St Pancras, Central London. A station was opened in 1868, to serve the Midlands. The grand building at the front is a hotel that has slept on the Euston Road since the station was built. Behind the Grade One listed exterior are boutique shops to suit the needs of the modern clientele that frequent the station – from its new destinations of Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam on the international rail link. Also, from the far reaches of the continent and beyond, reached via train services from Gatwick and Luton airports. It’s a bit like an airport terminus since St Pancras station had ‘International’ added to it in 2007, although there’s no duty free (it’s more like double the price).
Sometimes I see mice run across the concourse, looking for food in the city. Sometimes I’ve seen them run under the rails, looking for a place to hide. Trains here are served by overhead cables, so I’d hope the mice would run on to somewhere else when they feel the rumble of a train. I want to be the mouse, creeping out gently, watching the comings and goings, rather than being a part of it all, rather than be the briefcase rush hour model image. But I guess we are all a part of it. Our lives are in the hands of the six-car service to Margate, whether we like it or not, whether our journey is for work or pleasure. I want to take my time and buy my M&S avocado sandwich and eat it, before I’ve boarded the 140mph High Speed train. I want to enjoy my expensive artisan coffee before I leave the big smoke (which probably isn’t the big smoke anymore). I’ve been looking at new ways of naming it, and so far, I’ve come up with ‘the mega million gigabyte’ and ‘the big vape’. I don’t think either will catch on though.
The barista is abruptly asking me if I want ‘hot or cold milk’ with my Americano. The question of milk becomes more of a question of having a quick answer. I’m abruptly asked again. I’m being too slow. A train that connects London to Kent in no time at all is waiting for its load going from city to sea. It has the comforts of Wi-Fi. There’s never much chance to socialise here, so I guess we’ve got to take those moments of me, myself and Wi-Fi when we can. A modern train for a modern society. I spill a bit of coffee down my front during a power walk and don’t have time to care.
The train has nestled into platform 11. I slot my ticket through the machine and the barrier grants me entrance. A conversation is going on with a passenger and the guard as I walk through to catch the train.
‘Moorgate? You want the Northern line.’
‘No. I’m going to Margate.’
‘Oh, Margate? You want platform 11 for Margate.’
The train is getting busy, loaded up with pushchairs, back packs, suitcases, and of course city boys and girls in their best clothes (no coffee stains down their shirts). The digital board says ‘MARGATE’. Echoes of Chas & Dave.
Our service leaves St Pancras along a railway that passes over the Regent’s Canal with its narrow boats afloat, and the canalside gas holders that have been turned into offices or luxury flats. Camley Street Natural Park brings greenery to the area. We pass a bridge that has ‘HOPE’ painted across it. We head out towards the east. Our service sinks into a tunnel, then it picks up a bit of speed, and all we can see is our reflections in the windows. Oyster tappers are reminded to get off at the next stop as their fares won’t be valid any further. The ticket holders’ border.
We pull into Stratford International, where the international trains do not stop. The station has an unfinished look about it and sits in a concrete ditch. There’s the big shopping centre, Westfield, wedged between the international and mainline/underground Stratford station. The signs lead you through the shopping centre. I worked out there’s a short cut around it, if you walk past the depot where the HGVs are unloading their unholy goods. It’s a different world from the Stratford Centre, which at night, is a shelter for the homeless to put down their duvets for indoor sleep. Where the Olympic Stadium now engulfs the land was previously a mountain of fridges, which was said to be the largest collection of dumped white goods in Europe. Why didn’t they build the stadium out of old fridges? Next to the stadium is a supersize Helter Skelter.
As soon as news of the Olympic games were pulled out of the hat, the Javelin would be the one pulling us into the new Olympic park through shuttle services using the newest train technology that these Hitachi-made Class 395 fleet could offer. Each train has the name of a famous British athlete on the front, complete with their signature and the words ‘Britain’s Fastest.’ Dame Kelly Holmes is an important one, being from Kent.
Celebration Avenue. Victory Parade. Anthems Way. Olympic Village. Olympic sized shopping centre. Olympic Park. Olympic Javelin throwing you into London in record time. Shaving minutes off your journey. Increasing capacity on the network. Room for more. Squeeze in. Hold on tight. Come January the fares will go up again. This is the price we pay for a celebration. If the London yellow stock brick was still in building fashion, the high speed would be lugging them up from the clay pits of Kent to Stratford, because building is happening quickly in the outer zones.
Onwards we go, slipping through into another tunnel. The hum of air pressure. You really notice that it’s picked up speed when it launches itself out of the tunnel and into the wastelands of the London/Essex border. It flies through the area like it’s a forbidden zone. I try to take in as much as I can, every time I pass here. I don’t want life to just be a blur we speed through.
