Friday, 22 May 2015
A clever man would have thought "twelve miles of walking - that's enough for one day." I am not a clever man.
For some reason, part of me thought, "hey, why not chuck another couple of stations in there? They're only a mile and a half apart! You could practically jump that!" On a normal day, yes. As it was, I hobbled off the train at Goldthorpe. One of my legs tried to seize up on the train, resulting in a great deal of panicky flexing. I had at least one blister I was aware of; my other foot was numb, so at least I didn't have any pain there. My legs no longer met in the middle, so I walked like Fay Wray after her first night with King Kong.
The coat was back on. The rain shower at Thurnscoe had turned out to be brief but violent, but it had taken me so long to get the sweaty mess out of my bag and onto my body - the wet sleeves causing me to shudder as I dragged them over my naked arms - that I'd decided to just put up with it. If it turned me into the walking equivalent of Count Lippe in a steam cabinet, so be it; I just wanted this damn thing to be over with.
The more I walked though, the better my legs got. They readjusted to the movement, and soon I was walking at my normal pace. It helped that there was a downward slope from Goldthorpe to Bolton-on-Dearne, so I had gravity giving me a hand. It's stopping that kills me; if I just keep going, I'm fine.
You don't need to be Sherlock to work out what happened here.
I passed houses and a school with a fence made out of brightly coloured giant pencils. Ahead of me was a mum and a nan walking their little girl home from school, the girl doing figures of eight around them in her excitement at it being the end of the day. Across the road, four teenagers still in uniform huddled together in a way that looked ridiculously suspicious. There was probably one cigarette in the centre of that huddle and they were all daring each other to smoke it.
Google Maps tried to send me through a cemetary, but I ignored it so that I could go down Station Road. I always like to follow the railway's legacy. Twenty minutes after leaving Goldthorpe, and I could see the ramps and steps of Bolton-on-Dearne station in the distance. I still had three quarters of an hour until my train, and now I felt positively buoyant, so I turned left into the village to buy a drink.
When I am Exalted Leader of the Universe, every station will have a small shop attached. Just a little one that sells papers and sweets and drinks. Nothing fancy. It'll be somewhere for commuters on their way into work, somewhere for mums to buy a liquorice stick to keep their kids quiet on the train. It'll be the kind of place that'll stop tired and harassed bloggers from having to walk for frigging ages just to find a bottle of orange juice.
Chippies, hair salons, even a funeral director, but not one little Asian man in a corner shop. Finally I happened across a Tesco Metro and I was able to finally get something to quench my thirst. I even treated myself to a packet of Munchies. When I was little, they were always on the expensive end of the sweets scale, so buying them now always carries with it a slight air of decadence.
I strolled back to the station. There was a handy example of the decline of Western civilisation on the corner; a stout Carnegie Library that was now a fitness studio offering boxing and Zumba. Books and knowledge had been replaced with weights and protein shakes and a reverence for physiques over brains.
Bolton-on-Dearne station is just a couple of platforms. There's no ticket office. There's only a tiny car park. It serves a small village. Yet it has some of the most ludicrously over the top ramps and steps that I have ever seen.
That's not a station, it's a game of Mousetrap. I understand making a station accessible for all is a priority, and a laudable one, but there were ramps that lead to other ramps that lead to steps. There were separate steps and ramps to access the same platform. There was a bridge to cross the tracks, even though there was a perfectly good road bridge right next to it.
I wondered if perhaps they had a load of steel left over - perhaps Barnsley Council had aborted plans to build a replica of the Eiffel Tower - because I couldn't see any other reason for it all.
A train back to Leeds, and soon I was on the TransPennine Express to Liverpool. I'd treated myself to First Class, and sat opposite me was a Virgin air stewardess. We'd barely left Leeds station before she unpacked a mirror, two make up bags and a pair of hair straighteners. Over the course of three quarters of an hour, she picked, shined and glossed every part of her face. There were powders and creams. She painted her nails. She varnished her lips. She plugged her straighteners into the laptop charger and created a new hairstyle for herself: straight on one side, curly on the other, the hair smoking as she forced it to comply.
