Monday, 22 February 2021

The Day After

Here's another story of train collecting from 2016.  Content warning: contains bitterness.

It was a terrible night, full of thunderstorms and astonishingly heavy rain.  It crashed off the walls of the hotel and poured down into the car park at its centre, turning it into a pond within minutes.  I was in a Travelodge on the edge of Norwich city centre and the weather had interfered with the TV signal.  The only channel I'd been able to get with any clarity was Mustard TV, Norwich's ultra-local television channel.  Luckily I'd brought a book.  

I was on a high.  Firstly, I was in a different city, and that's always exciting.  Secondly, I had a couple of days of railway station collecting ahead of me, immediately followed by a week's boating holiday on the Norfolk Broads with the BF.  And thirdly, as I'd crossed the road outside the station to head for the hotel, a man had looked at my M.Y. Disco Volante t-shirt (as seen in Thunderball) and exclaimed "James Bond!".  "Yes!" I replied excitedly, and gave him a thumbs up, a deeply uncharacteristic move that I only break out in times of extreme joy.  Things were going well.

Then I woke up.

It was the morning after the Brexit referendum, and I was discovering that 52% of the country had voted Leave.  I sat on the edge of the bed watching BBC Breakfast and trying to cope with my churning stomach and rapidly crashing mood.  It was horrible, horrible news, and I felt sick and confused and angry.  Things were going to get so much worse, and the gurning face of Nigel Farage at that time of the morning didn't help.

I was here in Norwich to collect the Wherry Lines, the railway that threads through the Norfolk Broads out to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.  It's a network of tiny country stations tucked in amongst fields and waterways and it seemed interesting and different to my usual tramp around the back streets of inner cities.  I headed to Norwich's central station, a wonderfully grand and ornate building that's more European than British.  It's the curved roof, the red brick; it could fit in a small European city.

Inside, I'll be honest, it's a little disappointing.  The passenger part of the station is entirely within that central tower, and there's no grand glass roof to take your breath away.  You go from capital to provincial as you walk through the doors.

The train was clunky and old-fashioned and I squeezed into a low seat.  I already felt tired and it was barely 8:30.  I wanted to be at home, lying in bed and feeling sorry for myself.  We pulled away from Norwich, passing through suburbs and over rivers, until I dragged myself off at Brundall.

Immediately it was clear that I was in a different world.  There were boatyards and marine engineers around the station.  Trees and bushes pushed their way into every view.  There was peace.  Something had changed on that train journey, a calm had descended.  I felt a little of the stress fall away from my back.

The walk from the station to the village itself was a dark green corridor.  Heavy foliage cast shadows over the road and the path.  I caught glimpses of large houses tucked away behind the greenery.  Then I was in the village itself, a main road with low homes strung along it, a place of retirement money and subtle wealth.  There were thatched cottages and shops here and there, but mostly it was quiet, confident, middle-class affluence.  

A board outside the newsagents' shouted the Eastern Daily Press's headline: NORWICH IN BUT ANGLIA IS OUT.  Even here in peaceful Norfolk the referendum had gone city vs town, the countryside voters carrying the Leave vote.  As I passed the villagers I wondered how they voted, looking askance at them, narrowing my eyes especially at the older people who, it seemed, had voted in far greater numbers for Brexit.  

Brundall Gardens had once been a major tourist attraction.  Originally a private collection, it was a mass of formal gardens filled with rare plants, plus collections of rare birds and animals.  After the First World War it was purchased by a cinema magnate, Frederick Holmes-Cooper, who made it even more of a draw.  He built a hotel and tearooms, a huge house for him and his family, and ran steamship trips from Norwich out to the specially constructed landing stage.  Naturally, the railways wanted to get in on this tourist money, and Brundall Gardens station was opened in 1924, a whole eighty years after its similarly-named neighbour.

As it turned out, that was as popular as the gardens would ever get.  The doors closed fifteen years later and the land was sold off for housing.  The hall burned down in 1969, while the hotel was struck by lightning in 1993 and destroyed.  

And yet the station remains, because it's incredibly difficult to close a railway station, meaning that this little village of 4000 people has a halt at either end.  The storms of the night before had scrubbed the slate clean and left bright blue skies, but outside the station there was still a huge puddle.  Actually it was more like a small flood.  I picked my way through it to the quiet platform beyond.  It said a lot about the station's importance to the network that the help point was still labelled with One, a railway brand that had disappeared in 2008.

I wiped the water off the bench and took a seat.  Brundall had been even smaller than I'd anticipated, and with only one train an hour, I had a bit of a wait.  It was ok.  I sat in the warming Friday sunshine and let myself relax.

Beyond Brundall the line split and I was taking the northern route, on to Lingwood.  It had a proper station building with red bricks and a wooden canopy shielding the platform.  This station was cared for, and a small notice on the board begged for assistance in keeping it that way.  "As you can see our station has come second, yet again! In 1992, almost 25 years ago, our lovely station won the top award as the best kept small station nationally... I would love our pretty little station to win again... but I need some help!  If you would like to give me a hand, in particular restoring the flower beds towards the crossing, please call at the Station House and have a chat."

Sadly I've not been able to find if Lingwood ever did win the award again.  I hope so.  Dedication should be rewarded.

Station Road was a long, straight cut through the village, with a level crossing as it passed over the railway lines.  I followed it past a series of ordinary plain houses, a pub flying England flags, the odd dog walker, until I was leaving the village behind and taking a winding road through farmland.  The verge was littered with homemade signs - one for a farm shop (POTATOES-EGGS-HONEY), which was expected.  The finger post labelled Wedding in a fancy script, less so.  And the series of signs plugging Zumba Gold (the gentler Zumba with all the fun) didn't exactly smack of rural beauty.

I heard the road before I saw it.  The A47, the road from Norwich to Great Yarmouth, a dual carriageway slicing across the mound of East Anglia.  I reached the junction where the quiet country road met it and realised that there were no pedestrian facilities at all.  I wasn't expecting a pelican crossing, don't get me wrong, but there was no way for me to cross safely.  Four lanes of road, plus a central reservation, and not a hint of pavement.  Cars burned by at sixty miles an hour.  I was going to have to make a dash for it.  

