Christmas means families. Christmas means me hoisting my tired bones onto a Pendolino and heading south for a few days with my mum. Christmas means eating far too many of her prawn cocktail vol au vents and vegetating in front of Freeview (she doesn't have Sky, Virgin, or even the internet; it's like travelling back to 1996 every time I visit).
This year though, in an effort to be active and a bit more interesting, I suggested a day trip to London. Not for the sales, of course - I'm not insane - but just to have a wander round. My mum very rarely heads into the city, even though it's a thirty minute train journey away, so I thought it would be interesting for her.
Plus, because I am at heart a selfish bastard and a heartless son, I wanted to look at some train stations.
We got a Thameslink train into the city. It's called First Capital Connect (Thameslink route) now, but I'm a traditionalist, and I still call it Thameslink. The presence of West Hampstead Thameslink and City Thameslink stations hints that maybe everyone else still does as well. The train was a loud, rickety thing, redone in the FCC colours but clearly one of the original trains from when the route was opened in the Eighties. It was full of people, noisily excited in that post-Christmas, "we're still on holiday!" way. There was a woman on the train who my mum chatted to for ten minutes, before turning to me and saying, "You know who that was, don't you?" Of course I didn't. It turned out it was the daughter of her old next door neighbours, who moved away from home about twenty years ago. She was surprised I didn't recognise her.
I craned my neck to get a look at the new ticket office for West Hampstead Thameslink, but from this angle it looked like just another box. The new footbridge looked impressive though, and there were workers on the lifts, even in the holiday period. South, through St Pancras International, and then through the remains of King's Cross Thameslink. Its platforms were still there, with their none-more-80s fake marble treatments and their bright red seats, but now signs saying "DO NOT ALIGHT HERE" have been stuck all over the place.
Fat chance - the train barely pauses as it carries on into Farringdon. One day this will be a massive interchange, the point where Thameslink passes over Crossrail and interacts with the Underground, but for now it's just a building site. There was a little hint of the future in a new exit to a new ticket hall at one end of the platform, but that seemed to be it for the time being. Still, they've got another six years or so. No rush.
At the end of the platform was a polite notice in a serif font: Drivers! Do not forget to drop your pantograph!, which sounds like a line from a Carry On film. It's actually a reminder that Thameslink uses two different kinds of electrical power - overhead lines from Farringdon north, and third rail from Blackfriars south. The crossover point is City Thameslink between the two, where the pause is always a little bit longer so they can make sure they're properly keyed into the new power source. Pay attention, because this could be the future for Merseyrail - it's the cheapest way to bring the Borderlands Line into the network.
And then we're at Blackfriars, and it's time to get off. This was what I really wanted to see - London's latest expanded station. What was once a dowdy station is being demolished, rebuilt and extended beyond belief. Now the trains stop in the centre of Blackfriars Bridge itself, and exits are positioned at either end. The old northern entrance is being buried under a new office development, while to the south, a brand new ticket hall has been opened on the South Bank itself. Above us, metal struts were being installed across the length of the platform. These will eventually hold the glass roof to protect you from the elements, and also, enough photo-voltaic cells to provide half the station's electricity. For the time being, it felt enclosed and a bit tight, not helped by our view over the river being obscured by blue hoardings. It's still very much a work in progress (the Tube station is still closed).
We headed out onto the South Bank via an array of stairs (there are two lifts, but the one from the mezzanine down to the ground wasn't working). At the foot was a proper ticket office, which was a nice surprise. With TfL closing down ticket offices across London, it was nice to find that this one was built with space for ticket men and women. The barriers were open though, and a construction worker was loitering beyond.
I got my mum to take the picture outside the station. She had no idea why, struggled with operating the digital camera, and managed to take a photo of the pavement before she got this shot:
I hadn't realised how close the new station entrance was to the Tate Modern. A brief stroll down the river and there it is. Strangely, after twenty odd years, this could be the development that opens up Thameslink as a proper cross-city route, a valid alternative to the Northern Line. Until now it's been a bit of a secret for commuters, but I can see tourists using this station a lot more than Southwark to get to the Tate Modern. And once you've done that, and discovered you can get to London Bridge and King's Cross St Pancras from here as well...
We poked our head in at the Tate Modern, because my mum had never been, but she's not a fan of modern art - "I like pictures to look like what they're meant to be". Instead we crossed the Millennium Bridge, giving me another look at Blackfriars station under construction.
