It may be a month since Robert and I spent a week riding Scotland’s railways, but the memories are still strong. Such as…
Kyle of Lochalsh station
I’d got a sense of how enchantingly remote and enticingly melancholy this place might be from Michael Palin’s 1980 Great Railway Journey for BBC2, where he travelled all the way from Euston to Kyle in order to collect a frankly preposterous piece of signage.
A ONE-DAY ROVER TICKET can be as much a curse as a blessing.
On the positive side, it turns an entire county into your plaything. You can zip from boundary to boundary and back again. You can loiter somewhere on a whim, then charge headlong towards a destination you hadn’t planned to visit. You can, if you’re that way inclined, improvise your entire schedule based purely on whatever train next passes your way. Or you can chisel out a minutely-planned itinerary and treat the whole thing like a Michael Palin-esque quest.
On the negative side, you end up barely scraping the surface of the county you’re exploring.
You can arrive in a place like, say, Blackburn, spend half an hour walking around the town centre and, save for one of the 4,000 holes, find absolutely nothing commendable.
You can only record things as you found them: that the station smelled of marijuana and the shopping centre of piss and pizza. For a former mill town, you can’t avoid concluding – with lazy irony – that Blackburn is now a place mainly for milling about.
The shopping centre, recently completed, lines its walls with no doubt sincere testimony from locals, singing the building’s praises. But given your limited exposure to the town, you can’t help concluding that something has gone terribly awry if a new retail development is what makes somebody “most proud to live in Blackburn”.
Such impressions of the place – patronising, ill-informed – will persist until I get the chance to revisit.
By contrast, my impressions of another place, Colne – inspired, though equally ill-informed – might very well be proven equally misplaced were I to revisit and experience more than just the town’s very well-tended and charming station.
Colne is at one end of the East Lancashire Line. I rode the train – a wretched Pacer – all the way to the terminus, got off, wandered around for a while, then got straight back on again for the return journey, trying desperately not too look too ridiculous.
Once the journey was under way, I squirmed in my seat as the ticket inspector – the same ticket inspector that had seen me loitering and taking photographs on Colne’s very lovely platform – approached and gave me a very knowing look.
These are the sort of prices you have to pay, along with around £20 for the ticket, when doing a spot of one-day rovering: a dash of character humiliation, a few snap generalisations, and the sense of always being around other people but always feeling alone.
I went to Morecambe, where the views across the bay were breathtaking and I felt my eyes being flattered with distances and perspectives they hadn’t experienced since the last time I’d seen the sea.
I walked to the far end of a jetty, along which a railway used to run to connect with ferries across to Scotland and Ireland.
An awful lot of money has been poured into this bit of the Lancashire coastline to repurpose an awful lot of history. That includes Oliver Hill’s majestic Midland Hotel, which I’d forgotten dwelt in Morecambe. Here was another aspect to the hit-and-miss melee of a day on the rails: stumbling upon a once read-about but long-misplaced unexpected gem.
One side of the hotel faces out across the bay; the other towards a casino, an American diner and a Morrisons. I wonder how they persuade anyone to stay in the latter.
I went to Whalley, specifically to see the viaduct, as suggested by Robert. Close up, the arches are mighty and uncompromising. From a distance, they blend with the landscape into something really rather beautiful.
I barely scraped the surface of the town, as with everywhere else I went. But from the little I saw I felt comfortable placing Whalley in the YES column.
Morecambe, thanks to the sprawling, inhospitable badlands that squatted between the seafront and the railway station, not to mention the fact that everywhere closed at 5pm and all I wanted was a cup of tea, I assigned rashly under NO along with Blackburn. And that was despite of the bay and the Midland Hotel.
Again, what do I know of these places but only what I knew when I was there.
I also called at stations I’d been before, some many times. Manchester Victoria always fascinates me, the grime mixed with the antiquity, the dank side-by-side with the splendour. It feels trapped between a catalogue of different centuries. You can stand in one place and merely by turning your head be greeted with panoramas of the Victorian, Edwardian, Wilsonian and Blarite eras – plus, now they’ve renovated the toilets, the 2010s.
Lancaster station had a more practical attraction. I remembered from a visit in 2010 there were plug sockets in the waiting rooms that I could use to recharge my mobile phone. But, as if I needed reminding of the hazards of my behaviour, the rooms – or “customer lounges” – were closed for redecoration. My phone died for an hour or so (in Morecambe, worse luck) before a passing Pendolino reconnected me with the connected.
I did one other thing while I shuttled around the county. I listened. Not actively – or rather, not aggressively, my ear shoved round the corner of the seat in front of me. No, I listened when there was stuff to hear. Which was often.
On the train from Liverpool to Manchester:
“Don’t start, cos I’ll wait outside your fucking work and twat you. I ain’t arsed! I’m from fucking Birkenhead!”
