Wednesday 16 February 2011

Off Topic

Part Two of a Two-part trip: for the first part, click here.

Only two people got off the train at Lostock Gralam: me and a teenage girl. She'd got on the train alongside me at Nantwich, sat across the aisle from me, and got up to exit about two seconds before me. I remember thinking "I hope she doesn't get raped", because I would have ended up as the number one suspect. Which is actually quite horrible.
Astute readers will have noticed that Lostock Gralam isn't on the Merseyrail map. That ends just after Northwich: the Mid-Cheshire Line vanishes off to the side with a boxout. You are of course, absolutely correct. However, if you think I was going to come this close but not visit a place called Lostock Gralam, then you clearly haven't been reading this blog for very long. It's an utterly ridiculous name. Like a Martin Amis character gone wrong.
It's not much of a station though. Just two platforms at the back end of the village - fields one way, a church the other.
The village itself was a bit of a let-down, too. The brick terraces could have been from any town in England; the old people's flats were the usual ugly block; the traffic on the main road was chocka. Still, it's not all bad, I thought - there's a few trees, a bit of green here and there. Not a bad place to live. Then I saw this on a community notice board:
I'd forgotten that I was in Tatton, the constituency that managed to elect both Neil Hamilton and George Osborne, and which therefore needs to be bombed off the face of planet Earth for the sake of mankind. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to elect one complete wanker may be regarded as a misfortune; to elect two seems like carelessness. (Though in the interests of full disclosure, I should admit I have a small crush on George Osborne. It's the little nose. Don't look at me like that - it's not like I want to talk to him).
I decided it would be for the best if I got the hell out of Lostock Gralam as soon as possible, so I followed my OS map and found a little pathway that took me under a dual carriageway and back alongside the railway line.
The path was long and straight, and ran alongside a mysterious pipeline, about a foot in diameter. I've no idea what it was supplying - there were no signs or indications about it at all - plus I didn't want to look too closely. I was the only human being for miles around, and cars kept passing me slowly: I didn't want them to think I was some kind of terrorist (my experience at Stanlow and Thornton has scarred me for life). It came to an end in a confluence of pipes, just before the road turned away as well, and I was left to trudge alongside the track on my own.
There wasn't much to see. A lot of scrubby green and brown fields, trees not daring to start to bud in case there was a late frost, puddles on the path. The train line was silent beside me - one train an hour in each direction means a lot of quiet time. A blackbird sat on top of one of the rails, preening itself.
I passed underneath a huge telecommunications mast - adding credibility to my theory that the pipelines indicated the headquarters of some kind of nefarious criminal mastermind - and passed onto a narrow track, paved with gravel and dirt. It was so straight, the slightest bit of variety was visible from quite a distance away. Plumley West signal box became quite the landmark, something to look forward to.
I've said it before, but I still can't believe there are active signal boxes in the UK. It's so quaint and Victorian. I wondered if perhaps it was unused but no, as I got closer, I saw there was movement inside, and the signalman's Vauxhall Vectra was parked outside. What does he do all day? One train an hour in each direction, remember. Does he just sit there listening to the radio and surfing pornography on his iPhone? Is he building a scale model of the Taj Mahal out of matchsticks in there? Surely Network Rail keep him busy with something - perhaps he's doing the chairman's taxes between trains or something.
Signalling doesn't interest me in the slightest. I know there are men who get terribly excited over the idea of junctions and flying crossovers and all that stuff, but it's unfathomable and uninteresting to me. So long as it works, and my train to Hooton doesn't end up in the path of a Pendolino, I'm quite happy for it to remain a mystery. I was however pleased to see that my visit coincided with a train going to Manchester, meaning that I got to see the little flag thing clunk from "up" to "down" (let me know if I'm bamboozling you with all this technical jargon). Lovely.
A bit further on and I could cross the railway tracks to the Plumley side. The footbridge was overgrown - it's rare you see trees actually growing on a bridge - and the footpath indicators seemed to want to send me in the opposite direction. How dare they! I thought. I have an Ordnance Survey map, and it clearly has little green dotted lines going across the bridge. That's where I'm damned well going. I have Her Majesty's Stationers on my side!
Pride before a fall, etc.
Following the path took me across a field, then back onto another track, twisting and turning. Houses appeared on the horizon and I thought, hurray, nearly there. The track rose over the top of a hillock, then dropped down into.... this.
A ten foot long puddle, covering the entire track. On either side of me, bracken and barbed wire fences. Ahead of me, a lake. Behind me, a three mile walk back to Lostock Gralam.
I prodded hesitantly at the puddle with a stick, and it sank in four inches. This was right at the edge - who knew how much deeper it got in the centre? I gingerly took a step in at the side, and the water flowed right up over my Doc Martens, nearly up to the laces - I managed to yank my foot out before it gushed inside and soaked my socks.
