A love letter to drinking on trains
Written on a train from London to Blackpool and back again, while drinking
People complain about trains a lot. They’re late, expensive and shit. But the one thing we all seem to agree on is: they’re a great place to sink a few beers. Probably a better place than any other. A pub? Far too basic. Your house? Bleak, habitual, troubling even. A park? Unless you’re a teenager: utterly squalid. (And if you are a teenager: stop drinking in our parks, you delinquent freaks.) No, the train is the best place.
Why? Well, I decided to find out, by taking one such ‘train’ from London to Blackpool and back, in a day, drinking constantly, enjoying myself, and doing my best to analyse that enjoyment.
As I take my seat and prepare to crack open my first tin of shitty premixed mojito (it felt like the most breakfasty drink in the Euston Whistlestop) I notice I’m sat across from two well-dressed, pleasant-looking people. I feel something approaching shame. Here are two taking a train to end up somewhere. Probably to tend to important matters. They will most likely not be turning up at that somewhere pissed. But I have no time for shame today – if I don’t get on the cans, I’m just travelling 500 miles for nothing.
With a deep breath, I crack open my first can and gulp about a third of it down. It’s delicious. I feel great. This is great. I can do this. I’m on a train.
Reasons why trains are a superior drinking environment than any other
1. EVERYTHING IS PERMISSIBLE WHEN YOU AREN’T ANYWHERE
When you’re on a train, you’re in a no-man’s-land, a non-place. I’m going from London to Blackpool, yet I am in neither place, so the rules of what would be ‘silly’ or ‘drunken’ or ‘irresponsible for me, a recent father, to do’ in either location don’t apply. It’s like the way even the most sensible of people has a pint with breakfast in an airport, or those boats you hear about that sail out into international waters in order to enable unlicensed gambling. I should have had some breakfast.
I crack open can two at 9:06 – another mojito as they were on a deal – without a care in the world. This is wonderful. The train is really warm, which makes me worried for the state of the cans of Grolsch in my rucksack. We’re rolling through lush green countryside, past fields full of cows and slightly knackered-looking farm buildings. Occasionally we zip through a town, as one house becomes two, five, ten, loads, ten, five, two, one, none. It’s hypnotic, and beautiful, and I feel like I should have bought more mojitos, because man alive, I’m trying to pace myself but they’re just gliding down my throat.
2. YOU CAN’T BE BORED WHEN THERE ARE WINDOWS
The great thing about the view from a train window is, if it’s shit, it’ll change in a second. In futuristic 2017, we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to entertainment. “Oooh better buy an iPad and ‘dock’ it with my Kindle and have them ‘interface’ with my Smart TV so that I can consume some goodass media, this will only cost me several thousand pounds.” On this boozy morning, looking out of the window of a speeding, tilting train feels like the greatest show on Earth.
It’s quite a good-looking country, this. It’s like watching Planet Earth on fast-forward, or one of those time-lapse videos of long journeys slowed down so it isn’t a time-lapse anymore, and is just a journey happening reasonably fast in real-time. I might need to get a sandwich or something. I’ve still not been awake long.
By 10am I’m nursing a rucksack-warmed Grolsch, a solid four out of ten in terms of how it tastes, but an eight at least as an experience. Any qualms I had about being ‘that guy’ have gone out the window, and I’m about as comfortable as a human being gets. It’s still early – very few non-chain pubs will be open yet, although you’d absolutely be able to find a few Spoons breakfasts with lager accompaniments – but you can buy cans on the train, so even though I brought my own from the station like a penny-pinching dork (or ‘desperate alcoholic’), nobody can even think about judging me now.
3. YOU’RE ALLOWED TO
I used to regularly travel between London and Cambridge on the train, and it felt unacceptable to board without at least two tins for the one-hour journey. I’ve gone from Paddington to Reading in the past, a 25-minute trip, and watched people deck three cans. Why do we do this for journey times comparable to a regular Tube trip? Because we’re allowed to. People glare at you if you drink on the Underground, and despite nobody ever being prosecuted for it it’s officially banned, but nothing like that applies on big, grown-up trains. That’s pretty great. My sister in Australia tells me it’s illegal to drink on trains there except in the bar in First Class. Over here, on a train, we’re all First Class.
There’s a pub in Preston Station called the Hero’s Bar, which I’m just pissed enough to decide is a monument to me and my mission. I buy Lancashire’s most expensive pint and wait for my connection to Blackpool. I need the toilet and have to take all my stuff with me, which is when it occurs to me that I had a better setup on the train.
The soundtrack in here, for instance, is entirely out of my hands. The view is largely unchanging - it’s just people with bags. After being spoiled rotten by drinking in the train on the way up here, this is shite.
4. TRAINS ARE REALLY ERGONOMIC FOR DRINKING
There are toilets on trains, and tables, and some of the tables have a little can-sized divot that a drink perfectly, beautifully, nestles within. If you leave your bag on your seat while you go for a wee, it’ll still be there when you come back, as long as you do it while between stations and aren’t a complete renegade. If you’re drinking alone in a pub, you take all your stuff to the shitter with you, but a train is a no-crime zone. That’s why Murder on the Orient Express ends with the responsible parties being arrested, I expect (I haven’t seen it) (Or read it) (I know it’s a book).
I finish my pint and decide to get two cans for the next leg of the journey. The wily bastard in the shop upsells me, pointing out that for 2p extra I can have four. I make a joke about being an ambulance driver that isn’t very funny. Bit pissed. I’m having a lovely day.
