It may be a month since Robert and I spent a week riding Scotland’s railways, but the memories are still strong. Such as…
Kyle of Lochalsh station
I’d got a sense of how enchantingly remote and enticingly melancholy this place might be from Michael Palin’s 1980 Great Railway Journey for BBC2, where he travelled all the way from Euston to Kyle in order to collect a frankly preposterous piece of signage.
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.
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).
IN ALL THE YEARS I lived in Liverpool, I must have only visited Wales about half a dozen times. Possibly less.
Because it was so close, and because neither it nor I were going anywhere, the idea of popping into the country took on as much significance as popping into my local pub. Both of which, as time went on, slipped gently down my must-go-there-and-do-that list.
But then I did go somewhere: I moved to London. Since when I have rued the fact that I could and should have nipped over the border far more than I did while I lived 10, not 110, miles away.
On my most recent return visit to Liverpool I decided to begin to address this failing. I bought the version of the North Wales Rover ticket that is valid for just one day, and set off for a dash around what nobody save Prince Charles and Sarah Kennedy calls the Principality.
As with all rover tickets, this one was, in my view, a bargain. It was just £23 to go wherever I wanted in north Wales, including, if I so wished, a reunion with the Cambrian Line. The decidedly non-Welsh Chester is thrown in for good measure, meaning I had only to catch one of the regular Merseyrail services to the city from Liverpool in order to kick off the day.
On the platform at Liverpool Central I spotted this enlightened notice:
How nice of them.
This first leg of my journey was actually the least agreeable. It wasn’t the fault of Merseyrail. Rather it was the combined presence of impenetrable mist and fog outside the train, and interminable mithering from a couple of fellow passengers inside, that got things off to an irksome start.
The former, if it persisted, would have left me bereft of any decent views of the likes of the sea or Snowdonia.
The latter consisted of an old man with dyed black hair who was an ex-con and who spoke at a speed of 10 fucks per minute, and his “companion”, who he may well have met for the first time the night before, who sat with her legs up on the seat opposite (grrrrrr!) and did nothing to shut up her consort (grrrrrrrrrrrrrr!).
As the train pulled into Chester, and a big sign saying CHESTER slipped into view through the carriage window, the lag turned to me and said: “Is this Chester?” When I said that it was, he replied with a bemused “fucking hell”.
I was glad to leave both him and the indifferent weather behind.
A few miles into the journey from Chester to Holyhead, the sun came out. So did an old woman with orange hair and slippers from behind a copy of Metro, who proceeded to exchange low words with a man half her age across a table, both speaking Welsh, both oblivious to the rich mix of landscapes through which the train was passing, and both equally oblivious to the reaction of their fellow passengers.
Fortunately their behaviour was nowhere near as intrusive as that of Old Man Jailbird and Maggie Mae. They and I were soon joined in the carriage by a dozen young Christians, some blokes returning from a weekend of heavy golfing/drinking/golfing and drinking, and an old man who kept visiting, but never entering, the on-train toilet.
Such was the collection of colourful characters that accompanied me across Wales to Holyhead.
My route for the day took me all the way to the end of the line on the far side of Anglesey, then back to Llandudno Junction where I caught a train down to Blaenau Ffestiniog, from where I retraced my steps back to Llandudno and to Chester.
Not a particularly complicated or ambitious route perhaps, but certainly an intriguing and, for the most part, rather beautiful one.
Much of the line between Flint and Bangor hugs the coast: always a tantalising arrangement for an inland suburbia-dweller like myself.
I’d forgotten quite how vast is the cluster of seaside homes and portable dwellings that brush up somewhat ungainly around Prestatyn and Rhyl. About half, maybe more, seemed to be occupied, despite it being late March.
I’d also forgotten about that curious, solitary ship that looms up on the shoreline suddenly, like a beached piece of Hollywood studio set, utterly abandoned and ignored.
Much more character oozes out of Colwyn Bay, Llandudno and Bangor (all for under a pound, you know).
