This afternoon I’m headed for a meeting near Leatherhead and find myself reminiscing on a train through stations, names and suburban landscape that 35 years ago was very familiar. Trains in this part of South West London were a daily part of life - to school, to friends and to scouts. And the interwoven lines were a network that offered options that a teenager had to weigh up carefully.
The dominant trip was easy - a single train from Sutton to Wimbledon five or six days a week, through stations that even now I can rattle off by heart. My brother and I took that train from 1979 onwards - me until I left for university in 1984, him until he left a few years later. Passing through Wimbledon station on the opposite platform, the place looks very similar still - the stairs that were always a race to the top (and careful calculation about which door to be in so that you could be first up them). The old cubby that did hot, brown water that claimed to be tea has now been replaced by a Pumpkin cafe, but it’s obviously been as long since the last new paint as it had been back then.
But Wimbledon is on a number of different lines - a fact that mattered very much on those occasions when there were problems on our line. Or if we’d just missed a train and didn’t fancy the half-hour wait. We had that bane of modern society - choice.
Initially, one discovered the options through experimenting - the train (now tram) to West Croydon, then change for a Sutton train? same train but change at Mitcham Junction for Sutton? Clapham Junction? Epsom?
As time went on, we developed expertise and shortcuts. Aided by the annual production of a small book with all the local network timetables - by 13 years old we were all adept at reading tables and cross-correlating connections and possibilities.
- West Croydon or Mitcham Junction were rarely a good option unless you suspected there were systemic problems affecting all the main routes.
- Clapham Junction was usually the best option - more trains from Wimbledon to Clapham, and the trains out to Sutton were fast. The downside was if it was getting close to rush hour - those were the main routes for most London commuters, so could be very full.
- Epsom - my next stop on this afternoon’s journey - was always the best option on a Sunday. I was usually heading home after Sunday Mass in Wimbledon, followed by scouts in the Church Hall on Edge Hill. Timing was always awkward - if scouts overran, I’d be sprinting down Worple Road to Wimbledon station, often just in time to see the train pull out. Sitting on Epsom station waiting for a Sutton train with a book and my ever-present Walkman was therefore a familiar situation.
- I was often lucky that by the time I eventually got back, the family (incredibly patient) were so keen to sit down to what was now a late Sunday lunch, someone would be willing to come out in the car to save me the mile walk from the station to the house.
And of course other options came into play whenever I met up with friends - New Malden, Ashtead, Raynes Park, Haydons Road. But this train’s just arriving, so perfect time to close up before getting overly nostalgic...