joanne lee


Signs and wonders

What follows is an essay reflecting on the repeated journey I make between Brighton and Nottingham each week. It forms the first issue of the new travel blog Somewhere Else launched by Hugh Dichmont. Hugh’s idea is to explore the experience of travel, something we all do, as a reflective, personal space; he will act as commissioning editor, asking different writers to contribute articles about an experience of travel they have recently had. Every issue there will also be a unique illustration by Japanese artist Chie Hosaka (image below). A new issue will be released in the middle of each month.

Most weeks across the last six years or so I’ve made a rail journey between Brighton and Nottingham. Travelling the same route regularly allows the sustained observation of changing landscapes: I witness fields of oil seed rape from their autumn sowing to spring’s extraordinary yellow efflorescence; I see the groundworks of new estates being laid, whilst elsewhere long-familiar industrial buildings crumble and rot; and I watch as rivers rise and fall through winter flood and summer drought. The repetition also allows the gradual revelation of certain features, aspects that would likely have remained unnoticed were I making the journey just once; over time these become way markers of a sort, allowing me to pinpoint my location and to know just how long it will be until I reach my destination. Rather than feeling ever more bored with seeing the same places week after week, year on year, instead I have found my interest deepen; what were at first inconsequential sites or locations grow in importance, resonating with all they’ve prompted me to think and imagine whilst I track repeatedly north and south.

The early morning journey out of Brighton begins with a long tunnel beneath the chalk escarpments of the South Downs, from which the train then emerges into sleepy Sussex commuter-belt countryside. Over time I started to notice how, along the route, each of the substations that feed power to the electrified rail are watched over by an identical (and very large) model owl. They are probably intended to scare away other birds from landing and causing potential flashovers, but in the eerie dawn I find myself thinking instead of that recurrent line from David Lynch’s serial Twin Peaks: ‘The owls are not what they seem…’ and I wonder what they might be getting up to once my train has passed.

Further on there’s a graveyard of mouldering red phone boxes; their once shiny carapaces are turning greener each year thanks to an algal growth nourished by dripping trees. It’s a melancholy reminder about the physical reality of relentless technological obsolescence; I note how almost all my fellow travellers clutch and stroke and tap their smartphones or tablets throughout the journey: currently beloved items, these too will surely be thrust aside, outdated, when the next ‘upgrade’ beckons.

The rackety First Capital Connect carriages are soon full with weary commuters heading into London, topped up at Gatwick Airport by groups of returning holidaymakers, still giddy with sun, and by those entering the UK anxiously from other lives and families elsewhere. I recognise the regulars on this train – habitual users of this service tend to sit in the same carriage each day so I see the same people over and over – and I’ve learned to detect their slight disdain for the long-distance travellers squeezing huge suitcases or exhausted children into the already packed aisles.

The train has pretty much emptied by the time it reaches the subterranean portion of St Pancras station, at which I make the change for my own connection. Our arrival into the concrete underbelly is always announced by a hooting, shrieking crescendo – I’m never sure if this is the driver’s over zealous application of brakes, or merely the wheels grating against curving track – whatever, it’s deafening, and a rude noise when I’ve not yet had breakfast to cushion the day’s intensity. Thankfully, quiet follows: the gliding ascent of three silvery escalators raises me into the station’s airier heights and brings me to strong coffee and a waiting East Midlands service.

On this second half of the journey, I know we are making progress out of London when I encounter the distinctive trackside graffiti near West Hampstead. It spells out ‘TEMP TYPE’ in pleasingly blocky capitals – white outlined in black. This particular typography has been far from temporary: other tags come and go, buffed or over-written, but this pairing happily endures.

Later it’s the vast gravel pits at the now defunct Stewartby brickworks that attract my attention. They transport me. Here, for a moment or two at least, the stands of puny silver birch and the gold shimmer of parched grass evoke some sort of prairie or steppe landscape in miniature – that is, of course, until the mid-century model estate built to house workers comes into view and I’m back in Bedfordshire with a jolt. Perhaps I have an overactive imagination, but when en route I pick out the mysterious white sphere of the sewerage treatment plant tucked into a low river valley and often glimpsed amongst skeins of drifting mist, its retro-modernism suggests it ought to form the backdrop for some low budget science fiction movie. I know I’m not alone in this reading of one place for another – just think of all those disused quarries standing in for a generic alien landscape for series like Dr Who or Blake’s 7

Sometimes though, reality is much stranger than science fiction: the most peculiar building of all is the small but exquisite Triangular Lodge nestling amidst dark trees near Rushton in Northamptonshire. Completed in 1597 by one Sir Thomas Tresham as a protestation of his then outlawed Roman Catholicism, its triangular structure, trifoliate forms and the recurrent presence of the number three make multiple allusions to the Trinity or more abstruse Christian symbolism. Nikolaus Pevsner suggested that “as a testament of faith this building must be viewed with respect” whilst Robert Harbison thought it operated as “pure sign”. Whatever, I always make sure to acknowledge its eccentric presence as I pass.

Generally however it is the visual clamour of more recent features that attract my attention – thanks undoubtedly to their scale, colour or volume. Around Kettering I observe numerous depots and distribution hubs. There’s the vast grey sheds of the Prologis Park amongst which an outpost of the Oxford University Press finds an incongruous home; several acres belonging to civil engineering magnate Sir Robert McAlpine sprout a succession of tree-like green cranes, beneath which are a similarly hued understorey of portacabins; and a lorry-filled yard is turned a primary blue thanks to the livery of the Knights of Old logistics company (their suitably historic-sounding motto is ‘Service with Honour’). On the approach to both Wellingborough and Loughborough stations, meanwhile, certain trees are entirely festooned with packaging detritus and windblown plastic bags of many colours and materials, such that they appear simultaneously festive and despoiled.

Although I always look out for regular features, the journey is animated too with more chance sightings: one morning it seemed as if every expanse of water north of London was scattered with its own bevy of swans; another time, the herd of piebald ponies grazing on vacant ground near Wellingborough were all perfectly aligned, each one pointing exactly east. Sometimes I find myself thinking about how such phenomena might once have been construed as omens of great import; but no doubt the woman seated across the way from me who is poring over her spreadsheets looks elsewhere these days for signs of global catastrophe.

A certain motor vehicle dealership near Leicester station has an advert carefully positioned on its wall to attract the attention of us rail passengers; it tells us assertively to ‘Forget The Train’ – implying I suppose that we should choose the individual convenience of the car instead.  But I wouldn’t trade for anything the opportunity to let my eyes repeatedly wander across this unfolding landscape, noticing what I had previously overlooked, and remarking the changes wrought by lengthening days or the progression of years. I’ve scarcely begun to remark the signs and wonders here; as Michel de Certeau once suggested, truly, everyday life is scattered with marvels.