“THIS,” SAID THE MAN, extending his hand towards me, “is a shark’s tooth.”
“I’ve never seen so many.” He gestured to the ground. “Look: dozens.”
“Boy, it’s going to be a good day.”
All the while he had been speaking, I had been walking. I was walking when he first uncoiled his arm in my direction. I was walking when he swept his arm in a low circle around the beach. And I kept on walking until he was safely behind me and far out of hailing distance.
It was one of those kinds of conversations. A conversation you don’t want. He had initiated it. He was the one bent over on the sand clearly engaged in an activity I had no reason to disturb. He was the one who then called out as I trudged past a good dozen or so metres away. There was never any question of me stopping. For this was one of *those* conversations.
Actually, it wasn’t even a conversation. He addressed me from afar while I responded with the shortest possible bursts of politeness. He didn’t seem to mind. A few minutes later I turned back and saw him trying the same patter on another passing stranger. I remember thinking: they weren’t shark’s teeth, they were just bits of seashell.
It had been a day for awkward social encounters.
An hour or so earlier, on the National Express East Anglia train from London, I had gone to use the toilet. It was a cubicle with an electric door, instead of the more common handle that you turned. I pressed the button marked OPEN, and the door slid slowly back to reveal an elderly woman inside, mid-urination.
It was a short sharp gasp as if she was a character in a Noel Coward play that had just been goosed.
I turned away as fast as I could, muttering an apology. The door seemed to take an age to close.
Once it had, I skulked in the corridor, silently lamenting the fact that she was the one in the wrong, yet I was the one who had ended up saying sorry.
A minute or so later she emerged, trying but failing to avoid making eye contact. I felt like muttering something about not being at home now and how it’s common to lock toilet doors while you are inside. I didn’t, of course. I merely went into the cubicle myself, and stoically discovered that not only did she not know how to use a lock, she didn’t know how to use a flush either.
I didn’t have much to do with many other people that day. The only other person with whom I had an extended conversation was the woman on the checkout in the Co-op in Walton-on-the-Naze. She asked me if I had a loyalty card that had some impossibly grand name. One of the things I bought from her, a cheese and onion pasty, was to later keep me inside another toilet cubicle, this time on Frinton esplanade, for around 15 minutes.
I didn’t have much to do with many other people that day because they didn’t have much to do with me. I had travelled out to the Essex coast to spend the day walking from Walton to Clacton: a distance of some 10 miles.
A rich mix of elements was in play: bright sunlight, clear skies and a crisp winter chill. The weather had coaxed out a good few folk to do the same thing as myself, but we all kept ourselves to ourselves. I passed families, walkers, cyclists and fisherfolk, but there were no extensions of greetings or exchangings of pleasantries. Several of them eyed me with naked suspicion.
I’d been made to feel very much alone right from the off, when aside from a small cluster of siblings I was the only person to leave the train at Walton: the end of the line.
I’d rattled around the carriage while it rattled around me: a mutually convenient relationship, though I undoubtedly came off worst.
Trains no longer run direct from London to Walton, if they ever did. The only through service is to Clacton, an unsubtle acknowledgement of that town’s self-appointed role as a Seaside Resort rather than merely a Town On The Coast. As such I’d had to change at the fustily-titled Thorpe-le-Soken: less of a name and more of a provocation.
I later discovered that the single track that runs between Thorpe-le-Soken and Walton is part of what has been optimistically titled the Sunshine Coast Line.
It’s a moniker that extends all the way along to Colchester, and is one of the most tired examples of railway branding I think I have ever encountered.
If you’re the kind of person possessed with a desire to try and turn a public service into a product, at least bless it with something other than an observation about climate and geography (and an inaccurate one at that, as neither the coast or, you suspect, sunshine are ever much in evidence). Much more appealing, not to say logical, is its original name: the Tendring Hundred Railway Line.
It was at Thorpe-le-Soken that the journey started to become interesting, as the line neared the sea and the countryside switched from uniform farmland to something with a bit more character. Railway lines that terminate on the coast unquestionably have the edge over those that meet their end in a suburb or metropolis. How close to the shore will you end up? Will your carriage totter along the prom itself? Or might the line take you right to the water’s edge?
In this regard Walton bested Clacton by virtue of depositing me within sight of the North Sea.
The suspicion with which I was regarded varied in intensity along my route. There was a moderate degree of paranoia detectable within Walton, but you arguably always get this when visiting a seaside town out of season. North of Walton, up by the marvellous Naze Tower, a couple of people cast glances in my direction that were synthesised from contempt and pity. I ignored them completely, and instead inhaled every possible majestic angle.
