Part two of a two part trip: for part one, click here.
I passed a camping and caravan site on my way out of the Delamere Forest. This immediately got me thinking about lunch. I've seen both Carry on Camping AND Carry on Behind: I know about these places. No-one can go more than half an hour without ramming a load of sausages down their throat, washed down with twelve pints of beer. And possibly a pickled egg. Then they all try and get a look at Elke Sommer's Bristols and the tent falls over, with the pole going up Terry Scott's bum.
It stands to reason that if there's a caravan site, then there will be a pub close by. Probably a flea-bitten, jaded place, where the dart board is surrounded by a constellation of holes and the suede effect seating has fag holes in it. The kind of place that features brands of beer you've never heard of, or lagers you thought had gone years ago ("pint of Double Diamond, please!"). All served by a barmaid who's the wrong side of sixty, but no-one told her wardrobe. In short, a joy.
I was practically rubbing my hands together at the thought of the ramshackle establishment, and knocking back a pint of warm beer. It'd be great material for the blog.
First I'd have to establish where the station was because it's another of those ones that's hidden away. It's buried under a road bridge - a road bridge with pavement only on one side, the opposite side to the station. There's no station sign.
I headed down the steps, in the hope of finding a decent sign for when I came back, and possibly that dodgy pub. Instead I found something much better.
The Station House. Some genius had taken the old station and converted it into a snug little cafe, tucked away alongside the footpaths into the forest and overlooking the station itself. It didn't look like I'd get that pint, but I didn't mind. (No, really).
There was a couple sat outside already, supping tea from china cups. I went inside. It had been decorated in bright sunny colours, with very traditional furniture: none of your stainless steel and granite here, just pine and formica, but clean and decent. I will admit they've gone a bit overboard on the period signage: yup, this is another of those places full of tin-plate Bovril ads and pictures of a baby plugging Pear's soap. I wonder if cafes in the future will have the Smash aliens on the wall, underneath Alexsandr Orlov and that monkey on the Dairy Milk commercial?
The lady - buxom but friendly, in a smart black t-shirt and pants - took my order, a bacon, chicken and mango chutney panini. She called out to her friend in the back: "Have we got all the stuff for a panini?"
"Hang on, I'll check."
"We had a rush over the weekend," said the woman behind the counter. The word came from the back - yes, she had all the bits. £6.75 lighter - and smarting a little at the price - I was carrying my tea back outside to sit in the sun. The retro theme carried on out here - a preserved red phone box, and various agricultural implements of mysterious provenance.
I had twenty minutes until my train, so I hoped lunch wouldn't be too late. At least, I didn't at first. Then the sun began to get to me, weak but gently warming, and the opportunity to have a seat was so nice after two hours of trudging through woodland. My panini came, and I immediately felt guilty for quibbling about the price.
It was ridiculously overstuffed with meat, and accompanied by a massive quantity of salad (at one point I moved the panini to make some space, and found a pile of potato salad I hadn't even realised was there). Add to that the two and a half cups of good strong tea I got out of the pot, and I more than got my money's worth.
There was no way I was going to be able to polish all that off in twenty minutes: I may be carrying a few extra pounds, but that's down to my drinking habits, not my eating. It takes me ages to work my way through a plate of food. I took an executive decision - I'd get the next train. Besides, it was such a great spot. I heard the train pass behind me, all whirring of wheels and hissing of brakes, while I worked my way through the panini. I hadn't been sure about the mango chutney but it was a wonderful tangy edge next to the bacon and chicken. Finally I pushed my plate away, still laden with lettuce and tomato (I just couldn't do it), and leaned back to read my book.
Time rolled on. I felt my limbs become heavy. James Bond got his finger broken by Tee-Hee in Harlem. I watched more people arrive - a threesome of serious looking men waving an OS map about. A couple with a lively collie. James Bond risked his mission by absconding with the lovely Solitaire. Two old ladies debated whether to use the toilet in the cafe since they weren't buying anything. They disappeared inside, then re-emerged with a guilt-ridden tray of tea. A midget and his mother turned up and sat at the table next to me, eating bacon baps.
