On a train to Hastings, on the diverted route down the Hayes line. That’s the only reason really. Alongside Lower Sydenham there’s an apartment building called Dylon Works, presumably named after Dylon, the fabric dye company. If I lived there I’d call in Dylan works, after the folk musician poet of the people.
We’re on the connecting curve at Beckenham now. I think it is only used for diversions, when main routes are closed. South London is saturated with commuter railway lines, some originally built by competing companies on routes to different terminal stations along the Thames. Numerous connecting curves of track must exist, connecting disparate radials and seeing only occasional use. Numerous others have probably been dismantled over the last century. Railways are over-resourced, under-maintained. Seldom-used track quickly gets rusty, even when it is not old, and is quite serviceable. The tracks towards Hither Green, currently closed and necessitating today’s diversion, are already showing specs of fresh, pale orange rust over the shiny steel top after a few days’ of disuse.
Everything can remain half-closed, it won’t really matter. I’m enjoying the ambivalence and ambiguity of life under unknown conditions. We find other things to do easily enough. Imagine if the railway re-opened next week and no-one used it.
I’m in holiday mode today. Sun, breeze, people seem pleasant, I feel healthy and I chose to head out today to do this route. The outer London Kent suburbs are emotionless, meaningless to me, I travel through them with little understanding of how they interconnect, and little desire to become intimate with them. I have the parts of London I know and like and relate to, even though I don’t go to them anymore, and I fear my memory of the topography is fading. It is fast approaching time to move away from London and the present. New stimulation may restore my mind.
We’re now passing green fields and rolling hills, which are part of the Weald of Kent. I think that’s what it’s called. This line is close to the Kent-Sussex border for most of it’s route. The stations have the quintessential Southern Railway concrete sectional walls and platforms, made at the bespoke concrete works in Exmouth, Devon. It’s strange now to think that a hundred years ago it was normal for a large organisation to manufacture materials and equipment almost entirely in-house. Stranger still to make an ugly, dusty, polluting material like concrete in a green leafy backwater in a county noted for not joining in with industrial advancement, but settling for contentment and cider.
Opposite, there’s a young man with ginger hair. The sun is catching his arms. He is engrossed in something on his ‘phone. I wonder what he hopes his future will be.
We’re nearly there now. Somewhere to the right is the route of an old branch line to Bexhill that I’ve read about. Nothing is visible now, unless you know where to look. I never go exploring with more than the loosest of preparation and reference notes, preferring chance to play a part. I haven’t actually come here for this branch line though. Whatever is left will still be there another time, should I ever choose to find it. I think there may be a viaduct remaining, but equally, I may be wrong, or confused with another elsewhere. I’m growing to accept and even feel affection for my fading memory. The station building in Bexhill is still there, in alternative use, in a part of the town I’ve not been to, nor do I especially want to.
I like the feeling of getting off the train knowing the sea is near. The land slopes downward, parallel streets allow glimpses of the horizon and the sky between neat rows of buildings. The sea is ever present in the life of the town and its inhabitants. If I could arrange work, money and home suitably I could happily live here. I probably need to allow for further leaps of adventure, further places elsewhere first though.
That was odd, okay in the end. A bit daunting to begin with at the centre/beach end. I felt nervous, vulnerable, agoraphobic, uncertain about being there, wanting to go home the moment I’d arrived. I get this more and more these days, a sense of fear being somewhere I’m not supposed to be. It is ridiculous, I’ve been in actual forbidden places and been fearless. It was crowded. I headed west and watched the sea, and felt better, relieved, gradually. There’s a feeling of quiet euphoria when the physical symptoms of panic start to lift. The Goat Ledge Café has a single nondescript beer option, and young malnourished looking people serving it. The sea was flat, the horizon a clear pencil sharp line. I do want to live near the sea one day. Sea communities seem to be more self contained, self-sufficient. A tiny fishing harbour village in Cornwall would be nice. People say the Cornish do not welcome outsiders. I don’t know if that’s true.
The south downs form a ridge of hills a few miles inland, to the north of the towns. Another slightly smaller ridge runs closer to the coast, protecting the flat green fields between, and through which the railway passes, intertwined with trunk roads. As with much flat agricultural land, drainage ditches were dug sometime in the past to make waterlogged land stable and usable. I don’t know but I feel the hills could be thousands of years old. They’re made of chalk, a thin layer of soil and grass covers them, apart from occasional violent gouges where quarrying has happened, or maybe just chunks have fallen off. Chalk isn’t an especially stable mineral, it doesn’t take much for moisture to get in and create cracks. Coastal erosion is a fascinating subject to me. It is strange looking at before and after photographs where cliffs have fallen into the sea, taking buildings with them. It is satisfying to see how impossible it is to completely tame nature.
The University of Sussex campus sits uncomfortably in the hills, placed there idealistically and ideologically in the 1960s, for Guardian readers in sweaters to talk about changing the world, surrounded by hills more potent than them. I went to an open day event about teacher training there once, it felt quite bleak.
I always compulsively film the hills from the train. The sun gives some exciting lens flare, it reminds me of the opening sequence of Don Levy’s surreal and slightly uncomfortable Herostratus, made in 1967, in which the protagonist, played by Michael Gothard, runs along streets around the Harrow Road in Paddington, before the westway demolished much of that area. Wearing what looks like a white sheet flowing in the wind behind him, he is silhouetted against an early morning sun. Fast handheld camera and lens flare aplenty there, used to good effect, giving a raw edgy look in contrast to post-production cleaned up shots. I’ll make something of today’s footage then stop. I have to stop making films no one will see.