Friday, 3 July 2015

Heat and High Water

For reasons far too dull to go into here, I found myself in Manchester with a couple of hours to kill.

It was a beautifully hot day, with clear skies, so rather than wander round some deathless Mancunian suburbs I took myself out of the city to Smithy Bridge.  It's a tiny station on the far side of Rochdale, and it offered a hint of country elegance instead of grimy metropolis.

That's a rubbish Attractive Local Feature board, though.

I crossed the Rochdale Canal and began the slow ascent through the village.  The schools had just emptied out, and tired looking kids were shepherded down the hill by disinterested looking mums.  The heat was oppressive, nothing to enjoy.  It sat on our heads and squashed us into submission.

I was heading uphill to Hollingworth Lake, which seemed counter intuitive; surely water falls to the lowest point?  Hollingworth Lake is actually man-made though, a reservoir created in 1800.  Unlike most of the reservoirs in the Pennines, this one was not intended to supply drinking water to the towns and cities of Lancashire.  Instead, it was created to supply water to the Rochdale Canal, and it still serves that purpose today.

In 2015, however, Hollingworth Lake is far more important as a leisure destination.  I reached the shoreline and found it packed with families enjoying the afternoon sun.  They lined the shoreline eating ice creams and feeding the ducks.  The cool breeze across the water took the edge off the warmth, making it pleasant.

The shore road, meanwhile, acted as a sort of mini-riviera.  The lake quickly became popular with Rochdale's workers in the nineteenth century; they'd escape the town for a day-trip to Hollingsworth.  It became an inland seaside, and even now, when the workers have started taking their vacations in Blackpool and Benidorm and Bermuda, the lake carries that laid-back, easy feel of a holiday destination.  There were cafes and restaurants overlooking the water, an ice cream parlour and a chip shop, even an amusement arcade.

It was an easy spot to fall for.  So peaceful, so relaxing.  I leaned on the fence and watched the water ripple for a while before I tore myself away.

I followed the shore road a little further, ignoring the call of the Wine Press pub with its busy beer garden, and instead turning inland.  I passed families on their way up to the water, parking a little further away so they didn't have to pay for the official car parks.  The excitement had got too much for one little boy, and he was being sick in the gutter beside the car; while his mum and dad rubbed his back sympathetically, his older brother looked in the opposite direction, eating an ice cream cone and looking bored.

The fields beside the road were filled with sheep.  There was a gaggle of them round the water trough, and a smaller lamb poked her head through the fence to eat the grass on the wall; when I reached out for a stroke, she fled back to her mother in fear.  It was very pretty, so long as you ignored the five foot high sign erected by the farmer in amongst them.

Thank goodness sheep can't read.

Now I could see Littleborough, a cotton town that nestled in the valley.  The road wound its way down, and began to fill with cars trying to cut across the Pennines through the narrow pass here.  I found myself overtaking the same cars, playing relay as to who was further forward.

The town centre was lovely.  Tiny shops and houses built out of creamy local stone, with flags flying and a market cross.

Less charmingly, a pint of Heineken cost £3.80.  That's almost London prices, that.  Disgusting.

With a warm face and a belly sloshing full of beer, I headed to the railway station.  It was opened in 1839, and was for two years the terminus of the line from Manchester, until they finally completed the Summit Tunnel and were able to continue on route to Leeds.

It's been lovingly restored, though not for railway purposes.  Instead you reach the platform through a dark underpass that retains some of that murky Victorian drama.

I headed up to the southbound platform, high among the grassy hills and with the town below me.  It really was a beautiful day.

Such a shame I had to return to Manchester.  That's the problem with reality.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Tairribly Naice

In a normal universe, Carnforth would be just another station.  It's got a junction, where the Barrow line splits off from the West Coast Main Line, but the fast trains don't stop there.  It's got some Victorian buildings, but so have hundreds of other far more obscure stations.  It's not in a big town.  It's not interesting.

