The only thing that marred a relaxing off-peak train journey up to London this week was looking out of the window at Clapham Junction (alias ‘Britain’s busiest railway station’) and seeing an annoying little sign tacked onto the bottom of the station name saying ‘D&G and You’re on the move’. On closer inspection it turned out to be an ad for Douglas & Gordon estate agents which one assumes is providing sponsorship for … what? Perhaps a ladies’ loo on Platform 9.
At least this one didn’t say ‘Home of D&G….’. That’s especially depressing – that a station name (and thus the whole town it represents) so often carries a tag-line for what must be the least interesting establishment that’s chosen to settle there.
Altrincham for example, an attractive Cheshire market town, is ‘Home of mlp Law’, while West Byfleet in Surrey is summarised even more drearily as ‘Home of West Hall Care Home’. The latter may well be a splendid place, but I’d rather settle my own parent in one that doesn’t need to advertise.
Reluctant to believe that all station sign addenda are so tedious, I found the railwaycodes.org website – a mecca for trainspotters de nos jours who, presumably missing the excitement of steam, have had to diversify into everything railway-related to keep the adrenalin flowing.
On a page dedicated to ‘Sponsored stations’ (I kid you not) I learned that Reading is the ‘Home of Green Park’ and Cambridge the ‘Home of Anglia Ruskin University’. I’m not arguing, but aren’t these going to confuse American tourists? Turns out this Green Park is the business sort anyway.
Meanwhile, long-suffering Salisbury is surely further diminished by being simply ‘Home of James Hay Partnership’. Never mind the world-famous cathedral with its 123-metre spire, here is a real reason to travel from Moscow for a weekend break.
Some sound plain immodest. ‘Wolverhampton – Shaping the World’ (which seems to be a promotion for Birmingham City University). Other educational examples have combined the rule of three with a celebration of dullness. ‘Northampton. Welcome to Northampton. Home of the University of Northampton.’ Or four: ‘Nottingham. Home of the University of Nottingham. http://www.nottingham.ac.uk. The University of Nottingham.’
All of which make me want to emigrate immediately and gaze instead out of the window of a Continental train on a branch line Michael Portillo might have taken with his trusty Bradshaw guide.
Or wish I’d lived in the more lyrical era of the old railway posters, tempting travellers to a green belt long lost to suburbia: ‘A country outing. Horsenden Hill. Book to Perivale, Sudbury or Harrow.’ The era of Betjeman’s Metroland, when sponsorship knew its place, and station signs might have read: ‘Perivale. Parish of enormous hayfields’ or ‘Pinner. Sepia views of leafy lanes.’ And Ruislip Gardens could have been ‘Home of Fair Elaine the bobby-soxer’.
John Lloyd and Douglas Adams’ priceless The Meaning of Liff definitions could also do much to spice up a dreary commute. These 1980s bestsellers took place names and invented meanings for them as if they were ordinary nouns. Thus, stopping at Kettering one would read ‘Kettering – the marks left on your bottom or thighs after sunbathing on a whicker chair’ or ‘Norwich – any kind of snack where the filling drops out.’
But my favourite real station sign is: ‘Cleethorpes – Welcoming visitors since 1863’. It seems almost confessional. That before that date they hadn’t quite got the hang of being nice to people even though, according to Wikipedia, it was already a popular health resort and bathing centre in the 1820s. Or how about: ‘Cleethorpes – the small surface areas on the inside of knees that clamp together in hot weather.’*
*not from The Meaning of Liff
(Proof for the sceptics – see Comments)