Tagged: The smell of a black and white film

Night males, crossing the border

Just 24 hours before I found myself being tossed around a metal container at 80mph, I was watching a sack of letters undergoing the same treatment.

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Ticket from Ryde

YES YES, I KNOW: not the most original of titles. But listen, it might have been Ryde on time. Trains on the Isle of Wight *are* very punctual after all.

Or worse, I could have conflated the fact there was quite a din crossing the Solent on a catamaran along with the number of hot drinks consumed during the trip and, punning on one of David Bowie’s less-remembered efforts, offered up Black tea, Wight noise.

Instead I’m sticking with ticket from Ryde – and I don’t care.

The Isle of Wight used to be riddled with railways. Now there is only one. And it’s unlike any other in the land.

Recently I went to see it in the company of my friend David. I don’t think either of us were quite prepared for what greeted us.

Ryde, on time

Superficially I’d known what to expect: that the railway uses old London Underground trains; that for “old” you should read “very very very old”; and that the train runs right to the very end of the pier at Ryde, from where passengers like ourselves would be disembarking from the catamaran.

The reality was not what I had expected. For one thing, I hadn’t imagined just quite how eerie it would be boarding a train with the sea just a metre or so below you, visible between not very thick wooden slats.

Secondly, the disorientation of boarding not just any train but an Underground train with the sea just a metre or so below you made me feel a bit giddy. And not necessarily in a good way.

Quite simply, this combination of elements didn’t feel right. I couldn’t really process them and take in quite what was going on.

All of this was compounded by the way everyone else boarding the train was utterly nonchalent and completely unconcerned. This wholly extraordinary experience for us was wholly ordinary for them. Our fellow passengers were the most unassuming bunch imaginable.

Look, here are some of them:

Many tickets from Ryde

Then suddenly the train was away, taking a couple of minutes to teeter along the 704 yards of pier before arriving at its very first stop, Ryde Esplanade. Here, unexpectedly, a great number of people got off. I was bemused. Was it really worth them getting on in the first place? Seeing as the train had waited a good 10 minutes at the pier head before departure, it would have been quicker to walk.

Admittedly it would have involved walking along one edge of this:

Pier pressure

But what’s not to like about that? A fair deal, as we discovered on the return leg when we decided to do just that, albeit in driving rain.

A great number of people also got on at Ryde Esplanade – the only station in the whole of the UK to have the word Esplanade in its title. Again I was struck by how, what was for us a very atypical and exciting way of getting around, was for everybody else thoroughly mundane, even irritating. I’m sure the residents of the Isle of Wight would prefer a proper full-size railway that enveloped the whole island with frequent services.

In use since Neville Chamberlain's day

Instead what they’ve got is one line that is just over eight miles long. It used to run further, all the way down to Ventnor on the south coast of the island. Instead it gives up at Shanklin, where the train loiters for 10-15 minutes before heading straight back where it came.

The Isle of Wight terminates here

Taxis jostle to take people away from here as quickly as possible.

Shanklin my dear

And who can blame them where there are sights like these just around the corner:

I pity the fool who doesn't take advantage of free delivery

The entire route has been branded the Island Line, and is currently operated by South West Trains.

They’ve done their best to present it as not just a service but a tourist-friendly introduction to the Isle of Wight. Maps inside the carriages accord each station an additional reason for existence (“Gateway to the sands!”) as if to make up for a perceived deficiency in relevance.

In addition, a map of the line on the South West Trains website makes the whole area look like a coastal idyll. Granted, it was never going to feel much like this on an overcast Saturday in the middle of February. But I’m not sure how much charm there is to be found in Shanklin even in high summer.

The Master of Nostalgic Comedy

This was the only building in the town that really caught my eye:

The only way to travel

A splendid construction, but it cost £1 to use, despite being out-of-season. What a swizz.

For rail travellers the rest of the Isle of Wight is simply out of bounds. There is a short steam railway that connects with the Island Line at Smallbrook Junction, but it was closed the day we were there. Had we wanted to go anywhere else, we’d have had to get the bus. But we didn’t have time, so as soon as the rain set in there was nothing for us to do but head back to where we started, this time clutching a different kind of ticket from Ryde.

