Thursday 28 February – Buckhurst Hill (Square A8 on Tube map), Burnt Oak (A4), Bushey (A3), Caledonian Road (B6)
The last day of February and I’m on a mission to meet what in the trade is called my ‘stretch target’ and finish the ‘B’ stations. That will involve 97 stops and six changes of lines, but I think it’s doable. Well, actually, I only set the target yesterday at about 5.30 pm on the way back from Brondesbury Park. What’s the point in setting yourself targets if you can’t meet them? It only gets you down-hearted. Anyway, others are only to willing to set you ‘stretch targets’ you can’t meet. No more than two pints of blood per night, Count Dracula! Aw, Nurse!
Once more, it’s up and out with the lark for me. I’m at Forest Hill for 10.20 am and shimmy straight on to the Overground. The Metro screams: Divorce? Have a £4,000 bill for photocopying.
It’s about blood-sucking lawyers ‘milking vulnerable divorcing couples’. Make that ‘milk-sucking’ lawyers. We can’t have them giving vampires a bad name.
I settle in. I’ve got a load of stops and a lot of reading to do before I get to Buckhurst Hill. I’m half-way through Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine. I’m enjoying it: it’s a good read. Basically there’s no way out for Silone’s hero, Pietro Spino, a communist returning to Mussolini’s Italy.
The Inner Curmudgeon is also enjoying it: it’s a gloomy read. Basically there’s no way out for the world. As one of Spino’s ex-comrades says, ‘The present black inquisition will be succeeded by a red inquisition, the present censorship by a red censorship.’ I make myself another target: to finish Bread and Wine before I get back to Forest Hill today. Now that will be a stretch. ‘For a long time I was tormented by the question why all revolutions, all of them without exception, began as liberation movements and ended as tyrannies. Why has no revolution escaped that fate?’
Hey ho! This is serious unremitting stuff. See what I mean by a stretch target?
Buckhurst Park is four stops from the North-Eastern end of the Central Line. I’ve passed through it on the way to Theydon Bois and Epping and, though I’ve never stopped there, I have a fair idea what it might be like. It’s in Essex, the inner-city landscape has given way to suburbia, suburbia is welcoming the countryside with open arms. A bucolic landscape greets me from the station. Definitely more wine than bread.
It’s 11.10 am. The clouds are shifting apart. I walk through the station car park and ponder which way leads to the centre of Buckhurst Hill. There’s a guy and his father also peering around. They’ve come here to road-test a second-hand Volvo V80. The guy’s present car is on its last legs. He’s a Youth Worker and one of his colleagues, who is reaching sixty, is terrified of retiring but doesn’t think it’s on to be a Youth Worker at his age. He (the old Youth Worker) is frightened he’ll turn into a lounge-lizard. He’s decided that when he retires he’s going to walk round the coast of England. My heart skips a beat: there are people out there crazier than me! Wonderful!
The Inner Curmudgeon spoils the party. ‘You can’t walk round the coast of England,’ he says. ‘What about Wales? Once you get to Bristol you’ve got to walk round Wales, all the way to Chester.’ Luckily for inter-crazy relationships the seller of the V80 hoves into view. The father, who has been scanning the horizon, says as they leave, ‘I think there are shops over there.’
Shops? That’s no shop, that’s a Waitrose! Maybe there’s a lovely little independent left-field coffee shop. I scuttle towards the High Street. There’s a florist on the corner with an lovely window-display ready for Mother’s Day. It’s called One Six Queen. I hope this isn’t a Work Life Balance clone. Perhaps a reference to royalty? Or to chess? I see a shop assistant inside. I’d put her in her early thirties and, like the windows and the shop, she’s next to immaculate. I go in. I ask her about the shop’s name.
‘No,’ she says with a laugh, ‘It’s our address: 16 Queen Street.’
I change my opinion of her. She’s better than next to immaculate, she’s warm, engaging and fully human. I ask after business. They’ve had a really good Valentine’s Day. They put up the Mother’s Day window display yesterday and they’ve high hopes to repeat their Valentine’s Day success. I wish them well.
Queen’s Street straggles uphill. If you ignore the Waitrose and one or two chain-incursions, it can only be described as picturesque. It’s got a lot of ‘high-end’ shops – clothes shops (for men as well as women) and the like with high margins. There’s a bouquet of hair and beauty shops: they’re big on waxing the ladies of Buckhurst Hill. They can also get their jeans tapered – or is that for their men? I’m lost when it comes to fashion. They’ve got knick-knack shops, a Pilates studio, a Parish Council. Alas, I don’t fancy the one independent coffee place. Don’t ask me why. I just don’t fancy it.