It’s Ford Dagenham territory. MOT centres on the roadside at Ferry Lane. The industry buildings and work yards of Eddie Stobart, Rainham Steel, Scania Purfleet, Tesco and the glowing ‘M’ of fast food in the distance. It doesn’t have the dramatic feel of being on a two-car diesel pacer train, slugging past the dead British Steel works between Redcar and Middlesbrough. But this is what modern industry has become. The A13 runs alongside our tracks. Pylons sending electricity, fast, across Rainham Marshes. This is the land of Iain Sinclair’s orbital ramblings. Cobelfret Freight ferries anchor at Purfleet. A dangerous sighting of ‘Daily Mail’ beside the stilts of Queen Elizabeth II bridge brings on terror. Motorists are still required to pay the royal fare to cross. More shopping precincts at Lakeside, Thurrock, somewhere over there. Bluewater, the other side of the Thames estuary. The train rocks like a rollercoaster, red squares of rows and rows of Biffa bins blur past, and we catapult down through a tunnel under the river.
When the HS1 resurfaces again, we arrive at Ebbsfleet International. They seem to have stuck ‘International’ on every station. Intentional? Will they still be ‘International’ if this Brexit thing goes ahead?
Ebbsfleet is a made-up place on the Kent side of the Thames estuary. There’s not a lot there. Just a car park for commuters to park their motors before boarding a quick one into town. Two churches sit on the chalk cliffs that surround the station. Its location is somewhere between Swanscombe, Northfleet and Gravesend. Ebbsfleet does exist, but as a hamlet, some 55 miles down the line, at the mouth of the River Stour, near Ramsgate. I’m sure this new Ebbsfleet will exist soon. From the train window I can already see the men in green jackets surveying the alien lands. There’s already an Ebbsfleet United football team. I can’t see any goal posts. Perhaps they have a kick about on Rainham Marshes?
Ebbsfleet really is commuter land – most of the passengers that get on or off here are cradling laptops and holding leather satchels. The trains come fitted with handy plug sockets, and the modern commuter’s best friend, Wi-Fi. A lake is in sight of the platform, a pretend natural feature for passengers to glance at. Mark Wallinger’s commissioned White Horse (or Angel of the South) was planned to be built near where the rail goes under the A2. The white horse being the symbol of Kent. It was going to be taller than the Angel of the North, although no signs of the giant gee-gee as we leave Ebbsfleet Valley behind. Whether it exists or not, we start moving like a race horse again. We pass where the A2 was re-routed to make way for the tracks of this new rail link, and then we go into the fields of this home county.
The Javelin is the heron of UK trains – the only one superior is the Eurostar. Although the routes have been perfectly timed, that we rarely see the mythical beast pass us on our journey – only in its London nest, back at St Pancras.
We cross the River Medway, side by side with the M2. We see Rochester Castle crumbling on the riverside. It’s been haunting the riverbank since long before Dickensian days. It’s a picturesque view of Medway, whichever way you look out the window.
We flee consumerism in the fields. If I was standing on the field, the train would look like a Hornby set. Faster we go, into the hop growing county, we see the wooden poles that help them grow. The hops get dried and land into liquid form eventually. Two or three oast houses grouped together around the county, looking prestigious in their places. They were used as kilns to dry the hops and many have turned into homes, since beer is produced on an industrial scale now. The hop pickers would have caught the High Speed 1 if it had existed then. Down to Teynham, Faversham and Paddock Wood. London to Ebsfleet in 17 minutes. To Ashford in 37, Canterbury in just under an hour.
The murmurs of conversations, phone calls, and a faint hum of headphone music. The snoozer resting their head on the window. Oblivious to where we are. Just waiting for the train announcements to confirm it. Others glare on at their phones, immersed in emails or their favourite new TV series. The person behind me accidently knocks on the back of my seat. I feel it reverberate down the spine.
I watch the blue circle move across Google Maps on my phone. We get close to the M20 and move almost twice as fast as the cars. Shiny modern saloons, lorries, logistics…all moving across county and country, but not as quick as us. A corrugated metal barrier suddenly blocks our views, as we head into Ashford.
At Ashford International, it comes off the overhead cables – ‘ding’. The station looks like a glass spaceship, that has landed in a random town. Sometimes a Vic Reeves sighting, he catches the HS1 from Ashford. This is where the train joins the regular tracks with the mainline trains. There’s three lines coming out of Ashford – towards Ramsgate, Folkestone or Hastings and above is a monorail, where the Eurostar tears up into the sky, towards mainland Europe. Although some of the continental trains stop at Ashford, adding the international. The only international signs I can see is the word for exit in French, sortie. There are several javelins parked in the sidings, next to a building – ‘Hitachi – Inspire the next.’ Opposite sits the Millenium Dome-esque Ashford Designer Outlet, and the Batchelors soup factory. A clash of Andy Warhol’s soup factory and a naff pre-Millenium architectural panic attack. They have a face off across the tracks. We tune into regular speed now, getting the currents from the third rail.
