Friday 25 March 2011

Hinge and Racket

It wasn't even as though we were talking loudly. We were sat at a table on the train with an elderly man across the aisle, and I turned to Robert and said, "So. Did ******* shag that 18 year old, or what?"

The man's response? He got up and moved to a seat down the other end of the carriage.

How rude!

What was worse, Robert didn't even know if our mutual acquaintance did shag the 18 year old or not. I will have to put in some more research.

We were on a train headed for the badlands: Greater Manchester. Robert had a week off work, so we decided to slip in a quick tart. Roy was meant to have joined us, but a better offer meant he had to drop out, so just the two of us were on our way to Bryn.

Somehow I'd managed to miss Bryn out. I'd done the line as far as Garswood in the days when I was trying to stick to Merseyside only (such a long time ago...) and I did the two Wigan stations in one swift go. Bryn had therefore lingered: a single isolated blip that needed to be caught on its own. It seemed like a nice simple target for the day.

What can I say about Bryn station? It's not very interesting, mainly. It's a "bus stop" station - no ticket office, no staff. Not even a building. Just a couple of platforms and shelters. I wasn't expecting St Pancras International, but the lack of any kind of facility was disappointing. Nice big sign though.

So that was that: station captured. Theoretically we could have just got on the next train back, but where's the fun in that?

Besides, I'd put in some preparation. My own research into Bryn had thrown up only one pertinent sight - the Three Sisters Recreation Area, so called because it was planted on top of three enormous slag heaps. I don't want to go into the psychological make-up of a person who thought "slag = sisters". It didn't seem too promising, so I contacted Phil, one of the blog's loyal unto death readers, who is originally from Haydock. "Phil," I asked. "Whither Bryn?

"It's an interesting little place," replied Phil, and who am I to argue? Certainly, it had a Bargain Booze PLUS, which sounds impressive. There were some little shops and a road crossing and terraced houses with enormous tellies in the windows - some of the residents must never see daylight - and it all seemed nice enough. However, Phil advised, "You can pass an hour or two in Ashton-in-Makerfield town centre," so that seemed like a better bet. My own research - i.e. Wikipedia - also informed me that:

The place has long been a centre for the manufacture of locks and hinges

which was all the incentive I needed. The Hinge Capital of the Northwest? Yes please!

We strolled down the A49 into Ashton-in-Makerfield, enjoying the warm spring sunshine. We especially enjoyed the shirtless men playing football in Jubilee Park: it's a wonderful sign of the advance of nature when you catch your first glimpse of male nipple. Like a cuckoo, but sexier.

With apologies to Bryn, we were certainly rising up the social scale as we advanced into town. The houses got bigger and grander - we were sure we heard a horse whinny behind one of them - and soon we were in Ashton town centre itself.

I'm not sure how to put this, but there was a distinctly odd air to the town. Not a bad air: just something odd. Perhaps it was the lack of chain stores, the small shops, the little cafes, but it somehow felt like we'd stepped back in time to the 80s. There were a lot of pet shops - when did you last see one pet shop in a high street, never mind two or three? There was this place, which should win a prize for that pun:

There were butchers and bakers, but sadly we'd missed the market. It was a type of town you didn't see any more. As Phil put it, "Ashton's very much its own ecosystem where you could spend your whole life without venturing even into St Helens or Wigan."

Apparently Ashton's also where Kym Marsh, a.k.a Michelle "Harpy" Connor from Coronation Street, grew up. She's just had a baby, so I won't be too impolite, but suffice to say she's not my favourite person.

All this tourism lark was terribly straining, so Robert and I did the only logical thing:

I had steak and chips and a lager in the Wetherspoon's while we watched the local characters. There was an elderly lady in a disability carriage who seemed to spend her whole time driving around, pausing at tables to give them the benefit of her wisdom, and not buying a drink. We snuch out before her and her velour twinset caught up with us.

