An Afternoon in White Trash England: The Best Saturday of My Life
Saturday, June 24, 2017. Not a great deal happened that day. I didn’t go anywhere particularly interesting. I didn’t do anything that anyone else would consider altogether noteworthy. All I really did was have the best day of my life; one that I would remember down to the moment almost two years later. I suppose all it really takes is a change of scenery to really put things in perspective, even if said scenery is provincial and fuddy-duddy in the eyes of most.
At this point, it’s only fair that I provide some context. This story takes place during the summer of my senior year at the University of North Texas; it’s one of many stories to spring from my eventful semester abroad in London, England. It wasn’t my first time visiting our neighbors across the pond, but it was absolutely the most memorable — every day felt like an adventure, every place I went felt brand new even if I’d been there before, and colleagues who were practically strangers to me a few months ago began to feel like family. Now I’m sure we all know someone who went on a semester abroad and has yet to stop gabbling on about how amazing it was and how it changed them and you have to do it yadda yadda yadda. What would my favorite memory of the whole trip be, then? Did I discover my true passion in life? Did I find love? Actually, as it turns out my favorite memory was a day where I rode a steam train and visited a grotty seaside resort. Riveting. How could something so humdrum have such a lasting impact on me as a person? Is this the cue for a lengthy anecdote full of amateurish photographs and pontificating introspection? Of course it is, let’s not waste any more time on this.
It really began like any other day. The week before had been a busy one; I embarked on a memorable side trip to Paris, I went on field trips to seminal historical sites such as Hampton Court Palace and the Churchill War Rooms, and I attended tapings for two television shows. One was Letterbox, hosted by the charming Mel Giedroyc, and the other was Frankie Boyle’s New World Order, which cracked me up but left many of my classmates thoroughly bemused. How could I top all that? I didn’t plan to. Earlier in the week I’d booked a ticket to visit the Epping Ongar Railway in darkest Essex to see some authentic British steam trains before my time in England was up. Trains, particularly British ones, have always held a particular fascination with me, dating back to the halcyon days of toddlerhood when I would binge-watch Thomas the Tank Engine videos like there was no other viable form of entertainment. As I left my homestay in the cushy North London neighborhood of Crouch End that morning, I didn’t really know what to expect or how I’d fill my day beyond visiting the steam railway, but as the Brits would say, I was well and truly “unbovvered” by that.
Believe it or not, the Epping Ongar used to be a remote outpost of the London Underground, comprising of the Central Line’s small and underutilized section from Epping to Ongar, deep in the Epping Forest. The forlorn and languishing line through open countryside was never a profitable or viable venture in public transportation, and in 1994 it was unceremoniously abandoned. As is common in the UK, the line was partially restored in the mid-2000s as a heritage railway, and in 2012 it was expanded into a full-fledged steam railway. As I traveled along the Central Line towards Epping, it seemed almost unbelievable to me that such a beautifully bucolic setting could sustain such a modern and high-intensity transportation system. Past Debden, the continuous stride of suburban London subsided into the rolling hills and forests of rural Essex and terminated in the market town of Epping, where an ancient AEC Regent bus pulled in to drop me off at the little station at North Weald.
Stephen Fry once described the U.S. state of New Jersey as “the Essex of America”, which, by way of the symmetric property of equality, would make Essex the New Jersey of England. Nestled in the shadow of the country’s largest city and once sustained largely by heavy industry and seaside tourism, the locals are stereotyped as being boorish, violent, loudmouthed louts with fake tans and obnoxious regional accents. Also like New Jersey, it is divided starkly between the haves and the have-nots, with some areas (e.g. Epping) comprising of stuffy upper-crust old-money suburbs and others being bastions of urban white trash straight out of Birds of a Feather (or if you speak American, Roseanne.) No American tourist in their right mind would think of wasting a day there when there are far more notable and interesting places in the country to visit. Fortunately, I suppose I am well and truly not in my right mind.