Part of me considered this sort of behaviour unbearably rude - it was a train, not Audrey's Salon - but another part was fascinated. Especially since, if I'm honest, I couldn't really notice the difference. When she got off the train at Manchester Victoria, she looked basically the same; her hair was the only thing that had been transformed utterly. She was a pretty girl when she got on and she was a pretty girl when she got off.
What a faff, I thought. Thank goodness I'm a man. Thank goodness all I have to do to my face is wash it in the morning and shave it. Apart from the moustache, of course. That needs to be maintained. That needs to be shaped and trimmed. Grey hairs need to be carefully removed. Moustache oil might be needed to keep it in the correct style. I might need to get one of those little face hammocks Poirot wears in Murder on the Orient Express.
I shaved the moustache off the next morning.
Thursday, 21 May 2015
Darton. That was the problem.
I'd collected a load of South Yorkshire, as you can see, but Darton was still out there on its own. I should have got it when I did Barnsley - that would have been the logical answer - but instead I went south to Wombwell.
My eyes drifted to the right. I suppose I could always collect Darton, then wander over to Thurnscoe, I thought. It couldn't be that far. I know that it's a diagram, technically, not a map, so the distances are theoretical, but I was sure it would be walkable. A few taps into Google Maps and the Ordnance Survey and I'd found a reasonable walk. The Dearne Way, a long distance footpath, followed the route of the river almost from one station to the other - there would only need to be a slight diversion at the end - so I could have a gentle stroll through pretty scenery as well as crossing stations off my list. I did a quick calculation, cross referenced with timetables, and gave myself five hours to walk the twelve miles between stations. Easy.
Best laid plans, etc.
I blame Northern for the confusion that followed, because naturally, I am never wrong. Two services leave Leeds station for Sheffield within seven minutes of one another; the stopping service leaves from platform 17b at 09:33, and the fast service leaves platform 17a at 09:40. I wanted the stopping service, but somehow I got the two trains confused in my head. As I say, it's probably Northern's fault, or perhaps Network Rail's: you really shouldn't put two such similar services on the same length of platform. That's just asking for trouble.
Actually, no, I blame Starbucks. I'd violated my own personal boycott (pay some taxes you bastards) because I was thirsty and tired, so I bought a small latte. This violation of my principles probably shifted my brain off its axis, and the caffeine didn't help either. The point is that I watched the 09:33 train chug off into the distance while I stood, impotently, next to a train I didn't need.
I went back to the mezzanine to rethink my plans. As I did, the skies darkened, and a Biblical amount of rain hammered against the glass wall. The BBC's weather app had warned of heavy showers, so I'd worn my raincoat even though it was May, but I hadn't realised they would be of such mammoth proportions. As the drops pinged and popped on the roof I recalculated.
I'd have to rule out the gentle saunter, that was for sure. And the hideous weather put me off a stroll by the river. The OS map had been full of words like "pond" and "disused canal" while the path threaded between different branches of the river. It would at the very least be muddy, at the worst, flooded. I didn't want to walk four miles and find the route impassable.
Google Maps calculated a walking route for me, along roadsides instead of country paths, and said it would take three hours, fifty three minutes. I had four hours.
It was a race.
It meant that I got off the train at Darton a bit jumpy, a bit tense, a bit anxious. I barrelled out of the station, past two women having a fag in the car park, and found the inadequate sign by the railway bridge.
Oh, and I had a moustache. I forgot to mention that. I'd let my facial hair run wild the last few weeks, but had decided to shave it off. At the last minute, though, I opted to leave my top lip untouched. I've never been a moustache person, so I wondered what I'd look like. I was hoping for Paul F Tompkins:
A bit suave and gentlemanly, a little roguish. The BF was more critical: "You look like a sex pervert, and not even the good kind. Get rid of it."
If only he hadn't said "get rid of it"! Instantly my stubbornness kicked in. If you tell me to do something, I will not do it, just on principle. If he'd said, "I think you look better without it, but obviously, it's your face," I'd have probably taken another look and thought, "maybe I do look like I hang around children's playgrounds with my hands in my pockets". By saying "get rid of it," though, my bloody mindedness kicked in, and I decided to keep it for a bit longer.
Yes, living with me is an absolute joy.
