THERE USED TO BE QUITE A LOT of railway lines in East Anglia.
Here’s how many there were in 1907:
And here’s how many there are today:
A few weeks ago I took the train from London to Sheringham, one of the few destinations on the East Anglian coastline it’s possible to reach directly by rail.
It wasn’t too far to go by way of an away day round-trip; I’d never been to that part of Norfolk before; and, to my surprise and delight, it only cost £8 there and £8 back. Well, £12 back to be precise, as I decided to “treat” myself to a first class seat from Norwich back to London, but I could’ve done the whole thing, there and back, for just £16.
Now this isn’t a plug for National Express trains (though I guess in a way it is), but that same £8 wouldn’t have got me from Euston to Watford Junction. I’d have needed another 30 pence for starters. Such is the bonkers system of ticketing and fares on our beloved discombobulated, denationalised railways.
Anyway, as chance would have it good weather, a preponderance of what a regional news magazine would call “colourful characters”, and an unexpected row of cliffs (yes, in Norfolk! Who knew?) conspired to make the day more than the sum of its fiduciary parts.
I’d forgotten, for instance, that the main line out of Liverpool Street runs right past the Olympic stadium, giving me my first ever glimpse of the newly-finished giant sugar bowl:
My train appeared to my untutored eyes to be a barely-refurbished InterCity 125, until Robert tweeted to point out they didn’t run out of Liverpool Street. I should have guessed, given there wasn’t really that much room to, in the words of Sir Jim, “stretch out and move about”.
On the way up to Norwich gentle eccentricity abounded. I overheard a fellow passenger declare: “But I must get to Saxmundham with haste!”, which made me feel as if I’d slipped unnoticed into a Fry and Laurie sketch. Signs on the platforms at Colchester proclaimed it was “MORE than just Britain’s oldest town”. I’d have thought that was merit enough; why the implied shame?
Norwich station gained points for its airiness but lost them all for having cash machines that were incredibly hard to find. So hard in fact that I failed to spot them at all on my outward journey, only discovering them while having a bit of time to kill on the return leg.
Like several rural lines I’ve been on since I started this blog, it turned out the service from Norwich to Sheringham had a nickname: the Bittern Line.
This charming image was a little compromised by the charmless tendencies of some of the people with whom I shared a rattling, under-furnished carriage: kids, single mums, old men in flowery shirts and nosey parkers.
The last of these was represented by someone sitting directly behind me, who I suddenly sensed was repeatedly peeking his face between the seats to see what I was up to.
I presumed the offender was a child. I was unnerved to discover it was a businessman.
He then began coughing painfully every few seconds, occasionally interrupting these outbursts with disconsolate sighs. The man got off the train before too long, sparing me the impossibly embarrassing task of nonchalantly moving as far away from him as I could manage.
Outside, however, were unobtrusive, silent and cough-free colourful patchworks of countryside, and I remembered what had first enchanted me about Norfolk on family holidays as a child. I also remembered what had annoyed me: the absence of things to run or climb up, and to run or roll down.
It was all the more pleasant, therefore, to find my destination bookended by actual cliffs. Sheringham is a very well to-do town with an admirable awareness of its own past…
…and an equally admirable sense of what a seaside town is Meant To Be Like:
But it’s chief appeal, for me at least, were those cliffs, which I scrambled up and which, while dodging the marauding seabirds, afforded me a view laughably at odds with that I spend most of my waking days staring at:
While I was there I took a ride on the steam train that runs between Sheringham and Holt along part of one of those lines so much in preponderance in 1907. I’m no great fan of steam trains in and of themselves, but I am partial to a bit of nostalgia for a time I never knew. The North Norfolk Railway, or Poppy Line, served up just such a sensation in spades.
After that it started to rain – my parents always used to say “never trust the North Sea” – and it was time to come back. Back, via a first class carriage in which even the free wi-fi didn’t show up, to fusty skies and flickering screens and people who keep themselves to themselves.
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.