Category: Rangers and rovers

North West Rover: day 4

I HAD ONE DAY OF rovering left. And I had at least three days’ worth of track still to travel.

There is an eight-day version of the North West Rover available – Robert’s used it – but I didn’t have the means, motivation or clean clothes to spend nine nights away from home. Not this time, anyway.

One of the lines I’d had my eye on from the outset was the Cumbrian Coast line: that thin, winding track that somehow clings to the edge of the coast all the way from, conveniently enough, Carnforth to Carlisle.

It’s another line often (justly) placed in that ubiquitous category The Most Beautiful Railways In Britain and I felt it demanded to be seen. Except the services are rather infrequent and slow, and I intended to break my journey at Ravenglass in order to take a ride on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway.

Some quick calculations revealed that, by the time I’d reached the end of the line at Carlisle, there wouldn’t be much daylight left for me to see much else.

Hence the route for my fourth and final day using the North West Rover ended up looking like this:

North West Rover: day 4

Within a few minutes of leaving Carnforth I was already by the sea. Four days in to my travels I should really have got used to such a juxtaposition. But it still seemed a novelty. Railway lines and coastlines do not, had not, co-existed naturally in my mind. Writing this, back in London, they still don’t.

The first stretch of track round to Barrow hugs the edge of Morecambe Bay, crossing two specially constructed viaducts that carry you high above the vast banks of sand and endless rivulets of water.

Carriage clocked

Apparently I was brought to this part of the world on a family holiday in 1979 or 1980. I have no memory of it whatsoever. I’ve seen photos of the trip, in which everything looks very brown. You could argue the whole world looked brown in the late 1970s, except here, round Barrow and Ulveston and Grange-over-Sands, it still does.

Barrow in particular is the kind of place it’s best to appreciate by standing with your back to it and looking in the opposite direction:

Barrow not pictured - on purpose

Around this point in the journey someone got off the train carrying an air rifle. Nobody seemed at all concerned. Not that there were many people on the train to get concerned; beyond Barrow, I had most of the carriage to myself. I could, for once, sit at a table seat and feel unconcerned about spreading all my clutter beside and in front of me.

Outside, the landscape had turned very Melvyn Bragg: earthy, crumpled and a bit melodramatic. This was the view from a bit further along the line, at Kirkby.

Kirkby

The sun appeared to be so low in the sky it could easily have been late afternoon. In fact it was only about 10.30am.

I was the only person to get off at Ravenglass. The station was equally empty of people. As were the streets in the adjoining village. As were the boats in the adjoining harbour. I hurried quickly to the entrance to the steam railway.

Ticket, please

I suddenly realised I’d been completely mistaken about what I was coming to visit.

I’d assumed I was about to ride behind a proper, full-size steam engine, in the comfort of giant carriages done up in suitably antiquated livery.

I was, of course, totally wrong. The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, besides sharing a name with a history tutor at Liverpool University with whom I had a major falling-out in the mid-1990s, is a miniature railway. The tiny trains run on narrow gauge tracks. The carriages are barely big enough to sit upright in.

Carriage clocked, slight return

One glance at the website – sorry, one proper glance at the website – would have confirmed all of this and not left me feeling rather cheated.

No matter. I still enjoyed it. Here’s the engine that pulled me and a few dozen passengers up into the Lake District fells and to the little hamlet of Dalegarth, which is within sight of Scafell Pike, the highest point in England.

Pishty-cough

This photograph is atypical in that it doesn’t feature any old men also taking photographs of the engine. I counted at least five of them, all having an agreeable time and all snapping away with aplomb.

I had a bit of time at Dalegarth to snoop around the visitors centre, opened in 2007 by the great Pete Waterman, and to wander into the surrounding countryside and along the bed of the river Esk:

A river runs through it

Here’s a bit of blather I recorded on the return journey:

There was a good hour to kill before I could pick up the next train to Carlisle, so I spent a bit of time looking round Ravenglass itself.

The village was a bit too similar to the one in The Wicker Man for my liking. I didn’t see another soul. People clearly lived and worked here… or did they? In the harbour boats sighed and creaked with the wind. People surely tended and sailed in these craft… or did they?

Harbour frights

I walked past a tiny building that advertised itself as a post office. A handwritten note in the window said it was closed for lunch. I walked on, turned round, walked back, looked in the window and found the note had now gone and the post office was open. Except I’d seen nobody enter the building.

