HERE’S THE OLDEST TRAIN TICKET I have in my possession:
Ho hum: British Rail. Yes, I know it was never actually as good as it seems now, and it was an organisation that mostly functioned better as an idea, or an advertising concept, rather than in practice. But seeing it printed there on that piece of card evokes more than a tinge of sadness in me for something that, like Radio 1 on the Medium Wave and crossed lines during telephone conversations, was loved in spite of rather than because of its existence.
The ticket is for a journey I made by way of a return favour.
I’d struck a deal with my next-door neighbour in my hall of residence at Liverpool University. If he came with me to a Smiths night at Hardy’s in Hardman Street (a desperately shabby nightclub of a mostly indie persuasion, now long gone), I would go with him to see Cardiff City, his team, the next time they had an away match nearby.
This day arrived on Saturday 18 March 1995, when Cardiff were away to Wrexham.
It was, I’m not ashamed to admit, the first time I’d been to a football match. And it remains, to date, the first of only two football matches I have seen in my entire life. The second one was also a Cardiff game, this time at Chester’s pompously-titled nation-straddling Deva stadium.
The game at Wrexham was in much more lowly surroundings: Wrexham Racecourse. I could see it as our train arrived into the town. It looked tired and unhappy. It smelt like a black-and-white film.
Yet I was determined to keep an open mind and treat the whole thing as a bit of an adventure, which, for a fiercely ill-educated non-football fan such as myself, was really the only strategy I could adopt.
I don’t remember much about the journey, nor why I decided to keep my train ticket (establishing a precedent that has continued, more or less, to this day).
The fact that Cardiff won 3-0 undoubtedly made it more of an enjoyable occasion than would otherwise have been the case. The fact they won by, as far as I could see, booting the ball as far as they could up the other side’s end, then racing after it to try and score, didn’t bother my friend or any of the 200-odd supporters who made up the sparse crowd at the away end.
I learned that Cardiff fans hated Wrexham fans, who they mocked by shouting “Wrexham! Wrexham!” in a high-pitched voice, as if to cast doubt on their masculinity. I also learned that some of Cardiff’s youngest fans knew some of the choicest profanities on the planet.
It cost me £8.50 to get into the ground, a sum that I described in my diary entry for the day as depressing, given “I’ve a week ahead where I can’t spend much money”. I also mentioned being struck at the “real community feeling” amongst the Cardiff fans, “a sort of extended-family warmth”. This sounds a bit over-the-top, but it was true at the time and for a football novice was very reassuring, even comforting.
I didn’t see much more of Wrexham during the trip, apart from a bakery in which me and my friend bought food before – but not after – the game. It was a bitingly cold day and by the time we were back in Liverpool it was pouring with rain. Right outside our hall of residence I was splashed by a car racing through a giant puddle. However this did not, to use a painful cliche, “dampen my spirits”, as by that point I was basking in that sense of achievement that comes from trying something new – albeit fairly trivial – and surviving.
The following day, a Sunday, Liverpool beat Manchester United 2-0. I can’t say my interest in football persisted beyond the weekend, but I see from my diary that I took care to note that the name of our team in that evening’s quiz in the student common room was: Man Utd Are Fucked Now, Aren’t They?
Note: Thanks to YouTube, I see Wrexham got their revenge a few months later, beating Cardiff in the Welsh FA Cup final:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
And this not so endearing arrangement:
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:
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:
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.