The shops straggle on a little more, then stop and the houses begin. It’s time to turn back to the station. I’m half way down Queen’s Street when a humungous glossy white 4WD slews into a parking bay. It looks like the biggest Range Rover money can buy but it’s got ‘OVERFINCH’ in capitals on its bonnet and a vanity plate on its bumper. The woman driver jumps out with money for the parking meter. She’s an Essex girl, I think. Early thirties, I think, but you know how dodgy I am with ages. She’s got streaked blond hair, huge designer sun-glasses, a trim figure under a fake-fur gilet and long legs under her leather-look leggings. I may be hopeless at fashion but I know a fashion-plate when I see one.
The parking meter is out of order. She looks up and down the street, fashionably exasperated.
I ask her about her car. Is it a Range Rover? She’s remarkably nice and well-mannered about an old codger assailing her with motoring conundrums. ‘I think so. Apparently, it’s got a special engine.’
‘One that goes from nought to sixty in two point seconds?’ I ask.
She screws her eyes up a little. ‘I don’t know. I suppose so, yeah, on the motorway.’ She shrugs. ‘I only drive it around here.’ She spots a parking warden and goes off to collar him.
I wander back to the station. I could, I think, wonder why women like driving huge powerful cars when all they do is use them for shopping. But I decide I’ve got better things to think about. For instance, I’ve got 24 stops before I get to Burnt Oak, 10 on the Central and 14 on the Northern (Edgware branch). I’ve never been to Burnt Oak either. I wonder if it will be another middle class outpost. I hope not. Despite enjoying my visit to Buckhurst Hill, I feel a little let down. It’s got something to do with my expectations, meagre and biased as they were, being half-way met.
Seventy five minutes later at 1.00 pm, I arrive at Burnt Oak. It could not be more different than Buckhurst Hill. It’s more like Peckham. It’s bustling, full of energy. There are fruit-and-veg shops and mini-supermarkets galore, fresh fish shops, Halal butchers, fast food joints, Nigerian cafes, clothes shops, kitchen equipment shops … And the sun is now fully out. There’s traffic lights at the end of the road where it meets a larger road. I walk on. There’s something about that road ahead …
I’m almost on it before I recognise it. It’s the A5.
The bustle and clamjamfry of Burnt Oak Broadway, as it’s called, continues apace. The Wee Professor elucidates: ‘clamjamfry’ is a joyous whirligig, a wild party, a wonderfully busy and disordered assembly. ‘The hale clamjamfry’ – this wonderful, unknowable, uncontrollable, spinning universe.
There’s the Tigris supermarket which advertises itself as a Bakery – Grocery – Butcher – Fruit – Vegetable Food Centre. It has Turkish, English, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Iranian food. It has Albanian, Greek, Polish, Kosovan, Romanian and ‘Balcanian’ (Balkans) food. The Afghan Bazaar opposite advertises African, Eastern European and Middle Eastern foods. There’s an East African Fashion shop, a Hard Work Café, a pub called The Bald Faced Stag. There’s a Maplins where I get the batteries for the remote control that I couldn’t find in Brent Cross Shopping Centre. Inevitably, there’s a Tesco Metro further along the road.
I walk back to the station. I can’t see any upmarket coffee shop though there is a café that also sells second-hand computers. I decide on one of the Nigerian cafés: the Lekki Kitchen. I explain to the young man that I’ve never eaten in a Nigerian café, I know nothing about Nigerian food, I don’t eat meat – what can he recommend, what would be a typical Nigerian lunch?
He smiles and shakes his head, ‘That is upto you.’
I look at the menu scrawled on the blackboard. ‘What about fufu? What’s that?’
He points to the photo on the takeaway menu.
‘But what is it?’ I ask.
He doesn’t seem to understand that I want to know what it is – is it yam or cassava or what? He points to the photo again.
We’re getting nowhere. I point at a photo of a piece of orange-looking chicken sitting on top of a green and yellow stew. Behind it is a bowl with fufu.
‘I’ll have that but with fish, please, not meat, not chicken. Fish.’
I sip at a bottle of water. I decide to look up fufu and jollof – I have a feeling that what I’ve asked for is jollof. I go on to the App Store on my iphone. There’s a free app there about Nigerian cooking. It looks as though it may answer my question. But, though it’s free, Apple in its wisdom, needs me to put in my password. Needless to say, I can’t remember my password. Apple wouldn’t accept any password I could remember. It’s some strangle of numbers and upper- and lower-case letters. I give up. My meal arrives.
I unwrap the fufu. I carve a thin, tentative sliver. I taste it. It’s warm, has a dry slightly yielding consistency and is completely tasteless. I try the fish stew. The fish has a chewy, sometimes crunchy texture. It’s full of bones but they’re easily detached. It’s got a deep meaty taste, meatier than any fish I know. The yellow sauce is hot and peppery – perhaps it’s pepper sauce. It goes well with the fish and gives a bite of flavour to the fufu. The green spinach-like vegetable is a little astringent, perhaps it’s callaloo?, but it balances the pepper sauce and meaty fish. I finish the fish jollof but can manage only half the fufu. Not bad, I decide.
