One of the curious things about international travel and migrationary journeys is how accidents and sheer happenstance have shaped the world we live in. History is replete with examples of someone, somewhere getting off at the wrong stop, perhaps tired and weary, then looking around and thinking “this will just have to do” and going on to establish a new population, business or industry or simply just a point of interest on the map.
Did you know for example that the small, unremarkable south London suburb of New Malden has one of the largest populations of South Koreans outside South Korea? Now, how did that happen? This sleepy backwater, which you could argue is either just about in the county of Surrey or on the outer edge of the Greater London sprawl, has no remarkable land marks, points of great interest or features and is certainly not an area of great natural beauty (before the residents of New Malden write in to complain this is Insider’s personal opinion having lived there briefly some years ago).
Yet at some point in the relatively recent past, some South Koreans must have disembarked their flight at Heathrow or Gatwick, boarded a train to central London then got off several stops early. Finding themselves awestruck by their surroundings they just might have said to one another: “Too beautiful, the promised land, somewhere we can put down roots and raise families.”
Several decades later the tiny municipality merits frequent mention in South Korean tourist guides to London and the south east of England. The point of this story of course is that since airports are often located outside big cities, necessitating a train or car journey to the main population centres, that journey can be quite significant. More than the airport itself, which tends to be similar the world over, that journey often shapes the traveller’s first impression of a country or city for better or worse. And as everyone in the travel industry knows, first impressions are very important.
This thought occurred to me on a recent journey on the Stansted Express late on a Sunday night while returning from a business trip abroad. This is a premium airport service that southbound terminates at Liverpool Street station. The price of a return economy ticket for a 25-minute ride is a whopping £28. Passengers who want to get off before the last stop can usually alight at Tottenham Hale for all stations to north London and beyond. Now Tottenham Hale is not New Malden, but it does boast a link to the London Underground system, a large, off-road car park and a dedicated and well used taxi rank for passengers getting off the train with airline style luggage.
On my journey, however, the train took a circuitous route for some reason that added at least 15 minutes to the journey and missed out Tottenham Hale altogether. The last stop before Liverpool Street was Seven Sisters. There were no announcements on the train at all or advice on what to do, so most of the passengers looking for the north London stop got off there. Now if Tottenham Hale is not be compared to New Malden, Seven Sisters is incomparable to Tottenham Hale.
There is no car park, no taxi rank, no amenities whatsoever. So on a wet Sunday night there were dozens of Europeans, Asians and Americans fresh off the plane from Stansted shuffling about and squinting upwards for a familiar sign or a vehicle with a yellow light. They must have been thinking the same thing: “Where in hell have I ended up?”