A ONE-DAY ROVER TICKET can be as much a curse as a blessing.
On the positive side, it turns an entire county into your plaything. You can zip from boundary to boundary and back again. You can loiter somewhere on a whim, then charge headlong towards a destination you hadn’t planned to visit. You can, if you’re that way inclined, improvise your entire schedule based purely on whatever train next passes your way. Or you can chisel out a minutely-planned itinerary and treat the whole thing like a Michael Palin-esque quest.
On the negative side, you end up barely scraping the surface of the county you’re exploring.
You can arrive in a place like, say, Blackburn, spend half an hour walking around the town centre and, save for one of the 4,000 holes, find absolutely nothing commendable.
You can only record things as you found them: that the station smelled of marijuana and the shopping centre of piss and pizza. For a former mill town, you can’t avoid concluding – with lazy irony – that Blackburn is now a place mainly for milling about.
The shopping centre, recently completed, lines its walls with no doubt sincere testimony from locals, singing the building’s praises. But given your limited exposure to the town, you can’t help concluding that something has gone terribly awry if a new retail development is what makes somebody “most proud to live in Blackburn”.
Such impressions of the place – patronising, ill-informed – will persist until I get the chance to revisit.
By contrast, my impressions of another place, Colne – inspired, though equally ill-informed – might very well be proven equally misplaced were I to revisit and experience more than just the town’s very well-tended and charming station.
Colne is at one end of the East Lancashire Line. I rode the train – a wretched Pacer – all the way to the terminus, got off, wandered around for a while, then got straight back on again for the return journey, trying desperately not too look too ridiculous.
Once the journey was under way, I squirmed in my seat as the ticket inspector – the same ticket inspector that had seen me loitering and taking photographs on Colne’s very lovely platform – approached and gave me a very knowing look.
These are the sort of prices you have to pay, along with around £20 for the ticket, when doing a spot of one-day rovering: a dash of character humiliation, a few snap generalisations, and the sense of always being around other people but always feeling alone.
I went to Morecambe, where the views across the bay were breathtaking and I felt my eyes being flattered with distances and perspectives they hadn’t experienced since the last time I’d seen the sea.
I walked to the far end of a jetty, along which a railway used to run to connect with ferries across to Scotland and Ireland.
An awful lot of money has been poured into this bit of the Lancashire coastline to repurpose an awful lot of history. That includes Oliver Hill’s majestic Midland Hotel, which I’d forgotten dwelt in Morecambe. Here was another aspect to the hit-and-miss melee of a day on the rails: stumbling upon a once read-about but long-misplaced unexpected gem.
One side of the hotel faces out across the bay; the other towards a casino, an American diner and a Morrisons. I wonder how they persuade anyone to stay in the latter.
I went to Whalley, specifically to see the viaduct, as suggested by Robert. Close up, the arches are mighty and uncompromising. From a distance, they blend with the landscape into something really rather beautiful.
I barely scraped the surface of the town, as with everywhere else I went. But from the little I saw I felt comfortable placing Whalley in the YES column.
Morecambe, thanks to the sprawling, inhospitable badlands that squatted between the seafront and the railway station, not to mention the fact that everywhere closed at 5pm and all I wanted was a cup of tea, I assigned rashly under NO along with Blackburn. And that was despite of the bay and the Midland Hotel.
Again, what do I know of these places but only what I knew when I was there.
I also called at stations I’d been before, some many times. Manchester Victoria always fascinates me, the grime mixed with the antiquity, the dank side-by-side with the splendour. It feels trapped between a catalogue of different centuries. You can stand in one place and merely by turning your head be greeted with panoramas of the Victorian, Edwardian, Wilsonian and Blarite eras – plus, now they’ve renovated the toilets, the 2010s.
Lancaster station had a more practical attraction. I remembered from a visit in 2010 there were plug sockets in the waiting rooms that I could use to recharge my mobile phone. But, as if I needed reminding of the hazards of my behaviour, the rooms – or “customer lounges” – were closed for redecoration. My phone died for an hour or so (in Morecambe, worse luck) before a passing Pendolino reconnected me with the connected.
I did one other thing while I shuttled around the county. I listened. Not actively – or rather, not aggressively, my ear shoved round the corner of the seat in front of me. No, I listened when there was stuff to hear. Which was often.
On the train from Liverpool to Manchester:
“Don’t start, cos I’ll wait outside your fucking work and twat you. I ain’t arsed! I’m from fucking Birkenhead!”
From Colne to Preston:
“Did you see Charlie? Did he bring his woman with him? He’ll be an old man when he finally gets to sit on the throne. That’s if poor Liz will let him.”
From Lancaster to Morecambe:
“I’ve got the lasagne, the bread and a bag of Italian salad, but I just couldn’t decide on the wine.”
From Wigan North Western to Liverpool:
“That’s where they make your glass.”
From Manchester to Blackburn:
“It wants to bite you. Why don’t you let it and see what happens?”
