Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The House of God, and Other Mistakes

Four hours.  Four hours of travelling to end up in Nafferton.  I could have got to Glasgow in that time.  I could have got to London, checked into my hotel, and been halfway through a nice lunch in that time.  Four hours.  The sooner they electrify the cross-Pennine routes - or even better, build HS3 - the better.

I was here to finish off the Yorkshire Coast Line, only two years after I started it.  Running south from Scarborough the route picks off a variety of small, historic towns and villages, plus some seaside resorts, before terminating in Hull.  I'd done as far as Bridlington so now it was time to cross off the last half a dozen stations.

I got off the train behind a wild-haired student, who strutted down the platform and across the level crossing with supreme confidence.  I hung back, the weirdo trainspotter in an anorak, skulking under the sign with my camera and trying not to look like a pervert.

The air was thick with the smoke of morning fireplaces, a scent of coal and logs that made the village feel warm and welcoming.  I strolled into the centre along a narrow footpath.  There were cottages pressed against the roadside, a red phone box, a lady walking her dog.  Mixed in amongst them were larger, symmetrically fronted homes behind green verges.

It was all thoroughly charming.  On a day that wasn't coated in drizzle it would have been lovely.  I reached the centre and found a lake, complete with island in the middle, just a few metres from a historic parish church.

Shame about the name, really.  It was all very nice but imagine living here and telling people you lived in Nafferton.  I bet almost all the conversations at dinner parties include the words "'s not as bad as it sounds."  The place names in this part of the world are distinctively old English, with an undercurrent of Viking, and now, to our English language that's been softened by namby pamby Norman French, they sound cold and harsh.

I passed the village noticeboard, which included a picture of a lady on her doorstep saying "Not tonight darling - I'm off to the WI!".  Bit risqué for the Jam & Jerusalem crowd, I would have thought.  Further on was a curious little brick building named the Citizenlink.  It was a kind of video booth so you could talk to the local council; push the button, take a seat and someone at the Town Hall would appear to talk to you about benefits or your bins.  I'd never seen one of these before.  It was a lovely idea, but I bet there's a fair few times when the poor man from the Council turns the camera on and just gets a big close up of some pervert's genitals or a befuddled old man who thinks it's a public toilet and is looking for the flush.

The picturesque country scene was sort of ruined by a police siren on the bypass as I left the village.  I was the only pedestrian on a narrow strip of pavement by the side of the road.  Churned up empty fields stretched away on both sides.  I saw only one other person during my walk to Driffield; an old lady stood at the side of the road outside her house, apparently waiting for a bus.  She stood so still I thought she might be a scarecrow, or a Hallowe'en advert, until she turned to watch me pass.

Driffield Hospital is next to Driffield cemetary, which I'm sure saves the council a lot of money in transport costs but probably wouldn't fill me with confidence if I was in the geriatric ward.  I crossed the road by a large square box that concealed a leisure centre and soon I was reaching the town.

Driffield itself seemed to be much like Nafferton, only larger.  It was genteel and tightly buttoned; I've never seen a shop specialising in bowling accessories before - not ten pin, crown green.  There seemed to be a disproportionate amount of furniture and homeware shops.  Small, one man operations, promising genuine offbeat pieces.  One was called "Auntie Audrey's Vintage Home", which made my teeth ache like I'd just chewed a hundredweight of toffee.  There were also a lot of solicitors advertising their cheap will writing services.  I drew the conclusion that Driffield may be to the Yorkshire coast what Bournemouth is to the south coast; where people go to wind their clock down.

The pockets of pensioners blocking the pavement in the high street added to the impression.  Every five yards some old dear stopped to chat to someone; a lovely community spirit, I'm sure, but some of us have trains to catch.  I was intrigued by a board for a "silent barber" - can we have that franchised and rolled out across the country?  Talking to the man cutting to your hair is one of the most excruciating experiences men have to endure; I think I'd rather have a vasectomy.  It's why my hair is always such a mess.  I'd rather look like a state than put up with those ten minutes wedged in a chair talking about my plans for the weekend (especially as my plans for the weekend are usually "drink some wine in front of Doctor Who").

