“THIS,” SAID THE MAN, extending his hand towards me, “is a shark’s tooth.”
“I’ve never seen so many.” He gestured to the ground. “Look: dozens.”
“Boy, it’s going to be a good day.”
All the while he had been speaking, I had been walking. I was walking when he first uncoiled his arm in my direction. I was walking when he swept his arm in a low circle around the beach. And I kept on walking until he was safely behind me and far out of hailing distance.
It was one of those kinds of conversations. A conversation you don’t want. He had initiated it. He was the one bent over on the sand clearly engaged in an activity I had no reason to disturb. He was the one who then called out as I trudged past a good dozen or so metres away. There was never any question of me stopping. For this was one of *those* conversations.
Actually, it wasn’t even a conversation. He addressed me from afar while I responded with the shortest possible bursts of politeness. He didn’t seem to mind. A few minutes later I turned back and saw him trying the same patter on another passing stranger. I remember thinking: they weren’t shark’s teeth, they were just bits of seashell.
It had been a day for awkward social encounters.
An hour or so earlier, on the National Express East Anglia train from London, I had gone to use the toilet. It was a cubicle with an electric door, instead of the more common handle that you turned. I pressed the button marked OPEN, and the door slid slowly back to reveal an elderly woman inside, mid-urination.
It was a short sharp gasp as if she was a character in a Noel Coward play that had just been goosed.
I turned away as fast as I could, muttering an apology. The door seemed to take an age to close.
Once it had, I skulked in the corridor, silently lamenting the fact that she was the one in the wrong, yet I was the one who had ended up saying sorry.
A minute or so later she emerged, trying but failing to avoid making eye contact. I felt like muttering something about not being at home now and how it’s common to lock toilet doors while you are inside. I didn’t, of course. I merely went into the cubicle myself, and stoically discovered that not only did she not know how to use a lock, she didn’t know how to use a flush either.
I didn’t have much to do with many other people that day. The only other person with whom I had an extended conversation was the woman on the checkout in the Co-op in Walton-on-the-Naze. She asked me if I had a loyalty card that had some impossibly grand name. One of the things I bought from her, a cheese and onion pasty, was to later keep me inside another toilet cubicle, this time on Frinton esplanade, for around 15 minutes.
I didn’t have much to do with many other people that day because they didn’t have much to do with me. I had travelled out to the Essex coast to spend the day walking from Walton to Clacton: a distance of some 10 miles.
A rich mix of elements was in play: bright sunlight, clear skies and a crisp winter chill. The weather had coaxed out a good few folk to do the same thing as myself, but we all kept ourselves to ourselves. I passed families, walkers, cyclists and fisherfolk, but there were no extensions of greetings or exchangings of pleasantries. Several of them eyed me with naked suspicion.
I’d been made to feel very much alone right from the off, when aside from a small cluster of siblings I was the only person to leave the train at Walton: the end of the line.
I’d rattled around the carriage while it rattled around me: a mutually convenient relationship, though I undoubtedly came off worst.
Trains no longer run direct from London to Walton, if they ever did. The only through service is to Clacton, an unsubtle acknowledgement of that town’s self-appointed role as a Seaside Resort rather than merely a Town On The Coast. As such I’d had to change at the fustily-titled Thorpe-le-Soken: less of a name and more of a provocation.
I later discovered that the single track that runs between Thorpe-le-Soken and Walton is part of what has been optimistically titled the Sunshine Coast Line.
It’s a moniker that extends all the way along to Colchester, and is one of the most tired examples of railway branding I think I have ever encountered.
If you’re the kind of person possessed with a desire to try and turn a public service into a product, at least bless it with something other than an observation about climate and geography (and an inaccurate one at that, as neither the coast or, you suspect, sunshine are ever much in evidence). Much more appealing, not to say logical, is its original name: the Tendring Hundred Railway Line.
It was at Thorpe-le-Soken that the journey started to become interesting, as the line neared the sea and the countryside switched from uniform farmland to something with a bit more character. Railway lines that terminate on the coast unquestionably have the edge over those that meet their end in a suburb or metropolis. How close to the shore will you end up? Will your carriage totter along the prom itself? Or might the line take you right to the water’s edge?
