Monday, 26 January 2015

Ice Station Yorkshire

I didn't actually see a Common in Silkstone Common.  I did look.  It made me think that perhaps it was a nickname that had somehow become official; that it was the place where Silkstone residents sent the working classes to live.  I pictured Victorian parlour maids and chimney sweeps trudging up the hill to go and work in the Downton-esque kitchens of the proper Silkstonians.

Still, the commoners got the last laugh, because that railway station is a lot more valuable in the 21st century.  It was only built in 1984, explaining its single platform and slightly cheap furnishings - the Eighties in South Yorkshire were not a time of great riches.  There had been a station here before, which closed at the end of the fifties when local services were withdrawn.  It's funny how, in 2015, we're told that closing railway stations is far too expensive and difficult to get through the legal processes, when fifty years ago they seemed to close entire swathes of the network without anyone really giving a monkeys.

Silkstone Common seems to be a thriving little community, judging by the notice board outside the Station Inn.  The British Legion, a Parish Council, a call to arms to fight the withdrawal of the mobile library.  There was a schedule for the "Good Companions", an organisation that provides entertainment for the elderly: it included "Tony and Heather entertain us with songs we know" and "The Maria Penrose School of Dance come to entertain us".  I dread being infirm and trapped in an old people's home already; don't make it worse by making half a dozen Shirley Temples do the dying swan to Bad Romance when I'm too old to run away.

The village was arranged along the edge of a hill, the railway line above us, then a steep drop below.  Large detached homes were built as high up as possible so they could get a good view over the valley.  Most of them were charming, but here and there they'd been augmented by tacky extensions and grandiose features to try and make them more impressive than their neighbours.  One home had added fibreglass columns to try and impart a bit of classical grace onto their 1950s residence.  Now that was common.

A little development of new, identical houses signaled the end of the village.  The only thing separating the homes was the colour of the front doors - one green, one blue, one cream.  I wondered if they'd had a conference about who got what colour.  A fraught discussion in one of the front rooms, hissed claims for each shade being made over the rich teas.  A red rejected as too outre; yellow simply out of the question.

The cleared paths stopped at the edge of the village as well.  Beyond habitable lands you were on your own; walk at your own risk.  I trod gingerly, wearing only a pair of trainers.  The lace on my walking boots had snapped that morning, so I'd just grabbed the first shoes I saw.  A mistake as they had no grip at all on the icy pavements.

(It has literally just occurred to me, as I typed this up, that I have a perfectly good pair of Dr Martens boots that I could have worn instead.  Fool).

The view was fantastic though.  Fields stripped with white filtered through bare trees; a soft violet sun breaking through swirling clouds.  I had to keep stopping just to take it in.

Over a rise in the road and then there were farmhouses.  Cows huddled inside their sheds, close together to keep warm.  The farmer kicked his way through the yard, followed by his dog, an Irish Wolfhound that looked bigger than the cattle.  At the next farm, I couldn't see the livestock, but I could hear them, wails rising up out of the buildings.

I was surprised by the whinney of a horse from across the road.  The steep slope meant that it was hidden from view, just a head poking up over the top.

The noise and smell of the dairy farm reminded my of my Great Uncle Ted and Charlie's farm when I was growing up; Charlie had died the week before so he was on my mind.  He'd worked on the farm all his life, right up until the end, even though he was in his 80s.  Visiting the farm as a child was always a thrill, the huge cows looking down at us through gentle eyes, the piles of straw to leap on.  Ted and Charlie came as a pair - two brothers who lived together and worked together, at least until Ted passed away a few years ago and Charlie carried on alone.  They never married; had no need to with a battalion of sisters willing to take care of them.  My nan would cook their dinner for them, and Auntie Elsie would come up from London at the weekends to keep house.  We'd be visiting on a Sunday and suddenly the living room door would open and one of them would appear.  I never got straight in my head which was Ted and which was Charlie.  Both were stout blocks of men, faces permanently darkened through hours outdoors, a flat cap squat on top of their head.  Ted or Charlie would always press a coin into my little hand with thick black fingers, unmovable dirt embedded beneath the fingernails.  Gone now.