Whenever I go back to the north-west I’m reminded of how I didn’t appreciate and experience enough of the place when I lived there. And now, returning not as a resident but as a visitor, my feelings are always tempered by the knowledge that I’m just passing through, and I leave full of regrets. Roaming the county by rail exaggerates this sensation, for both good and ill.
It’s only by returning that I’ve started to realise quite how much I left behind.
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.
I LIVED IN LIVERPOOL FOR 12 YEARS and in all that time Lime Street station barely changed.
It was a dependable constant. Apart from the day a tea urn exploded on the concourse, nothing unusual or unexpected ever seemed to happen. Little was added, even less was taken away. The whole place felt stubbornly – reassuringly – resistant to anything that bore the tiniest whiff of redevelopment.
Then in 2006 I moved to London, and the inevitable happened. Lime Street changed. On every return visit, there appeared to be a new feature or modification. Shops. “Customer” lounges. Even the handrails and balustrades were replaced.
Above all, for the first time in possibly decades, the station’s exterior was allowed to actually resemble an exterior, thanks to the demolition of a hideous tower block and removal of the rather charming greasy cafe that used to live in its bowels. The decision to replace both with nothing whatsoever has given Lime Street space to command your attention and respect.
Of course the suddenness of all these transformations is entirely illusory. Had I been living in the city it would not have felt hasty at all. And it would be facile of me to deny that the changes have not brought improvements. That empty space between platforms seven and eight was always crying out for some kind of waiting room (though not, perhaps, an exclusive “customer lounge”).
Nonetheless, as I arrived to begin my first day of travelling with my North West Rover ticket, it was slightly comforting to find the station as chilly as ever. As long as I can remember (insert Wonder Years-esque musical cue) Lime Street has always been cold, regardless of time, month and season.
Given this was the only day I would be able to start and end my travels in Liverpool, I wanted to cover as much of the bottom half of the Rover “region” as possible. I’d come up with a route that resembled a giant loop snaking across to Huddersfield and back again. And here it is! Apologies for the rather amateurish doctoring of a, erm, official map. You can click to enlarge:
It all looked rather ambitious. And it proved to be almost over-ambitious.
The upside was that, given I was fairly familiar with most of the towns and cities through which I’d be passing, I wasn’t bothered about spending any time checking them out.
The downside was that by opting for a timetable built upon a sequence of very tight changes, including one with only two minutes’ grace, the slightest slip-up would send everything to pot.
Naturally this happened within about an hour of setting off.
I began by taking the train from Lime Street to Manchester Piccadilly. This has always been one of my favourite journeys, and not just for the route, which soars above the rooftops of the Liverpool suburbs, inches high above the Manchester Ship Canal (twice), then threads its way gingerly round Salford’s smoky tops, side streets and snaky waterways before the approach into the splendour of Piccadilly station.
I travelled this way hundreds of time when I was younger, en route to see friends, relatives, films, gigs or simply the city itself.
As such, what for most people is just a drab commute has now become, for me, a rather shamelessly sentimental voyage that allows me to wallow in bittersweet nostalgia. Oh dear. Funny how the most ordinary of things can take on extraordinary resonances thanks to the passing of time.
Anyway, I talked a little about this trip down memory lane, along with my plans for the rest of the day, in an audio clip I recorded on the platform at Piccadilly station:
And here is where things went awry. For in taking the time to do (and, indeed, redo) this slice of indulgent waffle, I missed my connection to Salford Crescent. I actually saw it leave from one end of the platform while I stood, hapless and pathetic, at the other.
This meant that my entire schedule for the rest of the day was kind of in tatters.
However there was now an unexpected development. For if I had caught that train, I would not, in waiting for the next one, have found myself standing a few metres away from Ray Gosling:
And had I caught that train I would also not, upon boarding the next one, have found myself once again standing a few metres away Ray Gosling.
Nobody else seemed to be aware of who he was. Or if they were, they were doing their best to look ignorant.
For his part, Gosling was sitting at a table appearing to do some sums in a notebook, breaking off now and then to finger some tatty photocopies in a clear plastic wallet marked, unsurprisingly, PHOTOCOPIES.
I decided to approach. For a brief moment I contemplated covertly recording our conversation, but thought better of it. Instead I decided simply to wish him well and shake his hand.
He recoiled slightly as I loomed over him but once he established I meant no ill-will, he visibly relaxed, reached out to grab my hand, and urged me to write to the BBC to get him his job back.
He looked, I’m afraid, in a bad way. Yet his predicament, it now seems, is one he largely brought upon himself, and the sympathy he won earlier in the year misplaced. Well, perhaps not misplaced, just misdirected. He remains, however, something of a broadcasting legend, and hence I was glad to have had this brief if bizarre encounter.
At Salford Crescent I caught a train into Manchester Victoria where, after pausing to take some photos of the beautiful regional train map painted above one of the stone entrances, hopped on a train that at least was heading in the direction of Huddersfield, via Rochdale and Todmorden.
I was surprised how quickly I found myself leaving the melancholy sprawl of Greater Manchester behind. It was a bright, blustery day and South Yorkshire looked in fine fettle.
