Thursday 7 September 2023

DART to the Past


When the Borough of Luton decided to build an airport in the 1930s, they had the perfect spot for it.  To the south east of the town was a large, flat plateau, raised above the Lea valley, which would be ideal for a runway.  They opened an airport there in 1938, and for seventy-odd years London Luton Airport has operated out of this spot.

The problem with this location is: it's a large flat plateau raised above the Lea valley.  Road and railway engineers choose the path of least resistance when building transport links and so they'd sent their connections through the valley.  It meant that even though a busy railway line with fast connections to the capital passed less than a kilometre from the terminal building, getting it onto the airport estate would've meant huge amounts of tunnelling and bridges to overcome that massive height difference.

A station was built in the 1990s, Luton Airport Parkway, but that was still a mile away from the airport proper, and so shuttle buses had to be laid on.  Until, finally, they built a dedicated people mover: the Luton DART.  

The airport station is, weirdly, entirely separate from the terminal.  I'd have thought the logical thing would be to integrate the two - have an exit directly into arrivals - but instead you leave the terminal building and walk through the outdoors to the station.  It's not, technically, an underground station; although there is an overarching roof, it's open to the elements at the sides, meaning it looks more like a pavilion.  

I'd bought my ticket before I'd even arrived, using one of my many railway apps.  This is where I need to inform you that a ticket from Luton Airport to Luton Airport Parkway station costs four pounds and ninety pence.  This is on top of any railway ticket you'll buy to go onto another destination and is for a trip that will take less than four minutes.  It is, of course, an outrage and a con.  An all areas Day Saver on Merseyrail is £5.95 and lets you run amok across the whole network for a day.  Also, the ticket gates absolutely refused to recognise the QR code on my e-ticket at either end of the trip, so it's not only expensive, it doesn't work properly.

Still, you can't help feeling impressed as you descend into the station hall.  A huge wide concourse, platform edge doors, rotating LED screens.  It's what you'd want from an airport station - easy to use and efficient.  The station only opened in March this year and it still had a glow of newness about it.  Mind, this was in July, before it started getting a proper hammering over the summer holidays; it's probably a little worse for wear now.  

These aren't trains, technically.  The DART is a cable railway, with two separate cars and systems; there's no way to move one to the other side.  Since all they're doing is going back and forth between two points this makes sense.  (There is passive provision for an intermediate station, serving the car parks, plus the potential to extend to a future terminal two).  

As I waited for my train, two workers came out of a locked door and onto the platform.  A small elderly lady pounced on them and asked in a heavily accented voice, "which side is the train to London?"

The two men sighed.  Clearly this wasn't the first time they'd been asked this.  They explained this was the shuttle to the station, and that was where you'd get the train from.

On board they explained to her that this confusion happened all the time, and another man joined in with the discussion.  The confusion comes from the information in the airport.  According to one of the men, it tells you the times of trains to London, Bedford and so on, from Parkway station, and fails to mention the little shuttle you have to take to get there.  "They need to sort it out!" he concluded, exasperated.

On board it's what you'd expect - longitudinal seating, grab rails, plenty of room for luggage.  The doors closed and we slid out of the station, through tunnels at first, then crossing the Airport Way on one of those bridges that I 100% guarantee you was referred to as both "iconic" and a "gateway" in the PR blurb.  

The DART station at the far end is an extension to the existing station and on something called "Bartlett Square".  This is where I was firmly reminded that it's been a long time since I came back to Luton.  That side of the station had once been Vauxhall Motors.  Now it was "Napier Park", an entirely new district of apartment blocks built for people who were priced out of the capital.  Although a two bedroom flat in "Chevette Court" is £333,000, so you still need a fair amount of cash for it.

Through the ticket gates is a large concourse and a new footbridge down to the railway.  It's all efficient and gleaming and works brilliantly, but still: four pound ninety.

I was heading north, into Luton, for a small nostalgia trip.  The BF's plane from Berlin wasn't due for another couple of hours, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to wallow in my past.  I no longer have any close family in the town, so I've no reason to go back any more, and even when I did visit I rarely ventured into the centre.  It was an opportunity to see what had changed.

One thing that hadn't changed was the overwhelming crappiness of Luton station.  They seemed to have fixed the roof that was leaking last time I visited, in 2011, but the travel centre had vanished, and it was still dark and miserable and badly laid out.  They had at least removed the piss-scented footbridge that carried you into the town centre, though the reason they'd managed this was they'd torn up a working railway line.  There used to be a freight route between Luton and Dunstable that stopped having trains on it, but was still in perfect working order; the local transport geniuses tore this up and replaced it with a guided busway between the two towns, meaning the exterior of the station is now a bus exchange.  It's not great.

