Leaving Oxford in 100 blog posts: 4. The train station
The first time I came to this fine city, it was by train. I was in the Lower Sixth at school, and had been identified, together with a bunch of others, as Potential Oxbridge Material. A minibus was commandeered to take us on a trip to Oxford to check it out.
Only I missed it. I can’t remember why, some fairly significant departure time mix up, I presume. I do remember my dad driving me to the station, and buying me a ticket. I was only 15, so it was a half, and trains were cheaper then anyway. So I travelled on my own, and arrived at the station with a suitcase (not on wheels, this was the 1980s) and instructions to ask for Queen's College, which is where we were staying. I can report that it’s a long walk to Queen's College with a 1980s suitcase.
I liked Oxford a lot, and duly applied to Jesus College to study law. I got an interview (which I went to by train) but I didn’t get in – I was still only 16 at this point, which probably showed, and I didn’t really want to be a lawyer, which probably showed too.
But that wasn’t the end of going to Oxford by train – my friend R had a friend who was in his first year at Magdalen, and he invited us to a party. Looking back, I am amazed that we travelled for three and a half hours to go to a party in the Waynflete Building, but that’s being (possibly, by this point) 17 for you. All three of us slept in his single bed, and lay around feeling peculiar the next day until it occurred to us to look up the time of the last train back to Preston, which turned out to be 20 minutes later. So we grabbed our stuff, and we ran. I can report that it’s a long run from the Waynflete Building to the train station. The train was in when we reached the station and we made it with about five seconds to spare.
There was a brief hiatus, but then I went off to Cambridge (turned out I was Oxbridge Material after all) and met my Significant Ex. Whose mother lived (and indeed still lives) in Oxford. There followed a series of Significant Reunions at Oxford station after long periods of apartness. Until my parents accidentally moved to Andover, these were generally me coming down from the north. In those days you could smoke on trains, and I did, but I had a self-imposed ‘no smoking after Banbury’ rule, so as to be more kissable on arrival. There was also a memorable arrival from the south the summer after I graduated, when ex-schoolmate-pre-housemate S and I caught the train to Oxford from Paddington after three days (THREE DAYS) on the Magic Bus from Athens to London Victoria. We had ankles like tree trunks and mild psychosis, and we were sweaty, smelly, hungover and ravenous. It must have been a delightful sight.
The station receded into the background for several years after that though... we went away travelling, and when we came back I got a job in Andover. It's technically possible to get a train from Andover to Oxford, but it takes twice as long as driving, even when what you're driving is a 2cv. So I never did, and then I moved to Oxford, and entered the road trip years of my mid-to-late 20s.
The station came back into focus again towards the end of my relationship with my Significant Ex. The night of the 1997 general election I was dancing at a Billy Bragg gig after-party in Harlesden until they threw us out about 3 am. After that we walked to Paddington, fuelled by vodka and adrenaline (and, I must admit, some speed, but these were the optimistic 90s and I was still young...). The first train to Oxford was around 5.30... I was the only one of the four of us with a ticket that could be used before 9.30, but the train manager was in as celebratory mood as we were so he let us all on. We arrived in Oxford at the dawn of a new era, and I should have gone home, but I didn't want to. So M and I dozed in the sun on the grassy bank outside the station until the pubs opened, and then we went for a beer in the Turf Tavern. I came down with a crash about 12 hours later, but it was a magical morning.
That grassy bank isn't there anymore, it was concreted over in the name of progress about ten years ago. But the train station itself gradually faded back into my life. My parents moved back to Lancashire in the late 90s, and for a good while there was a train that ran from Reading to Blackpool, so I got on it a stop after it started and got off it a stop before it finished. Perfect. That doesn't happen anymore, you have to change in Birmingham and deal with the Scottish Train, but it's still generally better than driving, so long as you can afford it and nobody turns themself into a fatality on the line the day you want to travel.
I also spent three years working for NGO X's UK poverty programme, which had a major presence in Manchester, Cardiff and Glasgow, and a minor one, in the form of a single colleague, who lived somewhere near Pitlochry. All of the major stuff happened by train and Travelodge, the minor via sleeper and spare room. Early on I extended a Cardiff trip to Swansea to visit the Finnfans, who I hadn't really seen much of since Cambridge. I am very happy indeed that I renewed their collective acquaintance, and it all started at Oxford station.
And then there was Lancaster. The first time we went there, we drove, but most of our subsequent trips have been via train... most of the Lancaster Cohousing meetings are held in the Friends Meeting House, which is right next to the station, and it feels like the right way to arrive.
I like Lancaster station better than I like Oxford station, it has a Victorian solidness to it that resonates with me, while the Oxford building is somewhat flimsy, despite its Great Western Railway roots (I am a big Isambard Kingdom Brunel fan). But Oxford station has been the centre of so many journeys of my adult life, arrivals and departures both. It will always have a place in my heart.