I felt thoroughly disheartened. I'd come all this way, and I couldn't see a way to continue without ending up soaking wet. I hate turning back at the best of times, but I really didn't fancy that long walk through bare fields again. I'd have to do something else.
That was how I ended up clinging to the fence at the side, a foot above the water. My hands gripped tightly between the barbs, while my feet struggled to find holes big enough for my size 10s. I was clambering along, like a low-budget Spiderman. My arms were aching, yelling, as they carried my weight, and the brambles above the fence were slashing at my hands, drawing blood. My backpack slipped down my arm at one point, and threw me off balance, then my foot slipped out of a fence hole. I managed to pull it back in quick before it became submerged in the thick brown muck.
Ok reader, I know this is hardly up there with James Bond clambering up a rock face in For Your Eyes Only, but for an unfit, fat 34 year old like me, it was quite an achievement. I sort of wished someone had been around to witness my ingenuity, then realised what my arse must have looked like dangling over the water, and I was glad I was alone.
After my mammoth feat of physical brilliance, Plumley couldn't really compare. It seemed very posh. The gardens were big enough to house chickens and livestock, and all the houses had names, like "Halfacre" and "Brubeck Mews". None of your common old "Number 43" here.
The station itself was under a humpback bridge, and seemed deserted. The station building was long since abandoned, and was to let. There was a brick shelter on the Manchester platform. I was about to settle in when a temporary pause in my music (my Blur-athon had reached Leisure; 13 had finished somewhere around the signal box) alerted me to the shrill voices of a couple of teenage boys. I stayed well away.
It seemed that Cheshire was on half-term, because the train was full of squealing brats. Either that or there's a terrible problem with absenteeism in the county. There was a gang of half a dozen of them across from me, boys and girls, loudly comparing mobile phones and complaining about their network providers. Is this what kids do now? What happened to talking about sex and music and telly? I have this awful feeling that we're creating a generation of terrible dullards who spend their evenings on Money Supermarket trying to find better mobile tariffs, when they should be tonguing one another in a bus stop. (Not that I ever did that as a teenager. Chance would have been a fine thing).
If the teenage boys hadn't been in the shelter, I probably would have been heading home. It was starting to hail, and it was miserable, so I decided to just get the first train that turned up, rather than wait for the Chester one. Which is how I ended up in Knutsford.
The station was a bit Jekyll and Hyde. The platforms were lovely. Old CLC ironwork had been preserved, and the wood on the canopy was kept painted and clean. The ticket office, on the other hand, was a different matter. At some point in the 1980s British Rail had abandoned the Victorian building on the Chester platform and built a replacement on the Manchester platform, by the car park. They should have demolished the old building, to be honest, because the new building looked embarrassingly awful next to it.
Nasty red brick and angled roof - it was very Kirkby, very Runcorn East, very unpleasant. Small windows so there was less to clean; stark white artificial light inside. It certainly couldn't compare with Northwich.
I didn't know about Knutsford before I arrived. All I knew was it was the punchline to various Victoria Wood jokes. I certainly didn't realise how rich it was. It dripped with cash - I've never seen so many kitchen and bathroom showrooms in such a small space; it was like an outdoor Ideal Home Exhibition. Jaguars, Maseratis and Mercedes cruised up the narrow high street. The clothes shops were exclusive boutiques with chi-chi entrances, and the furniture stores advertised that they would do "home consultations". You don't get that at DFS.
I felt quite out of place in my Primark 007 t-shirt, hair still slick with sweat from my scramble over the puddle. As I wandered past the antique shops and wine bars, I was waiting to be spotted, and bundled into the back of a Transit van to be taken where all the poor people lived.
What I wanted was a coffee: a decent, unpretentious coffee somewhere I could sit down and regroup. Unfortunately, every coffee place looked like it had a dress code, or at the very least, an anti-oik policy. There was a Costa on one of the less desirable streets, so I made a beeline for that.
"No coffee until further notice - sorry for the inconvenience". What the blimming heck? Why were they even bothering to stay open - I don't think people beat down the doors of Costa for its paninis. I carried on walking, but there was nothing else. Fine, I thought, it'll have to be a pub. You can imagine what a disappointment for me this was. I went into the Cross Keys, and ordered a pint of bitter. Halfway through pouring it, the barman said, "By the way, we're closing at two-thirty".
It was ten past two.
Stuff your twenty-four hour drinking: in Knutsford, you're lucky if you can get a pint past lunchtime. And you'll note he didn't tell me this before I ordered my pint. Second customer service fail in a row for Knutsford.
Having knocked back my bitter at an uncomfortably fast rate, I wandered back into the main street. There was a tall white tower in the centre which, on closer inspection, revealed itself to be a memorial to Elizabeth Gaskell. I was seriously impressed, and immediately made it my ambition to have a tower built in my memory when I die. Pah to a bench in a local park - I want a fifty foot beacon with a statue of me on top.
