TRAVEL / Memorable Journeys: Around the world in 216 trips: Michael Palin - From London to Southwold, Suffolk

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HERE, for a change, is a Michael Palin journey we can all take. Normally he flits from Pole to Pole as nonchalantly as other people visit aunts in Hartlepool, whizzing through parts of the globe so remote the inhabitants have never seen a BBC cameraman. Yet the epic trek strongest in his mind is the 120-mile rail journey from his home in Gospel Oak, London NW5, to Southwold on the Suffolk coast, where his parents lived from 1966.

'I started making this journey regularly in 1967 and continued until 1985 - once a month for almost 20 years.' There and back, it works out at about 50,000 miles, six times round the equator, an impressive mileage even by Palin's current standards.

His connection with Southwold started as a teenager when his family spent holidays there. 'In 1959 I met on the beach the girl who became my wife.' East of Ipswich, a television play this meeting inspired, was filmed in the town. It was also the setting for some Monty Python sketches; John Cleese, as a kidnapped newsreader, was pushed off the harbour wall and Terry Jones tried to jump the Channel from nearby Covehithe.

'The journey could be made, from my front door to Darsham Station, entirely by public transport, so I didn't have to take my car and add to the pollution. It began on the North London Line from Gospel Oak Station, five minutes' walk away. It's a nice little station on Hampstead Heath - I was being transported from green fields to green fields - but I always associate it with the death of John Lennon because it was there I learnt that he had been shot.'

The North London Line is a strange hybrid - an above- ground line which, running from the south-west suburbs to the east of the City, has the sort of route you would expect of the London Underground. Until the development at Broadgate, it terminated at the old Broad Street Station, a semi-detached neighbour of Liverpool Street.

'The morning train, at about a quarter to nine, had an ill-assorted mixture of businessmen and schoolgirls. Broad Street used to be a handsome station, but, with the weeds growing through the tracks, you felt it had closed the day before.' At Liverpool Street, a short walk round the corner, there were usually two ticket desks in operation: 'As it is one of the stations for the boat trains to the Continent, there was generally somebody from Lower Saxony trying to negotiate a ticket via Rotterdam.'

On the 9.30 to Ipswich, Palin would take a seat in the restaurant car and settle down to work or read: 'A book I associate with that journey is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

'We would reach Ipswich at about 10.45am. It is a small, well-kept station, with no labyrinth of lines and platforms to get lost in, just two main platforms and a couple of side platforms for local trains. I joined the Railway Development Society at Ipswich Station. I'm sure my experience of this, the East Suffolk Line, made me militant about railways and appreciate their value.' He is now president of the environmental group Transport 2000.

His connecting train would always be waiting. 'The rolling stock is now much improved, but then it consisted of fairly decrepit 'multiple units' (two carriages only). They were diesel, but seemed to produce more steam than a steam train and there were no loos so you had to make sure you had 'been' on the express. After about 10 minutes they would rattle into motion.

'The track got worse and worse and the train used to swing around - yet it was a sign you were really into the outback, in a quietly forgotten corner of England.'

However lacking in Zen and the art of railway maintenance, the line was at least still open. That was more than could be said for the narrow-gauge branch line which until 1929 took passengers on the final leg of the journey right into Southwold. In its absence, Palin used to leave the train at Darsham Station, a few miles away on the A12. 'It is unmanned and there'd be no one on it apart from my mother.'

Mrs Palin Senior was wont to hog the crown of the road and to use only a selection of the gears. Fortunately it is not far down the main road before the turn to Southwold.

'There was the delicious feeling of turning off the A12 towards Southwold on a road that doesn't lead anywhere else. There is nowhere else I know of where there is this sense of branching off absolutely from the main stream. You knew that unlike anywhere else on the route, it would not have changed. It would still be comforting and unrushed.

'I'd arrive about a quarter to 12, three hours door-to-door. The journey was never complete for me until I'd walked down to the sea and lobbed a few pebbles into the waves. I had to taste the salt.

'Although a pretty town, it could never be called twee. It has a natural style and grace and harmony. You are able to encompass the whole of Southwold in a 45-minute walk and yet it never has the feeling that it is small. It has an enormous number of elements: the lighthouse, a fine church, the brewery, the Swan Hotel, a beach.

'Then there is the Common, and the even wilder area beyond in the marshes and creeks. You would walk along the Common in the full moon and feel something not entirely benevolent was around you. My father used to say it was 'Black Shuck', a huge ghostly dog.' It seems that there are some things which, even to a Python, are no laughing matter.

(Photograph and map omitted)