I made it to the spit of land between the carriageways and waited for a gap.  And waited.  And waited.  Finally there was enough of a pause for me to make it to the far verge and I began my trudge, simmering with anger at Norwich County Council and their lack of provision for walkers.  I felt the whip of vehicles as they burned by, the tug on my clothes as a truck barrelled along, the smell as more carbon dioxide was belched into my face.  There was plenty of room, fellas, maybe stick in a tiny bit of paving?

It was almost a relief to step into a layby at the side of the road, with another huge puddle and a snack bar belching out the scent of fried onion.  Beyond there was a tiny strip of raised concrete, meaning that I actually had somewhere to walk now, and I followed it until a side gate caught my attention.

There was a patch of green, and a footpath and a dog waste bin.  I was just about to read the informative noticeboard when something caught the corner of my eye.  Down in the undergrowth there was a tiny, hopping rabbit.

I was delighted.  I'd had a pet rabbit as a teenager, Fiver, named after the psychic from Watership Down, and this one looked like a smaller version of him.  I crouched down for a closer look and, wonderfully, he didn't run away.  Instead he hopped closer.  I couldn't believe my luck.  Then I saw why.  One of his eyes was a sickly, dark red, damaged and probably blind.  He probably couldn't see me.

That was it.  That was the final straw.  The miserable, stressful, dark mood that had swilled around me all morning was broken by this tiny lame animal and I burst into tears.  I dropped to the floor and cried for what seemed an age.  I just couldn't any more.

By the time I stopped the rabbit had gone; it might have been blind but it could definitely hear the wheezing screeches of a madman.  I dragged myself up and walked on into Acle, a bit hollow, a bit shocked.

I'd been here before, many years ago.  The BF has been holidaying on the Broads for decades because he loves boats and a few months after we first met he invited me to join him and a few of his friends on a week's holiday.  I was nervous, as I barely knew them, but he assured me they were all great lads and it'd be tremendous fun.

There were five of us on the boat but the interplay of complex human relations and tensions were enough for a thousand people.  It was a fraught, difficult week, as a bunch of explosive people crammed inside a tiny fibreglass boat and drank too much and spat thinly-veiled insults at one another.  There were recent exes, unrequited lusts, sexual frustrations, pure jealousy - all the deadly sins except murder, and that didn't seem far off.  I, being an outsider, was largely exempt from it all, but there were still incidents of frustration that are mentioned even today - it was on this holiday that I discovered the BF's Cluedo technique, which is a technique which I maintain is cheating, and which is why we still can't play Cluedo together 24 years later.

That holiday had started at Acle boatyard so an involuntary shudder went through me as I entered the village.  I'd never been into it properly though, and I found a pretty village green surrounded by shops and pubs.  It was sadly too early for a pint - by which I mean the pubs were closed, not that I didn't fancy one - so I sat on the bench at the centre and had a drink, getting funny looks from the locals as they tried to work out what I was up to.  I headed back out towards the station, pausing only at a tiny supermarket for a sandwich and a pack of fruit and a drink; only when I was hundreds of metres away did I realise I'd not been given a meal deal discount, which rankled with me for at least the next hour.

Acle station was another that was impossibly scenic, with tin "heritage" adverts on the side of the building and a couple of plaques commemorating its Best Kept Station awards.  While I waited, two men walked up and onto the footbridge and stood there, unmoving.  I couldn't work out what they were doing, and started to wonder if they were going to jump, when a slow freight train chugged through the station and they both excitedly retrieved cameras.  Train nerds.  They get everywhere.

Thursday, 4 February 2021

Notes from Another Time

One of the longest direct train routes from Lime Street is the service to Norwich.  Departing every hour, the train crosses the width of the country, heading from the north west to East Anglia and calling at the likes of Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham on the way.  Like all travel that doesn't involve heading towards London in the UK, it's a slow, meandering route that doesn't seem to know if it's an intercity or a local.  The trains are diesels, because much of the route isn't electrified, and there's nothing fancy like a shop on board.  

Obviously I was going to have to take this train sometime, and I finally did on the 23rd June 2016.  If that doesn't ring a bell, first of all, lucky you; secondly, it was the date of the Brexit referendum.  I voted in the morning then trotted off to Lime Street, not realising that it was the last day of Britain being a relatively normal country.  I was getting the East Midlands Trains (not Railway then) service and I was going to take copious notes.  In fact, my notepad is basically a constant stream of observations for the journey, six hours of scribbling, twenty-one pages of tiny writing, which I'm now going to reproduce here.  I've tidied it up a bit, removed the spelling mistakes and the odd name, but otherwise, this is what happened to me and what I was thinking for that whole trip.

LIVERPOOL TO NORWICH - 23rd June 2016.

10:45.  Primed and ready to pounce at the button.  Surrounded by pensioners in bright florals and polka dots eyeing me shiftily.  They're worried I'm going to take their seat, I can tell.  They've got that hopping anxiety, side-eyes to watch me in case I try to get ahead of them.  My relative youth means I win out though, because my eyes are good enough to spot when the button lights up, despite the bright sunlight.  I'm in there, pushing ahead of them while they're still gathering up cases.

My seat is a table; I don't normally like tables when I'm travelling alone.  I'm always worried I'm going to end up surrounded by teenagers, or worse, chatty people.  People who want to make friends.  People who think a five hour train journey is a chance to mingle.  Sod that.  I want to sit in silence with a podcast in my ears.  My reserved seat is facing backwards, which is annoying.  I unload a packet of crisps and a Coke Zero for the trip, storing the rest of my lunch under the seat.  

A tiny Asian woman, barely five feet tall, hesitates by my table.  She puts down her big leather handbag, brown, with a jacket poking out the top, then picks it up again and wanders off.  Soon she's back.  She sits down uncertainly.

"Is this the Norwich train?"

"Yes," I say, and she thanks me and goes back to looking a bit anxious.  Now I'm anxious too, worrying that maybe this isn't the Norwich train, and now this poor lady and I are going to end up in Carlisle together.

The diesel engines, which have been running continuously, suddenly cut out.  As one the passengers wonder if we've broken down.  Then they start again, there's a whistle, and we trundle out of the station, my companion nervously checking the envelope with her tickets as we go.