Carnforth has a really major claim to fame, though.  This is where they filmed 1945 weepie, Brief Encounter, and so it holds a special place in the hearts of generations of movie goers.

I watched Brief Encounter before I visited, because I am a professional like that, and I have to say, I didn't enjoy it.  I am not an advocate for adultery, by any means, but after about three quarters of an hour I was just shouting "will you just FUCK him please?" every time Celia Johnson appeared onscreen looking pained.  I like a good tortured romance - I cannot recommend The Remains of the Day, in which Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins spend two hours being in love but don't do anything about it, highly enough - but the meat puppets in Brief Encounter were just annoying.  Stop talking about your love and do something about it beyond a snatched snog on a humpback bridge.

There were some parts of it I liked.  The saucy tea shop madam with her affected accent.  The dramatic Dutch angles when Celia Johnson was considering chucking herself under the express.  A brief cameo from Irene Handl riding an enormous organ.  Celia disapproving of ladies who smoke in public even as she lights up herself.  Valentine Dyall looking ridiculously sly when he realises his flat is being used for illicit purposes.  The rest of it was histrionic nonsense.  What was so great about Trevor Howard anyway?  Banging on about tropical diseases and falling in lakes.  He was just as dull as Celia's husband, and if she had run off with him she'd have been just as unhappy, only in Africa.  The more I watched it, the more I became convinced that Noel Coward was taking the mickey; that he wrote these buttoned up stiffs as a joke, and then was horrified when people took their middle class angst seriously.

I had no intention of falling for a doctor on the platform, not least because I was the youngest person in the station by quite some distance.  Carnforth has got its act together when it comes to cashing in on the Brief Encounter heritage mob, and is now a regular stop for coach trips round the Lakes (obviously they don't arrive by train).  This is a pleasant change from when Victoria Wood visited the station in 1996 for Great Railway Journeys.  The station then was boarded up and abandoned; the clock that the star-cross'd lovers had met under no longer worked.  This was what she saw, less than 20 years ago:

While in 2015, it looks like this:

I'm not keen on the green and red, but you have to admit that's an improvement.  Victoria and that little old lady bemoaned the fact that British Rail hadn't seen fit to take advantage of its status as the home of an internationally beloved icon; apparently they show Brief Encounter once a week in Japan.  I don't believe that, personally, because from what I understand, Japanese television is just anime, game shows where members of the public are tortured, and incomprehensible ads starring famous Americans, but I'll take their word for it.

I wandered into the Refreshment Room for some lunch.  In the film, this is where Trev and Celia both meet and say farewell; it's also the home of some rowdy sailors, tedious gossips and the line "now look at me banburies all over the floor!", which I'm sure is a euphemism for something.

In reality, the refreshment room was a set at Denham Studios, but the Carnforth Station Trust has done its best to recreate it.  The giant gunmetal tea urn is unused, replaced by a touch screen operated coffee dispenser, and the heavy till is passed over in favour of a computerised system, but otherwise you could imagine there was a steam train outside quite easily.  I queued behind some coachgoers to politely wait to order; as is the way of the old, they barged in ahead of me and ignored the queuing system, possibly because they thought they were about to die and so needed to get their scone in quick.  Instead of a blousy woman behind the counter, there were two men, one middle aged and a student on his summer holidays.

Soon I was sat in the other room, eating quiche and chips.  I can't imagine Celia Johnson eating quiche.  I should imagine even the salad would be a bit avant garde for her.  In real life, Celia Johnson was Ian Fleming's sister in law, and I struggle to imagine what they talked about over Christmas dinner - he the louche playboy, she the prim English rose.  I'm guessing she wasn't the inspiration for Honeychile Rider.