The little trip into my past had carried me into the fringes of Dodworth.  I reached the village centre, a crossroads marked by a Budgens, a bookie, and a war memorial of a proud soldier.

I passed the Dodworth Central Social Club, which was advertising an upcoming performance by "Sophie's Choice".  Seriously, just do a little Googling before you name your band.  Not much, just enough to find out where that phrase stuck in your head originated.  Naming yourself after a gut wrenching Holocaust drama starring Meryl Streep and her latest Amazing Accent is not really suitable.  Unless I'm completely wrong, and Sophie's Choice are an anti-Semitic punk band whose name is a deliberate slight on the death of millions at the hands of the Nazis, in which case, have at you.  Either way, I won't be buying a ticket.

I walked up to the station, trying to ignore a sinister looking cat with a moustache who watched me out of the front window of one of the houses.  Two doors down, a pug did the same thing; that's a hilarious sitcom just waiting to be written, isn't it?  I found a seat on the platform at Dodworth station to wait for my train south.

I got out my lunch.  It was about that time and I'd been on the go since seven.  I'm trying to be healthy at the moment; cutting out alcohol and carbs, doing more walking.  It's a bit of a strain.  Fortunately the BF is doing the same thing, so there's an element of competition to it.  Never underestimate the power of being able to feel superior to someone else because you only had a celery stick for lunch and they had celery and some peppers.

That day I had a healthy salad with the barest glimpse of vinaigrette.  It was clean living, gluten free, paleo friendly, and utterly tedious.  I crunched through the leaves with a complete lack of enthusiasm until I was too bored to eat any more.  Then I pulled out the mini packet of pretzels I'd got from the First Class attendant on the train that morning and ate those.  Pretzels are sort of healthy, aren't they?

The next stop was Barnsley.  Sorry, no: the next stop was Barnsley Interchange.  The Council went to great efforts to rebuild the railway station and the bus station next to one another, and they renamed the resulting building.

The station didn't seem anything remarkable to me.  It was good to see a town with modern transport facilities, with a well cared for platform area and a ticket hall with members of staff.  There was even a public toilet (20p to use it, but at least it was there).

Climbing up and over the tracks it became clear that the railway station was very much the junior partner in the interchange.  While the Northern part had the vague air of a leisure centre, the bus station was grandiose and loud.

I ended up on a sort of floating balcony above a multicoloured barrage of noise and flash.  Escalators carried you down to a shopping mezzanine - the smell of Subway sandwiches filled the hall - and then onto glass fronted gates for bus services.

There was something of the Millennium Dome to it all; the high roof, the bright incursions into the space, the feeling that it was just that little bit too big for its purpose.  If there had been a giant pink model of the human body and befuddled Japanese people trying to work out what it was for I wouldn't have been surprised.

I left through the grand main entrance and entered Barnsley town centre.  I was immediately greeted by some lipstick on a pig.

I understand that a giant empty office block, particularly one whose best days are long behind it, is not the best first impression to give new arrivals to the town.  Those coloured windows though... They didn't work for me.  They were so bright, they made the concrete building look even dowdier.  It also smacked of a temporary fix, like the council were just killing time until they could demolish the building.  Embrace it!  Put your arms round its ugliness and love it!

There was, it has to be said, a fair amount of ugliness in Barnsley town centre.  At some point in the past they'd tried to improve life for the residents by covering it with a huge concrete roof and pushing the market hall and shops inside.  There were footbridges linking the buildings, footbridges that served no purpose any more other than acting as a place to hang Christmas decorations and Happy Diwali signs (even though it's January).  The markets had hung a sign outside, "STILL over 200 stalls inside!" which made it sound like they were dwindling all the time.

It was ugly and unfashionable, and yet, further up the road, was a 1990s version of exactly the same building - the Alhambra Shopping Centre, another soulless mall that sucked shoppers off the main street and sealed them inside.

I followed the hill round, up to the town hall.  An open space had been laid out at one corner, complete with a piece of rusting metal modern art and flower beds that hadn't quite taken yet.  A sign urged me to "Experience Barnsley"; it turns out "Experience Barnsley" was actually the name of the town museum and art gallery.  I think that name promises more than it could possibly deliver.