In this regard Walton bested Clacton by virtue of depositing me within sight of the North Sea.
The suspicion with which I was regarded varied in intensity along my route. There was a moderate degree of paranoia detectable within Walton, but you arguably always get this when visiting a seaside town out of season. North of Walton, up by the marvellous Naze Tower, a couple of people cast glances in my direction that were synthesised from contempt and pity. I ignored them completely, and instead inhaled every possible majestic angle.
I then turned south, passing back through Walton with its shark-tooth foragers and its disagreeable pasties and its lurid pier advertising sentiments with which I beg to differ.
The sunshine flattered the place.
Continuing south and staying close to the shore, you skirt the edge of Frinton-on-Sea, which is precisely where the population of Frinton-on-Sea would like you to stay. An invisible wall of prejudice encircles the outskirts of this aggressively exclusive town, which boasted no pubs until the year 2000 and which got itself into a lather of fury when Network Rail replaced the wooden gates at its level crossing with proper automated barriers. Anywhere that ranks sentiment over safety is worth leaving to its own devices.
Frinton nudges up next to Walton. Imagine what this means in practice. It must be like an episode of Never the Twain, but one that is unending and which involves entire communities instead of a pair of discomfited antique dealers.
What Frinton has been very careful to do is not to repeat this state of affairs with its other neighbour. Clacton is kept at a very long arm’s reach, several miles of open land away. A couple of second world war pillboxes also squat here, presumably ready for when the mutual enmity reaches full-on armed conflict.
I wasn’t in the best of moods by the time I arrived at Clacton. It was dark, I was tired and it had turned very cold very quickly.
I took an instant and unprincipled dislike to how gaudy and tatty the place looked, though the sight of a lifesize cardboard cut-out of Noel Edmonds leering from the doorway of one of the dozens of mammoth arcades suggested somebody somewhere had a sense of humour.
I’d also left it too late to properly appreciate any of the imposing Martello towers that, like Edmonds, loom up around the town. Like Noel, they date from the early 19th century and, like Noel, were deployed to lift the country’s morale at times of national crisis.
Maybe I’m being too hard on Clacton-on-Sea. It was responsible for serving up an image that will live long in the memory:
From the ignorance of solitude I ended the day a solitary among ignorants. Thanks, Colchester, for emptying into my train dozens of boozy bastards and noisy night-outers.
Is there a number I can ring to shop these sorts of people?
At least none of them went to the toilet with the door open.
And that’s the tooth.
IN RETROSPECT we were doomed from the start.
For some reason we’d booked ourselves into two different compartments, or couchettes as we tried earnestly to remember to call them. But rather than accept this division and dilution of camaraderie, we decided to feign collective ignorance and all sit together in the same one.
There were six places in a couchette so we anticipated sleeping, as it were, with two strangers. As for the likelihood of a bit of bother arising from our sabotaging of the booking system, naively we hoped we could do a bit of bartering with our reservations and persuade two other passengers to swap.
All of this might have worked, had we been in the correct carriage from the off.
The train left Nice at 6.35pm and to start with everything looked promising. We called at several stations and nobody tried to join us in our compartment.
Then came trouble.
Shortly after two Germans had arrived, bringing our couchette up to its full capacity of six, the attendant in charge of reservations swaggered in.
Thankfully he didn’t query the presence of all four of our group in the same compartment. But this was only because he never got that far in his inquiries. For it turned out that we were in entirely the wrong carriage to begin with: 113 instead of 713.
Now this was something of a puzzle, for there was no carriage 713.
Believe me, we’d looked for it. We’d hunted up and down the platform trying to find it. We’d stumbled up and down the train for the same reason. The conclusion was always the same. It didn’t exist. There was no carriage 713.
We’d concluded that we had misinterpreted the details on our tickets, and that we should be in 113 not 713. After all, a seven and a one aren’t that dissimilar if scrawled in a bad hand. But now we were being told there WAS a carriage 713, and moreover, we better damn well get to it.
Not having a clue precisely to where we needed to “get”, the four of us picked up our mountain of baggage and blundered along the corridors, now seemingly packed with French and German travellers all talking EXTREMELY LOUDLY, to what we thought was the aforementioned, hitherto elusive, carriage 713.
