Wednesday 1 June 2011

Day Four: Down and Out

***apologies if there are issues with this post for Firefox users; due to an error with Blogo I had to post it using Blogger's own editor, and it seems to have created layout problems for Mozilla's browser.  IE9 and Safari both work!***

Seriously Colwyn Bay: what the hell?
It was bad enough the night before when there was almost nowhere to
eat dinner with utensils. As it turned out, nowhere in the town centre opened for
breakfast either. Does no-one need a swift cup of coffee before work? Are there
no people in need of a shot of grease to set them up for the day? Even the
Wetherspoons, which promised a huge breakfast on the menu outside, didn't
open until nine. If you're eating breakfast at nine, you don't care any more: the
day is yours. You may as well have a bacon barm at 11am.
Fortunately the Bf, and more pertinently, the Prius, were still with me, so
he whisked me out of town to a McDonalds where I could fill my face with bacon
and use the wi-fi. I have to give kudos to McDonalds for that - free, uninterrupted
wi-fi, with no password, for as long as you're inside. That's better than the likes
of Starbucks or Caffe Nero, who charge you, or a thousand other places, that don't
even give you wi-fi in the first place. It's worth clotting your arteries if it means
you can have a swift look at the local talent on Grindr.
The other advantage of the Bf's presence was he could drop me off at
Abergele & Pensarn station. If he hadn't turned up I was going to walk along the
coast from Colwyn Bay (with a theoretical breakfast inside me). This was the only
point of the entire trip that I had been anxious about. The Ordnance Survey map
showed a cycle path, but not a footpath; obviously where one goes, the other
almost inevitably follows, but it wasn't a certainty. What's more, the cycleway
seemed to skate dangerously close to the water at times - I had visions of being
trapped on a ledge above the tide, with nowhere to go.

In the pantheon of tragically abandoned railway stations of the North Wales Coast Line,
Abergele & Pensarn wins the prize for "saddest station building". Everything pointed to
the lovely station house.  The approach road and the car park were outside. The station
sign was outside. It looked great. But it was boarded up, locked and abandoned.
Dammit, can't they at least put a flat in it? Just in the upstairs? Just to give some
life to the area?

It's a shame, because the station's in a beautiful spot; right on the coast, with the sound of the sea hitting the beach audible from the platform. You could walk off the train and into the water within a minute. You'd probably have to pause to get undressed first: I doubt Arriva Trains Wales would approve of you sitting around in your Speedos.

I'd been looking forward to Rhyl. Miserable, down at heel seaside resorts are a secret passion of mine. I like there to be a grim air of seediness beneath the roller coaster; a mix of teenage runaways, fag-toting landladies and enormous women with tattoos telling Bethany-Louise to get off that fucking ride because I'm saving my five pences for the bingo.

Rhyl is also blessed with a big, proper train station that's clearly had a load of regeneration money thrown at it. For starters, it has some of the widest platforms I have ever seen - they've clearly filled in the old trackbed with concrete, so as you step off the train you feel sort of small and alone.

There's a red phone box, and painted ironwork on the overbridge. I'm afraid to say that it was only at this point I realised why green, red and white was so popular for station colours in Wales. In my defence, the Colour Tsars are so busy all over Merseyrail, I'm just baffled by anything not being yellow and grey.
The ticket hall was gorgeous. Not only did it have staff, ticket gates, and somewhere to buy things - no really - but it also had elegant green tiling, and a real sense of money well spent. See, Arriva Trains Wales? It's not too hard to do.

It failed only on one, essential criteria: nowhere is there a sign saying "Rhyl station". Judging by the pins on the porte-cochere, there used to be one, but it fell off at some point and no-one's bothered replacing it.

This left me with a quandry. I needed a photo of me with the station sign - I just had to have it. But what do I do if there isn't a station sign? Normally I'd have to trot back in and use the platform signs, but in this case, I'd already passed through the ticket gates: if I wanted to go back in, I'd have to explain it to the guards, and then again when I came back two seconds later without boarding a train. I was already cringing with embarrassment.

I walked round the building, and finally found a little side entrance,
with a forgotten sign. That'll do!

My first glimpse of Rhyl proper was disappointingly classy: an old Carnegie Library, with beautiful stonework and a tower. Where was the neon? Where was the faded grandeur? That was just plain grand.