I had a dream involving me and Russell Tovey and Paul Rudd last night, Inspirational Wall, but I think if I tried to make it happen I'd probably get arrested.

Luton has pedestrianised the roads between the station and the shopping centre too, to try and make it more of a destination and welcoming environment.  It certainly made me smile, though perhaps not for the same reason as people who didn't grow up in the town.

Some old buildings have been demolished to create an open space leading down to the River Lea.  Even though it rises in the town, the Lea has always been hidden away in culverts and under buildings.  They're clearly trying to make a feature of it now with this amphitheatre and then, floating above it on sticks, pink, fibreglass flamingos.  

I actually laughed out loud, utterly delighted.  When the Luton Arndale Centre was first built in the 1970s, its centrepiece was an indoor fountain.  Not just any fountain: a fountain filled with giant, oversized, pink, fibreglass flamingos.  

They were kitsch, they were tacky, they were vulgar.  They were also, it has to be said, home.  The flamingos were there for twenty years until a 90s refurb of the Arndale saw them rudely evicted.  At the time, everyone was glad to see the back of them, but over the years, nostalgia has taken over.  The council even launched a hunt for the statue last year.  Seeing those new flamingos, flying over the river, seemed like the town embracing its identity at last.  Yes, Luton's a bit terrible.  But let's be proud of it!

The Arndale is now technically "The Mall Luton", but I refuse to call it that, and so does any right minded person.  It's been radically rebuilt since I was growing up.  The big brown plastic seating has gone; there are glass panels in the ceiling to let in natural light; the mix of shops is radically different.  Like most town centres Luton has suffered over the last decade but it felt particularly pointed when I was operating with a 1980s filter overlaid over everything.  Debenhams (famously firebombed by animal rights activists) was closed and shuttered; Woolworth's was now a Lidl; there was no Marks and Spencer at all.  There had been two separate HMVs, and now there was none, while other stores had downgraded in size.  Tesco's upstairs, where I used to buy my Lego, was now a Sports Direct.  And WH Smith, my beloved WH Smith, a place where I spent literally hours as a child, was like all their stores these days - thoroughly disappointing, little more than a newsagent with a post office wedged in the back.  .

I had decided I was going to treat myself to an experience long denied to me.  Smith Square has an upper gallery round it, which in my day was how you got to the top floors of Debenhams and Woolworths.  Also on that top floor was a restaurant called Greenfields.  This was, to my mind, quite clearly the most glamorous place one could eat in the Western Hemisphere.  Just the fact that it was upstairs in the Arndale was giddying.  It had stained glass, and cascading ivy, and it seemed to glow on that balcony, calling to me.  And now, finally, I could go.

For the benefit of younger readers, I should explain.  In the old days - and by old, I mean the seventies and eighties - working class people didn't eat out.  We just didn't.  Why would we go to a coffee shop when there was coffee at home?  Why would we spend our own money on food and drink that was more expensive?  Why would we pay to have a sit down?  Around my teens, we started going to a Beefeater on our birthdays (the Warden Tavern, still there folks) but this was very much a special occasion.  There was absolutely no way on earth my mum and dad would spontaneously drop into a restaurant for a meal.  We'd have to dress up a bit.

What was especially delightful about eating in Greenfields in 2023 was it was almost exactly what it must have been like eating in Greenfields in 1983.  I don't think anything had changed in that time.  Perhaps the chairs and tables were a bit more contemporary, but there was still the faux-Tiffany stained glass, the trailing ivy (which turned out to be plastic), the lino.  The manageress who showed me to my table was a fearsome woman who smiled cheerily at me and the other customers then unleashed hell on her tiny teenage waiting staff.  I expect she started out as a tiny teenage waitress herself and was regurgitating her traumas on a new generation.

My full English probably hadn't changed for forty years either.  There were no artisan sausages or hand reared eggs - everything was extremely processed.  It was overdone and a little gristly.  I forgave everything, however, because (a) this was Greenfields and (b) they served it with fried bread, and nobody gives you fried bread any more.  I guzzled it all, trying not to think about my blood pressure, and wondered how much longer it would be here for.  The clientele were all pensioners, and the scary lady boss knew them by name; apart from the waiters, I was the youngest one there.  When they die I expect Greenfields will die too.

