I was on the train from Preston to Croston, and intrigued to find that the ladies across the aisle from me were Americans on a day trip to Ormskirk. Now, this may just be me, but the immediate questions raised in my mind are (a) if you have travelled 7000 miles across an ocean, why go to Preston? Did you take the wrong taxi at Manchester Airport? and (b) Given that you have found yourself in Preston, why did you decide to take a train to Ormskirk, as there are trains to other, more interesting towns from that station?
Naturally I didn't voice any of my questions. Instead I just sat there, earwigging on their interminable semi-flirtatious banter with the guard, and keeping an eye out for ostriches. Yes, ostriches. The only other time I had ridden this line, my friend Jennie and I had glanced out of the train window to see a flock of ostriches running alongside the train. It was the mid 90s; BSE was raging across the nation, and carnivores were turning to any meat they could to satisfy their bloodied desires (not that I am anti-carnivore, as anyone who's seen me consume a bloodied steak will tell you). The sight of a bit of African savannah beside our very British Rail train was a bit too much for Jennie and I, and I'm afraid we dissolved into hysterics and continued to use the term "ostriches!" as an exclamation afterwards. Indeed, when I mentioned my suggested route to her, she said, "Don't forget to look out for ostriches!". That's how HILARIOUS we are.
But there weren't any, which was a bit unsettling. There's always been a part of me that's suspected the ostriches were actually some sort of group hallucination. Given that I spent the years 1995-1998 in an almost permanent state of drunkenness, this is not such an inconceivable concept. I can only hope that the ostrich farmer was driven out of business and is destitute somewhere due to his failed avian dream. That would make me feel a lot better.
I got off at Croston, the first stop on the line between Preston and Ormskirk. There were only two of us who alighted there; me, and an elderly lady who was proudly wielding her tartan zip up shopping trolley, and who was clearly a regular on the route. There's no station building at Croston, just a car park with pretensions. There was a little community board, featuring the usual local events: line dancing, guitar lessons, and pleasingly, a little plug for the local rail user's group. (Here's another one).
Since we're out of Merseyrail's zone of influence, it's goodbye to the yellow and grey M's on the signs; instead we get the red rose of Lancashire. I approve.
When I plan one of my tarting escapades, I'm pretty casual about it. I usually have a backpack with me, into which I stuff the train timetables, an OS map and an A-Z. I also have a mooch round Google Maps and Wikipedia before I leave. But I don't have a strict schedule, just a vague idea of where I'm heading and how to get there.
This means that sometimes I can get distracted, sent off course, or occasionally, just plain lost. Croston was going to be a distraction. I knew, to stay en route, that I had a right turn somewhere; but as I wandered down into the heart of the village, I became increasingly impressed by the place. Nice, tidy workmen's cottages; some centuries-old farmhouses, sensitively restored; the odd, pleasingly in keeping new development. At a junction, I basically missed the correct turn, and carried on.
This should have destroyed my plans, but it was worth it. Croston's lovely. What's not to like? It was a crisp, spring day, and I was walking past a well-preserved village green with two pubs. There was a dinky post office, and a generally pleasing air of Middle England niceness. I rounded a corner and found a splashing river below a pretty church.
I carried on walking, through the centre and out the other side. The houses spoke of subtle affluence - entry gates, video intercoms, the occasional Range Rover. Well-preserved money all around. The people of Croston clearly like their village and take some pride in it. Some people like it a little too much - a jeep pulled up in front of one of the farm houses, and it had the registration plate "CR08TON". I. Kid. You. Not.
Eventually I ran out of village, and I was on a country lane. It finally dawned on me that I should have encountered a canal bridge at some point, and that I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. I turned round to retrace my steps, and stopped at a bench to consult my Ordnance Survey map.
[Swoon Interlude] How bloody amazing are Ordnance Survey maps, incidentally? They are one of those things that makes you proud to be British, somewhere between Helen Mirren and spelling "colour" with a "u". The detail, the design, the symbols (only the Ordnance Survey would differential between wind pumps and wind turbines) - they're beyond maps, into art, and I could stare at them for hours. [End of Swoon Interlude]
With a combination of the OS map and Google Maps on my phone - a 21st century procedure which I suspect would cause my Scout Patrol leader to revoke the Orienteering badge I earned aged 13 - I worked out where I should have turned, and plodded back the way I came. Until I was distracted again.
Come on. You can't expect me to walk past a pub twice and not partake, can you? My name's Scott and I'm an alcoholic. Besides, there's a definite pleasure to sitting outside, sipping a pint by a village green. It was the day after St George's Day, and there couldn't have been a more English experience.
The pint of Copper Dragon's Golden Pippin safely tucked away, I returned to my route. I have to say, if I'd stuck to it in the first place, I might not have been so entranced by Croston. The Westhead Road was all post-war overflow housing, and determinedly working class. There was even a working men's club, which I'm guessing didn't feature a guest ale from a small Yorkshire brewery like the Wheatsheaf.