I was taking a picture of the old bus garage when I heard the level crossing alarm sound a bit further down the street.  I got a prickly feeling at the back of my neck; that couldn't be for my train, could it?  Mine wasn't due for another ten minutes.  I began to hurry down the road, and got their just as the southbound train - the "Fred Trueman" - the one that I wanted - passed through the level crossing.

I'd got my timings wrong.  I'd mixed up the arrival time for my train at the next station with its departure time from Driffield.  Instead of hurrying through the town as I should have done, I'd stopped to take stupid pictures of stupid abandoned bus garages.  Worse, the train I'd planned on getting was the only one outside the peaks that stopped in Arram.

I sat down on the platform bench with my sandwich and a timetable to try and work out an alternative route to Arram.  There was another train around four o'clock, but Arram is a lonely village.  I'd calculated it'd take me a couple of hours to walk into Beverley, and it was a dark Autumn day.  I didn't want to be on possibly pavement-less roads after sunset, not least because if my calculations were wrong, I'd miss my "this train and NO OTHERS" trip home from Scarborough.  I'd cocked up.

Driffield had a charming station, to be fair.  A canopy, and decent platform buildings, and a waiting room with a cast iron fireplace.  The pub on the end had, sadly, been closed by bailiffs, but the rest seemed well-cared for.

I wasn't in the mood to enjoy it.  You may be able to tell from the subtle body language in my sign picture.

It meant that my schedule for the day was derailed, so I decided to head into Beverley - the largest town between here and Hull - and spend a little more time there.  There was a fast train passing through Driffield half an hour later, so I boarded that.

The station was opened in 1846, as you can tell from the pitched roof.  The earliest railway stations, where they had roofs, had ones like this - there are similar examples at Filey and on the Darlington line.  However, the fashion changed for large curved roofs, no doubt inspired by Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace opening in 1851.  It made Beverley feel quaint, outdated; like a heritage railway that Northern were just borrowing for the day.

I crossed the footbridge behind four excitable old ladies.  They were noisily debating where to have lunch, so noisily that they failed to operate the door that let you out of the ticket hall.  After a few moments of tense silence, I pushed the button that opened the doors for them; they all leapt out of their skin as it were possessed.

I was impressed by Beverley station's grand frontage, though I have to confess I was even more charmed to find a white phone box outside.  This used to be part of the much unloved county of Humberside, so they had the Council-run telephone network rather than British Telecom.

I'm quite easily pleased.

Beverley is almost exactly what you'd expect a town called "Beverley" to be like.  While I was on the train, I tried to come up with a list of all the Beverleys I could think of.  I ended up with:

  1. Dr Beverley Crusher, mumsy chief medical officer on the Starship Enterprise;
  2. Dr Beverley Marshall, the mumsy second Mrs Jim Robinson on Neighbours;
  3. Beverley Craven, mumsy piano tinkling singer of Promise Me, whose tour was sponsored by Tampax; 
  4. Beverley Knight, mumsy soul singer who does the Lulu bit in Relight My Fire on Take That tours;
  5. The Beverley Sisters, three mumsy singers who were sex symbols because there was a war on.

Beverley is that nice lady with the big hair who you can rely on to give you a lift back from the shop in her estate.  Beverley is white, heterosexual and happily married.  Beverley is the poster girl for the Daily Mail.  And Beverley the town is just like that.  I wandered round its nice, historic streets, with its nice pedestrianised arcades and its nice quaint buildings, and wondered if I should perhaps hand myself in to the authorities as a loony leftie.  There was an M&S and a Holland and Barrett but no sign of an Argos or a Home Bargains.  

I should incidentally point out that Beverley is a very different person to Bev.  Beverley has a cup of tea and a custard cream if she's feeling daring; Bev drinks Tesco Value Vodka out of a mug.  Beverley wouldn't dream of leaving the house without doing her make up and hair; Bev wanders down to the chippie with a coat over the top of her nightie.  There's a clear distinction, like the difference between Barbara and Babs.

I finally gravitated towards Beverley Minster.  It's so huge, so out of proportion with the rest of the town, you can't avoid it.  It's like a giant black hole that will eventually suck you in whether you like it or not.  I thought it would at least be dry, and there was free entry, so that was a positive.

