To Saffron

A gull effortlessly glides the wind, it’s wing feathers hardly ruffle as it cuts silently through the air. Across the great grey, sea green bay, the white lighthouse blinks rhythmically atop its sea battered black rocks. A short gap of foaming, current eddied swirling water separates it from the headland. The sweep of the cliffs to its right, then turn to beach, then to sand dunes. It is only 8 in the morning on a rather mild but overcast January morning. The sun has risen, but where it is, is anyone’s guess as cloud cover is about 100% stretching from all compass points to merge overhead as a blind grey white canopy of vapours. The only sound is a light breeze in the palm trees, and the shoreline waves far below on the beach. The quiet is momentarily disturbed by a car crossing the bridge over the railway line at the end of the platform, for this is where I stand. The 0810 to St Erth from Carbis Bay will soon trundle in, its steel wheels screeching against the curve of the track as the brakes bite. 

The long sweep of the platform is home to a woolly hatted, jute bag carrying, scarf wrapped passenger off to St Erth. That’s two of us in total. To the west, the track curves over the viaduct of the Carbis stream, the Wheal Margery adit, and hugs the cliffs as it heads toward St Ives. Any train going that way will arrive in just 3 minutes. The line itself cuts deep halfway up the steeply wooded cliffs and is overlooked by some very grand houses on Hain Walk, the coastal path into town. The chapel of St Nicholas on St Ives island is clearly visible from the platform on Carbis Bay as it pokes its nose from around the final headland. For now the delights of St Ives, the beery hospitality to be found in The Sloop, The Pilchard Press or The Beer and Bird will have to await another day. As will the hot steaming steak pasties. 

For I am going East. To St Erth, Exeter, Paddington and on to Audley End near Stansted Airport. This will take about 10 hours. The train from Carbis By to St Erth will take about 12 minutes. It hugs the coast all of the way, overlooking the magnificent stretch of the beach of Porthkidney sands, to the lighthouse and the ebbed tide mudflats of Hayle estuary. Wading birds are having breakfast all along the shore; oyster catcher, turnstone, curlew and heron. And of course the ubiquitous gull. 

To avoid stress, I prefer to give myself more than just a few minutes between connections. The next train to Exeter is the 0858, some 35 minutes after my arrival at St Erth. There are earlier trains but I have booked the 0858. Upon alighting, I am joined by a ‘throng’ of commuters going to…? Most are young, college student types. I say ‘throng’ but to qualify as such requires far more bodies than the 4 currently sitting, texting, sleeping, headphoning on the bench on platform 2. The are also two men also waiting patiently for the train, dressed in everyday work gear, no doubt on their way to close deals on procuring pasty meat or a wide range of root vegetable based commodities. 

St Erth hosts a tea shop on platform 3. Upon entering you have walked back in time to the steam era, circa 1950 or even earlier. There is precious little in decor, furniture or snacks on offer to make you think otherwise. The walls are covered in railway memorabilia, posters from the 1930s extolling and depicting the virtues of steam travel to all the beauty spots of Britain including Clacton. A steam whistle can be heard as the Cambrian Coast Express clatters to Aberystwyth or the Cornish Riviera skirts Dawlish. The tea room is delightful and wholly in keeping with St Erth station itself which still has proper semaphore signals and a signal box.

A small brown pot of tea on a tray, with a china cup and saucer, a custard cream biscuit and a small glass bottle of milk. Cash. No cards. The tea pot is the gold standard of tea pots, not the stainless steel beloved of other cheaper cafes. You know the sort of steel tea pot I mean. It pours tea at angles that are always unpredictable and which defy the laws of fluid dynamics, while also dribbling down the spout to deposit hot tea onto your lap. Stainless steel danger traps have been around for decades, they should be collected and sold for scrap. The little brown ceramic tea pot is perfection. It has one job, and it does it perfectly without fuss. It is design genius. Whoever thought they could better it with steel, was a misguided fool at best. I’d personally design a version of hell for him. It has to be a man, no woman would ever be so arrogant or stupid so as to think perfection can be bettered. Female ego requires no lasting legacy to shore up the otherwise fragility of the male variety. The version of hell that awaits the steel tea pot designer includes a pot of hot tea, drips of scalding hot liquid dropping from it’s spout at minute intervals onto one of his baby smooth shaved, naked testicles. For eternity. 

