Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Iconic Places of the World: Luton Station

Paris has the Eiffel Tower, New York the Empire State Building, Rome the Coliseum. And Luton has its station.

Iconic buildings. They sum up something essential about the places in which they stand. Grace and elegance in Paris, majesty and power in New York, the pride and glory of the ancient world in Rome. And charm wrapped in shabbiness for Luton.

Because Luton has about the ugliest station in England. It’s run down, windswept, bleak. It even has terrible associations. You know those ghastly grainy CCTV pictures you get whenever there’s a major crime? The ones that show the victim just before the murder or the perpetrator just before the act? Well, the only thing that ever made Luton Station famous was the CCTV footage of the 7/7 suicide bombers heading to London to cause the carnage that cost 52 lives in July 2005.

7/7 bombers entering Luton Station
It’s gruesome seeing the pictures. In the background, behind the bombers, is the place where I chain up my bike when I cycle to the station. Chilling.

So far, then, not a lot to commend the place. And yet there is on platform 4 a cafĂ© and newsagent with the most cheerful barista it has ever been my pleasure to meet. Really. He has a warm and ready smile for every customer, while making each one feel special. ‘Seeing you,’ he seems to be saying, ‘is just the most unexpected and extraordinary pleasure.’

He gets to know your habits within a visit or two: there was a day when I didn’t want a latte but took one anyway because, seeing me in the queue, he’d started preparing mine while he served the other customers. The other morning I missed my train because I couldn’t bear to drag myself away before he’d finished making the coffee (it wasn’t a problem: I was on time anyway and, in any case, I’m changing jobs at the end of this month. It's amazing how knowing I'm not going to be around much longer reduces my stress at the prospect of being late).

It’s reached a point where I'm disappointed if I ever have to catch a train from a different platform.

And that’s why the station represents Luton so well. It may be ugly and flyblown outside, but it has unsuspected charms in the little gems beneath.

So you can keep the London Eye or the Brandenburg Gate. I’ll settle for my fine latte in Luton station, with a nice fresh Guardian to read in the train, all served with a broad smile and a ‘How are you today?’ that suggests it actually matters to find out.

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