Whenever I listen to an interview on a podcast, the narcissist in me leaps out. I ask myself the same questions the interviewees are asked, sometimes taking days to plan out my responses – mostly in my head, but occasionally I’ll take to writing them in my diary.
My luxury item on Desert Island Discs would be the same as Diane Abbott’s and Ruby Wax’s: an enormous, four poster bed with mosquito netting around it, complete with the plumpest pillows and Egyptian cotton sheets. Were I miraculously invited to appear on How to Fail with Elizabeth Day, my failures would be failing my driving test five times, failing to get into my top three universities the first time I applied, and my failure to notice my poor mental health sooner than I did. If I were interviewed on Love Stories with Dolly Alderton, I’d choose South London Forever by Florence + the Machine as my most romantic song.
Undoubtedly, though, my favourite answer to any podcast question is one of Ruby Tandoh’s on Love Stories. When asked to tell a story of unrequited love, she responds that she’s an Essex girl, from the part “where the Thames burps out into the sea”, and her story of unrequited love is Southend Seafront. She says, “I give it my love and see the poetry in it, and all it gives me is washed-up condoms and scum – I love it though”. I love this answer so bloody much.
“The station has two platforms – one that takes you towards Birmingham, and another towards Coventry, which terminates at London Euston. Without it, I don’t think I’d be the same person I am today.”
I love it not only for its clever and beautiful anthropomorphism, but because it reminds me of a love story of my own. Mine is not a story of unrequited love, but instead of first love, and it’s my local train station.
Berkswell railway station is not actually located in Berkswell, but rather in Balsall Common: a village with a population of 7,000 where I grew up and currently reside with my parents thanks to the pandemic. The station has two platforms – one that takes you towards Birmingham, and another towards Coventry, which terminates at London Euston. Without it, I don’t think I’d be the same person I am today.
At the age of 13, when I was regularly allowed to take the train into town with my friends and without my parents, I became completely obsessed with Berkswell station. My friends and I used to take the 20-minute train into Birmingham every Saturday for probably a year and a half. We’d go to Selfridges and buy a drink or a cheap scrunchie so we could have the iconic yellow paper bag to carry our P.E. kit in the following week. We sniffed poppers by the canal as the scorching afternoon sun burnt our bony shoulders.
“Whatever fear I felt was cushioned by the fact that Berkswell station was a mere 20 minutes away, to receive and not judge me. To comfort me with its familiarity, when the city was the best kind of unfamiliar…”
One time, still 13, I went to Birmingham Pride. I remember smashed glass all over the pavement, men in tiny gold speedos humping each other on stage and a middle-aged lesbian couple ferociously snogging, their tongues visibly touching. I remember feeling scared. My gay cousin and my bisexual self were definitely overwhelmed; it was my first experience of queer pride, and something I mulled over in my mind for a long time when coming to terms with my sexuality.
Was my fear a fear of my own desires? Perhaps. Was this something I’d ever seen in the countryside? Absolutely not then, and not since. But whatever fear I felt was cushioned by the fact that Berkswell station was a mere 20 minutes away, to receive and not judge me. To comfort me with its familiarity, when the city was the best kind of unfamiliar: exhilarating, intimidating, completely different to Balsall Common.
“There’s an incredibly distinct feeling I’d have on the train platform while dressed up – a heady blend of excitement, assuredness and fear, like the best kind of puppy love.”
In 2011, two friends and I took the train to our first gig – The Kooks at the O2 Academy in Birmingham. The train was delayed, so we propped up my camera on the steps to the other platform and took photos of ourselves in our fake eyelashes, swishing our curled and hair-sprayed locks before the train arrived.
This was not the only time I dressed up to the nines only to stand on a freezing cold station platform. I’d preen myself for Berkswell station before going to a Tumblr meet-up where I’d stand sheepishly on the outskirts. I’d shiver there without a coat when going clubbing when it was finally legal, and nervously tell a drunk man to fuck off when I was on the way to my boyfriend’s after-prom party. There’s an incredibly distinct feeling I’d have on the train platform while dressed up – a heady blend of excitement, assuredness and fear, like the best kind of puppy love.
“My local train station and I broke up when it became long-distance. My university train station filled the void, but Berkswell will always hold a special place in my heart.”
As with all first loves, I tested the boundaries. I stupidly ran across the tracks once to impress a boy. I – of course – tried to get away with an Under 16’s fare until I was 20, inevitably receiving a £20 fine before bringing myself to pay for an adult’s fare.
My local train station and I broke up when it became long-distance. My university train station filled the void, but Berkswell will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s manifested itself in strange ways years later. My best essay at university was on trains in literature, how they both dissect the landscape and bring people together. I became overjoyed when my friend at university introduced me to Numtots – New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens. The Guardian even wrote about us.
Since moving back to Balsall Common because of the pandemic, I don’t take the train for obvious reasons, but I do run or walk past Berkswell station often. I think of all the life-shaping experiences that have happened to me sandwiched between visits to Berkswell station and imagine that when we’re allowed to move freely again, there will be other teenagers in my village as smitten with their local station as I was.
Anna Nightingale is an editorial assistant at Head of Zeus and a graduate of the University of Cambridge. Her writing has appeared in Porridge Magazine, The Cambridge Student and Bindweed Magazine. She lives and writes in south east London.
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