OF ALL THE THINGS to prompt a Proustian rush, the sight of two Max Pax plastic coffee cups, an empty tuna and cucumber sandwich wrapper and a Kids Out Quids In! swirly red hat ought not to number among anyone’s top 10 of the subconscious.
They didn’t number among mine; at least, I wasn’t aware they were in there, jostling for position alongside the smell of tarmacadam at lunchtime or the opening bars of Nick Heyward’s Whistle Down the Wind.
But it turns out they are, and they were ready to work their bittersweet charms as soon as I sat down in the carriage of the Intercity 125.
The National Railway Museum in York is to blame. Or rather, to thank, because this wasn’t an disagreeable degradation back into my younger, less sceptical, more leavening self.
Instead it was quietly fabulous – even a little moving, for it’s always this sort of thing in museums that tugs at my emotions more than your giant set-piece exhibit or ritzy installation.
Give me the crisp packet of a child who is seven and I will show you the man.
As I sat in this empty, stationary carriage, in seats that I and my family would have scrambled for, fidgeted among and snoozed in a quarter of a century ago, a British Rail advert from a safely post-Savile period started playing on a screen in the background. The Proustian rush became a deluge and I wondered if I was feeling particularly sentimental because of this part-contrived, part-unexpected flashback or because I missed the taste of BR Leaf Tea.
I looked around me and suspected I was in a very small minority of people who appreciated this kind of place as much (maybe more) for the supporting features than the headline act.
The Mallard and the Rocket are both in the museum, and both are very nice to look at, but then so is this:
Likewise this poster:
These and other posters weren’t attracting anywhere near the same interest as the big shiny engines or the Japanese bullet train or even the wooden bridge that goes nowhere but from the top of which you can take a nice photo. And that’s fair enough. If everyone wanted to look at the posters, I wouldn’t want to.
The museum also had a fair preponderance of other halves, looking not at the engines or even the wooden bridge. Instead they just looked nonplussed. One spent a good half hour on a bench reading a book. I wondered if she realised the bench on which she was sitting was itself an exhibit:
I also wondered if she was at all concerned as to where her other half was. The museum is enormous and I imagine couples could easily become separated for hours – perhaps to the delight of both parties.
One other type of visitor much in evidence when I was there was the foreign student. Two dozen French teens charged around the place for an hour or so. I don’t recall ever being allowed to do any kind of running, let alone shouting, on school trips. But because I knew they weren’t British, I somehow felt safe taking indulgent photos of myself. If they’d been from this country, I’d have fled to the cafe or shop until the coast was clear.
Also lost on our French cousins would have been the significance of this:
When Scott was here a few months ago, Sir Jimmy’s name had been very artlessly covered up. But now, perhaps in some act of post-Stalin-esque counter-revisionism, it was back on display, albeit bearing traces of its former fate. Maybe next week the sticky tape will be back. Or maybe the entire section of the museum devoted to anything to do with – whisper it – the 1970s will have been curtained off.
It’s better, surely, for the whole of our railway history to be here. Good or bad, it all happened. The identikit sandwiches flourished as well as the identikit steam engines, and both are now extinct. So is Jimmy Savile. But they all belong to the story of Britain’s railways, and should be there for us to take or leave. That way we can pose for our photos, sit on our benches or succumb to our Proustian rushes however and whenever we choose.
And with that thought lurking coherently if nervously in my head, I made for the museum shop to buy an InterCity mug. Well, it was the closest I could get to a BR sandwich.
THREE YEARS AGO I did a circumnavigation of London using overland rail services. Except it wasn’t a complete circumnavigation. I had to cheat and use trams for the portion of the circle that had yet to be finished.
At the time the Overground had just taken over the old East London Line and linked it up with the North London Line with a brand new bit of track between Dalston and Shoreditch. I was unashamedly smitten with the result, writing rather pompously of how the Overground was “a real asset to the city, and all the years of investment and redevelopment have utterly paid off.”
But I ended on a wary note. It was one month into the life of the coalition government. Would there be money for this sort of thing from now on? I also accused Boris Johnson of trying to bury all these kind of schemes “deep enough in his waste paper basket so Ken can’t find them come 2012.”
Anyway, the final bit of the Overground did get built, and has been open since before Christmas. A few days ago I finally got round to going round.