I rounded back to the Interchange for the sign picture.  There were grand signs on the front of the bus portion but it wasn't quite what I was after.  I headed over to Schwabish Gmund Way (named after the twin town; there's a Barnsleyer Strasse in Germany) and found the more traditional sign by the level crossing.

Inside the bus terminal I bought a cup of tea to insulate me against the Yorkshire chill.  And a steak bake.  Steak bakes are healthy, right?

Back over the footbridge to the railway station, past a terrifying Orwellian poster from the South Yorkshire police about CCTV ("MY EYES NEVER BLINK") and then down to the platform to eat my pastie and drink my tea.  Three more stations done on the Penistone Line.  Three more to go.

Thursday, 22 January 2015


I stood on the platform.  Staring.

I know advertising execs operate on a different plain to us mere mortals, one where they think "Chocolate = a gorilla playing Phil Collins!" and "Outrageously unaffordable loans = puppets of old people!", but really.  Sign up for our new smartcard - as used by zombies!  I can only assume someone in the office said the words "dead handy" and they followed a train of thought.  A train that probably should have been derailed.

I was back in Huddersfield to complete some unfinished business.  Regular readers (hello you!) might recall an incident a couple of months ago where I had a small... moment.  I abandoned a planned trip to the Penistone Line and instead spent the day in bed feeling low and miserable.  The line remained unfinished.

So even though I was only in Huddersfield a couple of weeks ago, I'd returned to the station to polish it off.  I wasn't going to be defeated, dammit.

Besides, it's the Penistone Line: a gift to smut lovers like me.  It's got the word Penis in it.  I was barely on the train before I started yuk-yukking like Finbar Saunders.

We zoomed through white hillsides, over the county border into South Yorkshire, and stopped at Penistone.  It was a busy station, with a horde of passengers ready for their trip into Barnsley or Sheffield.  Two workmen were shoveling the snow off the platform, stacking it up at the end while their supervisor took pictures with his phone.  I assume it was for some sort of evaluation purposes, and he wasn't just admiring the fragile beauty of the wintry scene.

I do know it's pronounced Pennystun, by the way.  It's a shame.  I feel they should embrace the smuttiness of their name.  IT'S PENIS-TOWN.  Sell t-shirts and postcards and key rings.  This is Britain, home of the Carry On films: go with the fact that everyone is going to snicker when they see it written down.

Penistone used to be a junction, with a further two platforms the other side of the now closed station building.  The second line headed off to Manchester through a tunnel under the Pennines on famous Woodhead Line.  This was the first line in the country to be electrified using overhead lines, but, in a typically British fudge, the system used wasn't adopted for the rest of the country.  The Woodhead Line remained as a strange blip until British Rail decided in the early Eighties that people really wouldn't want a fast electric train route between Manchester and Sheffield and closed the whole thing.  It's part of the Trans-Pennine Trail now, though there are periodic calls for it to be rebuilt.

I'd be visiting the other end of the Woodhead Tunnels at Hadfield later on, so I headed down the slippery road outside the station into town, pausing at the bottom for a smirky sign picture.

I had an hour until the next train south so I decided to go on a walk round the town centre in search of filth.  I'd decided that Penistone must be filled with all sorts of smut and I wanted to laugh and point at every double entendre I could find, because basically I'm a twelve year old boy.

Initial signs weren't good.  Penistone seemed like a perfectly reasonable small market town.  There were chippies and dog grooming parlours (dog groomers seem to be the new tanning salon; every town has one) and a home interiors store.  They had a sign in the window advertising Bill Beaumont Textiles, and I had a quiet giggle to myself at the thought of the former rugby player squatting over a knitting machine.  I felt quite foolish when I got home and found that, yes, it is that Bill Beaumont; the former Question of Sport team captain has a family history in the world of soft furnishings.  Live and learn.

I struggled to get a decent eyebrow raise out of the Penistone Paramount, not least because it's lovely to see a small local cinema still functioning in the era of multiplexes and Netflix.  They were showing The Theory of Everything and the latest Hobbit, two films I'd only see at gunpoint, but good on them anyway.

Past the parish church, into the main street.  There was a pub called The Spread Eagle, which is sort of rude, but it looked far too classy to indulge in that sort of undignified filth.  A small cafe with gingham curtains had windows obscured by steam, while a man sat in Greggs and ate a sausage roll with calm deliberation, each mouthful carefully considered.