There wasn't much more to see, after that. Phil had suggested we check out the border between Greater Manchester and Merseyside, which was tempting, but we were bloated with alcohol and onion rings so we decided to waddle back to the station.

There was yet another reason to turn our noses up at Bryn station once we got there. Call me old-fashioned, but I'm not really keen on rodent traps on the platforms. It makes a bad impression.

On the journey back, I did remember one of my favourite things about the City Line. It's a sign, just outside Broad Green station, and Robert managed to snap a pic of it:

I love the phrase "jump off at Edge Hill" anyway (it's slang for coitus interruptus, Edge Hill being the last station before Lime Street) but this smutty, innuendo sign has always appealed to the Kenneth Williams in me. Bravo, builder's merchants; bravo.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Free and Easy

A funny thing happened to me the other day: I got a lottery ticket. The strange thing about this was that I hadn't asked for it, and I hadn't paid for it. It came free with my Merseyrail ticket to Liverpool.

Turns out there's a promotion on at the moment: buy a ticket and get a free card for the People's Postcode Lottery, giving you the chance to win iPads and TVs and such like. Which is nice, if a bit odd. And if I'm honest, a bit naff. I'm not against freebies - this is about the only way I'll ever get an iPad - but there's just something a bit tacky about it. I don't quite know why.

I reserve the right to change my mind on this if I win a prize, incidentally.

In other news, Merseytravel's put a notice out asking for tenders for new rolling stock. Previously, it had been reported that Merseyrail's trains probably wouldn't be replaced until about 2017. The tender documents are asking for expressions of interest in replacing them.

No need to get ahead of ourselves; the phrasing is so tentative, it's practically tiptoeing round the idea. "Considering its options", "should it decide to" - it's short of saying "possibly maybe" - but it's still exciting. Can I throw in a few requests for the new trains here?

1) Space trains, like the newest ones on the London Overground, the 378s. Not only are they extremely sexy, not only do they allow for more passengers, but it's also fun to ride them on the connections between carriages. When I was on the Metro in Paris, I spent practically all my time inbetween carriages, surfing. Plus it'll stop all those idiots who walk between Merseyrail cars and don't close the doors behind them, leaving it swinging and banging for the rest of the journey until you want to ram a spike in your ear.

2) Air conditioning. The current trains seem to have two heating options: "nothing" or "surface of the sun". It'll also put a stop to those noisy open windows in the tunnels.

3) Crosswise seats. I know this kind of flies in the face of my pleasing for the space trains, but longitudinal seats wouldn't work on Merseyrail; they're just not right for long journeys, like from Southport to Hunts Cross. Stick with the current four-four-four layout and it'll be fine.

4) Proper space for line diagrams, not those stickers on the roof they currently have.

5) LCD screens broadcasting adverts. That's a bit ambitious I know, but I love it on the Heathrow Express: it's like being in Children of Men, only without the horrifying dystopian misery.

6) The capability to be made dual voltage. I've been told this is a pretty easy thing to implement, but I'd still like it to be made clear. If we're ever going to get Merseyrail extended, it probably won't be third rail, so it'll be nice to have the potential built into the trains. One day to Wrexham and Wigan, eh?

Thanks for that. If Merseytravel want to hear any more of my great ideas, you know where I am.

Friday 18 March 2011

Ay Carumba

It says "no description available" underneath that video. I think that's appropriate.

P.S. You can donate here.

Monday 14 March 2011

Bridge Work

The works at Hooton have finally come to a halt, and this somewhat remote, outlying station has a new look. Hooton's always suffered from being important as an interchange, but lying in the middle of nowhere: in addition, it's in Cheshire, but comes under Merseytravel, for reasons I've never fully understood.

As a result it's been a bit unloved and abandoned. Finally, various agencies have got together and the station's received a great injection of cash and development, and it's become a station worth the name.

