There can’t be many people who enjoy their daily commute. On the majority of rush-hour journeys, the grim silence is only broken by the rustle of newspapers and the occasional rattle of the drinks trolley. Passengers ‘sleep together’ in double seats with less room between them than in the average marital bed, yet they arrive at their destination without making eye contact, let alone saying ‘good morning’.
But there are pockets of commuterville that buck the trend; in fact, they’re alive with a camaraderie unseen since the trenches. At certain times of day, an atmosphere of triumph over adversity distracts the regulars from annoying delays and the ubiquitous leaves on the line. Icy platforms at 5am, a surefire cause of the January blues, are swiftly forgotten thanks to animated chats about what the children are up to and this or that dinner party.
On the journey home, the atmosphere is nothing short of festive. Some trains are notorious for their partying passengers, as Lucy Winfield, a partner at Strutt & Parker in Newbury, Berkshire relates: ‘They’re a particularly boozy lot on the 6.35pm coming home from Paddington to Newbury-the banter and social drinking start before the train has even left the station.’ One common observation is that the earlier the train, the friendlier the scene on board. Alex Lawson, director of farms and estates at Savills, is new to commuting, but he’s acutely aware of this phenomenon: ‘The large number of people cramming onto the train at Newbury at about 7am are pretty antisocial, but the smaller crowd using Kintbury at 5.50am are incredibly sociable-there’s a complete mix of people, employed in many different sectors, huddled together, discussing what they did at the weekend.’
Edward Rook of Knight Frank in Sevenoaks comments on the ‘club’ atmosphere in the first-class carriage from Hildenborough and Sevenoaks in Kent, adding: ‘The early guard often catches the same train and even sits in the same place.’ But it isn’t all chatter about shooting and golf. The Buying Solution’s Nick Mead’s experience of the southern commuter belt of Beaconsfield, Haddenham, Henley and Maidenhead is that work remains a priority: ‘For the early birds and senior management on the “red eye” at 5.30am or 6am, the train is an extension of their networking life.’
In some instances, commuting friendships extend beyond the carriage. Passengers on certain lines, such as Exeter to Waterloo, are fond of Christmas get-togethers (regulars from Grateley and Andover in Hampshire both hold one annually), but others go beyond that. A group of commuters who go by the name The Carriage D Crew, on what was then the 6.33pm from Paddington to Newbury, have formed such a bond that they now hold ‘out-oftrain’ events, including a music festival.
Out-of-train meetings are also common among Kent commuters from stations such as Headcorn, Staplehurst and Paddock Wood who come into London Bridge. Philip Harvey at Property Vision explains: ‘Commuters there have taken the same train to London for years and opt to sit with the same people every day. They’re a very sociable lot, who have even been known to go on family holidays together.’
Passenger relations are further facilitated by good pubs and restaurants close to the station. Manningtree in Essex is one such place, a muchloved haven for commuters, boasting friendly staff, jolly regulars and an excellent bar and cafe, Manningtree Station Buffet, on the platform. Jamie Norman, who’s commuted from the station for 20 years, describes it as ‘straight out of The Railway Children’ and says the buffet has a lot to recommend it. He adds: ‘There was a Suffolk grandee who used to go there for dinner.’ Kemble station in Gloucestershire is similarly blessed. Rupert Marchington from Knight Frank in Cirencester explains: ‘There’s an excellent pub [The Tavern Inn] just a few yards from the station. Where better to wait for a train?’
Friendly staff also oil the wheels of happy commutes. Rob Fanshawe of Property Vision is a big fan of Didcot Parkway’s station manager, Kim Higgs. ‘Nothing is too much trouble and he stands on the platform at busy times dispatching customers to trains with the bearing of a well-drilled army type.’
The station master at Tisbury in Wiltshire gets a similar commendation for knowing the names of all his regulars and, according to Johanna Cole from Hamptons International in Newbury, a cheery soul selling coffee and newspapers on the platform at Pewsey, Wiltshire, is au fait with all his regulars’ names and orders. So, the next time you enter the commuting ‘zone’, try smiling at your neighbour. Who knows where it might lead?
The most sociable commuting stations
* Manningtree, Essex (59 minutes to Liverpool Street) Reminiscent of a golden age of travel, this Victorian station is peopled by helpful staff, jolly regulars and has an excellent buffet
* Didcot Parkway, Oxfordshire (42 minutes to Paddington) A facelift has dragged it out of the doldrums and nothing is too much trouble for the station manager
* Kemble, Gloucestershire (76 minutes to Paddington) Worn, flagged platforms and Cotswold stone plus the proximity of a good pub add up to happy commuters
* Taunton, Somerset (one hour and 42 minutes to Paddington) ‘Weekly commuting on the Monday- and Tuesdaymorning trains from Taunton to Paddington and back again on Thursday evening is extremely sociable,’ reveals William Morrison of Knight Frank in Exeter. ‘The dining car on Thursday evening is the place to be’
* Pewsey, Wiltshire (72 minutes to Paddington) Nick Loweth of Knight Frank, Hungerford says: ‘Pewsey, Bedwyn and Hungerford all have regular commuters and Friday-evening drinks on the way home are very common, as is a bit of poker. Pewsey station even used to have copies of COUNTRY LIFE and flowers’
* Audley End, Essex (51 minutes to Liverpool Street) Cameron Ewer from Strutt & Parker gives this one his vote: “Audley End offers a link into London Liverpool street and also on the Stansted line heading out. Mostly city boys, all living in nice Country Houses in the villages around. My father is one of such commuters who with his fellow travellers/friends, formed a band “Crisis” (formerly Midlife Crisis ) was born! They play various gigs for charity in London and locally.”
* Pluckley, Kent (62 minutes to St Pancras) As recommended by Philip James of Strutt & Parker in Sevenoaks. ‘A delightful, old-fashioned station with an honesty box for teas and coffees, a book-swap shelf and community noticeboard’
* Andover, Hampshire (69 minutes to Waterloo) ‘Very social,’ is the verdict of George Burnand, who runs the Winchester office of Strutt & Parker. ‘I used to get on two stops thereafter and would often see groups of four or eight people chatting away’
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