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Cross Country via Westfields

Claire North News

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I’ve been off to Derby this weekend for the Alt. Literature Festival, and very fun it was too.  But this was the first time I’ve ever attempted to get to one of these events from a base that wasn’t London – in this case, my journey went from Stratford Upon Avon to Birmingham to Derby and back again.
I’ve always loved trains.  As a kid we used to go on holiday as a family of about nine by train, taking the sleeper from Calais to places like Toulouse, Rome and Bologna.  Toulouse was famous for the number of times my Mum was sick there – it seemed to be a habit – Rome was immortalised for the time my parents went second class and I went third – and of course Calais International was notorious for the institution known only as the Terminal Cafe, home of the worst food you have ever eaten in western Europe.  It made the greasy spoons of Glasgow seem like lobster and garlic in comparison.  In more recent years I’ve dabbled with the TGV from Paris to Montpellier, and the overnight train to Vienna and Berlin, changing at Cologne.  No one does mad castles clinging to sheer cliff faces like the German princes did in the Rhine valley.  It’s an ambition of mine to take the train to Istanbul one day, and perhaps one day even try taking the train across parts of the United States, where there is a train to take.  Planes are cool; but oddly enough you don’t feel the speed like you do on a high speed express, nor is the view as much to write home about after the first eight thousand feet.
Back to the trip to Derby… as a Londoner I am naturally pre-disposed to assume that a) all roads lead to London and b) only a fool would take a road in the opposite direction.  It’s therefore something of a treat for me to discover that it was surprisingly easy to get from Stratford to Derby and back; and what strange options it turns out are available for doing so!  The departures board at Birmingham New Street is rich with routes to Edinburgh, London, Cardiff, Bristol, Plymouth, Sheffield, Nottingham and Coventry calling at Manchester, Leicester, Leeds, Durham, Luton, Exeter, Weymouth… once you’re through the ticket barrier it is more than possible to get pretty much anywhere anyhow, changing in bizarre and unexpected places to get there.  I always bring a book to read on a train and invariably spend the journey looking out of the window instead for a glimpse of isolated farms and villages, power stations sat at the end of perfectly straight roads in the middle of empty fields, church towers peeking up through trees, motorways where the traffic seems to go backwards as we overtake it, city suburbs and cathedrals, rivers and estuaries.  I love changing trains; during the volcanic ash business that shut down Europe’s airspace a few months back, I heard one story in particular that caught my imagination.  It was told on the radio about a charity that deals in organ transplants – particularly, organising the transportation of donor organs to patients from Europe to the UK.  When European airspace was shut down, there were obviously still patients in need of life-saving and urgent organ transplants, and one in particular who was just a few days from death and who needed an organ urgently.  The charity had secured a matching organ, but needed to get it from Poland to the UK without flying in less than 48 hours otherwise the organ (and thus patient) would die.  Needless to say, all the ports and stations of Europe were packed with people trying to get back on the already over-taxed services, so the charity put out a message on twitter and within an hour had all the offers of seats on trains that they needed.  As a writer, put yourself inside the mind of whoever the poor sap was who had to make this journey – a non-stop rush from Poland to the UK by train – Eurostar and trans-continental express – not quite knowing where your next ticket was coming from, with the whole of Europe trying to nab your seat, and a box under your arm containing a slowly dying human organ upon which someone else’s life depends.  Hopefully you’ll never look at the people changing trains quite the same way again…
On the subject of changing trains… my only beef with the Birmingham-Derby route was the fact that my changes seemed to perpetually involve going via a Westfield’s Shopping Centre.  Between Birmingham Moor Street and Birmingham New Street you are cordially invited to walk through one of these anonymous white monoliths to shopping on your way to your connection, and knock me down with a feather if between Derby Station and the Lit Festival there wasn’t another one, looming up on the horizon like a monument to commercialism!  As a kid I used to play in Dover Castle, where my uncle was a warden for a while, running up and down the corridors of King Henry II and all his probably rather chilly but very well exercised descendents.  I got very good at knowing which identical stairwell of identical dark damp stone led to which precise room of white-washed arches and arrow-slit windows, and myself and my two playmates could run circles round our weary parents with no trouble at all.  I wonder if in five hundred years time, future generations of kids will wander through the anonymous dark halls of historically preserved Westfields playing hide-and-seek among the remains of plastic mannequins and padded couches while sonorous tour guides pronounce on their themes of kings and castles long gone?