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…
I HAD ONE DAY OF rovering left. And I had at least three days’ worth of track still to travel.
There is an eight-day version of the North West Rover available – Robert’s used it – but I didn’t have the means, motivation or clean clothes to spend nine nights away from home. Not this time, anyway.
One of the lines I’d had my eye on from the outset was the Cumbrian Coast line: that thin, winding track that somehow clings to the edge of the coast all the way from, conveniently enough, Carnforth to Carlisle.
It’s another line often (justly) placed in that ubiquitous category The Most Beautiful Railways In Britain and I felt it demanded to be seen. Except the services are rather infrequent and slow, and I intended to break my journey at Ravenglass in order to take a ride on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway.
Some quick calculations revealed that, by the time I’d reached the end of the line at Carlisle, there wouldn’t be much daylight left for me to see much else.
Hence the route for my fourth and final day using the North West Rover ended up looking like this:
Within a few minutes of leaving Carnforth I was already by the sea. Four days in to my travels I should really have got used to such a juxtaposition. But it still seemed a novelty. Railway lines and coastlines do not, had not, co-existed naturally in my mind. Writing this, back in London, they still don’t.
The first stretch of track round to Barrow hugs the edge of Morecambe Bay, crossing two specially constructed viaducts that carry you high above the vast banks of sand and endless rivulets of water.
Apparently I was brought to this part of the world on a family holiday in 1979 or 1980. I have no memory of it whatsoever. I’ve seen photos of the trip, in which everything looks very brown. You could argue the whole world looked brown in the late 1970s, except here, round Barrow and Ulveston and Grange-over-Sands, it still does.
Barrow in particular is the kind of place it’s best to appreciate by standing with your back to it and looking in the opposite direction:
Around this point in the journey someone got off the train carrying an air rifle. Nobody seemed at all concerned. Not that there were many people on the train to get concerned; beyond Barrow, I had most of the carriage to myself. I could, for once, sit at a table seat and feel unconcerned about spreading all my clutter beside and in front of me.
Outside, the landscape had turned very Melvyn Bragg: earthy, crumpled and a bit melodramatic. This was the view from a bit further along the line, at Kirkby.
The sun appeared to be so low in the sky it could easily have been late afternoon. In fact it was only about 10.30am.
I was the only person to get off at Ravenglass. The station was equally empty of people. As were the streets in the adjoining village. As were the boats in the adjoining harbour. I hurried quickly to the entrance to the steam railway.
I suddenly realised I’d been completely mistaken about what I was coming to visit.
I’d assumed I was about to ride behind a proper, full-size steam engine, in the comfort of giant carriages done up in suitably antiquated livery.
I was, of course, totally wrong. The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, besides sharing a name with a history tutor at Liverpool University with whom I had a major falling-out in the mid-1990s, is a miniature railway. The tiny trains run on narrow gauge tracks. The carriages are barely big enough to sit upright in.
One glance at the website – sorry, one proper glance at the website – would have confirmed all of this and not left me feeling rather cheated.
No matter. I still enjoyed it. Here’s the engine that pulled me and a few dozen passengers up into the Lake District fells and to the little hamlet of Dalegarth, which is within sight of Scafell Pike, the highest point in England.
This photograph is atypical in that it doesn’t feature any old men also taking photographs of the engine. I counted at least five of them, all having an agreeable time and all snapping away with aplomb.
I had a bit of time at Dalegarth to snoop around the visitors centre, opened in 2007 by the great Pete Waterman, and to wander into the surrounding countryside and along the bed of the river Esk:
Here’s a bit of blather I recorded on the return journey:
There was a good hour to kill before I could pick up the next train to Carlisle, so I spent a bit of time looking round Ravenglass itself.
The village was a bit too similar to the one in The Wicker Man for my liking. I didn’t see another soul. People clearly lived and worked here… or did they? In the harbour boats sighed and creaked with the wind. People surely tended and sailed in these craft… or did they?
I walked past a tiny building that advertised itself as a post office. A handwritten note in the window said it was closed for lunch. I walked on, turned round, walked back, looked in the window and found the note had now gone and the post office was open. Except I’d seen nobody enter the building.
I stepped inside. An immensely old man rose from behind the counter. He eyed me coyly. The place was an absolute pigsty. I identified a bag of Seabrook’s crisps (MORE – THAN – JUST – A – CRISP!), paid for them and left. I didn’t look back.
There was still time to kill. I looked inside the museum at the old Ravenglass station, where this poster, which for some reason I found highly amusing, was on display:
I also discovered another bit of antiquated signage, but this time in the waiting room on the platform of the mainline Ravenglass station. Who is the Secretary of State of Prices these days?
Just as I was the only person to get off the train, so I was the only person waiting to get on. I’d enjoyed my visit to Ravenglass, but was glad to be moving on. Even if that meant moving on to Sellafield, which the train driver announced with a little too much vim in his voice, and through which we passed at an unnerving crawl.
The line was still clinging to the edge of the mainland. The station at Seascale has, on the one side, the railway line and on the other, the sea.
While here’s the view from my carriage a little way south of St Bees, where to all intents and purposes the train could have been travelling right along the beach.
Indeed, the line comprises a single track from Sellafield all the way up to Whitehaven. No trains can pass. No trains would dare to.
By the time I reached Carlisle I felt like I’d overdosed on unusual sensations and atypical landscapes. But I now had to make a decision. Where to go next, before it got dark and, more importantly, before I ran out of time and my rover expired?
I went over the border. I got on a scuzzy train full of teenage school kids and went up to Dumfries.
And then, because I could go no further north, I turned round and came back again, on an equally scuzzy train full of different teenage school kids.
I sort of gave up at this point. It was starting to get dark and any attempt at heading anywhere other than back to Carnforth would have meant making most of the journey in fading light and poor visibility.
I could have taken a train along the route of Hadrian’s Wall to Hexham, which I imagine is pretty attractive line – but not last thing on a Thursday afternoon in October.
Instead I called it a day.
I needed time to take everything in and do a bit of motionless thinking. But inevitably the first thing I thought was: I’ve got to go home tomorrow.
Worse: I had to be on a specific train and sitting in a specific seat.
Worse still: I realised there was so much yet to see and so many lines along which to travel.
Conclusion: I had more than enough reason to return, and hopefully not before too long.
Amended conclusion: Just not, perhaps, to Blackpool.
Hello to anyone looking in. This is a blog about train journeys in different parts of Britain. It won’t be updated that frequently, so it’s not really a blog as such, but on the other hand it won’t be updated that infrequently. I’m using it as a place to write up trips that I make along railways around the country. Mostly, these accounts will be of journeys I make using rover tickets, like the one pictured. I don’t make these journeys every week, but when I do they usually last the best part of a week, and will probably take the best part of several weeks to document here. I hope you enjoy what you see. Thanks for stopping by.