Sunday, 25 January 2015


21st Jan 2015

My flat cap

I am very fond of my old tweed flat cap. It has been with me throughout my travels around the world for the past 10 years. It has survived attacks by high winds on ships, bridges, mountains and observation platforms (some on moving trains), the risks of sticking my head out of windows, the attentions of souvenir seekers and thieves, wild animals, my forgetfulness and, as far as I am aware, moths. Neither it nor I had considered South West Trains a particular risk.

A few days ago I was travelling on the last (delayed due to 'debris' on the line) train from Paddington to Hungerford. This involved a change at Reading. Being late arriving at Reading I sprinted across the whole width of the station to find the Hungerford train which, fortunately, was waiting for us London passengers and was imminently about to depart. On entering the carriage a sharp gust of wind blew my dear cap off and it fell, neatly, where else, between the edge of the platform and the side of the carriage. It came to rest on the gravel down next to the line. There was only a very narrow gap between the carriage and platform edge and it was below arms length. I contemplated squeezing my foot down to the gravel but my leg may not have been long enough and anyway the train was about to leave so I stood the risk of not only losing my cap but also my leg. If only I had my umbrella with me, but I lost that the previous week. There was no sign of any railway staff. I believe they go into hibernation at some point early in the evening, so no hope of assistance from that quarter. My cap was in sight, inside upwards, looking pleadingly up at me to rescue it. I couldn't do anything other than offer words of comfort and bid farewell and then board the train in a state of considerable grief and annoyance much to the bemusement of my fellow passengers. "Goodbye old friend" I sobbed quietly, "we have been so far for so long, done so much together and to lose you in such a banal way as this comes as a bitter blow". An old lady offered me a handkerchief and asked if there was anything she could do. She had a stick. Bugger! I could have used that, but the train was pulling out.

I searched the whole length of the train (only 3 carriages) for the conductor to whom I might be able to explain my grievous loss and hopefully persuade him to contact Reading station to effect a recovery. There was absolutely no conductor. I did not consider it wise to bang on the locked driver's door. So I sat in a state of misery and frustration for the rest of the journey. What to do?

On getting home I soon discovered that there are no direct telephone facilities for 'members of the public' to contact individual stations. I therefore resolved to cancel all appointments the following day and return by train to Reading railway station in the forlorn hope that my cap was still waiting for me somewhere. "Perhaps they have a lost property office to which some kind person had taken it", I mused optimistically. Some hope. I suspected that a member of the Reading station staff would now be strutting around the town showing off his/her newly acquired smart tweed cap.

The next day, uncomfortably bareheaded, taking a short broom handle with a hook on the end with me and, more in hope than expectation, I caught the train back to Reading. We arrived at the same platform from which I boarded the previous night. I went to the section of the train where I lost my cap and, wonders to behold there was my beloved cap lying, dry and undamaged, exactly in the same place on the gravel where it had fallen. I could now easily reach it with my broom handle. Morale was high, perhaps too high because, in my euphoria, it was then that I made a fatal mistake. There were several railway staff on the platform now, amongst whom was a group of three women wearing yellow high-vis vests. To the one standing near me I announced in gleeful tones that I was so happy that I had found my hat and could now recover it with this handy stick I had brought with me. Instead of a cheery reply the reaction this produced from Ms Yellow-Vest was akin to her being confronted by a swivel-eyed Jihadist announcing he was about to pick up his AK47 and suicide vest from the tracks below. Within seconds I was surrounded by her two colleagues and a further uniformed panjandrum who shouted at me that under no circumstances could I pick up what was on the track and to "stand back from the edge of the platform at once!". "What is the problem, why can't I retrieve my cap?" I queried politely to the grim faced panjandrum and the sour looking women. "Procedures", was the unsmiling reply. I again asked what was to stop me hooking my cap. "It's not safe" I was told grumpily, "the track might be electrified". "But it's not electrified, there are no electric rails or electric overhead wires and the train is a diesel one", I helpfully explained to him. At this point he was on his radio and had summoned two uniformed policemen. Quite a crowd was gathering to witness this, by now, interesting spectacle. It was apparent that the police and 'staff' now surrounding me were itching to find a reason to slap the old cuffs on me and whisk me off to an interrogation cell somewhere. As politely as possible, realising that one wrong word would see me spread-eagled in an arm lock on the platform while further reinforcements were called, I pitifully enquired as to how I could get my cap back. "You'll have to wait until the train leaves and then we might be able to get a qualified person to retrieve the object from the line" was the answer. I couldn't help but point out that my cap wasn't on the 'line' it was on the gravel. "It's on railway property and you are not permitted to trespass onto it", I was told in threatening manner.  I could see that any further form of question or request would only exacerbate an already hostile situation.  I could hardly believe that such a trivial matter could engender such a ridiculously over-the-top response and I was, understandably, becoming quite cross....but successfully managed to bite my tongue.

