A few weeks ago I spent a couple of days travelling around The County Formerly Known as the Garden of England. I was using a Kent Rover, which allows unlimited travel for three consecutive days.
There were no attractions I especially wanted to see, and no lines upon which I particularly wanted to ride. I merely wished to try and travel along as many routes that were open to me, taking things as I found them.
To impose some sort of coherency upon this rather jumbled quest, I’ve reached for that most unoriginal of conceits, the A-Z. Feel free to call me a lazy Kent hunt.
A is for ARMS, COAT OF
Set high up on one of the walls inside Ramsgate station is a rather fine display of railway-inspired heraldry. I’m guessing it refers to the Southern Railway company that operated between the wars. Its presence is all the more welcome by virtue of being so unexpected, though the building as a whole is pretty impressive. I’ve rarely been inside a station that seemed so airy and weightless.
B is for “BRITISH RAIL TRAIN WITHOUT A TOILET, I’M ON YET ANOTHER”
Seated a short distance from me on the train to Ramsgate was someone who no doubt also used phrases such as “the gas board” and “the GPO”. He was talking into his mobile phone. Everyone could hear him. He had, it seemed, suffered repeated encounters with malfunctioning lavatories. I don’t know what he expected his many listeners to do about it. Offer him an empty water bottle?
C is for “CLIFF!, LOOK OUT”
The ideal place to see the white cliffs of Dover is most definitely not from within Dover itself, though you can kind of glimpse them if you walk far enough along the seafront. This isn’t a town that is best experienced from the inside looking out. Not least because…
D is for DOVER PRIORY
If you’re a fan of unwelcoming, inhospitable, ill-conceived, dank, lumpen and bonechillingly-unloved stations, Dover Priory is not the place for you. Because Dover Priory is in fact desperately unwelcoming, inhospitable, ill-conceived, dank, lumpen and bonechillingly-unloved, and the sort of place that actively strains every sinew of its wretched being to encourage you leave, move on, get out, get far away, never come back and forget you ever came. It is everything a railway station should not be, and has nothing to commend it. Well, almost nothing (see G).
E is for EAST, CANTERBURY
Poorly-signposted from Canterbury West, and vice versa. Not two stations you want to walk between in a hurry on a warm day, shoulder-to-elbow-to-breast-to-shoulder with several thousand tourists.
F is for FOLKESTONE WEST AND/OR CENTRAL
Either is fine for beginning the short ride along the coast to Dover, a seven-mile cliff-clinging, sea-skirting thrill described by Paul Theroux as “man’s best machine traversing the earth’s best feature – the train tracking in the narrow angle between vertical rock and horizontal water.”
G is for GULL, HIGH-SPEED
Pretty much the only thing to recommend Dover Priory station is the chance to see seagulls waddling around blithely on top of stationary non-high-speed trains.
H is for HIGH-SPEED TRAIN, PRETEND
Bits of the lines covered by the Kent Rover are also used by Southeastern’s high-speed services, and with some careful planning you can hop aboard and pretend you’re in the 21st century along with the rest of the industrialised, public transport-rich world, and not the mid-20th. One way to do this is to join a high-speed train that has come from St Pancras at Ashford and continue on to Dover, for much of which you run alongside the tracks used by Eurostar services. However this does mean you need to pay a visit to…
I is for INTERNATIONAL, ASHFORD
One of the most arid stations I have ever visited. Perhaps I was just there at the wrong time. Much of it was deserted. The only people in the huge international terminal were two check-in attendants. The bilingual signs, conceived out of the best cosmopolitan intentions, just looked desperately sad. The entire place felt unsure of its existence – a bit like the EU itself, I suppose*.
J is for J PEASMOLD GRUNTFUTTOCK
Somebody on the train from Ashford International to Dover Priory sounded just like this splendidly seedy character voiced by Kenneth Williams in Round the Horne. The similarity was rather charming, until the person stood up and revealed themselves to be a woman.
K is for KEEP YOUR FEET OFF THE SEATS
One day I will pluck up enough courage to actually say this out loud and not just inside my head.
L is for LICK OF PAINT, COULD DO WITH A
I know it’s not properly representative, but the view of a town from the window of a train ought to show something of the place at its best. Especially a resort town. But this was not the case as the likes of Whitstable, Herne Bay, Westgate-on-Sea and Margate sidled past. North Kent cannot muster many airs and graces for visitors arriving by rail.
M is for MINSTER
I didn’t plan on spending 45 minutes here, but the wait saved me a journey into Ramsgate and back out again. It also allowed me an opportunity to walk around this charming, tiny, historic village, properly known as Minster-in-Thanet, and which could stake a claim for being the quietest settlement in the county. I know my presence was being monitored from behind net curtains, but for once I didn’t care.
