My second visit to London was probably a year or so later. My maternal great aunt, feeling I needed to get away from the sometimes toxic problems of my home life, took to me to visit Aunt Rachel in Morden.
Aunt Rachel was a bit of a legend in our family. Back in the late 50's her husband had won a fortune on the football pools. By 1969 the money had run out, most of it lost in a dodgy investment in a race course. The digging machines rusted away on the abandoned wasteland but Rachel managed to hold on to the house in Morden, where she lived with her son and youngest daughter.
This time, the train did not leave from Bolton and we travelled, not by special charter, but by Intercity from Manchester Piccadilly. Piccadilly was the biggest and most magnificent railway station I had seen. Its fabulous Victorian iron-girdered ceiling, still blackened from the smoke of steam locomotives, and its long platforms transported me to the same place as the opening pages of a new book: it promised good things to come. Stepping on the long train, holding on to my small suitcase with one hand and my aunt with the other, I knew this was a special journey.
Perhaps because I was sharing this journey with a woman in her early sixties and not with a gaggle of giggling, gossiping school girls, I became far more aware of my surroundings. I did not find the journey at all boring. I gazed through the windows as the train moved through the endless green countryside dotted with churches, cottages and farms, through the suburbs of little boxes and small factories and onwards into the city. On that visit I saw something I have never seen since: as we entered the suburbs of London, hanging from every balcony of every tenement, were rows and rows of washing. When I visited Rachel's again a year later, a change had taken place. There was far less washing. Maybe the weather was different or maybe the inhabitants had purchased tumble driers or taken, as my mother did, bags of wet washing to the launderette; perhaps they did the whole wash there? I don't know but as the 60's gave way to the 70's it seemed to me that the population's washing habits underwent a revolution. Washing lines didn't disappear but the sheer volume of wet shirts, skirts and knickers decorating the edges of the West Coast Line was severely reduced.
Euston station was just the same but this time there was no embarrassing Beatles bag and no coach. Instead Aunt Eliza took me down the short escalator into the tube station. We purchased our ticket at the wooden window and took a much longer ride down to the platforms.
I stood on the platform full of wonder and half afraid. When the train clattered into the station, I was scared the force of it might drag me on to the live rail, which Aunt Eliza had sternly explained would kill me should I fall upon it.
Inside the train I was transfixed by the map of the Northern Line on the opposite wall above the heads of the passengers. We passed beneath Tottenham Court Road, Leicester Square and Charing Cross and then moved out to Elephant and Castle, Kennington, Oval, Stockwell and North Clapham. At some point we came up from the tunnels and into daylight as I checked each station off against the thick brownish-black line opposite: Balham, Tooting Bec, Tooting Broadway, Colliers Wood, South Wimbledon and finally Morden.
After such a wonderful ride through unknown places, Morden was a dreadful anti-climax; to a child who'd grown up in the heartland of the industrial North, South London surburbia seemed incredibly dull. All it had to recommend it was the eerie white light of the street lamps, which illuminated the long avenue where Rachel lived.
I don't recall much about that first visit to Rachel's, apart from spending time with my cousin Caroline and listening to 45's on the radiogram in the sitting room but that ride on the underground, where I first discovered the incantational power of place names and first experienced the strange and almost obsessional pull the capital city had on my imagination, was significant.
Creative Writing - First visit to London
Memories for Mother's Day: Those who went before