I stepped inside. An immensely old man rose from behind the counter. He eyed me coyly. The place was an absolute pigsty. I identified a bag of Seabrook’s crisps (MORE – THAN – JUST – A – CRISP!), paid for them and left. I didn’t look back.

There was still time to kill. I looked inside the museum at the old Ravenglass station, where this poster, which for some reason I found highly amusing, was on display:

PLEASE READ THE LARGE TYPE AT ONCE

I also discovered another bit of antiquated signage, but this time in the waiting room on the platform of the mainline Ravenglass station. Who is the Secretary of State of Prices these days?

"Prices"

Just as I was the only person to get off the train, so I was the only person waiting to get on. I’d enjoyed my visit to Ravenglass, but was glad to be moving on. Even if that meant moving on to Sellafield, which the train driver announced with a little too much vim in his voice, and through which we passed at an unnerving crawl.

The line was still clinging to the edge of the mainland. The station at Seascale has, on the one side, the railway line and on the other, the sea.

Seascale

While here’s the view from my carriage a little way south of St Bees, where to all intents and purposes the train could have been travelling right along the beach.

It's lovely when you're in

Indeed, the line comprises a single track from Sellafield all the way up to Whitehaven. No trains can pass. No trains would dare to.

By the time I reached Carlisle I felt like I’d overdosed on unusual sensations and atypical landscapes. But I now had to make a decision. Where to go next, before it got dark and, more importantly, before I ran out of time and my rover expired?

I went over the border. I got on a scuzzy train full of teenage school kids and went up to Dumfries.

It was a very good year

And then, because I could go no further north, I turned round and came back again, on an equally scuzzy train full of different teenage school kids.

I sort of gave up at this point. It was starting to get dark and any attempt at heading anywhere other than back to Carnforth would have meant making most of the journey in fading light and poor visibility.

I could have taken a train along the route of Hadrian’s Wall to Hexham, which I imagine is pretty attractive line – but not last thing on a Thursday afternoon in October.

Instead I called it a day.

I needed time to take everything in and do a bit of motionless thinking. But inevitably the first thing I thought was: I’ve got to go home tomorrow.

Worse: I had to be on a specific train and sitting in a specific seat.

Worse still: I realised there was so much yet to see and so many lines along which to travel.

Conclusion: I had more than enough reason to return, and hopefully not before too long.

Amended conclusion: Just not, perhaps, to Blackpool.

North West Rover: day 3

I WANTED TO TRAVEL ALONG the Settle-Carlisle line today.

It’s quite properly often referred to as one of the country’s most beautiful stretches of railway, and my desire to see it for myself was compounded by the fact that the weather, on this third day of North West rovering, was absolutely gorgeous.

I think it must have dropped close to freezing the night before, because when I stepped outside it was clear, it was sunny, and it was cold: the ideal combination (for me at any rate) for mixing public transport travelling with public transport sightseeing.

I ended up doing the line in the opposite direction, as it were, for reasons dictated by another of my over-ambitious ideas. Instead of merely going from Carnforth to Settle, up to Carlisle and back to Carnforth again, I reasoned why not use my ticket to attempt something grander. Something bolder. Something courageous (in the Yes Minister sense of the word). Something like this:

North West Rover: day 3

Actually, that route came about partly through expediency. The line between Long Preston and Carnforth was out of the action the week I was there, and replacement bus services had taken the place of trains.

I didn’t fancy that. I don’t travel well on buses. Not your everyday town or city services; no, I mean your long distance coach efforts. And besides, there’s a reason this blog is named after railways.

Anyway, I began by once more heading south to Lancaster and then north to Carlisle.

This journey itself was pretty exceptional – at least it was to me, not used to passing quite so close to brooding hills, untamed streams and hundreds of grazing cattle. Most of my fellow passengers couldn’t careless. But then I guess they would think the same belittling thoughts of me were they to catch me snoozing on the Underground instead of, like them, lapping up the novelty of being inside a subterranean train set.

I had loads of time to kill in Carlisle, so I walked for a while around what seemed to be a pleasant enough place, enhanced by this unexpected discovery:

That song was in my head for the rest of the morning.

Carlisle castle

When I finally boarded the train that was to take me along One Of Britain’s Most Beautiful Railways, I was faced with a crucial decision. On which side of the carriage should I sit? Where would I get the best views?