It was this same determined, stupid refusal to be wrong that drove me up the hill from Darton station at an incredibly fast pace. I knew now that I had to make it to Thurnscoe in time for my train. It was no longer a vague, hopeful aspiration; I had to beat Google Maps' prediction. It gave me a seven minute leeway, but that was assuming nothing went wrong, and didn't take into account me snapping photos or avoiding big dogs or getting lost. I didn't just want to beat Google Maps' predicted time, I wanted to do it with plenty of time to spare.
A hail storm kicked in as I crowned the hill. There was a modern primary school behind the houses, bright colours and curved walls, but I was more interested in the site of the old school on the main road. It had been demolished, leaving a walled in patch of scarred concrete and wildflowers, with only the occasional sign of its old purpose.
Darton turned into Mapplewell, which immediately made me think of Robert Mapplethorpe, and gave everything a slightly kinky frisson. (If you don't know who Robert Mapplethorpe is, don't Google him). It turned a perfectly ordinary South Yorkshire town into a hotbed of filthy depravity, and it amused me to think of the old ladies who passed me as wearing nipple clamps under their housecoats, or the car park behind the high street being a dogging hot spot.
The road twisted and the landscape changed. These were, technically, towns outside Barnsley, but in reality they were its fringes. A dual carriageway sliced through rows of 1930s housing, with grass verges behind the old country walls. A new health centre was incongruously shiny and bright amidst the greyer homes.
There was a working man's club with its doors wide open to let the smokers have easy access to the car park. Inside everything looked dark, but I could see the rounded heads of some of the patrons silhouetted against the back window. In the car park was a meat van. Two old ladies chatted up at the butcher, framed by red and blue notices about chops and brisket.
The swathe of green between Athersley and Barnsley wasn't down to forward thinking planners. There used to be coal mines throughout the Dearne Valley, but now they're gone, closed by That Bloody Woman and demolished. Nature has reclaimed what was there, and the Council has made the best of it and declared patches a country park. From my vantage point, it was impossible to imagine that when I was born, there were mines all across the distant landscape. It had been erased from the map.
I was still carrying myself at a strong pace. The rain had long since departed, leaving me with the classic Englishman's dilemma: coat or no coat? I carried on wearing my heavy overcoat because the BBC had promised more rain, even though by now it was damp on the inside with sweat. I didn't have time to stop and take it off, anyway. Had to keep going. Had to keep up the pace.
Excellent marketing there, Monk Bretton. Although it does look like the monk is shrugging, a bit like he's saying "what the hell are you coming here for?". Which was unfair, because Monk Bretton was a perfectly lovely little suburb. I pushed through it, taking inspiration from its holy namesake and refusing temptation:
As I walked I thought of an old friend. At college I had shared a house with a girl who was from the Dearne Valley, and every time I saw its name, on a road sign, on a notice, she came into my head. Shortly after we graduated, she had a baby, and I realised that baby was going on seventeen now. So very old.
Time moves on, and so do people, and though we saw each other a couple of times afterwards, life had taken us off in different directions. She moved away from Yorkshire years ago. Still, I waved a virtual hello to her across the valley.
The road curled its way down the hillside, homes on one side, trees on the other. I came across one of the most pleasing pieces of vandalism I've ever seen:
I like to imaging the local youths reacting with horror when they saw the missing apostrophe, and sneaking out under cover of darkness with magic markers.
Waiting for the pedestrian crossing light to change at Cundy Cross I suddenly realised how tired my legs were. I'd pushed them as hard as I could all the way from Darton, and as I stood staring at the little red man I could feel them shuddering. I was still, but every muscle in them was pinging like a rubber band. Stopping finally allowed my brain to register that maybe they were suffering a bit.
It didn't matter; I had to keep going. Three hours, fifty three minutes was lodged in my head. I had to get to Thurnscoe in time for that train, for my own sake if nothing else. If I managed to get there in time then I could excuse my mistake at the station. If I made it, that error was irrelevant; if I didn't, then I had compounded my own stupidity. I was racing against myself and my self.
The road leveled out at the bottom of the river valley by the Mill of the Black Monks, a historic water mill now converted into a restaurant called Boccelli's. I imagined the owners having a conversation in thick northern accents, trying to decide the name of their new venture. "Who's that singer you like? Blind fella?"