Right on time, the 0858 arrives. For railway buffs, and you know who you are, it is a ‘short form HST’ of 4 coaches and a power car at each end. To the rest of you…this is the old HST that served for decades going between Paddington and Penzance, and between everywhere else in Britain until the introduction of the newer Hitachi built sets introduced recently on the network. Other trains you may have experienced are the old rackety slow, noisy rattlers such as the one that runs on branch lines. We arrive in Plymouth at 1048. Two hours later. GWR do not bother with buffet facilities on this stretch of line, on these ‘local trains’. This qualifies as a local as it terminates at Exeter. If you want refreshment you had better bring your own, or ask your personal assistant to organise it. A toilet is available upon request. Incontinence is frowned upon, apparently. Dehydration is your responsibility. Yet, this is far better than chancing your luck on the killing fields known as the British trunk road system. The seats are comfortable, wi fi is available and off peak there is plenty of room. The view of course is magnificent as one slices quietly though the rolling hills, tors and estuaries of Cornwall and Devon. 

I could drive to Saffron Waldon. 

In the past it has taken the best part of 7-8 hours. It would mean concentrating all of the way, staring at the road in the middle distance or at the myriad red tail lights heading for destinations such as Much Sodding, Little Sodding and Sodding Off Common in the shires between Plymouth and London. Some even drive to Swindon. I could brave the vagaries of the average British car driver whose skill and expertise in controlling the steel death trap that is your modern vehicle is in inverse proportion to their perceived competence and ego. I prefer to avoid the pouting selfie obsessed social media influencer driving on the M4 to make her next podcast on ‘mindfulness, lip gloss and self esteem’ (brought to you by L’Oreal), and driving while texting or crying because her muscle bound, shaven headed, boyfriend has been shagging her best friend (again). Or, the young lad thinking he is a F1 spunk muppet able to drive at 90 mph when the motorway is rammed with 3 lanes of backed up bollocks due to road works or ‘sheer volume of traffic’. Or the middle aged, middle class, middle England, middle lane crawler who thinks it “perfectly acceptable to drive at exactly 70 miles an hour because that is the speed limit anyway” while being blissfully unaware that traffic is building up behind for 10 miles as delivery drivers in white vans and articulated lorries begin to fume as deadlines pass and tachographs insist it is time to stop well before the destination is reached. The degree of pent up fury behind, boils over into risk taking, road rage and burst aneurysms while middle lane man continues unabashed at the mayhem behind. His wife at his side is merely thinking about what is for tea or how best to commit suicide. I could enjoy service stations. I could pay the GDP of Nigeria for a burger whose taste and consistency would rival that of baked cow dung, for coffee so weak that a doctor would put it on life support and for the experience of navigating the crowd of howling, spitting, pissing, crying humanity that passes for adulthood in transit or their alienated and demonic offspring demanding to be fed, watered and entertained for every waking second of their pitiful little meaningless lives…lives which will soon be wiped out in the coming climate catastrophe, a catastrophe whose only good point will be ending once and for all the incessant hell that is motorway traffic. 

Yes, I could drive. 

I could arrive spent. Drained of all energy, enthusiasm and zest for life. I could risk all on the throw of a dice, my life depending on the rest of stupid humanity staying awake and alert and actually paying attention to the road conditions as they actually are and not as seen on TV in car adverts, adverts whose grasp of reality is similar to that of a born again Christian’s views on evolution, same sex relationships and applying the healing powers of Jesus to victims of a nuclear explosion. 

I think the train is better. I can sleep, write, drink, breathe…in fact I can undertake most of the activities of daily living excepting ‘expressing sexuality’ and the tasks of ‘personal hygiene’. I can let my mind wander to things esoteric and ordinary; about pork pies, the 101 use of a paper clip or upon Hegelian dialectics and its application in post industrial capitalism. In my youth, I could peruse the opportunities and joys of sexuality on long journeys but those days are long gone. I prefer to think about pie based nourishment rather than nipples, about politics rather than pudenda and I cleave to my remaining vestiges of sanity rather than the various cleavages of rampant sensualities. I would no longer know what to do with it, if it offered to sit on my face. I would probably cry out in distress gasping for air. 

Teignmouth. Across the stillness of the estuary, the opposite bank is lightly clothed in mist. The water is glass. All is light brown and grey from mud to sky and yet in it stillness there is a quiet beauty. We have increase speed towards our destination. Topsham and Exmouth on one side, Powderham on our left. Green water meadows replace the estuary, the tower of Exeter cathedral looms out of the mist. Time for a short break. 

