The English Channel: sailed across by the wise and stately; flown over by the rash and foolish.
For many years I held that belief. I spouted it widely, to ever-narrowing minds. Then, like all the other demented dictums and moist-eyed theories you concoct as a teenager, I dumped it.
I still think it’s silly to fly over the Channel. What changed was the arrival, in 1994, of a third option.
What sort of person, I now wondered, chose to travel under the sea by train? More to the point, who had the means to do such a dazzling thing?
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.