"He's Italian, in't he? That'll do."
(For the purposes of this dialogue, the new owners are Jack and Vera Duckworth).
Finally I got a glimpse of the actual River Dearne. If I'd gone with my original walk, I'd have probably been down there somewhere. Instead I crossed over the river on a bland road bridge and passed the local tip and industrial squares (these gates are LOCKED at 7pm; any later opening must be pre-arranged).
There was a confluence of A-roads, merging into a vast roundabout by a B&Q and a McDonalds. The stench of fried food reminded me that I hadn't eaten my lunch, and that I didn't actually have time to stop and eat it. Worse, I'd decided to go all fancy, and had bought a sushi snack pack from Tesco instead of an old fashioned sandwich. You can't eat sushi on the go.
I turned north, onto another dual carriageway, but a far more civilised one. It wasn't an "urban clearway"; it was a well-designed, well laid out piece of road with a grass verge down the centre. I passed another working man's club, advertising its "Party in the (Car) Park" in July, and then the crematorium. Countryside was sneaking in on every side, and the road was rising again. I gasped for breath. I passed a series of bus stops, all of which went in my direction, and considered just collapsing in the shelter and paying Stagecoach to take me onward. No, I thought. No. I had to do this.
Let me tell you, not ONE person driving past that sign was doing 50. They all slammed on their accelerator the minute the houses vanished.
I slogged onwards, trying to work out why I thought walking twelve miles was a good idea. When I've done long walks before - south from Chathill, for example - it's been because I've been stranded without access to an alternative. There were plenty of alternatives here. I could have waited for the next train from Darton, changed in Barnsley, and got a train out to Thurnscoe. It wouldn't have taken five hours. It'd barely have scraped in at two. And I'd have been able to stop off in Barnsley and get something decent to eat and maybe a pint. My bloody mindedness struck again, that bit of me that says "just getting off a train and waiting for the next one" is some kind of cheat. I have so many rules in my head, rules of how I can and can't behave, things I can and can't do, rules that literally no-one else cares about but I have to follow. I don't know what would happen if I didn't. Nothing. But they're there.
It's not exactly the Millennium Dome, is it?
A hearse appeared on the right hand side, heading to that crematorium I'd seen earlier no doubt, and behind it was a long tailback of traffic. They all respectfully refused to overtake the hearse, and so car after truck after van crawled along the country road. There's no real need for hearses to drive slow these days, is there? I'm not suggesting they get go-faster stripes and a giant fin to help with wind resistance, but I don't think anyone has seen a hearse travelling at 30 and thought "how disgusting". Further along the line, a motorbike suddenly pulled out of the crawl and whizzed up the side of the traffic. I wondered what he'd do when he saw that the cause of the hold-up was a corpse: would he fall back into line, shamefaced, or burn past - possibly with a wheelie?
It still wasn't raining, and it didn't look like it was going to rain any time soon, and I was still wearing that damn coat. Two hours of power walking had turned its interior into a soggy mess. My t-shirt clung to me all over. I cursed Tomasz Schafernacker, and Ben Rich, and all the other sweetly attractive nice boys of the BBC Weather team. I'd have welcomed a rain shower right then, a good heavy one that would have scrubbed me clean.
I made a decision. When I rounded a corner and saw a bench I decided to stop. I peeled the coat off my body and wedged it into my bag. I sat down and tried to eat a sushi roll. It wouldn't take. My mouth was so dry the rice just became clammy and indistinct in my mouth; the tension had also shrunk my stomach muscles so much, I didn't think they could actually swallow. I finished off one of my two bottles of water and then gambled.
I'd had Google Maps running on my phone the whole time, because the change of plan meant I needed to keep an eye on where I was going. I'd left it with the route highlighted and that three hours, fifty three minutes at the bottom of the screen. I'd been walking for two hours. I recalculated, asking the app to plan a route from my current position to Thurnscoe station. The result came back.
One hour seventeen minutes. 3.8 miles.
I almost whooped. I was way ahead of schedule. Ridiculously so. If I'd walked like a normal person, I'd only be halfway. As it was, at my current speed, I'd reach Thurnscoe with an hour to spare. I'd beaten myself, and I'd beaten Google Maps. I was a winner. (I was also a loser, but you knew that already).