From Colne to Preston:
“Did you see Charlie? Did he bring his woman with him? He’ll be an old man when he finally gets to sit on the throne. That’s if poor Liz will let him.”
From Lancaster to Morecambe:
“I’ve got the lasagne, the bread and a bag of Italian salad, but I just couldn’t decide on the wine.”
From Wigan North Western to Liverpool:
“That’s where they make your glass.”
From Manchester to Blackburn:
“It wants to bite you. Why don’t you let it and see what happens?”
Whenever I go back to the north-west I’m reminded of how I didn’t appreciate and experience enough of the place when I lived there. And now, returning not as a resident but as a visitor, my feelings are always tempered by the knowledge that I’m just passing through, and I leave full of regrets. Roaming the county by rail exaggerates this sensation, for both good and ill.
It’s only by returning that I’ve started to realise quite how much I left behind.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, I turned over my calendar to be greeted with a message:
The Whitley Bay I found on an overcast but muggy September lunchtime didn’t quite correspond with the one hanging on my kitchen wall. Sure, it was unquestionably majestic. Yet frankly, it looked like it had been forcibly evacuated of its entire population of stripy beach huts, dapper gents and broad-boatered women.
But a quicker way to reach this North Sea resort and one-time haunt of the Radio One Roadshow than by rail I doubt you’d be able to find. And that is wholly due to the local connection with Newcastle, one that has existed for 101 years, and which since 1980 has formed part of the Tyne and Wear Metro:
Yes, the Metro: a lovely light-rail municipal merry-go-round, bolted together in the late 70s from bits of lines dating back as far as, blimey, 1834. I’d never been on it before, despite, 25 years ago this very month, being so taken by the notion of its existence that I’d tried to draw my very own map of its circuitous routes. Here’s the official version:
My own attempt, perhaps luckily, no longer exists. But it was high time to rectify a quarter-century oversight and see the Metro for myself.
With Whitley Bay as a suitable hook to hang the endeavour upon, I spent a good few hours shuttling around the network, largely in the company of the very very old and the very very young. Only after 5pm did I start to notice the Metro’s carriages filling up with any other demographics – albeit fighting for seats with even more of the very very old and very very young.
Whitley Bay station is worth a visit alone. It was built in 1910, is Grade II listed and is really quite charming:
There’s a mosaic in the entrance hall that caught my eye, not so much because of its design but thanks to the plaque describing how the installation was sponsored in part by the “Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive and carried out through the Youth Opportunities Programme of the Manpower Services Commission”. Those phrases seem just as much of a relic nowadays as the infrastructure upon which they are inscribed.
My feelings of being somewhat out of time were compounded by the sight that greeted me outside the station:
I can’t be the only one who occasionally likes to refer to the Post Office as the GPO. (Or rather, wishes it still was.)
I strolled down to the esplanade where, among the dozens of boarded-up hotels and nightclubs, occasional signs of life, human or otherwise, were evident:
The school holidays were not yet over, but an environment I’d assumed would have been an obvious haven for juvenile adventures and family excursions was completely empty of people.
I was the only person the walk along the coastline, and the only person to survey the vast expanse of water and sky curling round into the mouth of the Tyne. Not that I’m complaining, you understand.
I carried on round to Cullercoats, where I rejoined the Metro for the short journey to North Shields. I then meandered and mooched my way down to the riverside, where my Day Rover ticket entitled me to free passage on the Shields Ferry.
Combining land and water as part of a continuous journey always makes me feel a bit Palin-esque. That’s Palin M, not Palin S; I had no sudden desire to kill a moose or ban abortions.
The ferry deposited me in South Shields, where I made my way to the corresponding Metro station, replete with platforms niftily set above the main high street. I was very taken with this arrangement, being sure to capture the views both below:
High time for a photo of an actual train, I think:
Making the most of my ticket I headed back towards Newcastle then changed at the challengingly-titled Pelaw on to the “green” line for a quick trip to Sunderland. The important word there being quick. I was in the town about an hour and already felt like I’d overstayed my welcome. Still, I got to see my second estuary of the day:
And (dons geek hat) experience the novelty of being in a station with platforms served by both mainline and light rail services. I could have caught a train back to London from here.
Instead I continued on to the end of the line: the deceptively rural South Hylton. And yes, I did deliberately sit at the very front of the train so I could see this:
Then I returned to Newcastle, experiencing as I did a peculiar sensation of moving, flashing lights while travelling along the Queen Elizabeth II bridge over the Tyne. I later discovered this was an installation called Nocturne by Nayan Kulkarni, unveiled in 2007. At the time it was Britain’s biggest piece of public art: an unexpected treat as I readied to disembark and head back to Newcastle Central station for the train home.
The Metro is brilliantly unequivocal in purpose and design. It’s a fabulous service: regular, reliable, comprehensive. But I didn’t get the feeling of pride in its existence that is so self-evident when using the London Underground or the Glasgow Subway.
