Great Train Journeys: Sydenham Hill to London Victoria

When I arrived at the Wood House, Sydenham Hill, Half-life was at the bar frowning at the crossword.

‘Alright, mate?’ I said.

‘This place is in the middle of fucking nowhere,’ he said. ‘You owe me for a cab.’

‘Nice to see you, too,’ I said, looking around. The Wood House has been completely re-arranged since my last visit, with the bar back up top where it should be, the main rooms given over to drinkers and diners moved down to the conservatory.

‘Wow, this is better, isn’t it?’ I said. Half-life shrugged.

‘Is it?’

‘Yes, remember when we were in here last, when we were doing the Beer Rebellion triangle?’ 

‘No,’ he said, going back to his paper. ‘Listen, here’s one for you. Eleven across. Post or mail man.’ I thought about this for a moment.

‘Post or mail man,’ I repeated. ‘How many letters?’ Half-life looked up.

‘A fucking great sackful!’ he ejaculated and laughing like a madman, high-fived the barmaid. I ordered a pint of the strongest beer on offer.

We took our drinks out into the garden and set up camp in one of the new huts that have appeared. Sadly all the grass has been taken up and replaced with some kind of AstroTurf, which is a shame. To be a proper garden you need grass, in my book. My book about pub gardens.

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‘Which do you prefer?’ I said to Half-life. ‘Grass or AstroTurf?’

‘I don’t know, I’ve never smoked AstroTurf,’ he said, without missing a beat, and this time he high-fived me.

‘You’re on fire today, mate,’ I said.

‘You line ’em up and I’ll knock ’em over,’ he said. ‘So, what’s the plan and who’s paying?’

Today’s train journey was to take us from the wilds of Zone 3 to the heart of the empire in less than 15 giddy minutes. From the bucolic autumnal splendour of Sydenham Woods, the last remnants of the Great North Wood, a natural oak forest that once dominated the area, to the UK’s second busiest railway terminus, Victoria – or ‘London Victoria’ as it now seems to be called – just three short stops away.

‘London Victoria?’ said Half-life. ‘So is London Bridge now “London London Bridge”?’

‘I know,’ I said, ‘It’s the sheer inconsistency that’s unbearable.’

Back in the bar for a pair of pints for the road, we got chatting to some of the mixed crowd beginning to roll in for lunchtime: An elderly hiker couple from Upminster, two Spanish tourists, a businesswoman and a grizzled ’70s hippy waiting for his chums.

‘Y’know, I could come here when I’m retired,’ said Half-life.

‘You are retired,’ I said. ‘And, come to think of it, here.’

As we walked past the grand houses of Crescent Wood Road and down into Peckermans Wood, a wan sun came out, like a Korean diva telling her fans she’s gay, picking out the yellows and browns of the leaves underfoot. We paused on a bench in Sydenham Woods in order to enhance the colours still further with some of Half-life’s own magic leaves.

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Sydenham Hill station, situated in a cutting as the line disappears into Sydenham Hill Railway Tunnel, was opened in 1863, primarily to facilitate visitors to a fucking great greenhouse that someone had left nearby – it was originally called ‘Sydenham Hill (for Crystal Palace)’. It also appears to be in the middle of nowhere, though Kingswood Estate lies hidden on the other side of our approach. 

Nevertheless, the station itself remains a quiet and leafy oasis. It’s difficult to believe you’re in a city at all, let alone the sprawling metropolis of a London. And the wonderful thing about this train journey is that over the course of a quarter of an hour you can watch the dramatic transition from country to town. And then, of course, get another pint.

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The first thing you notice as the train pulls out, apart from, in my case, Half-life fiddling incessantly with his industrial-sized vapouriser, is how green this part of London is. First the playing fields and dreaming spire of Dulwich College slip by, the seat of learning for one Nigel Farage:

‘Just goes to show money can’t stop you being a tosser,’ said Half-life, handing me his device. ‘Here, try this one. Strawberry Astronaut by Jimmy the Juice Man.’

‘Not bad,’ I said, exhaling the sickly steam. ‘Have you cut down the fags then?’

‘Have I, fuck. I just use this for pubs, clubs, trains and bar mitzvahs.’

Then, after a stop at West Dulwich, you look out over Belair Park and the playing fields of Edward Alleyn Sports Club on the right, while Brockwell Park appears on the left, bathed for us today in the weak sunlight (see main pic).

‘Beautiful,’ I said, but Half-life was busy changing vials.

‘Vanilla caffè latte?’ he said, as we drew into Herne Hill.

‘You’re alright, mate,’ I said.

After Herne Hill the green disappears to be replaced by more and more concentrated housing, including, as you reach Brixton – the penultimate stop – the renowned ‘Barrier Block’, Smethwyck House, the unusual shape of which was down to it being built to minimise noise from a planned six-lane urban highway that was to run alongside it and which, thank God, never got built.

At Brixton Station you can wave to Karin, one of three lifesize bronze statues that stand on the platforms there, and then as you head towards north Clapham and Battersea you ride upon a sea of roofs, interspersed with an urban visual poem of timber and scrap yards, house-backs, graffitied walls, tower blocks and industrial estates, all presided over by the distant Shard (quite the best kind of Shard).