So of course, a certain amount of laziness kicked in. I slowed my walk down to a pace that would be recognised by a human being. I took in the view. Getting rid of my coat felt so much better, so much more refreshing. All that sweat meant that I was basically walking along in a wet t-shirt - if I was a woman, my permanently hardened nipples would probably have caused an accident - but I could already feel it drying in the sun.
Through Darfield, with its pretty houses and greens, though the old-looking pub had been turned into a Thai restaurant. They always are; I'm not sure why that particular cuisine is so keen on ex-hostelries. I've lost count of the number of boozers I've seen where the Pig and Gauntlet sign has been covered with a tarp: "COMING SOON: The Bangkok Lounge".
I crossed the Dearne again, this time in the opposite direction. The sign said it was private fishing, for the benefit of the "Houghton Main and Dearne Valley Miner's Welfare" only. Further along, another relic of the past came in the form of the abandoned remains of a railway bridge.
There was once a line from Derby to Leeds passing through here, but when Beeching came along, it was restricted to freight only. Other sections still remain, but this part suffered from subsidence due to the extensive mine workings. The traffic couldn't justify the expense of shoring it up, and it was lifted in the Eighties. Darfield station had been here, but now it was just a mass of trees on an embankment. You'd only know what it was if you looked hard.
I followed Google's suggestion - now I'd beaten it, we were pals - and cut off the corner between the A635 and the Rotherham Road, ducking down a side road. At first there were large homes, with new ones being squeezed into gaps between them, and then there was nothing. Just tarmac and hedges and a view over the fields.
I was strolling along, happily lost in my own world. It was shattered when a driver passed and roared out the window at me - not because I was in his way, just to make me jump. Job done: I reacted like a cat dropped into a vat of hot lava. I'm not sure what the point of it was though. He was gone so fast he couldn't have seen my reaction. The only result was that he annoyed a complete stranger. It introduced tension I didn't need.
Middlecliff was a grim little village, the road made into a chicane to discourage joy riders, and then I was back on the pavement-less country roads. Soft fields of crops waved in the wind, whispering. The hot sun baked my forehead.
Then another car went past, a black Fiesta, and they leaned on their horn and made me jump again.
I shan't tell you what I said - my mother reads this blog - but it was filled with charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. I'm sorry South Yorkshire, but your drivers are twats. Once is happenstance; twice is the sign of a county that needs to get a grip on its idiots.
I encountered another railway bridge, but from a different line, the Dearne Valley Railway. It was a reminder of how interconnected the railways and the collieries had been, with sidings and branches threading all across the district to get the coal away to ports and cities. Now it was all gone.
The sight of Thurnscoe on the horizon cheered me immensely. I was nearly there! Even with my pace slowed down after I BEAT GOOGLE, I was still exhausted. My thighs and knees were straining; my feet hated every single step. I longed for a decent sit down. That was it.
There has been a farming village here since Roman times; it was recorded in the Domesday Book as Terunsc. The tower of the church dates from the eleventh century, and there are houses dating from the 17th century in the village. I'm telling you all this because I couldn't give a stuff about taking in its scenic highlights at that point. All I wanted to do right then was find the station and, hopefully, a bench.
I staggered along the road, no doubt looking like one of the walking dead, in pain and exhausted. Twice I was nearly mown down by people in invalid cars; can we not get them to fit bells to the handlebars or something? I passed an Asda, and a sports ground, and my main thought as I saw them was where the effing frig is your god damned station Thurnscoe?
I was ecstatic to see the station sign. Overjoyed. Grinning like a fool, I crossed the road and positioned myself underneath.
Medical students may wish to compare and contrast my face there with my face outside Darton station, and use it as a reference point for "exhaustion".
Up some steps (damn you!) and then I was on the platform, taking in the wonderful beauty that was a station bench. I sank into it happily. There was half an hour until the train was due, and I fully intended not moving from that spot until it arrived.
Then it began to rain.
Thursday, 14 May 2015
I was innocently enjoying the walk from Morecambe to Heysham, the sun beating down on me, the sea gently whispering to my side. Until I saw it.