It’s time for Bushey. Look on your Tube guide and Bushey is hardly an inch away from Burnt Oak. But it’s at the end of the Watford branch of the Overground. The Watford branch? There’s a Watford branch? Oh yes, really. What’s it doing on the London underground? No idea, but it’s 25 stops away and I have to get to Euston to catch it.
It takes me eighty minutes to get to Bushey. I get through four or five chapters of Silone. It’s winding its inevitable way towards its inevitable bleak ending. The Inner Curmudgeon is lapping it up.
I’ve never been to Bushey. It’s completely new to me. Or, at least, Bushey station and environs is new to me. Bushey station is obviously some way from Bushey itself. What I see is a tortuous, snarled-up one-way system, a large bleak roundabout. There’s a new development with flats and a Costcutter, pharmacy and coffee shop opposite the station and The Railway Arms with hanging baskets, advertising that it shows Sports in HD. Otherwise it’s tile shops, window showrooms, tool hire places, an auto parts shop, fast food places … In the mid-distance there’s a Wickes, a Dreams supermarket, a B & Q, and an HSS. A Mercedes-Benz showroom from the planet Württen-Badenburger has landed opposite. But don’t write Bushey off just yet …
I make my way back to the station. School is out and there’s the usual malarkey going on, even some good old-fashioned schoolboy and schoolgirl swearing. My spirits pick up. Besides, I’ve achieved my stretch target, I’ve got to the end of the B’s. I settle back to Silone. It’s definitely going to be a sticky end for both hero and heroine. But will I finish the novel in time?
I check my Tube map. I have to go to Euston where I could change on to the Victoria and go north to Highbury & Islington before taking the Overground. But I could continue to Finsbury Park, change on to the southbound Piccadilly and be at Caledonian Road in, well, an hour and a bit? I go for it. I could have made it easier for myself by changing from the Victoria line at King’s Cross but then I’ve never knowingly made things easier for myself.
There’s a stook of ticket inspectors barring the way between the northbound and southbound platforms at Finsbury Park. I show my Freedom Pass.
‘On you go, young man,’ the inspector says cheerily.
This is a joke. I know it’s a joke because I’ve heard it a number of times before. But I’m not blown off-course. I’m looking forward to Caledonian Road.
They’re playing classical music there. I look round but I can’t see any ‘Thought for the Day’. Outside there are brash new tower-blocks. There are more blocks being pushed up further down the Cally Road. I must looked dazed because a Station Attendant comes over and asks me if I’m alright. I explain that I haven’t been down this way for years and I’m amazed at the changes.
‘They’re building all around here. You wouldn’t know it’s a recession. It’s mostly student halls of residence,’ he tells me. We talk. We agree that students, by and large, are OK. I tell him what I’m about and that I’m going to cross the road and take a photo of the station.
‘I’m out of here,’ he says. We laugh.
I walk down the road towards King’s Cross. The sky is blue but the sun has dipped below the horizon and it’s cold. I walk past the massive white stucco wall of Pentonville Prison. Even though it’s a women’s prison, I decide it’s time to turn round and head for home. Better safe than sorry. The number of letters and emails I get addressed to ‘Ms Sandy Craig’!
Passing Blundell Street I spot a garage. Lined up outside it are half a dozen old Fiat 500s, tiny eeny-meeny cinquecentos.
I am entranced. I wander into the forecourt and goggle at the little beasties. I remember going to Spain with Fran in the Mini to celebrate the death of Franco. The Cinquecento is the Italian equivalent. (Of the Mini, not of Franco.) OK, so it doesn’t have anything like the horsepower of your Overfinch but you wouldn’t see Berlusconi dead in one of these.
I talk with the garage owner. He tells me how the family used to go to Italy in little Fiats in the seventies, how it took three or four days, how it was an adventure. Now, they get there in a day. I tell him my fantasy of driving something like a Cinquecento around Europe, pootling down to Spain. He purses his lips. ‘I wouldn’t drive it on the motorways. You’d get blown away by the articulated lorries.’ He thinks about it. ‘But if you went on the Route Nationales, now that’s a different matter.’
I skip back to the tube. I go one stop back on the Piccadilly to King’s Cross, then the Victoria to Highbury & Islington, then the Overground home. I finish Bread and Wine somewhere around Canada Water. I won’t tell you how it ends except to say that it was, well, inevitable. I get back within the hour at 6.30 pm.
Later, at Gingerbread Cottage, I calculate that, so far, I’ve visited 46 out of 367 stations. That’s 12% of stations. Admittedly, by the end of February, I should have got to around 62 or 17% of stations. But the warmer weather will soon be upon us, the days are getting longer and I’m getting into my stride.
I look up the Cinquecentos I’ve seen today on the internet. No doubt about it, they’re darling little ducks. I think of the Overfinch. I dream of the Cinquecento. I know which car I prefer.