I was immediately accosted by a man inside.  He had a badge that said he was a "welcomer"; I didn't get his name but if this was a film he'd be credited as "God Botherer #1".  He welcomed me loudly and enthusiastically and pushed a leaflet in my hand.  I think the older lady at the back - the wise counsel - spotted my slightly bewildered face and gently asked, "do you want a leaflet?"

I wandered the wide open spaces of the church.  Beverley Minster is one of the largest churches in Britain (it's not a cathedral, despite appearances) and it was hard not to be impressed by its scale and grandeur.  It was epic and had a beautiful symmetry.  Every facet of it had been toiled over with love and devotion.

The more I walked around, though, the more angry I got.  I should say that, in the rush to catch my train that morning, I'd forgotten to take my medication, so my emotions were out of control.  But I kept thinking, how much did this cost?  How much money was spent on all this grandeur and craftsmanship?  How many people devoted their lives to building it, and what was their reward?

This wasn't like, say, Westminster Abbey or Liverpool Cathedral, where the huge religious building lay at the heart of a large population of worshippers.  Beverley was tiny.  Everywhere you went in the town the Minster stared back at you - it was grossly disproportionate to its parish.  The people who lived out the Middle Ages in filth and poverty had to spend their days looking up at this folly.  It was obscene.

Even today's church angered me.  If you're going to have a huge religious building, then embrace that.  Make it a building devoted to God.  Don't - as happened here - squeeze a gift shop into the North Transept, stacking your shelves up against memorials to dead benefactors, making the customers actually push their way round a tomb to some long-deceased worthy so they can reach the CDs of Christian music.

Oh, and definitely don't sell mugs like this in the shop - 

- because that's just revolting.

I went back outside, nodding a yes to the welcomer's enthusiastic "did you enjoy yourself?", and walked round the Minster.  It was, absolutely, a beautiful building.  I just couldn't get on board with it that day.

I was feeling a bit miserable now, so I went to the market place and found something more deserving of my devotion.

With the beer inside me, I headed back to the station for my next train.  My last two stations were jump on, jump off affairs; there wasn't going to be any extreme walking between them, so I had a bit of a lazy afternoon ahead.  First was Cottingham.  The Purple Gang had been out in force here, but their determination to spread the Northern way hadn't impeded on the pretty ironwork of the footbridge.

What will happen if Northern lose the franchise?  I wonder if their successors have realised that they'll have to devote millions of pounds to erasing every trace of them from five hundred stations.  They might not have bothered bidding if they knew.

The buildings at Cottingham are original to the line opening, and are listed buildings.  Sadly, the station master's house is in private hands, and the goods shed is empty and up for lease.  I'm not sure what you could do with it either - it's out of the village centre and not a large enough stop to attract a cafe or restaurant.  You could turn it into a ticket office and waiting room, but I realise that's a ludicrous idea.

There was a burly man stood under the station sign - he looked like Sandor from The Spy Who Loved Me, only not quite so lively and vivacious - so I decided to get the picture on the way back and instead walked into the village for a look round.  

It's actually been swallowed up by Hull, and is now basically a suburb of the city, though it still clings to its villagey heritage.  It had attractive homes, a pleasant church, and a Victorian school.  In its centre it was much more "towny"; there were pubs and bookmakers and a bus exchange.  I felt a bit peckish so I bought myself a couple of sausage rolls, then ate them on my way back to the station, their greasy glow keeping me warm against a sudden downpour.

I shivered under the footbridge at the station as the rain barrelled down, heavy and cold.  Nearly done, I thought.

Between Cottingham and Hutton Cranswick the rain changed.  Instead of a downpour it shifted into a soft misty precipitation, the kind that doesn't seem to fall from the sky but instead just hangs in the air for you to walk through.  It's like standing in a car wash.  You end up dripping all over yourself.

The station straddled a level crossing, with the station house now a home.  It was clearly cared for though; on the southbound platform was a train shaped planter, and the waiting shelters looked clean and graffiti free.  I paused in the wet for a photo.

I was fascinated by the station sign, because there had obviously been a mistake with the name and it had been rectified with a small patch of white plastic.

