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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
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:
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.