Wye, Chilham, and Chartham. We sail through these places, while the Stour gently flows past. ‘Why kill ‘em and cart ‘em to Canterbury?’ Grandpa Tom once said to me. The slow stopper from Charing Cross opens its doors at these villages on the Kent Downs. Near Wye, there’s a white horse engraved on a hill. There’s a few of them on hills around Kent. Still no clip-clop clip-clop at Ebbsfleet though.
I hear a man on a phone say, ‘I’m off to that dump of a place, Canterbury.’ A slight irritation grows inside me to say, ‘it isn’t a dump.’ It’s the first time I’ve heard the place I was born called that, though I’ve heard my hometown be called a dump many times. Herne Bay – cracked manhole covers with the words ‘Pryor & Co Ltd, Dalston Junction’, ‘Haywards Limited Makers, London’, and ‘T.Hyatt & Co, Farringdon Road.’ Perhaps in the future, when BT have done their broadband job, these will be ultra-fast portals to London.
‘We will shortly be arriving at Canterbury West.’ Across a level crossing, a sighting of the Westgate Towers, and the traffic queued up along St Dunstans. We pull into the Archbishop’s city. From the station you can see the Gothic cathedral poking up. No, it’s not a dump. It’s built on history. This is where Chaucer and his storytellers pilgrimaged from London. It’s where Saint Thomas Becket was murdered by the king’s followers inside the cathedral in 1170. In Roman times this ancient city was called Durovernum Cantiacorum. In the early 2000s, Tony Robinson and his Time Team came to the big dig, where 2000-years’ worth of artefacts were found. The diggers took the artefacts and now a modern shopping arcade sits in their ancient place. Nowadays, the cobbled streets are packed with students and ‘I love London’ T-shirts. My Great-Great-Grandfather’s pink plaster mould cherubs are still intact on one of the buildings half way along the High Street. They’ve been there since the 1930s. Much of Canterbury was bombed during the Blitz, but the cherubs survived World War II. Beside Canterbury West, is a goods shed, which has been turned into a farmer’s market displaying the best produce from the Garden of England.
We roll out into the edgelands of Canterbury, heading towards the seaside. There’s a power plant and electrical wires firing in many directions. Pylons waving for miles. Car showrooms with brand new Jags, Mercs and BMWs on their forecourts, overlooked by a landfill site on a high mount, where seagulls scavenge. A permanent private gypsy site the other side of the tracks on Vauxhall Road. We pick up moderate speed across the level crossing past the village of Sturry. From the Javelin window, we see the glistening lakes of Westbere, where I did cross country running in my school days. We pass the derelict halt of where once stood Chislet Colliery. The colliery produced coal from 1919 to 1969. It would have powered the steam trains. The only remains is the station platform. The Stour joins trackside again at Grove Ferry, where boats and amateur fishermen while away the day. We glide past the fields beside Stourmouth and Sarre. During the summer you can read the crops on the fields. We go over the River Wantsum, which in the past would have been a channel of fast flowing water. It separated the Isle of Thanet from the mainland. These days it’s just a piddling stream. Wantsum Brewery sits nearby, and worth a sip if you like an ale. Better than the river water, it’s said.
The real Ebbsfleet can be seen from the train, but I can’t quite pinpoint where. It’s near where the concrete tea cups of Richborough Power Station used to be, and the only reminiscence of those cooling towers is a small wind turbine.
We slow down and go under some concrete bridges of dual carriage way and pass Pegwell Bay. William Dyce famously painted ‘Pegwell Bay, Kent – A Recollection of October 5th 1858.’ The painting was inspired by a family day out the Dyce’s had spent on the sands. A concrete platform sits near the bay, where the hovercraft used to inflate and glide to Calais. It discontinued in the 1970s. The port of Ramsgate can be seen from here, and that’s pretty much derelict too. Now the bay is a place for birdwatching across the marshes and sands.
‘We have now arrived at Ramsgate.’ The doors bleep, several times, and open. If you’re sitting or standing near the door, you immediately feel the breeze of the seaside air. Ramsgate has many regency squares, and a large number of blue plaques – including one to Vincent Van Gogh, where he is said to have spent his happiest times as a teacher. From the window, all I see is another red Biffa bin and seagull shit scattered across the platform. (Even over the yellow line.) The station is a bit of a way from the town centre and the sea, so don’t let the first sightings put you off. It’s home to a royal harbour, where barges and yachts slowly bob on the twinkling harbour waves. On a clear day from the clifftop, you can see France. Perhaps it should be named ‘Ramsgate International’?