It's not just the MtoGo shop and public toilets, though those help with the new feel. It's amazing how much brighter and friendlier the MtoGo makes the station - the white and yellow decor combined with the open till (no hiding behind three inches of glass here) is a real boon. And Merseyrail should be applauded for putting toilets in their stations at a time when everyone else is closing them down.

The major work has been on a brand new footbridge. Because of the station's layout, every rail user had to use a footbridge to access the trains. It was built out of wood, and had no access for the disabled whatsoever, meaning that the mobility impaired or people with prams and bikes would have a major struggle on their hands. In addition, it was cold and wet, with frequent drips coming through the ceiling.

Well, it's gone now.

Those white marks on the road bridge are the only sign it was ever there. Instead, at the opposite end of the platform, a defiantly 21st century footbridge has risen in its place.

Confident and a little brash, the new footbridge is a bit out of place to me: it wouldn't look out of place at Eastham Rake, up the line, but the Victorian station building clashes with it. Perhaps it's just the shock of the new.

Certainly it's hard to argue that the facilities aren't an improvement.

Wide open, brightly coloured steps (the Colour Tsars have been right in on this scheme from the start) leading up to a broad bridge with a easily cared-for floor. The platforms are signposted in the new grey and yellow Merseyrail house style.

Of course, the biggest improvement is the provision of lifts to all the platforms, making Hooton fully accessible for everyone for the first time.

I'm not keen on the open bridge and staircase, meaning that rain and wind can get inside. Hooton is surrounded by fields and an open car park, and the wind can be pretty brutal. It's also the place where broken down trains are likely to be stabled, and passengers forced to wait for an interchange - over the years I've been forced to wait on the platform for a replacement train when my Chester service has given up the ghost. In these circumstances, the platform rapidly fills up. Yes, there are waiting rooms on each platform, but when three cars of commuters have been deposited, they'll soon be a sardine tin.

On the old footbridge, people tended to move onto the steps to shield themselves from the elements. That's no longer possible, as the gaps in the sides mean you'll be buffeted anyway. Plus I can't help thinking that the nice shiny floor will rapidly become slippery in a November rain storm.

That's a minor niggle, though: the footbridge is so much better than what was there before.

In addition, a cycle store has been built, and in a first, I could actually see bikes in it. These green cages have appeared all along the Wirral Line but they always seem to be forlornly empty: Hooton bucks the trend. Though it seems that some people are still too cheap to pay the deposit for the key, and have just tied their bike up outside.

Bravo to everyone involved in the new look Hooton - Merseyrail, Merseytravel, Network Rail and the Department of Transport. It feels like a rejuvenated destination. (And bravo for them keeping the ALF, and not chucking it in a skip once it was rebuilt - I'm looking at you, Southport).

One final complaint: there's a sign commemorating the opening of the bridge.

Couldn't they scrape together a local celebrity to do the honours? I'm sure Dean "Jimmy Corkhill" Sullivan would have done it. Or one of the Hollyoaks. Pete Price probably would have paid his own train fare. Bear it in mind for next time, Merseytravel.

Friday 11 March 2011

Pardon me boy - is that the Chattanooga Choo-Choo? (No).

You could say I have eclectic musical tastes. How else do you describe someone whose last three CD purchases were REM's Collapse Into Me, the Supergirl soundtrack, and a four disc compilation called A Complete Introduction to Disco? (Apart from saying, boy, his musical taste is awful).

I dip in and out of music. There are some artists who I'd crawl over hot coals for - Blur, Madonna, Dame Kylie of Erinsborough. I like film soundtracks (unsurprisingly I have all the Bond CDs). I like trashy pop. I like 90s Britpop. And I like jazz, in a sort of wishy washy way. I don't have time for the more experimental jazz stuff, the music that sounds like someone tied a vacuum cleaner on "blow" to the end of a saxophone and recorded the results. I like the old-fashioned, mellow jazz, your Ella Fitzgeralds, your Billie Hollidays, your Louis Armstrongs. I was probably the only thirteen year old boy in the world to get Harry Connick Jr's We Are In Love for Christmas.