The village faded away again, and I finally found the footpath I needed. To get to Rufford from Croston, you follow the A581 out to the main A59 Liverpool Road, turn south, and you should get there in plenty of time. But where's the fun in that? Instead, I stepped off the main carraiageway and onto the towpath of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal's Rufford Branch.
I have to say that up until this point, I've been a bit, well, gushy. I liked Preston, and I liked Croston, and so my usual patented sneery cynicism has been pretty much muted. Readers who have missed it will be happy to hear I'm about to unleash it again, because I was seriously disappointed by my canal walk. Seriously. I'd seen it on the maps, and my head was filled with visions of ruddy faced bargemen on painted barges, gentle undulating countryside, and the calm lapping of the water beside me.
None of that happened. I didn't see a single boat until I reached the marina at Rufford. The water didn't really lap unless a duck landed heavily. And as for the countryside... well, as you can see, it doesn't undulate at all. I hadn't realised that the canal was surrounded by reclaimed land, and was therefore flat and tedious. In addition, I found out halfway along that British Waterways had recently been doing embankment maintenance, so the grass was scrubby and thin from the works. Basically it was a big old let down.
Accentuate the positive, though! I wasn't in work, for starters. It was pleasingly warm, and though there was a grey film of clouds above me, I did realise when I got home that I'd acquired a very light dusting of suntan (anyone wanting to see my tan lines will have to visit my other, subscriber only website). I was far enough from the roads to experience a stillness of sound, where the only things I could hear were my breathing, my footsteps, and the birdsong.
There were the occasional distractions. A big pile of wood acquired landmark status in the flat fields. It was just a bonfire, but in my stimulus starved state, I began to conjecture if it was just a bonfire, or if it was in fact A FUNERAL PYRE FOR A PAGAN SACRIFICE. Told you I was a bit bored. Sometimes there was a swan or two. It occurred to me that if one of Her Majesty's swans did decide to go nuts and break my arm, I was miles from the road and no-one knew exactly where I was, so I'd probably lie by the side of the canal until it turned gangrenous. I checked my mobile reception so I could contact the authorities in case of bird-related trauma.
Finally I reached the halfway point, the Great Hanging Bridge. Google searches have failed to turn up the reason why it was called the Great Hanging Bridge, but I don't think you'd have to be Tony Robinson to guess.
Excitingly, I crossed from one side of the canal to the other, and continued on. To be fair, things got a little more interesting. The landscape became a bit more varied, with trees and fields, and the grass was thicker and more pleasant to walk on. Sheep started to appear, first in pens beside the embankment, then actually wandering across the path in front of me. Every single one went through the following procedure:
1) Stop eating grass and stare at the man coming towards them.
2) Stare at the man, hoping that their intense gaze will intimidate him into stopping, and they can go back to their grass.
3) Panic and leg it into the nearest copse.
Maximum amusement was derived from the sheep who were trapped between the canal and the embankment as I approached: they all did a sort of half-hearted panicky jog around before giving up and just looking away from me. There was a part of me that hoped they'd actually jump in the canal to get away.
Then I got bored again, and began to lose myself in an intense, loving fantasy (not involving sheep, I hasten to add). No, I was fantasising about the pint I was going to have at Rufford. If there's one thing that can be said about canal boatmen, it's that they like their ale, and I harboured intense visions of a frothy pint of heady brown beer.
Rufford is where the canal and railway meet, and as I passed under the bridge, the purple Sprinter went by, on its way to Preston. This signalled that I had about half an hour to find a pub and knock back the blessed pint.
And you know what? There wasn't a pub to be seen. Quite unbelievably, Rufford manages to have two canal marinas and can't scrape up a single pub between them. That's illegal, surely? I looked around, but all I could find were two tea rooms. I really, really love a nice cup of tea, but I was hot and sweaty and I'd been walking for several hours, so what I need was something cold and full of hops. I briefly considered giving in and having a Coke or something, until I saw how they'd spelt "holidays" on the sandwich board. My mild disinclination to visit the tea room instantly became a boycott on behalf of the English language, and I turned tail and left.
(I Twittered my frustration while I waited at the station, and Nat very helpfully tweeted a recommendation on Liverpool Road, away from the marinas. Unfortunately, I didn't see her reply for another couple of hours, but thanks anyway!).
Rufford station is the only spot on the line that has two platforms. The whole branch used to be twin tracked, until the inevitable cut backs saw half the tracks removed. Rufford was left as a passing place, so that if they decided to run trains more than once every blue moon they'd have room to manoeuvre. It has a level crossing at one end - always an annoyance for me - and a portakabin signal box. I installed myself in a little shelter and surfed the internet on my phone for a bit, letting my tired feet have a few moments of relaxation. What I'd seen of Rufford couldn't compare with Croston. While that had been a genuine destination, Rufford just seemed to be somewhere to stop. Even the marinas were a let down. I've done some pleasure boating in my time, on the Norfolk Broads, and the marinas have a sort of jocular charm. These two seemed more like car parks for boats, with all the glamour and romance that implies.
Ah well: the capturing of Rufford meant that nearly the whole branch was in my grasp. I just had one more untarted station to go...