I then discovered that most of the train windows were filthy. Not from mud, mind, but with detergent that hadn’t been properly wiped off. Grrr.

I found a seat by a window that wasn’t too mucky. But then I overheard a conversation between a rather pompous man and two women, who may or may not have been his travelling companions.

“No, no,” he spluttered to them, “you don’t want to sit that side [the side I was on].

“You need to be this side. All the best views this side. Trust me. My wife doesn’t, but you can! Sit here and you’ll get the best views. Guarantee it. Go on – park yourselves there. Haw-haw-haw.”

Reader, I fell for this ludicrous performance.

I’m afraid to admit that I moved seats so I was the same side of the carriage as this red-faced haughty foghorn.

And of course, the whole thing was a mistake. The best views were all on the other side of the carriage. Not that everyone was paying attention. As we set off from Carlisle, I heard a woman say to her husband that she’d been “wanting to do this journey all my life.” It was 45 minutes before she even looked up from her bloody newspaper!

Meanwhile the pompous bugalugs and his two ladies were getting in a hopeless mess. “Brief Encounter was set in Holmfirth, wasn’t it?” one of the women asked the others, to general approval.

I wanted to lean through the seats and shout that they were wrong. Completely wrong. And that you, sir, yes, you the old man with the red face and misplaced confidence, were clearly wrong ABOUT EVERYTHING. Do you really remember Trevor Howard going down a hill in a tin bath, or Compo wiping a bit of grit out of Nora Batty’s eye?

But I said nothing. Instead I held my tongue, because I knew that I would not be travelling all the way to Settle and beyond in the company of this man, and that instead I would soon be getting off.

For I had decided to break my journey in two, and spend a couple of hours (for that was the time until the next train) exploring a particularly iconic location.

I was the only person to get off the train at Ribblehead station. As soon as it has passed down the line, there was complete silence. The only sound to be heard as I walked down to the viaduct were my own footsteps. Even the few other visitors lurking in the area didn’t seem to be making any noise. The stillness was pretty much absolute.

Occasionally, snatches of conversation flew past me on the wind. Then all would be silent once more. Apart from idiots making self-indulgent videos, everybody – and everything – acted as if in awe of their surroundings. Which was, of course, entirely proper and correct.

Feeling refreshed and reinvigorated, if rather cold and tired, I went back to the station to wait for the train to Leeds.

Ribblehead station

A few grizzled trainspotters were in attendance, along with – wonderfully – the station cat:

Fur what it's worth

Inevitably, everything else that happened during the day was something of an anti-climax.

“Don’t get those much up here,” said the ticket inspector to me on checking my rover just before Skipton. Hmm – where else would I be using it other than “up here”?

Would you Settle for anything less?

I fell asleep shortly before Leeds, and on arrival, still in a semi-conscious state, I got on to the wrong train. I only realised my mistake 60 seconds before the doors closed, and had to make an undignified exit. I’m sure I heard someone chuckling. Maybe it was that crotchety old sod from before.

I had to wait an hour at Leeds before the train to Bradford and Halifax. I didn’t venture outside; I was still too tired and I know, or knew, Leeds pretty well.

The inside of the Leeds station is a grim place to dwell for any length of time. There is no place to escape the crowds and collect your thoughts. There is also no place that collects your litter. I wandered around with a banana skin in my hand for ten minutes before dropping it in a cleaner’s bucket. Well, what can you do?

All this faffing around meant it was starting to get dark by the time I left for Preston. The moon rose just after I’d been through Bradford:

Lunar ticks

It was pitch black by the time I passed through Hebden Bridge, going the opposite direction to the way I’d been two days earlier. I couldn’t see any of the likes of Accrington and Blackburn at all. Vast carpets of electric lights shimmered outside the carriage window.

I started to regret having had to wait so long in Leeds. I was annoyed at not being able to see anything whatsoever of these unfamiliar places. I felt cheated out of what should have been an intriguing last lap to the day.

To top it all, I found I was sitting close to a racist crone who, just before I got off at Preston, I overheard remarking to her companion: “Are those two Jews? I don’t like Jews.”

I ended up a little while later standing yet again on the platform of Lancaster station. I recorded my thoughts on a few of the people I’d encountered during the last few hours:

A day to remember.

Bridge of sighsGoatArch? Way!

