Robert Hampton

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26th August 2010

Look on the Brighton Side

Brighton PierI’ve written previously about the Internet’s ability to bring people together, and — more specifically — to bring me together with like-minded people. The latest chapter in this ongoing saga was written at the weekend.

A couple of years ago, when I was still a miserable closet case, I joined OUTeverywhere, a social networking site for gay men. It was more in hope than expectation, but it’s fair to say I met a broad spectrum of people on there: from the nice but boring to the definitely crazy, and everything in between.

Among these were a few people who I managed to establish a rapport with: there’s Nuno, with whom I shared adventures in the Scottish Highlands, there’s Andrew, who taught me (not entirely unsuccessfully) to ride a bike. Of course Scott was on there, but I didn’t actually meet him through the site.

And then there was Mark.

Mark on the trainIt started out the same way these things usually do: with a tentative message to break the ice. A few replies later and some basic facts were established: he lives in Brighton and not only does he work on the railway, he is also a confirmed rail enthusiast. Soon I was thrilling him with tales of Merseyrail and detailed explanations of exactly what a Saveaway ticket is, which didn’t seem to bore him too much. This was definitely someone I could get along with.

OUT gave way to MSN Messenger and the occasional bit of texting, and we spent a lot of time chatting about life, the universe and everything. Then one day, Mark asked the (in retrospect, inevitable) question: “why don’t we meet up?”

I’m ashamed to admit that this question caused me to wet myself a little bit in fear. You see, I have been conditioned by the Daily Mail (shut up: my parents buy it, I only read it for the puzzle page) to believe that everyone on the Internet is a murderous sex offender.

I was reluctant, but Mark persevered and a couple of conversations on the phone finally convinced me that he was not some south coast version of Norman Bates, and a few days later an Off Peak Return ticket was booked. Getting from Aigburth to Brighton (via a rail replacement bus, train, tube and another train) would be an adventure in itself.

Arriva deposited me safely at Lime Street on Friday morning with plenty of time to spare. I boarded the Virgin Pendolino and straight away it was apparent that the electronic seat reservation displays were not working correctly. The apologetic guard explained that he was having trouble downloading the reservations into the onboard computer, and implored those of us with reserved seats to stick to them. Everyone else was seemingly expected to try their luck in the fabled unreservable Coach E. This was not particularly helpful, given that the train was full of people heading to Stafford for the V Festival, with all the bulky camping equipment that entails. I managed to get to my reserved seat, but a lot of people were disappointed and ended up standing in the vestibules.

We were soon underway, and the chirpy Scouse buffet car attendant informed us that the shop was now open, “although you probably won’t be able to get to it,” she added. As we reached Runcorn, the seat reservation system suddenly sprang into life. A bad-tempered game of musical chairs ensued, as new passengers boarded and — unaware of the previous confusion — attempted to turf people out of their seats.

(as an aside, when Virgin were introducing their new trains, why did they go to the extra complexity and expense of an electronic seat reservation system? What was wrong with a bit of paper in the back of the seat? Not very high-tech or sexy, but easier for passengers and far less likely to go wrong)

After the festival-goers had left us at Stafford, the train was more bearable. In anticipation of the long journey, I had preloaded my iPod with a load of old Adam & Joe podcasts (from when they were still at XFM). I sat back and listened to the witty banter as the scenery flew past outside the window.

I arrived at Euston and hopped aboard the Victoria line for the quick trip across London. Battling through the crowds in the Underground ticket hall served to remind me, once again, why our nation’s capital is not a place for people who like to take things slowly. Within a few minutes I was at London Victoria for the train to Brighton.

I was now on the South East electric network. To my eternal shame, this is the first time I have ever ventured south of London by train (I know, hand over my trainspotter badge now). As someone for whom “third rail” is synonymous with Merseyrail, the Southern experience came as something of a revelation. The Brighton train is no suburban metro service, but a proper mainline express, complete with trolley service (although I declined the fare on offer: have you seen how much it costs?!).

Leaving London we criss-crossed over other lines, all snaking their way out of the capital and all busy with trains of up to 12 coaches. London’s suburban rail network is an intricate and complex beast, and at regular intervals the clattering of wheels over points indicated yet another line joining or splitting from ours. At Clapham Junction platforms, tracks and trains spread out literally as far as the eye could see. I put my iPod away so I could focus entirely on the noises and sights of the journey in progress. It was an exciting experience (although surely more atmospheric in the days of those wonderful old slam-door trains).

We were soon out past the edge of London and onto the four-track Brighton Main Line. It took slightly longer than two minutes, but I was in Brighton bang on time.

Brighton station is a Victorian marvel. I stupidly neglected to take any pictures of it, but this one on Wikipedia gives you the idea. It was bustling with travellers, but I had no problem picking out Mark standing near the ticket barriers.

As we drove from the station and through the town centre, I was immediately struck by how “in-your-face” the gay venues are. There’s definitely no sense of hiding here, they are defiantly clustered around the seafront, right next to the pier and other family attractions — one club shares its building with a Harry Ramsden’s restaurant. The Brighton Sauna advertised its presence on Grand Parade loudly and proudly, with huge signs depicting men wearing not very much (no, I didn’t venture inside!)

Mark was not nearly as apprehensive as me about the whole thing. I was still slightly nervous at the prospect of spending the whole weekend – would we run out of things to talk about? What if we discovered we had nothing in common? However, as soon as I got to his flat and saw his collection of British Rail timetables from the past fifteen years or so, all neatly arranged in date order, I knew this weekend was going to go well.

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2 Responses
  1. Comment by Andrew
    27th August 2010 at 1:19 am

    Just wondering what Category I fall into, I’m guessing it must be definitely crazy 🙂 I mean who else would dye their hair ginger and jump off a mountain ledge in New Zealand attached only to giant elastic band!

  2. Pingback by Robert Hampton » Blog » It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. However, I don’t want to
    5th September 2010 at 12:01 pm

    […] feel like celebrating. It’s been a hell of a year — I went to Scotland, went to Brighton, came out and went to Pride, and did a whole lot more […]