Thursday, 20 May 2010

The Road Turns North


Today was always meant to be a travelling day to get me from the South Coast of England, which has been pretty much the basis of my journey so far, to the outskirts of London where a whole new story about public transport starts to unfold. But, of course, it wasn't as simple as that.

Today's travels started outside of Brighton's joyously insane Royal Pavilion where I caught the bus to Tunbridge Wells, after waiting in the sun at one of a number of what appeared to be art deco-style bus shelters dating from the 1930's. They are amazing and strangley uplifting structures, which only goes to show that in Brighton there are surprises around every corner!

I had already decided that I wanted to visit Tunbridge Wells, which in cultural terms is the very acme of conservatism (with a small 'c') and the home of that newspaper letter's page cliché, "Angry of Tunbridge Wells". And the reason I wanted to visit was because of the town's erstwhile stage coach and a certain delicious irony attached to its name.

During the 1700's, most large towns had their own stage coach which would take passengers – usually well-heeled passengers – up to London. In turn, the coaches brought news from the Capital and thereby almost by accident became responsible for disseminating the news of the day from the city, from government and the Crown, to the rest of the country. It wasn't long before the stage coach operators started to give themselves imposing names like 'Telegraph' and 'Herald' and 'Star', names which they felt reflected their new-found importance and which helped to give their services a certain style.

Later, when the publication of newspapers became more widespread and people developed the habit of taking a paper, their editors and publishers looked around for titles which would give them the necessary gravitas - and most looked no further than their nearest coaching inn, where stage coach names had already become synonymous with delivering the latest news. Hence the profusion of Argus's and Telegraphs's and Herald's and the like.

Now back to Tunbridge Wells. Given its undoubted conservatism, it's as unlikely a place you can imagine to have an association with the Communist Party of Great Britain, yet I've discovered one and it's all thanks to the name of its former stage coach to London. This coach was called The Morning Star, which is also the name with the Communist Party's own newspaper. I suspect this might have been the only occasion on which The Morning Star was actually welcomed into Tunbridge Wells!

From Tunbridge Wells I journeyed across an area of South East England called The Weald, which was somewhere I knew little about. I was genuinely astonished by the beauty not just of the landscape – mature trees and well-tended farmland as far as the eye could see – but of the towns and villages we passed through.

This is archetypal English country landscape which I assumed was little more than a rose-tinted myth but, as a result of today's travels, I'm now going to have to completely reappraise my opinion of those flag-waving, stiff upper lip war films of the 1940's and 1950's which I had thought painted an idealised picture of Britain - cricket on the green, ivy-covered pubs, roses around the cottage windows, that kind of thing. Now I find they clearly didn't - they simply painted a picture of The Weald. And its still there...

My journey brought me to Crawley and thence to Horsham and Guildford before I made the final leg of today's journey to Leatherhead. All told, it's been a lot more interesting and much more enjoyable than I had been expecting, so it wasn't just a matter of putting the miles in, today was definitely a bonus.

Tomorrow will see me looking for a way into London (this part of the trip is mostly unplanned) where I hope to have an appointment with a tram, travel over one of London's iconic landmarks in the wheel tracks of a bus driver-cum-Evel Kenevil, and travel on London's favourite bus, the Routemaster.

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