Fortunately, the town centre was far more eclectic. It was a pedestrianised precinct, full of pound shops and hairdressers and cafes. It looked like any number of low-class towns in the UK, except, every fourth store was covered in buckets, spades and inflatables, and there was a much higher incidence of bare upper arms in the shoppers than you'd usually expect.

Eventually I found my way to the front itself, and to the real target of my affections:
an arcade. When I was growing up, an arcade was the only reason to go to the
seaside. I mean that sincerely. Why spend your day sprawled on the beach when
you could be inside, pumping fifty pences into OutRun or Operation Wolf?

To kids like me and my brother, back in the 1980s, the seaside arcade was a hallowed place. It was where you could see games with more than one colour onscreen at the same time, where there was digitised speech, where you could see - whisper it - parallax scrolling. There were cabinets you could sit in to drive, cabinets with guns to shoot, cabinets with ridiculously over-ambitious painting on the side to seduce you into splashing your pennies on it.
My brother and I loved the arcades. We had a day trip to Brighton once, and 50% of it was spent in the arcades, while the other 50% was spent asking when we were going to the arcades. Each one seemed seductive - we could walk out of one and into the one next door, just on the off chance that it had some new, amazing game we'd never seen before.
Remember, we had Spectrums at home; anything without a tape deck was exciting. Gauntlet on a portable tv was one thing, but in an arcade Valkyrie and Elf were quite clearly different creatures, and not just the same sprite in either blue or green. For everyone of my generation, the arcade was a glimpse of the future: we knew we'd be getting boiled down, stripped back versions of these games in a few months for our own home computers. This gave us the chance to see them in their original, unadulterated form. (There was a boy at school who claimed to have a Neo-Geo, which was like an arcade machine for your home, but we treated him with the contempt he deserved).

There's no appeal in the arcade games now. No-one wants to pay to play a game, standing up in the middle of a resort, when they have a game that's just as entertaining on their phone. You can't pay 50p and get an experience as thrilling and in-depth as Grand Theft Auto, and you can't stay in there long enough to get every nuance. Gaming has moved on, and left the old arcades behind. The only machines left were for show-offs - Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution, and even they were rarities. If you played OutRun, you locked yourself into that cabinet and played alone, without an audience. Just you and the machine.

What was left were fruit machines and penny pusher games. I changed 50p into two pence pieces and spent a merry quarter of an hour shoving them into the machines, watching them dance down the back before mixing in with the other coppers and just sitting there. I loved these games too as a kid, but it was harder to justify putting your money into them - next to Sega's blinking, shouting, bleeping machines they looked distinctly old hat. Now they were the main attraction. They all had bizarrely old school names - I spotted a "Disco Inferno" next to a "Rio Carnival" but they were all the basic stick your two pence in and see if you get anything back. I was sure they used to come in different denominations - ten pences and pennies - but maybe that's a trick of my memory. Certainly my skills haven't improved. I got a few cascades of coins, which I chucked back in again, but none of the prizes. I suspect that the Japanese earthquake wouldn't have dislodged them.
With my fifty pence gone, I went back into the sunshine, knowing secretly that I could have happily spent the whole day in there, funnelling coins away. I had a pocket full of change jangling beside me - I needed to get away before I started selling my body for one more go.

Across the street was the prom, which in Rhyl is made of sand-coloured stone, undulating back and forth. Its various bridges and steps and seats mean that you can't actually see the sea from the town, which seems a bit odd, but I could see its appeal on a windy rainy day. There was an aquarium, and a circular space which was clearly the 21st equivalent of a band stand.
Sadly, none of the kiosks were open. I'd wanted some candy floss, or a toffee apple, or some rock. It was ten in the morning; does North Wales have its own time zone or something? Breakfast happens after nine and tourist spots open after twelve.

Strangely, the new yellow-stone development wasn't anywhere near as charming as the tin roofed Bright Spot Arcade. Its newness and determined blandness reminded me of nothing except a Tesco Superstore, or a recently pedestrianised town centre.

This is blatant hypocrisy on my part, of course. I wouldn't go on a holiday to Rhyl, at all, ever, and I definitely wouldn't go if it all smelt of damp and the prom was covered in rust and dog muck. Seedy charm is all very well if you want to come and stand to one side and then get the hell out again. The people who do come here for holidays want good clean fun, with their kids, and they don't want broken glass and homeless people fighting. They want it to shine and be there for them when the sun decides to make one of its rare appearances.
I finally managed to uncover the shore by following a group of day care workers taking their charges out for some sea air. Three women, each with a triple buggy - I dread to think how many Pampers they had stowed away. They were happily gossiping as I overtook them to follow the coastal path behind the Sun Centre.