North West Rover: day 2

TODAY’S JOURNEYS WEREN’T SO INFLUENCED BY whim or wanderlust; they were more shaped by necessity.

I was moving hotels from Liverpool to Carnforth, to give me a better base from where to explore the train lines in Cumbria and across the Yorkshire Dales.

Trouble was, while I didn’t have to check out of my old hotel until 10am, I couldn’t check in to the new one until the mid-afternoon. This meant over four hours in limbo. A direct route from Liverpool to Carnforth would only use up half of this time.

The only thing to do (save squatting in Lime Street station for most of the morning) was to make a virtue out of circumstances and travel northwards in as convoluted a manner possible so as to get the most out of my rover ticket. Hence the, at first glance, rather bonkers route I undertook on my second day on the rails:

North West Rover: day 2

Such is the freedom afforded to you by a rover. Why not, I reasoned, spend a morning zigzagging across Lancashire, taking in stations with as intriguing sounding names as Freshfield (missing a consonant, surely), Meols Cop and Parbold?

This idea bore fruit immediately when I realised I’d be leaving Liverpool on the Northern Line. The proper one. Or is it the other one. Whatever. Who knew it went so far north?

Morden via Bank... and Southport

I decided to head first for Southport. This turned out to be a good move, not just because it meant leaving Liverpool (always a bittersweet experience) in the capable hands of Merseyrail. It also rustled up an unexpected moment of excitement when the train suddenly accelerated out of the tunnel north of Moorfields and crashed into the open air among the docks.

Yes, I am easily pleased. As I was by this:

Colour me charmed

Almost all the stations along the line to Southport boast notices promoting an ALF: Attractive Local Feature. The best ones I spotted were at Formby (buckets and a sandcastle) and Freshfield (a squirrel).

Now clearly this is an idea that needs to be extended across the entire country right away, not least at it would rid platforms of clunky business promotions (Newbury: Home Of Vodafone being a particularly joyless example) besides being a quick win for local tourist authorities struggling to make ends meet in Austerity Britain. Scott’s got some nice examples of ALFs on his Merseytart blog.

When I got to Southport, I didn’t spy any other person from my train lingering within the station walls to catch another train. Every single passenger bar me flocked to the exit. Well, apart from the woman who loitered outside the men’s toilets talking into her mobile phone, and who then proceeded to lean on the toilet door trapping me inside. Thanks for that.

What had started as a good day took a whopping nosedive when I saw that I would be enduring, rather than enjoying, my connection to Bolton. Reader, can you guess what kind of train was waiting to transport me across the otherwise delightful acres of Lancashire? Yes, it was a Pacer. Another wretched rotten stinking Pacer. My heart sank to my shoes.

En route it started to rain. Correction: it started to rain INSIDE THE CARRIAGE. Great gobbets of water splattered through the ceiling and on to the floor.

People sitting around me formed stoic expressions with their faces, as if to say: oh, it’s the rain this time, is it? At least it’s not the blizzards, or the gales, or the heat. They looked at me with the hooded eyes of a seasoned user of inferior public transport.

At Bolton I scampered across the platforms to catch a thankfully more superior train to Preston. I say more superior; it would hard to have found anything inferior. I was thankful to be in a carriage with proper floors, walls and a roof.

By now the skies were serving up continuous rain. The temperature plummeted. My spirits were low, but they were about to plunge even lower when I got to Preston and saw that the train for my next destination, Blackpool, was yet again one of…

A heap of crap

These.

Why was I going to Blackpool? Because I had concocted another over-ambitious plan.

I was taken with the idea of arriving at the resort at Blackpool South station but leaving it from Blackpool North. That way I’d avoid retracing my steps – something I’d been keen to avoid from the outset of my North West Rover adventures – and also get a bit of fresh air during what I thought would be a quick walk from the one terminus to the other.

A grand folly, yesterday

I blundered. I’ll let me explain:

I did make it to Blackpool North in time to catch my train, but only just. I had to run, bags in hand, through the rain-caked streets, barging locals and sightseers out of my path, pausing only once in order to take a photo of this spectacular spelling fail:

A vail of tears

Here I am, back on board, soaked but relieved:

Damp

If I’d missed this train, I wouldn’t have been able to get to Carnforth until late afternoon, meaning that once I’d checked into my hotel there would have been almost no time left to head back out on a train before it got dark.

