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…
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.
IN ALL THE YEARS I lived in Liverpool, I must have only visited Wales about half a dozen times. Possibly less.
Because it was so close, and because neither it nor I were going anywhere, the idea of popping into the country took on as much significance as popping into my local pub. Both of which, as time went on, slipped gently down my must-go-there-and-do-that list.
But then I did go somewhere: I moved to London. Since when I have rued the fact that I could and should have nipped over the border far more than I did while I lived 10, not 110, miles away.
On my most recent return visit to Liverpool I decided to begin to address this failing. I bought the version of the North Wales Rover ticket that is valid for just one day, and set off for a dash around what nobody save Prince Charles and Sarah Kennedy calls the Principality.
As with all rover tickets, this one was, in my view, a bargain. It was just £23 to go wherever I wanted in north Wales, including, if I so wished, a reunion with the Cambrian Line. The decidedly non-Welsh Chester is thrown in for good measure, meaning I had only to catch one of the regular Merseyrail services to the city from Liverpool in order to kick off the day.
On the platform at Liverpool Central I spotted this enlightened notice:
How nice of them.
This first leg of my journey was actually the least agreeable. It wasn’t the fault of Merseyrail. Rather it was the combined presence of impenetrable mist and fog outside the train, and interminable mithering from a couple of fellow passengers inside, that got things off to an irksome start.
The former, if it persisted, would have left me bereft of any decent views of the likes of the sea or Snowdonia.
The latter consisted of an old man with dyed black hair who was an ex-con and who spoke at a speed of 10 fucks per minute, and his “companion”, who he may well have met for the first time the night before, who sat with her legs up on the seat opposite (grrrrrr!) and did nothing to shut up her consort (grrrrrrrrrrrrrr!).
As the train pulled into Chester, and a big sign saying CHESTER slipped into view through the carriage window, the lag turned to me and said: “Is this Chester?” When I said that it was, he replied with a bemused “fucking hell”.
I was glad to leave both him and the indifferent weather behind.
A few miles into the journey from Chester to Holyhead, the sun came out. So did an old woman with orange hair and slippers from behind a copy of Metro, who proceeded to exchange low words with a man half her age across a table, both speaking Welsh, both oblivious to the rich mix of landscapes through which the train was passing, and both equally oblivious to the reaction of their fellow passengers.
Fortunately their behaviour was nowhere near as intrusive as that of Old Man Jailbird and Maggie Mae. They and I were soon joined in the carriage by a dozen young Christians, some blokes returning from a weekend of heavy golfing/drinking/golfing and drinking, and an old man who kept visiting, but never entering, the on-train toilet.
Such was the collection of colourful characters that accompanied me across Wales to Holyhead.
My route for the day took me all the way to the end of the line on the far side of Anglesey, then back to Llandudno Junction where I caught a train down to Blaenau Ffestiniog, from where I retraced my steps back to Llandudno and to Chester.
Not a particularly complicated or ambitious route perhaps, but certainly an intriguing and, for the most part, rather beautiful one.
Much of the line between Flint and Bangor hugs the coast: always a tantalising arrangement for an inland suburbia-dweller like myself.
I’d forgotten quite how vast is the cluster of seaside homes and portable dwellings that brush up somewhat ungainly around Prestatyn and Rhyl. About half, maybe more, seemed to be occupied, despite it being late March.
I’d also forgotten about that curious, solitary ship that looms up on the shoreline suddenly, like a beached piece of Hollywood studio set, utterly abandoned and ignored.
Much more character oozes out of Colwyn Bay, Llandudno and Bangor (all for under a pound, you know).
At Colwyn Bay they actually seemed to be trying to rebuild, or at least retame, part of the sea. I came here once in the late 1990s on a day trip while my sister was visiting me in Liverpool. My chief memory of the outing is of a reassuringly unassuming cafe, wherein we drank a reassuringly unassuming pot of tea. I don’t remember the rather non-unassuming red benches being there before:
The stretch of the line that first skirts then crosses the Menai Strait via the Britannia Bridge is simply majestic. It gives you the best of all possible introductions to Anglesey, a place I hadn’t been to since a family holiday 25 years ago.
Unlike then, I did not make a point of photographing myself standing next to the sign on the platform of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Instead I passed straight through (mainline train services only stop on request), thereby avoiding the coachloads of tourists making a point of photographing themselves standing next to the sign on the platform of Llanfairpwyllthisnamehasbeenlengthedpurelyforshamelesspublicity.