What was under there?  A misplaced letter?  A rogue comma?  A small, offensive cartoon of Allah?  If I'd had more time and longer fingernails I'd have picked at it to find out, but instead I hurried on, pausing only to stick my tongue out at this poster:

I really, really hate Hallowe'en; it's like St Patrick's Day, but somehow everywhere.  I know it comes from an ancient pagan tradition, but that's not what these idiots are celebrating; they're just using it as an excuse to eat sweets and get drunk and wear stupid outfits.  Newsflash - I do that ALL THE TIME and I don't need Mr Kipling "Fiendish Fancies" to enjoy myself.  We have a perfectly good pagan festival around that time: Bonfire Night.  We stand around in a field, we eat toffee apples, we watch some fireworks explode, and we burn an effigy of a Catholic traitor.  That's a fine British tradition.  Not this appalling American pumpkin rubbish.  PUMPKINS AREN'T EVEN FROM THIS COUNTRY.

And, yes, it's called Hallowe'en with an apostrophe, no matter what your spell check tells you, because this is England, dammit.  

At the centre of Hutton Cranswick is a huge village green; more of a field, really.  It's the kind of green you can imagine a May Fair being held on, one with maypoles and Queens of the May and teenagers drinking cider and vomiting into the pond.  Oh yes, there's a pond as well.

There was a pub across the way, so naturally I decided to go in and sample the local ales.  Or rather, Kronenburg, because it wasn't a "local ales" kind of place.  It was panelled in what looked like chipboard and had a pool table dominating its centre.  There was only the barmaid in there; she looked at me, dripping from head to toe, and said, "is it raining?"

I managed to not punch her in the jaw and instead went and sat in a corner.  A man came blustering in through the back door from the smoking area.

"There's a dead rat out there."

The barmaid didn't seem surprised.  She went out and had a look, then conceded, yes, there was a dead rat out there and yes, it did look like a cat had had it.  "On t'doorstep this mornin', two gullies," she confided.  "I 'ad to chuck 'em in t'pond."

Ah, country life.

I leaned back against the radiator to dry myself out and sipped at my lager.  At least that was another line crossed off the list, I thought.


Sunday, 19 October 2014

Victoria Triumphant

The section of the Victoria Line between Finsbury Park and Seven Sisters is the longest bit of Tube line without a station.  There was a suggestion that Manor House (which the Victoria Line passes under) could be added to the route, but there wasn't much money in the budget and it would have duplicated the interchange with the Piccadilly Line at Finsbury Park.

It means that you're beneath ground for a slightly uncomfortable period of time.  You get used to a certain rhythm on the Underground - the noise of the train, the whizz of the tunnel, the pauses as you hit a station.  The song varies in length and pattern but it still recognisably comes from the same symphony.  Beyond Finsbury Park the rhythm is wrong, and it prickles the back of your neck; it doesn't feel right.  It was almost a relief when the white light of Seven Sisters station burst into the carriage.

The seat backs, unsurprisingly, depict the trees that give the area its name.  Seven Sisters is a slightly larger station than the rest of the line; it has a third platform to enable trains to turn back, giving a better service for the core of the line.  There's also a connection to the depot on Tottenham Marshes from here, a connection that now and then gets mentioned as a potential branch with a new station or two.  The sheer number of people using the Victoria Line means it won't happen for a long time, if ever; there simply isn't the capacity.  Perhaps once Crossrail 2 comes along (which will also stop at Seven Sisters) there might be space for it.

I left the station by the back exit, onto Seven Sisters Road; not deliberately - I'd got mixed up - but it was lucky.  The main entrance on the High Road is via a series of anonymous staircases to a subterranean ticket hall.  The back exit's got a bit of a building to it, so I was able to get a proper sign shot.

Yes, I am pulling an odd face, but in the other shot I took, the Big Issue seller is staring right down the camera lens and I don't think he was amused.

I walked round the corner and got a feeling of deja vu.  The area round the Tube station reminded me of something.  It reminded me of - bear with me on this one - Paris.

You're going to need some persuading, aren't you?