True jazz aficionados are, even now, turning up their nose at my taste, and sneering that it's not proper jazz. You're probably right.

Anyway, it meant that when I got a comment on one of my posts, telling me about a "Music Train" on the Mid-Cheshire Line, my interest was piqued. It piqued even more when I saw that it was a regular Northern Rail service, except with a jazz band playing live on board for the passengers.

I couldn't resist.

I took along my friend Andrew for the ride:

...and also the Bf. I should mention at this point that the Bf despises jazz. His typical reaction when Harry Connick Jr comes on is "what the hell is this shite?" and "this must be the most depressing music ever". That's when I play some of Harry's "crooner" tracks - when I put on something more avant-garde like Star Turtle he practically breaks the sound barrier in his run to turn it off. However, he decided to come along for the ride anyway. Probably just so he could make snippy remarks and roll his eyes a lot.

There's no charge for the music. As I say, it was just the regular 19:07 service from Chester to Manchester Piccadilly. All it cost us was the train fare. We climbed on board and positioned ourselves halfway down the carriage. It was filling up with various enthusiastic looking men and women. Scattered in amongst them were people who quite clearly hadn't realised that there was going to be entertainment; in fact, one woman leapt up in a panic, saying, "Is this not the Manchester train?"

The Hot Foot Jazzmen were two middle aged men, one with a clarinet, and one with a guitar. They both sported voluminous facial hair, which I believe is a requirement of the Musician's Union for all jazz bands.

Before we departed, a nice lady approached us and asked if we were there for the music train. She was from the Mid-Cheshire Community Rail Partnership, and was handing out freebies. Long-term readers will know I have never turned down something for nothing, which is why I am now the proud owner of an MCCRP bookmark.

The nice lady (whose name I never got - sorry!)* said, "Are you from that blog? You're the Tart?"

Shame washed over me as I admitted, yes, I was the one from that blog. Turned out the Chairman of the Mid-Cheshire Rail Users Association had spotted what I'd written about Northwich and Knutsford a few weeks ago, and had written a very nice blog post with a link. The nice lady said some complimentary things, and I tried to crawl into the back of the seat, and then she walked away and I could recover.

We were off, and almost immediately the two guys started playing. This is normally the point where I'd post a bunch of pictures taken on the route, but unfortunately we were on a Pacer. I hate Pacers so much. The net result was that we were shaking, shuddering, and stammering every inch of the way, meaning all my photos came out looking like this:

Great for avant-garde arts projects; not so great as a representation of an event**. I did however manage to grab a video of them performing Alexander's Ragtime Band, right up until the point some scallies got on at Northwich and plonked themselves right in front of me:

Still, it was nice while it lasted. The Hot Footmen played some real classics - Hello Dolly, Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home, When The Saints Go Marching In - good, reliable tunes that got the train clapping along and singing. When You're Smiling in particular went down a bomb. The two men played and sang, alternating performances, and were thoroughly impressive. The fact that they managed to be note-perfect while the Pacer did its best to throw them to the floor was an achievement in itself. Not everyone was amused - one commuter moved to the other carriage looking distinctly annoyed, the miserable old sod - but it was a really nice feeling to be there, in a carriage full of camaraderie and joy. Even the anti-jazz Bf started clapping and singing too. It turned out he was enjoying himself. It's true what they say: the rhythm is gonna get you.

The train stopped at Plumley and we all piled out and headed for the Golden Pheasant pub and restaurant. I really didn't think I'd be back in Plumley quite so soon. Thanks to menus handed out on board, Andrew had been able to phone our order ahead, and soon we were tucking into pate garlic mushrooms (for starters) and freshly cooked fish and chips or gammon (for mains) - gorgeous, with enormous portions; my fish was so big it overflowed onto a second plate. It was way too much for me, in fact. The Hot Foot Jazzmen also disembarked to continue their set in the pub, though we weren't in that half: Andrew and the Bf detected a football match on the TV, and gravitated towards that.