N is for NORTH DOWNS
A train from Swanley to Ashford via Maidenhead gave me the best view of the North Downs: a battery of beautiful, natural landscapes indecently and implausibly close to the rotting horror of Kent’s north coastline, and which – unlike Dover – can be equally appreciated up close and from afar.
O is for “OOOH, YOU’VE GOT A KENT ROVER…”
“…Not many people know about them,” cooed the ticket inspector before passing on down the carriage, implying the lack of awareness about this particular special offer was absolutely nothing to do with him.
P is for POSSIBLY THE WORST STATION IN THE COUNTY
See D, although Strood, which seemed to be in barely-managed decline, comes a close second.
Q is for QUICKLY, CROSS
Superfluous instructions at the level crossing at Minster (see M), just in case you were of a mind to dawdle, loiter or quite possibly sit down in the middle of the tracks.
R is for RABBITS
I saw hundreds of them in fields by the side of the railway tracks, most noticeably when “silflay” was taking place. They easily outnumbered the less cuddly though equally ubiquitous oast houses and vineyards.
S is for SWANLEY
The starting point for each day of my travels, and a somewhat underwhelming Gateway to the Former Garden of England.
T is for TILBURY DOCKS
Not in Kent but visible and accessible from the waterfront at Gravesend, which I visited in order to sample both the north-west and south-east (see C) points of the county. I know which I preferred.
U is for UNDERSTATEMENT
Kent is a county of extremes.
V is for VIEW OF THE JOURNEY, THE BEST
W is for WEST MALLING
An advertisement, at least superficially, for both the most picturesque and most monied dimensions of Kent, both of which I contrived to pass through without stopping.
X is for XENOPHOBIA
Another of Dover’s least appealing qualities. It oozes up from the cracked pavements and out through the peeling paintwork and smashed windows of the public houses and shelters that line the streets.
Y is for YALDING
A station I didn’t get to see, due to a signal failure causing the temporary suspension of services between Strood and Paddock Wood just when I was about to take a train along the line, which would have meant I’d travelled along every route permitted by the Kent Rover.
Z is for ZOUNDS
An exclamation suitable for verbal ejaculation upon realising your best-laid plans are to be thwarted by factors beyond your control, as evidenced above (see Y).
ON SATURDAY my friend David and I went on a trip to Weymouth.
It’s three hours by rail from London, with no changes, courtesy of South West Trains. We sat in first class, along with an old man who spent the entire journey listening to music, a young woman, and – towards the end – some SWT employees who gossiped loudly about staffing issues and shift patterns.
We’d gone for first class because it was only a couple of pounds more than standard class and on the assumption we would be treated to a slightly more refined service.
We were not.
Aside from slightly larger seats and a tea towel slung over each of the head rests, there was no difference whatsoever.
But what was most irksome was the absence of freebies. Or to be even more precise, the fact it was one of the coldest days of the year and yet there was no complimentary hot drink.
For any poor bastards in the front carriage of standard class, there was no complimentary heating either. The train manager reassured passengers that “the other carriages are toastie warm”. I know she was trying to sound colloquial, but instead she ended up sounding twee and a bit over-familiar.
She actually had a bit of a torrid time, this train manager. Half an hour into the journey she had to appeal several times for “the owner of the black BMX bike that has been left by the buffet car” to remove said vehicle, then an hour or so after that she pleaded for “the owner of the tartan wash bag” that had been left in the ice-cold front carriage to collect said item before it was “removed and destroyed”.
There was no such excitement on the return journey, save for when the driver announced “CCTV is in operation throughout the train; this is especially directed at the passengers in the rear carriage”. This wasn’t us (we were at the front), but rather a group of teenage girls who had been shouting and mithering on the platform and were presumably still shouting and mithering on the train.
As for Weymouth itself, we didn’t exactly catch it at its best. It was so cold on the beach that I lost all feeling in my fingers as soon as I removed my gloves off to take a photo.
Then we were more or less turfed out of a branch of Costa Coffee when an old woman pointedly parked her walking frame by our table and proclaimed “I’ll be back in a few minutes”.
Meanwhile the amount of flags on display throughout the streets inferred the town had already started celebrating the royal wedding.
Still, it’s clearly in an agreeable location and on anything other than a day with temperatures below freezing it’s probably quite charming.
The train line’s pretty agreeable too, passing through the New Forest before hugging the south coast and tottering round the edge of Poole harbour.
Just make sure you keep your tartan wash bag close and carry a flask of hot drink at all times.