Some hasty computations using (geek alert) the absolutely fantastic Train Times iPhone app suggested that were I too break my journey at Hebden Bridge, then catch another train to Mirfield, I could – with a good following wind – pick up the train I originally intended to take to Huddersfield.
This good news was compounded by what I found at Hebden Bridge, a place I hadn’t intended to visit. I’m very glad I did:
It’s a charming station that self-consciously plays up its heritage (no bad thing) and its proximity to the Rochdale canal (ditto).
There was a gorgeous smell of cooking enveloping the platform. I tore myself away from it for a short walk along the bank of the canal, where one evocative whiff was replaced with another: smoke from the engine of a barge. The place was pretty much deserted apart from a duck. A crisp autumn breeze made the leaves whirl around my feet. Hills rose up on all sides. It was one of those moments.
Back on the platform, while making use of the unusually excellent toilets (something that becomes a recurring ritual when spending the day travelling on a rover ticket, though a far from uniformly excellent one), I wondered if an “Up” train was what I needed to catch. There was absolutely no other information in evidence as to which side of the tracks I needed to be.
I took a gamble and stayed put; I was right. The train rolled in on time and I was able to make it to Mirfield with precisely 120 seconds to spare before the connection to Huddersfield. But not before passing through Brighouse, an occasion I marked by calling up a particular tune and treating myself to the curious tone of the cornet, clarinet and big trombone.
Anyway, I needed every one of those 120 seconds. To get to the right platform at Mirfield, it turned out I had to leave the station, cross a main road, climb a flight of steps and enter a different part of the station entirely. All of which I did with just enough time to see my previous train depart and my new train arrive:
Then it was on to Huddersfield, a place I’ve never been before. I would have liked to have had some time to explore, and at the very least to have seen the outside of the station, which is a Grade 1 listed building.
But there was no time. To stay on schedule I needed to catch a train back to Manchester Piccadilly that was due in about five minutes. I poked my camera lens through some railings to record the fact that I’d been there, then it was back on board for some sweeping views of the area including, tantalisingly (geek alert), the Emley Moor transmitter: the tallest freestanding structure in the UK.
The line back to Manchester was different from that I took earlier; this one went via Stalybridge and Gorton. I had to move carriages at one point because a drummer, who was sitting on the floor, started practising his paradiddles. Loudly.
I then had an old man come and sit next to me and tell me of how he was heading into Manchester to buy a new coat to replace the one he’d lost at a football match at the weekend. He said I looked like I was a student a Huddersfield University. Seeing as I graduated 13 years ago I wasn’t sure whether to be irked or flattered.
Back at Piccadilly station there was just enough time to buy some food and to ride on the travelator. I very much approve of travelators and remain forever perplexed as to why there aren’t more in this country. In fact, apart from the one at Waterloo station in London, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen another. If they were more ubiquitous, hopefully more people would be familiar with the two basics of travelator etiquette: don’t stand still and don’t try to run.
Having had an enjoyable day so far, I was due a bit of a low. One duly arrived in the shape of the train from Manchester to Chester.
This was a dreaded Pacer. I remembered these – not fondly – from years ago. I am amazed they are still in service. They are absolutely wretched. Non-profane phrases that come close to describing these awful things include cattle truck, dirt wagon, crate on wheels and dust bucket. Bouncing around in one during the long journey to Chester subtracted all enjoyment from proceedings, besides ruining any appreciation of the rather lovely Cheshire countryside between Northwich and Delamere.
From the looks of my fellow passengers, nobody was enjoying the journey either. The fixtures and fittings matched the prevailing mood. The toilet had no lock on it. The engine sounded like it belonged inside a third generation Transit van. And propped up in the corner of the carriage was, of all things, a ladder.
They’re meant to be used in emergencies, but to get from where to where? As far away as possible from a Pacer, presumably.
A glance at Wikipedia reveals these rank beasts are used exclusively in the UK with one exception: the Islamic Republic of Iran Railways.
I was immensely relieved to be rid of this train once I got to Chester, but we would meet again before the week was out.
By now time was getting on and I hurried to complete the last leg of day one: a journey from Chester up the Wirral. Not before capturing this sweet little display on Chester platform:
And this not so endearing arrangement:
To be fair Chester station is undergoing a clearly major refurbishment, but I failed to see the need to keep passengers away from the timetables, especially as the “wet paint” on the supporting posts was in fact bone dry.
I was now among early commuters and people returning from a day out over the water:
But I was also back in the quietly reassuring arms of Merseyrail, who carried me up through the likes of Brombrough Rake and Port Sunlight (surely among the most evocative-sounding stations in the country) to Hamilton Square, where I changed on to a connecting service that took me to the end of the line at West Kirby.
My dad was brought up in these parts and I know them fairly well. I marked the occasion by walking out to the shoreline where, as has always been the case as far back as I can remember, the tide was out and the wind was up:
Then I pulled my coat up around chin and scurried back to the station for a train to Liverpool Central and, courtesy of The Lobster Pot, the finest portion of chips and beans I’d tasted for five summers.