We're still in the Lime Street tunnels when the guard appears for a ticket check, bald and gruff, scrawling a twist with his biro, and we're just out of Edge Hill when the trolley appears.  The voice over the tannoy confirms that we're headed for Norwich so I can breathe easy again.  The trolley boy is dark and stubbly, skinny, with a black flower tattoo poling out from his rolled up sleeve.

Estimated time of arrival at Norwich, says the guard, is around 16:10.  This is the longest single train service I've taken since the Sleeper; standard class all the way, no extras, just a load of red seats to stare at.

South Parkway.  The woman opposite looks vaguely like she wanted a cup of tea, but was too shy to stop the trolley boy.  Though it may have been her general nervousness; she sits sideways so that we don't catch each other's eye accidentally.  There are black inky fingerprints on the cornflower blue table, a remnant of the previous occupier.  Do newspapers still give you inky fingers?  I thought they all moved to computer colour printing.  Maybe it was the Telegraph, refusing to go with these modern (1980s) technologies. 

A quick look at the train app as we reach Widnes and we're already three minutes late.  I break open the Coke.  At Warrington, she puts her handbag on her lap to free up the seat; it's reserved from Peterborough.  When we leave the station and no-one sits down she moves the bag back.

It's quiet, this train, conversations in hushed murmurs; when a phone rings, the bell is the noisiest part - the rest of the conversation is in strange whispers.  As we pass under the M6, the lady moves to the offset seat, and I try not to feel hurt.  Would stretching out my legs into her recently vacated space be rude?  Yes, it probably would, so I stay hunched up.  Although then I glanced to my right and spotted that not only had she stretched out, she'd also taken her shoes off, revealing two slightly grey heels and bronze nail polish.  That's not on.  I mean, admittedly she was only wearing sandals - there was no unlacing of shoes - but still.

We're approaching Oxford Road.  A clatter of branches from an unkempt tree, then the island of tall apartment blocks that fascinate me.  A woman on a balcony adjusts her bra through her blouse.  We're due to get a third for our quartet at Oxford Road.  Obviously the hope is they won't turn up.  The back of Home, and a couple of towers.

The platform is packed.  Hare Krishnas on the platform at Oxford Road and our seat mate arrives, a woman in her fifties with a mop of brown and grey perm.  She stows her suitcase then puts her other two bags on the table, canvas woven in bright colours.  She's got a travel mug of a tea and a tiny homemade roll wrapped in clingfilm.  Pink leggings and two or three layers.  "With the air con on, it's a bit cold," she says to the Asian lady.

"Chilly," she agrees, smiling.


Stockport looks pretty, the Co-op pyramid poking out of the trees like a Mayan ruin.  The woman next to me pulls out her glasses, then some crochet work.  She's making a jumper or cardigan, picking at threads.

There's a patch of astroturf on Stockport platform.  Finally the seats across the way fill up; three men in their 60s with bags that won't fit in the overhead rack.  They dump them in the vacant seat.  "Put your seatbelt on," one jokes, and they all giggle.  They're going to North Norfolk; I think they may possibly be train people.  There's certainly no sniff of wives.

"It does get a bit tedious after Sheffield," one warns, the only one with hair; his two companions are bald as eggs.  Yep, they're train nerds; they're talking about chords and the LNWR.

My companion rolls a ball of blue wool the same colour as the table top out as my watch ticks over onto 12.  The ladies begin to chat, first about where they're going, then the Asian lady compliments her crochet work - "it's beautiful."

"It's just a blanket.  It never turns out the way you want it."

An unscheduled stop at Hazel Grove, presumably something to do with the flooding.  The train men are talking about routes and which ones they've done as we plunge into the tunnel beyond Manchester, the one you enter in a landscape of suburbs and industry and emerge into green.  It's the bit of line that makes me think of Diamond Geezer, and trudging around a hill.  

Actually the train nerd with hair is quite hot in a DILF kind of way.  Distinguished in a checked shirt and sandy M&S slacks.  His mates are not hot.

I started wondering if I should have something to eat.  I'm not especially hungry but it would break up the boredom.  I'm a bit put off because I can't remember what flavour my crisps are; I suspect they're a bit stinky.  I'll leave it.

Train folks are talking about the Woodhead Tunnel.  I suddenly realise this is me, Robert and Ian in twenty years time.  I hope I am the hot one.  "So do we agree that privatisation has been a good thing?" one pronounces and I switch off.

To be honest I'm annoyed they haven't recognised me.  I'm a very very minor face in the world of railway blogging!  I knew I shouldn't have taken these couple of months off.  I'm already forgotten.  

Edale is damp and green, lush, thick grass and trees.  The Asian woman has pulled out a very dense, very boring looking conference agenda and is looking through it.  I can only see a few words and they don't seem to connect into a sentence.  Just before Sheffield, the crochet woman drops a needle, and I actually talk to her as she retrieves it.

"Have you dropped something?"

"It's ok, I can see it."

Very proud of myself for not fucking up that interaction.

She shifts from blue to purple wool.  At Sheffield, the train goes back the way it came; suddenly I'm facing forwards.

In the row behind the trainspotters there's a middle-aged man and his doddery old mum.  She's fallen asleep but he's eating his lunch.  A white bread roll that he's putting ready salted crisps into, and a plastic bag with a quartered pork pie.

The Asian lady puts her coat on.  "It's chilly."

"It's the air conditioning, I think," says the other lady.  I like the fact that they're having the same conversation in reverse.

A new ticket inspector, bluff Sheffield, checks all our tickets again while the trainspotters talk pubs and restaurants.  They have a voucher; "it's pasta or pizza only, from the fixed menu."  The trolley boy is the same though.  

A check of the app and we're four minutes late; we got back on target in Manchester and lost it again at Hazel Grove.

"I used to do that," says the tiny woman, pointing at the blanket.

"I started it in February," her new friend replies.  "It's something to do on the train or in front of the telly.  Or waiting for the kids to finish their swimming lessons."  The Asian lady is returning home to Nottingham after three days in Liverpool on a course.  "It'll be nice to get home."

"Well, yes, but I'll have to go back to work."  She pulls out a grey silk scarf with black spots, and Crochet Lady coos "that's beautiful", and I think they're definitely repeating themselves now.

