Day Three: Stafford to Dover (via Reading, Lower Earley and London)

Begin the day, as befits one taking a long journey, by going to Mass. I feel as though, like a medieval pilgrim, I ought to be going via Canterbury instead of Dover, and continuing on to Rome. Instead I catch the train from Stafford to Reading. I have a reservation in coach C so while I wait for my train I watch the two earlier ones pull into the platform and note where coach C usually stops. Third from the back, ending up in a patch of sunlight. I stand in the patch, and sure enough, as the Reading train wheezes to a halt, the door of the third coach from the end is directly in front of me. I take this as a good omen and lug the great green case inside with no more ado. It’s only when I’ve stowed the luggage and am looking for my seat that I realise this train has its carriages lined up the other way, and I am in coach I. But the friendly lady ticket-collector says it doesn’t matter; they’re not busy.

Nothing seems to matter very much on this sleepy, sunny Sunday afternoon as we meander through the ruins of England’s industry (the picture on the right shows what was once a Wolverhampton brewery). It must be the beginning of the university year, as here, as on the ferry, are students with giant sports bags and anticipatory faces, less frenetic, but happier, than the holidaymakers at airports. Between Birmingham and the NEC are green fields with no-nonsense oak trees and the irrepressible ghosts of Falstaff and King Charles join us in the empty seats. In places the globalized world makes its sulky bid for dominance, like a child no one likes, that has to shout for attention, but in Coventry the church spires rise high behind the garish Burger King, leaving it flimsy as one of its own abandoned boxes. White bindweed twists up the sidings, shimmering trees overhang little rivers, a woman and child pick blackberries and odd shaped fields, hills and copses remind me that this is also Tolkien’s native country, The Shire.

Inside the train a man in a red anorak won’t sit down but stands in the aisle

for the entire journey. When I excuse myself to squeeze past he doesn’t reply or move, but gazes into some unsharable distance. At Banbury a group of young people in bright clothes clamber on while an elderly Chinese lady waits on the platform. A man with a magnificent black beard talks on his mobile phone in a language I don’t know. The whole experience, inside and outside the train, is of England at its best; eccentric, tolerant and diverse; calm, with no sign here of anything to trouble us and yet real, more real than the panic-stricken headlines. Haystacks are rolled up on the pale gold fields and the canal boats are bright in primary colours. Sometimes I spend so long thinking about doom and woe, I forget how much good there is left to treasure. The churches in the countryside seem signs of continuity here, not conflict, as they inevitably are in Northern Ireland. There the scenery is greener, our spirits lifted higher by the breathtaking lakes and forests but correspondingly plunged into melancholy when we come to another of the ugly, brutal settlements. Now, as we pass Oxford with a moment’s glimpse of the city and follow the Thames southwards, I have the unusual sensation of gratitude towards my homeland.

My bucolic reverie is rudely broken by the discovery that the platform lift at Reading station has broken. A chivalrous passer-by carries my light case leaving me with the great green monster. (Not excessively chivalrous.) A kindly old gentleman with a walking-stick, who seems to have wandered by accident into the twenty-first century, laments “I can’t be much help to you, I’m afraid.” and follows me, breathing auras of sympathy, as I edge the suitcase up, step by step. It’s enormously heavy, and only the knowledge that, if I let go, it would knock the KOG down to the bottom, keeps me hanging on. Finally I reach the top, breathless, and a jolly ticket collector explains that the lift only broke that morning. I’m not sure why that should make me feel better, but it does. Back in the sunshine outside I wait for the bus beside little knots of taxi drivers, talking in what I think of, childishly. as taxi-driver language, all dressed in neat cotton shirts with sandals or, in one case, bare feet. It feels exotic and oriental. The bus driver arrives, running and laughing, calling out, “I wish I was single!” When I get on the bus he rather charmingly apologizes, explaining that his wife is out at work and that his mother has only just arrived to take over looking after his children. “I tell her I have to drive a bus at three o’clock so what time does she come? Three minutes to three!” On the bus is an advert for a promotion, In Town Without My Car, and another for a Safer Reading Campaign. I wonder if this is to do with not straining your eyes, or, as at Cambridge University Library twenty years ago, not letting impressionable students take The Bell Jar back to their rooms with them. But then I remember where we are.

At Lower Earley I bid the green suitcase a not-very-tearful farewell, as our eldest son meets me at the bus stop and trundles it along to the house he’s renting with a fellow chess player. His old school friends from Lucca (where we lived five years ago) are now at university, mainly in Pisa, and so I’ve coaxed him to keep me company on the journey. The case is full of essentials; Playstation games, jeans, snooker cues and a fair chunk of Terry Pratchett’s oeuvre. We stay for long enough to eat the only food in the house, two bananas, listen to his brother on the radio in Enniskillen (intermittent wonders of the internet) and admire the cat who has annexed their front garden to its territory. Then it’s back to the bus stop, station, train to London and tube to Victoria where we grab a quick meal, with more economy than imagination, at Wetherspoons before going in search of the coach station.

The original plan didn’t have this bit in it; we were going to stay overnight at G’s house and then catch the Eurostar at some civilized time on Monday morning. After a few days of agonizing, following the fire in the tunnel, I decided not to risk hoping for a seat on one of the few trains still running, and booked us instead on the Eurolines overnight service. Neither the coach station nor the coach itself is terrible; everything is clean and modern, but after my transcendent train journey, it’s very crowded and we are herded with little idea of what is to happen when. Most of the passengers are French, and the driver makes his brusque announcements in French only, so we have to grasp what we can and follow the others. The only thing that really annoys me is that, waiting at the ferry port in Dover, the driver switches the engine on to indicate to those who have gone to the terminal for coffee that it’s time to return to the bus, but then leaves it running for almost an hour until he can drive on to the ship. But by then I’m drifting in and out of sleep and don’t think of saying anything (if I’d dared in any case).