I paid up (£9.45; the prices have definitely not remained in the Thatcher years) and went out onto George Street, Luton's main thoroughfare.  This was always a little sadder than the Arndale, a bit more down at heel.  The Arndale demolished half a dozen streets when it was built and now blocks off the entire town.  It also created a situation where if you weren't in the Arndale, you may as well not exist.  The only big shop outside of it was the British Home Stores and, well, we all know how that turned out.  The Cannon cinema where I saw many a film growing up - reeling, horrified, out of Superman IV; queuing up George Street West for Batman; going to see Problem Child with a gang for my mate Sanjay's 14th birthday and feeling incredibly mature eating in Pizza Hut afterwards without a single adult chaperone - was still empty, a beautiful listed building rendered obsolete by a multiplex down the road, searching for a purpose in the 21st century.

At the end of the street is Luton's Town Hall, which is actually the second on the site.  The first town hall was burnt down by an angry mob of unemployed ex-soldiers on, and this is not a joke, Peace Day 1919.  I'm perversely proud of the fact that Luton managed to turn a commemoration of peace into a riot.  Yup, those are my people: trash.

St George's Square has also had a makeover; they've made it more of an open gathering space, removing the low bedding, putting in new lights.  They've also got rid of the staircase up to the Arndale where the druggies used to hang out, the staircase that had John Carlisle Is A Cunt graffitied on it, one of those political protest messages that for some reason the council workers never felt the need to scrub off.  (Going to John Carlisle's Wikipedia page for that link informed me that the rampant homophobe, supporter of apartheid, and and advocate for both the gun and tobacco lobbies, has been dead for four years, and I must say by way of tribute: good).  

I was headed for the library.  Most people, on returning to their home town, will look up old pubs and nightspots; I headed for the place where I spent most of my youth.  I would spend hours in Luton Central Library, reading entire books while sat there.  My mum would take me into town and leave me in there while she shopped, safe in the knowledge that I wouldn't cause any mischief and would still be there when she got back.  

Luton Central Library was a gleaming piece of modernism, opened in 1962, and when I was visiting as a boy it still had a distinctive Festival of Britain afterglow.  Its entrance hall was cool marble, and dark floors, with a small waterfall in the corner by the stairs.  The main library hall - just past the record library - was gleaming glass and polished tiles, with heavy wooden desks arranged around a balcony.  Above that was the reference section, separated from the rest of the room by a glass wall, its microfiche machines humming and its card catalogues begging to be fingered.  

The library has, I'm afraid to say, been modernised.  Carpet covers that slippy marble floor.  The furniture is simpler and off the peg.  The waterfall has gone.  It's also lost an awful lot of its books.  Where there used to be walls of them, bay after bay - I could still remember what section was where: film and television there, foreign language there - now there was at most half the volume, with desks and computers everywhere else.  The reference section was mainly computers now.  The microfiches were probably in a skip.

I found the local history section and thumbed a few choice books.  A history of Luton's pubs had a few I'd visited; the book dated from the early 90s, and noted that a Yates' Wine House was a recent stylish addition to the town.  (When I moved to the north I discovered that only in Luton was Yatesies anything approaching "stylish").  I found a copy of The Story of Luton, written by my dad's old history teacher, and which I would read every few months.  (I should really get round to buying my own copy some day).  I also found a reminder that Luton's more recent history is a lot less pleasant.

Tommy Robinson, head of the English Defence League and massive, massive arsehole, is from Luton - in fact, he grew up in Farley Hill, like my dad's side of the family.  Other Lutonians include sex trafficker Andrew Tate, hideous transphobe and homosexual embarrassment Dennis Noel Kavanagh, and "Britain's most notorious prisoner" Charles Bronson; on the plus side, there's national treasure Nadiya Hussein, Strictly winner Stacey Dooley and me, so we're not all bad.  It is a little bit embarrassing that the town only ever seems to turn up on the news when another extremist or racist claims it as their home.  Mind you, I haven't lived there full-time since 1995 so I'm fast approaching calling myself an Honorary (Plastic) Scouser.

After a while I needed a drink and a wee so I crossed Bridge Street to the Galaxy Centre.  When I was very young, this was the Co-op Department Store; my nana worked there, and we'd go to the grotto at Christmas.  It was knocked down in the 1980s and then the site sat vacant for twenty years while everyone tried to work out what to do with it.  After a while, they got desperate for someone, anyone to build on it, which is presumably the only reason they gave permission for the Galaxy Centre.

Incorporating a cinema, bowling alley, gym and various chain restaurants, the Galaxy is utterly without merit, the architectural equivalent of a Tesco carrier bag, bland and covered in ads and somehow worse than a big patch of empty ground.  It is astonishingly hideous and badly designed - its main entrance faces away from the town, towards the back of a car park that has since been demolished.  It somehow makes the Arndale look subtle and characterful.