I was of course thrilled by this. Still, there were compensations:

If you think that pint glass looks a bit odd, it's because it has indentations for your fingers and thumb. I'm not sure if they just thought I looked clumsy and needed the extra help or what.

Because we're lightweights who don't get out much, we sloped off home early. The music continued on a return train at ten o'clock, but we were all a bit tired, so we disappeared for the train at nine.

It was a great evening none the less. You can't beat the killer combination of a train, good music, good food, and a pint of bitter or two. The full schedule for the Music Trains can be found here: the next one's on the 13th April, and ties in with the Chester Folk Festival. The Bf is a big fan of folk music (and yet I stay with him!) so he's already planning our trip on that one. There are also a few afternoon trains, and also trips in the reverse direction, for an evening of jazz at Alexander's in Chester.

Do go along, if you can. It's a brilliant innovation, you get to go out into the country to a nice pub, and it costs you nothing - what's not to like?

*Thanks to an e-mail from Harry, the secretary at the MCRUA, I can confirm that the Nice Lady was in fact Sally Buttifant, the Mid-Cheshire Community Rail Officer. Kudos to you Sally!

**Andrew is a better photographer and supplied me with this photo, in which you can fully appreciate the magnificence of the Jazzmen's facial hair:

Monday 7 March 2011

Peter, Pam, and Petit Fours

Gloucester: county town of Gloucestershire, historic city in the Cotswolds, home to Fred and Rosemary West. Possessor of a stunningly beautiful cathedral, a past going back two thousand years, and miles of scenic waterways, it's a gem of the South West and definitely worth a visit.

Gloucester train station, on the other hand, is a shithole.

I mean, look at it. It's horrific. There are blocks of council flats that were designed with more care and panache; public toilets with a greater sense of aesthetic consideration. Opened in the mid-Seventies, this is the kind of station building which just underlines why everyone stopped taking trains. It has contempt for the traveller. It's about getting you onto that train as quickly as possible and with as little inconvenience to the railway provider. The fact that here, nearly forty years later, it's still allowed to fester, underlines how low passengers can be in a railway operator's priorities.

I mustered up a smirk, and ventured inside. I was here in Gloucester to travel on the Northern Belle, the Venice Simplon Orient Express company's tour train. Designed for excursions in the UK, the Northern Belle is a glamorous throwback to the 1930s. It's designed to be redolent of a time when women turned up for their journey swathed in furs, when men wore pin striped suits and thin moustaches, and when a train couldn't travel more than fourteen miles without someone getting stabbed to death in an excitingly mysterious way.

The Bf had managed to score a couple of complimentary tickets for an afternoon tea journey on the train, and I was tremendously excited. I was in love with the idea of the glamour and the sex. I was thinking flappers, Cole Porter, cigarettes on long holders. People for whom a Martini was a requirement, not a luxury. I wanted to stride manfully though a billowing ball of smoke, mysterious, secretive, ready to experience an intrigue filled railway journey amongst minor European princes and faded Hollywood actresses. I considered growing a Poirot moustache for the occasion, but I couldn't lay hands on one of those little protective upper lip hammocks Albert Finney wore in Murder on the Orient Express, so I decided not to bother. Frankly, if someone wasn't murdered in a tunnel I was going to be severely let down.

We were a bit early, so while the Bf nipped to the loo, I had a wander round Gloucester station itself. Fact: it has the second longest platform on the British rail network. Fact: this is the nicest thing you can say about Gloucester station. It was just horrible. I actually felt embarrassed for it. I also realised that there was no way I could stride purposely through the smoke in this place. When James Bond boarded the Orient Express, it was at Sirkeci station in Istanbul. He wouldn't be caught dead dragging a Russian double agent onto a train at Gloucester station. He was more likely to install Tatiana Romanova in a Premier Inn than try to have sexy times with her here.