Continuing with my ignorance of Knutsford in general, I had no idea that Elizabeth Gaskell had based Cranford on the town, but various plaques told me about locations that featured in the novel. I haven't read Cranford, or seen the tv series, despite the presence of Dame Judi. It's not that I don't like a good costume drama, it was just that Cranford looked a bit too costumey - a fine example of what my brother refers to as "hanky flapping", the kind of adaptation where every table setting gets a loving close-up.
Still, I'd finished my book on the way in (James Ellroy's American Tabloid) so I took it as a sign: the Gods wanted me to read Cranford. I thought it would actually be quite fun to sit in the middle of "Cranford" itself reading the novel. In the third successive customer service fail, however, the Knutsford Waterstones didn't have a single copy of the book in stock. Not one. How ludicrous. It's like a bookstore in Stratford not stocking Shakespeare, or the gift shop in a mental institution not selling The Da Vinci Code. Know your audience. Perhaps moneyed Knutsford types don't read anything except Cheshire Life and the Daily Mail.
My Gaskell hunt had meant I'd missed the next train, so I went to a different pub, the Angel, for another pint to kill time. The barman there called me "sir". I hate that. I don't want a barman to be obsequious and boot licking, just friendly and efficient. No-one should be called "sir" in this day and age. I found a suitably quiet corner to listen to Modern Life is Rubbish and gather my thoughts.
Knutsford should have caught me, I know. It is very pretty. But unlike Northwich, I found it alienating, cold even. This is probably inverted snobbery, but I felt like Knutsford was actively judging me. I didn't feel comfortable inside its rich walls. As I drank my pint, two women across from me discussed a recent safari holiday; one of them was talking about how they'd taken a minibus to a local village to see how the locals lived, and basically gawped at the poverty. I thought that was an awful thing to do, but it sounded like very Knutsfordian, like the driver of the Aston Martin in the narrow high street who was texting at the wheel. All money, no class.
I'm making sweeping generalisations here, I know. You can't judge a town from a couple of hours wandering round its centre. I'm sure that those coffee shops wouldn't have turned me away because of my Sainsbury's TU jeans, and I'm sure that I could have happily wandered round an antique shop even though my boots were thick with dried on mud. I expect the town is full of smiling, happy, pleasant people without attitudes. I just picked up a vibe, an aura if you like, that didn't sit with me, and made me feel alienated.
Having said all that, the local Thomas Cook did have a picture of Jamie Redknapp in a pair of shorts in its window, so it wasn't all bad.
I made my way back to the station, this time coming at it from a different angle. I took a pic of the sign here too, just for completion's sake.
There were two paintings on the wall, artwork from the local high school, and a memorial bench. A little plaque commemorated Arthur Sancto, the secretary of the Mid-Cheshire Rail User Association who used to "adopt" Knutsford station and who passed away in 2009. It was a lovely touch, really charming, and a nice note to leave the town on.
Finally I was on my way back home. I got into Chester station at five o'clock. When I used to commute from Chester on a daily basis, this was my usual train home, and I wandered up to my old spot on the platform to wait. Unfortunately they've put some new chairs right in front of the window sill I used to lean on, the window sill with big scoops in the sandstone where a hundred years of buttocks had worn it away. I was delighted to see two old characters from my commute on the platform though - Fat Bloke and his friend Bible Basher, who used to read the New Testament on the train, running his finger under the words as he read. The only time I saw him with a different book it was Casino Royale. Goodness knows what he made of that - I've had limited religious teaching, but I'm pretty sure no-one gets their genitals mashed with a carpet beater in the Gospels.
In a further development, the train was one of the new fast ones, that skip Capenhurst. The driver seemed to positively relish the opportunity to pit his foot down, and we bombed through the countryside, the fastest I'd been all day. I could see why they'd abandoned plans to skip Bache as well - the station was packed when we pulled in, mainly students from the Mandy Richardson University of Chester. Parklife was playing on my iPod by now, which made me feel very studenty myself, until I realised that these kids would have been toddlers when it was released. Bastards.
Perhaps when they move the University campus to the city centre, Merseyrail will revisit the service and shave another couple of minutes off the journey - their Twitterfeed certainly seems to indicate that they're struggling with timekeeping on the route at the moment as the new services bed in. Network Rail have indicated that they might raise the speed limit for the route as well.
So that's three more stations captured, for no reason other than "they were there". I suppose I got my money's worth out of my Cheshire Day Ranger, anyway. I'll have to be careful though. As the Bf said to me this morning, "You'd better not make this into a national project. I don't want you getting a train to Taunton anytime soon."
As if!