I noticed that the train was due to leave, back to Hungerford, at 1.48pm which gave me just under an hour to kill. I would obviously miss this train home but might rescue my cap after it had gone. I sloped off in bad temper to find a coffee and was carefully watched off the platform by the self-appointed 'security services'. I had no doubt that any early return would be monitored and a snatch squad dispatched with great glee to arrest me.

I went back to the platform at 1.45pm to find the train still there and the electronic signboard indicating it was now not due to depart until 2.48pm. I didn't dare sneak along the platform with my stick as I was convinced that a smirking polizei would be gazing at me on some CCTV screen. There was nobody around to ask why the delay (they were probably all waiting in ambush positions), so back to the cafe and a another hour's wait.

On the next trip back to the platform, the train was still there with a notice stating that departure time was further delayed to 3.48pm. Eventually I found a black uniformed goon who, when asked  the reason for the repeated delays of the Hungerford train, told me "It's been reported that there's an obstruction on the line". I didn't bother to ask "what obstruction?" and could I really be imagining that the presence of my cap on the trackside was the cause of this ridiculous situation. I had a horrible suspicion that it was.

By chance, on the way back to my season ticket seat in the cafe, I met another black uniformed personage who just happened to be carrying one of those spring-loaded litter sticks. I'm not sure whether he was on the way to my platform, but asked him whether he could do me a big favour and come with me to see if he could rescue my cap. He came along and I pointed out my cap on the the ground and asked if he could just pick it up. I noticed at this point that my previously unblemished cap was now covered in some brown coloured substance. With great reluctance and grim expression this employee of the railway company, after saying he was 'not really allowed to do this without supervision', simply picked it up. I resisted telling him that I could have done that 2 hours ago with my own stick. I suppose I'm grateful that he didn't think it necessary to call in the bomb squad.

So, much joy! My trusty cap and I were reunited. It was indeed covered with brown goo which on closer inspection and a wary sniff, fortuitously perhaps, turned out to be congealed chocolate drink. Who tipped that onto it? No passengers had boarded the train.  I have my suspicions.

As a final and totally unnecessary rejoinder, my litter-stick weilding 'saviour' told me "you must wash that hat before wearing it". "Oh thank you for that sound advice" I said "I was just going to put it on my head straight away because I really enjoy the sensation of slimy chocolate all over my balding swede". This statement was not well received.

I duly washed out the cap in the station loo. I think this was the first wash it had ever had, and then caught the now 'unobstructed' train back to Hungerford.....with mixed emotions.

Glad to get my beloved cap back, but utterly bemused by the sullen bunch of unhelpful, indeed hostile, jobsworths who made such an appalling fuss over such a trivial situation. I could never before have imagined such bureaucratic, humourless, rule-bound, elf 'n' safety ridden lack of initiative displayed by station staff together with their police back-up squad. From my worldwide travelling experiences, much of it on trains, I think only in the UK (with the possible exceptions of Russia and Australia...see Trans-Siberian and Ghan blogs) could you find such an unhelpful and bossy attitude. It's hardly surprising that our expensive and unreliable transport systems are plagued by unnecessary delays and cause so much frustration to passengers.