We were there in time to watch the Northern Belle slide into platform 4, and I couldn't help but be entranced by the cream and maroon coaches. They looked beautiful. But wait: what was this on either end of the coaches?


I mean - what the fuck? I signed up for an afternoon of retro glamour, not a recreation of a coal transporter headed to Harwich. Where the hell was my massive iron giant, gasping for air and water and coal, powered by a fire hotter than Satan? Where was my opportunity for a dramatic entrance through thick coke-scented smoke? I couldn't look sexy in diesel fumes. I'd end up with stains on my shirt and smears on my glasses. And the InterCity sleeping car was just adding insult to injury. Why not just stick a Pacer in the middle and have done with it?

By the time the Bf emerged from the (pretty unpleasant) toilets, I was already in a dirty mood. I was distinctly disappointed. We made our way over to the platform, and had a look at the train in close up. Yes, it was very pretty; yes, there were little red carpets at the entrance to each carriage; but still, something was missing.

I tried for my best Cary Grant gets a train to New York for tea and scones with Katherine Hepburn look, but it just wasn't working.

The inside of the train was beautiful though. Inlaid woods gave it a rich feeling of decadence. The dark browns everywhere you looked seemed cocooning. Plush upholstered seats - no faded moquettes here - had cushions embroidered with the VSOE logo. White tablecloths were playing host to china and crystal.

We were shown to our seats by Joe, the head steward for our coach, Chatsworth (each one is named after a different stately home). Both the Bf and I immediately had a small panic attack. It was a table for four.

We're not horrible people, honest. We're just a bit shy. No party is enhanced by our presence, because we tend to hide at the back. We were hoping for one of the tables for two. Now we'd have to spend the whole four hour trip opposite a couple of complete strangers.

We'd barely sat down when our travel companions arrived: Peter and Pam, a couple in their, shall we say?, late sixties. We'd already spotted Pam in the car park. It's hard to miss a woman in a floor length white faux fur coat. The dress code was "smart day wear" but Pam had clearly interpreted this as "smart day wear as worn by Elizabeth Taylor".

Across the aisle from us were two young men in their mid-twenties. My gaydar immediately pinged. Their trim frames, careful attention to outfits (one was wearing a pink shirt with a white linen scarf), their iPhones - metropolitan homos, the pair of them. They never introduced themselves to us, so I don't know their names. For the purposes of this blog, they'll therefore be named Bill and Ben.

The carriage began filling up, and we studied the route for today's trip:

144 miles, doing a circular trip through the Malvern Hills and the Welsh Borders, finally following the Severn back up to Gloucester. I'd never really been to this bit of England, so I was interested to see the landscape outside.

The journey really isn't the point of the Northern Belle, though. It's all about the experience. Joe returned to our table and with much "sir" and "madam", he unfurled our napkins onto our laps and poured out a glass of Laurent-Perrier champagne. Combined with the tiny cakes already waiting for us, it felt decadent already, and I sank into my upholstered seat and allowed the luxury to overtake me.

Pam told us that the Northern Belle was really her idea of a trailer for coming attractions: she was trying to persuade Peter to take her on the proper Orient Express to Venice. He wasn't having any of it - "four thousand pounds for a train ride?"

It turned out that Peter was an engineer, and an incredibly practical man. He had no time for puffery - he was interested in practicality. As we waited to take off, he admired the screws holding the wooden window panel in place - the heads were all perfectly aligned in a row. "Now that's craftsmanship." He started talking about how you didn't get that sort of attention to detail these days. I didn't have the heart to point out that the Northern Belle carriages are younger than I am. They're fakes - built to evoke a bygone era, but are not actually from it. This isn't a criticism - you have to admire the sheer work and skill that's gone into them, no matter when they were put together.