It seems to be the toilet shift; the door hisses open and shut as a stream of passengers make their way.  I'm trying not to think about it.

Trainspotters move onto model railways - "Hornby have just brought out the Q6" - and have a tupperware with a bun and a couple of sandwiches and a thermos.  One of them has, anyway, the taller bald man; he doesn't seem to be sharing.  Meanwhile the middle-aged son is playing a fruit machine game on his phone.  I know this because I can hear it loudly paying out.

Alfreton.  Haphazard details of my visit swim in my head, the heat, the road, a convenience store where I bought water, the general Midlands-ness of it all.  Going the wrong way and having to turn back, a mining village, a canal walk, cows.  Finally the station, tired and hot, not being able to sit down because the shelter was full of trainspotters with tripods.  

The Asian lady begins to redistribute the contents of her handbag into her pockets, getting ready.  A moth flies right by my face and crashes into the window before vanishing.

"I wonder how the voting's going," says the Crochet lady, and I brace myself.  They chat generally - the polls are open so she can vote when she gets in, the results will be out in the morning, they'll count through the night - but neither asks how they're voting.  I'll put Asian lady down as remain but Crochet Lady is harder to read; she could go either way.  There could be a Daily Mail stashed in her handbag.

There's actually works at Ilkeston!  It's happening!

The Trainspotters have moved onto European railway systems and their failure to implement decent platform heights.  "I thought disability standards were all across Europe!  I thought we all had to do it!"  I tense up again.  Maybe I just shouldn't listen to other people's conversations.

Nottingham.  Of course the last time I went here I went to Hooters.  Still a bit ashamed of that.

"Prague's worth a visit but it's full of schoolkids on trips."

The Asian lady says goodbye to her pal and leaves us.  The seat reservation says we'll be getting a new companion.  On the platform at Nottingham is an old man with a cane wearing a grey hoodie with a picture of John Wayne on the back.  The trolley boy disembarks with a clatter.

Our new companion is an old lady with big dark glasses in a sleeveless top.  She leans across and says, "I always wanted to learn to crochet.  You could've taught me on the way!"  They immediately bond; our new companion knits and sews and patchworks.  I feel like joining in with my love for the Sewing Bee and how Rumana was robbed but I keep quiet.  I did pipe up when the new lady arrived to point out the Asian woman hadn't been sitting in the right seat; written down it sounds like I was a pedantic bastard but it wasn't like that.  Not entirely.

Ooh, the Trainspotters are talking about some gay!  "Does his mother know?  His brother must know.  He's reasonably intelligent."  I think DILF might be a gay too.

We leave Nottingham past the rotting hulks of warehouses - finally a bit of unfamiliar track.  And only halfway.

Now the smaller bald man has broken out his sandwiches - they smell of meat.  Yup, DILF is definitely A Gay, with a German boyfriend.  I remember the dark fingerprints; I hope the lady didn't dirty her wool.

New lady pulls out her lunch - "I think my daughter thought I was travelling for a week!"  She's been visiting her daughter, looking after her grandkids.  Another ticket inspection, this time a smiling man; his aftershave lingers after he leaves.  

Everyone is eating now.  The carriage is thick with the smell of room temperature bread.  I wonder whether to eat my sarnies, feeling inadequate next to these two ladies with their home made snack boxes - I bought mine at M&S.  The new trolley boy looks like a young Kevin Eldon.  I decide to go for it with my ham and mustard while Crochet asks the age of Old Lady's grandchildren - "Seven and five.  A lovely age."

"But hard work."

"Ooh yes."

I'm amazed by their skilful small talk.  I just can't manage it.  My mind goes blank and I'm lost.  I answer the questions yes or no then scour my brain for follow up questions that never come.  

Nottinghamshire is hazy, swathed in grey.  The guard singsongs over the tannoy: "ladies aaaaaaaand gentlemen."  

Grantham's home of the Woodland Trust, apparently.  Growing up I thought that Margaret Thatcher was Northern, because I thought Grantham was in the north; it sort of is, and sort of isn't.  The Trainspotters get excited by a freight train waiting across the way, and there's the click of an iPhone camera as they preserve it for posterity.  

I've got pen on my arm.  I've been on this train for three and a half hours.  I'm not entirely convinced I'll actually be able to walk if I get out of my seat.  Middle-aged Son stands and stretches as we hover at Grantham, engine running, waiting for a train to pass on the main line.  Finally an HST burns by and we chug out of the platform.  

We'd been warned that the refreshment trolley is leaving at Peterborough and Small Bald has had a bit of a panic.  He walks down the carriage, first asking the guard, then nipping into the next car.  He finally reappears.  "He's coming down in a minute."  The ladies pull out purses for a final tea.  I've come out without any cash and I'm not going to pay for a cuppa with a card so I'll stick to the bottle of water in my bag.  (The Coke Zero was finished off somewhere around Alfreton).  

The trolley boy is a bit sweet, chucking out his pre-prepared lines as the older lady orders a latte with sugar - "white or brown, my love?"  That's another thing I can't do, the friendly little affectations, the chummy finishes.  I can. on a good day, manage a "mate", but it's usually attached to something a bit aggressive.  It's not parrotted the way some people manage - mate mate mate mate.  The guard returns through the carriage, hunched over, looking a bit like a cartoon character.

Big Bald is getting a footplate experience at the start of July, a birthday present.

"I thought it was a driving experience?"

"That was about two hundred pounds more."

I'm thinking about having a pee.  I'd have to interrupt Crochet Lady's crocheting but it's probably about time.  Maybe.  There's a queue so I can last.  I actually want a little sleep, but I can't doze on trains, I can't.  I'm convinced someone will steal my things.  The only time I dozed was after waking up too early on the Caledonian Sleeper and nodding off on the train back to Glasgow.  Fortunately that train was so packed no-one would've been able to run off with my bag.

Old Lady is reading Val McDermid while the Trainspotters lecture Small Bald about his tea making techniques - "the fat in the milk blocks the holes in the tea bag."  The Old Lady's two-sugared latte smells tooth destroyingly sweet.  I have a bottle of fizzy water.

