There’s a joke you often hear when you live in Luton, which runs, ‘Well, at least Luton is easy to leave.’ It certainly is. Luton is one of the best-connected towns in the UK. My London friends are always surprised that Luton to London by train can take as little as 22 minutes. That compares very favourably with any number of outlying districts of London itself.
Once upon a time, there might have been a kind of reservation in the fact that the route brings you into St Pancras and, more broadly, the King’s Cross part of town, which in years gone by had become a fairly scuzzy and unwelcoming place to be. Not any more. The regeneration of the whole area – the glorious re-opening of St Pancras (complete with Eurostar terminal), the ongoing renovation of King’s Cross station, the development of King’s Place and the relocation of both the Guardian headquarters and one of the University of the Arts London’s campuses, means that Lutonians have an enviably fast and direct route into one of the richest cultural quarters of London. The British Library and the Wellcome Collection are within close walking distance, as is the British Museum, Birkbeck, and UCL. So let me say that again: 22 minutes, on the East Midland mainline.
And then there’s the Thameslink route. Cue mild eye-rolling at the back of the room. But that’s not really fair. While First Capital Connect is by no means the UK’s best-loved rail franchise, the route they run is, in itself, surprisingly useful. I can get to a number of places in London without ever having to bust out an Oyster card. I only recently appreciated just how easy it is for me to get to Tate Modern since the newly renovated station at Blackfriars has an exit that is literally only a few paces away from Bankside. I want to go to the Barbican? I jump out at Farringdon (also newly renovated, and shiny) and I’m there in 10 minutes. I recently spent the evening of my birthday at the View from the Shard, and again, I was right there after getting out at London Bridge. I attended a great BBC performance last week at the Roundhouse, and am heading over again to see both Squarepusher and Atoms for Peace in the next couple of months. When I do, I’ll be walking from Kentish Town, which is also on the Thameslink route.
There is nothing new in what I’m saying, but I have realised over time that most Londoners simply don’t realise how close Luton is to London, whilst at the same time remaining a cultural centre in its own right, with at least some of (if not to an ideal extent!) the infrastructure that one would expect to be associated with a large town. I think I’ve been hoping in all of the years that I’ve been here that someone else – I’m looking at you, Luton Borough Council – would make the effort to promote the town’s assets to a wider audience. But I just haven’t seen that happening at anything like the scale which we deserve. Meanwhile, we Lutonians resignedly suffered the toe-curling and entirely smug ‘North Londonshire’ campaign designed to promote Northampton as a trendy outpost of north London. The posters were everywhere: in the Tube, and even, gallingly, just outside Luton train station. To the promoters of Northampton, I say: pah! You can’t get in or out of London in anything approaching even twice the time it takes us Lutonians, and you don’t get a choice of stations: it’s Euston for you, or nothing at all.*
Did I mention the airport that’s literally 5 mins in a car from where I live? The M1? Our enviable proximity to Dunstable? (Ok, not that.) But… these riches are for another time.