Portsmouth Harbour to Southampton by Train

June 14th 2004. 11:24. Unhurriedly on my way to Southampton Airport I step up on to the train at Portsmouth Harbour, platform 4, sea behind me.

Expecting air conditioning, instead a fug of vaguely smoky heat. As I sit down there is a platform announcement: "we are sorry to announce that the 11:27 to Sutton has been cancelled". There's a girl, one seat up, diagonally opposite. Short jeans skirt. A sprinter train. England 1 France 2 the night before. Another battle lost. People look expectantly bored.

At 11:26 the train departs, heaving, creaking out of the station. Past Gunwharf quays outlet shopping. On past building sites; demolishing redbrick, building sandy brick. The train inches along past a sign that says: 'Limit of Shunt'. The University of Portsmouth, a circular purple patch for a modern logo; the university as brand. 11:29 we reach Portsmouth & Southsea.

The train, now almost full, rattles away under rusty, unpainted footbridges. 11:32, Fratten. A Vauxhall ad says 'enjoy the rush hour'. Across from the station the Cue ball snooker club, Smiffys 'off the rails' cafe. Signs: 'warning: have you paid?' 'Hot ash only', Krazy Kaves; somewhere to lose the children. Fitness First, playing fields, plumbing centres, van hire. Hilsea. Broad Vale social club. Green overgrown then cave-like brick arches.

Stretching out under the A27, Brighton to the right, Bournemouth to the left. 'PALL: First in Filtration'. A painted footbridge makes a change. Hidden inside a railway triangle is a business park; green corrugated roofed units. 'Cromadex'; unspecific storage and distribution. British Telecom, no longer British. Allotments. Honest toil. Rows of broadbeans then something that looks like a gibbet. Cosham - Co-sham or Cos-ham, I'm not sure. More footbridges linking two wrong sides of the track.

A conversation drifts over: "penny-pinching, they don't want to see you gain anything, take, take, take, that's what it is, take, take, take." A sub-station, private and ordered. Transformation.

The train speeding now, urban-free, clackety clack, clackety clack. Mobile phone masts, listening ears, porting conversations, an invisible network. A red-brick single level school. Cruising now, touching the shadow of the downs. Portchester, land of semi-detached. And then, suddenly, fields shooting upwards, topped by pylons bringing power.

Too noisy now for conversation, 'Speedy Hire', 'Deluxe Living' flash by. The girl in her jeans skirt efficiently slides along the seat and gets up. Fareham, 11:49. There is a faded yellow line on the platform, and - barely visible - a sign that says 'please keep behind the yellow line until the train has stopped'. Bits of an old train track litter the sides of bridges: a Hatfield mess.

We push on through green tunnels of trees. The girl is back. White and pink laced-up Nike trainers. "Tickets please". I'm distracted. A lorry on the parallel road, Victoria carpets: 'manufactured since 1895', 109 years of carpets. Ancient scaffolding near a junked-out junk yard, then a harbour. Latent motor launches wait for next weekend's coastal drift south. Bursledon. More sandy coloured buildings with lightly curved roofs; the architecture of modern invisibility.

Hamble - Netley. Another faded sign flashes past 'welcome to Netley'. Sholing. Even the graffiti is faded here, lost behind undergrowth. Woolston. A vista of Southampton. Green marine, wheel alignment centre. Rounding the bay with more boats, continental drift this time. Bitterne. The name doesn't sound English. House boats, a rusted barge. A normal terraced street: 'no parking' on both the gate and the garage behind it. Unfriendly neighbours.

St Denys. A large once quite grand station junction, now faded like the rest. Empress car and commercial services, La Farge aggregates and surfaces, Hells Angels. "Next stop Southampton Central" St Marys Football Stadium, more stuff for the weekend. The girl gets up while talking on her mobile phone - invisible networks again. Southampton. Everybody heads for the exit to wait in an impatient queue.


June 2004