Peterborough is signalled by a pretty waterworks building, and then the backs of retail parks.  The dome and tower of a mosque.  Some extremely noisy people board, but they're in the wrong carriage.  There doesn't seem to be any sign of the woman who should be sitting in the old lady's seat, lucky for her; she's all settled in.  There's no sign of whoever should be sitting the Trainspotters' luggage seat either.  

Middle-aged Son's fruit machine app pays out again.  Crochet Lady dumps her stuff on the seat and goes to the loo; clearly it's a sign that I need to go while she's out of her seat.  Finally burst through to the toilet.  Just a square with a scratched toilet seat on a metal cone.  I pee and hurry back to my seat, pleased my legs still work after all that time in one spot.  

Flat fenlands out the window, infinite and featureless, trees as landscapes.  Very much had enough now.

"Good book?" asks Crochet.

"Yes.  Very gruesome."

I'm keeping my eye out for Ely cathedral.  I've never seen it, but of course I know of its reputation for being huge.  I'm probably on the wrong side of the train.

A howl of the horn.  I wonder how many train drivers we've had.  Travelling this far is unacceptable for drivers but fine for passengers.  The guard comes over the speakers to tell us "we're approaching... Ely... for services to... Cambridge."  He's astonishingly laid back.

Ely cathedral is hugely impressive and hugely out of place.  It floats over the rooftops, completely out of proportion to the town below.  

"There are loads of people getting on at Ely," DILF warns.  "Best move your things."  They stow them behind the seat backs and a teenager slips in their place.  He moves off though, and a terribly posh girl whips out her laptop and takes his place.  Surprisingly we then reverse, and I'm going backwards again.  Old Lady's phone burrs and tinkles but she doesn't notice; when she does she holds it with the delicacy of a woman afraid it may explode.

Posh girl is now chatting animatedly to Small Bald about Steeleye bloody Span and Quadrangle.  There is no escape for me.  They went to see them at the Royal Exchange.  DILF is disinterested, confirming his status as the Best One.

In the sky, a fighter jet, flying so flat, so fast, not doing that thing where planes seem to go slow in the distance.  This is fast.  It banks and curves away.  

Now Posh Girl is chatting to the guard about the flooding.  Everyone can just make chat.

Lakenheath!  Octopussy!  Ridiculously thrilled.  Explains the fighter jet anyway.  Posh Girl and Small Bald are really deep in conversation now.  Meanwhile Crochet and Old Lady discuss knitting.  "Do you knit for your grandchildren?"

"No.  They're allergic to wool, for a start."

Thetford station, advertising the Dad's Army museum.  Penultimate but still three quarters of an hour to go.  There's nothing.  Nothing in between.  It's different to the north where there's landscape and scenery and life.  Houses in the middle of nowhere.  Here it's just emptiness.  Fields and trees.  Little life.

Middle-aged Son has pulled on a bomber jacket; he's ready to leave.  His mum has woken up too, and stares out the window.

I've had enough.  Also Small Bald's voice is starting to go through me.  I feel awkward for the girl.  When the men were talking it was fine but now it's weird.  They explain their story to Meryl (that's her name) - that they went to grammar school together and now they meet up once a year to do something train related.  They're embarrassed, and Meryl picks up on it, but Small Bald doesn't, and tries to get them to whip out their old pictures.  They refuse, so he describes the picture instead; black and white, four of them, at Carlisle station trainspotting.  They're meeting three friends so I wonder who was left out.

The ladies have packed up their reading and their hobbycraft; we're all ready for the end.  Finally I give in and put on a podcast again, RHLSTP, because I can't take any more.  I adjust my seat and realise the ladies are dozing.  All this way and right at the death they decide to sleep.  Anxieties again; do I wake them at Norwich?  Although I have to because I'm trapped.  I keep catching Middle-aged Son's eye, or is he catching mine?  He doesn't seem happy either.  Have I missed something?  Have I done something?  Unless he snuck a look at my notebook while I was in the loo.  Could be possible.  Now I feel a bit guilty.  Sod it; I'm never meeting these people again.  

The endless skies are darkening now as we approach Norwich - hopefully not a sign.  My phone power is low.  I glanced over at the Old Lady and she opened her eyes at that exact moment, which was awkward.  Farms, a load of chicken coops.  Small Bald goes to the toilet and the conversation dies.  Big Bald is forced to lean in and take over the chat.  Horses gathered under a bridge.  Big Bald appears to be explaining the etymology of the word "tramp"; I missed how this came up and now I'm desperately trying to work it out.  A gravel plant as we come into Norwich, crossing the river and passing the depot.  Time to wake up and go.

Thursday, 31 December 2020

The Obligatory But Pointless End Of Year Post

I absolutely understand that nobody really wants a 2020 round up, at least not one that is more substantial than a video of a person screaming while their hair is on fire.  Everything is awful, let's accept that and move on.  I do, however, want to do a little bit of housekeeping.

Let's take a look at the West Midlands Railway map, shall we?  I've crossed off all the stations I managed to visit this year.

Okay, we might need to zoom in.

And a bit more.

Bearley, Claverdon, Nuneaton, Bermuda Park, Bedworth, Coventry Arena.  Six stations in two trips, with the final trip on March 10th.  And that was the last time I got on a train anywhere.  I've gone nearly ten months without ever hearing the whirr of an electric engine or the chug of a diesel.  The closest I've got is (socially distantly) visiting my mum and seeing the odd train move behind her back wall.  Nothing since.  It's weird, and a little bit of me is anxious about the day I do eventually go back.  Masks and hand sanitizer and alternate seats to maintain two metres distant.  It sounds... stressful.

Anyway, those six stations changed the total number of stations done, even if it was only by a fraction.  Unfortunately, in February, West Midlands Railway also revised the map and added eight new ones (plus a tram stop) so I've actually ended the year with a net decrease in the percentage of the map I've completed.  It stands at 38% of the total, which is still not bad considering I only started the West Midlands Project in 2019.  If the pandemic hadn't spoiled things for everyone I'd have probably been at about two thirds by now.  

Elsewhere in station news, Horden railway station was added to the map, between Seaham and Hartlepool.  That'll have to be visited someday, of course.  Perhaps I'll treat myself to a week in Newcastle and polish off the Metro while I'm there; it celebrated its 40th anniversary this year and I've always wanted to whizz around it.  Assuming the vaccine hits and civilisation as we know it fails to collapse.