I then turned south, passing back through Walton with its shark-tooth foragers and its disagreeable pasties and its lurid pier advertising sentiments with which I beg to differ.
The sunshine flattered the place.
Continuing south and staying close to the shore, you skirt the edge of Frinton-on-Sea, which is precisely where the population of Frinton-on-Sea would like you to stay. An invisible wall of prejudice encircles the outskirts of this aggressively exclusive town, which boasted no pubs until the year 2000 and which got itself into a lather of fury when Network Rail replaced the wooden gates at its level crossing with proper automated barriers. Anywhere that ranks sentiment over safety is worth leaving to its own devices.
Frinton nudges up next to Walton. Imagine what this means in practice. It must be like an episode of Never the Twain, but one that is unending and which involves entire communities instead of a pair of discomfited antique dealers.
What Frinton has been very careful to do is not to repeat this state of affairs with its other neighbour. Clacton is kept at a very long arm’s reach, several miles of open land away. A couple of second world war pillboxes also squat here, presumably ready for when the mutual enmity reaches full-on armed conflict.
I wasn’t in the best of moods by the time I arrived at Clacton. It was dark, I was tired and it had turned very cold very quickly.
I took an instant and unprincipled dislike to how gaudy and tatty the place looked, though the sight of a lifesize cardboard cut-out of Noel Edmonds leering from the doorway of one of the dozens of mammoth arcades suggested somebody somewhere had a sense of humour.
I’d also left it too late to properly appreciate any of the imposing Martello towers that, like Edmonds, loom up around the town. Like Noel, they date from the early 19th century and, like Noel, were deployed to lift the country’s morale at times of national crisis.
Maybe I’m being too hard on Clacton-on-Sea. It was responsible for serving up an image that will live long in the memory:
From the ignorance of solitude I ended the day a solitary among ignorants. Thanks, Colchester, for emptying into my train dozens of boozy bastards and noisy night-outers.
Is there a number I can ring to shop these sorts of people?
At least none of them went to the toilet with the door open.
And that’s the tooth.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, I turned over my calendar to be greeted with a message:
The Whitley Bay I found on an overcast but muggy September lunchtime didn’t quite correspond with the one hanging on my kitchen wall. Sure, it was unquestionably majestic. Yet frankly, it looked like it had been forcibly evacuated of its entire population of stripy beach huts, dapper gents and broad-boatered women.
But a quicker way to reach this North Sea resort and one-time haunt of the Radio One Roadshow than by rail I doubt you’d be able to find. And that is wholly due to the local connection with Newcastle, one that has existed for 101 years, and which since 1980 has formed part of the Tyne and Wear Metro:
Yes, the Metro: a lovely light-rail municipal merry-go-round, bolted together in the late 70s from bits of lines dating back as far as, blimey, 1834. I’d never been on it before, despite, 25 years ago this very month, being so taken by the notion of its existence that I’d tried to draw my very own map of its circuitous routes. Here’s the official version:
My own attempt, perhaps luckily, no longer exists. But it was high time to rectify a quarter-century oversight and see the Metro for myself.
With Whitley Bay as a suitable hook to hang the endeavour upon, I spent a good few hours shuttling around the network, largely in the company of the very very old and the very very young. Only after 5pm did I start to notice the Metro’s carriages filling up with any other demographics – albeit fighting for seats with even more of the very very old and very very young.
Whitley Bay station is worth a visit alone. It was built in 1910, is Grade II listed and is really quite charming:
There’s a mosaic in the entrance hall that caught my eye, not so much because of its design but thanks to the plaque describing how the installation was sponsored in part by the “Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive and carried out through the Youth Opportunities Programme of the Manpower Services Commission”. Those phrases seem just as much of a relic nowadays as the infrastructure upon which they are inscribed.
My feelings of being somewhat out of time were compounded by the sight that greeted me outside the station:
I can’t be the only one who occasionally likes to refer to the Post Office as the GPO. (Or rather, wishes it still was.)
I strolled down to the esplanade where, among the dozens of boarded-up hotels and nightclubs, occasional signs of life, human or otherwise, were evident:
The school holidays were not yet over, but an environment I’d assumed would have been an obvious haven for juvenile adventures and family excursions was completely empty of people.
I was the only person the walk along the coastline, and the only person to survey the vast expanse of water and sky curling round into the mouth of the Tyne. Not that I’m complaining, you understand.
I carried on round to Cullercoats, where I rejoined the Metro for the short journey to North Shields. I then meandered and mooched my way down to the riverside, where my Day Rover ticket entitled me to free passage on the Shields Ferry.
