A steam train to Bodiam Castle: I seem to have something in my eye

Other People’s Places: Hitchhiking to the South of France in 1975 and feeling disappointed with Nice, all roads leading to Anglesea.

Riding on a steam train somehow evokes vintage and filmic memories, such as the ‘Brief Encounter’ line “Oh dear, I seem to have a smut in my eye” or the whistled message and writing on the window in ‘The Lady Vanishes.’ On the way to Bodiam Castle, a schoolfriend and I reminisced about our teachers, boys and music as if we were travelling backwards into the past. The train had slam doors, Formica tables and scratchy seat fabric prickling the back of the neck. This was not a past textured in arts and crafts leather and buckle, it was unvarnished, smoky, scuffed, with smuts of soot dotting the table; and yet, there is something smart about a steam train. The engine huffed along. The countryside looked uncultivated, grass shivering, hazy, airless, hot. A man in a peaked cap clipped our tickets. My nose itched, the antihistamine taken late reminding me of childhood summers, of flying a box kite on the Downs at the Devil’s Kneading Trough, sneezing, eyes running.

When we reached the visitor café we didn’t have Bath Buns or Squashed Fly Biscuits, we drank lemonade and ate Welsh Rarebit; strong cheddar and mustard on granary doorsteps, teatime food. Then we walked into, around and up the castle, climbing knee-high winding stairs, one hand on the smooth, central circular pillar, steadying me against the steepness with the touch of stone, stooping to gaze through narrow, lumpy windows at the moat and yellow, mown land.

As we climbed to the top of the tower we sang The Skye Boat Song. It was all of a piece of castleness, we could have been anywhere, a sturdy, fortified blur. I would not have been surprised to emerge in the Scottish mountains and instead, leaning against the battlements, the shadows of clouds moving across the rolling fields of Sussex were almost a disappointment.

Walking around the moat with a feeling of Deja Vu, an old photograph clicked into place. It had been taken on this spot in 1983, during a exchange visit between children of Rotarians, Ashford Kent with a club in Los Angeles. The Americans posed here for a picture. They took me to Beverley Hills Beach Club, to Yosemite. We showed them Le Touquet, the War Cemeteries, London. We swapped Grizzly Peak and Venice Beach for the glens of Westminster and fields of crosses.

I had stood in this place once before. The castle looked back but the view was different now; then I was only interested in glimpsing the future.

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