Stop to Look Around

As I journeyed on the train this morning I looked around the carriage and saw quite a few people with their heads buried in their mobile phones. This is not unusual (I am guilty of same), but something in me gave me pause. What are we missing when we stare into the small screen in front of us?

So I made a point of stuffing my phone in my pocket and looking around. What sights would I see whilst actually taking the time to appreciate my surroundings? I would notice two new details about my journey, things that I had never observed before, despite doing the same trip day in, day out since the end of June.

The first was a pill box.

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The picture above isn’t the one I spotted, but it should offer up an idea as to what I saw. This relic of World War II served as a reminder of the very real threat of invasion that loomed over Britain back then – that little pill box, and no doubt dozens (if not hundreds) more like it would have served as defensive points, where brave soldiers would take up arms to repel invaders.

It was fascinating to see something like that, hidden in plain sight and probably ignored by countless passengers (who wouldn’t even know what it was). That one little box is a piece of history, a remnant of a destructive and hard-fought war that we must never forget, though I fear today’s generation won’t appreciate the significance of either the pill box or the war. The things we take for granted now were won for us by a generation that endured hardships we can barely imagine, and yet today’s generation would suggest having their mobile phone confiscated in school would represent hardship.

As I considered the box and what it represents (it can be spotted not too far from Pitsea train station, looking left from a forward-facing seat), a nice bit of symbolism caught my attention.

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The above is an image of Hadleigh Castle. This historic site is one that I pass on the train every day, yet I’ve never stopped to even learn its name until today. Built around or shortly after 1215 during the reign of Henry II (by someone called Hubert de Burgh), Hadleigh Castle was greatly expanded upon by Edward III, who used the castle as a retreat, but one that kept him reasonably close to London. The castle was important for economic reasons, but like the pill box, it served as a defensive location too. Much of the land around the castle is flat, and with high enough battlements the view would be quite good, allowing any watchers to spot invaders and send messages to summon armies.

As is obvious from the picture, Hadleigh Castle is in ruins – not only was it built on a foundation of London clay (not a stable surface by any means), but in the 16th Century the castle was dismantled for its stone.

Had I not opened my eyes this morning, I would never have delved deeper into the history of a place that’s virtually on my doorstep, and I certainly would not have noticed the pill box, which served as the catalyst for this post.

The second thing I noticed is not something that surprised me or that I wouldn’t expect to have seen, but it did nevertheless make me think. Benfleet train station is old (in station terms at least), dating back to Victorian times, and the reason I know this is not because of any research but because of something I recall from studying history at school – the style of brickwork used in the station’s construction is classic Victorian design. When I did do some searching earlier on, my suspicions were confirmed – Benfleet station dates back to 1855.

BenfleetStationGiven the pages I have developed on the history of the British railways, seeing and actually noticing that some of these stations hark back to this bygone era makes me feel a little more connected with that history. The train that I travel on is a modern marvel, but its journey is the same (and my journey is the same) as people who would have lived in a very different age – in a sense, I feel pulled a little closer to them and their journeys.

I just hope that future generations stop and take a moment to look at the world around them – even something as simple as a short train ride can yield remarkable facts about where we are from and who we are.

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