Combining land and water as part of a continuous journey always makes me feel a bit Palin-esque. That’s Palin M, not Palin S; I had no sudden desire to kill a moose or ban abortions.
The ferry deposited me in South Shields, where I made my way to the corresponding Metro station, replete with platforms niftily set above the main high street. I was very taken with this arrangement, being sure to capture the views both below:
High time for a photo of an actual train, I think:
Making the most of my ticket I headed back towards Newcastle then changed at the challengingly-titled Pelaw on to the “green” line for a quick trip to Sunderland. The important word there being quick. I was in the town about an hour and already felt like I’d overstayed my welcome. Still, I got to see my second estuary of the day:
And (dons geek hat) experience the novelty of being in a station with platforms served by both mainline and light rail services. I could have caught a train back to London from here.
Instead I continued on to the end of the line: the deceptively rural South Hylton. And yes, I did deliberately sit at the very front of the train so I could see this:
Then I returned to Newcastle, experiencing as I did a peculiar sensation of moving, flashing lights while travelling along the Queen Elizabeth II bridge over the Tyne. I later discovered this was an installation called Nocturne by Nayan Kulkarni, unveiled in 2007. At the time it was Britain’s biggest piece of public art: an unexpected treat as I readied to disembark and head back to Newcastle Central station for the train home.
The Metro is brilliantly unequivocal in purpose and design. It’s a fabulous service: regular, reliable, comprehensive. But I didn’t get the feeling of pride in its existence that is so self-evident when using the London Underground or the Glasgow Subway.
It’s always been relevant. It’s always been pioneering; it was one of the first networks to ban smoking, the first fully light rail system in the country, and the first underground network to enable people to use mobile phones in tunnels. Yet it doesn’t feel especially loved. I know this is based purely on my first, fleeting impressions. But even during the few hours I was riding it, I sensed its passengers were using its trains out of reluctance rather than enthusiasm.
Admittedly they are the very same trains as when the Metro was inaugurated in 1980. A complete refurbishment is on the way, however, along with a makeover for all the stations.
But inevitably, as is the case these days, this upgrade came at a price: part-privatisation, with the operation and maintenance of the network now contracted out. The end result could be a triumph, if all involved parties a) talk to each other b) work with not around each other and c) put the greater good of the service first. But it could also be an unholy mess, culminating in a Metronet/Tube Lines-esque costly debacle.
For the time being, regulars can enjoy a taste of the 21st century in the shape of Haymarket: the one station to have been dolled up so far, reopened in 2010 by Princess Anne, and rather swish if slightly soulless:
I have to say I don’t like the way Newcastle airport is referred to simply as “Airport”, both on signage and by the automated announcements. Conversely, “this train is for… The Coast!” is a nice touch, albeit eternally denying the likes of Whitley Bay even one precious, much-deserved namecheck.
One final thing: ticketing. During my trip I revealed myself to be hopelessly unprepared for the business of having to purchase a ticket WITHOUT USING NOTES OR CARDS.
Yes, you can only buy tickets for the Metro using coins. At machines. And most definitely not in person at kiosks or travel centres.
“You’ll have to use THE MACHINES,” the man behind the perspex screen politely but firmly told me. But the Day Rover cost £6.80 and I only had a 10 pound note. “I suppose I can give you some change,” the man sighed. In doing so he committed the first cardinal sin of retail: making the customer feel awkward for having done business with you.
I duly trotted off to feed £6.80 worth of coinage into a machine with giant multi-coloured buttons the like of which I’d last seen on Chock-A-Block.
At least that had Fred Harris telling me what to do.
LAST WEEK I TOOK A TRAIN FROM Marylebone station an hour or so up the line to Wendover.
My plan was to spend an afternoon walking through the Chilterns, along the Ridgeway national trail, passing around Chequers, and ending up at the branch line serving the station of Little Kimble. Thanks to a rather convoluted choice of footpaths, I ended up literally on the branch line serving Little Kimble:
It’d been a long time since I’d stood on a railway line. I immediately thought of that scene in Stand by Me*; not the charming, carefree one of them skipping along the rails singing, but the terrifying one of them being pursued across a bridge over a gorge by what seemed, when I first saw the film, to be the most enormous train in the world.
“I’ll be waiting for you on the other side, relaxing with my thoughts.”
“Do you use your left hand or your right hand for that?”
Thoughts of railway lines had been in my mind all day, prompted by the slew of DIY banners and slogans adorning almost every house, tree and verge I encountered as I was leaving Wendover:
My default response to the possibility of the High Speed 2 railway is: yes please. I instinctively support any new railway anywhere, such is the dearth of existing lines across the country and the shameful under-investment by government after government during the last 50 years.