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Karin (left)

Just past Battersea Dogs Home – ‘And cats,’ said Half-life unexpectedly – you are treated to the thrilling vista of Battersea Power Station, the largest brick building in Europe. Be quick, though, as it’s gradually being obscured by a wall of shit flats, part of the area’s on-going redevelopment into Wankland.

After a glimpse of the bright river and, to the east, the ornate mansard roof and tower of the Western Pumping Station, the train scythes through the estates and tenement blocks of Pimlico and into Victoria Station, which opened in 1862, having been built on the site of the basin of the old Grosvenor Canal (a small portion of which remains to this day on the north side of the river near Chelsea Bridge).

‘I hope there’s a bar,’ said Half-life. ‘Because all this talk of water is making me thirsty.’

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Grand Central Station it ain’t, but considering that 15 minutes ago we’d been in a forest kicking leaves at each other, Victoria Station was still a startling outcrop of urban sophistication to our hillbilly eyes. We looked around at the chain outlets and up at the immense vaulted roof.

‘Fuck me, there’s a ’Spoons!’ said Half-life, pointing up to the Wetherspoons on the first floor of the concourse.

‘With a neon sign!’ I said. And without further consultation, we headed up the escalator to beer heaven. Yes, it has an escalator.

If your local is a bit quiet after lunch on a Monday afternoon, you really should consider the London Victoria Station Wetherspoons, with its fine ales, friendly staff and constant flow of travellers having one for the road or finding their feet on the balcony after a lengthy journey to the capital. For some it’s obviously a handy central meeting point too, giving it the air of a local, with little pockets of regulars.

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‘Hold all the reels, press cancel and let them spin to get the feature,’ said Half-life to a group of fellers playing the fruit machine. They turned out to be postmen, mostly Irish, and Half-life merrily told them his crossword joke. Twice.

When an armed policeman walked through the automatic sliding doors, like we were in a ’Spoons from the future, Half-life was prompted to say to them:

‘You know, it doesn’t seem like yesterday that it was you lot planting the bombs.’ And a lively conversation ensued while Half-life disappeared to the lavs.

‘There’s a word for your mucker,’ said one of the Irish lads to me. ‘It begins with “G” and ends with “ite”’.

‘Gcuntite?’ I said, and we parted the best of friends.

From Victoria you could visit Tate Britain or get a fine meal at legendary caff, The Regency, off Horseferry Road. But we had other ideas. Or, rather, I did.

Follow me.

On the main concourse, head over towards the northwest corner. There, sandwiched between an Accessorize and something called iSmash (not, sadly, selling modern mashed potato) you will see a door to a Bureau de Change marked, oddly, ‘Grosvenor Hotel’.

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At first, pretend you’re just going to the Bureau.

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Then, striding past it, now pretend you’re going to a posh London hotel through an, if not secret, then little-used passage.

Which, in fact, you are.

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Head up a small flight of steps.

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Through the double doors.

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And down a short corridor to emerge, agog, into the opulent lobby of the aforementioned hotel, where you can take an aperitif in the Grosvenor Arms bar before dining in the cavernous surroundings of the Grand Imperial.

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‘I know this place,’ said Half-life. ‘It used to have the best cocaine toilets in London’. 

Walking through the wonderful wood-panelled rooms to the bar, beneath magnificent chandeliers, it came as something of a shock to find Sky Sports silently flickering on a giant TV. More Than a Woman played on the loudspeakers as Kirsty Gallacher gazed down from the screen. It seemed to sum it all up for me. Yes, I was pissed.

Seasoned boozer as I am, I’m not accustomed to drinking four pints before lunch, particularly when two of them were 6.2% ABV Camden India Hells Lager. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done such a thing and mentioned as much to Half-life.

‘Bollocks,’ said Half-life dismissively. ‘Don’t you remember that cider in 1st Class on the way to Haydock Park?’

‘No,’ I said.

One of my superpowers is spotting at a glance what the best value booze is on the menu of potentially expensive places – especially if I’m paying – and we were able to order two glasses of Argentinian Malbec at £4 a pop and take a seat at the bar to watch the tourist buses head up and down Buck Palace Road.

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The Grand Imperial restaurant, at the other end of the hotel, offers two cracking courses of Cantonese cuisine for £13.50 per person, or in my case, £27 for one person with one person eating free. The dim sum platter is freshly prepared each morning, we were told, and is worth twice the price – which in fact it is after 5pm.

Our meal despatched we repaired outside to Grosvenor Gardens for a restorative spliff in the shadow of Marshall Foch. Appropriately enough, the vista looked particularly Parisien as darkness fell and the street lights popped and fizzed around us.

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‘Remember last time we had one here?’ said Half-life.

‘No,’ I said.

‘Me neither,’ said Half-life.

I wondered if Half-life was concerned about how little impact our experiences were apparently having on our memory.

‘My memory’s full, that’s all.’ said Half-life. ‘If I have to fit anything more in there, I’ll forget something important like my name. Or your credit card number.’

And with that we wandered back into Victoria and got the 16.49 back to Brixton to beat the rush hour. After that it’s all a blur. What I remember of it.

UPDATE February 2017:

A glass of malbec has gone up 25%, to £5, while the two-course lunch (till 5pm) at the Grand Imperial is now £16. Yes, I did it all again, in the name of research.

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