My attention was grabbed by the Market Hall.  Looking like an old barn, it was attractive and impressive, but I couldn't help noticing there were hardly any stalls in it, and even fewer patrons.  A glance further down the street revealed the reason: the car park of an enormous Tesco.  It was clear the timber-framed Market Hall had been built as a sweetener for the town, a deal with the devil to allow the construction of the huge superstore.  The town council had agreed, and now it found that no-one actually wanted to use the Market any more because the Tesco over the way was cheaper and you could buy a DVD and drop off your dry cleaning while you was there.

Back on the High Street a woman cowered when she saw my camera - "I don't want to be in your photos!".  I continued past a beauty salon that offered "HD Brows" - real life is High Definition; you can't do anything to your eyebrows to change that - then turned into the residential Victoria Street.  The pavements were slick with ice, so I walked slightly bow legged, each step like the start of an episode of Casualty.  When the way ahead curved down a hill I gave up and walked in the road.

I was starting to feel guilty for laughing at Penistone.  It seemed like a perfectly nice little town.  I mean, I wouldn't want to live in a town with that name.  I imagined phoning up a gas company or a credit card and giving my address.



"Can you spell that for me?" they'd say, and you'd sigh and go through it.  After the fifth letter you'd hear a little snort down the phone, or they'd get annoyed with you for wasting their time, and you'd wonder why you hadn't just bought that house in Denby Dale instead.

After twenty minutes I was back at the entrance to the station again.  It was too cold for me to just sit on the platform so I went back into town, taking a different route.  I paused at a noticeboard which informed me that the local horticultural society has a website at, a website that is probably blocked by a lot of workplaces.

Yeah, ok, I didn't feel that guilty about laughing.

Walking up the hill I got a bit of a shock when a skinhead emerged from a side passage.  He didn't come at me with a Stanley knife, nothing like that; it was just that he was 100% skinhead: bald, checked shirt with braces under a bomber jacket, jeans that were turned up just above his boots.  He was straight out of the 1970s, or rather, straight out of my family album: much to the amusement of my brother and I my mum used to be a skinhead.  Like everything that happened to your parents before you was born, this has provided hours of laughter for us.

(In the interests of tonsorial equality, I will point out that my dad spent much of the seventies with a white man afro, my brother once dyed his hair the colour of marmalade by mistake, and this very blog is an ongoing catalogue of my battles with a whole series of hairstyles that don't suit me in the slightest.)

At the top of the hill, eureka!  A smutty sign!


I'd have laughed louder except there was a funeral just arriving at the church over the way.

I figured that was as good as it would get for Kenneth Williams-esque blinders so I headed back to the station.  The workmen were still there, now shoveling the snow on the other platform, chatting about their girlfriends all the while.  To hide from the cold, I went into the waiting room, but it smelt like my rabbit's cage when it needed mucking out so instead I sat on the platform and waited for my next train.

I hoped the train would be a nice smooth modern one, not a rickety Pacer.  There's nothing worse than climbing on board for a ride then bouncing around so much you end up with a sore backside.


Sunday, 18 January 2015

Room at the Top

Bad news for Merseyrail: the House of Orange has fallen.  On January 1st Maarten Spaargaren gave up his position as MD of the railway company, bringing an end to the Dutch rule over Liverpool's railways.

Before Maarten, there was of course Bart Schmeink, who I ACTUALLY MET at a Christmas party Merseyrail generously invited me to once.  They didn't invite me again - hopefully nothing to do with all those JD and Cokes I knocked back, or me telling the man behind the Merseyrail map that the city centre square was "fucking shit" (I should say he agreed with me) - but I did attend Bart Schmeink's leaving do.  I arrived too early, skulked around at the edges eating vol-au-vents because that was easier than talking to people, and left without managing to speak to the great man himself.

I was happy when Bart was replaced by Maarten, because having a Netherlander ruling over Merseyrail seemed to work.  Customer satisfaction went up, punctuality went up, the trains and the stations all started looking a bit lovely.  They imported the M to Go concept from the Low Country, which worked, and the Bike and Go concept as well, which didn't quite as much.  Maarten has left Merseyrail for the sake of his children's education, which is appallingly selfish of him.  What about ME?