Ryde outta here

I suppose we should be thankful there are any functioning trains on the island at all. For once the word “unique” can be used correctly – and laudably. But I also felt a bit awkward at being glad that the residents of the Isle of Wight hadn’t got a proper grown-up railway. Was it wrong to be grateful that they – and us – had to make do with quaint, cosy carriages that dated from 1938?

You ought to be able to ride on trains like these somewhere in the country. Just not in a place where they are the only trains in the most populated parliamentary constituency in the entire United Kingdom.

In the meantime, Solent and thanks for all the fish:

Solent all these years

Retro-politan line


A good number of them have taken on a second life as footpaths, cycle routes or nature reserves, in doing so losing nearly all of their former distinguishing features save a bridge or embankment.

But occasionally you’re lucky enough (and it is a matter of luck, given how methodically they were invariably dismantled) to find a disused railway line turned right-of-way that boasts more in the way of substantial relics: the hulk of a platform, for instance, or the stump of a waiting room.

Or, if you’re really lucky, a Network South East sign.

A sign, sealed and delivered

Perhaps I should explain the appeal of doing this sort of thing. Then again, perhaps I can’t. You either get it or you don’t.

Two people who most certainly get it, and who kindly invited me to accompany them on this particular quest to discover the remains of the old Croxley Green branch line in Hertfordshire, are Scott and Robert. I was only too happy to join them, and they proved excellent company as together we threaded our way on an atypically balmy September Saturday through the outskirts of Watford.

We were not the first, and won’t certainly be the last, to beat a path this way. Since this line was closed – unofficially in 1996 and replaced with a bus service, then officially in 2001 – I’m sure there have been plenty lured by the novelty, incongruity and, yes, thrill of seeing ghost stations of the like of Watford West and Croxley Green, with their signs and notices still intact but the final train long since departed.

Diamond Geezer wrote a few months ago of just such a trip, combining his impressions of what used to be here with descriptions of what may one day be here again.

For this is a line that clings to life not just in the form of giant Network South East-branded signage.

Part of it may yet re-emerge clothed in the garb of the Croxley Rail Link, a proposal to connect Watford High Street on the Overground, where we began our walk, to the Metropolitan line just north of Croxley station.

The old tracks would be used for almost all of this “new” branch line, with a genuinely brand new chunk of track needed only at the western end, near where the disused Croxley Green terminus currently stands in rather undignified semi-retirement.

For the time being, however, the entire line exists in a comatose state, superficially dead to the world but occasionally twitching into coherency in pleasingly unapologetic ways.

From Watford High Street we strolled through a series of rather unexceptional side streets and alleys, searching for the first signs of the line. Robert led the way, having wisely plotted a route in advance and saved it all on his iPhone. Scott and I were in his hands, but none of us needed to consult a map – not a conventional one, at least – during the entire day.

Instead we were free to let our attention get caught by other local attractions: John Barrowman, for instance, who was promoting a forthcoming appearance at the Watford Colosseum in his usual understated fashion:


Or this perplexing sign outside a factory of pre-Thatcher-fontage:

No, I've no idea

Or the man who emerged from a branch of Coral the bookmakers, yelled “FUCKING CUNT!” at the top of his voice, muttered a hasty apology in our direction, then walked off slapping his head repeatedly before kicking the side of his car and climbing inside, still spluttering with rage, and roaring off down the road.

Of the three former stations we were looking for, the first, Watford Stadium, was entirely submerged beneath greenery.

A railway runs through it - honest

It’s probably more appreciable in the winter; for us, the mere glimpse of a lamppost or glint of a rail was all that was on offer. Others have found a way to reach the old platforms and even stand on the tracks. We moved on as a small crowd of children from a nearby modern housing development began circling on their bikes.

Both the second and third stations had more to show for themselves, not just in the guise of those iconic Network South East signs. Here’s Watford West, complete with… steps!

