Sitting in Bircherley Green

“I used to have a standing joke and say if I’d been really bad and went to purgatory when I died, I’d find myself trapped in Peterborough railway station on a cold winter’s night, with the cold wind blowing across the Fens.”

Not my words but those of Louise Doughty talking to BBC News about her new novel Platform Sevenwhich centres on Peterborough station.  The main character, a ghost named Lisa, attempts to solve the riddle of her own death. Ms Doughty’s best-known novel Apple Tree Yard was adapted for television in 2016.

I know what she means. A long time ago in about 1968 when the world and I were very young many of my friends and myself used to travel from our various university homes and meet up in Nottingham, as the most populated campus of our particular social circle. One particular Saturday night myself and friend Dan missed the last train back to London.

A station porter (such an old fashioned term) mentioned that we could meet the milk train (another anachronism) to St Pancras if we caught the cross country slow train to Sleaford – which we did.

Sleaford station waiting room was a vision of terminal decay. The walls were a deep tobacco stained yellow/brown to match the lino on the floor. This was cracked and in several places worn away to reveal the wooden floorboards below. There was one 40 watt light bulb to illuminate the tattered and faded posters offering a trip to ‘Bracing Blackpool’ or enjoy ‘Sunshine in Skegness’.

On the back wall there was a fireplace comforting a blackened grate where the fire had died out some time in the faraway past. On two sides there were wooden benches that might have seen better days as church pews on which a few fellow travellers had encamped to await the train out of purgatory so well defined by Ms Doughty.

Sleaford Railway Station
Sleaford Railway Station

By Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0

I had always thought of this as my own purgatory. I have revised my future.

I will be held captive in Bircherley Green. Last week I was waiting for the late running 724. The whole frontage was covered with cigarette butts, discarded copies of Metro, overflowing waste bins and lost pieces of paper fluttering through the air like recently hatched butterflies.

Hertford Bus Station boarded up

I don’t need to explain any further about the state of Bircherley Green Shopping Centre.

It is locked and barred, grass is pushing through every crack. It is so depressing. The site manager used to keep the whole area free of litter and weeds. He would be crying if he saw it now.

I will be trapped within the gates of the shopping centre like the captain of the Flying Dutchman; a ghost ship doomed to sail the oceans forever.

I don’t enjoy spending my time knocking my home town. I spent over ten years with other agencies and good people to maintain its high standard as a place to visit and live in. It is difficult to defend the town now. If this is the vision visitors have as they alight from their bus then we really have reached a low point from which I suppose we can only go up.

19.50 12.9.2019. I have just received an email from East Herts Council Planning informing me that the application to develop Bircherley Green including the hotel has been withdrawn. More comment when full details emerge.

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By John Barber

John Barber was born in London at the height of the UK Post War baby boom. He had careers in Advertising, International Banking and the Wine Industry before becoming Town Centre Manager in his home town of Hertford. He has been writing professionally since 1996 when he began to contribute articles to magazines on social and local history. His first published book in 2002 was a non-fiction work entitled The Camden Town Murder, a hitherto unsolved murder case from 1907.