A ONE-DAY ROVER TICKET can be as much a curse as a blessing.
On the positive side, it turns an entire county into your plaything. You can zip from boundary to boundary and back again. You can loiter somewhere on a whim, then charge headlong towards a destination you hadn’t planned to visit. You can, if you’re that way inclined, improvise your entire schedule based purely on whatever train next passes your way. Or you can chisel out a minutely-planned itinerary and treat the whole thing like a Michael Palin-esque quest.
On the negative side, you end up barely scraping the surface of the county you’re exploring.
You can arrive in a place like, say, Blackburn, spend half an hour walking around the town centre and, save for one of the 4,000 holes, find absolutely nothing commendable.
You can only record things as you found them: that the station smelled of marijuana and the shopping centre of piss and pizza. For a former mill town, you can’t avoid concluding – with lazy irony – that Blackburn is now a place mainly for milling about.
The shopping centre, recently completed, lines its walls with no doubt sincere testimony from locals, singing the building’s praises. But given your limited exposure to the town, you can’t help concluding that something has gone terribly awry if a new retail development is what makes somebody “most proud to live in Blackburn”.
Such impressions of the place – patronising, ill-informed – will persist until I get the chance to revisit.
By contrast, my impressions of another place, Colne – inspired, though equally ill-informed – might very well be proven equally misplaced were I to revisit and experience more than just the town’s very well-tended and charming station.
Colne is at one end of the East Lancashire Line. I rode the train – a wretched Pacer – all the way to the terminus, got off, wandered around for a while, then got straight back on again for the return journey, trying desperately not too look too ridiculous.
Once the journey was under way, I squirmed in my seat as the ticket inspector – the same ticket inspector that had seen me loitering and taking photographs on Colne’s very lovely platform – approached and gave me a very knowing look.
These are the sort of prices you have to pay, along with around £20 for the ticket, when doing a spot of one-day rovering: a dash of character humiliation, a few snap generalisations, and the sense of always being around other people but always feeling alone.
I went to Morecambe, where the views across the bay were breathtaking and I felt my eyes being flattered with distances and perspectives they hadn’t experienced since the last time I’d seen the sea.
I walked to the far end of a jetty, along which a railway used to run to connect with ferries across to Scotland and Ireland.
An awful lot of money has been poured into this bit of the Lancashire coastline to repurpose an awful lot of history. That includes Oliver Hill’s majestic Midland Hotel, which I’d forgotten dwelt in Morecambe. Here was another aspect to the hit-and-miss melee of a day on the rails: stumbling upon a once read-about but long-misplaced unexpected gem.
One side of the hotel faces out across the bay; the other towards a casino, an American diner and a Morrisons. I wonder how they persuade anyone to stay in the latter.
I went to Whalley, specifically to see the viaduct, as suggested by Robert. Close up, the arches are mighty and uncompromising. From a distance, they blend with the landscape into something really rather beautiful.
I barely scraped the surface of the town, as with everywhere else I went. But from the little I saw I felt comfortable placing Whalley in the YES column.
Morecambe, thanks to the sprawling, inhospitable badlands that squatted between the seafront and the railway station, not to mention the fact that everywhere closed at 5pm and all I wanted was a cup of tea, I assigned rashly under NO along with Blackburn. And that was despite of the bay and the Midland Hotel.
Again, what do I know of these places but only what I knew when I was there.
I also called at stations I’d been before, some many times. Manchester Victoria always fascinates me, the grime mixed with the antiquity, the dank side-by-side with the splendour. It feels trapped between a catalogue of different centuries. You can stand in one place and merely by turning your head be greeted with panoramas of the Victorian, Edwardian, Wilsonian and Blarite eras – plus, now they’ve renovated the toilets, the 2010s.
Lancaster station had a more practical attraction. I remembered from a visit in 2010 there were plug sockets in the waiting rooms that I could use to recharge my mobile phone. But, as if I needed reminding of the hazards of my behaviour, the rooms – or “customer lounges” – were closed for redecoration. My phone died for an hour or so (in Morecambe, worse luck) before a passing Pendolino reconnected me with the connected.
I did one other thing while I shuttled around the county. I listened. Not actively – or rather, not aggressively, my ear shoved round the corner of the seat in front of me. No, I listened when there was stuff to hear. Which was often.
On the train from Liverpool to Manchester:
“Don’t start, cos I’ll wait outside your fucking work and twat you. I ain’t arsed! I’m from fucking Birkenhead!”
From Colne to Preston:
“Did you see Charlie? Did he bring his woman with him? He’ll be an old man when he finally gets to sit on the throne. That’s if poor Liz will let him.”
From Lancaster to Morecambe:
“I’ve got the lasagne, the bread and a bag of Italian salad, but I just couldn’t decide on the wine.”
From Wigan North Western to Liverpool:
“That’s where they make your glass.”
From Manchester to Blackburn:
“It wants to bite you. Why don’t you let it and see what happens?”
Whenever I go back to the north-west I’m reminded of how I didn’t appreciate and experience enough of the place when I lived there. And now, returning not as a resident but as a visitor, my feelings are always tempered by the knowledge that I’m just passing through, and I leave full of regrets. Roaming the county by rail exaggerates this sensation, for both good and ill.
It’s only by returning that I’ve started to realise quite how much I left behind.