A hum, a grind, and then we were gliding out of the station. There were trainspotters on the platform, watching us, photographing merrily. Bill and Ben were confused. "Why would you do that?" they wondered.

Off we went, en route to Cheltenham Spa, and the afternoon's events began to play out.

Finger sandwiches were delivered, not by Joe, but by Ross, the extremely fit Scottish understeward. I saw Bill and Ben checking out his arse as he bent over, which is of course something I would never do.

Peter was talking about his disappointment at the diesel engines. He was a big fan of steam engines, apparently.

"Yes," said the Bf, "we were hoping for an Orient Express type train."

"Not that kind of engine," said Peter. "Steam engines." It turned out he meant those enormous steam trucks you get at country fairs.

There wasn't really anything more we could say to that.

With the tiny sandwiches gone, we were given a quail's Scotch egg, and a tiny parmesan tart. It was a bit like eating in Barbie's dream house: nothing was allowed to be more than two inches in length. The glass of champagne was refilled again, and again, and then tea was served. I was reminded of Hugo Drax to Bond in Moonraker:

You have arrived at a propitious moment, coincident with your country's one indisputable contribution to Western civilisation. Afternoon tea.

There was something charming about the whole affair. Only the British would smack their lips with excitement at a cup of tea; only the British would find two slices of bread with some ham and mustard inside a treat. We're a very simple nation sometimes.

We'd just left Worcester when our first piece of entertainment arrived. This was a surprise - we hadn't expected there to be any turns, but no, here came two men in suits, working their way down the aisle. Both wore evening dress, and they carried a guitar and a trombone. "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" wafted down towards us, as they performed for each little group of people.

"Ooh, music. I like this one," said Pam.

"It's what?" said Peter.

For the first time, I noticed he had a hearing aid. It explained why he seemed to be on a two minute delay.

"There's music," said Pam. "Chattanooga Choo-Choo."


"They're playing music."

"Oh." Peter looked behind him, down the aisle. "Look. They're playing music."

It was quite fun. The singer affected a Noel Coward accent when he sang, which was great for "Putting on the Ritz", but not so great for "When I'm Sixty Four". He bantered lightly with the passengers, tossing off little Coward-esque bon mots from underneath the smallest, thinnest moustache I have ever seen: he may as well have drawn it on with a pencil. Still, he was wearing spats, so I'll forgive him anything. I think it's time spats made a comeback. I accept I may be the only one wanting this.

By now the train was riding through Herefordshire, past fields of sheep and cows. Tiny lambs wobbled around after their mums. There is some beautiful countryside out there, you know. There really is. As Pam said, "if only we had the weather - you'd never need to go abroad!" She was a very sunny person herself, though you sensed a rod of iron in there. She ran a care home, and you didn't want to be the old lady who didn't finish her sprouts.

More champagne, more tea, served by the ever grovelling Joe. There was something a bit sinister about Joe. It didn't help that he was tall and bald and looked a bit like a Smiler from Doctor Who. Behind all those "pleases" and "thankyous" there seemed to be a slight resentment. I suspect that when the revolution comes, Joe will be machine gunning everyone on board the Northern Belle with glee. He had a strange accent too; it sounded familiar, but I couldn't work it out. South African? New Zealand?

The champagne and tea was having its effect on me, so I nipped to the onboard toilet, which I'm glad to report was as luxurious as you'd expect. A mosaic on the floor!

And in case of emergencies - a real, old fashioned communication cord. I was tempted to give it a yank, just for the experience.

Back to my seat, and what's this coming towards us? More entertainment, this time in the form of a magician.

Oh hell.

Don't get me wrong - I like magicians in their place. And that place is ten to six on a Saturday evening. In the Eighties. I was a big fan of Paul Daniels when I was growing up, to the extent that I had his Paul Daniels Magic Kit. And obviously The Lovely Debbie McGee is beyond criticism.