In one sense – a boring, literal one – it’s a trip of extreme pointlessness. You’re not arriving anywhere. You’re merely ending up where you started, as the photos above show.
But in a far better, more imaginative sense, it’s a trip with much to recommend. It’s an all-too-real (and lengthy) application of the idea that travelling is more important than arriving. It’s a sequence of passing flings with London’s ever changing landscapes and hues. It’s something to master, like Mount Everest, because it’s there. It’s also, and here’s where you’re free to snort in disbelief (if you haven’t already done so), a lot of fun.
I did the journey with my friend Robert. We travelled clockwise from Highbury and Islington, and weren’t bothering to try and get round in the quickest time or using the fewest trains. There were no rules and it wasn’t a race. A complete indulgence, a total whim, an idle fancy, a geeky folly: you name it, it probably applies.
We even deliberately slowed things down by breaking the journey at Wapping to have a nose around, during which I performed A Good Deed (helping a woman with a pushchair) but failed to find anywhere in the vicinity to get a nice cup of tea. If you don’t own or aren’t looking to buy a riverside apartment in the neighbourhood, you’ll wonder why you bothered stopping by. In fact, there’s more to excite inside the station than out. Like standing at the edge of the platform and watching a train from across the Thames rush up and out of the tunnel, ignoring whatever withering looks are on the face of the driver:
Or staring downwards at the dazzling double-helix-style procession of staircases.
You can’t get round the Overground on one train. You have to change at Clapham Junction, and usually at Willesden Junction as well. We did both. Neither are nice places to wait. I’ve always found Clapham Junction more bemusing than confusing, and have learned to let its commotion (and, hey, locomotion) wash over me. Willesden Junction, however, is a place I will never learn to endure. Unwelcoming, isolated, ugly… I hate it, it’s as simple as that.
During our circumnavigation we both spilled hot chocolate down ourselves, though at least Robert got away with doing it on a platform. I did it on the train in front of everyone. Thankfully nobody took a blind bit of notice, withdrawn as they were – and is the unspoken law on London public transport – into cocoons of self-absorption.
I also did my best to act the ideal host and guide, pointing out to Robert things of enormous interest (at least to me), such as the almshouses behind Hoxton, the Ken Adam-esque hangar you glide into on approach to Shoreditch High Street, the old Motorail terminus by Kensington Olympia, and the most expensive allotments in London between Hampstead Heath and Gospel Oak.
But I’d like to think we were both properly intrigued by the stretch of line that recently closed the loop and made the circle complete. It’s an incredibly rare experience in Britain to travel on a brand new piece of railway line. Yet here it was, if only a tiny bit of track, connecting up Surrey Quays with the old South London Line. As our train trundled along it, we both fell quiet, either out of reverence or because we were checking our respective phones. Yes, I’m afraid we conformed to every possible stereotype.
Such is the way of the world these days, Angela Merkel owns half of the Overground. If the German chancellor
should ever wish to inspect her acquisition, perhaps in the form of a grand, 360-degree tour, I’d be only too happy to accompany her. Or if she’s up for it, suggest we both set off in opposite directions from Highbury and Islington and see who makes it back first.
THERE WAS A SMELL OF affluence and hokum. I felt like I’d wandered into an episode of Lovejoy.
It was a few weeks ago, and I was in Norfolk, on my way to one of the country’s least-used railway stations. I’d stopped along the way in the small village of Reedham, where I thought I’d enjoy a pleasant stroll along the river.
But there was something about the place that left me unsettled. Perhaps I should have read the signs. Literally.
I can think of less hospitable receptions, but the beauty of the surroundings made the situation all the more discomfiting. Had I stumbled upon some sort of monied conspiracy, gently fermenting here among the private barges packed with bottles of chilled wine and back issues of the Daily Mail (yes, I saw them, on every boat)?
I turned on my heel and beat a retreat. It wasn’t a hasty one; I didn’t want it to look like I was panicked. Not for the first time in my life, I felt myself asking: what would Ian McShane do?
I was evaluated a second time when I was back on the train and nearing my destination: the station of Berney Arms.
When I double-checked with the guard that we would actually be stopping there, he reassured me we were, but also advised me to make sure I was at the front of the train, as this would be the only part that would fit into the platform.
I was sitting right at the back.