I had a Pepsi Max in the (huge, ugly) Wetherspoons, used their toilet, then exited onto Manchester Street.  I had one last nostalgia trip to make, what we'll call the Rainbow Tour of Luton.  The realisation that I was gay was a slow, drawn out process, marked by denial, then assuming it was a phase, then waiting for the phase to end, then realising oh shit I'm stuck with this.  In my late teens, there were some small, incremental spots in the town that will always be markers on my route to fabulousness.

This newsagent, for example, which was the first place I ever bought a homosexual publication - Gay Times.  I decided that this newsagent was sufficiently out of the way so that I wouldn't be recognised, and then I never had to go back there either.  The small Asian lady behind the counter put it in a brown paper bag to hide my shameful purchase and I stuffed it in my backpack to read furtively in the park.  Round the corner, there was Shirley's Temple, Luton's only gay bar, notable for being the place that made me realise, yep, I was gay, and I liked it.  I'd been on my one and only date with a girl - whose name I can't remember, embarrassingly - and we'd been to see Casper.  (SEXY).  Afterwards we were walking round town in the hot summer air and we passed Shirley's.  The door was open, because it was so warm, and I could see inside where men were laughing and dancing and chatting.  And I remember very distinctly thinking, I wish I was in there instead of out here.  That poor girl.

Shirley's is now, like a lot of old pubs in Luton, a block of flats.  The Coliseum on Gordon Street, where I celebrated my 17th birthday, is apartments; so is the Inkerman Arms, a couple of streets away, which also tried to be a gay bar.  I went there during the holidays after I'd officially come out as A Homo and was au fait with this kind of establishment; I copped off with a bloke there, and he introduced me to his mate, and a week later I copped off with that same mate in Shirley's.  Common.

The BF was back now, and he picked me up for the drive back up to Birkenhead.  Before that though, he wanted to see a landmark.  Luton Town FC had just been promoted to the Premier League, and he'd been agog when I'd told him about Kenilworth Road, their tiny ground tucked down the back streets of Bury Park.  He wanted to see it for himself.

It was a hive of activity that day as the workmen tried to bring it up to a decent standard before the start of the new season.  Luton have been trying to leave Kenilworth Road for about forty years, but have never had the money for a new ground; there was the infamous Kohlerdome proposal by the motorway, and suggestions of moving to Milton Keynes until they bought Wimbledon, and now there was a plan for a new ground on what used to be Power Court by the parish church, but nothing has ever actually happened.  Suffice to say, the BF was astonished to see the tiny little ground, with its tin roofs and its access via narrow alleyways behind terraced houses.  We went round to Oak Road so he could see the most famous part, the access to the Away end via an entrance that's actually under people's houses.  

When Luton hosted its first Premier League match last week, I noticed that this is now called the Dominos Oak Stand.  I would also like to register my objection to the commentator constantly calling the ground "the Kenny"; that's not a thing, nobody calls it that, it's Kenilworth Road.  It looks like Luton won't be around in the top flight for long, judging by their early performance, but I hope they make an awful lot of money over the course of the season.  Maybe they'll finally be able to move out and the people of Bury Park will get a bit of peace of a Saturday afternoon.

We drove out of town, to the motorway, and I realised that this was probably the last time I'd ever go to Luton.  I couldn't see another reason to visit.  It's not what it was.  It's kind of a dump.  But it'll always be home.


diamond geezer said...

I loved reading that - you can't beat a descriptive return to somewhere you once knew intimately.

Also I'm now worried that I might have bumped into you at some point in the early 90s.

Please go back again sometime to see what further mess they've made, even if it's in 10 years time.

Anonymous said...

Never mind Russell Tovey and Paul Rudd, a chance meeting between DG and the fledgling Merseytart in the early 90s is the franchise crossover we all need to hear more about.

Anonymous said...

I upgraded to Harpenden some 20 years ago, but I still semi-regularly visit the Arndale to relive my youth.

Watching a town centre evolve in both good and bad ways is quite a fascinating pastime.

Amazingly, there IS still a HMV in the mall - but not in the centre strip. It’s the third location I can remember, Luton’s HMV branches closed every time the company ran into difficulties, only to reopen at another unit a couple of years later.

You correctly mention the Woolworths is now a Lidl, but you probably never knew that it was the town’s M&S in between. From the sublime to the ridiculous.

The Galaxy also now has its footbridge to nowhere… leading directly into the Library multi-story car park that then got demolished a few years later. The walkway still exists but no longer serves any purpose.

Scott Willison said...

I'm pretty sure DG and I did not move in the same circles in the early 90s. He doesn't strike me as the type to dance to handbag house while drinking Blastaways (a mix of Diamond White and Castaway wine cooler, served in a pint glass).

I can't believe I missed the HMV. I could have recreated my teenage years by walking around it for a full hour, flicking through every CD in the place, then leaving without buying anything.