ON SATURDAY my friend David and I went on a trip to Weymouth.
It’s three hours by rail from London, with no changes, courtesy of South West Trains. We sat in first class, along with an old man who spent the entire journey listening to music, a young woman, and – towards the end – some SWT employees who gossiped loudly about staffing issues and shift patterns.
We’d gone for first class because it was only a couple of pounds more than standard class and on the assumption we would be treated to a slightly more refined service.
We were not.
Aside from slightly larger seats and a tea towel slung over each of the head rests, there was no difference whatsoever.
But what was most irksome was the absence of freebies. Or to be even more precise, the fact it was one of the coldest days of the year and yet there was no complimentary hot drink.
For any poor bastards in the front carriage of standard class, there was no complimentary heating either. The train manager reassured passengers that “the other carriages are toastie warm”. I know she was trying to sound colloquial, but instead she ended up sounding twee and a bit over-familiar.
She actually had a bit of a torrid time, this train manager. Half an hour into the journey she had to appeal several times for “the owner of the black BMX bike that has been left by the buffet car” to remove said vehicle, then an hour or so after that she pleaded for “the owner of the tartan wash bag” that had been left in the ice-cold front carriage to collect said item before it was “removed and destroyed”.
There was no such excitement on the return journey, save for when the driver announced “CCTV is in operation throughout the train; this is especially directed at the passengers in the rear carriage”. This wasn’t us (we were at the front), but rather a group of teenage girls who had been shouting and mithering on the platform and were presumably still shouting and mithering on the train.
As for Weymouth itself, we didn’t exactly catch it at its best. It was so cold on the beach that I lost all feeling in my fingers as soon as I removed my gloves off to take a photo.
Then we were more or less turfed out of a branch of Costa Coffee when an old woman pointedly parked her walking frame by our table and proclaimed “I’ll be back in a few minutes”.
Meanwhile the amount of flags on display throughout the streets inferred the town had already started celebrating the royal wedding.
Still, it’s clearly in an agreeable location and on anything other than a day with temperatures below freezing it’s probably quite charming.
The train line’s pretty agreeable too, passing through the New Forest before hugging the south coast and tottering round the edge of Poole harbour.
Just make sure you keep your tartan wash bag close and carry a flask of hot drink at all times.
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.
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.