As Berney Arms swam into view – from being a tiny speck on the horizon to only a slightly larger speck in the near-distance – I began my walk of shame. I could sense dozens of pairs of eyes regarding me and concluding: “Ah-ha: one of the freaks”.
And they were right.
For I was getting off at a station that looks like this:
And I was the only one getting off.
The guard gave me a “there, there” sort of glance as he checked to see I really did want to stay on this stump of a mound of a outpost of a nothing-else-for-miles-around location, before signalling for the train to continue on its way.
Suddenly I was completely alone.
One of the first things that crossed my mind was this would NOT be a good place to commit the perfect murder. The isolation of Berney Arms would not be a boon to the master criminal, more a curse. How to engineer a quick getaway, for instance? Where to dispose of a body? How to avoid all those pairs of eyes on the outward journey? And above all, how to publicise your treachery to the rest of the world, when the rest of the world has spent the best part of two centuries happily ignoring pretty much the entire region?
If, however, you’d like to disappear completely for a few hours, and do so on your own terms, Berney Arms is for you.
I stood between the tracks of the single, solitary railway line for some time, trying to take in the full spread and sounds of the landscape.
I ought to admit I was also revelling in the novelty of just being in such an unusual setting. It was probably just as well nobody saw me doing this. I was reminded of Philip Larkin’s line about the priest and the doctor in their long coats, running over the fields.
As if you couldn’t guess, Berney Arms is not a place you can reach directly by car. You can sail up the River Yare, park your boat by the nearby windmill, then walk to the halt. But that’s it as far as an interchange goes.
By any sort of modern-day standards, the station is an enormous anachronism and should not exist. That it has endured is in part an accident, based on a misunderstanding to do with an assumption concerning an agreement over the terms on which a local bigwig sold the land to the Yarmouth and Norwich Railway in the 1840s.
The muddle became the momentum that has kept Berney Arms open all this time, despite various attempts by numerous organisations to insist otherwise.
Out of confusion and occasional confrontation has emerged something as idiosyncratic as it is appealing. The child inside you takes over at places like these. For a time I sat on the edge of the platform, swinging my legs, just because I could.
Part of me wanted to linger longer, but another more rational, grown-up part of me knew I would only really appreciate Berney Arms once I’d left.
I set off across the fields to the river and the long, low footpath to Great Yarmouth.
Several minutes later, a train appeared from the opposite direction, heading back up the line to Reedham and Norwich.
Nobody got off. It didn’t even stop.
I was rather glad.
A FEW NIGHTS AGO, at around 12.30am, I realised I was lying in bed with a smile on my face. This is not something that happens very often.
I was also lying in someone else’s bed. This is something that happens even less often.
I’ve the railway company First Great Western to thank for this pair of unlikely scenarios. For it was one of their beds I was lying in, a bed that was in the process of travelling around 300 miles. And I was smiling because I’d realised what a faintly ludicrous yet also rather wonderful experience I was undergoing.
The last time I’d spent the night on a train was almost 20 years ago. It hadn’t been an especially pleasant trip, but I’d survived in much the same way you survive everything that life subjects you to when you’re 18: by not dwelling on things too much until you’re 20 years’ older.
Now I was doing it again, but in what I hoped would be far more agreeable circumstances.
I’d felt a mixture of mild apprehension and juvenile glee as the hour of departure approached. Memories of that previous trip bobbed around my mind like scum on a tide.
I tried to counter them with the knowledge I’d come well prepared (in my bag were, among other things, a towel, a toothbrush and toothpaste, even some moistened facewipes – yes, I know). I also reminded myself that I was heading, not towards some further unfamiliar destination, but home. I was travelling from Penzance to London, and no matter how I fared on the journey, I knew my own bed in my own flat was waiting for me at the other end.
This mattered. I can only deal with so many known unknowns at once.
I was also forearmed with tips and tip-offs courtesy of Robert, who’d done exactly the same journey a few months ago.
As the minutes ticked by and a small group of fellow travellers gathered on the astonishingly gloomy concourse at Penzance, I did have to remind myself that this was something I’d chosen to do.
I took comfort from seeing a similar combination of unease and excitement on my companions’ faces. We were all in this together – even though none of us said one word to each other, not even when the specified time for boarding (9.05pm) had passed and none of the train doors were unlocked. Well, what did you expect? A centuries-old tradition for British reserve to dissolve suddenly into a continental conversational free-for-all?