At Holyhead, I was the only person to not head for the ferry. Instead I used the 40 minutes or so before the train started back down the line to mooch about what bits of the town were designed to be mooched through, which weren’t that many. I very quickly formed the impression that it is not a place in which visitors are encouraged to dwell. You’re only meant to pass through, preferably on to one of these:
Still, the railway station and ferry terminal are neatly conjoined, so for those who are intending to get out of Holyhead as quickly as possible – in either direction – there’s no need to set your feet or thoughts much beyond a sequence of charmless waiting rooms.
The line between Llandudno Junction and Blaenau Ffestiniog is almost without exception charming. The exception is its terminus. After an hour or so of the lilting hills and burbling water of the Conwy valley, you arrive in a place so despoiled that the boundaries of the Snowdonia National Park had to be specially drawn so as to avoid it entirely.
Part of me was in awe of the great mountains of disused slate that loom over Blaenau Ffestiniog. Part of me felt instantly claustrophobic and intimidated, qualities that were compounded by the atmosphere inside the town itself.
In the half hour I was there, before the train returned down the line, I was made to feel distinctly unwelcome. Children, dozens of them, skiving off school or else on some kind of half-day holiday, eyed me unpleasantly while scoffing wodges of junk food. Adults, dozens of them, all drunk, cast threatening glares in my direction while lolling over the bus stops and benches and shouting conversations along the lines of:
“As long as it’s got a sock on it, I don’t care who’s I have.”
“If he tried to put a sock on his, it’d fall off.”
I don’t want to call Blaenau Ffestiniog a dying town. I’ll just say a part of me died while I was there.
One day I’ll have to go back, though, in order to ride on the Ffestiniog Railway.
My guess is about half of the entire Conwy line is single track (including the longest single track tunnel in the country). Most of the stations are request stops, and on the day I was there plenty of passengers were making requests.
The majority, it has to be said, were of senior years, but this was perhaps only to be expected as travel on the line is free of charge to the over-60s. This is thanks to the Welsh Assembly Government. Yup, them again. How nice it must be to live in a country where your government treats railways with respect and not as a nuisance or a necessary evil.*
On the train back to Chester I nodded off. I was surrounded by kids, or possibly students, one of whom was wearing a pair of sunglasses with flashing lights embedded in the frame.
At Chester I saw no fewer than six people smoking cigarettes right next to a No Smoking sign. I was tempted to take a photo, not in order to report them to the station authorities, but just to see if and how they’d react. Fortunately, perhaps more for my sake than theirs, my train to Liverpool arrived and the moment passed. Instead I took this photo. Nice to know David Cameron’s new enterprise zones have got off to such a cracking start:
From there it was back up the Wirral in the safe hands of Merseyrail, and then into Liverpool city centre for the obligatory welcome portion of chips and beans from The Lobster Pot.
It was still light, and I’d barely covered half of the track to which my ticket entitled me, but I’d had my fill and felt satisfied to call it a day. Besides, by then I’d already decided to come back later in the year, armed with the four-day version, and do the whole thing.
*Some politics. Apologies.
**More politics. Apologies again.
I WANTED TO TRAVEL ALONG the Settle-Carlisle line today.
It’s quite properly often referred to as one of the country’s most beautiful stretches of railway, and my desire to see it for myself was compounded by the fact that the weather, on this third day of North West rovering, was absolutely gorgeous.
I think it must have dropped close to freezing the night before, because when I stepped outside it was clear, it was sunny, and it was cold: the ideal combination (for me at any rate) for mixing public transport travelling with public transport sightseeing.
I ended up doing the line in the opposite direction, as it were, for reasons dictated by another of my over-ambitious ideas. Instead of merely going from Carnforth to Settle, up to Carlisle and back to Carnforth again, I reasoned why not use my ticket to attempt something grander. Something bolder. Something courageous (in the Yes Minister sense of the word). Something like this:
Actually, that route came about partly through expediency. The line between Long Preston and Carnforth was out of the action the week I was there, and replacement bus services had taken the place of trains.
I didn’t fancy that. I don’t travel well on buses. Not your everyday town or city services; no, I mean your long distance coach efforts. And besides, there’s a reason this blog is named after railways.
Anyway, I began by once more heading south to Lancaster and then north to Carlisle.
This journey itself was pretty exceptional – at least it was to me, not used to passing quite so close to brooding hills, untamed streams and hundreds of grazing cattle. Most of my fellow passengers couldn’t careless. But then I guess they would think the same belittling thoughts of me were they to catch me snoozing on the Underground instead of, like them, lapping up the novelty of being inside a subterranean train set.