We found an empty couchette. We piled into it. It was now about 8.30pm and my faith in the virtue of making this overnight transcontinental trek had completely vanished. If only every single other passenger would do the same.
Except they didn’t. It had got dark, and we were about to start converting the compartment into beds, when two elderly people turned up, claiming VERY FORCEFULLY they had two of the seats in our couchette.
There were indeed two seats free in our couchette. But, according to this doddery yet doughty couple, they were not “the right ones”. The “right ones” were the ones we were half-sitting, half-lying in.
Bargaining was hopeless. Especially when the couple was joined suddenly by half a dozen passers-by – complete strangers who had NO REASON to involve themselves in our affairs – until the compartment was packed with people noisily and, it has to be said, joyously pointing out we were in the wrong.
A simple transaction had become a crisis nearing EU emergency summit proportions.
How they all laughed when they realised, by way of a conclusion to their collective prosecution, that we were STILL in the wrong carriage: 613, not 713.
There were more than a few smirks of satisfaction as, once again, we had to collect together our increasingly battered possessions (including several shopping bags of provisions intended to see us through the night and the following morning) and move on.
Outside, numerous French departments were slipping past smugly and silently. Inside, numerous compartments were also slipping past, equally smugly but far from silently.
Arriving in what we thought was, at last, carriage 713, we continued to gamble on the chance of all of us sleeping together and once more found a couchette with plenty of non-reserved seats available.
It was now really quite late. This was our third attempt at staying put. Surely nothing could go wrong now.
This time we’d reached the stage of actually climbing into our sleeping bags when there was a knock on the door. It was the reservations man. The same one as before. Only a hundred times more angry.
Pathetically, I pretended I was asleep. Furiously, he shouted in my face.
Quivering, I proffered the said documents in his general direction. He snatched them out of my hand, then snatched me out of my bed.
For even though I assumed I was in a non-reserved berth, my ticket stated otherwise, and for that I had to be humiliated in as public a way possible.
I was duly marched out of the compartment, away from the bed I hadn’t reserved, and into the compartment containing the one I apparently had.
A few minutes later, when I had to scurry back to pick up a few pieces of luggage left behind, I discovered the two people whose beds we’d taken were…
It only had to be two of the chorus of hooting onlookers that had hounded us out of carriage 613, and who were now beaming more broadly and more sadistically than ever.
Oh, the humanity.
Stripped of my dignity and my trust in human compassion, not to mention most of my clothes, there was nothing left but to try, at last, to get to sleep.
To be continued…
THE LAST TIME I WENT ABROAD was in 1994.
I know. That’s an appallingly long period ago. But it’s not that I haven’t wanted to return. For the first 10 years or so I simply didn’t have the money, while latterly it’s been more a case of not having anyone to go with.
My 17-year exile within the UK hasn’t really rivalled that of Dr Who Jon Pertwee, at least not by way of encounters with diabolical masterminds or brokering peace deals at international summits. It has, however, outlasted his by over a decade. That’s assuming his adventures took place in a linear dimension, but enough of that.
The last time I went abroad was to Europe in July 1994, just after I’d finished my A-level exams.
I went with three others, one of whom I never saw again from the second we got back to Britain. I lost contact with the other pair towards the end of the last century.
We spent two weeks interrailing. Two weeks that were, at that point, the most intense period I had ever spent in the company of others. We were around and on top of each other, often literally (only in the sense of bunk beds, mind), day after night after day after night.
I think I was the one who had planted the notion of interrailing in the others’ heads, before – typically – going off the entire idea and trying to sabotage the trip just weeks ahead of departure.
But by that point the thing had gained a momentum. It was happening and I had no choice but to go to Millets and buy a rucksack large enough to accommodate a mad cow or two (contemporary satire), convert my meagre savings into a plastic pouch of travellers’ cheques, and visit British Rail’s international travel centre at Derby station.
I ended up pretty much loving the whole adventure. I might write about other bits of it at a later date, but I want to concentrate here on what, for me, was the most exhilarating, but also the most maddening, chunk of the trip.