By far and away the best thing about First Great Western’s sleeper service is the option to book single berths. Cheap berths, to boot. If you book far enough in advance, your ticket will cost only £49. That’s less than what you’d have to pay in most parts of the country for a stationary bed, never mind one that moves 300 miles.
(Twin berths are available. I saw one elderly couple gamely piling into their accommodation along with enough luggage for twice as many people, but not muttering one word of complaint.)
There was a faintly business-like air to proceedings during the half hour or so before departure, as an affable steward came round to tick us off his clipboard, ask when we wanted to be woken in the morning and with what. The “what” was a hot drink and a choice of refreshments: a bacon roll, a croissant, a bowl of cornflakes, or a packet of biscuits. I went for the biscuits. “A lot of people choose that one,” the steward grinned. “It must be because people like them,” I replied, stupidly.
Then we were off.
You can’t prepare for the novelty of being on a mainline train and not facing either forwards or backwards. It’s simply impossible to anticipate. If you want to experience the shock of the new, take a trip on a sleeper and take a sideways look at the world. Literally.
Sure, you travel sideways on most London Underground trains. But that’s different. They aren’t trains that carry you almost from one end of England to the other. And they aren’t trains in which you take your clothes off and lie down. Not officially, that is.
It being the longest day, it remained light outside my window for a good hour or so after leaving Penzance. I watched more people get on. The train stopped at around a dozen places, and each time I could hear the steward repeat his spiel along the corridor, always polite, always word perfect.
I admit I could have tried to get to know some of my fellow passengers. I could have gone along to the lounge car and essayed some Michael Palin-style travel-based chat. But I didn’t, for I am a wuss and preferred to stay sequestered in my berth, peering out semi-voyeuristically at the world, wondering when to venture along the corridor to make one last trip to the toilet before going to bed.
When I did, I saw around a dozen people in an adjacent carriage, all looking very bright and breezy. These were the folk who were spending the night in seats: an experience I also endured on that Europe trip in 1994, on a train from Brussels to Paris. I found it so disagreeable that half an hour after arriving I was bent double in a gutter throwing up.
Ah, la belle France.
But now it really was time for bed. I’d sampled the in-berth on-screen entertainment: an eccentric selection of pre-loaded programmes including Alan Partridge’s Mid-Morning Matters and the England v Holland game from Euro 96. I’d also thoroughly investigated and itemised the contents of my free toiletries bag. This was unexpected (as proven by my bringing along the toothbrush, toothpaste etc.) but wholly welcome. For the record, it contained:
- A face cloth
- A bar of soap
- A lemon-scented flannelette
- A small bottle of body lotion
- A tube of toothpaste
- A toothbrush
- An eye mask
- Two foam ear plugs
- A “vanity kit”
- A disposable razor
- Some shaving cream
I felt completely spoiled.
I got into bed and lay there, listening. Somewhere a distant memory answered back with echoes of 20 years ago. I enjoyed the association, particularly as I knew I was in a much better place now compared with then.
I did a good bit of jolting and writhing – all involuntary, mind you, prompted by the motion of the train. It might well have been the sensation of slipping from one side of the bed to the other that triggered my 12.30am smile.
But I also kept sitting up, curious as to where the train might be, intrigued by which station we’d got to. I couldn’t resist peeking out of the window at Plymouth and noticing a few groups of passengers stoically clambering aboard, despite the late hour.
I never fell properly asleep. I dozed a few times, but never for long. I didn’t really mind. I’d expected as much, seeing as I’m a light sleeper and the circumstances were so unusual.
There was a period, however, in the depths of the night when I lost track of time and geography entirely. I remember having a nose through the window in the small hours of the morning, realising the train had stopped somewhere and, straining to see a platform sign, catching sight only of a workman strolling past eating a bag of chips. In the distance there was the sound of a hammer bashing metal. I still have absolutely no idea where all this took place, and in a way I’m rather glad. It was one of the eerie highlights of the trip.
Around 4.45am the train stopped in a siding outside Paddington, before rolling into the station at 5.15am. I listened to the person in the berth next to me pack up what sounded like a museum of belongings and make a quick exit.