Poking out from behind the headland, the square bulk of Heysham Nuclear Power Station. The prospect of leukemia and atomic armageddon dropped a big pail of cold water on me. For the rest of the walk, the power station would occasionally peek into view, like that giant hedgehog in Monty Python who'd appear over the rooftops and whisper "Dinsdale?" in a sinister tone.
It was a definite distraction from the scenic beauty, which was a shame, because the council had really done their best to make it a good place to walk. More than that, they'd made it a place to exercise. There were markers every 100m for the joggers. For the slightly less active, there were balance beams, and low climbing walls, and space for star jumps. I didn't see a single person use them, but full marks for the effort.
In the main, my fellow walkers were either pensioners or children. The pensioners strolled from their retirement homes and flats along the front, out for a constitutional. The children were balls of overstuffed energy, ready to explode at the nearest swing. A throng of tiny toddlers in high-vis jackets were being corralled by some playgroup leaders. The Scottish leader of the group was patiently and politely telling the children their plans for the day - "we'll walk to the park first" - while below her, a dozen three year olds fizzed and shook like Mentos in Diet Coke.
The path broke away from the sea front by a field of tired looking horses, and I turned inland towards Heysham village. I'd expected a more down-at-heel version of Morecambe, so I was surprised to find a remarkably scenic little village green surrounded by antique shops and tea rooms.
There was a long stretch of parkland, with some pretty old whitewashed houses around it. Further on were newer developments, cul-de-sacs of detached homes and executive villas, and all I could think was you know there's a nuclear power station just round the corner, don't you?
When I visited Seascale, just downwind from Sellafield, the village had a vaguely pre-apocalyptic air to it. It wasn't overrun with deformed zombies, true, but there was a definite feel of fear and tension as I wandered the streets. Heysham was the exact opposite; Heysham felt like any other Lancashire town, just one that happened to have a vast atom-splitting device at the end of the road. I was walking along the streets thinking if anything goes wrong in that plant right now, you are dead. That's it. No escape. You'll be a blasted shadow they'll find on the tarmac. Meanwhile old people on bikes were laughing as they rolled down the hill like an advert for match.com.
I descended the hill, past the tiny cafe at Half Moon Bay. It was doing a roaring trade with walkers and dog owners. I was intrigued to see the cafe flying the Chinese flag; I decided that these were the least discreet spies on earth, trying to steal Heysham's nuclear secrets while being blatantly obvious. MI6 were ignoring them on the grounds that no-one would be that stupid; meanwhile, Agent Yung had just nicked fifty pounds of uranium.
Behind the cafe was a sprawling industrial estate. Freight trucks lined up in pens, ready for the trip on the ferry to the Isle of Man. It was also popular with the local learner drivers, practicing their three point turns on empty streets. I wandered through the high metal fences until I reached the edge of the port.
It's a shame that ports are such ugly places. Your first introduction to a new country, and all you can see is parked up Tesco lorries and barbed wire. You don't arrive in romantic Lancashire when you disembark at Heysham; you alight amidst car parks and disheveled aluminium sheds.
That's even without the nuclear power station, which was now incredibly close. I was suddenly aware that I was a lone walker with no car and a backpack. I braced myself for the Special Branch officers to leap out of the undergrowth to interrogate me at gunpoint, but none came. I guess if I was called Samir instead of Scott it might have been a different story.
I turned into the ferry terminal entrance as an oversized load emerged from the power station entrance, a low-loader with a gigantic piece of tarpaulin-covered equipment on the back. Naturally I assumed it was some highly dangerous bit of radioactive material, so I was disconcerted to see the driver gassing on his mobile as he drove it away. Pay attention, mate; one bump and you could be scattering contamination across Morecambe Bay.
The Isle of Man ferry had already come in and discharged its passengers, so I wandered into a relatively quiet terminal building. I had an hour until my train so I went to buy a cup of tea. I had to queue because there was one woman being served and she was unfeasibly chatty. She would not shut up, consulting with the man behind the counter about the various flavours of biscuit on display, explaining about her journey, dragging her poor husband up to give his opinion on the coffee. The shopkeeper glanced over her grey head at me and we locked eyes; he looked like a hostage trying to silently plead for the sweet release of death.
