An Ode to the Anonymous, Class-Less World of British Train Station Pumpkin Cafes
They're shit, but that's why they're great.
This week, hundreds of thousands of us will sit in sweaty, breath-misted train carriages, balancing our feet on bulging bags, hurtling home for a few days of adolescent regression, unwanted gift sets and overcooked vegetables.
Wherever you're travelling in Britain, chances are you'll either pass by or find yourself, desperate for coffee, inside one of our country's 126 Pumpkin Cafes – a collection of nationwide railway station café-cum-tuck-shops, which are peppered along the tracks from Truro to Aberdeen. According to its website, Pumpkin "focuses on delivering all the customer essentials for a journey, served by a friendly and efficient, local team. The range is broad, offering great barista coffee, home-baked cakes, food on the go and branded snacks and cold drinks as well as, in a number of locations, news and magazines." They make it sound like the perfect mix of care home and fine dining. Which, of course, it is.
But the Pumpkin Cafe is more than just an average, transport-specific sandwich chain. Above the rattle of fruit machines (because what goes better with a coffee than a quick flutter on an Eastenders-themed arcade game) and the gurgle of milk froth, it is the basal level of British culture. Like our motorway service stations, Britain's Pumpkin Cafes are the liminal, transitionary stop gaps that everybody's been to but nobody thinks they know. None of us asked for it but it's what we all deserve.
In places like these, we are all rendered exactly the same shade of beige. We are all in transit, all on the move, all half-way to something else; and in that way the Pumpkin Cafe is a great class leveller. There is – often quite literally – no room for snobbery. From the man with ear hair like crops of wheat queueing up in his beige anorak to buy a £3.85 ham and cheese panini in Norwich to the woman at Didcot Parkway fumbling with her mock-croc leather purse as she counts out £2.35 for a frothy coffee to have with her Shapers bar, to the three girls in Crawley wearing Jack Wills hoodies and rolling Maltesers across a sticky table top into each others' cleavages, we've all got better places to be, we're all in a hurry, and yet time sort of stands still.
From Manchester to Truro, Glasgow to Fratton, Cardiff to Ipswich, the whole of life has passed through its orange-lit doors. There are better station cafés than the Pumpkin Cafe. Of course there are. There are probably better GUM clinics. At the end of Platform 1 of Worcester Station there's a cafe in an old signal box where a soft, peachy woman sells homemade flapjacks for 50p. At the tiny platform cafe of Hebden Bridge you can get a fish finger butty and a cup of tea for under four quid. But there's an undeniable, ubiquitous comfort about the tired chairs and fridge-cold Mars bars of the Pumpkin Cafe – especially at Christmas.
Britain's Pumpkin Cafes are the liminal, transitionary stop gaps that everybody's been to but nobody thinks they know. None of us asked for it but it's what we all deserve.
I once spent three hours in the Pumpkin Cafe on Crewe station with a hangover you could sell to science, just watching the steady stream of businessmen, homesick students and bow-backed pensioners come and go. It was nobody's destination and yet everybody ended up there. It was the perfect place to be utterly mindless.
But what about Christmas? I rang round a few branches to see what it's like serving people at this time of year. "The station's busy at Christmas but people are usually just so focused on getting home or doing their shopping that we can get a bit quiet," says the man from Exeter St Davids' Pumpkin Cafe who answers my call. "It's an alright time to be working, when there aren't any delays – as soon as anything bad happens people get a bit annoyed."
Michelle from the Stafford branch has never worked Christmas Eve before, but is looking forward to having people from across the country pass through on their way home. "We don't really do Christmas food," she says. "Although there are Christmas muffins what we do and our seasonal flapjack". A seasonal flapjack and pint of thigh-warm milk drink called "coffee" – it's the stuff of Dickens.
But if you ever find yourself in the corner of some foreign field, lost, alone and longing for home, reading the customer reviews of Britain's Pumpkin Cafes should set you right. You can keep Blake and shove Ben Johnson up your arse – for me, the true poetry of England comes from someone called "Jannerbloke" in Plymouth: "Given that the choice is otherwise to sit on the platform or grab something to hold, or maybe fill a bag with picnic ingredients from the on site Spar shop, the Pumpkin is a bland, inoffensive place to have some half-decent coffee and a bun if your train or relative is late." Instantly, I'm home. This is Britain. This is where I live.
Just reading the franchise names from the SPP website can give me an Elgar-like tingle of grey, damp familiarity: "Caffe Ritazza", "Millie's Cookies", "The Pasty Shop", "Upper Crust" and, indeed, Pumpkin Cafe. These companies are the greasy paper that wrap our lives as we shuffle from city to city, from cradle to grave.
Nobody asked for these places. Nobody loves them. How could you? You probably don't even notice they're there. And yet, every single day, thousands will stop, stare and maybe even sit at a coffee-ringed table in the Pumpkin Cafe. Whatever their newspaper, wherever they're going, whatever they're wearing and however they speak, they will sit at that same table and drink that same coffee. And in that way, the Pumpkin Cafe might be one of the last true, class-less bastions of crap-but-comforting Britishness we have left. It's transcendent. It's bliss.
It's just a shame the tea's so shit.
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