Then came the first station announcements. Once more the delightful absurdity of my situation loomed large. In all my life I never thought I would hear someone trailing a “5.40 train” to, well, to anywhere. Outside the window people were scurrying past: shift workers, station employees, early risers. I knew the moment had arrived to join them.
There was just time for that complimentary hot drink and packet of biscuits. It was one of the nicest cups of tea I had ever tasted.
By 7am I was back home and back in bed. I was more tired than I thought, and would sleep on and off for the rest of the day. But it was a sleep borne out of a sense of constructive exhaustion. It wasn’t the kind of hollow tiredness you get from a day at work or doing household chores. This was a tiredness of achievement, at having completed something a bit intimidating but also a bit special.
Plus I had laid to rest, if not myself, then a few ghosts of two decades’ vintage.
A ONE-DAY ROVER TICKET can be as much a curse as a blessing.
On the positive side, it turns an entire county into your plaything. You can zip from boundary to boundary and back again. You can loiter somewhere on a whim, then charge headlong towards a destination you hadn’t planned to visit. You can, if you’re that way inclined, improvise your entire schedule based purely on whatever train next passes your way. Or you can chisel out a minutely-planned itinerary and treat the whole thing like a Michael Palin-esque quest.
On the negative side, you end up barely scraping the surface of the county you’re exploring.
You can arrive in a place like, say, Blackburn, spend half an hour walking around the town centre and, save for one of the 4,000 holes, find absolutely nothing commendable.
You can only record things as you found them: that the station smelled of marijuana and the shopping centre of piss and pizza. For a former mill town, you can’t avoid concluding – with lazy irony – that Blackburn is now a place mainly for milling about.
The shopping centre, recently completed, lines its walls with no doubt sincere testimony from locals, singing the building’s praises. But given your limited exposure to the town, you can’t help concluding that something has gone terribly awry if a new retail development is what makes somebody “most proud to live in Blackburn”.
Such impressions of the place – patronising, ill-informed – will persist until I get the chance to revisit.
By contrast, my impressions of another place, Colne – inspired, though equally ill-informed – might very well be proven equally misplaced were I to revisit and experience more than just the town’s very well-tended and charming station.
Colne is at one end of the East Lancashire Line. I rode the train – a wretched Pacer – all the way to the terminus, got off, wandered around for a while, then got straight back on again for the return journey, trying desperately not too look too ridiculous.
Once the journey was under way, I squirmed in my seat as the ticket inspector – the same ticket inspector that had seen me loitering and taking photographs on Colne’s very lovely platform – approached and gave me a very knowing look.
These are the sort of prices you have to pay, along with around £20 for the ticket, when doing a spot of one-day rovering: a dash of character humiliation, a few snap generalisations, and the sense of always being around other people but always feeling alone.
I went to Morecambe, where the views across the bay were breathtaking and I felt my eyes being flattered with distances and perspectives they hadn’t experienced since the last time I’d seen the sea.
I walked to the far end of a jetty, along which a railway used to run to connect with ferries across to Scotland and Ireland.
An awful lot of money has been poured into this bit of the Lancashire coastline to repurpose an awful lot of history. That includes Oliver Hill’s majestic Midland Hotel, which I’d forgotten dwelt in Morecambe. Here was another aspect to the hit-and-miss melee of a day on the rails: stumbling upon a once read-about but long-misplaced unexpected gem.
One side of the hotel faces out across the bay; the other towards a casino, an American diner and a Morrisons. I wonder how they persuade anyone to stay in the latter.
I went to Whalley, specifically to see the viaduct, as suggested by Robert. Close up, the arches are mighty and uncompromising. From a distance, they blend with the landscape into something really rather beautiful.
I barely scraped the surface of the town, as with everywhere else I went. But from the little I saw I felt comfortable placing Whalley in the YES column.
Morecambe, thanks to the sprawling, inhospitable badlands that squatted between the seafront and the railway station, not to mention the fact that everywhere closed at 5pm and all I wanted was a cup of tea, I assigned rashly under NO along with Blackburn. And that was despite of the bay and the Midland Hotel.
Again, what do I know of these places but only what I knew when I was there.
I also called at stations I’d been before, some many times. Manchester Victoria always fascinates me, the grime mixed with the antiquity, the dank side-by-side with the splendour. It feels trapped between a catalogue of different centuries. You can stand in one place and merely by turning your head be greeted with panoramas of the Victorian, Edwardian, Wilsonian and Blarite eras – plus, now they’ve renovated the toilets, the 2010s.