It's been deliberately designed to be as squat as possible, so you will still get a look along the river. Personally I can't wait to see it at night, the glass tube glowing from within as it flows across the water.
We paused for a coffee and a sandwich at Pret a Manger then carried on to Mansion House Tube station. On the platform, my mum turned to me and said, "Isn't the Underground horrible?"
"No," I replied in a surprisingly calm voice. "I love the Underground."
"No you don't." (My mum is prone to sweeping generalisations which are based on the premise that if she doesn't like something, no-one else, anywhere, does either). "How can you like this? Everyone hates it. It's dark and it's miserable and it's depressing. Everyone hates the Underground."
"Clearly you and I move in different social circles." I should also state, for the record, that Mansion House has been refurbished and is remarkably clean and pleasant.
She jabbed at me with a finger. "You can't tell me that if you was in one of those Tube trains and it broke down in the tunnel and all the lights went off, you wouldn't hate the Underground too."
"But... that's ridiculous!" I spluttered. "That's like saying you hate cars because there's a chance they might break down in the middle of the countryside in a snowstorm and you freeze to death."
"That's a completely different thing. Don't be stupid."
I felt that my mum's ideas needed to be preserved for history, so I tweeted it (the station's shallow enough that you can get a weak mobile signal).
"Put your phone away," she scolded. "Everyone here is fiddling with their mobiles. It's awful." Again, remember: if she's not doing it, no-one else should be either.
"What should we be doing instead?"
"Look around you. Look at the building. Look at the adverts."
"You just said the Underground was dark and miserable. Surely it's nicer for people to look at their mobiles?"
"No. They should look up at the adverts once in a while. It's rude."
I'm not sure if she meant it was rude to her fellow commuters, or if it was rude to the advertising execs who'd poured their creativity into a big poster for Ikea. Either way I fell silent, wondering if I was adopted. The Underground is horrible?!?!
We got on a train to Temple, just two stops (technically one, because Blackfriars in between was closed) and got off in the delightfully 19th Century station. My mum pulled me to one side on the platform and whispered, "That'll teach me to tell you to read the adverts. The one opposite me on the train was for the London Sperm Clinic."
We went from Temple into Covent Garden, because my mum wanted a wander round the market, and so I suggested a little trip to the London Transport Museum Shop: partly because I love it there, and partly because I wanted to wipe the memory of my mum saying "sperm" from my head. I terrified my mum by pointing out how many of the books in the Underground section I owned, while she wondered out loud what had happened to me to turn me into a nerd. I pointed at a copy of Mark Ovenden's Great Railway Maps of the World. "That book is brilliant."
"I doubt that very much."
I came away with a copy of Mark Mason's Walk the Lines. It's very good apart from his frankly bizarre preference for Leslie Green's ox-blood Tube stations to Charles Holden's elegant 1930s ones. He completely dismisses Arnos Grove which I found personally upsetting.
Another coffee, this time in Old Compton Street. My mum's fine with me being gay so long as I never mention it in any way. As a result I get perverse amusement out of taking her to very gay places without her understanding why. Whenever she's in Liverpool, I insist on a drink in the Lisbon, and I took her to Christopher Street in New York without her being any the wiser. Now we sat on the pavement opposite the Ku Bar, watching various tightly muscled men with cropped hair walk past, and she was too busy complaining about the price of her coffee to notice.
It was starting to get dark so we decided to head home via St Pancras. Any excuse for me to have a look at this truly magnificent station, one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in the country. I especially love the Olympic rings on the end of the train shed - somehow they just fit. It's also amusing to think that people from (second place) Paris will get off the train here and be reminded that they missed out on the 2012 games.
There was another feature at St Pancras worth checking out: the giant Lego Christmas tree.
The Thameslink station underneath the new Midland Main Line platforms is impressive in a different way. It's very 21st century, all concrete and glass and cool blue lights, but it's wonderfully efficient and pleasant. It's the kind of transit station you can imagine turning up in Star Trek.
The platforms, meanwhile, are absolutely huge, ready for the day when 12-car trains will come through here to take you to Cambridge, Hertford, and dozens of other destinations that currently only go into King's Cross. The old, shoddy trains look frankly embarrassing in this gleaming temple of the future. They're being replaced, but not fast enough for my tastes.
I can't wait to return to the capital to properly take in all the improvements; to see Thameslink at its full strength, to see Blackfriars snaking across the river, to see all Farringdon's improvements. I probably won't take my mum, though.