At Colwyn Bay they actually seemed to be trying to rebuild, or at least retame, part of the sea. I came here once in the late 1990s on a day trip while my sister was visiting me in Liverpool. My chief memory of the outing is of a reassuringly unassuming cafe, wherein we drank a reassuringly unassuming pot of tea. I don’t remember the rather non-unassuming red benches being there before:
The stretch of the line that first skirts then crosses the Menai Strait via the Britannia Bridge is simply majestic. It gives you the best of all possible introductions to Anglesey, a place I hadn’t been to since a family holiday 25 years ago.
Unlike then, I did not make a point of photographing myself standing next to the sign on the platform of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Instead I passed straight through (mainline train services only stop on request), thereby avoiding the coachloads of tourists making a point of photographing themselves standing next to the sign on the platform of Llanfairpwyllthisnamehasbeenlengthedpurelyforshamelesspublicity.
At Holyhead, I was the only person to not head for the ferry. Instead I used the 40 minutes or so before the train started back down the line to mooch about what bits of the town were designed to be mooched through, which weren’t that many. I very quickly formed the impression that it is not a place in which visitors are encouraged to dwell. You’re only meant to pass through, preferably on to one of these:
Still, the railway station and ferry terminal are neatly conjoined, so for those who are intending to get out of Holyhead as quickly as possible – in either direction – there’s no need to set your feet or thoughts much beyond a sequence of charmless waiting rooms.
The line between Llandudno Junction and Blaenau Ffestiniog is almost without exception charming. The exception is its terminus. After an hour or so of the lilting hills and burbling water of the Conwy valley, you arrive in a place so despoiled that the boundaries of the Snowdonia National Park had to be specially drawn so as to avoid it entirely.
Part of me was in awe of the great mountains of disused slate that loom over Blaenau Ffestiniog. Part of me felt instantly claustrophobic and intimidated, qualities that were compounded by the atmosphere inside the town itself.
In the half hour I was there, before the train returned down the line, I was made to feel distinctly unwelcome. Children, dozens of them, skiving off school or else on some kind of half-day holiday, eyed me unpleasantly while scoffing wodges of junk food. Adults, dozens of them, all drunk, cast threatening glares in my direction while lolling over the bus stops and benches and shouting conversations along the lines of:
“As long as it’s got a sock on it, I don’t care who’s I have.”
“If he tried to put a sock on his, it’d fall off.”
I don’t want to call Blaenau Ffestiniog a dying town. I’ll just say a part of me died while I was there.
One day I’ll have to go back, though, in order to ride on the Ffestiniog Railway.
My guess is about half of the entire Conwy line is single track (including the longest single track tunnel in the country). Most of the stations are request stops, and on the day I was there plenty of passengers were making requests.
The majority, it has to be said, were of senior years, but this was perhaps only to be expected as travel on the line is free of charge to the over-60s. This is thanks to the Welsh Assembly Government. Yup, them again. How nice it must be to live in a country where your government treats railways with respect and not as a nuisance or a necessary evil.*
On the train back to Chester I nodded off. I was surrounded by kids, or possibly students, one of whom was wearing a pair of sunglasses with flashing lights embedded in the frame.
At Chester I saw no fewer than six people smoking cigarettes right next to a No Smoking sign. I was tempted to take a photo, not in order to report them to the station authorities, but just to see if and how they’d react. Fortunately, perhaps more for my sake than theirs, my train to Liverpool arrived and the moment passed. Instead I took this photo. Nice to know David Cameron’s new enterprise zones have got off to such a cracking start:
From there it was back up the Wirral in the safe hands of Merseyrail, and then into Liverpool city centre for the obligatory welcome portion of chips and beans from The Lobster Pot.
It was still light, and I’d barely covered half of the track to which my ticket entitled me, but I’d had my fill and felt satisfied to call it a day. Besides, by then I’d already decided to come back later in the year, armed with the four-day version, and do the whole thing.
*Some politics. Apologies.
**More politics. Apologies again.