The Station House Cafe's up for sale, incidentally, if you've got a million or so quid free. I hope whoever buys it doesn't change it too much.
I drained the last of my tea, eking out the last drop from the teapot before wandering round to the Manchester platform. As I said, there wasn't a British Rail sign anywhere on the road, so I had to settle for a platform sign:
The train arrived, and my heart sank: it was a Pacer, those bloody awful tin machines that somehow, somehow, have managed to persist into the 21st Century. It's always a surprise when one turns up: you always think it's something that's been eliminated from polite society, like bear baiting.
On board though, there was a strangely familiar air to things.
It was smarter than the usual bus-seat Pacers, with a nifty dot-matrix display and comfy chairs. But look at the colours... and the interior... it's all a bit, well, familiar, isn't it? And what about the seat covers...
As always when it comes to train related queries, I turned to Robert for guidance, and fired off a text. The reply came back almost immediately. Yup: it was a former Merseytravel Pacer, one of the yellow trains that used to do the City Line. It seems that Northern Rail repainted the outside, but didn't bother with the inside. It was quite nice: a little piece of home. And the Colour Tsars will be pleased about their influence extending into Cheshire and Manchester.
Cuddington next: a village that sounds like it was named after that stuff cows regurgitate. Charming. On the plus side, they know how to do railway station signs there:
Apart from that - what's going on, Cuddington? Why do you want to hide your light under a bushel? I figured that, as a rural Cheshire village, it would have a scenic centre - cottages, village shops, a tea room with doilies. Instead I wandered in one direction, then another, then another before I finally stumbled upon its throbbing hub. And by "throbbing hub" I mean "drab parade of shops that look like they've escaped from a pre-war council estate".
It looks like a well to do, pleasant village, so why was it so colossally boring and suburban? Plus there was no sign of that tea room. A Premier mini-market, a Chatwins, a dry cleaners and four - count them! - four hairdressers. The people of Cuddington may have nowhere to chat over a petit four, but they do have nice hair.
I'll forgive them though, for two reasons. The first was the dry cleaner's window, which featured this epicmazing poster:
The second reason for glee was the village hall, which had a bulletin from the local police posted outside. Having grown up in Luton, and now dwelling on Merseyside, I have a pretty jaded view of crime and its effects. Frankly, you could disembowel a hooker on my doorstep, and I'd only take an interest in how much blood was getting on my brick paving. Murder, rape, burglary, vandalism - these are bread and butter to me and my cynical mindset.
It's not the same in Cheshire, as a bulletin from the Constabulary made clear. Some choice elements:
- "We had an incident reported to us in Newton where a farmer found that 3 of his chickens had been beheaded. This is very unusual."
- "Officers swooped on a drink driver this week in Tarporley. On Saturday night local people reported a man driving erratically."
- "Sightings please for a Red Audi A3 index number P141PLL. This vehicle's occupants stole a Hoover from a shop in Frodsham and made off."
I know I shouldn't laugh, but can you imagine the ecstasy in Birkenhead if the worst they had to deal with was a few decapitated chickens? The police would have a street parade.
I was charmed, and decided to give Cuddington a passing grade. But that had taken twenty minutes, total: what the hell was I going to do now?
I'll have you know, this was under sufferance. The only pub I could find was - urgh - a Hungry Horse, and during the course of my visit, they managed to play Robbie Williams AND Ronan Keating. There was also tinsel on the walls, and two customers asked when they'd start serving the Christmas menu. It was a sunny, cheery October, and people were already considering when they could stuff their face with turkey. Enjoy today! Stop rushing ahead!
It did give me time to think about the countryside. The walk in the Delamere Forest had reminded me why so many people dream of moving to the sticks; the peace, the beauty, the awesomeness of nature. It was very seductive. Cuddington had reminded me why I could never do it myself. I'd miss the hustle of town, the accessibility, the choice; I didn't want to live somewhere with one pub. No coffee shops, no decent stores - I would feel isolated and marooned. I'm a city boy; what can I say?