There are moments in everyone's life when you take a step back and evaluate things. Such a moment happened to me at around nine o'clock on April 7th, 2011. I was reading Ian Fleming's classic collection of travel essays, Thrilling Cities. The legendary spy writer was travelling to Hong Kong:
The first soaring leap through the overcast was to ten thousand feet. There was a slight tremor as we went through the lower cloud base and another as we came out into the brilliant sunshine... The mind adjusted itself to the prospect of twenty-four hours of this sort of thing - the hot face and rather chilly feet, eyes that smart with the outside brilliance, the smell of Elizabeth Arden and Yardley cosmetics that BOAC provide for their passengers, the varying whine of the jets...
Up again over the Arabian Sea with, below us, the occasional winking flares of the smuggling dhows that hug the coast from India... More thunderstorms fluttered in the foothills of the Himalayas while BOAC stuffed us once again, like Strasbourg geese, with food and drink... the heavenly green pastures of Thailand, spread out among wandering rivers and arrow-straight canals like some enchanted garden... we began to drift down to that last little strip of tarmac set in one of the most beautiful views in the world.
I, meanwhile, was on a train passing through the endless abandoned sidings of Edge Hill, en route to Wigan, with a Burger King breakfast inside me. It was hard not to feel that my life was in some way, inadequate. Why wasn't I being attended to by a beautiful stewardess in a cheong sam? My train didn't even have a trolley service. I sipped at the ridiculously hot coffee and tried not to get gloomy about my relative lack of achievement.
On the plus side, unlike Fleming, I didn't have an obnoxious New Zealander sat next to me, and I didn't have to spend 24 hours in the same chair. The only excitement on the train was a bushel of enthusiastic Japanese tourists, taking photos of one another sitting on Northern Rail's finest. The train's ultimate destination was Blackpool North, and I got the feeling they were off to sample the British seaside experience. Poor sods.
I got off at the grim hovel that is Wigan North Western, and crossed to the much more pleasant Wigan Wallgate. Unfortunately, I'd just missed the train to Southport, so I had to wait half an hour on the platform for the next one. Never mind - plenty of time for some more Thrilling Cities:
...it was obvious to Dick and me that only one question remained: where to have dinner before repairing to the Central Hotel [Macao's finest casino]? We were advised to choose between the Fat Sin Lau, the 'Loving Buddha', in the Street of Happiness, noted for its Chinese pigeon, or the Long Kee, famous for its fish. We chose the Loving Buddha, dined excellently and repaired to the Central Hotel, whose function and design I recommend most warmly...
At Wigan Wallgate, an elderly lady left her friend to use the toilets. She emerged moments later, saying to her companion, "I can't use that. It bloody stinks."
My plan was to get the Southport train to Gathurst, then a gentle wander through the countryside to Appley Bridge station. I'd planned the route out with my Ordnance Survey - the footpath was close to the station, and simple to find.
I hit an immediate problem when the train failed to stop at Gathurst, and sailed on through. I hadn't studied the timetable properly. The services after the hour didn't stop there: only the "all stations" trains.
I was immediately befuddled, and I whipped the map out to try and work out how to find the path from Appley Bridge. It seemed simple enough, so I got off there.
Turn right out of the station, and the footpath should be down a cul-de-sac on the right hand side. The key word being "should be". Do you think I could find it? For fifteen minutes I wandered up and down the road, desperately hunting for anything that looked like a public right of way. Nothing. There were some generic new-build executive homes, and a little private road, but no way through.
I was starting to get funny looks from some of the villagers, so I decided I'd just have to stick to the roads instead of an interesting country route. I was glad to get out of Appley Bridge anyway. It was less a village, more an industrial estate with some houses attached: trucks rolled past with depressing regularity, and there seemed to be an overload of workshops. Even the abandoned railway building was accompanied by a garage and MOT centre, giving the station a distinctive smell of oil and fuel. And behind it all was an old quarry, filled with water. Signs warned of the danger of swimming in its cold depths, but I don't know why you'd want to: it looked dead, disturbingly still and silent.
The road out of the village wasn't very cheery either:
I didn't really have much of an idea where I was. I was still disappointed that my stroll in the country was foxed: walking alongside a busy road just isn't the same. The OS map again seemed to indicate a right hand turn which would get me back on the footpath, but it wasn't anywhere I could see. Bad tempered, irritable, I stomped on, sucking in the exhaust fumes of eight wheelers and buses.
Soon I was in Shevington Vale, an unappealing little suburb, and it didn't seem to be getting any better. The houses were ordinary semis, all with their wheely bins out front for collection. In the distance were high green hills, but that was miles away. But wait - that looked like a right turn. And at the end of it:
As though my iPod sensed the sudden shift in my fortunes, ELO's Mr Blue Sky came on, one of those joyous little tunes that can't help but cheer you. The path threaded between paddocks full of disinterested looking horses, who watched me pass with undisguised indifference. They were far too busy munching on the grass to care about me. I was tempted to go over and pat them - I've always loved horses - but I strongly suspected they'd walk in the opposite direction. They looked the type.