Lancaster station had a more practical attraction. I remembered from a visit in 2010 there were plug sockets in the waiting rooms that I could use to recharge my mobile phone. But, as if I needed reminding of the hazards of my behaviour, the rooms – or “customer lounges” – were closed for redecoration. My phone died for an hour or so (in Morecambe, worse luck) before a passing Pendolino reconnected me with the connected.
I did one other thing while I shuttled around the county. I listened. Not actively – or rather, not aggressively, my ear shoved round the corner of the seat in front of me. No, I listened when there was stuff to hear. Which was often.
On the train from Liverpool to Manchester:
“Don’t start, cos I’ll wait outside your fucking work and twat you. I ain’t arsed! I’m from fucking Birkenhead!”
From Colne to Preston:
“Did you see Charlie? Did he bring his woman with him? He’ll be an old man when he finally gets to sit on the throne. That’s if poor Liz will let him.”
From Lancaster to Morecambe:
“I’ve got the lasagne, the bread and a bag of Italian salad, but I just couldn’t decide on the wine.”
From Wigan North Western to Liverpool:
“That’s where they make your glass.”
From Manchester to Blackburn:
“It wants to bite you. Why don’t you let it and see what happens?”
Whenever I go back to the north-west I’m reminded of how I didn’t appreciate and experience enough of the place when I lived there. And now, returning not as a resident but as a visitor, my feelings are always tempered by the knowledge that I’m just passing through, and I leave full of regrets. Roaming the county by rail exaggerates this sensation, for both good and ill.
It’s only by returning that I’ve started to realise quite how much I left behind.
A few weeks ago I spent a couple of days travelling around The County Formerly Known as the Garden of England. I was using a Kent Rover, which allows unlimited travel for three consecutive days.
There were no attractions I especially wanted to see, and no lines upon which I particularly wanted to ride. I merely wished to try and travel along as many routes that were open to me, taking things as I found them.
To impose some sort of coherency upon this rather jumbled quest, I’ve reached for that most unoriginal of conceits, the A-Z. Feel free to call me a lazy Kent hunt.
A is for ARMS, COAT OF
Set high up on one of the walls inside Ramsgate station is a rather fine display of railway-inspired heraldry. I’m guessing it refers to the Southern Railway company that operated between the wars. Its presence is all the more welcome by virtue of being so unexpected, though the building as a whole is pretty impressive. I’ve rarely been inside a station that seemed so airy and weightless.
B is for “BRITISH RAIL TRAIN WITHOUT A TOILET, I’M ON YET ANOTHER”
Seated a short distance from me on the train to Ramsgate was someone who no doubt also used phrases such as “the gas board” and “the GPO”. He was talking into his mobile phone. Everyone could hear him. He had, it seemed, suffered repeated encounters with malfunctioning lavatories. I don’t know what he expected his many listeners to do about it. Offer him an empty water bottle?
C is for “CLIFF!, LOOK OUT”
The ideal place to see the white cliffs of Dover is most definitely not from within Dover itself, though you can kind of glimpse them if you walk far enough along the seafront. This isn’t a town that is best experienced from the inside looking out. Not least because…
D is for DOVER PRIORY
If you’re a fan of unwelcoming, inhospitable, ill-conceived, dank, lumpen and bonechillingly-unloved stations, Dover Priory is not the place for you. Because Dover Priory is in fact desperately unwelcoming, inhospitable, ill-conceived, dank, lumpen and bonechillingly-unloved, and the sort of place that actively strains every sinew of its wretched being to encourage you leave, move on, get out, get far away, never come back and forget you ever came. It is everything a railway station should not be, and has nothing to commend it. Well, almost nothing (see G).
E is for EAST, CANTERBURY
Poorly-signposted from Canterbury West, and vice versa. Not two stations you want to walk between in a hurry on a warm day, shoulder-to-elbow-to-breast-to-shoulder with several thousand tourists.
F is for FOLKESTONE WEST AND/OR CENTRAL
Either is fine for beginning the short ride along the coast to Dover, a seven-mile cliff-clinging, sea-skirting thrill described by Paul Theroux as “man’s best machine traversing the earth’s best feature – the train tracking in the narrow angle between vertical rock and horizontal water.”
