LONDON’S RING OF RAILWAY TERMINALS sends hundreds of trains hurtling a similar number of miles across the country every day. You can leave King’s Cross at 9am and be in Thurso, the most northerly point on the network, ready for a late-night snack. (Note to self: must try this some time).
But there are also a few trains that set off from the capital only to come quickly to a complete halt. They brush up against and sometimes tiptoe over the edges of county boundaries, but go no further. These curious stumps of branch lines, sprouting so promisingly from the likes of Liverpool Street, Victoria and Waterloo, wither rather than plunge out across south-east England. They expire in high streets, leafy glades, cul-de-sacs and, in one case, open pasture.
Inevitably, these ends of the lines started catching my eye on the map. Inevitably, I became intrigued by their existence and location. And inevitably, I have now visited them all.
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…
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.
A MEMORY HAS BEEN EMBEDDED deep in my mind for almost two decades.
It’s a memory of sitting in a carriage of a train, going nowhere. But I’m not just sitting in a carriage. I’m sitting in a compartment of a carriage.
It’s the kind of compartment immortalised in sitcoms and sketches usually involving archetypes of comically contrasting backgrounds reading wildly contrasting newspapers. The kind of compartment where passengers sit facing each other in long lines, and which has a door one side that allows you into a connecting corridor and a door on the other side through which you enter and leave the train.
This memory, I would tell myself, must hail from at least the late 1980s. At a push, it could be the very early 1990s. But no later. Such compartments must have passed out of use by the time British Rail was being prepared for privatisation. Such an antiquated (by which I mean old, not redundant) structure could not have been trundling along busy routes or creaking along branch lines while John Major’s government was busy bowdlerising BR in the name of competition.
And yet I have always associated this memory with being a university student, which had to place it at some point after September 1994. Furthermore, I have always associated the location of memory with Runcorn station. I had never been through Runcorn station before I went to university.
To solve the mystery, I turned to my diary.
Fully expecting the incident to date from autumn 1994, I was amazed to find it took place on Monday 27 November 1995.
My diary records that I was stuck at Runcorn from around 4.30 to 6pm, in a compartment empty of people save for one businessman who grew increasingly frustrated at the delay, but whose anger manifested itself merely in “sighing, walking around and throwing his briefcase on to the opposite seat and off again.”
It also notes that no official explanation was offered for the incident. Indeed, it seems there was no communication with or from any train staff at all. There was simply word going around that the train had broken down, which was, in any case, completely self-evident.
After 90 minutes of stationary tension of the kind more common to an afternoon play on Radio 4 or an episode of the old Children’s ITV strand Dramarama, everyone was ordered off the defunct train so it could be towed away. We then had to wait for a delayed InterCity to pick us up and take us on to Liverpool.
Someone reading this might be able to tell me what sort of train it would have been that broke down so spectacularly.
Perhaps it was actually quite common for those types of carriages with compartments to still be in use well into the era of New Labour, Britpop, Chris Evans on Radio 1 and The Sunday Show on BBC2. Yet in my head I’d reassigned them to a slightly earlier, older age. Perhaps the way I compartmentalise my own life can be as misleading as the neat division of the decades. Perhaps the 1980s only really ended in 1997.