Tagged: Conversations with strangers

Naze of glory

“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.

She gasped.

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.

An open and hut case

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.

Welcome to the Sunshine Coast

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.

End of the line

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.

Caught in a Naze

Sticking a Felixstowe in the water

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.

Not a shark's tooth in sight

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.

Loose lips sink ships

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:

Best not to pier too closely

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.

North West Rover: day 1

I LIVED IN LIVERPOOL FOR 12 YEARS and in all that time Lime Street station barely changed.

It was a dependable constant. Apart from the day a tea urn exploded on the concourse, nothing unusual or unexpected ever seemed to happen. Little was added, even less was taken away. The whole place felt stubbornly – reassuringly – resistant to anything that bore the tiniest whiff of redevelopment.

Then in 2006 I moved to London, and the inevitable happened. Lime Street changed. On every return visit, there appeared to be a new feature or modification. Shops. “Customer” lounges. Even the handrails and balustrades were replaced.

Above all, for the first time in possibly decades, the station’s exterior was allowed to actually resemble an exterior, thanks to the demolition of a hideous tower block and removal of the rather charming greasy cafe that used to live in its bowels. The decision to replace both with nothing whatsoever has given Lime Street space to command your attention and respect.

Tea urn not pictured

Of course the suddenness of all these transformations is entirely illusory. Had I been living in the city it would not have felt hasty at all. And it would be facile of me to deny that the changes have not brought improvements. That empty space between platforms seven and eight was always crying out for some kind of waiting room (though not, perhaps, an exclusive “customer lounge”).

Nonetheless, as I arrived to begin my first day of travelling with my North West Rover ticket, it was slightly comforting to find the station as chilly as ever. As long as I can remember (insert Wonder Years-esque musical cue) Lime Street has always been cold, regardless of time, month and season.

Given this was the only day I would be able to start and end my travels in Liverpool, I wanted to cover as much of the bottom half of the Rover “region” as possible. I’d come up with a route that resembled a giant loop snaking across to Huddersfield and back again. And here it is! Apologies for the rather amateurish doctoring of a, erm, official map. You can click to enlarge:

North West Rover day 1 - the route

It all looked rather ambitious. And it proved to be almost over-ambitious.

The upside was that, given I was fairly familiar with most of the towns and cities through which I’d be passing, I wasn’t bothered about spending any time checking them out.

The downside was that by opting for a timetable built upon a sequence of very tight changes, including one with only two minutes’ grace, the slightest slip-up would send everything to pot.

Naturally this happened within about an hour of setting off.

I began by taking the train from Lime Street to Manchester Piccadilly. This has always been one of my favourite journeys, and not just for the route, which soars above the rooftops of the Liverpool suburbs, inches high above the Manchester Ship Canal (twice), then threads its way gingerly round Salford’s smoky tops, side streets and snaky waterways before the approach into the splendour of Piccadilly station.

I travelled this way hundreds of time when I was younger, en route to see friends, relatives, films, gigs or simply the city itself.

As such, what for most people is just a drab commute has now become, for me, a rather shamelessly sentimental voyage that allows me to wallow in bittersweet nostalgia. Oh dear. Funny how the most ordinary of things can take on extraordinary resonances thanks to the passing of time.

Anyway, I talked a little about this trip down memory lane, along with my plans for the rest of the day, in an audio clip I recorded on the platform at Piccadilly station:

And here is where things went awry. For in taking the time to do (and, indeed, redo) this slice of indulgent waffle, I missed my connection to Salford Crescent. I actually saw it leave from one end of the platform while I stood, hapless and pathetic, at the other.

This meant that my entire schedule for the rest of the day was kind of in tatters.

However there was now an unexpected development. For if I had caught that train, I would not, in waiting for the next one, have found myself standing a few metres away from Ray Gosling:

"Devious people" not pictured

And had I caught that train I would also not, upon boarding the next one, have found myself once again standing a few metres away Ray Gosling.

Nobody else seemed to be aware of who he was. Or if they were, they were doing their best to look ignorant.

For his part, Gosling was sitting at a table appearing to do some sums in a notebook, breaking off now and then to finger some tatty photocopies in a clear plastic wallet marked, unsurprisingly, PHOTOCOPIES.

I decided to approach. For a brief moment I contemplated covertly recording our conversation, but thought better of it. Instead I decided simply to wish him well and shake his hand.

He recoiled slightly as I loomed over him but once he established I meant no ill-will, he visibly relaxed, reached out to grab my hand, and urged me to write to the BBC to get him his job back.

He looked, I’m afraid, in a bad way. Yet his predicament, it now seems, is one he largely brought upon himself, and the sympathy he won earlier in the year misplaced. Well, perhaps not misplaced, just misdirected. He remains, however, something of a broadcasting legend, and hence I was glad to have had this brief if bizarre encounter.

At Salford Crescent I caught a train into Manchester Victoria where, after pausing to take some photos of the beautiful regional train map painted above one of the stone entrances, hopped on a train that at least was heading in the direction of Huddersfield, via Rochdale and Todmorden.


I was surprised how quickly I found myself leaving the melancholy sprawl of Greater Manchester behind. It was a bright, blustery day and South Yorkshire looked in fine fettle.

