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.
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.