I had a work meeting last night, which overran slightly, as such meetings are wont to do. I wasn’t too worried, however, because I had temporarily forgotten about the trains. Until about this time last year, I was a regular commuter on the coastal route on the trains. I generally didn’t suffer too badly with the service, even though it was obviously bad: often overpacked with customers, almost never blessed with functioning toilets, often late, and occasionally cancelled altogether.
There are people reading this who can hardly dare imagine that the service was once that good.
I had occasion to change jobs around this time last year, which means that around this time last year, I no longer had to take the train every day. Also what happened around this time year was that the train service switched from merely bad to quite breathtakingly awful. There are a myriad of reasons for this, and you can choose which side you support another time, but it’s enough to say that I managed – via sheer dumb luck as well as anything else – to avoid the real misery of travelling by train in 2016. It simply didn’t affect me, even though I was reading enough news reports (and friend’s tweets) to understand that things had got really quite terrible.
So when my train home last night was delayed by an hour and a half, while it was annoying, I was reasonably nonchalant about it: after all, it wasn’t the sort of thing that had happened to me EVERY GODDAMN DAY. And anyway, it’s rare that I have an hour of enforced relaxation, so it would probably end up being quite healthy for me. Alright, yes, the first thing that occurred to me was that I should find a seat in a pub and catch up on edits on the current script, but that’s about as relaxed as I get, so I consider that a win.
There was a pub directly opposite the train station, which I stepped into, and then out again in about three minutes. There was a nice relaxed snug bit to the pub, but that section was closed. The open section was the bit with about five pool tables, three one armed bandits, one very loud jukebox, and at least ten people who certainly would have had to carry their proof of age with them at all times in order to continue drinking there. It wasn’t for me.
I knew that the next train station, the main train station for this town, was only a couple of minutes walk away, and that that train station also had a pub directly opposite it, so I thought I may as well give that one a go (I did have over a hour to fill, after all). Before too long, I got to the second pub. It’s a proper old style Opposite-A-Train-Station pub: huge, clearly doubled as a hotel back in the day, lots of gleaming brass and polished wood. It’s a genuinely beautiful pub. And it was pretty much empty.
I ordered my drink, and the landlord got the price wrong about three times, almost as if he wasn’t used to serving drinks all that often. Turns out, that may actually be the case: with a grim ghost of a smile, he asked ‘Waiting for a train then, are you?’ I admitted that I was, and he nodded with the air of a man for whom a single customer waiting for a single (delayed) train buying a single drink was going to dramatically improve his sales tonight. Which, bluntly, well may have been true.
The main problem for this pub was that it was directly next to the train station, which is a very bad location. This may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but think about it: train stations are generally on edges of towns or cities. Even if it feels like they’re slap dead in the centre of town, they’re not really: all the businesses, shops, cafes and pubs are normally – for the sake of argument – in front of the station, and then everything else – houses, smaller shops, etc – are tucked away behind. And there is very often a pub sitting next to the station, but since you generally only go to the station to go somewhere else, the pub is a place that you are literally passing on your way somewhere else. It’s not often that you’ll stop for a drink at the station pub unless you’re waiting for a delayed train (see also: buying anything from WHSmiths), and if you’re on your way out of the station – in other words, if you’ve just arrived – you kind of want to get your journey done, finished. And even if you do intend to go for a drink, that usually does mean getting as far away from the station as possible.
Over in Brighton, there’s a pub next to the station that has just closed down its upstairs theatre space and replaced it with a cocktail bar, mainly because the landlord apparently doesn’t understand this fundamental truth, universally acknowledged: those in want of a good cocktail will either travel a fair bit or not at all for it. Which is a clumsy way of saying that if you stick your cocktail bar next to the train station, almost nobody is going to come along to it: if they’re going to make the effort to go all the way to the train station (on the edge of town, remember), and they’re in a cocktaily kinda mood, they might well just jump on a train to London (as long as it’s not delayed, of course), and if they’re arriving in town, they want to actually visit the town, not stay at the pub that signifies as the city walls.
This has happened before: I remember a vegan café in Brighton a couple of years back that held regular comedy and spoken word nights. It wasn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere, but it was literally just off the beaten track: it didn’t get a lot of passing trade – you either knew about it because it was about the only café in Brighton that was entirely vegan (yes, I’m as surprised as you are), or if you’d made the trip to see one of the performers. And of course what happened was that audience members – occasionally ones that lived only a few minutes away – would declare that they’d never heard of this place. But then they’d become regular customers. One hand washes the other, etc.
A new owner came in, and decided what the place really needed to be was a champagne bar. Despite the fact that nobody walked past this place without already knowing what it was. The vegan café was shut down, the comedy nights and spoken word events ceased. Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for cocktail bars and champagne bars in Brighton, obviously there is (West Street needs a bit of a sprucing up, for instance). But you can probably see where this story ends: the champagne bar lasted less than six months (possibly a hell of a lot less). It’s perplexing watching it happen from the outside, when one is avowedly not a business person, watching a business make a fundamentally poor decision, thinking, ‘well, even I know what’s not gonna work ..’
Anyway, I got my train. And I managed to relax for a hour. I mean, I wrote this blog entry, but apart from that …