Yet the degree of opposition and, in some cases, venom suggested by all these homemade posters did make me question the wisdom of threading HS2 through this part of the countryside – countryside, moreover, that once I climbed up out of Wendover and into the hills soon revealed itself to look like this:
The campaign to stop HS2 is an uncompromising one. But later, when I investigated for myself just where the line will run, I discovered it really didn’t pass that near the stretch of the Chilterns through which I walked. Indeed it doesn’t create any new scythe through the Chilterns at all, merely following the broad sweep of the existing railway to Aylesbury and beyond.
In truth, opposition to HS2 is focused on the line’s construction, not its operation. This is because, as with the implementation of any important piece of national infrastructure, ugliness has to come before beauty.
So yes, lorries “thundering” down country lanes (in the language of protest they always “thunder”, they never simply “drive”) will inevitably spoil the peace of the neighbourhood – but only in the short term.
People need to see beyond their noses and beyond the next few years. When it’s finished, HS2 will be a marvel. And it will fit in marvellously to this patch of Buckinghamshire. Ultra-modern, ultra-fast trains gliding past every half hour or so will only enhance, not subtract from, a landscape that has long been a rich mix of the old and the new. I saw gliders, tractors, pylons and wind turbines while walking, and all felt just as much at home here as the swallows and red kites.
No, if you want something legitimate to grumble about, start with the likes of this:
*One of the greatest films ever made. Fact.
THERE USED TO BE QUITE A LOT of railway lines in East Anglia.
Here’s how many there were in 1907:
And here’s how many there are today:
A few weeks ago I took the train from London to Sheringham, one of the few destinations on the East Anglian coastline it’s possible to reach directly by rail.
It wasn’t too far to go by way of an away day round-trip; I’d never been to that part of Norfolk before; and, to my surprise and delight, it only cost £8 there and £8 back. Well, £12 back to be precise, as I decided to “treat” myself to a first class seat from Norwich back to London, but I could’ve done the whole thing, there and back, for just £16.
Now this isn’t a plug for National Express trains (though I guess in a way it is), but that same £8 wouldn’t have got me from Euston to Watford Junction. I’d have needed another 30 pence for starters. Such is the bonkers system of ticketing and fares on our beloved discombobulated, denationalised railways.
Anyway, as chance would have it good weather, a preponderance of what a regional news magazine would call “colourful characters”, and an unexpected row of cliffs (yes, in Norfolk! Who knew?) conspired to make the day more than the sum of its fiduciary parts.
I’d forgotten, for instance, that the main line out of Liverpool Street runs right past the Olympic stadium, giving me my first ever glimpse of the newly-finished giant sugar bowl:
My train appeared to my untutored eyes to be a barely-refurbished InterCity 125, until Robert tweeted to point out they didn’t run out of Liverpool Street. I should have guessed, given there wasn’t really that much room to, in the words of Sir Jim, “stretch out and move about”.
On the way up to Norwich gentle eccentricity abounded. I overheard a fellow passenger declare: “But I must get to Saxmundham with haste!”, which made me feel as if I’d slipped unnoticed into a Fry and Laurie sketch. Signs on the platforms at Colchester proclaimed it was “MORE than just Britain’s oldest town”. I’d have thought that was merit enough; why the implied shame?
Norwich station gained points for its airiness but lost them all for having cash machines that were incredibly hard to find. So hard in fact that I failed to spot them at all on my outward journey, only discovering them while having a bit of time to kill on the return leg.
Like several rural lines I’ve been on since I started this blog, it turned out the service from Norwich to Sheringham had a nickname: the Bittern Line.
This charming image was a little compromised by the charmless tendencies of some of the people with whom I shared a rattling, under-furnished carriage: kids, single mums, old men in flowery shirts and nosey parkers.
The last of these was represented by someone sitting directly behind me, who I suddenly sensed was repeatedly peeking his face between the seats to see what I was up to.
I presumed the offender was a child. I was unnerved to discover it was a businessman.
He then began coughing painfully every few seconds, occasionally interrupting these outbursts with disconsolate sighs. The man got off the train before too long, sparing me the impossibly embarrassing task of nonchalantly moving as far away from him as I could manage.
Outside, however, were unobtrusive, silent and cough-free colourful patchworks of countryside, and I remembered what had first enchanted me about Norfolk on family holidays as a child. I also remembered what had annoyed me: the absence of things to run or climb up, and to run or roll down.