Starbucks. How does this strike me today as I wander along platform 1 at Exeter St David’s? I have an hour to spare before the 1306 to Paddington. What options do I have other than a coffee in Starbucks? I could write an article for the Guardian or the West Briton. I could sketch out a policy for addressing climate change adaptation programmes, I could work out some song lyrics? I could be sipping piña coladas in Mustique while planning the downfall of financial capitalism using only words, protest and the death of hope. Instead, in the cold and grey of a January sky, I amble towards Starbucks, for there shall I find the stillness of a quiet mind, the peace and love that surpasses all understanding and a flat white. 

A flat white. The coffee equivalent of mediocrity, so devoid of challenge or stimulus that it is offered as a soporific to the terminally deranged of mind and the dangerously active. Why I choose this inoffensive caffeine beverage at such times is probably down to paring down decision making to the barest minimum so as to save brain energy for more important matters such as paying attention to itches, day dreaming or watching the cloud smother all sense of optimism in the benevolence of destiny. As I step up to the counter to order, the phrase “flat white” trips off my tongue as if it has a life of its own. I’m not aware of exercising any conscious cognitive processing. This can only be a Pavlovian stimulus-response thing. The very kind and understanding young lady who takes my order then asks a question so unexpected that I’m momentarily stunned into bowel twitching confusion. I am well used to the paring conversational couplet of ‘give order-ask for money’ script that is then followed by two ‘thank yous’ (client and vendor), that I’m out of sorts when the unexpected happens. 


What?  Name? Mine, hers or the coffee’s? What is my name…and is that it? If so what shall I offer and does that matter? What is she going to do with it…check my bank account details or call Interpol? Of course, she needs it to write on the order !  It’s a Starbucks thing. Probably a Costa and a Nero’s thing as well? What if I give the same name as someone else in the queue? How would I know and would this result in a fracas as we both similarly named grapple with a flat white? Sharing a name is not improbable, nor is sharing the same order for a coffee. After all when you have exhausted the list of espresso, latte, mocha and cappuccino there is only one place left. The flat white. By my reckoning that is a mere 1 in 5 chance of ordering the same thing. You’d not want to live in a world with only a 1 in 5 chance of catching syphilis, being hit by a train or having to watch the One Show. Next time I’m taking a flask. It’s not worth the risk.

I cradle the mildly hot cup of coffee as I sit in the ‘cafe’. It has of course the little design in the froth so beloved of baristas which I think is their attempt to bring some joy into an otherwise joyless world. It is the sigh of the oppressed creature as it navigates the river of the vale of tears we call life. This coffee is the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. Starbucks have not invested too much into making the seating area a place of rest and succour. Their business model must be “buy coffee-now fuck off”. As I sit I can hear my life ebbing away slowly with every silent tick of the clock that is my heart. I can hear a gaggle of American students at the next table. No doubt excited at their studies and life opportunities that Exeter University offers before the bitter pill of disappointment, ennui and pregnancy ruins their overblown dreams. That’s just the boys. They’ll be studying law or medicine with a naïve intention of ‘making a difference’, or some such total bollocks, with the unbounded enthusiasm of a cocker spaniel at walkies time not realising they are being taken to the vet for testicle removal. 

Youth is for the young, a truth as universal as is clichéd. I’ll leave them to their coffee and misplaced hope. 

Platform 5 for the 1306. 

Bright white, lights in the distance herald the arrival of the green, sleek, well oiled machine that slinks quietly into the station. It hums as it passes before stopping. It’s doors, starship enterprise in fashion, ooze open. I find my seat. 

Often on trains one may hear a child cry. There may be a drunk snoring. There are any manner of sounds to soothe one’s journey. Then there are those, who having partaken of a G and T or three, just talk. How do I know? Just one seat away, there is a party of women of indeterminate age on a ‘weekend away’ to London. I know this much because of the volume being turned up to 11. I am treated to a whole cornucopia of topics that roll into one another with no underlying coherent narrative or end point. Only when they fall asleep or are arrested will there be any respite. The topics are personal and incomprehensible spoken with a rapidity of speech to make one doubt one is hearing a known language. My ears start to bleed and I am starting to wish I was on the M25 being tailgated by white van man as I get stuck behind a middle lane crawler. They talk over each other and thus break all the normal rules of effective communication. I suspect the point however is not to pass information or to share knowledge but rather the point is just the sheer bloody joy of hearing ones own voice, with meaning being an add on rather than a necessary end.   Homo Sapiens developed a frontal cortex to facilitate quite complex cognitive processes, to the extent that we have had an Enstein (the physicist, not the alleged actress raper), a Darwin or even a Jeremy Kyle. I’m afraid the gift of coherent speech and narrative has been lost. Is murder acceptable on trains any more?