It’s always been relevant. It’s always been pioneering; it was one of the first networks to ban smoking, the first fully light rail system in the country, and the first underground network to enable people to use mobile phones in tunnels. Yet it doesn’t feel especially loved. I know this is based purely on my first, fleeting impressions. But even during the few hours I was riding it, I sensed its passengers were using its trains out of reluctance rather than enthusiasm.
Admittedly they are the very same trains as when the Metro was inaugurated in 1980. A complete refurbishment is on the way, however, along with a makeover for all the stations.
But inevitably, as is the case these days, this upgrade came at a price: part-privatisation, with the operation and maintenance of the network now contracted out. The end result could be a triumph, if all involved parties a) talk to each other b) work with not around each other and c) put the greater good of the service first. But it could also be an unholy mess, culminating in a Metronet/Tube Lines-esque costly debacle.
For the time being, regulars can enjoy a taste of the 21st century in the shape of Haymarket: the one station to have been dolled up so far, reopened in 2010 by Princess Anne, and rather swish if slightly soulless:
I have to say I don’t like the way Newcastle airport is referred to simply as “Airport”, both on signage and by the automated announcements. Conversely, “this train is for… The Coast!” is a nice touch, albeit eternally denying the likes of Whitley Bay even one precious, much-deserved namecheck.
One final thing: ticketing. During my trip I revealed myself to be hopelessly unprepared for the business of having to purchase a ticket WITHOUT USING NOTES OR CARDS.
Yes, you can only buy tickets for the Metro using coins. At machines. And most definitely not in person at kiosks or travel centres.
“You’ll have to use THE MACHINES,” the man behind the perspex screen politely but firmly told me. But the Day Rover cost £6.80 and I only had a 10 pound note. “I suppose I can give you some change,” the man sighed. In doing so he committed the first cardinal sin of retail: making the customer feel awkward for having done business with you.
I duly trotted off to feed £6.80 worth of coinage into a machine with giant multi-coloured buttons the like of which I’d last seen on Chock-A-Block.
At least that had Fred Harris telling me what to do.
IT WAS ONLY AFTER SEVERAL YEARS OF TRAVELLING on what, from 1998, was known as the TransPennine Express that I discovered the song Trans-Europe Express by Kraftwerk.
I still believe the former continues to miss a trick by not customising the latter for a publicity campaign.
Imagine the TV advertisement: to the sound of an infectious disco beat, immaculately polished carriages glide through dazzling city centres and exquisite pastoral scenes, accompanied by the urgent chant of “TRANS… PEN-NINE… EXPRESS!” and such lyrical exhortations as “From station to station/’Cross town, hill and dale/Our train never tiring/Our food never stale”.
Hmm. I’m not such which part of that fantasy is the most preposterous.
The journey to Sheffield was always one of my favourites when I lived in Liverpool. By way of a starter you had the route to and through Manchester, which I’ve written about already but whose extremes of shape, colour, history and sentiment I never grew tired of.
Then came the main course: the journey across the Peak District, with the line burrowing through coarse, winding tunnels to emerge suddenly in the crook of the most enormous green hills and below the largest, bluest of blue skies. Well, that’s how they always seemed at the time.
There were stations that punctuated the most rural and remote part of the route: the likes of Chinley, Edale, Hope and Bamford, at which troupes of ramblers and outward bound enthusiasts would materialise and dematerialise in a rustle of Rohan. A part of me envied them, but a part of me was also forever too distracted or disorganised to think about following their example.
On this occasion, Friday 14 June 1996, I was visiting a school friend who I’d known for five years and who was now a student at Sheffield University.
The journey across, which I describe in my diary as “tortuous”, I spent mostly listening to The World Won’t Listen and finishing reading High Fidelity, which rather neatly sums up the sort of person I was in the summer of 1996.
The return journey on 15 June was more eventful.
It was the first day of Euro 96, and I’d already had to fight my way back to Sheffield station through various manifestations of “street theatre” which had been laid on throughout the city to mark the tournament’s opening.
I’m afraid I was not in the mood to be entertained by interpretative dance or satirical busking. It was boiling hot; my neck got burned. Then, once on the train, I had to sit in direct sunlight; my face got burned.
Of chief concern, however, was the fact it took much longer to get back to Liverpool than usual. The train was delayed by almost an hour. No information was given for the hold up. I was especially bemused by how slowly the train crawled through the centre of Manchester.
It was only when I got back to Liverpool that I realised I had passed through the city only a few hours after this had happened, and although I saw no obvious evidence of the damage from the train, in retrospect the clues were there: police out in force at Piccadilly and Oxford Road, a subdued atmosphere among passengers getting on, a wary atmosphere among those getting off.
I spent the rest of the day catching up on this and other news that I’d missed by virtue of simply being away from a TV and radio for several hours.
Then I stole some of my housemates’ food, something I did with increasing nonchalance towards the end of every term, and went to bed.
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.