Thursday 27 April 2023

This Is England

Heritage is a loaded term.  It has a banal, unthreatening, chocolate box meaning - Heritage Centre.  English Heritage.  Or, in the case of the town I was visiting, the Henley Heritage Trail.  It's comfy and it's warm.  It's history, but not nasty history; there are no slaves or murders or torturing, and if there's a battle, it's a sufficient distance ago so that the field has been grassed over and you can put up a picture of a Cavalier in a big flouncy hat.

Heritage can, however, be exclusive.  It's our heritage.  It's part of my heritage. It's us versus them.  It's me versus you.  It's people in one world, with one lineage, and they can push you out.

Henley-in-Arden was very proud to shout about its heritage all over the station.  There were posters and boards and hand-drawn signs grabbing your attention and directing it all over town.  You were in Heritage Henley, and oh boy were you going to love it.  Except, weirdly, it fell down at that first step.  Henley-in-Arden station has been open for more than a century, and retains its old building and its elegant canopy over the platform.  But it is shuttered and closed.  The heritage boards are placed over closed off windows and doors.  It's old, but it's not alive.  It's preservation rather than use.

In fairness, this might change soon.  There was an unattended building site at the rear of the station where the Friends of Henley Railway Station were working to restore the building.  They want to make it into a cafe or maybe a microbrewery, give it a bit of purpose again.  Which is great of course.  If and when it happens.

Station Road could not have been more suburban.  Detached homes, angled discreetly so you weren't looking directly at the road, stood behind thick foliage from years of enthusiastic gardening.  The hedges were high.  The lawns were clipped.  A sign on a fence informed us that Buggles the cat was "still missing"; the only traffic movement was a single Amazon van.  There were a couple of signs advertising that the house you couldn't see beyond the gate had recently got a Luxury Kitchen or a Pristine Driveway from a firm with a mobile number and a Squarespace website.

Turning onto the High Street, however, was a trip back in time.  This was England.  A wide, open High Street lined with bow-windowed shops and half-timbered homes.  They were haphazard and irregular, built whenever money came up, charming in their cobbled-togetherness.  Each was well-maintained, proudly so in fact, with floral additions and discreet signage.

I walked down the street, admiring it.  It looked so pretty and traditional.  Miss Marple could've belted down the pavement on her bicycle and you wouldn't have batted an eyelid.  It was exactly what a small market town should be.

Except, as I walked, I realised that wasn't quite true.  The shops weren't shops, not regular shops, not places to dip in and out of.  There were a couple of takeaways of course and the obligatory Costa.  But the clothes shops were boutiques; between them were kitchen showrooms and estate agents.  The occasional deli-cum-coffee shop, yes, but more likely interior designers and beauty salons and wealth management experts and solicitors.

When there's hand wringing about the death of the High Street, it's often about poverty, and about the emptiness.  How shops close and leave vacant stores behind, or how prices rise and force people to shop online.  In Henley, there was a different kind of death; it was smothered with money.  This was a place where its wealthy residents no longer needed or wanted to go into town for a wander or a shop; they had a car, they could go wherever they wanted.  Stratford had all the money and the glamour, or perhaps Royal Leamington Spa.  The shops were now offices.  The tax experts and accountants used their front windows as adverts to get people to notice their services at hiding your cash.  It didn't bustle or surge.  It was a High Street to be driven to for an appointment.  You wouldn't want to linger or browse.

I'd been travelling all morning so I picked a pub for a quiet moment of recovery.  It was surprisingly difficult.  There were a few "traditional" inns along the street, some boasting of their hundreds of years of heritage, but they mainly wanted to tell you about their incredible steaks or rent you a romantic room.  They were hotels and restaurants that might, if you're lucky, serve you a pint.  I found one that seemed alright, and after batting away the inevitable "will you be eating with us today?", I got a seat and a beer.  Across from me was an elderly man, obviously a regular, who asked the barman for another drink as he passed and clearly had a tab.  In another hint that Henley was not like other towns, he ordered a nine pound glass of Merlot.  

The Heritage Centre was closed, so I was unable to get my fix of Henley's Heritage.  I suspected that it wasn't going to be for me anyway.  Instead I walked out of town, south, past a sign for a car park on Prince Harry Road; I idly wondered if there was a campaign to have it renamed now he was officially a Traitor.  (I'd earlier passed a firm of "property consultants" - Luxury Property/Confidential Marketing/Home Staging - who'd devoted their touchscreen in the window to a picture of King Charles, a picture which I spontaneously told to "fuck off", out loud.  Henley was definitely not a Meghan kind of village).  There was a red phone box but it was empty.  Preservation for the sake of preservation; no actual purpose, just to look right.  Heritage.

I wanted there to be an interesting way to walk out of town.  There wasn't one, sadly.  My route to my second station was a virtual straight line along the A3400, a gentle stroll at the side of the road.  Occasionally there would be a middle-aged woman with a dog walking in the opposite direction, but most of the time, it was me and my thoughts and nobody else.  I hoiked my backpack over my shoulders and marched on.

I don't really know much about rugby, beyond the obvious "phwoar!" element.  I've never quite got the difference between League and Union sorted in my head, and it's one of the few sports the BF isn't interested in, so I don't even experience it second hand.  One of the teams I had actually heard of, though, was Wasps, because that's an interesting, different name for a rugby club.  As I walked out of Henley I passed a sign marking the entrance to its "Elite Performance and Innovation Centre", or what normal people call a "training ground".  