The weather was making an upturn, too, with the grey skies starting to be speckled with blue. It was a shame it had rained that morning, because it meant that the puddles in the fields were still fresh, but I managed to negotiate them and ended up at a stile.
The public footpath carried on, over the stile... and onto a golf course. I hate walking across private property like this. I know I've a right to roam, and the path was no doubt there a long time before the links, but it felt like a violation of other people's privacy. I'd hate to have a footpath across my land. I'd come over very Madonna and stick up a load of fences to stop them.
Still, that was the way I needed to go if I was going to get to Gathurst, so I clambered over.
Dear Gathurst Golf Club: it's a lot easier to stick to the path if there actually is one. Once I was on the other side the path, and any signs indicating where it went, vanished. All around me was nothing but springy, close cropped turf and the occasional bunker. "Right," I thought. "I'll just walk in a straight line... that way".
I felt ridiculously conspicuous. I got quite a few odd looks from the golfers, and I think one of them tried to see me off at one point: I deliberately feigned deafness, not difficult as my iPod was playing a random Hindi track (a homosexual listening to Indian music? On our golf course? Fetch the hounds!). I stared straight ahead, dodging around the greens as best as I could - I wasn't sure if you was allowed to walk on the putting area: I had a vague recollection of Bond wearing special shoes for his match - is it like a bowling alley? My entire knowledge of golf is based on that game in Goldfinger. If no-one's got a mute Korean caddy, I'm lost.
I was starting to get panicky, worried that I'd be wandering around the course for the rest of the day and have to set up an overnight camp on the eighth fairway, when I spotted another "Public Footpath" sign pointing into a copse of trees. Hurray! Avoiding another evil looking golfer, who was regarding me with undisguised contempt (why are golf players such tossers?), I pushed into the woods and down a little slope, only to end up with this:
I knew I was going to have to cross the M6 at some point, but I thought it would be via a nice, high level, sturdy-looking bridge. Or even better, a tunnel underneath. Not via a footbridge that looked like it had been made out of the bits of cement that were left over, with a handrail constructed from old shopping trollies. It was either cross the bridge or risk the wrath of the golfers, though, so onwards.
Readers with long memories will remember my terrifying ordeal crossing the Runcorn bridge. Well, this was like a shorter, intensified version of that trip. The drop was as vertiginous, the span seemed as pitifully constructed, only instead of the gentle lap of the water beneath me, I had six lanes of roaring, noisy traffic.
I clung to the handrail so strongly, I actually became concerned it'd break off in my hand. My chest became wet with sweat. Over and over I repeated, "don't look down... just look ahead... keep going." I felt sick. I felt terrified. I kept having visions of an enormous Tesco truck sweeping underneath me, and the back rush whisking me over the side to certain death under one of Eddie Stobart's fleet.
Finally, I was able to stagger down the steps at the far end, and I was able to pause and take a breath and recover in a tiny alleyway.
The walk to Gathurst station after that wouldn't be anything but a breeze. I was there in a few minutes, crossing a canal en route before finally spotting the station. Two hours after I'd meant to be there, I'd arrived.
Now, I'm going to give GMPTE (as it was; it's just changed its name) a bit of kudos here. Gathurst was a well maintained, clean station. It had plenty of useful posters, including one that told you how many minutes away other stations on the line were. There was no ticket office, of course, but the station building had been turned into a pub, so it wasn't all bad.
There is a massive "but" coming. The station's a couple of hundred metres away from the main road, up a side street that slopes upwards. I dutifully got to the top, only to find out I was on the Manchester bound platform. The Southport platform was across the way, and to get there, I'd have to turn round, walk back down to the main road, and under the bridge there.
How about a sign, GMPTE? Just a little one? Just to let me know that I was about to waste my time walking all that way? And the pub wasn't even open for me to drown my sorrows. Shame.
My final stop of the day was Parbold, and happily, the train I caught actually stopped there. I wasn't there for tarting purposes, but instead to visit my incredibly heavily pregnant best friend, Jennie:
She's just days away from dropping her second child, so I went round to keep her amused on her maternity leave before the house got filled up with dirty nappies. We went out for a gorgeous lunch, gossiped, and generally put the world to rights before I had to go and get the train back to Southport.
...back to Tokyo by the most beautiful train I have ever travelled in - a streamlined aluminium affair in bright orange that looked as if it belonged to Mars, but in fact was operated by the Odawara Express Train Company, a private enterprise which, with its soft, piped music and its pretty girls in claret uniform dispensing tea and Japanese whisky (very good, though I, a Scot, say it), could teach British Railways a thing or two.
Perhaps there were no liquor dispensing minions on my Northern Rail train, just a portly ticket inspector. Perhaps Southport can't compare with the glamorous Orient. But my life wasn't all bad. I'd had a trip in the country, a good lunch with a great friend, annoyed a few golfers. It could be worse. I could be dead. And that is at least one thing I have over Ian Fleming.