Now there's a man called Alan Chaplin running the company.  What sort of a name is that?  There's the correct number of vowels in it.  There's no satisfying "sch" sound.  It's far too English.  Alan is on a secondment from Northern, where he's more usually the Deputy MD, and I'm sure he's a lovely and very capable man.  I'm sure Merseyrail won't plunge into an abyss of horror but, just to be safe, I think Alan should attend work in an Ajax shirt and waving some tulips about.  While smoking a joint.

So instead I'm transferring my loyalties to Northern Rail in the "FavouriteManaging Director" category.  They don't have a Dutchman in charge there, either, but I'm willing to overlook that because they have Alex Hynes instead.  Alex is actually northern, which I like; admittedly, listening to him speak, he's not full on "ey up, down t'pit with me whippet" northern, but that's ok.  I like the idea of the rail operating company being run by someone who's actually got experience using it.  I bet some of the southern franchises are run by men who haven't left their air conditioned Jaguar since 1986.

Also, if I can be unashamedly shallow for a moment, Alex is a little bit sweet.  I like his teeth, and his ears: my fondness for Russell Tovey must have given you a hint that I have an inclination that way.  And now Tim seems to have left the Northern Twitter feed, Alex has moved to top spot in the Northern Rail Totty Stakes (apart from that guard on the Yorkshire Coast Line who was built like a small house and who caused me to have minor heart flutters).

I mean, GOOD LORD.

Another fact in Alex's favour: he is always travelling around the network.  I don't think he even has an office.  I think he just installs himself on the first train he sees and goes out and about.  Northern is such a weird franchise, and I'd hate to think he was just commuting in and out of Leeds on the frequently served, well maintained lines and thinking that was all his franchise was about.  I recently spent a couple of hours trying to work out how I was going to visit the stations between Pontefract and Goole, which get only three trains a day, one in the morning and two in the evening; a good MD knows about the backwaters and has seen them for himself.

But Alex's greatest asset?  He's as nerdy about travelling over Northern Rail as me, as evidenced by this from his Twitter feed:

We're clearly kindred spirits, Alex.  Give me a ring.  I'll buy you a pint.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Off Centre

Birkenhead Park is my local Merseyrail station, and I'm sneakily proud of it.  It's nice that my "home" station has a bit of history and prestige to it, rather than being just another tedious halt.  The ticket hall is a bit of a disaster, but that's not their fault: blame the Germans for that.  There's a little row of shops outside, as there should be by all urban railway stations, and it's got a fair amount of special treatment over the years.  Birkenhead Park has not one, but two ALFs, and some artwork by Stephen Hitchin.

Plus, and I realise this may be something only I appreciate, it's symmetrical.  Come down the ramp from the ticket hall and the island platform is neatly mirrored on both sides.  Utterly pleasing.

Or at least it was.  As part of the "upgrading" of the station, Birkenhead Park lost its distinctive shelter, built in the Eighties, and instead received one of those off the shelf ones that are springing up all over the network.  Fair enough; the new one is a sealed unit, so it's a lot warmer on windy February mornings than its open predecessor (though I note that one of the doors is broken already).  Behind it, there's a secure cycle storage unit.  I have yet to see any of these cycle cages occupied by more than one bike at a time, but never mind that.  The important fact is, the two new additions are not centred on the platform.

The fault lies with the new passenger shelter.  It's been aligned with the bricks on the West Kirby-bound platform, rather than centred properly.  They might have got away with it if the rest of the platform were not so regimented in its symmetry; the noticeboards give you a plumb line that means you can spot a deviation.

The cycle storage - which is wider than the shelter - compounds the error.  It pokes out from behind, but only on one side.  On the other it's flush with the edge of the shelter.

It is absolutely infuriating.  Every time I walk down onto the platform I see it.  It makes my teeth ache.  It makes me angry.  If I was the Hulk I'd rip that shelter out of its footings and slam it back into the concrete about four inches to the right.  Sadly, I'm not the Hulk.  I'm just a slightly mentally ill idiot who might have to start using Birkenhead North instead.