As it was, I had just two minutes back at Preston to catch my connection to Carnfoth. More running was required in order to get to the correct platform. “Hold that train,” I shouted. They did – or at least I’d like to think they did.

Carnforth is a market town at the base of the Lake District and, as can be seen on the map above, a junction with lines running east into the Pennies and west into Cumbria. A useful place, in other words, for the bearer of a rover ticket.

But it’s most famous as the place used for all the shooting of the 1945 film Brief Encounter: a fact celebrated proudly at the station with a hugely impressive visitors’ centre, exhibition and refreshment room, done out exactly as it appears here:

Well, save for it being in monochrome. Although it kind of feels that way, or did when I went back there after checking in at my hotel to have a look around before catching my next train.

Brief(case) Encounter

I was particularly surprised to find a full-size replica of my own living room:

Just my type

Here’s the clock from the film, still keeping good time:

A big hand for a big hand

Speaking of time, here’s a deeply unpleasant science fiction icon who travels through time whipping up mayhem and despair. And standing next to Dr Who Colin Baker, a Dalek:

Change, m'dear

This, meanwhile, can only be a good thing:

Notes on a railway

Then, right on cue, the sun came out.

Platform views

It was another of those moments. There was grit on the platforms, in anticipation of temperatures dropping close to freezing come nightfall. About the only thing that counted against Carnforth on this evocative late Tuesday afternoon was the fact that my train was also late. And there aren’t many that pass through Carnforth that will take you directly to another destination. You invariably have to change. As I did, at Lancaster – where my next train was also delayed.

My plan was to nip up to Windermere just in time to see the sun setting by the lake. But because both my connections were delayed, I saw the sun start to set in Lancaster.

Now this was pleasant enough, and from what I could see Lancaster is a pleasant town:

Lancaster Priory

But my appreciation of the place was compromised by frustration at experiencing that universally ubiquitous sinking sensation of a well-crafted scheme going awry. I skulked in the newsagents just inside the entrance to Lancaster station, watching a woman behind the counter cutting up fashion magazines and whispering (loudly) to her colleague: “My face is too thin to wear black”.

My train eventually tiptoed its way to Windermere. There was just enough light to make out some of the Lake District’s signature scenery, in between having my attention distracted by  two of the onboard staff discussing in bonechilling detail an accident that had occurred in the area a couple of nights ago.

It was virtually dark by the time I arrived. I had an hour before the return journey. I thought this was long enough to find a nice viewpoint to get a few photographs. It wasn’t. I got lost. In the pitch black. And the cold. I found the viewpoint eventually…

Lake Windermere

…but then had to slog back up an enormous hill at an unpleasant pace to make it back to the station in time.

Thinking back it’s hard to recall just how pissed off I was at this point. Conveniently, here I am talking about that very subject, right there and then:

It was the end of a very long day. I beat a weary retreat back to Carnforth, having to wait for connections both at Lancaster and, before then, Oxenholme.

Maybe tomorrow would bring a slightly less manic and more rewarding bout of rovering.

North West Rover: day 1

I LIVED IN LIVERPOOL FOR 12 YEARS and in all that time Lime Street station barely changed.

It was a dependable constant. Apart from the day a tea urn exploded on the concourse, nothing unusual or unexpected ever seemed to happen. Little was added, even less was taken away. The whole place felt stubbornly – reassuringly – resistant to anything that bore the tiniest whiff of redevelopment.

Then in 2006 I moved to London, and the inevitable happened. Lime Street changed. On every return visit, there appeared to be a new feature or modification. Shops. “Customer” lounges. Even the handrails and balustrades were replaced.

Above all, for the first time in possibly decades, the station’s exterior was allowed to actually resemble an exterior, thanks to the demolition of a hideous tower block and removal of the rather charming greasy cafe that used to live in its bowels. The decision to replace both with nothing whatsoever has given Lime Street space to command your attention and respect.

Tea urn not pictured

Of course the suddenness of all these transformations is entirely illusory. Had I been living in the city it would not have felt hasty at all. And it would be facile of me to deny that the changes have not brought improvements. That empty space between platforms seven and eight was always crying out for some kind of waiting room (though not, perhaps, an exclusive “customer lounge”).

Nonetheless, as I arrived to begin my first day of travelling with my North West Rover ticket, it was slightly comforting to find the station as chilly as ever. As long as I can remember (insert Wonder Years-esque musical cue) Lime Street has always been cold, regardless of time, month and season.