Phil said...

Mandy Richardson University of Chester? I see where you're coming from, though; there are plenty of people here on campus who wouldn't look out of place on the Hollyoaks set. I'm constantly amazed at how many students can afford Jack Wills clothing and the like. No prospect of moving the campus into the city centre, though, I'm afraid. If anything, the centre of gravity will move towards the suburbs, so I can still see there being a rationale for a full service at Bache for some time to come.

Scott Willison said...

The MRUC is named after this:

reflecting Hollyoaks College's ability to offer any course, any time, any where. I was really tempted to write it on a couple of signs when I used to walk into work.

I thought the Uni had bought County Hall, and was going to move in there, rather than decamp to the suburbs? It'd be a shame if they moved from the current campus though - there's a really good feeling to it round there.

Littlewillow said...

I like the panini's at Costa :)

Phil said...

We did indeed buy County Hall, and two of our Faculties moved in last September. It's mainly the practical stuff that can now be found at the 'Riverside Campus' i.e. all the teacher training and nursing studies, but most of the provision has remained on Parkgate Road and will do so for the foreseeable future. Any expansion outside the main campus is likely to be in the provision of student accommodation, and although there are no plans emanating from the university at the moment, private sector providers are sniffing around land in the Bache/Mollington areas.

Anonymous said...

Scott! It's Kev, formerly of the Echo, I exposed your site to global infamy. Well, I put it in the paper. Don't worry am on a different publication now. How far into your challenge are you?

Anonymous said...

Why did you start in Nantwich?

Anonymous said...

George Osborne: "Please remember, if you have a problem, I am here to help."

Who does he think he is, Batman?

Robert said...

Sorry, I got as far as the George Osborne mention, and was distracted while reading the rest of the blog because I was trying not to vomit. Good read, though.

God knows what the residents of Knutsford think of the scabby Pacers and Sprinters which are the regular transport on that line...

Dan said...

Personally I found Plumley to be a more amusing name than Lostock Gralam.

Alice said...

Great stuff and I love your blog. I've not commented before but I signed in to let you know it's time to revisit Runcorn East!

Why? You may ask. (And please .. no! you may also utter!)

Well, for one thing you did not take a picture in front of the sign, and there is one! and for another thing they have all new singing and dancing digital elecronic timetables! So there you go... you have to see it.

Keep up the great work! :)

Alice said...

*electronic... of course...


Scott Willison said...

Oh dear. I can't go REVISITING places - I'll be there forever. I didn't see a sign at Runcorn East - where is it?

Alice said...

On the platform. :) Either side. Arriva signs IIRC from the weekend.

Was only kidding about revisiting really! It's hardly worth it unless you're on your way to somewhere. Which Runcorn East is pretty much the opposite of that!

Music Fan said...

Glad you liked the art at Knutsford Station (I think) and the Arthur Sancto bench. Thanks for your comments on Northwich station, too. Try a Mid Cheshire Line Music Train some time to get on-train music and JW Lees beer at the pub.

Harry Baggins said...

Heh ... these Mid Cheshire Line people not only run Music Trains ... which I have seen promoted in the Tourist Board Handbook for Cheshire but they also have their own Railtours ... next one is off to Darlington, Durham and Newcastle. The proper stuff hauled by a Class 67 diesel.

Check it out at

Has anyone every been on these tours?

Gary said...

"The only time I saw him with a different book it was Casino Royale" I like movie much more then book Maybe it is because I don't have time to read