Some hasty computations using (geek alert) the absolutely fantastic Train Times iPhone app suggested that were I too break my journey at Hebden Bridge, then catch another train to Mirfield, I could – with a good following wind – pick up the train I originally intended to take to Huddersfield.

This good news was compounded by what I found at Hebden Bridge, a place I hadn’t intended to visit. I’m very glad I did:

Which way is 'up'?

It’s a charming station that self-consciously plays up its heritage (no bad thing) and its proximity to the Rochdale canal (ditto).

There was a gorgeous smell of cooking enveloping the platform. I tore myself away from it for a short walk along the bank of the canal, where one evocative whiff was replaced with another: smoke from the engine of a barge. The place was pretty much deserted apart from a duck. A crisp autumn breeze made the leaves whirl around my feet. Hills rose up on all sides. It was one of those moments.

Northern sky

Back on the platform, while making use of the unusually excellent toilets (something that becomes a recurring ritual when spending the day travelling on a rover ticket, though a far from uniformly excellent one), I wondered if an “Up” train was what I needed to catch. There was absolutely no other information in evidence as to which side of the tracks I needed to be.

I took a gamble and stayed put; I was right. The train rolled in on time and I was able to make it to Mirfield with precisely 120 seconds to spare before the connection to Huddersfield. But not before passing through Brighouse, an occasion I marked by calling up a particular tune and treating myself to the curious tone of the cornet, clarinet and big trombone.

Anyway, I needed every one of those 120 seconds. To get to the right platform at Mirfield, it turned out I had to leave the station, cross a main road, climb a flight of steps and enter a different part of the station entirely. All of which I did with just enough time to see my previous train depart and my new train arrive:

In and out in two minutes, as the bishop said to the actress

Then it was on to Huddersfield, a place I’ve never been before. I would have liked to have had some time to explore, and at the very least to have seen the outside of the station, which is a Grade 1 listed building.

But there was no time. To stay on schedule I needed to catch a train back to Manchester Piccadilly that was due in about five minutes. I poked my camera lens through some railings to record the fact that I’d been there, then it was back on board for some sweeping views of the area including, tantalisingly (geek alert), the Emley Moor transmitter: the tallest freestanding structure in the UK.

The line back to Manchester was different from that I took earlier; this one went via Stalybridge and Gorton. I had to move carriages at one point because a drummer, who was sitting on the floor, started practising his paradiddles. Loudly.

I then had an old man come and sit next to me and tell me of how he was heading into Manchester to buy a new coat to replace the one he’d lost at a football match at the weekend. He said I looked like I was a student a Huddersfield University. Seeing as I graduated 13 years ago I wasn’t sure whether to be irked or flattered.

Back at Piccadilly station there was just enough time to buy some food and to ride on the travelator. I very much approve of travelators and remain forever perplexed as to why there aren’t more in this country. In fact, apart from the one at Waterloo station in London, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen another. If they were more ubiquitous, hopefully more people would be familiar with the two basics of travelator etiquette: don’t stand still and don’t try to run.

Having had an enjoyable day so far, I was due a bit of a low. One duly arrived in the shape of the train from Manchester to Chester.

This was a dreaded Pacer. I remembered these – not fondly – from years ago. I am amazed they are still in service. They are absolutely wretched. Non-profane phrases that come close to describing these awful things include cattle truck, dirt wagon, crate on wheels and dust bucket. Bouncing around in one during the long journey to Chester subtracted all enjoyment from proceedings, besides ruining any appreciation of the rather lovely Cheshire countryside between Northwich and Delamere.

From the looks of my fellow passengers, nobody was enjoying the journey either. The fixtures and fittings matched the prevailing mood. The toilet had no lock on it. The engine sounded like it belonged inside a third generation Transit van. And propped up in the corner of the carriage was, of all things, a ladder.

Surplus firewood

They’re meant to be used in emergencies, but to get from where to where? As far away as possible from a Pacer, presumably.

A glance at Wikipedia reveals these rank beasts are used exclusively in the UK with one exception: the Islamic Republic of Iran Railways.

I was immensely relieved to be rid of this train once I got to Chester, but we would meet again before the week was out.

By now time was getting on and I hurried to complete the last leg of day one: a journey from Chester up the Wirral. Not before capturing this sweet little display on Chester platform:

Why thank you

And this not so endearing arrangement:

Bring back the cones hotline, I say

To be fair Chester station is undergoing a clearly major refurbishment, but I failed to see the need to keep passengers away from the timetables, especially as the “wet paint” on the supporting posts was in fact bone dry.

I was now among early commuters and people returning from a day out over the water:

Merseyrail masses

But I was also back in the quietly reassuring arms of Merseyrail, who carried me up through the likes of Brombrough Rake and Port Sunlight (surely among the most evocative-sounding stations in the country) to Hamilton Square, where I changed on to a connecting service that took me to the end of the line at West Kirby.

My dad was brought up in these parts and I know them fairly well. I marked the occasion by walking out to the shoreline where, as has always been the case as far back as I can remember, the tide was out and the wind was up:

Kirb' your enthusiasm

Then I pulled my coat up around chin and scurried back to the station for a train to Liverpool Central and, courtesy of The Lobster Pot, the finest portion of chips and beans I’d tasted for five summers.