The coach party cleared out after a while - I gathered from their conversation that there was twenty minutes until the bus left, but they wanted to be sure - so I was able to wander the rest of the station unmolested.  It's a mixture of railway paraphernalia, Carnforth history, and general "nostalgia".  One of the old biddies sniffed to her friend "I suppose it's alright if you like old timey stuff", and I thought, if the pensioners aren't amused, you need to be careful.  You'll be back to being boarded up and your refreshment room will be a Pumpkin.

Obviously there's a gift shop, and obviously it's Brief Encounter heavy.  I'd got the Blu-Ray for £5.99 - it costs £3.49 to rent it on iTunes, so I figured I'd pay the extra - so I was surprised to see the DVD going for £12.99 in the shop.  The Blu-Ray, incidentally, was nowhere to be seen.  There was no need to buy it anyway, because there's a screening room that shows the film on a constant loop.

Imagine working with that.  The poor woman in the gift shop must hate the film with a passion.  Either that or it's seeped into her very being, and she talks like the Queen Mother and pins her hat on top of her head and makes her husband sleep in a separate bed even while complaining that he's dull and unsexy (seriously Celia, push those beds together and you might not be wet for the first doctor to jam his thumb in your eyeball).

I headed down through the underpass to get to the outside of the station.  In the film, this is where Laura and Alec first kiss, the saucy devils; I didn't get a single offer of illicit tongue action while I was down there, even though I loitered hopefully for quite some time.

It didn't seem right in colour, anyway.  None of it did.  I suppose it's hard to get excited over a film location when you don't particularly like the film.  It's just a curiosity then.  It's not like when I visited Key West and I got to stand outside the actual Barrelhead Bar from Licence to Kill; I was grinning for hours after that one.

Instead, Brief Encounter made Carnforth disappointing.  If it had been just another station past its prime, like Selby or Church Fenton, I would probably have found it charming.  Its status as a tourist mecca instead made me dislike it.  All that nostalgia for something that wasn't that good in the first place.

Sorry, Celia.  I know it's awfully rotten of me, but I just can't bear it.  I shall go and chuck myself under the 14:12 as penance.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015


On a hot day in June, there aren't many places you can escape the sun in London.  Air conditioning still hasn't really caught on in this country.  The parks are packed.  The Tube is a stuffy nightmare.  I had to go somewhere.  I escaped underground.

Crossrail finally completed its tunnel works, and to celebrate, they invited locals in to have a look round.  They also mentioned it on their Twitter feed, and as usual, the free tickets were gone in seconds.  But I was very, very lucky.  I happened to be on Twitter right at that moment, and I managed to claim one ticket.  One hastily booked train journey - and one lunch at the Barbican with Ian - later, I was walking through a metal detector to get into what will one day be Woolwich Crossrail station.

Woolwich was scrubbed off the list of new stations at the "value for money" stage.  However, Berkeley Homes intervened.  They'd won the right to redevelop the Royal Arsenal, a huge stretch of former Ministry of Defence land between the town centre and the river.  Right now, it takes about 20 minutes to get to Canary Wharf from Woolwich, changing from the DLR to the Jubilee Line at Canning Town.  Crossrail will transform that into a single train journey taking just 8 minutes.  That sort of transport gain was worth Berkeley paying to build the station box out of their own pocket.

It'll turn what is, at present, a slightly soulless, slightly desolate collection of flats into a hub.  And since Woolwich town centre is just over the road, the money will hopefully spread further into the town.

I stood over looking the hole in the ground and waited for the rest of my tour party to come through security.  There were twenty of us, a pleasingly random collection of Londoners.  They were a microcosm of the insane variety of people the city is home to.  Two aging hippies with long grey hair.  A neat middle-class woman in a leather jacket.  An enthusiastic Scot and her Chinese boyfriend, accompanied by their tall English friend.  A Sikh couple.  Two teenagers with neon coloured hair and tattoos.  And my favourite type of Londoner, Hot Jewish Guy With A Bubble Butt And A T-Shirt You Could See His Nipples Through.

Plus, of course, me: the fat railway nerd.