Given this was the only day I would be able to start and end my travels in Liverpool, I wanted to cover as much of the bottom half of the Rover “region” as possible. I’d come up with a route that resembled a giant loop snaking across to Huddersfield and back again. And here it is! Apologies for the rather amateurish doctoring of a, erm, official map. You can click to enlarge:

North West Rover day 1 - the route

It all looked rather ambitious. And it proved to be almost over-ambitious.

The upside was that, given I was fairly familiar with most of the towns and cities through which I’d be passing, I wasn’t bothered about spending any time checking them out.

The downside was that by opting for a timetable built upon a sequence of very tight changes, including one with only two minutes’ grace, the slightest slip-up would send everything to pot.

Naturally this happened within about an hour of setting off.

I began by taking the train from Lime Street to Manchester Piccadilly. This has always been one of my favourite journeys, and not just for the route, which soars above the rooftops of the Liverpool suburbs, inches high above the Manchester Ship Canal (twice), then threads its way gingerly round Salford’s smoky tops, side streets and snaky waterways before the approach into the splendour of Piccadilly station.

I travelled this way hundreds of time when I was younger, en route to see friends, relatives, films, gigs or simply the city itself.

As such, what for most people is just a drab commute has now become, for me, a rather shamelessly sentimental voyage that allows me to wallow in bittersweet nostalgia. Oh dear. Funny how the most ordinary of things can take on extraordinary resonances thanks to the passing of time.

Anyway, I talked a little about this trip down memory lane, along with my plans for the rest of the day, in an audio clip I recorded on the platform at Piccadilly station:

And here is where things went awry. For in taking the time to do (and, indeed, redo) this slice of indulgent waffle, I missed my connection to Salford Crescent. I actually saw it leave from one end of the platform while I stood, hapless and pathetic, at the other.

This meant that my entire schedule for the rest of the day was kind of in tatters.

However there was now an unexpected development. For if I had caught that train, I would not, in waiting for the next one, have found myself standing a few metres away from Ray Gosling:

"Devious people" not pictured

And had I caught that train I would also not, upon boarding the next one, have found myself once again standing a few metres away Ray Gosling.

Nobody else seemed to be aware of who he was. Or if they were, they were doing their best to look ignorant.

For his part, Gosling was sitting at a table appearing to do some sums in a notebook, breaking off now and then to finger some tatty photocopies in a clear plastic wallet marked, unsurprisingly, PHOTOCOPIES.

I decided to approach. For a brief moment I contemplated covertly recording our conversation, but thought better of it. Instead I decided simply to wish him well and shake his hand.

He recoiled slightly as I loomed over him but once he established I meant no ill-will, he visibly relaxed, reached out to grab my hand, and urged me to write to the BBC to get him his job back.

He looked, I’m afraid, in a bad way. Yet his predicament, it now seems, is one he largely brought upon himself, and the sympathy he won earlier in the year misplaced. Well, perhaps not misplaced, just misdirected. He remains, however, something of a broadcasting legend, and hence I was glad to have had this brief if bizarre encounter.

At Salford Crescent I caught a train into Manchester Victoria where, after pausing to take some photos of the beautiful regional train map painted above one of the stone entrances, hopped on a train that at least was heading in the direction of Huddersfield, via Rochdale and Todmorden.

*Sigh*

I was surprised how quickly I found myself leaving the melancholy sprawl of Greater Manchester behind. It was a bright, blustery day and South Yorkshire looked in fine fettle.

Some hasty computations using (geek alert) the absolutely fantastic Train Times iPhone app suggested that were I too break my journey at Hebden Bridge, then catch another train to Mirfield, I could – with a good following wind – pick up the train I originally intended to take to Huddersfield.

This good news was compounded by what I found at Hebden Bridge, a place I hadn’t intended to visit. I’m very glad I did:

Which way is 'up'?

It’s a charming station that self-consciously plays up its heritage (no bad thing) and its proximity to the Rochdale canal (ditto).

There was a gorgeous smell of cooking enveloping the platform. I tore myself away from it for a short walk along the bank of the canal, where one evocative whiff was replaced with another: smoke from the engine of a barge. The place was pretty much deserted apart from a duck. A crisp autumn breeze made the leaves whirl around my feet. Hills rose up on all sides. It was one of those moments.

