think.

Stupid car-driving voters. If ever a city was designed for walking, New York is it. But perhaps expecting brave and innovative steps from legislators in a country so wedded to car ownership was too much.

Still, I was mildly cheered by the reference in the article to “neigh sayers”. If they’re getting horses to vote on transport policy they’re in a bigger mess than I thought.

The burbs

My two-week period of homelessness has meant I am spending more time than usual in London’s leafy south-eastern suburbs. A couple of nights ago I went truly off-piste and ventured out to Biggin Hill by bus. And you know what? It’s nice out there! What it lacks in 24-hour shops and, well, people, it makes up for in prettiness and a cheery fellow-feeling that you don’t see so much of in town, largely because everybody is in too much of a hurry to stop and make conversation (and anyway, if you start a conversation with the wrong person you might get stabbed). All the bus drivers said “hello”, including the one who took me, and only me, from Keston to Bromley in about the same time it would have taken by car (thank you, Ken, for all the new bus lanes).

Also, I got to see horses in fields. I like horses in fields, as long as they are quite far away and separated from me by something solid (e.g. the side of a bus).


I have a shiny new staff pass from work which gives me free travel on tubes, buses and trams. It’s the best thing ever, but not so much because of the money I’ll save. The reason I’m really excited by it is that every time I swipe it on an Oyster reader a little message flashes up and it says “staff”. And each time that happens I want to tip the bus driver a knowing smile, one that says: “yep, you and me pal, we’re staff“.I haven’t actually done it.