IN ALL THE YEARS I lived in Liverpool, I must have only visited Wales about half a dozen times. Possibly less.
Because it was so close, and because neither it nor I were going anywhere, the idea of popping into the country took on as much significance as popping into my local pub. Both of which, as time went on, slipped gently down my must-go-there-and-do-that list.
But then I did go somewhere: I moved to London. Since when I have rued the fact that I could and should have nipped over the border far more than I did while I lived 10, not 110, miles away.
On my most recent return visit to Liverpool I decided to begin to address this failing. I bought the version of the North Wales Rover ticket that is valid for just one day, and set off for a dash around what nobody save Prince Charles and Sarah Kennedy calls the Principality.
As with all rover tickets, this one was, in my view, a bargain. It was just £23 to go wherever I wanted in north Wales, including, if I so wished, a reunion with the Cambrian Line. The decidedly non-Welsh Chester is thrown in for good measure, meaning I had only to catch one of the regular Merseyrail services to the city from Liverpool in order to kick off the day.
On the platform at Liverpool Central I spotted this enlightened notice:
How nice of them.
This first leg of my journey was actually the least agreeable. It wasn’t the fault of Merseyrail. Rather it was the combined presence of impenetrable mist and fog outside the train, and interminable mithering from a couple of fellow passengers inside, that got things off to an irksome start.
The former, if it persisted, would have left me bereft of any decent views of the likes of the sea or Snowdonia.
The latter consisted of an old man with dyed black hair who was an ex-con and who spoke at a speed of 10 fucks per minute, and his “companion”, who he may well have met for the first time the night before, who sat with her legs up on the seat opposite (grrrrrr!) and did nothing to shut up her consort (grrrrrrrrrrrrrr!).
As the train pulled into Chester, and a big sign saying CHESTER slipped into view through the carriage window, the lag turned to me and said: “Is this Chester?” When I said that it was, he replied with a bemused “fucking hell”.
I was glad to leave both him and the indifferent weather behind.
A few miles into the journey from Chester to Holyhead, the sun came out. So did an old woman with orange hair and slippers from behind a copy of Metro, who proceeded to exchange low words with a man half her age across a table, both speaking Welsh, both oblivious to the rich mix of landscapes through which the train was passing, and both equally oblivious to the reaction of their fellow passengers.
Fortunately their behaviour was nowhere near as intrusive as that of Old Man Jailbird and Maggie Mae. They and I were soon joined in the carriage by a dozen young Christians, some blokes returning from a weekend of heavy golfing/drinking/golfing and drinking, and an old man who kept visiting, but never entering, the on-train toilet.
Such was the collection of colourful characters that accompanied me across Wales to Holyhead.
My route for the day took me all the way to the end of the line on the far side of Anglesey, then back to Llandudno Junction where I caught a train down to Blaenau Ffestiniog, from where I retraced my steps back to Llandudno and to Chester.
Not a particularly complicated or ambitious route perhaps, but certainly an intriguing and, for the most part, rather beautiful one.
Much of the line between Flint and Bangor hugs the coast: always a tantalising arrangement for an inland suburbia-dweller like myself.
I’d forgotten quite how vast is the cluster of seaside homes and portable dwellings that brush up somewhat ungainly around Prestatyn and Rhyl. About half, maybe more, seemed to be occupied, despite it being late March.
I’d also forgotten about that curious, solitary ship that looms up on the shoreline suddenly, like a beached piece of Hollywood studio set, utterly abandoned and ignored.
Much more character oozes out of Colwyn Bay, Llandudno and Bangor (all for under a pound, you know).
At Colwyn Bay they actually seemed to be trying to rebuild, or at least retame, part of the sea. I came here once in the late 1990s on a day trip while my sister was visiting me in Liverpool. My chief memory of the outing is of a reassuringly unassuming cafe, wherein we drank a reassuringly unassuming pot of tea. I don’t remember the rather non-unassuming red benches being there before:
The stretch of the line that first skirts then crosses the Menai Strait via the Britannia Bridge is simply majestic. It gives you the best of all possible introductions to Anglesey, a place I hadn’t been to since a family holiday 25 years ago.
Unlike then, I did not make a point of photographing myself standing next to the sign on the platform of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Instead I passed straight through (mainline train services only stop on request), thereby avoiding the coachloads of tourists making a point of photographing themselves standing next to the sign on the platform of Llanfairpwyllthisnamehasbeenlengthedpurelyforshamelesspublicity.
At Holyhead, I was the only person to not head for the ferry. Instead I used the 40 minutes or so before the train started back down the line to mooch about what bits of the town were designed to be mooched through, which weren’t that many. I very quickly formed the impression that it is not a place in which visitors are encouraged to dwell. You’re only meant to pass through, preferably on to one of these:
Still, the railway station and ferry terminal are neatly conjoined, so for those who are intending to get out of Holyhead as quickly as possible – in either direction – there’s no need to set your feet or thoughts much beyond a sequence of charmless waiting rooms.
The line between Llandudno Junction and Blaenau Ffestiniog is almost without exception charming. The exception is its terminus. After an hour or so of the lilting hills and burbling water of the Conwy valley, you arrive in a place so despoiled that the boundaries of the Snowdonia National Park had to be specially drawn so as to avoid it entirely.
Part of me was in awe of the great mountains of disused slate that loom over Blaenau Ffestiniog. Part of me felt instantly claustrophobic and intimidated, qualities that were compounded by the atmosphere inside the town itself.
In the half hour I was there, before the train returned down the line, I was made to feel distinctly unwelcome. Children, dozens of them, skiving off school or else on some kind of half-day holiday, eyed me unpleasantly while scoffing wodges of junk food. Adults, dozens of them, all drunk, cast threatening glares in my direction while lolling over the bus stops and benches and shouting conversations along the lines of:
“As long as it’s got a sock on it, I don’t care who’s I have.”
“If he tried to put a sock on his, it’d fall off.”
I don’t want to call Blaenau Ffestiniog a dying town. I’ll just say a part of me died while I was there.
One day I’ll have to go back, though, in order to ride on the Ffestiniog Railway.
My guess is about half of the entire Conwy line is single track (including the longest single track tunnel in the country). Most of the stations are request stops, and on the day I was there plenty of passengers were making requests.
The majority, it has to be said, were of senior years, but this was perhaps only to be expected as travel on the line is free of charge to the over-60s. This is thanks to the Welsh Assembly Government. Yup, them again. How nice it must be to live in a country where your government treats railways with respect and not as a nuisance or a necessary evil.*
On the train back to Chester I nodded off. I was surrounded by kids, or possibly students, one of whom was wearing a pair of sunglasses with flashing lights embedded in the frame.
At Chester I saw no fewer than six people smoking cigarettes right next to a No Smoking sign. I was tempted to take a photo, not in order to report them to the station authorities, but just to see if and how they’d react. Fortunately, perhaps more for my sake than theirs, my train to Liverpool arrived and the moment passed. Instead I took this photo. Nice to know David Cameron’s new enterprise zones have got off to such a cracking start:
From there it was back up the Wirral in the safe hands of Merseyrail, and then into Liverpool city centre for the obligatory welcome portion of chips and beans from The Lobster Pot.
It was still light, and I’d barely covered half of the track to which my ticket entitled me, but I’d had my fill and felt satisfied to call it a day. Besides, by then I’d already decided to come back later in the year, armed with the four-day version, and do the whole thing.
*Some politics. Apologies.
**More politics. Apologies again.
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.