LAST WEEK I TOOK A TRAIN FROM Marylebone station an hour or so up the line to Wendover.
My plan was to spend an afternoon walking through the Chilterns, along the Ridgeway national trail, passing around Chequers, and ending up at the branch line serving the station of Little Kimble. Thanks to a rather convoluted choice of footpaths, I ended up literally on the branch line serving Little Kimble:
It’d been a long time since I’d stood on a railway line. I immediately thought of that scene in Stand by Me*; not the charming, carefree one of them skipping along the rails singing, but the terrifying one of them being pursued across a bridge over a gorge by what seemed, when I first saw the film, to be the most enormous train in the world.
“I’ll be waiting for you on the other side, relaxing with my thoughts.”
“Do you use your left hand or your right hand for that?”
Thoughts of railway lines had been in my mind all day, prompted by the slew of DIY banners and slogans adorning almost every house, tree and verge I encountered as I was leaving Wendover:
My default response to the possibility of the High Speed 2 railway is: yes please. I instinctively support any new railway anywhere, such is the dearth of existing lines across the country and the shameful under-investment by government after government during the last 50 years.
Yet the degree of opposition and, in some cases, venom suggested by all these homemade posters did make me question the wisdom of threading HS2 through this part of the countryside – countryside, moreover, that once I climbed up out of Wendover and into the hills soon revealed itself to look like this:
The campaign to stop HS2 is an uncompromising one. But later, when I investigated for myself just where the line will run, I discovered it really didn’t pass that near the stretch of the Chilterns through which I walked. Indeed it doesn’t create any new scythe through the Chilterns at all, merely following the broad sweep of the existing railway to Aylesbury and beyond.
In truth, opposition to HS2 is focused on the line’s construction, not its operation. This is because, as with the implementation of any important piece of national infrastructure, ugliness has to come before beauty.
So yes, lorries “thundering” down country lanes (in the language of protest they always “thunder”, they never simply “drive”) will inevitably spoil the peace of the neighbourhood – but only in the short term.
People need to see beyond their noses and beyond the next few years. When it’s finished, HS2 will be a marvel. And it will fit in marvellously to this patch of Buckinghamshire. Ultra-modern, ultra-fast trains gliding past every half hour or so will only enhance, not subtract from, a landscape that has long been a rich mix of the old and the new. I saw gliders, tractors, pylons and wind turbines while walking, and all felt just as much at home here as the swallows and red kites.
No, if you want something legitimate to grumble about, start with the likes of this:
*One of the greatest films ever made. Fact.
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.
LAST WEEK MY MATE David and I undertook another sizable rail-based outing.
This one was even longer than our excursion to Weymouth in November. Our destination was Aberystwyth, a round trip of almost 10 hours from London. But as before, the journey was intended to be of as much importance as the destination. Clocking in at almost 10 hours it could never be anything but.
Neither of us had been to the area before, nor travelled along the particular railway called the Cambrian Line that crosses the middle of Wales linking the Irish Sea coastline with Birmingham.
It’s a sedate service that scoops up residents, students, shoppers and workers heading either to or from a score of West Midlands and Welsh border towns. It also took twice as long to cover the same distance as that between Birmingham and London.
Unsurprisingly, no tourists or holidaymakers were in evidence at this time of year.
The only definable group of people among the decidedly disparate bunch of passengers on both our outward and return journeys were the dozens of teenagers who packed out the the train back from Aberystwyth, on their way home from an open day at the university.
They clutched their plastic bags of leaflets and freebies and made us both feel very old.
Some of them, to my eyes at least, looked 13 or 14. All of them had expensive smartphones. One of them was with his mother.
Hmm. Higher education is clearly a product nowadays, which is only purchased after the consumer, or rather the consumer’s benefactor, has shopped around.
Still, I was a bit heartened by the kid’s apparent interest in a leaflet about a course in International Politics.
Or perhaps he was just pretending to be interested in order to please his mum, who for much of the time had her nose in the Daily Mail.
My university days are so long ago now that I am unable to empathise much with contemporary students, never mind students-to-be.
I spent my time as an undergraduate in a world without mobile phones, the internet, tuition fees, even – for a time – central heating. It wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things, but at that moment, on that train coming back from Aberystwyth, it felt an age.
As did, it has to be said, the journey itself. The outward voyage had been fascinating, passing through places such as the beautifully isolated (and charmingly named) Dovey Junction, completely inaccessible except for a solitary three-quarter-mile footpath, and where the train divided to carry one set of folk all the way round Snowdonia up to Pwllheli, leaving the rest of us to chug forwards through marshes and valleys to Aberystwyth.
This division had actually caused a bit of confusion, not least on the part of the train manager who claimed to have been “misinformed” about which carriages would be heading where, and as such hounded a bunch of passengers first one way then the other.
There was also a passenger who purported to have got on the train without a clue as to where it was going.
I am amazed that this sort of thing can still happen. It was enough of a topical blunder to still be fit for comic treatment in the vastly underrated John Cleese caper Clockwise. But that was 25 years ago. For someone of apparently sound mind to board a train in the year 2011 and then have to ask, immediately, whether it was heading for his station, despite all the sources of information available to him online, on his phone, on the station platform… well, it was hard to feel much concern for his plight.
And even less when he feigned wiping his brow in “relief”, akin to someone in amateur dramatics, once he realised he was, indeed, going the right direction.
Plus we changed at Birmingham New Street rather than Birmingham International, the former constituting, still, after all these years, the darkest, dankest mainline interchange in the country.
As a sidenote, the reason the Cambrian Line exists at all is because, at the time of the Beeching Axe in the 1960s, it ran through seven Labour marginal constituencies and hence was thought too politically risky to abolish.
Though even that wasn’t enough to save the likes of the wonderfully-titled Scafell Halt, Moat Lane Junction and Commins Coch Halt.
Aberystwyth itself I’d recommend to anyone.
The seafront is endearingly compact, and the sound of the waves crashing on to the gravel shore a little hypnotic.
In a good way, that is.
There are the imposing castle ruins overlooking a grand sweep of coastline.
Plus there’s a rather nice cafe, or tea bar as it would’ve once been called, tucked down one of the town’s side streets, in which we listened to two old women talking in Welsh and enjoyed reasonably priced refreshments. What’s on the bwydlen?
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.