I drank my tea and watched as the car mustering area slowly filled up outside. There must have been some kind of rallying event on the Isle of Man that weekend; a number of the 4x4s were pulling trailers with cars on the back, or mysterious pods that looked as if they'd unfold to reveal souped up motorcycles like in Never Say Never Again. The tv screens in the terminal were showing a Top Gear video, but fortunately the sound was muted, so I could ignore it.
I've never been to the Isle of Man, and I began to wonder how much it actually cost to get there. I considered wandering over to the ticket office and making a couple of enquiries, but I was sure I'd end up being talked into a trip and next thing I knew I'd be phoning the BF from halfway across the Irish Sea. "Yes, I seem to be in Douglas. I'm not sure how." I'll have to make the trip someday, because I've lived in Birkenhead for nearly 20 years and the only boat I've ever boarded here was the Mersey Ferry. That seems wrong.
When I'd finished my tea and seen far more of Richard Hammond's face than I ever wanted to, I made my way out to the railway station. It butts straight into the ferry terminal, which sounds like a fantastic boon to intermodal travel, but is actually no use at all as it only gets one train a day.
Incidentally, I'm not sure why the timetable says "Heysham Harbour", when everywhere else it's referred to as "Heysham Port". Maybe they're trying to take it upmarket.
Heysham Port itself used to be a lot busier, with a route to Belfast, but the Troubles put paid to that route. For some reason, it wasn't seen as a good idea to have a route from the terrorist capital of the United Kingdom to a nuclear power station, and so it was ended. Now there's just the Isle of Man ferry so the line was singled and only a token service is sent that way.
There were four of us waiting for the train. Two girls puffing on cigarettes had managed to annexe the one and only bench, so the rest of us had to sit on the floor. Now, I'm aware that I'm not an important person high up in the echelons of Northern Rail, so I might be talking nonsense here, but I would have thought that if there's an hour's wait between the arrival of a ferry and the departure of the train, it might be nice to provide more than one place to sit. I suppose they thought people would much prefer to sit in the terminal with a cuppa, but on a warm day, I'd much rather be outside.
A Pacer (grrr!) finally turned up to take us out of the port. Unbelievably, these rickety warhorses of the network take passengers all the way to Leeds from Heysham, a journey of two and a half hours. Welcome to England. Outside Morecambe station, the train came to a halt, and the driver literally climbed down to operate the points. It's so underused that there's no point in employing someone else to do it, so the driver pulls the oversized lever himself. It's all very Thomas the Tank Engine.
One reversal at Morecambe later and we were pulling into Bare Lane station. There were plenty of people waiting for the train on the platform, but I was the only one to get off. Bare Lane still has two platforms, though in the main only one is used.
According to Wikipedia, the station house was featured on an episode of Homes Under The Hammer. As a major HUTH fan I was annoyed I hadn't actually seen the episode, but took consolation that it's repeated so often it'll turn up on one of the digital channels within the week. I wondered what tune the on-the-nose music producers played while Lucy poked around its interior; Bowie's Station to Station? The Chattanooga Choo-Choo? Perhaps as a tribute to the name "Bare Lane", 1970s comedy classic The Streak?
I let the level crossing reopen before I tried to get the sign picture. It's one of those odd ones that are sited back behind a fence, so you might need to squint to see it properly.
I'd moved up the social scale by quite some degree. The contrast with the grime of Heysham Port couldn't have been more stark. Suddenly there were avenues, and cherry trees.
This was Conservative country. Morecambe and Lunesdale constituency has only been red during the Blair era; the rest of the time it was as blue as Margaret Thatcher's varicose veins. On election day, I didn't see any Tory posters; I saw two Labour flags in front gardens, and a bay window filled with I'm Voting UKIP literature. I didn't take a picture of the last one because the owner of the house was stood in the bay window, staring at passers by and scowling, doing nothing to dispel the image of UKIP voters as paranoid nutcases.
Clearly the Tories didn't need to break their back trying to win over the locals and in fact, on the day, the local MP increased his majority from 866 to 4590. Given the state of Morecambe when I visited it, I can only assume it was a smoking crater when David Morris took over, because I couldn't see much indication that things were fantastic enough in the town to warrant such a massive rise. But then again, there was so much about the election results that was thoroughly confusing, so who knows what was going through the minds of the locals?