Steps back in time

Plus some humorous graffiti (easier to see if you click to enlarge):


The three of us made a careful point of taking turns to capture all of this for further reference:

Robert and Scott at Watford West

En route to Croxley Green we got a proper look at the tracks, courtesy of a gap in the railings alongside another new housing development:

Resting, not sleeping

While at Croxley Green itself there was a semi-tatty noticeboard, conveniently placed at the ideal height for posing in front of.

Robert and Scott at Croxley Green

Having, ahem, written a song about this place, but never having actually seen it before, encountering Croxley Green was something approaching excitement for me. Hence this rather ridiculously preening, which Scott and Robert graciously indulged:

Oh dear

While all this was going on we received a number of beeps from passing motorists. Quite what they thought we were doing depends on whether you choose to treat their actions as gestures of appreciation or derision. The fact all three of us were loitering near a signpost that read “Community Toilet” may have created a different impression entirely.

From there we trekked all the way up to Croxley station on the Metropolitan line, passing along the way signs advertising CROXFEST 2011.

This, inevitably, became something of a talking point. We wondered what sort of entertainment appeared at such an event. Some budding local talent? A famous name from within the neighbourhood? At one point we heard the sounds of some performers drifting across the Metro-land suburbs. Betjeman would have shuddered. We weren’t that smitten either. Much more pleasing was the food and the rest we subsequently had at a pub near the station.

I really hope the Croxley Rail Link is approved. I don’t feel that much sentiment towards a disused line that has yet to acquire a real sense of history or be refashioned as a useful footpath, or which would have demonstrable rather than just symbolic worth were it to be reopened. Besides, there are so few “new” railways being built in this country, for such a relatively tiny one as this to not get to go ahead would be rather depressing.

Plus if it came to pass, here would not only be a new railway line for folks like us to explore, but a new disused railway line to boot, in the shape of what is currently the Metropolitan line between Croxley and Watford: tracks that would be taken out of service once the Croxley Link became operational.

It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

Thanks again to Scott and Robert for asking me along. Here they are, enjoying an empty Metropolitan line carriage on the way back to central London.

Fellow travellers

You can read Scott’s account of our trip here, and Robert’s here.

The day I went to Wrexham: 18 March 1995

HERE’S THE OLDEST TRAIN TICKET I have in my possession:

"Wrexham! Wrexham!"
Ho hum: British Rail. Yes, I know it was never actually as good as it seems now, and it was an organisation that mostly functioned better as an idea, or an advertising concept, rather than in practice. But seeing it printed there on that piece of card evokes more than a tinge of sadness in me for something that, like Radio 1 on the Medium Wave and crossed lines during telephone conversations, was loved in spite of rather than because of its existence.

The ticket is for a journey I made by way of a return favour.

I’d struck a deal with my next-door neighbour in my hall of residence at Liverpool University. If he came with me to a Smiths night at Hardy’s in Hardman Street (a desperately shabby nightclub of a mostly indie persuasion, now long gone), I would go with him to see Cardiff City, his team, the next time they had an away match nearby.

This day arrived on Saturday 18 March 1995, when Cardiff were away to Wrexham.

It was, I’m not ashamed to admit, the first time I’d been to a football match. And it remains, to date, the first of only two football matches I have seen in my entire life. The second one was also a Cardiff game, this time at Chester’s pompously-titled nation-straddling Deva stadium.

The game at Wrexham was in much more lowly surroundings: Wrexham Racecourse. I could see it as our train arrived into the town. It looked tired and unhappy. It smelt like a black-and-white film.

Yet I was determined to keep an open mind and treat the whole thing as a bit of an adventure, which, for a fiercely ill-educated non-football fan such as myself, was really the only strategy I could adopt.

I don’t remember much about the journey, nor why I decided to keep my train ticket (establishing a precedent that has continued, more or less, to this day).

The fact that Cardiff won 3-0 undoubtedly made it more of an enjoyable occasion than would otherwise have been the case. The fact they won by, as far as I could see, booting the ball as far as they could up the other side’s end, then racing after it to try and score, didn’t bother my friend or any of the 200-odd supporters who made up the sparse crowd at the away end.