G is for GULL, HIGH-SPEED
Pretty much the only thing to recommend Dover Priory station is the chance to see seagulls waddling around blithely on top of stationary non-high-speed trains.
H is for HIGH-SPEED TRAIN, PRETEND
Bits of the lines covered by the Kent Rover are also used by Southeastern’s high-speed services, and with some careful planning you can hop aboard and pretend you’re in the 21st century along with the rest of the industrialised, public transport-rich world, and not the mid-20th. One way to do this is to join a high-speed train that has come from St Pancras at Ashford and continue on to Dover, for much of which you run alongside the tracks used by Eurostar services. However this does mean you need to pay a visit to…
I is for INTERNATIONAL, ASHFORD
One of the most arid stations I have ever visited. Perhaps I was just there at the wrong time. Much of it was deserted. The only people in the huge international terminal were two check-in attendants. The bilingual signs, conceived out of the best cosmopolitan intentions, just looked desperately sad. The entire place felt unsure of its existence – a bit like the EU itself, I suppose*.
J is for J PEASMOLD GRUNTFUTTOCK
Somebody on the train from Ashford International to Dover Priory sounded just like this splendidly seedy character voiced by Kenneth Williams in Round the Horne. The similarity was rather charming, until the person stood up and revealed themselves to be a woman.
K is for KEEP YOUR FEET OFF THE SEATS
One day I will pluck up enough courage to actually say this out loud and not just inside my head.
L is for LICK OF PAINT, COULD DO WITH A
I know it’s not properly representative, but the view of a town from the window of a train ought to show something of the place at its best. Especially a resort town. But this was not the case as the likes of Whitstable, Herne Bay, Westgate-on-Sea and Margate sidled past. North Kent cannot muster many airs and graces for visitors arriving by rail.
M is for MINSTER
I didn’t plan on spending 45 minutes here, but the wait saved me a journey into Ramsgate and back out again. It also allowed me an opportunity to walk around this charming, tiny, historic village, properly known as Minster-in-Thanet, and which could stake a claim for being the quietest settlement in the county. I know my presence was being monitored from behind net curtains, but for once I didn’t care.
N is for NORTH DOWNS
A train from Swanley to Ashford via Maidenhead gave me the best view of the North Downs: a battery of beautiful, natural landscapes indecently and implausibly close to the rotting horror of Kent’s north coastline, and which – unlike Dover – can be equally appreciated up close and from afar.
O is for “OOOH, YOU’VE GOT A KENT ROVER…”
“…Not many people know about them,” cooed the ticket inspector before passing on down the carriage, implying the lack of awareness about this particular special offer was absolutely nothing to do with him.
P is for POSSIBLY THE WORST STATION IN THE COUNTY
See D, although Strood, which seemed to be in barely-managed decline, comes a close second.
Q is for QUICKLY, CROSS
Superfluous instructions at the level crossing at Minster (see M), just in case you were of a mind to dawdle, loiter or quite possibly sit down in the middle of the tracks.
R is for RABBITS
I saw hundreds of them in fields by the side of the railway tracks, most noticeably when “silflay” was taking place. They easily outnumbered the less cuddly though equally ubiquitous oast houses and vineyards.
S is for SWANLEY
The starting point for each day of my travels, and a somewhat underwhelming Gateway to the Former Garden of England.
T is for TILBURY DOCKS
Not in Kent but visible and accessible from the waterfront at Gravesend, which I visited in order to sample both the north-west and south-east (see C) points of the county. I know which I preferred.
U is for UNDERSTATEMENT
Kent is a county of extremes.
V is for VIEW OF THE JOURNEY, THE BEST
W is for WEST MALLING
An advertisement, at least superficially, for both the most picturesque and most monied dimensions of Kent, both of which I contrived to pass through without stopping.
X is for XENOPHOBIA
Another of Dover’s least appealing qualities. It oozes up from the cracked pavements and out through the peeling paintwork and smashed windows of the public houses and shelters that line the streets.
Y is for YALDING
A station I didn’t get to see, due to a signal failure causing the temporary suspension of services between Strood and Paddock Wood just when I was about to take a train along the line, which would have meant I’d travelled along every route permitted by the Kent Rover.
Z is for ZOUNDS
An exclamation suitable for verbal ejaculation upon realising your best-laid plans are to be thwarted by factors beyond your control, as evidenced above (see Y).