If you've never been to Rhyl, and so you're not sure what to expect from the Sun Centre, you need to imagine a B&Q Supercentre, painted yellow, with a sign featuring a font not seen since Cheggers Played Pop. Hollow out the inside and fill it with water, then overcharge the public because you're the only place within a square mile that's ok to be inside while it rains. It's so ugly, it makes you wonder if the Council just had a load of corrugated iron left over from roofing some allotment sheds and decided to make a swimming pool out of it.

From here to Prestatyn there's a long concrete promenade, following the sea wall and curving round.  The road drops away into the distance and you're left on a pedestrian and cycle route. I had the sun beating down on me and the noise of the sea. The path was empty except for the occasional dog walker or cyclist.

And yet... I quickly found myself plunging down into a little hole of depression.

I try to keep this blog jolly and happy and light. I don't post when I'm feeling down. I keep quiet about low days. I feel like telling everyone about it is kind of self-indulgent. So I apologise for this whole bit - you can skip it if you want. Go to the point under the next photo. I won't feel insulted.
The thing about depression is it's always there. It's like having fuzzy edges round your vision; surrounding everything you see. Sometimes it's just a little haze, but sometimes it swirls down over everything and colours your vision.
That's what happened between Rhyl and Prestatyn. I fell into that hole. I'm guessing it was a combination of my weariness, thanks to the last few days' walking, and the loneliness of the spot. I just felt ridiculously depressed, and alone, and horrible. I hated myself and everything about that walk. I fell onto a bench and just stared at the ground.
I probably would have stayed there for hours. Fortunately, in addition to suffering from depression, I have an obsessive compulsive disorder. The two mental illnesses had a little tussle inside me, and the OCD dragged my arse up and out of the seat. Because, dammit, there were two. Stations. Left. That was it. Two stations and it was complete.

With heavy legs and my forehead lightly toasting in the sun (if you look at the photos over the course of this trip, you can see me turning a nice shade of pink) I pushed on into Prestatyn: the town where people go to die.

The Bf's mum used to live in Prestatyn. (She now lives in the flat below ours. I know, I know. Don't get me started). I've been there a few times, and what's always struck me is how low it all is. Not just its position on the coast, between the sea and the mountains, but also its architecture: long straight avenues lined with bungalows. Nice single storey buildings for all the pensioners to hole up in. Each house was the same. No grass in the front lawn (too hard to maintain), just a load of gravel with a thousand pieces of garden centre tat positioned all over it. If you think gnomes are a bit declasse, you should see some of the horrors perpetrated in Prestatyn's front yards. Each house had a glass porch on the front, with a couple of wicker chairs, so that the occupiers could sit and stare out the window and wait to die. If I hadn't been depressed before, I would be after all that.

Prestatyn station was undergoing some major, major redevelopment. The single island platform was surrounded by a mass of ironwork and glass and scaffolding. Disability Discrimination Act works mean that an enormous ramp was rising up to a new lift shaft.

I understand that access for all is extremely important, but that is one ugly ramp. It makes Aintree's twisting mess look positively understated. Is this all necessary?

Down on the platform, there were already a few people waiting for the train. There was a highly excited father with his little boy in a pushchair, getting him overstimulated at the prospect of a train arriving soon. There was also an enormous woman with two teenage daughters, proudly telling another woman that her fourteen year old daughter was so mature looking she regularly got served in pubs because they think she's over eighteen. Nice.

All the works meant I had to settle for a platform sign:

Onto my last Arriva Trains Wales service. On the whole I can't really complain about them. There's that horrible blue, of course, and some of the guards had been less than pleased when I'd made a request for them to stop, but they were on time and mostly clean. Some of the trains were stupidly small for the routes, and ended up being rammed, but it wasn't too bad. Perhaps Deutsche Bahn are having a positive influence on them.

The next station was Flint or, to give it its full Welsh name, Fflint. And with that extra F Fflint wins the prize for Most Annoying Use of A Consonant. Are there really Welsh people looking at "Flint" and thinking, "How do you pronounce that? It makes no sense."
The Bf lived in Flint for many years, and one of his best friends still lives there, so I'm not unfamiliar with it. I don't remember seeing a giant disembodied foot on any of my previous visits, however.