I learned that Cardiff fans hated Wrexham fans, who they mocked by shouting “Wrexham! Wrexham!” in a high-pitched voice, as if to cast doubt on their masculinity. I also learned that some of Cardiff’s youngest fans knew some of the choicest profanities on the planet.

It cost me £8.50 to get into the ground, a sum that I described in my diary entry for the day as depressing, given “I’ve a week ahead where I can’t spend much money”. I also mentioned being struck at the “real community feeling” amongst the Cardiff fans, “a sort of extended-family warmth”. This sounds a bit over-the-top, but it was true at the time and for a football novice was very reassuring, even comforting.

I didn’t see much more of Wrexham during the trip, apart from a bakery in which me and my friend bought food before – but not after – the game. It was a bitingly cold day and by the time we were back in Liverpool it was pouring with rain. Right outside our hall of residence I was splashed by a car racing through a giant puddle. However this did not, to use a painful cliche, “dampen my spirits”, as by that point I was basking in that sense of achievement that comes from trying something new – albeit fairly trivial – and surviving.

The following day, a Sunday, Liverpool beat Manchester United 2-0. I can’t say my interest in football persisted beyond the weekend, but I see from my diary that I took care to note that the name of our team in that evening’s quiz in the student common room was: Man Utd Are Fucked Now, Aren’t They?

Note: Thanks to YouTube, I see Wrexham got their revenge a few months later, beating Cardiff in the Welsh FA Cup final:

Compartmentalism: 27 November 1995

A MEMORY HAS BEEN EMBEDDED deep in my mind for almost two decades.

It’s a memory of sitting in a carriage of a train, going nowhere. But I’m not just sitting in a carriage. I’m sitting in a compartment of a carriage.

It’s the kind of compartment immortalised in sitcoms and sketches usually involving archetypes of comically contrasting backgrounds reading wildly contrasting newspapers. The kind of compartment where passengers sit facing each other in long lines, and which has a door one side that allows you into a connecting corridor and a door on the other side through which you enter and leave the train.

Messrs Barker and Corbett exchange cross words
This memory, I would tell myself, must hail from at least the late 1980s. At a push, it could be the very early 1990s. But no later. Such compartments must have passed out of use by the time British Rail was being prepared for privatisation. Such an antiquated (by which I mean old, not redundant) structure could not have been trundling along busy routes or creaking along branch lines while John Major’s government was busy bowdlerising BR in the name of competition.

And yet I have always associated this memory with being a university student, which had to place it at some point after September 1994. Furthermore, I have always associated the location of memory with Runcorn station. I had never been through Runcorn station before I went to university.

To solve the mystery, I turned to my diary.

Fully expecting the incident to date from autumn 1994, I was amazed to find it took place on Monday 27 November 1995.

My diary records that I was stuck at Runcorn from around 4.30 to 6pm, in a compartment empty of people save for one businessman who grew increasingly frustrated at the delay, but whose anger manifested itself merely in “sighing, walking around and throwing his briefcase on to the opposite seat and off again.”

It also notes that no official explanation was offered for the incident. Indeed, it seems there was no communication with or from any train staff at all. There was simply word going around that the train had broken down, which was, in any case, completely self-evident.

After 90 minutes of stationary tension of the kind more common to an afternoon play on Radio 4 or an episode of the old Children’s ITV strand Dramarama, everyone was ordered off the defunct train so it could be towed away. We then had to wait for a delayed InterCity to pick us up and take us on to Liverpool.

Someone reading this might be able to tell me what sort of train it would have been that broke down so spectacularly.

Perhaps it was actually quite common for those types of carriages with compartments to still be in use well into the era of New Labour, Britpop, Chris Evans on Radio 1 and The Sunday Show on BBC2. Yet in my head I’d reassigned them to a slightly earlier, older age. Perhaps the way I compartmentalise my own life can be as misleading as the neat division of the decades. Perhaps the 1980s only really ended in 1997.

One Foot in the Grave, 'Love and Death'