It was bucketing down on Saturday when I made a rare trip to nail two birds with one stone, so to speak.
This story will seem a little odd to most. It's a Free From. Free From mention of cycles and cyclists.
Oh, except there's a token mention a few paragraphs down.
But hey, that’s how it is. For I wanted to see for myself the uniquely numbered platform zero at Redhill station eight miles from here, and while there to ogle at the Belmond Pullman steam charter train due through. It’s always a grand sight.
To get there was a 10 minute ride on the First Great Western service along the North Downs line.
It is a 15-minute walk to the station, through the park where a thin layer of ice lay just below the surface of the Mill Pond. The only reason I knew this was because gulls and ducks were standing on it, ankle deep in a thin film of water covering the submerged ice.
The train was running a few minutes late. A dozen customers – or passengers as we used to be called – took cover from the rain by crowding into the small platform shelter.
A mountain bike rider, his bike leaning against the fence outside in the rain, began running on the spot to keep warm. Evidence that the thermal qualities of cycle clothing which keep us warm as we ride are not so good at their job when hanging around.
In came the train. Ten minutes and one stop later it pulled in on platform 0. Well, well.
It really is numbered 0.
Why is it numbered 0?
Quite simple really. It is a new platform, the fourth at this station. Surely, platform 4, then? The others being platform 1, platform 2 and platform 3.
Ah, well. Some bright spark in railway planning reasoned that they couldn’t number it 4 because of its position. It was just across from platform 1 and if numbered 4 this would be out of sequence and confuse customers – passengers.
So he or she came up with the only solution possible. It would be numbered platform 0.
Part one of my day out completed, time to enjoy part two.
I bought a coffee - Sharon size – from the crazy Puccino's café on the station. Instead of sizing cups small, medium, large, they have given each size a name. I don’t know what they call medium, or what they call large. But small is Sharon. And the coffees are always served with a what they call a “stupid” little biscuit, gratis.
Crazy Puccino's. When closed a sign says “Shut happens”.
It is their way of providing a little amusement for stressed rail customers – passengers - like me.
“American. Sharon, please” I asked.
And then there was disappointment. The charter train came slowly around the curve and onto platform 0, where it would be held for six minutes, awaiting its path back to London.
Oh dear. It was headed by an inscrutable diesel! Where was the steam engine?
I needed that evocative smell of steam and hot oil, to feel the heat from the boiler as it passed, to see the pistons driving huge driving wheels, the big green loco clanking by glistening and hissing in the rain.
Instead, a modern powerhouse glides almost silently past, its presence announced by a mere rumble of a powerful unseen force. Impressive, of course. But I wanted a steam engine.
Perhaps it had failed?
What a blow. So I stood there sipping my Sharon and munching my “stupid” biscuit in the cold looking at the luxury Pullman cars – 12 of them – and at the smartly dressed diners in the warmth within having dinner and Champagne served by immaculately dressed waiters.
It’s not cheap, dinner on that luxurious train. And it left me wondering how many of those diners were left with one arm and a leg.
A few minutes later I boarded my return train, Spartan compared to the Pullman, but comfortable and warm nonetheless. It was raining harder than ever. In my hurried walk home the gulls were still ankle deep on the ice on the Mill Pond.
At home I went into the loft to get down the festive lights.
Too commercial for our taste nowadays, the old pagan Christmas festival. Hijacked first by the Christians claiming it for the birthday of Jesus, alleged to be the son of God in Heaven, and then by Mammon torturing us with endless TV commercials urging us to buy, buy, buy.
So I prefer to see it as a festival of Light, marking the turning point of winter, of lighter evenings to come.
Besides, ill-health in the family means we keep a quiet house by necessity. We keep ourselves to ourselves observing a schedule that must remain the same day to day regardless.
The living room is brightened with a small tree ablaze with white Led lights, while on the patio outside the front door lights sparkle on and off along the wrought iron railings.
At bed time there was time read some more of the closing chapter of Michael Collins splendid book, “Carrying the Fire, an astronaut’s journeys”.
Collins piloted the Apollo 11 spacecraft to the Moon in July 1969, when his compatriots Neil Armstrong followed by Buzz Aldrin became the first men to step onto the Moon’s surface.
A remarkable book, it captures the drama, beauty and humour of that historic adventure, not to mention the risks!
They are nearly home. Just a few more tasks to complete to overcome the 50 – 50 odds stacked against their surviving this bold adventure.
Collins must get right the angle of re-entry to avoid 1: burning up in a fireball or, 2: hitting the atmosphere like a stone across water, and skipping off back into space.
Meanwhile, Ground – Mission control at Houston – radios the crew of Apollo 11 a titbit of information on their “downhill run” on this, the evening of their ninth and penultimate day before splashdown in the Pacific.
“You are now 97,970 miles out from earth. Your velocity is 5,991 feet per second.”
And with that calming thought, the Apollo 11 crew bid Houston good night and turned in!
I closed the book and did the same.