Or am I? The train from Preston to Blackpool Pleasure Beach is a bad train. Maybe I had this whole thing wrong. This one is only two carriages long, and the high tech magic of the Pendolino is replaced with an industrial, get-these-fuckers-moved feeling. It reminds me of something else entirely…
5. DRINKING ON RAILS IS BETTER THAN DRINKING ON WHEELS
I commute by bus, a reasonably pleasant journey that takes somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half depending on traffic. If I’ve had a long day, or I’m stressed, or there’s an R in the month, I might grab a can or two to unwind with. It’s very nice, but always ends in the same way – jumping off the bus and running to my house for a very necessary wee. Trains, on the other hand, are filled with toilets. Horrible, awful toilets with baffling things like a flush you operate by treading on a bump in the ground, but toilets nonetheless.
I might not be as joyful as I was on the last train, but I’m still enjoying myself. At one point we slow down enough to confuse me into thinking that we’re stopping at a big barn filled with tyres, and I giggle in delight at my own fucking idiocy.
I’m learning from my window. I would never have known that St Annes on the Sea was home of the International Kite Festival if I’d travelled here by plane. Of course, since I’m drunk, I try to rhyme known, flown and home into a shit, unsatisfying, nursery rhyme-esque proto-rap. It’s dreadful. But I’m learning things.
6. YOU’RE ACHIEVING SOMETHING
If I’d been sat in the same place since half-eight this morning and was now this pissed, I’d be thought of as a shambles by both myself and the world around me. However, I’m 250 miles away from where I began. I’m like Michael Palin or Phineas Fogg or Nick Fury or someone. I’m like some magical drunken globetrotter, whipping through county after county and really struggling to focus on things.
I don’t spend long in Blackpool Pleasure Beach, just long enough to grab some chips, buy some rock, use the toilets in the most beautiful and impressive Wetherspoon’s I’ve ever seen, and ask a stranger - who both looks and sounds exactly like Gary Barlow - to take some pictures of me on a little shitty model train. I really like trains. But it’s already time to board the real one again.
Suddenly I’m over it. My boozy front-loading of the day that was such fun earlier now feels a bit stupid and depressing, and I’m 250 miles away from anyone who gives a shit about me. I’m on the bad train again, and I’ve somehow lost my return ticket, which I presume will lead to some sort of hilarious anecdote type event, but it’s fine. God damn it. I stare straight ahead and slurp warm Heineken, extremely fed up.
7. YOU CAN DISAPPEAR
It’s not necessarily a chatty place, a train. It can be – one of my favourite ever train journeys involved an hour-long, pissed conversation about Metallica with a total stranger who ended up giving me a tenner – but for the most part, trains are places where oneself is kept to oneself. If you’re just not feeling particularly full of life, they’re pretty excellent places to disappear within yourself, your face set in a snarl, your drinking arm the only part of you that moves. Lovely!
For some reason my homeward journey is broken up into an extra part, so I have a train from Preston to Crewe, then another one to London. This was probably explained to me at some point, but if I’m entirely honest I was a bit pissed when booking the tickets, too. It’s all looking a bit hairy though – there are trespassers on the line, so might not make it to Crewe in time to make my connection. A thought occurs to me – does this train being delayed make it better value?
8. YOU’VE PAID FOR IT, GODDAMNIT, SO ENJOY YOURSELF
Rail travel is really ridiculously expensive. It cost me £90 for this seven-hour round-trip, which is just a huge amount of money. Doing some fairly dodgy maths, I work out that it’s the equivalent of having a £300 hotel room for 24 hours. A £300 hotel room sounds really nice. I bet that would have a really lovely bath in it. If you have a bath on a train you’re a maniac. Yeah, I’ve spent a fortune to be here, so I’m going to enjoy it. Every room-temperature mouthful starts tasting slightly more luxurious.
I make it with minutes to spare, and pull out of Crewe. Pleasantly, on this last leg of the journey, I’m not alone. Everyone’s on the pop. Nice old ladies who generally only have a sherry at Christmas have empty bottles in front of them that once contained quite shitty 14% red. Tired, red-faced businessmen are inhaling as many tins as they can before getting home to their kids that hate them. The most sensible-looking woman in the world is happily slurping from one of those plastic glasses of wine with a lid on that M&S sell and that make no sense to anyone. I’m given an unnecessary paper bag for two more £4 cans of Grolsch and drink one while looking at the lovely British countryside. I have no idea of the geography of Britain, but careering backwards through it, it’s very beautiful. As field after field zips past my exhausted, bleary eyes, one of the most underappreciated elements of railway boozing occurs to me, and I embrace it wholeheartedly.
9. YOU CAN JUST PASS THE FUCK OUT
I’ve nodded off in pubs. We’ve all nodded off in pubs. I’ve fallen asleep in pubs, clubs, gigs, restaurants and night buses. Life is exhausting. I’m old, and I was tired when I was young, and good god, I am fucking SO DRAINED now, and suddenly I’m asleep, mid-afternoon, mid-can, and it doesn’t matter at all. I’d get woken up and thrown out anywhere else, but on a train – warm, rocking, womb-like – I’m left undisturbed, dribbling and smelly, dead to the world and entirely at peace.
I awake in Euston. I’m home, nearly. As I get the Tube (it’s shit, nobody’s drinking) and the bus (it’s shit, nobody’s drinking) home, I woozily, boozily reflect on my silly day. I’ve travelled 500 miles and brought back nothing but a stick of decidedly undelicious confectionery. I’ve left a trail of tins halfway across the country, and made a man in Blackpool laugh by being way too pissed really early in the day. I feel a genuine sense of achievement – possibly unearned – at the sheer distance I’ve covered, and I’m more sure than ever that I bloody love drinking on trains.