I also have a small query.  Over the autumn I recapped my trip through North Wales, something I'd done for a book idea but which never went any further.  It took me a while because I had to reach into my memory banks and I also had to try and decipher my scrawls in my battered notebook.  But the question is: would you like more of this kind of thing?  Here's the other places I visited in 2016 but haven't written up:

The Borders Railway from Edinburgh to Tweedbank

The Wherry Lines from Norwich to Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth

The East London Line from New Cross/New Cross Gate to Highbury & Islington

The Island Line from Ryde Pier Head to Shanklin

So would you be interested in me writing that up?  It'd give me something to do, it'd keep the blog from dying, it'd pass the time.  On the other hand, five year old observations about the railways aren't exactly fascinating - I was doing the Wherry Lines the day of the Brexit Referendum and are we really sure we want to drag all that up again?  It might be interesting but I haven't written it up so far so there might be a reason for that, you know?

Have a mull and let me know what you think, either in the comments here or on Twitter @merseytart.  In the meantime have stay at home in front of the telly, open some wine, and have a good New Year.  We'll all be back together one day.

Friday, 27 November 2020


There are many things wrong with Britain.  Brexit.  The Tories.  James Corden.  But the thing that annoys me most, the streak that runs through this country like a poisoned vein, the thing that is in its own way responsible for a lot of the other ills, is nostalgia.  Nostalgia for the past, nostalgia for your own personal past, nostalgia for a time that existed only in the imagination.  

Look, I get it: Britain is old.  And we've got a lot of history.  Every now and then someone on Twitter will post a really interesting story with "why didn't we learn this in history class?!?!" and my answer is, where do you fit it in?  I did History until I was 14 (I dropped it for Geography at GCSE, got an A, don't mind me) and I know full well that I have massive gaps in my knowledge of this country.  Everything between William the Conqueror and the Hundred Years War.  Most of my knowledge of the Georgian period I get from The Madness of King George and Blackadder III.  Teaching concentrates on the big hitters - the Romans, Magna Carta, the feudal system (those damn crop rotations) and the Peasant's Revolt, the Tudors and Stuarts and the English Civil War, the Victorians, the Second World War.  You've got to somehow cram two thousand years of history into the heads of bored children - go for the interesting stuff; they can learn about William IV or the Anglo-Dutch War in their own time if they're that bothered.

It's World War II: Electric Boogaloo that's got its greatest grip on the country's brain, probably because Churchill came up with Our Finest Hour and gave it a natty tagline.  I stepped out of my hotel in Blaenau Ffestiniog and found a town square made up to look like the 1940s.  There were sandbags and tape on the windows.  There was jitterbug music playing.  There were people who were far too young to have been in the war - far too young to have been in the Falklands War - wearing khaki and with their hair in rollers and dancing around.

Yes, it was a great period for this country, in terms of us helping to save the continent from Fascism.  Absolutely.  But it was also bloody miserable.  People who lived through the war had rationing and doodlebugs and relatives being killed and blackouts and way too much Gracie Fields.  It wasn't a six year party.  And here they were turning it into a theme park, a fun morning for all the family, get yourself a genuine wartime cake from the stall on the right (not actually genuine because it wasn't made with powdered eggs and you didn't have to save up three months of coupons to be able to make it but anyway).

I wasn't in the mood.  I wasn't in the mood to ride the nostalgia pony.  I'm sure everyone on the town council thought it was just a bit of fun, and the tourists probably loved it, but I found it annoying and wanted to get away from it.  I wandered round the town itself.  The brief impression I'd got the night before - that this was a town at the end of the world - felt even more true on a Sunday morning.  The narrow streets were deserted.  The shops were closed.  Above us, raw, grey rock loomed, making every view sinister.

I'd pretty much done the whole village in half an hour, so I wound my way back to the station square, where (unsurprisingly) Vera Lynn was playing, and bought a ticket for the Ffestiniog Railway.  It shares its location with the National Rail station, the two tracks laying alongside one another.  But while the Conwy Valley Line platform is perfunctory and ordinary, the Ffestiniog Railway is full on nostalgia.  Red and cream paint and wooden overhangs, ironwork and men in starched uniforms.  I sighed deeply and plunged in.

The Ffestiniog was built as a narrow gauge railway in the 19th century to carry slate from the mountains down to the docks at Porthmadog.  It soon attracted attention as a tourist attraction, with special passenger trains slotted in between the working trains, but after the war it was declared surplus to requirements and closed permanently.  A band of volunteers immediately sprang up to restore it, carefully bringing its trains and tracks back to life, even digging a new tunnel after the Central Electricity Board flooded the old route of the railway with a reservoir, and now it's one of Wales's biggest tourist attractions.  They even bought the West Highland Railway from Caernarvon, the two lines dovetailing at Porthmadog.  

I bought my ticket and loitered on the platform.  Regular readers will know I'm not really a fan of heritage railways.  The most interesting thing about a steam train is seeing it in full flight, and the problem with actually riding one is you can't see the engine unless you're willing to lean out of the window on a dangerous curve and risk being decapitated by a signal post.  It's nostalgia again, the conviction that steam trains were somehow better and more romantic as they belched out smoke and noise and embers that set fire to the washing of homes that backed onto the line.

The difference between the Ffestiniog Railway and other heritage routes, however, is that it serves an actual purpose as a link across Wales.  The regular railway ends at Blaenau Ffestiniog, so getting from, say, Conwy to Barmouth by train means going out to Chester, changing, heading south, then back through the middle of Wales to work your way up again.  A distance of 40 miles as the crow flies becomes a 150 mile round trip.  Time your journey right, however, and the Ffestiniog Railway lets you cut the corner off Wales.  It's still a faff, but it's an important enough link to get marked on the official rail maps, unlike any other of the heritage routes in the country.

As I stood on the platform I realised I hadn't taken a picture of me in front of the station sign.  I didn't fancy venturing out of the station now I'd bought a ticket in case they didn't let me back in so I'm afraid a platform sign will have to do you.  It's definitely there, you just have to squint a bit.  Complaints to the usual address, where they will be ignored.

A train chugged into the station, tiny but noisy, and we all lined up to respectfully take our pictures.  After a good deal of shunting and shifting it returned with some carriages and the scrum for seats began.