One has just had the temerity to state they have booked the ‘quiet coach’ on the way home, with absolutely no insight or irony. Good God…and oh no, they have returned to the contents of the dinner at Wetherspoons. 

I think I’ve just met the whole population of Cornwall in one go on the platform of Liverpool Street Station. The only difference is that they are at times better dressed, at times very badly dressed but otherwise anonymous. Just the sea of faces washing past me in waves of stress, stupidity and haste. This is where all of the young people are. I’ve noted before that in city centres those over the age of say, 55 have been banished or have wisely absented themselves. 

The tube from Paddington takes nearly 20 minutes and is relatively quiet given we have to pass through Kings Cross and Euston. I said, ‘stupid’ because I am prejudiced against city dwellers, especially in London. I left Carbis Bay this morning and as the train trundled around the first bend, the whole of Carbis Bay beach was before me, excruciatingly beautiful. Heartbreakingly beautiful. Why would I want ever to leave? One has to be stupid, right? At Liverpool Street I have an hour to kill and so I leave the station at the Bisphopsgate entrance. Emerging from the platforms below street level into the dusk of a London evening I am confronted by a seething mass of humanity all going somewhere while being in nowhere. Dusk? How can you tell when you are immediately hemmed in on all sides by huge steel and glass towers. The sky is up there somewhere. My vision, my view, is restricted to the distance of the width of the road which is rammed with traffic. 

You know London, if you’ve never been here you’ve seen it a thousand times on the tv and in films. 

I’m in Dirty Dicks pub listening again to wankers talking about their London ‘properties’ (Hampstead), yes that is plural. I’m near the epicentre of financial London, where the c*nts crashed the economy for which we are still paying. I’ve got this feeling before. I’ve lived too long now back in the fresh open air of Cornwall, jeez this is claustrophobic. The pub sells IPA and lager. That’s it. I asked for a bitter was offered a pale imitation of the stuff. Fashion can take its own arse and stuff it. The only drinkable beer was Guinness which is often the saviour for the more discerning palate. 

With 20 minutes to go I ‘amble’ back across the road. Again the wall of humanity presses in from all sides, all wired, all going at pace. I used to love the buzz, now it seems really weird. Have I changed? Without question. Have the cities changed? Without question. It is here among the deciders and the trapped that I feel the insolubility of our present predicament as a ‘civilisation’; so disconnected, so separate from our natures, from nature. I guess if the only thing you know is a glass cage, then you cannot think of another more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. Perhaps I’m overthinking, over feeling the disconnect I tangibly feel in the heart of the City, but disconnect it seems to be. 

I stand and wait for a few minutes underneath the orange lit information boards indicating which trains go to where from what platforms at what time. As I stand quite still, I am the lighthouse that sees the waves crashing endlessly around me. I’m convinced many if not all do not see me even as they pass right beside me, when at last my platform is displayed. 

The train consists of of 12 coaches. It is packed. Pretty much full now. The silence is deathly. Everyone is plugged in and networked. Everyone. There is absolutely no noise from a human voice. No one. I am surrounded by people but quite, quite alone. I think I’d be arrested as a weirdo if I started talking to someone, this being a commuter train…the 1737 to Cambridge. Isolated individuals going home to an isolated nuclear family. No wonder we are able easily to divide, separate, avoid. Our monkey brains are crying out for mutual back scratching and tick picking but it ain’t happening. Lost in a world of false dreams, striving to achieve what exactly? If this is how you treat your humanity day in and day out no wonder you need soma, booze, drugs or the glamour of other worlds on the tv big screen to filter out the alienation or a day spent in limbo. No amount of therapy is ever going to make this better. Mindfulness? I’m sitting being mindful of my immediate environment,  and frankly it is shit. I’ll not be mindful, I’ll drink instead. Except there is no buffet or refreshments at all on offer. This is not the first time I’ve palpably felt stressed in London. I look around but no one seems to be. Dare say I’m not giving out any signs and my heart rate is fine. So it must be a mental thing. I need art right now, I need sky and light. I need a fine wine, opera house, favourite melodies…I see toys, boys, electric irons and TVs. My brain hurts like a warehouse, there is so much room in there. 

Another 30 minutes and I’ll be in Audley End, near Saffron Waldron. Sanity beckons in the form of two old friends and a bottle of something nice.

It’s been over 10 hours now. I think I’ve had enough. 

A bientôt. 

Published by Lance Goodman

Freelance writer, bon vivant and all-round good oeuf.

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