A viaduct takes us out of Ramsgate, affording us a panoramic view of the town. A voice comes from the tannoy. ‘Welcome aboard this service to Margate. Calling at Broadstairs and Margate ONLY. If you see anything suspicious, please do report it to a member of staff or the Police. The next station stop will be Broadstairs. Thank you for travelling with us today.’ Every time we stop, another town gets dropped from the digital screen. Then, the most common of all train interactions, ‘tickets please’, comes into the carriage. I look for today’s ticket, amongst my wallet full of expired journeys. I’m wearing a beret. The ticket man approaches me and says, ‘Bonjour! Paris is that way.’ He points, laughs, nods at my ticket and stamps it.
I then overhear a conversation between a passenger and the ticket inspector.
‘I’ve got a ticket here somewhere. Can ya come back in ten minutes, mate?’
‘I’ve got plenty of time. I don’t mind waiting.’
‘I swear I just bought a ticket. Bugger. I can’t find it.’
‘Well, if you can’t find it, you’ll have to buy another one.’
And when it comes to the price.
‘Fucking hell, has it gone up? I swear it was cheaper than that before.’
‘Yeah, it goes up every January.’
‘Nah, you’re joking. It couldn’t have…ah! Will you do me a discount?’
I guess the guy doesn’t want to fare dodge, but who can blame him when prices go up? We slowly cruise through Dumpton Park. There’s weeds and wild grass growing in the cracks of the island platform.
Pavements full of litter, unemployment, teenage parents, family struggles, stroke services in jeopardy, mental health issues and a corrupt district council looking after everything. Welcome to Thanet.
Broadstairs station hangs on a slope at the top of its High Street. Welcome to the Turner & Dickens way. Dickens’s Bleak House lives on the clifftop and looks over Viking Bay. With windfarms on the horizon, as is much the same along the Kent coast. It has the best of the bays in the area and is regarded as the quainter of the Thanet towns. But much the same as the other towns, a lot of the High Street shops have moved to the out of town shopping centre, Westwood Cross – a mini Westfield.
We cross a field out of Broadstairs, pass an estate, and the train slows down as we approach the town where the journey ends. The unfinished town. Bits being propped up and just about held together. ‘MARGATE’ rolls across the screen. People start to prematurely stand, collecting their bags from the racks and heading for the automatic doors. I stay where I am, until we pull into the terminus. Somebody is playing music on their phone, another is answering a call and says, ‘I’m just on the train, but I’ll be there in a few minutes and will walk up to the clocktower and meet you.’ The railways aren’t public anymore, since they were privatised, but you still get no personal space.
We see the brutalist architecture of Arlington house. ‘BLOCK BREXIT’ in one of the windows of flats. Next to the re-vamped funfair of Dreamland, where I spent a summer working the dodgems and the tea cups. It’s been a theme park since the 1880s. It went into demise and ruin in the 2000s. The old owner set fire to the scenic railway, and it was derelict for years. But money has been put into it, and now it brings the tourists back in for more days of play. The scenic railway is making the kids put their hands in the air again. The Turner Contemporary has attracted artists and art lovers, the ribbon cut by Tracey Emin, who grew up here. It’s seen trendies from Hackney migrate to Margate via the High Speed rail, still within a commutable distance of the office, but who cares, you can work from home now. Or just work from your favourite local that offers coffee, and yoga and records too. A man with a beard is also flogging bars of soap, and candles made from local seaweed.
Margate’s always been a place for artists and holidaymakers to escape the city for cleaner air. The famous lines of T.S.Eliot ‘On Margate sands, I can connect nothing with nothing.’ He wrote some of The Waste Land in a shelter across the road from the station. Eliot’s poetry writing shelter is next to some toilets (his anagram). Turner came here to paint the panoramic sunsets across the harbour arm – smudged gold in the naturalist form. Tracey Emin has moved back and laid her bed in the Turner Gallery, and also married a rock. Dreamland is an all-day disco again. Sea bathing might not have come back just yet, but people still come to cleanse city pollution from themselves in salt water.
‘We have now arrived at Margate, where this train terminates. Please remember to take all your personal belongings with you when leaving the train. And when alighting, please mind the gap between the platform and the train. We have now arrived at Margate. All change, please, all change.’ Could the announcer not have put it as simple as ‘we have arrived at the sea – wash your sins away.’ I step out of the train, at the end of my journey, on the threshold of where the land meets the sea. There are no ticket barriers at Margate, so I just wander out onto the seafront without getting my ticket out of my wallet. I hear a seagull cry, I feel the sea salt breeze, I’m back home beside the white horses of the waves.
Sam Simmons is a beret wearing poet. He was born and read within seagulls’ cry of the splashing North Sea waves in Kent. He is a writer of geographical ramblings, poems and a painter of pictures. Sometimes he uses crayons like a three-year old would. He has an interest in psychogeography and enjoys long walks. In 2020, Sam graduated with a BA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck with a psychogeograpical dissertation titled ‘The Turtle’.