I had loads of time to kill in Carlisle, so I walked for a while around what seemed to be a pleasant enough place, enhanced by this unexpected discovery:
That song was in my head for the rest of the morning.
When I finally boarded the train that was to take me along One Of Britain’s Most Beautiful Railways, I was faced with a crucial decision. On which side of the carriage should I sit? Where would I get the best views?
I then discovered that most of the train windows were filthy. Not from mud, mind, but with detergent that hadn’t been properly wiped off. Grrr.
I found a seat by a window that wasn’t too mucky. But then I overheard a conversation between a rather pompous man and two women, who may or may not have been his travelling companions.
“No, no,” he spluttered to them, “you don’t want to sit that side [the side I was on].
“You need to be this side. All the best views this side. Trust me. My wife doesn’t, but you can! Sit here and you’ll get the best views. Guarantee it. Go on – park yourselves there. Haw-haw-haw.”
Reader, I fell for this ludicrous performance.
I’m afraid to admit that I moved seats so I was the same side of the carriage as this red-faced haughty foghorn.
And of course, the whole thing was a mistake. The best views were all on the other side of the carriage. Not that everyone was paying attention. As we set off from Carlisle, I heard a woman say to her husband that she’d been “wanting to do this journey all my life.” It was 45 minutes before she even looked up from her bloody newspaper!
Meanwhile the pompous bugalugs and his two ladies were getting in a hopeless mess. “Brief Encounter was set in Holmfirth, wasn’t it?” one of the women asked the others, to general approval.
I wanted to lean through the seats and shout that they were wrong. Completely wrong. And that you, sir, yes, you the old man with the red face and misplaced confidence, were clearly wrong ABOUT EVERYTHING. Do you really remember Trevor Howard going down a hill in a tin bath, or Compo wiping a bit of grit out of Nora Batty’s eye?
But I said nothing. Instead I held my tongue, because I knew that I would not be travelling all the way to Settle and beyond in the company of this man, and that instead I would soon be getting off.
For I had decided to break my journey in two, and spend a couple of hours (for that was the time until the next train) exploring a particularly iconic location.
I was the only person to get off the train at Ribblehead station. As soon as it has passed down the line, there was complete silence. The only sound to be heard as I walked down to the viaduct were my own footsteps. Even the few other visitors lurking in the area didn’t seem to be making any noise. The stillness was pretty much absolute.
Occasionally, snatches of conversation flew past me on the wind. Then all would be silent once more. Apart from idiots making self-indulgent videos, everybody – and everything – acted as if in awe of their surroundings. Which was, of course, entirely proper and correct.
Feeling refreshed and reinvigorated, if rather cold and tired, I went back to the station to wait for the train to Leeds.
A few grizzled trainspotters were in attendance, along with – wonderfully – the station cat:
Inevitably, everything else that happened during the day was something of an anti-climax.
“Don’t get those much up here,” said the ticket inspector to me on checking my rover just before Skipton. Hmm – where else would I be using it other than “up here”?
I fell asleep shortly before Leeds, and on arrival, still in a semi-conscious state, I got on to the wrong train. I only realised my mistake 60 seconds before the doors closed, and had to make an undignified exit. I’m sure I heard someone chuckling. Maybe it was that crotchety old sod from before.
I had to wait an hour at Leeds before the train to Bradford and Halifax. I didn’t venture outside; I was still too tired and I know, or knew, Leeds pretty well.
The inside of the Leeds station is a grim place to dwell for any length of time. There is no place to escape the crowds and collect your thoughts. There is also no place that collects your litter. I wandered around with a banana skin in my hand for ten minutes before dropping it in a cleaner’s bucket. Well, what can you do?
All this faffing around meant it was starting to get dark by the time I left for Preston. The moon rose just after I’d been through Bradford:
It was pitch black by the time I passed through Hebden Bridge, going the opposite direction to the way I’d been two days earlier. I couldn’t see any of the likes of Accrington and Blackburn at all. Vast carpets of electric lights shimmered outside the carriage window.
I started to regret having had to wait so long in Leeds. I was annoyed at not being able to see anything whatsoever of these unfamiliar places. I felt cheated out of what should have been an intriguing last lap to the day.
To top it all, I found I was sitting close to a racist crone who, just before I got off at Preston, I overheard remarking to her companion: “Are those two Jews? I don’t like Jews.”
I ended up a little while later standing yet again on the platform of Lancaster station. I recorded my thoughts on a few of the people I’d encountered during the last few hours:
A day to remember.