There was no sign of hulking great rugby lads homoerotically grappling one another, but that might be because Wasps are having a bit of a time of it lately; they went into administration last October, and have been bumped out of the top flight of rugby as a result.  Their Elite training centre isn't quite so elite any more.

I never really experienced any open countryside before I reached the outskirts a Wootton Wawen, a village name that sounds like you're doing a Frank Muir impression.  (A Frank Muir reference in 2023; truly I am down with the TikTok generation).  At this remove it wasn't really a village though, more a resting ground for some truly horrible houses.  Some people reach a point of wealth where they really want a big old house in the country, but the problem with big old houses is they're old.  Their power showers usually aren't great and there aren't enough plug sockets.  So they build their own house, which looks a bit like an old one, but if you removed any charm or architectural flair from them.  Then they put a big wall around it - because people naturally want to break into and steal their no doubt top drawer interiors - and install a massive obtrusive camera to spy on you as you walk past.  

I walked from home to home, revelling in their awfulness, their vulgarity.  There were good houses now and then as well, and the odd cul-de-sac of simple semis, but for the most part they were Gauche with a capital "ugggg".  Finally the village church emerged round a corner and I reached the heart of the village.

Actually, I've called it the church, but for some reason they don't seem to be keen on that branding.  Instead, there's a sign calling it the "Saxon Sanctuary," and a very Web 1.0 website to match.  It is, apparently, the oldest church in Warwickshire, but I'm not sure that justifies a whole different attempt to grab tourist pounds.  It's still a working church, after all.

Wootton Wawen has been here for over a thousand years; it's in the Domesday Book.  It certainly looks the genuine article, clustered around a sweep in the road, its rooftops wiggling under the weight of heavy chimneys.  

I'd managed to avoid the rain all day - I'd optimistically left without a coat - but my luck finally ran out as I reached the small village hall.  Thick globules of water crashed down on me, going faster and faster, and forcing me to seek refuge.


I actually made a slight mistake when I picked the pub.  I'd gone in through a door off the street, but it had been refurbished and realigned so that the main bar was accessed from the car park.  I found myself in a tiny snug, and before I could back out in fear, the barmaid was asking me what I'd have.  It turned out to be a good thing, as I got to eavesdrop on the locals, a pair of starkly unsentimental farmers who reminded me that country life is a bloody business.  One of the men had come up with a scheme to stop the foxes on his land; he'd ordered a load of California Reaper chilis off Amazon, and was going to go up to their den with rubber gloves and a sling.  He planned on dropping them into the foxholes so that when they returned home, they'd crush them underfoot, and it'd cause "bloody havoc."

"Bit harsh," said his companion.

"So long as they're away from my fucking chickens I don't care."  Then he ordered another Scotch chaser for his pint of Guinness.

The afternoon whiled away.  The rain may have stopped; I didn't look.  I moved into the main bar, where a man with a one eyed dog interrogated me about what I did.

"Nothing," I replied, which of course lead to more questions.  Finally I admitted I used to work for the Council.

"Did they pay you off?  Because of all the corruption?  Did you know too much?"

"Erm, no," I replied, a bit confused.  "I went a bit mental."

He seemed dissatisfied and went away.  Then he poked his head round the corner again.  "Masons.  You in the Masons?"


"You know what they are?"


"Council's full of Masons."  He winked theatrically and returned to the bar to book a table for him and his family, who were coming to visit and who he wanted to entertain in the best bit of the pub.  The barmaid politely listened to his long story about the visitors, his cheeky banter, his jokes, as she took his name and number for the reservation.  He waved the staff goodbye, and the second he left the barmaid turned to her colleague and said, "I always thought his name was Steve."

Finally I decided I had to leave; I had a train to catch.  I went out into the wet streets and hurried towards the station.  I had ten minutes; plenty of time.  I'd already worked out its location on Google Maps.  

I'd made a stupid mistake, however.  That double arrow didn't mark the entrance to the station, but simply the midpoint of the platforms.  I'd gone down Alcester Road for no reason.  I only realised when I saw the station through a gap in the houses, with no sign of a footbridge or a building.

I turned and ran back down the road.  Wootton Wawen is a request stop, so the train wouldn't be waiting for me.  It'd only stop if I was there on the platform.

Too late.  For the second time in as many trips, I saw the train depart as I closed in, this time passing over the railway bridge at the foot of the station.  I stood at the bottom of the step and swore, much to the consternation of the man in his car waiting to pick up his daughter who I'd completely failed to spot.  Perhaps I'm losing my touch.

I now faced an hour's wait until the next train.  I could've gone back to the pub, but I was slightly afraid of the reception I'd get there now, and besides it's embarrassing to leave somewhere and almost immediately return.  Instead, I took up residence in the cold little shelter on the platform, and waited it out with a podcast.

Nothing happened for an hour.  There were no random weirdos or stories about animal abuse.  Instead, a pleasant, warm train rolled into the station, and allowed me, the only person on the platform, to board.  English efficiency.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How many stations on the Shakespeare Line are left for you to visit now?