Up close magic though - urgh. I hate it. I hate the obligation to be impressed. He came to us and did a couple of card tricks, put Ben's iPhone inside a balloon, all very interesting stuff. But it's hard to get past the "it's all sleight of hand, you know". Plus I saw the different coloured backs on the cards before he revealed them to us as a grand finale, which isn't fun. Actually, his real grand finale was handing out his business card, which seemed a bit tacky.

Bill and Ben weren't impressed. They didn't seem to be impressed by anything, actually. They were so jaded I'm surprised they carried on existing, as Planet Earth seemed to be such a let down. Every glass of champagne, every sandwich, every tune was met with a curled lip and an implied sneer. I've no idea why they were even there. They'd already laughed hysterically at the trainspotters who followed us en route, looking down on their simple pleasures. Their conversation turned to Hull:

"Hull's awful. It's full of the poor."

"I agree. It smells of death."

Liverpool, similarly was dismissed with "it took us five hours to drive up there and then we'd done it all in forty minutes." I had to be held back from leaning over and ramming a petit four in their smug, arrogant faces.

Strangely, one of the best moments came when there was no scenery at all. We headed into the 1500m Colwall Tunnel, and everything went black. At that point, the carriage came alive. The soft bulbs lit up the polished interior, and everything became rosy, as though we were viewing it through gauze. It felt wonderful.

Joe made his return with warm scones, served with clotted cream and strawberry jam: "Be careful sir, because these are hot inside." And suddenly I recognised his accent: he was a Scouser, albeit one who was desperately trying to hide it beneath a veneer of sophistication. You could hear it in the strained way he pronounced "scones" to rhyme with "tones", not with a short "o" like normal people

Down we went, through Wales, the afternoon seeming to pass incredibly quickly. We'd done nothing but sit and eat, but it was already five o'clock and we were pulling into Newport. Pam didn't approve of Newport. She and Peter were from Cardiff, and so were firmly of the belief that people from Newport were thick and the town was ugly. To be fair, it didn't look too charming from the station, but where does? Lime Street's not exactly pretty.

We had a bit of a wait at Newport, which gave Peter a chance to talk about his observations of the trip: "There have been an awful lot of asbestos roofs about."

"Have there?" said Pam.

"Loads. Look, you can see them over there."

"It's cheaper though, which is why they have them in Newport."

"They'll cost a fortune to get rid of though."

"That's because they're dangerous," said Pam. "Asbestos kills you."

Peter snorted with disdain. "So they say. Never did me any harm."

Unfortunately we moved off before I found out the secret of Peter's immunity to asbestos. Perhaps he's a superhero.

The sun was starting to turn orange behind the Newport transporter bridge, and we turned north to follow the Severn. As we passed through Severn Tunnel Junction ("I wonder why it's called that?" said Peter, as we passed the junction to the Severn Tunnel), we were given a tiny ring box, filled with chocolate truffles.

Both Peter and the Bf disappeared to the on-board souvenir shop. I have a feeling the Bf did it purely so he could get one of the bags, which were admittedly very nice, but he came back with a Northern Belle mug and a nice poster of the Orient Express. Peter bought a fridge magnet for Pam to add to her collection, which came in a tiny suede pouch.

The Severn was massive here - deep and wide, a truly impressive stretch of water. With the orange sun beating down on it, it seemed to calm the carriage, and the conversations dropped away. We all watched out the window.

And then we were pulling back into Gloucester, and the 1930s fantasy was replaced by the 21st century reality. Pam and Peter said their goodbyes (Bill and Ben departed without a backwards glance - no doubt they had some peasants to crush before bed) and we tromped back to the car.

I'm still annoyed that there wasn't a steam train, and even more annoyed that no-one was garrotted while we were caught in a snow drift, but it was certainly an experience. I can't say I'd break my neck to go back on there - much as I like train travel, I do actually like to go places - but it was nice to live the high life for a while. I shall take some champagne and truffles on my next Merseyrail trip, just to spice it up a bit.