Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why you should never go to Luton.......................... on a train on a Bank Holiday weekend

O, the temptation was just to write, 'Why you should never go to Luton' and leave it there. Or why you should never go to Luton and stay in the Easy(Jet)Hotel by the railway station.

Both of those statements would probably be cruel but fair enough. Luton is one of those towns that you'd never go to 'just for the sake of it'. For a holiday, for the shopping, for a dirty weekend. No, there's always going to be somewhere prettier, livelier, more glamorous. Luton is just another one of those places that is probably alright to live in - but it doesn't show a very good face to visitors.

Nice guy but snobby Sir John Betjeman would no doubt be horrified by Luton's town centre with its overpoweringly large Arndale Centre and gigantic pedestrianised shopping centre and... well nothing else as far as I could see. In the same way that Betjeman hated Slough, I'm sure he'd want to give Luton town centre a good carpet bombing:

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.
Mess up the mess they call a town

People talk of the homogenisation of Britain's towns with their Nexts, Primarks, Tesco Expresses, and the lesser parades of Pound Shops and charity shops and closed down old Woolworths - but usually you have a few other individual local things. Some sites, some statues, some Victorian bath houses or follies. And looking it up on Wikipedia now, it does have a few bits n bobs hidden somewhere. The town hall is alright. But boy did those 1960s planners make a mess.

I walk around late at night and wasn't that scared but then I'm dead hard me, like. But I was fast asleep in my tiny iPod sized EasyHotel pod by 10.30pm. It's the sort of 'room' that encourages you to go to sleep. You can't sit there and watch tv (that'll be an extra £5 an hour for use of the remote controller), or look out of the window (errr, there is no window, it's just a teeny pod with a bed and a combo toilet/shower thingy in the corner). So that was fine except I was wearing my contact lenses and hadn't remembered to bring my case to put them in when it came time to take them off. And like I sometimes do I forgot that I'm virtually blind and I forgot that I was wearing contact lenses and fell asleep. In the EasyHotel womb room. Out like a light.

Then I heard screaming and I wasn't sure if I was asleep or awake but then the screaming continued and I knew I was awake. I remembered where I was. I scrambled to turn on the light and listened. Knew I had to do something. A woman was screaming. I had no idea what the time was, I knew where I was but my contact lenses had blurred my vision, my eyes were virtually clamped shut. This woman was shouting, screaming, "Help! Help!" Seriously. Not in any way joking. I scrambled up and rushed to the door. And tried to remember how to unlock it. She was still shouting, my heart was beating, I was all fingers, all thumbs, all idiot slow brain. I opened the door and she was already in the reception area. The 9 EasyHotel pods are formed in a horseshoe, mine was the last in the line, next to the reception area so as I stood out there in the hallway I could hear every word. Virtually every word that she panted out at loud volume. A man had locked her in her room, he wouldn't let her out. Then she was screeching and wailing. I was standing there and no one else had come out of their room. Perhaps there was no one else in any of the rooms.

It felt like I had woken up into a nightmare. It seemed like the last thing this woman and the female receptionist would want would be for me to blurrily make my way to reception in my boxer shorts and find out if everything was okay. The man - whoever the man was - seemed to have gone, cos the shouting and wailing had stopped. The police would be on their way. I waited to see if there was any movement from any of the rooms. If any man was going to appear, or if any more shouting or violence was going to happen. Minutes passed and there was just a hum from the air conditioning. Nothing. I was starting to feel silly standing there half blind & half dressed. It was too late now to go to the reception. I should have done, but I didn't.

I went back into my pod-room and waited for the police to arrive. Surely they would want to question people. I lay there with the light on and started to wonder what had happened and stupidly, started to wonder if I could possibly have been involved. The thought just occurred: if someone said I'd done something how would I be able to deny it: stranger in a strange city, on my own, no alibi. Could I have sleepwalked, sleep stalked this woman? I knew I hadn't but the lack of vision and the orange walls were giving me a mini-moment-of-crisis.

Nobody came to question me. I had a plot for a paranoid thriller in my mind. I fell asleep again and felt guilty for being asleep.

And then the next day and the conference I was attending. Bla and also some more bla. And the journey home via London via Milton Keynes via Birmingham via Wolverhampton. Normal journey time: 2.5 hours. Bank Holiday journey time: 6 hours. Yes, never travel by train on a Bank Holiday. More trouble than its worth. Although St Pancras Train Station is now officially my favourite building ever. The shops in the basement are just more posh shops, posher than Luton's but not of much interest to me, but the building itself was worth the visit on its own. I think I'm getting more like Prince Charles in my olden age - they don't build these buildings like they used to. I suspect the old Luton did get blasted by the Germans during the war, but I hope they do manage to build something new and exciting to replace their blander than bland town centre. They could have a look at St Pancras if they're short of ideas. They won't, they can't afford it, but it would be nice...


  1. Do you mean the inside of the St. Pancras building or the exterior?

  2. The inside and the outside are pretty remarkable I think - although the shops aren't that great - the structure and the roof inside are pretty great - and the outside is remarkable as well. 'It's the Harry Potter building' as the woman who gave me directions described it.

    Although, I have since found out, on another topic that Luton was officially voted Britain's crappest town in 2004. Which is a bit harsh:

  3. Virtually all old stations are amazing. St Pancras is lovely (is it still nice with the new international hub bit? I've not been for a million years. That well spoilt Waterloo), but Paddington is my favourite London station, if not my favourite station in the whole world. To be fair, that's a bit to do with a love affair with all things Brunelian.

    I've not been to New York, but when I go I expect to love Central Station.

    Stations are ace. I love stations. And not just because you get trains at them.

    Incidentally, I mean Victorian extravagant show off stations. Modern stations are so minimalist they are normally just platforms and ticket machines. Some are funky, Kirkcaldy being one - amazingly - but only in one direction (due to a fire)- the other side still has a 60s monstrosity. 60s/70s ones have the same, concrete, dank, yuk fest that most stations have, with the turquoise/red nasty facing. Not exciting, except for the fact that you get trains at them.

    I am shutting up about trains now. goodbye.

  4. Best ex-station in the bits of the world I've seen:

    Musee D'Orsay, Paris.

  5. Paddington traditionally has romance as it's the foreign travel one. Milan station is good as I remember it, Milan is full of piazzas or whatever they're called. Almost cathedral like.

    St Panc is good. although i didn't go into the actual Eurostar bit so who knows what that's like - just the train to luton which is really just like an underground station. but the top of the station is lovely. although the two statues are a bit of an aquired taste. (betjamin & the two giant lovers)

    Musee D'Orsay - I've been there. And it is nice. worst station - birmingham new street i'd have to say. although there's lots of horrid ones. birmingham just cos i've had to change there and got lost. and i've never actually seen the outside of it. so it's just personal trauma.

  6. Ah see, New Street is a very unpleasant station, but it is a very efficient one. Probably the most efficient station in Britain. Ridiculous design though, a wannabe airport terminal with stairs to every platform. Because people never travel with luggage.

    I love New Street for four reasons:
    1) it's in Birmingham
    2) it is right across the road from where I used to work
    3) it used to take me home: every weekday, and periodically to the land of my birth.
    4) you can get a train to New Street from just about anywhere.

    And of course, you get trains there.

    But it is horrid.

  7. Without steam trains those gloriously grand old places are like a body without the heart.

    The electric or diesel replacements are akin to a pacemaker; they do the job but without the joy.

    I'm old enough to remember steam trains; standing in Newcastle station and being enthralled by these great noisy things that huffed and puffed clouds of steam all over the place.