I'm not saying that this bit of north-east London is a dead ringer for the Champs-Elysées.  I'm not daft.  But once you get out of the centre of Paris, to some of the more far flung arrondissements, you get spaces very like the one around Seven Sisters underground station.  A busy, straight road.  Wide pavements with cafes and restaurants spilling tables onto the walkway.  Trees to shelter you.  Steps leading down into the metro station.  It had the busy feel of a French city neighbourhood, only with a Tesco.

You're not convinced, I can tell.

I crossed over into Broad Lane, past a primary school and rows of modern houses.  There was a pleasing break for a little local shopping centre beneath a tower block, with a corner cafe smelling deliciously of coffee and bacon.  Some newer flats had been built with enclosed glass balconies; they were stuffed with bikes and boxes and faded looking plants.  Then there were plain terraces with huge satellite dishes dangling off the front, sometimes two or three.  The Polish or Pakistani or Paraguayan residents inside wanted tv channels that Sky just couldn't provide.

A big, ugly retail park filled the space between Broad Lane and the station, its grey boxes turning their back on the area around them so they could stare down at the car parking spaces.  Across the way TfL were building a new bus station for the area.  The Mayor's budget cuts were evident; this wasn't a glistening stainless steel edifice like the one further down the line at Vauxhall.  Instead it resembled a superannuated petrol station.

Across a bare patch of concrete that I'm sure the architects called a "plaza" but actually looked more like "a place for crisp packets to get caught up in" was Tottenham Hale station.  All the stations at the top of the Victoria Line interchange with rail services, but this one's slightly more important, as trains to Stansted stop here.  As a result it got a bit of a makeover in the 90s with a blue lightbox dropped on top of the station building for some reason.

It's all a bit of a mess, to be honest, so it's no surprise that the council have plans to level it and start again.  With the addition of another platform on the railway lines, a new second ticket hall, and possibly Crossrail as well, Tottenham Hale should look very different in a few years time.  I'll have to come back.

I went through the messy ticket hall and down the escalators to the platform.  There's a pleasingly wide glass window here, and someone's put some pot plants on the balcony over the shaft.  They didn't look officially endorsed - and were a bit tatty - but I was glad to see them anyway.

The River Lea wends its way through Tottenham on its way down to the Olympic Park and then the Thames.  Until it was tamed, canalised and used to feed the reservoirs around here, the only way to cross it was via a ferry.  Indeed, the station is on "Ferry Lane", so the seat backs commemorate the old way of crossing the water.

Now, of course, you can leap on a Tube train and be at the next station in a couple of minutes.  The penultimate stop on the line is called Blackhorse Road.  Can you guess what its platform motif was?

It's a great design though, by the wonderful artist Hans Unger.  Unger did a lot of strikingly modern posters and advertisements throughout the fifties and sixties, and there's something simple yet elegant about his black horse.

Blackhorse Road was the only station on the Victoria Line to get a brand new building.  Everywhere else the Tube shared with British Rail premises, an existing Underground station, or in the case of Pimlico, they just burrowed a hole in the ground.  There wasn't a decent BR station here though so the architects at London Transport designed their own.

The result is a lovely capsule of 1960s transport design.  Long, clean lines.  Plenty of chrome and mosaic tiling.  Space.  Blackhorse Road feels open and clean.  The only let downs are the later interventions - the clunky ticket gates, the customer information posts, and especially the back exit to the Overground.  The mainline station was originally on a separate site, but in 1981 the platforms were moved behind the Underground station for easier access.

There are only two good parts to the Overground portion of the station.  One is that it gives you a great view of that lovely concrete roof to the ticket hall.

The second is that it's served by the Goblin - the Gospel Oak/Barking Line.  I love that little portmanteau word.  It's almost as good as the old name for the Bedford-St Pancras route - the BedPan.  No wonder the Thameslink branding was embraced.

Outside, the station's not quite as charming.  It's dark and there are awkward steps to get in.  Plus, there's that new black horse.  Hans Unger did a lovely design down on the platform, so why have they decided that the one up top needs to look like it was ripped off the front of a Lloyds Bank?

It's very disappointing.  Also disappointing is the fact that I had to practically stand in the middle of the road before I could get a decent sign photo.