I picked a wooden carriage, rather than one of the sumptuous ones.  I thought I was getting a more "authentic" experience, plus there was a better chance that I'd not have to share a seat.  I installed myself at the back.  In front of me were two compartments, with upholstered bench seats stretching the width of the carriage.  An elderly couple took the very front one, then in the middle, a noisy Brummie family with teen children and a tiny spaniel.  They clattered in as the conductor came to inspect our tickets.  Obviously I couldn't find mine - it had stuck to the back of my phone - but he said "I trust you," and locked the door to the compartment.  There was a triumphant toot of the engine and then we were away, furiously barrelling out of the station and round the back of the town.

"It goes to Porthmadog, apparently," Dad read off the leaflet.

"What's that?" asked the Son.  Dad ignored him, and told them there'd be an hour's wait at the terminus until the train back.  The Son looked stricken.  "Will there be a shop?"  Meanwhile Mum lifted the dog - Oscar - up above the wooden side so he could get a better view.

The train clung to the edge of the mountain, letting us peer down into back gardens.  We poured down the hillside, following roads and rivers, sliding under bridges.  The railway was designed to use gravity as much as possible to help it down to the coast and it felt it, a slightly giddy air of falling as the train moved along.

Slow into the first station and the driver went to fetch his token to proceed.  The Brummies looked confused.  "Is that it?"  They moved to open the door to the carriage, but then the train jerked into life again, and we continued on our way.  The reservoir appeared with its squat brick control room.  There was a waterfall, almost comically beautiful, like it had been laid on by Disney, but I could see that the upper reaches of the reservoir were dry as the summer heat took hold.  Some hikers by the water paused and waved at the train, and then we disappeared into a tunnel.  Historic looking green shades illuminated us, though the bulbs underneath were modern LED; I expect they have received some furious letters from passengers protesting about the inauthenticity.

The route became lusher, harsh mountainsides giving way to thick woodlands barely a foot from our carriage.  Light filtered down through the foliage.  Mum turned to the Son.  "Sean.  Will you take a picture of me and the dog?"

At Dduallt - a name so Welsh it comes with a free daffodil - the line spiralled, turning a tight curve.  Instead of a simple right hand turn it instead did a 270 degree twist until you passed underneath the line you'd come in on.  I'd wondered, as we'd ridden along the line, why they hadn't simply converted it to standard gauge and made it an extension of the Conwy Valley Line rather than closing it completely.  Mad feats of engineering like this made me understand why.

We passed through Campbell's Platform, a private halt, without stopping, and got a glimpse of a castle on the horizon.  Or was it another power station?  It was hard to tell.  The trees twisted then thinned as a frothing white stream.  The valley was astonishingly steep, almost vertical, and the cars below looked tiny and insignificant.  The Brummies broke out the crisps.  They seemed confused by the concept of intermediate stations; I think they had it in their head that this was like a theme park ride, a very long rollercoaster on its way to Porthmadog.  Another tunnel, another lake - smaller, but natural - then we were pulling into Tanybwlch station between a rock face and a wall.

The bearded guard strode the platform, calling out the name, as we paused.  It was a rare strip of double track so this was where trains heading north could cross trains heading south.  Oscar the dog let out an impressive fart that made Mum giggle as the other train pulled in.  It was the David Lloyd George, red and shiny, far more impressive than our pootling little truck.  The engineers began refilling its engine with water as a woman walked along the platform with a box of Magnums, selling them through the window.  

We set off again through more woodland.  Below us in the valley were hikers on a path and I wished I was down there instead of up here.  After a while a train journey becomes a blur, just a load of magnificent scenery and a slowly numbing arse.  I pulled a peanut butter KitKat Chunky out of my bag and chewed on it as yet another impossibly scenic river rolled beneath us.  The Dad leaned out the window to take a picture, and revealed a good few inches of unnecessary buttock cleavage.

For a while we sped along at a breakneck pace, passing tiny sidings and the odd cottage.  We were moving out of the mountains now, into more tame farmland, as a herd of sheep appeared, grazing on wild grass.  The trees looked domesticated and maintained.  There were the outskirts of a village, then a level crossing, and the Son exclaimed "we're here!".  He was quite wrong of course; this was Penrhyn station.  His sister, incidentally, had been virtually mute the entire trip; the reason became clear when she began rooting around in her mum's handbag for travel sickness pills.  Meanwhile the two old people at the front finally broke their silence to admire the flowers on the platform. 

We were above the rooftops, lodged in the mountain still, but compared with the isolated Blaenau this felt almost suburban.  We moved on down the line, smoke steaming past our noses and filling our lungs, and then we were at Minffordd.  I broke into a grin.  This was familiar territory; I'd been to this station before, in 2012, when I'd worked my way along the Cambrian lines.  I'd got off there and walked to Porthmadog, but this time I rode the train, past the noisy clatter of a quarry and the works for the railway.  Acres of sidings and steel.  The volunteers paused to wave at us as we approached; some of them were barely teenagers.  Another generation of railway nerds.  We paused before the sweep across the Cob at the entrance to the bay and the Son looked around him forlornly.  "Is this it?"

Then we moved across the water, barely above the surface, and into Porthmadog station.  I unfolded myself from my seat.  I could barely feel anything below the waist - I hoped my legs wouldn't collapse as I climbed out.  The teenagers disembarked and looked around them with barely disguised disgust.  This was it, kids; enjoy your one hour until you have to do the whole thing again in reverse.  Hope you can at least find something in the gift shop.

Porthmadog remained as charming as I remembered it, a little touristy perhaps, but that's the problem with being beautiful; you attract admirers.  Blaenau Ffestiniog didn't seem to attract overwhelming quantities of tourists, put it that way.  I was glad I'd finally ridden the Ffestiniog Railway, but also glad I'd never have to do it again.  Nostalgia can be exhausting.

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Into The Crevasse

Here's another instalment in my journey down the Conwy Valley Line.  A quick reminder that this all happened in July 2016, so no lockdowns were broken.  It also means that some of what's below might no longer be accurate.  Blaenau Ffestiniog may have burnt to the ground in the intervening four years; I'm afraid I have no idea.