The ceiling on the upper deck of the bus was about half a foot shorter than I was, and I banged my head against the roof more than a few times. Most of the other passengers were either children or old-timers, and it seemed most were locals. I couldn’t have felt more out of place if I’d arrived naked and wearing a sombrero. Once we arrived at the quaint little station at North Weald, I felt like I’d entered a time warp into the 1950’s. You would never guess that the tiny, piddly little stretch of tracks between North Weald and Ongar was once a full-fledged “tube” line; I mean, how many tube lines today have railroad crossings for bridle paths?* I spent a good hour and a half there, relaxing in my seat as the little tank engine propelled me from North Weald to Ongar to the middle of nowhere and back to where I started. It was as much of a nice, relaxing day out as I needed. As I tried my damnedest to ignore a brigade of dorks in full steampunk gear celebrating the railway’s “Victorian Weekend”, the thoroughly foreign and antiquated environment gave me the distinct impression that I was living someone else’s life. By the time I was ready to leave, however, it wasn’t even 2:00 PM. How else could I fill up the rest of my day in such a far-flung part of the London area? A thought struck me: Southend. Of course. No foreign tourist with any semblance of sanity or taste would waste a day there. It’s perfect.
*Zero. There are zero. Carry on then.
I arrived in Southend about an hour later, after a stressful and confusing trek through the bustling Stratford station. I arrived in Southend Victoria in a slight daze; ahead of me lied the pedestrian mall stretching all the way to the world’s longest pleasure pier. On the beach adjacent to the pier sat Adventure Island, the UK’s largest “free” amusement park. The pier that stretched out before my tired eyes was long enough to warrant its own little train line shuttling back and forth along the windswept, fire-stricken stretch of timber leading past the tidal flats of the Thames Estuary to where the big ships slowly trudge to and from Tilbury. My time at Southend was spent essentially in the same manner as a working-class Jersey boy who’s spending the weekend in Asbury Park, minus the binge drinking and swimming in freezing water. I visited the tawdry little amusement park, where admission is free but each attraction requires a certain amount of tokens, paid for with real money — think a company town, but allegedly fun. The Wild Mouse coaster provided enough “fun” as I was willing to tolerate, and I left for the actual pier. As I walked down the pier towards the train station, I was fortunate enough to have my jacket snagged by the hook of a passing fisherman, who apologized meekly as he unhooked me and went on his way. Maybe if he’d punctured my skin then my story would actually have gone somewhere.
As the little train crawled towards the end of the pier at a pace comparable to power-walking, I looked out into the vast estuary, wondering exactly how I managed to transpose myself into an environment that was simultaneously so familiar and yet so exotic. I ambled about, directionless, aimless, fixating my glassy eyes on buildings and people and big ships on the horizon. Eventually, my legs got balky and decided to call it quits and I sat down at the end of the pier, adjacent to the lifeboat station and the restaurant. I was far removed from the screaming hell of the amusement park and the drudgery of university work.
“This is home,” I thought to myself as I almost fell asleep in the cold, thrashing wind.
“I belong here.”
How Southend of all places managed to inspire such poetic thoughts should surely be a cause for concern.
Naturally, every compelling story must have a disappointing sequel. I’ll go ahead and title this one “Brighton”. In a nutshell, imagine Southend but brighter, sunnier, bigger, and better in pretty much every conceivable way. The day after I forged a spiritual connection with unwashed hoi polloi of Southend, I decided to follow a classmate’s recommendation and check out Brighton, much further out than Southend but somehow even faster to get to. Truth be told, for most of my visit there I was in a somewhat sour mood. I really, truly can’t put my finger on why. Maybe it was hunger, maybe it was exhaustion, maybe it was the crowding and the noise, maybe I just needed a nap. Whatever it was, I scowled my way through the narrow, winding streets full of shops and the Royal Pavilion and the utterly cacophonous Brighton Pier until I found myself at a pub near the Churchill shopping center with a pint in one hand and a forkful of sausage in the other. What happened? I can’t say. Did I have any regrets? Hell to the absolute no. My roommate was living it up in the sun-soaked beauty of Lisbon and I was living it up in the rain-soaked dreary of Old Blighty. I made an executive decision to designate the 24th day of June in 2017 the best Saturday of my life, or possibly the best day all around.
I wouldn’t trade that for a million quid.