I cut through a small bit of park - this'll all get paved over if the Tories get in, because the Council won't be able to afford the upkeep - and continued down the hill. Morecambe and Lancaster merge and intermingle here. I passed a small Booths and became quite riled. I'd always assumed that we'd never got a Booths round our way because they favoured large superstores with room for a wine cellar and an art gallery; seeing one the size of a decent Co-op made me feel like they were just ignoring us. Build a Booths on the Wirral, please! We like overpriced food just as much as the rest of the north!
The calm suburban world was temporarily broken by extensive roadworks. The M6-Heysham link road comes through here, a dual carriageway that's designed to finally sweep all the port traffic off Lancaster's roads and send it straight onto the motorway. It's been suggested for decades, but it's only just happening now. I was annoyed to find that I was passing the Vistor Centre but that it wasn't open on a Thursday. I do like a good Visitor Centre. I'm sure it would have had a scale model of the route and everything.
The falling land gave me a great view of the Ashton Memorial, on the far side of Lancaster. Built in 1909, it's a memorial to the late wife of Lord Ashton, and is exactly the kind of thing I want the BF to do when I pop my clogs. Only I want mine to be larger. Possibly visible from space.
I'd passed a college earlier on the walk, and two students had come out of the entrance ahead of me. They seemed to be going in exactly the same direction, and with every turn I hoped they'd go down a side road. I was painfully aware of my sweaty, porky frame following two teenage boys: I may as well have written sexual deviant across my forehead and stuck my hands in my pockets. Things only got worse when one of the boys peeled off, leaving me trailing a lonely boy. I prayed he'd go a different way to me before we reached the park.
Poor Amira. I bet she'd like something stronger than tea now.
Luckily for me and the Sex Offender's Register, the teenager crossed the road as we reached the park, so I was able to wander in without a 999 call. The grass fell down to the River Lune, paralleling the railway line, and it provided a moment of calm. A friendly dog ran up to me with a tennis ball in his mouth, and nudged me to get me to play. His owner was stood chatting further up the road, so I graciously declined, and headed down to the river.
I'd planned on crossing the river to reach Lancaster city centre by the railway bridge. A pedestrian footpath has been strung alongside it - as should happen with all railway bridges, in my opinion - but it was undergoing maintenance. I sadly turned away and followed the walk along the shore.
Instead I crossed via the Millennium Bridge, a new and attractive curve over the river that deposited me onto cobbled streets.
I'd only been to Lancaster once before, for my graduation. I am, technically, a graduate of Lancaster University, since Edge Hill didn't have degree awarding powers when I attended back in the last century. Someone suggested that I should put that I had a Lancaster degree on my CV because that was more impressive, but I was always afraid the interviewer for a job would be a local and he'd ask me all sorts of specific questions I couldn't answer. "Is that one-eyed barmaid still in the Dog and Necklace?" "Erm..."
I found an appealing, agreeably laid-back city. Lancaster is naturally a very historic place, with a castle and a cathedral, but there was none of the pomposity ancient cities can take on. Instead it felt a little bit hippy, a little bit doped up; this may just be a perception based on the number of people I saw who looked like acid casualties. It felt youthful and vibrant - no doubt a side effect of the university. Certainly the only political poster I saw in the city that day was for the Green Party (and in the election, Lancaster & Fleetwood would be a rare Labour gain, so well done them).
I'd thought about finding a pub, obviously, but I turned a corner and the railway station was right there, so I took it as a sign. Lancaster station is double sided. The Eastern entrance has, over the years, become the main entrance, and this is where the ticket hall is housed. It's closer to the London platforms and the city centre.
It's a shame, because the Western Entrance is far more impressive, and more redolent of the station's original name, Lancaster Castle.
At platform level, things are far more standard, the Virgin branding having subsumed any personality the station might have. Red and white is everywhere, along with horribly twee signs. You're not funny Virgin. Stop it.
I took a seat to wait for the Preston train. Lancaster's only one stop up on the West Coast Main Line, but it feels like a world away. Preston is familiar, Lancaster is exotic somehow. I admit I may have very low standards.