It was Saturday 16 July. We had spent a few days in Nice on the south coast of France, but now had to head northwards in order to be back in the UK by the 18th.
To do this, we were booked on a train that would carry us all the way from Nice to Rotterdam. And we would be travelling through the night. We would drift off to sleep amid the balmy plains of the French Riviera then wake back in the cool climes of the Low Countries. That was the plan, at any rate.
The concept of what we were about to do appealed to me immensely. The reality was somewhat different. It went against all my instincts for self-preservation to bed down on a foreign train and willingly fall into protracted semi-consciousness. Heavens, anything could happen!
Worse, I’d spent much of the day of our departure suffering prolonged constipation. I’d also broken my sunglasses, and had sulked for a good two hours or so under a tree, cursing the tropical heat and my unfailing capacity to attract bad luck.
All of this, however, passed swiftly from my mind (and body) once our train crawled into Nice station, we gathered up our acres of baggage, and set to finding the compartment in which we were billeted to spend the next 15 hours.
To be continued…
IT WAS TOWARDS THE END OF my first year at university, and the end of The Boo Radleys’ first and last slice of stardom.
A “friend” of mine, one of those hall-of-residence “friends” who I was shortly to never speak with or see ever again, had got tickets to see The Boo Radleys at the Parr Hall in Warrington. He knew I was a fan. I owed him a favour after he agreed to come with me to see Gene play Liverpool University Students’ Union. It was during that aimless period between the end of exams and the announcement of results. He asked me to come to the gig. I said yes.
Since starting at Liverpool University, I’d passed through Warrington countless times on the train, either en route to Manchester and Sheffield to visit old school friends or on the way to and from my hometown of Loughborough. (This was before I discovered the “quicker” route of leaving Lime Street on a fast train bound for London, then changing at Nuneaton for a local service via Leicester).
I’d never, however, had cause to visit the town itself. Nor had I ever seen the Boo Radleys live.
The latter would prove to be the more fulfilling of the two formative experiences, but only just.
The gig got off to an atrocious start courtesy of the support band, Swervedriver, who, according to my diary, “sent me into a semi-coma” of “bored fatigueness [sic]”.
Two friends of my “friend” had come along purely to see Swervedriver, and once the group had gone from the stage made it very clear they couldn’t be arsed with the Boo Radleys at all, rudely disappearing off into the recesses of the Parr Hall.
Once they and other Swervedriverers had sloped away, the remaining audience comprised one third of people who knew and loved the Boos for their earlier stuff, in my case their utterly splendid 1993 album Giant Steps, but two thirds of people who knew them as That Band Who Did A Jingle For The Chris Evans Breakfast Show.
And these two groups of people did not like each other.
I described the majority in my diary as “ludicrous under-age pre-pubescent knicker-throwing teenage girls.” They had every right to be there, of course, but this didn’t stop me raging inwardly at their presence, particularly at how they seemed to make the Boos “aggressive and pissed off with things”.
It became a battle of the cliques. That troika of rousing Radley epics, Wish I Was Skinny, Barney (…And Me), and Lazarus, were received by most in the hall in bemused near-silence, apart from me and the minority, who cheered them to the skies. Meanwhile the new stuff, especially (inevitably) Wake Up Boo!, was heralded with tumult by the masses but stoical indifference by the few, leading to enormous scuffles and convulsions that left both my feet and back severely bruised.
I think it was this gig that turned my dislike of Wake Up Boo! into rampant, untethered hatred.
At the end of the gig we got lost trying to get back to the station. I can’t remember if it was Bank Quay or Central, but we made it just in time to catch the last train to Lime Street: one of those barely-furnished bone-rattlers that stopped at everywhere and resembled the inside of a bus.
Nobody said anything to anybody for the entire journey. The only sound was the creak of the carriage, the echoes of belligerent cheering, and a clutch of flawed, fading harmonies.
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:
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?
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:
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…
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.
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:
Here I am, back on board, soaked but relieved:
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.
I was particularly surprised to find a full-size replica of my own living room:
Here’s the clock from the film, still keeping good time:
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:
This, meanwhile, can only be a good thing:
Then, right on cue, the sun came out.
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:
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…
…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.