There was a brief talk about the engineering achievement from Mick, the project leader.  He proudly told us that the handover date for installing the railway had been set at June 10th, 2015, in their original tender documents, and that date would be met.  Then we descended into the station down a flight of metal steps, accompanied by our guides, Patrick and Thibault (see?  Diversity).

We were now in the station box, stood close to the island platform.  The metal posts hanging from the ceiling are for the platform edge doors.  Unlike on the Jubilee Line, the whole rail area will be screened off from the passenger part, creating sealed areas.  I peeked into the distance but I could only just see the distant end of the colossal station.

A few more steps and we were at track level for the walking part of our tour.  We were going to actually walk from one side of the Thames to the other through the Crossrail tunnel.

The air was cool, and it got cooler as we entered the tunnel mouth.  We fell almost reverentially silent.

It's hard to describe the excitement I was feeling as I advanced down the tunnel.  It was the thrill of being underground, then, under the water.  

There was the thrill of knowing that hardly anyone had made this trip before, or ever would again.  There was the thrill of Crossrail actually being a real thing that has happened and been built, after so many years of false starts and broken promises.

The tunnel was made by huge boring machines, and the concrete segments were then laid into the wall behind it.  They are locked together; each one was pushed in place, and a keystone holds them tight.  There's no need for any further reinforcement, except for round the cross passages, where steel beams are needed to hold them together as the hole in the wall breaks the tessellation.

The cross passages are there for evacuation of the trains in an emergency.  When the tunnel is fitted out, there will be a walkway at the level of the bottomof the cross passage, to enable you to get out of the trains and walk to safety.  It was strange to stand on the floor of the tunnel and be looking up to the floor height of the train; it's easy to forget just how huge they'll be.

The deepest point of the tunnel is, weirdly, not the halfway point; that was a few metres further down.  I'm sure there's a perfectly logical engineering reason for this.

Apologies for the crappiness of some of these pictures by the way.  We were told that bags would not be allowed in the tunnel, so I couldn't bring my camera, and had to use my phone to take all the shots.  However, some of the women had handbags and bum bags, and they were let in, not that I'm bitter and annoyed or anything.

After what seemed like only a few moments, we were passing a sign saying End of the Thames.  Without any other reference points, it was impossible to gauge how far we'd walked, or how fast.  It was a long, undulating curve of grey concrete.  I placed my hand on one of the tunnel segments and was shocked at how cold it was; it almost felt damp.

Then the literal light at the end of the tunnel.  It was astonishingly bright, and impossible for us to see beyond.  It was a bit like coming out of the womb.  The curved walls gave way to a larger chamber, built for emergency access and ventilation.  

All that was left was the last few metres walk out of the tunnel and into the sunshine.  But why tell you about it, when I can actually show you what it was like through the medium of poorly shot iPhone video?

Why yes, I am available to film all your important life events.  E-mail me for prices.

In the bare sunlight, the bases of emergency stairs took on a surreal, almost artistic quality.

Another building company will be in soon to finish what has been started but until then, they were a Rachel Whiteread installation.

Slowly the floor rose to take us up to ground level.  On the north bank of the river, Crossrail has taken over the old North London Line.  That was cut back to Stratford in 2006; the section from there to Canning Town became the DLR, and now Crossrail is using its route to get to Custom House.

Suddenly there was noise again, and buses, and the huge hulks of sugar refineries looming over our heads.  London was reasserting itself.

A tiny stand had been set up, and two friendly volunteers handed out leaflets about the tunnel and Crossrail, and we all got a badge.  I don't know where I'd ever wear the badge, but I'll add it to my Station Master and I Get Around By Merseyrail Underground ones.  I left the railway behind, heading up to London City Airport DLR station with a big stupid grin on my face.  It was a wonderful hour of fun, and something I will remember for a long time.  I can't wait for Crossrail to open in 2018, just so I can take a train through here and tell the person sitting next to me, "I walked through this tunnel once, you know."

Then that person will change seats.