YES YES, I KNOW: not the most original of titles. But listen, it might have been Ryde on time. Trains on the Isle of Wight *are* very punctual after all.
Or worse, I could have conflated the fact there was quite a din crossing the Solent on a catamaran along with the number of hot drinks consumed during the trip and, punning on one of David Bowie’s less-remembered efforts, offered up Black tea, Wight noise.
Instead I’m sticking with ticket from Ryde – and I don’t care.
The Isle of Wight used to be riddled with railways. Now there is only one. And it’s unlike any other in the land.
Recently I went to see it in the company of my friend David. I don’t think either of us were quite prepared for what greeted us.
Superficially I’d known what to expect: that the railway uses old London Underground trains; that for “old” you should read “very very very old”; and that the train runs right to the very end of the pier at Ryde, from where passengers like ourselves would be disembarking from the catamaran.
The reality was not what I had expected. For one thing, I hadn’t imagined just quite how eerie it would be boarding a train with the sea just a metre or so below you, visible between not very thick wooden slats.
Secondly, the disorientation of boarding not just any train but an Underground train with the sea just a metre or so below you made me feel a bit giddy. And not necessarily in a good way.
Quite simply, this combination of elements didn’t feel right. I couldn’t really process them and take in quite what was going on.
All of this was compounded by the way everyone else boarding the train was utterly nonchalent and completely unconcerned. This wholly extraordinary experience for us was wholly ordinary for them. Our fellow passengers were the most unassuming bunch imaginable.
Look, here are some of them:
Then suddenly the train was away, taking a couple of minutes to teeter along the 704 yards of pier before arriving at its very first stop, Ryde Esplanade. Here, unexpectedly, a great number of people got off. I was bemused. Was it really worth them getting on in the first place? Seeing as the train had waited a good 10 minutes at the pier head before departure, it would have been quicker to walk.
Admittedly it would have involved walking along one edge of this:
But what’s not to like about that? A fair deal, as we discovered on the return leg when we decided to do just that, albeit in driving rain.
A great number of people also got on at Ryde Esplanade – the only station in the whole of the UK to have the word Esplanade in its title. Again I was struck by how, what was for us a very atypical and exciting way of getting around, was for everybody else thoroughly mundane, even irritating. I’m sure the residents of the Isle of Wight would prefer a proper full-size railway that enveloped the whole island with frequent services.
Instead what they’ve got is one line that is just over eight miles long. It used to run further, all the way down to Ventnor on the south coast of the island. Instead it gives up at Shanklin, where the train loiters for 10-15 minutes before heading straight back where it came.
Taxis jostle to take people away from here as quickly as possible.
And who can blame them where there are sights like these just around the corner:
The entire route has been branded the Island Line, and is currently operated by South West Trains.
They’ve done their best to present it as not just a service but a tourist-friendly introduction to the Isle of Wight. Maps inside the carriages accord each station an additional reason for existence (“Gateway to the sands!”) as if to make up for a perceived deficiency in relevance.
In addition, a map of the line on the South West Trains website makes the whole area look like a coastal idyll. Granted, it was never going to feel much like this on an overcast Saturday in the middle of February. But I’m not sure how much charm there is to be found in Shanklin even in high summer.
This was the only building in the town that really caught my eye:
A splendid construction, but it cost £1 to use, despite being out-of-season. What a swizz.
For rail travellers the rest of the Isle of Wight is simply out of bounds. There is a short steam railway that connects with the Island Line at Smallbrook Junction, but it was closed the day we were there. Had we wanted to go anywhere else, we’d have had to get the bus. But we didn’t have time, so as soon as the rain set in there was nothing for us to do but head back to where we started, this time clutching a different kind of ticket from Ryde.
I suppose we should be thankful there are any functioning trains on the island at all. For once the word “unique” can be used correctly – and laudably. But I also felt a bit awkward at being glad that the residents of the Isle of Wight hadn’t got a proper grown-up railway. Was it wrong to be grateful that they – and us – had to make do with quaint, cosy carriages that dated from 1938?
You ought to be able to ride on trains like these somewhere in the country. Just not in a place where they are the only trains in the most populated parliamentary constituency in the entire United Kingdom.
In the meantime, Solent and thanks for all the fish: