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.
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.
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.
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:
RADIO 4 HADN’T EVEN started.
That was how early it was. So early that Radio 4 had yet to come on the air. It was the earliest I had got up on a Saturday in my entire life. And the coldest I had been at that time of the morning on any day ever.
Why such an eye-blearing, ritual-scrambling departure? I had a rendezvous to make, one that involved catching a train that took twice as long as Another More Well-Known Operating Company Chiefly Associated With Beards to reach its destination, but one that also required – with irony as deep as the snow that lay all around me – a rail replacement bus service from my home in Finchley to another part of the Northern line, which in turn could get me to Euston.
It was best not to dwell too much on all these things, and instead just get on with it.
Besides, I was about to experience another first: travelling on a train during sunrise.
Surrounding me on the 07.46 from Euston were people going somewhere for a reason – unlike me, who was merely going somewhere. There was a woman dressed in the uniform of a prescription chemist. There was a group of teenagers on their way to a football match. Someone else was wearing a suit. A family – “It’s only our second time ever on a train” – were off to a bit of a do.
All of them had enough on their minds to rarely throw a glance out of the window. But this was their loss, for the views were spectacular. The early morning sunshine, filtered through chilly mist and freezing fog, made the snowy landscapes sparkle with promise. The Home Counties were completely flattered, and indeed flattened, by the frosty confection that had laid polite yet joyful siege to the country this past week.
I was heading for Stafford but at a speed slow enough for me to spot a road sign to Althorp, final resting place of the subject of Madonna’s next film*, and on a similarly funereal note the graveyard near Nuneaton station, for many years earlier in my life a memorable waymarker on the route from Liverpool to my hometown of Loughborough.
One of life’s self-evident truths is that a long train journey is a great thing. But a long train journey through snow is even more thrilling. I found the two hours up to Stafford passed by effortlessly. Not once did I feel the need to distract myself by listening to some music or opening the book I’d brought with me.
Well, almost. When the snow suddenly vanished just outside Rugby, I’d only the anticipation of what lay ahead to keep me from other pursuits. And what a pleasantly eccentric prospect this was.
I was meeting up with my friends Robert and Scott, with whom I’d explored the old Croxley branch line last autumn. Robert was spending the day collecting a few more “ghost” stations for his blog, and had invited us to join him – an offer that perfectly suited London Midland’s ‘Great Escape’ deal, allowing unlimited travel anywhere on their network all day for £15.
Abandoned stations: what is it that makes them more than the sum of their parts? The three that we visited – Norton Bridge, Barlaston and Wedgwood – were in various states of deterioration, but their respective clutter and degrees of abandonment all pointed to a controlled running into the ground. They hadn’t simply been left for dead. Theirs was, and here is a clue to their appeal, a managed decline.
There’s something about managed decline that is strangely alluring. It’s what Britain does well, of course. Heavens, it’s what we have been doing well for the best part of 100 years. And anything that is in a state of managed decline exudes a sort of melancholy charm.
It’s especially palpable when applied to buildings. There’s no pretence to them. They don’t try to hide their destitution. They are slipping gracelessly but openly and plainly into oblivion. And they want us all to see.
Norton Bridge was the most far gone. All that survived was a stump of a platform in the middle of two sets of tracks. The waiting room was boarded up, there was no station entrance to speak of, and the passenger footbridge had been almost entirely demolished. No trains have called here since 2004.
It’s fair to say that of equal, if not greater, concern to us was why there was ever a station here to begin with. Norton Bridge is barely a village. Wikipedia stoically reports that:
“In addition to the park there is a phone box operated by British Telecom, which is scheduled to close soon and no longer accepts coins, and a postbox.”
For what logical reason did trains ever call here? To which the answer is: none, for they must only have stopped here illogically, and the Wicker Man-esque feel of the place just compounded our feelings of bewilderment. That, and having to wait an hour for a bus out of the place. If only I’d thought ahead and brought sandwiches.
Barlaston felt like it had more right to call itself a village, boasting as it did a few traces of advanced civilisation, like shops.
Its station, though disused, is also of much greater substance, straddling as it does a level crossing across which we meandered back and forth, snapping away.
A “ghost” station in the snow represents a hugely evocative combination, even if the snow is only there because the temperature hasn’t risen above freezing all day and you’re starting to lose complete sensory awareness in your toes.
But any reference to the Manpower Services Commission is always going to get my camera-finger twitching:
And yes, that’s happened before.
The third in Robert’s hat-trick was Wedgwood, a short stroll away from Barlaston along the Trent and Mersey Canal, and a rather long trudge when all you’ve got beneath your feet are alternating patches of ice and dog shit.
But here again the climate and the context somehow fed off each other to create a slightly entrancing if eerie location.
Within the space of 10 minutes or so, several trains rushed through, bringing down the level crossing. The station once existed to bring workers to the adjoining Wedgwood complex, which today loomed up silently through the frosted forest. Like its neighbour down the line, it was closed in 2003 and never reopened. And like its neighbour, superficial sights and sounds suggest it is still a going concern. But no trains stop here, and they never will again.
Is it worth being bothered by any of this? Nobody really misses these three stations – do they? There’s probably more interest in them now they are in retirement than when they were fully operational. And bizarrely they seem to have more of a personality now than I bet they did when they were merely three more stops on the line between Stafford and Stoke.
Yet I think there was a bittersweet reaction among all of us upon seeing these stations that even our most cynical of retorts (and there were many, particularly about the daft and creepy Norton Bridge) could not dispel.
For one thing, if they weren’t there, we’d have to find other places at which to stock up on melancholy charm. And there wasn’t really any to be found at those stations that were still open through which we passed along the way. Stafford is a dump, Stoke is too anonymous and Stone is architecturally magnificent but loses points for its station building having become an amenities centre**.
But there’s another reason why it’s worth being bothered. That’s because it’s fun. It might not sound it from some of the paragraphs above (particularly the one about having to get up early), but most of that is just bluster. Granted, you need the right company, which I most certainly had. You need the right conditions, which turned out to be unexpectedly grand. And you need the right frame of mind, which materialised, as it usually does, the moment my first train of the day started on its journey.
But with all of those in place, even the necessity of yet another rail replacement bus through some of the narrowest lanes of the most narrow-minded backwaters of Staffordshire didn’t seem that bad.
*Not true. The subject of Madonna’s next film, indeed the subject of every Madonna film, is of course Madonna.
**Not that there’s anything wrong with an amenities centre, it’s just they should always be in amenities centres, not railway stations.