The 4.40 to Brentford is rammed as I attempt embarkation at Clapham Junction. From the relative safety of Platform 5, I spot an empty seat which no-one is interested in claiming due, I assume, to the fear that they’ll never escape its confines and will be trapped upon the Waterloo loop at least until 10pm. Hundreds of us are crushed in the doorway: an amoebic mess of humanity gasping for air that defies the intrepid explorer, with only a small suitcase, to venture further into the jungle of the condemned.
With not inconsiderable force, I gain a seat next to a small child whose pushy father is supervising her extra-curricula activities. This train carries the privately educated offspring of the wealthy classes into the leafy suburbs west of the city: Barnes, Chiswick, Kew and so forth. My tiny travelling companion is busy on her phone on which she has an app comprising the nearest thing she’s going to get to a game before her thirties. In her digital laboratory, she has to choose appropriate colours and activities that will change one element to another – pour the blue contents of a test-tube into the correct receptacle and voila, a liquid will become a gas. The reward will be gaining another informative square to her growing set. For tiny traveller is constructing the periodic table. Having discovered plutonium, she turns and smiles engagingly at me.
‘How old are you’, I demand?
‘You are scarily clever’, I inform her.
‘Say thank-you to the nice pleb’, says papa.
At Barnes Bridge, most of the train’s cargo, including Marie Curie, fall out through the doors, and possibly into the river for all I know. Jane emerges from the adjacent carriage wherein she’s been entombed since a week last Tuesday.
Saturday sees the predominant reason for my visit and the highlight of the weekend. As a belated birthday gift, I am to be wined and dined aboard a narrow boat which will take us from Paddington Basin to Camden Town and back in three gastronomic hours. With due serendipity, this morning’s Daily Torygraph informs us that the trip, courtesy of the London Shell Company, currently ranks among the top ten eating experiences in our capital. Our set menu for today’s extravaganza comprises Lindisfarne Oyster & Mackeral Tartare with Angel Hair Fries, Crab with Watermelon Radish, Braised Cuttlefish with Mussels and Saffron Aioli, Blonde Ray Wing with Turnips, Black Cabbage and Caper Butter and Apple Streudel with Raspberry and Yoghurt Gelatto. No wonder it’s going to take us three hours and I haven’t even mentioned alcohol.
Naturally, given that the galley is the size of a wardrobe, there are long pauses between each delicious course whilst the crew regroup. However, during these times, we can venture forth to watch the passing scenery. I’ve written about this part of the canal elsewhere but today I learn that we’re passing the Sultan of Oman’s house, the garden of which is the second largest in London after Buckingham Palace. We’re also lucky enough to see some of the animals that live in Regents Park Zoo who were hiding the last time we ventured this way.
Obviously, we need to keep diving back in for more refreshment. As you can see, and as you might have deduced, the accommodation is cosy. No matter. We share our table with three Japanese tourists, two of whom speak no English. We thought you liked speaking with strangers, say my companions.
Those Hanwell ladies are the epitome of generosity. They also have high expectations in the ‘joining in’ department. Later that evening, when the day’s excitement might have proven sufficient for the Dorset contingent, we yomp on down to the allotments at The Fox for a bonfire and BBQ. You probably think we’d eaten enough for one day but, let me tell you, those hot dogs went down a treat.
Sunday, and it’s all aboard the Kew Gardens road train which, forthwith, will ever be known as the Unicorn Express. Or whatever the opposite of an express train is. From the start, driver Christine tells us that the ride will be bumpy. She also informs us of the certainty of being attacked by passing trees. After such cautionary warnings, both of which prove justifiable, Christine’s voice turns strangely soporific.
It’s as though, having dealt with the prosaic nastiness of life, she has fallen back into the world of the …………… unicorn. For Christine soothes the listener whilst simultaneously keeping us awake in anticipation of the last word in the sentence: ‘and through the bushes to your right, you will see the …………..unicorn’. ‘Said mythological creature adorns the gate which royal princesses used to access the gardens. ‘Nowadays, they mostly arrive through the main entrance by car but, in the once-upon-a-time days ……’ Christine trails off into her own world. ‘By what’, we shout. Tube? Bus? Unicorn?’
I duck to avoid a rampaging holly bush that’s attacking us via the glassless window. ‘We’re going to turn …………right’, says Christine. ‘When I come to this part’, she continues, ‘I always feel I’ve arrived in …….’ ‘Where, where’, we demand looking through the trees. ‘………… Narnia’, sighs Christine. Helplessly, we look around for wardrobes and lamp posts. An evil shrub attempts access to our carriage. ‘To your left’, intones the stoned engine driver, ‘is our largest …………’ tree? bush? flower? ………..’picnic table’. claims lunch-denied Christine.
Speaking of which – we have brought a small picnic with us. When this possibility was initially raised, sub-zero temperatures weren’t mentioned. We leave the train, not by the enormous picnic table upon which Aslan was slain, but to perch on a bench by the river overlooking Syon Park, the home of Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland.
The sun was out when we arrived but it’s since disappeared behind a large black cloud. To take my mind off the all pervasive frostbite, I quietly study the amount of pickle in my friends’ sandwiches. I was allowed to add my own pickle to my sandwich this morning. Reader, this probably doesn’t seem such a big deal. However, I am staying in a house of kindness in which I’m allowed to do nothing. On being presented with the Branston jar, it was to garnish bread that had been sliced for me with geometric precision on which identical slices of cheese had been lovingly displayed. Thus, spooning out the pickle was a big deal; but not literally, as, obviously, I only took a polite scraping. I can’t help thinking I’ve missed a trick as I notice the abundance of pickle oozing out between their slices of bread.
Anyway, I’m spared the opportunity of commenting on the unequal distribution of pickle by the arrival of Edith and her husband. Edith wants to know whether that’s Syon Park across the river. Apparently the husband, who has now disappeared, told her it was. B & J, mouths crammed with Branston politely inform Edith that it is indeed Ralph Percy’s gaff. And that should be an end to it but Edith is like a bloody terrier and won’t clear off.
It should be blindingly obvious, even to the thickest of dimwits, even with the pickle disparity, that we are three friends on a bench having a private picnic. She’s asked the question, received an answer, described the overhanging cloud, obtained directions on how to get to Syon Park, now knows about opening times, told us where she lives, discovered the precise address of Jane’s sister and for all I know expanded on her views of globalisation and world poverty. I’ve stopped listening. I’m sat on the far end of the haemorrhide inducing bench and have devoured my sandwiches, a pork pie and a bottle of water before she finally toddles off into oblivion. Those two turn round and are surprised to see me without any lunch. ‘We thought you liked talking to strange people’, they say.
And later, there’s a delicious home-cooked roast chicken dinner, silly board games a tearful viewing of Tim and Pru, and early to bed. Thank-you dear ladies of Hanwell for a glorious weekend.