I crossed the railway tracks and headed into Walthamstow.  Of course, as a child of the 90s, Walthamstow means only one thing to me - proto-chav boy band East 17.  Made up of Tony Mortimer, Brian Harvey and the other two, they were the rough alternative to the slick Take That.  The That rolled around on exotic beaches in black and white in their videos; East 17 did a lot of finger pointing and shouting on the tough city streets.

I was always a Thatter rather than an Eastie.  The That had the better tunes, and I quite fancied Gary Barlow (this is when he was the fat one at the back; now that he's a tax evading Tory I wouldn't cross the road to spit on him).  East 17 had House of Love and It's Alright, which may actually be the same tune, Deep, and perennial Christmas irritant Stay Another Day.  And that's it.  I wasn't exactly blown away by their musical prowess.

Their bad boy image was starting to crumble as well.  Walthamstow seemed really quite nice.  Tree-lined avenues, pretty cottages, some pleasant post-war blocks of flats.  It wasn't the drug crazed ghetto the band always hinted they came from.  I suppose it makes sense; how many teenage boys seek to escape deprivation by learning the piano and then posing with their tops off in Smash Hits?  It's not exactly Eminem in 8 Mile, is it?

Incidentally I just went to East 17's Wikipedia page and discovered that the Other Two are still performing, but Brian Harvey and Tony Mortimer aren't.  Imagine paying to see that.

The pedestrianised town centre reminded me of Birkenhead.  A straight run of pound shops, cheap supermarkets, and cafes, though here they were interrupted by slightly more exotic fare - ethnic hair salons and halal stores.  Sam 99p had a completely original marketing technique:

Brilliant stuff there, Sam.

Further along, the market began to creep in, just a couple of stalls at first, then a stream of barrows.  It was a genuine East End market; Pete Beale could have turned up at any minute.  Clothes stalls sold chain store remnants, the racks marked "M&S" and "NEXT" and "DOROTHY PERKINS".  Knock off plastic toys called things like Transformerators and Space Wars had been shipped straight over from Nanjing.  CD stalls played reggae music constantly; there was no other music available, apparently.  There were weird, exotic fruits and vegetables on the food stalls, stuff I didn't recognise, but they were still presided over by a barrel shaped Cockney who yelled compliments at passing housewives.

Most wonderfully, there was a pie and mash shop, a real one, in green and cream tile.  I peeked through the window and saw wooden booths and gleaming ceramic surfaces.  I really wanted to go inside and try some jellied eels, or liquor, or some other bizarre East End foodstuff I'd only read about.  I felt intimated though.  There wasn't a menu in the window (of course there wasn't; it wasn't the Ivy) and I didn't have the confidence to go in and order off a board with a fearsome Peggy Mitchell type staring at me.  I passed on, grinning happily that this place still existed.  It even showed up on Strictly Come Dancing last night; Kristina and Simon from Blue went there to get a dose of Cockney inspiration.  I was chuffed.

(Slight tangent, but can we briefly talk about how amazingly bad Scott Mills is at going "HO!" in the Strictly titles?  He's absolutely awful, and I love it.  I watch it at least three times every week).

Yes, I was really charmed by Walthamstow, which probably doesn't happen to people very often.  I crossed a pleasing open square by the Victorian library to reach the final station on the line, Walthamstow Central.

There's a modern bus station surrounding it - a Ken Livingstone-era one, so it's quite nice.  I darted across the busy bus lane to take my last Victoria Line selfie.

I rode the escalators down to the platforms feeling a sense of achievement at finally visiting all the stations on the line.  The London Underground has always been special to me, all the way back to when I was a teenager and I'd ride the trains for entire afternoons just because it was there.  I could happily do it all over again.  In fact, how many stations are there on the Underground?  Hmmm....

NO!  That way, madness lies.  Besides, it'd make the Underground less special.  I like it being this place I can just dip into and get excited by, unlike Northern Rail which can sometimes be a bit of a chore.  I sat down on one of the specially tiled seats - this one features a William Morris pattern, a tribute to the artist who lived nearby - and waited for my train back.

The Victoria Line in four blog posts:

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four