Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Wootton Wawen

I sat on the floor, legs hanging over the edge of the northbound platform. It felt like the loneliest train station in England. The sun shone, the sheep in the field next door enjoyed their plentiful supply of grass, and all was quiet. There were no waiting passengers. There were no ticket machines. There were no train times scrolling on screen, no recorded messages warning of unattended luggage, for there were neither screens nor speakers. A few houses opposite the line sat with their windows open: no train noise was expected.

It was thirty minutes before a train came. I could see it from miles away, the station elevated above the nearest lane, the line flat and featureless. Arcing slowly towards me, the train was an alien mechanical creature in a quiet pocket of countryside. It took a few minutes to approach, and I rose as it came nearer, startled by the spectacle. It arrived. It beeped its horn. And it didn’t stop.

Its successor an hour later would not stop either: trains don’t stop at Wootton Wawen on Sundays. They barely stop on weekdays either, except by request. One must flag the train down, or stay stranded on the platform for eternity, alone.

Silence fell once more.

Soon bored with playing on the line, I descended the ramp and passed under the railway bridge towards the village. I passed villagers walking dogs, but nobody said hello.

A parish noticeboard listed village meetings, contained police notices and advertised a local bee keeping association. Some hikers were gearing up in the pub car park opposite, but they, too, failed to say hello.

I crossed the main road that bisects the village, taking countless vehicles from Stratford-upon-Avon to Henley-in-Arden without stopping to look around. Opposite, a field rose up to a beautiful church, with lichen-covered stone walls, adorned with set-back buttresses and a tower, all decked with a castellated parapet. A red-roofed adjunct, the Lady Chapel, provided colour to the scene, along with the daffodils and forget-me-nots that lined the footpath. The church sign introduced St Peter’s as the oldest church in Warwickshire, and implored passing readers to “THINK GOD”, with a crucifix printed inside the O. The church sat atop the tallest hill in the village, surrounded by gravestones and a lone, nervous horse. Many of the graves were old and worn, names only half legible: memories long forgotten. A dog walker passed. He raised his head to greet me, then changed his mind.

On I walked, through the cemetery and into a country lane, shortly — and unexpectedly — arriving in a very different world. Just minutes from a 1300-year old site of worship, its current physical form dating to the sixteenth century, were hundreds of static caravans: an entire community residing in metal homes, each a car’s width from their neighbours. Row upon row of mobile homes, long since grounded, were crammed into the tightest of areas. Neighbours here, I thought, must know every little detail of one another’s lives. Attempts had been made to forge unique identities, of course, with miniscule gardens tenderly attended and landscaped, trellises sealing the structures in place, and there were more porcelain statues per square metre than I seek to ever see again — some had opted for animals, others cherubs. The proximity of each structure and the manicured nature of each decorative feature served only to make it ever more unreal, like a residential Disneyworld but without the rides. The community felt intensely private and I felt uncomfortable walking though. I strongly suspected I was being watched.

A mallard crossed the road, enchanted by a porcelain bird guarding one of the homes. It approached and quacked in interest, awaited patiently for a response, then left dejected, the statue having failed to reciprocate affections.

I descended the hill to receive yet another shock: I was in the grounds of a stately home. Wootton Hall, it transpired, was a stately home with its own trailer park and, at the time I was visiting, a caravan trade fair. I later learnt that the home was saved from demolition in the 1950s when it was purchased by Bill Allen, who founded Allen’s Caravans and constructed the mobile home park, in doing so revitalizing the community. It was a truly bizarre fusion of styles.

I reached the edge of the grounds, a stream marking the perimeter of the trailer park and leading in one direction into private woodland, towards a weir in the other. People passed. Still nobody said hello.

Handmade signs lined the path, containing ever more menacing messages. Dog mess, it would seem, had irked certain residents.

Dogs must be kept on leads, they said.
Dog mess must be picked up and disposed of, they said.
Repeat offenders would be reprimanded, they said.
Not picking up dog mess is ILLEGAL, they said.
Despite warnings, they said, dogs were “STILL FOULING THESE GROUNDS!”
“ACTION WILL BE TAKEN”, they said.

By the end of this ever-maniacal laminated tirade, not even cats were safe to roam unattended.

It was time, I strongly felt, to leave. So I returned, past the lovely church; past more dog walkers and hikers, still not saying hello; across the busy road, under the bridge and back up the ramp to sit, once again, on the platform of the loneliest station in England.