Northern sky

Back on the platform, while making use of the unusually excellent toilets (something that becomes a recurring ritual when spending the day travelling on a rover ticket, though a far from uniformly excellent one), I wondered if an “Up” train was what I needed to catch. There was absolutely no other information in evidence as to which side of the tracks I needed to be.

I took a gamble and stayed put; I was right. The train rolled in on time and I was able to make it to Mirfield with precisely 120 seconds to spare before the connection to Huddersfield. But not before passing through Brighouse, an occasion I marked by calling up a particular tune and treating myself to the curious tone of the cornet, clarinet and big trombone.

Anyway, I needed every one of those 120 seconds. To get to the right platform at Mirfield, it turned out I had to leave the station, cross a main road, climb a flight of steps and enter a different part of the station entirely. All of which I did with just enough time to see my previous train depart and my new train arrive:

In and out in two minutes, as the bishop said to the actress

Then it was on to Huddersfield, a place I’ve never been before. I would have liked to have had some time to explore, and at the very least to have seen the outside of the station, which is a Grade 1 listed building.

But there was no time. To stay on schedule I needed to catch a train back to Manchester Piccadilly that was due in about five minutes. I poked my camera lens through some railings to record the fact that I’d been there, then it was back on board for some sweeping views of the area including, tantalisingly (geek alert), the Emley Moor transmitter: the tallest freestanding structure in the UK.

The line back to Manchester was different from that I took earlier; this one went via Stalybridge and Gorton. I had to move carriages at one point because a drummer, who was sitting on the floor, started practising his paradiddles. Loudly.

I then had an old man come and sit next to me and tell me of how he was heading into Manchester to buy a new coat to replace the one he’d lost at a football match at the weekend. He said I looked like I was a student a Huddersfield University. Seeing as I graduated 13 years ago I wasn’t sure whether to be irked or flattered.

Back at Piccadilly station there was just enough time to buy some food and to ride on the travelator. I very much approve of travelators and remain forever perplexed as to why there aren’t more in this country. In fact, apart from the one at Waterloo station in London, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen another. If they were more ubiquitous, hopefully more people would be familiar with the two basics of travelator etiquette: don’t stand still and don’t try to run.

Having had an enjoyable day so far, I was due a bit of a low. One duly arrived in the shape of the train from Manchester to Chester.

This was a dreaded Pacer. I remembered these – not fondly – from years ago. I am amazed they are still in service. They are absolutely wretched. Non-profane phrases that come close to describing these awful things include cattle truck, dirt wagon, crate on wheels and dust bucket. Bouncing around in one during the long journey to Chester subtracted all enjoyment from proceedings, besides ruining any appreciation of the rather lovely Cheshire countryside between Northwich and Delamere.

From the looks of my fellow passengers, nobody was enjoying the journey either. The fixtures and fittings matched the prevailing mood. The toilet had no lock on it. The engine sounded like it belonged inside a third generation Transit van. And propped up in the corner of the carriage was, of all things, a ladder.

Surplus firewood

They’re meant to be used in emergencies, but to get from where to where? As far away as possible from a Pacer, presumably.

A glance at Wikipedia reveals these rank beasts are used exclusively in the UK with one exception: the Islamic Republic of Iran Railways.

I was immensely relieved to be rid of this train once I got to Chester, but we would meet again before the week was out.

By now time was getting on and I hurried to complete the last leg of day one: a journey from Chester up the Wirral. Not before capturing this sweet little display on Chester platform:

Why thank you

And this not so endearing arrangement:

Bring back the cones hotline, I say

To be fair Chester station is undergoing a clearly major refurbishment, but I failed to see the need to keep passengers away from the timetables, especially as the “wet paint” on the supporting posts was in fact bone dry.

I was now among early commuters and people returning from a day out over the water:

Merseyrail masses

But I was also back in the quietly reassuring arms of Merseyrail, who carried me up through the likes of Brombrough Rake and Port Sunlight (surely among the most evocative-sounding stations in the country) to Hamilton Square, where I changed on to a connecting service that took me to the end of the line at West Kirby.

My dad was brought up in these parts and I know them fairly well. I marked the occasion by walking out to the shoreline where, as has always been the case as far back as I can remember, the tide was out and the wind was up:

Kirb' your enthusiasm

Then I pulled my coat up around chin and scurried back to the station for a train to Liverpool Central and, courtesy of The Lobster Pot, the finest portion of chips and beans I’d tasted for five summers.