Called Footplate, by Brian Fell, it is a "tribute to all forms of transport", with the foot filled with cogs.  It's a bit weird, if I'm honest, but still nice to see.

It's nice that Flint was my last station because it's a delight. Really. It's well maintained, nicely painted. It's a good building, appealing to my OCD with its symmetry.

The ticket hall includes photos of the station and trains from days past in its clean, well appointed waiting area:

Lovely stuff. A plaque commemorates the work, and it's well deserved. Kudos Flint.

As a tribute to the combination of England and Wales over the last week, I took my photo in front of both station signs. Flint and Y Fflint, one country and another.

Are you sitting there saying "but wait! He hasn't been to Shotton! That's the last station between Flint and Chester!" Well, actually I went there two years ago, as part of the Borderlands Line.

I did think about carrying on. I thought about walking along the coast, but it's not a pretty route, and it gets decidedly dodgy around the steelworks - there's no paths marked on the OS map, and I didn't fancy trotting along the side of the A55. I considered getting a bus to Shotton, but then I thought - sod it. I was having a bad day. You could hardly say I was slacking off.
So I went for a pint.

This was actually a bit of a mistake, because the pub I went to was one of the scabbiest, most low rent pubs I have ever been in. I walked in past a haggard old man sucking on a fag in the doorway; he followed me in because, as it turned out, he was the barman. He poured me a pint with disdain - how dare I interrupt his ciggie time? - and I took up position on one of the threadbare benches with a view of Bargain Hunt on the tv.

Still, it gave me time to sit and think. My journey was practically over. All those miles and all those trains. All that walking and riding. It was all done.
I loved it. At the time, sat in the pub, I was glad it was over, but that was more to do with my depressive state of mind. Now, a couple of weeks later, I've got nothing but good memories. It did what I'd originally set out to find when I looked at the Merseyrail map: it gave colour to the names, an added dimension. Those little ticks on the map now have memories and pictures attached to them.
Sixteen gorsafoedd (stations): Holyhead, Valley, Rhosneigr, Ty-Croes, Bodorgan, Bangor, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Llanfairfechan, Penmaenmawr, Conwy, Llandudno Junction, Colwyn Bay, Abergele & Pensarn, Rhyl, Prestatyn and Flint.

That's a lot. And I'm pleased I did it. It feels like a great achievement, and I get a real sense of satisfaction. Of course the question is: where next? (Just don't tell the Bf).
Finally I got the train to Chester, a Virgin Super Voyager. Trek geek that I am, I always think of Janeway and her crew of annoying idiots whenever I see that name. It's always a slight disappointment that Neelix isn't manning the shop. I clambered up and over the bridge at Chester to platform 7b.
There was something pleasingly right about finishing my journey here, on a Merseyrail train. I'd started this whole blog because I had an all areas Railpass to get to work in Chester, and I realised I could get my money's worth out of it. I'd spent months and months on that platform. And now it was time to go home.


Andy Howe said...

Hi, Cool blog as ever Scott, well done you for covering the entire line!, you deserve your pint at the end :-)
The last photo (above), is etched in my memory, mainly due to the fact me and a couple of my mates, head to (and from) Chester on a Saturday night on the 'Bache Shuttle', for a few beers at The Mill/Harkers, seriously well done you, quite an epic journey.
Where next....? Liverpool to Manchester maybe, Chester to Shrewsbury is a good idea, wherever, always a good read, keep up the good work bud, Kudos :-)

gottago said...

Is anyone else able to edit the text in this post?! I guess that's the Firefox problem you noted! How odd!

Dan said...

Just tried and it lets me edit the text, but I'm on IE. Strange stuff.

Robert said...

It looks weird on any browser I try (I have all the major ones installed on my PC, plus Safari on the iPhone). Looking at the source it seems that your editing software has sprinkled code throughout that makes the text fixed width (so it overlaps into the sidebar) and, for some bizarre reason, editable.

I have fond childhood memories of Rhyl SunCentre, although I'm sure I'm looking back through rose-tinted glasses. I remember their wave machine being particularly violent, and also (for added effect) had massive sprinklers to simulate a tropical rainstorm. The water actually hurt when it landed on you.

Ian Jones said...

A suitably epic end to a properly epic adventure. Great stuff. I now rather regret dashing through the whole lot in one day, especially Llanfairfechan. You've convinced me I definitely need to pay the place a proper visit.

Anonymous said...

Great blog, a pleasure to read.

Have you been reading / read 'The Kingdom By The Sea' ;-)