Life as a London commuter: what I learnt during a year of travel misery and living for the small-wins

I started my year as a proper commuter to London shivering on Gravesend station on 4th January 2016.

For those not in the know, Gravesend is a town in north Kent where dreams and eastern European drug addicts go to die. I hear that it used to be great but has gone downhill in the last decade for political reasons we won’t get into.

The absolute best thing about Gravesend is how easy it is to get away from it, quickly. For a small town its transport options are plentiful; it has three exits onto a motorway, numerous bus routes leading across the county, a train station serving at least two lines including the high-speed service HS1, several extortionately priced and unreliable taxi companies and a passenger ferry across the Thames to Essex.

Back to me.

My weapon of choice on that frosty morning was SnailRail which is not-so-efficiently operated by Southeastern. I was to take the Charing Cross train but alight at Waterloo East, a journey lasting 1 hour 7 minutes, and then walk the remaining 10 minutes to the office on Lower Marsh in the borough of Lambeth. It took 20 minutes to walk from home to the station.

I paid £23.70 for a day return, not yet feeling committed enough to London to buy a weekly (£65.70) or monthly (£252.30). In the weeks and months that followed, I did progress to a monthly ticket, consoling myself that at least I could go up to London on the weekends “for free”. I never did.

During the hours spent miserably staring into my phone while experiencing closer contact with my fellow passengers than I allowed from my boyfriend at that time in the morning, I had plenty of time to reflect on what I was learning about public transport to, from and around London.

I became obsessed with finding a better route from bed to desk. It became apparent that each approach would have different advantageous characteristics over the others, but in only one way.  The alternative could be better faster, better cheaper, better hassle-free, better quieter or better less likely to be stabbed in the eye with a Financial Times, but never all five.

Between Gravesend and Lambeth, SnailRail was the cheapest, but most miserable. A 20-minute walk or 10-minute cycle to the station, sit on the train for an hour but guaranteed a seat, get off with a short walk at the other end.

I tried the HighSpeed train from Gravesend. For the modest day return price of £54378.92, you could be jostled on the platform by some Nobber already yammering into his Blackberry (tragic) as he hustled for a seat. These trains were already standing room only by the time they reached Gravesend. Reaching St Pancras, it was advisable to stop off at M&S for baked sustenance before descending into the underground to change at least once before reaching Waterloo, and then the walk.

I tried driving up the A2, parking at the o2 (that’s the Millenium Dome for the olds) and taking the tube the rest of the way to Waterloo, and then the walk.

I could take the commuter coach from Gravesend to Embankment and then walk across the river – cheaper and more comfortable but OH SO LONG.

I tried taking the SnailRail at different times of the morning (FYI earlier = better).

I tried driving at different times to “avoid the rush”. LOL.

I tried driving to Ebbsfleet station, parking, walking, taking the HS1 to St Pancras then the tube to Waterloo then walking.

I tried taking the HS1 from Gravesend or Ebbsfleet to Stratford International, walking through Westfield shopping centre and taking the tube to Waterloo. Probably the most expensive option, especially if you are drawn into a shop on the way home!

I eventually settled on a faster 7:04am SnailRail which landed me in the office at 8:10am, and raced for the 16:27 home when I could. In a world of small-wins, this was bliss. If you stood at the exact point where the doors opened you could usually elbow someone out of the way to a seat. I regularly did this without remorse. I had become a monster.

I had also become a person who wore trainers with business wear. As you can imagine, I embraced this trend with gusto. Despite rarely burdening my bunions with heels, I decided that an ancient and truly uncool pair of grey Sketchers would be ideal. I didn’t want to look like I fitted in too much; all the cool kids had Nikes that I don’t know the name of.

And then, I moved jobs.  I would now be travelling to Wimbledon each morning. “Ah, lovely!” I hear you say. “A suburb!” Well, no.

At this point the options seemed to open up exponentially, all of them more painful and longwinded than the last.

I could do any of the above routes to Waterloo and then take the train to Wimbledon.

I could do any of the above which led to a tube station and then take the tube to Wimbledon.

I could drive to Croydon and take a tram to Wimbledon.

Or as I settled on after 10 days of increasingly disastrous attempts, I drove door to door. This might have taken a minimum of 2 hours on a good day but it was quiet, gentle, and still allowed me to go through my morning getting ready routine given that I spent at least an hour and a half of those two hours in virtually stationary traffic. Stationary on the A2 I could eat breakfast, stationary on the M25 I could drink my coffee and stationary somewhere south east of Croydon I could apply make-up. Stationary north west of Croydon was time for doing hair, brushing away crumbs (classy bird) and buttoning up clothing. Stationary on Wimbledon High Street was pep-talk time.

I eventually decided that enough was enough, and left my job. My mental health and waistline could take it no more, although in the many hours of solitude I had grown quite fond of my car. I now commute from my bed to my home office, usually in muddy jeans with hot coffee in a mug I know to be clean, and always with my dog.

I lasted a mere year as a London commuter; I raise an Evening Standard to anyone who’s made it longer than that.

Octotyres at Gravesend Station



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