An old aunt has gone home to glory, full of years; the last of her generation. I travelled to the funeral to honour her memory, respect my family and to catch up with my cousins. Today, to Derby for the funeral of that last remaining aunt: I travel to London from my home and walk north across this great city toward St Pancras. After my walk I sit in the Black Sheep Cafe on the Pentonville Road, within sight of the vaulted roof of St Pancras station, and reflect on what I have seen. I’ve walked almost at random through the city streets. Why? Because I can. Because of what I might see, because of who I might meet, what I might learn.
First, Blackfriars: a railway station built on a bridge across the Thames. I walk up towards Holborn viaduct, crossing Fleet Street. At one set of lights, the first six cars to pass me were electric vehicles. Ladies and gents going to work. Beards and bare legs: it is warm weather. Buildings I never saw before; streets I never walked along. A man rides past with one of those dignified little lap dogs sat in a front box on his bike. I consider renting a Boris Bike, but decide not to. Men are working on rooftops. Here in Holborn, a jewellery quarter. Further north, leafy residential streets and red-brick tenements. A junior school. Dentists. An Asian grocer. This is inner London. On Grays Inn Road, I even saw a uniformed policeman.
St Pancras International: this station is like a church to me; it is a temple of all that the railway should be. Also, it has been close to the start and end of dozens of significant journeys, right back into boyhood. I first came here, to my knowledge, for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebration in 1977. Now it is Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee, 45 years later. Most of all I recall coming here in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, to the tired, grimy and neglected station of the old London Midland Region of British Rail. I remember the old high-ceilinged booking office – now a fancy restaurant. There are railway nostalgists who prefer the station as it was then, but I think it is tremendous, and a great improvement. Today, in my view, St Pancras is in its pomp.
Sitting upstairs in front of the silent electric Eurostar trains all lined up in a row, I can see two grey-beard older brothers taking brunch together at Carluccio’s. A warm wind blows food smells over me, and outside, it is sunny. But here amongst the marble floors and under the magnificent pale blue roof, all is quiet save for the murmur of electric motors and the occasional explosive hiss of compressed air from the trains. Here, I am off the beaten track. Recently a colleague of mine was lamenting the Lake District as being “too busy”. Get off the beaten track, I told him. It’s not difficult. It’s certainly not difficult here at St Pancras.
Arriving in Derby, I walked through the “Castle Ward” and the shopping centre, bringing me out onto East Street. I detoured around a bit, having time to kill. Derby is my home town and I would visit it even if it was rubble and ruins, but like many British provincial cities, its heart is blasted, wasted, almost dead. It is unfortunate but it is not unique: Southampton and Aberdeen, provincial cities whose centres I know well, are not that different. The reasons for the death of the inner city are complex, but the collapse of walk-in retail – people going into actual shops – through the rise of the internet, will have played a part.
I walked down Sadler Gate, along Bold Lane and up St Mary’s Gate. Up past the Cathedral and onto St. Mary’s for a Roman Catholic funeral mass, something I don’t do very often. Then, with some relatives to the crematorium, and onto a wake. The wake was held at a pub named after a railway – the Great Northern. The pub stood on a road built to access a railway that no longer exists. It’s still called Station Road, but you’d have to have an interest in industrial archaeology, if you weren’t from round here, to know where the railway station was. That’s modern Britain for you.