It was all the more pleasant, therefore, to find my destination bookended by actual cliffs. Sheringham is a very well to-do town with an admirable awareness of its own past…
…and an equally admirable sense of what a seaside town is Meant To Be Like:
But it’s chief appeal, for me at least, were those cliffs, which I scrambled up and which, while dodging the marauding seabirds, afforded me a view laughably at odds with that I spend most of my waking days staring at:
While I was there I took a ride on the steam train that runs between Sheringham and Holt along part of one of those lines so much in preponderance in 1907. I’m no great fan of steam trains in and of themselves, but I am partial to a bit of nostalgia for a time I never knew. The North Norfolk Railway, or Poppy Line, served up just such a sensation in spades.
After that it started to rain – my parents always used to say “never trust the North Sea” – and it was time to come back. Back, via a first class carriage in which even the free wi-fi didn’t show up, to fusty skies and flickering screens and people who keep themselves to themselves.
LAST WEEK MY MATE David and I undertook another sizable rail-based outing.
This one was even longer than our excursion to Weymouth in November. Our destination was Aberystwyth, a round trip of almost 10 hours from London. But as before, the journey was intended to be of as much importance as the destination. Clocking in at almost 10 hours it could never be anything but.
Neither of us had been to the area before, nor travelled along the particular railway called the Cambrian Line that crosses the middle of Wales linking the Irish Sea coastline with Birmingham.
It’s a sedate service that scoops up residents, students, shoppers and workers heading either to or from a score of West Midlands and Welsh border towns. It also took twice as long to cover the same distance as that between Birmingham and London.
Unsurprisingly, no tourists or holidaymakers were in evidence at this time of year.
The only definable group of people among the decidedly disparate bunch of passengers on both our outward and return journeys were the dozens of teenagers who packed out the the train back from Aberystwyth, on their way home from an open day at the university.
They clutched their plastic bags of leaflets and freebies and made us both feel very old.
Some of them, to my eyes at least, looked 13 or 14. All of them had expensive smartphones. One of them was with his mother.
Hmm. Higher education is clearly a product nowadays, which is only purchased after the consumer, or rather the consumer’s benefactor, has shopped around.
Still, I was a bit heartened by the kid’s apparent interest in a leaflet about a course in International Politics.
Or perhaps he was just pretending to be interested in order to please his mum, who for much of the time had her nose in the Daily Mail.
My university days are so long ago now that I am unable to empathise much with contemporary students, never mind students-to-be.
I spent my time as an undergraduate in a world without mobile phones, the internet, tuition fees, even – for a time – central heating. It wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things, but at that moment, on that train coming back from Aberystwyth, it felt an age.
As did, it has to be said, the journey itself. The outward voyage had been fascinating, passing through places such as the beautifully isolated (and charmingly named) Dovey Junction, completely inaccessible except for a solitary three-quarter-mile footpath, and where the train divided to carry one set of folk all the way round Snowdonia up to Pwllheli, leaving the rest of us to chug forwards through marshes and valleys to Aberystwyth.
This division had actually caused a bit of confusion, not least on the part of the train manager who claimed to have been “misinformed” about which carriages would be heading where, and as such hounded a bunch of passengers first one way then the other.
There was also a passenger who purported to have got on the train without a clue as to where it was going.
I am amazed that this sort of thing can still happen. It was enough of a topical blunder to still be fit for comic treatment in the vastly underrated John Cleese caper Clockwise. But that was 25 years ago. For someone of apparently sound mind to board a train in the year 2011 and then have to ask, immediately, whether it was heading for his station, despite all the sources of information available to him online, on his phone, on the station platform… well, it was hard to feel much concern for his plight.
And even less when he feigned wiping his brow in “relief”, akin to someone in amateur dramatics, once he realised he was, indeed, going the right direction.
Plus we changed at Birmingham New Street rather than Birmingham International, the former constituting, still, after all these years, the darkest, dankest mainline interchange in the country.
As a sidenote, the reason the Cambrian Line exists at all is because, at the time of the Beeching Axe in the 1960s, it ran through seven Labour marginal constituencies and hence was thought too politically risky to abolish.
Though even that wasn’t enough to save the likes of the wonderfully-titled Scafell Halt, Moat Lane Junction and Commins Coch Halt.
Aberystwyth itself I’d recommend to anyone.
The seafront is endearingly compact, and the sound of the waves crashing on to the gravel shore a little hypnotic.
In a good way, that is.
There are the imposing castle ruins overlooking a grand sweep of coastline.
Plus there’s a rather nice cafe, or tea bar as it would’ve once been called, tucked down one of the town’s side streets, in which we listened to two old women talking in Welsh and enjoyed reasonably priced refreshments. What’s on the bwydlen?