Now I don't want to imply that Wales is a little... let's be generous and say, retro, shall we?  But there was a phone box on the platform at Roman Bridge.  With a green Cardphone logo.  BT stopped issuing Phonecards in 2002, so somehow this branded call box had managed to cling on for decades more.  It looked like it had been adapted for credit card use as well, so technically the logo was still accurate, but it still gave me a nostalgic rush.  It flashed me back to queuing by the phone box at my hall of residence to call my mum on a Sunday morning, a queue that started out quite lengthy in September, and had basically vanished by November as all the students found better things to do than reassure their parents that they were safe and well.  Sleep, mainly.

Roman Bridge wasn't the next station along the line from Pont-y-Pant; that was Dolwyddelan.  The difference was that Roman Bridge was request only so I'd taken advantage of being the only person to board at Pont-y-Pant to ask them to stop.  I was now going to go back up the line.  

Sign pic taken - there was no totem, unfortunately, further underlining Roman Bridge's status as a forgotten halt - I headed out onto the road.  The A470 connects the two stations directly but that looked like a dull route to take to me.  Instead, looking at the Ordnance Survey map, my eye had been drawn to a footpath that passed above the railway and the river, skirting the edge of the mountain and passing an old quarry.  That looked far more interesting.

As usual, Wales insisted on being breathtakingly beautiful at all times.  I felt refreshed after my little pause at Pont-y-Pant, reinvigorated even, and I pushed out optimistically.  For a little while I followed the main road, then I spotted my turning, a narrow road that passed back over the tracks.

I stopped.  The footpath went right through a cluster of buildings - a farm, and it seemed to go straight across their land.  Now I'm sure there are people who would simply stride across the farmyard, brandishing their map and shouting "public right of way, step aside!".  Julia Bradbury would do it, and probably tease some effortlessly charming historical factoids out of the farmer while she did it.

I am not that kind of person.  I respect privacy, and also, farmers have guns.  I didn't fancy Falmer Palmer screaming "GET ORF MOY LAND" (not that he would, this was Wales, he wouldn't have a West Country accent).  I backed away slowly, hoping I hadn't been seen hovering nervously in their driveway, and returned to the main road.  

I almost immediately found a reason to jump off it again.  A small plaque informed me that the road had been upgraded in 1998, and you could tell from its long gentle curves and wide clear tarmac that this wasn't a historic by-way.  Tucked behind a gate, however, was the old road, a much narrower route that crossed the Afon Lledr via a stone bridge, the Pont-y-Coblyn.

Always take the side path when you can.  You find worlds that are hidden, places that are concealed, histories overlooked.  You find beauty.  If I'd stuck to the A470, I'd have hiked along a grass verge.  Instead, I paused on an old bridge and watched as water cascaded down a waterfall, alone, silent.

Eventually I tore myself away and rejoined the main road.  The verge was generous, so I didn't feel quite so vulnerable to the traffic, and taking this way meant I'd reach Dolwyddelan in plenty of time, so I basically sauntered along.  It was a warm Saturday afternoon and everything felt very relaxed and lazy.  Nobody was in a rush.  The car park of Dolwyddelan Castle was half-filled, day-trippers making their way home having seen all they needed to.  

Soon I was on the outskirts of the village itself.  Small grey houses scattered along the path, with others clinging to the hill above.  Parked cars wedged onto the pavement.  Then I was at the centre, a crossroads with a pub, a church and a shop on each corner.  The fourth corner had a post box outside and the front was newly plastered and, I guessed, had once been the post office, to give you everything you needed in one place.

I went in the shop to get a snack and realised I didn't have any cash.  I'd only wanted a packet of mints, but I felt obligated to spend a fiver since I was using my card, so I added a couple of bottles of Coke and a sandwich and a packet of crisps to justify the transaction.  It's the banking industry's fault I eat so much.  It was a packed Spar, the kind of place that has to cater for every possible need a village could want, with narrow aisles and high shelves, and I fell out onto the pavement.

I had an absolute age until my train and the pub was closed.  What sort of country pub closes on a Saturday afternoon?  I wondered if this was one of those weird Welsh temperance villages where they'd finally acknowledged people liked a beer but allowed it only grudgingly, on the third Thursday of the month, and only serving halves.  Instead I wandered about the village, taking in the noticeboards.  The village cinema's upcoming showings were Angela's Ashes, The Lady in the Van and Suffragette - a fine trilogy of middlebrow, uninspiring, "quality" films that wouldn't offend anyone.  I'd missed a WI meeting with a talk from "The Soap Angels from Talsarnau".  The council were going to block up a footpath for six months "for reasons of danger to the public" while works went on.

I took a turn round the churchyard, vaguely looking at the gravestones, then I finally took up a seat in the garden round the War Memorial.  My feet let out an exhausted sigh; I hadn't realised how tired I was until I sat down.  I swigged my Coke while bees hummed round the flowers and drifted away, my brain sinking into silence, my body relaxing.  I felt my eyes sagging, over and over, and had to drag myself awake again.  How long was it since I'd left Llanrwst?  How long since I'd been in bed?

Nope.  I pulled myself up and forced myself to walk down the road to the station.  I was nearly done for the day.  The train would be there soon enough.  I crossed the river and walked across the car park to the platform.

You could feel the village's pride in their little country station, with its floral displays and its carefully painted benches and its heritage signage.  A small plaque on a lump of slate commemorated 130 years of the Conwy Valley Line, back in 2009.  The only thing it was missing was a decent station sign.

I paced the platform, stirring myself to stay awake, bouncing up and down and playing a podcast loudly to try and keep my mind stimulated.  Finally a train arrived and me and the couple of other passengers the station had attracted were able to climb aboard and head south

At first the route was the familiar, beautiful Wales I was used to.  Green hills, dancing water, trees swaying gently.  Beyond Roman Bridge however it seemed to darken.  The skies, previously blue and bright, turned gunmetal.  The grass became scrub.  Soon we vanished into a long, dark tunnel, and when we re-emerged, it was as though we'd travelled into another world.  The mountains had been torn apart and reshaped into ugly lumps.  They were stripped of vegetation and their slate chipped out and carried away.  It was a grey, harsh, cold town.

The train stopped.  This was Blaenau Ffestiniog.