Long night’s journey into day

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.

A fine Penzance Continue reading

Lancs for the memory

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.

Station mastered

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.

Colne but not forgotten

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.

At bay

Morecambe windy

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.

Sailing by

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.

That's some front

Gill, sans font

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've always been a fan of the arches

*and relax*

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.

Whalley the great

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.

Restaurant room, restaurant room

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.

Not enough apostrophes

Kent get there from here

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.

In your arms

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).

Euuuchh

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.

Gullible's travels

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*.

Going nowhere

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.

Shush

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.

CROSS QUICKLY

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.

Start

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.

Seasick, yet...

U is for UNDERSTATEMENT

Kent is a county of extremes.

V is for VIEW OF THE JOURNEY, THE BEST

See F.

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.

Having a smashing time

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).

*Satire

Ticket from Ryde

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.

Ryde, on time

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:

Many tickets from Ryde

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:

Pier pressure

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.

In use since Neville Chamberlain's day

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.

The Isle of Wight terminates here

Taxis jostle to take people away from here as quickly as possible.

Shanklin my dear

And who can blame them where there are sights like these just around the corner:

I pity the fool who doesn't take advantage of free delivery

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.

The Master of Nostalgic Comedy

This was the only building in the town that really caught my eye:

The only way to travel

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.

Ryde outta here

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:

Solent all these years

They’ve all passed out of our lives

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.

A Bridge too far

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.”

Please drive carefully - and don't come back. Ever.

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.

It's called being prepared

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.

Barlaston, where even angels aren't allowed to tread

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:

Nothing wrong with a bit of Manpower

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.

The Trent and Mersey Canal

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.

Re-staging the erection of the Berlin Wall

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.

Wedgwood

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.

Gateway to yesteryear

*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.