Thursday, 10 May 2012

Dovey Tailing

Hell is other people, said Sartre, presumably while waiting in the queue at Argos.  It's a maxim that's particularly true of rail travel.  All those people, crammed together in a tiny tin tube, breathing in each other's air, smelling their perfumes, listening to their conversations.  Just one bad travelling companion can completely destroy your journey and send you scurrying to the taxi rank.

At Tywyn, there are two tracks, a rarity on the Cambrian Lines, so trains wait there to allow each other to pass.  It meant that for five minutes, waiting for the train to get going, I had to sit across from one of the most negative, miserable, and generally unpleasant women I have ever had the misfortune to be in close proximity to.  She had a bowl of tight blonde hair which looks like it was screwed onto her skull at puberty and hasn't been touched since.  Across from her was her husband, a man with a moustache and the defeated look of a man who's inadvertently chained himself to a Rottweiler for the rest of his life.

She first entered my consciousness as she loudly demanded he repay her for the coffees they'd had that morning.  "How much money have you got on you?"

"I don't know," said her husband.  He pulled out his wallet, one of those ones with a section for coins that are used exclusively by the emasculated, and she snatched it off him.  She rifled through it, pulling out a fiver and dumping a load of coppers from her own purse into it.  "Are you giving me all that change?" he said.

"Yes," she said.  "I'm sick of carrying it around.  I'm taking this five pound note.  You can pay for the drinks tonight.  And the Radio Times, when that's due."  A look round the carriage, her face contorted into a sneer, and then she complained that the train was on time.  How dare it be efficient!

As we take off, the guard appears, a chirpy girl they recognise and call Nellie.  "It's a bit quieter than the last time you were on here!" said the guard.

"Yes, thank God.  It's not that the children were shouting.  There were just far too many of them."

The train carries on, as does Helmet-Head's monologue to the guard about children, noisy trains, the inconvenience of train travel, the inconvenience of her friends for living away from Tywyn, the inconvenience of having to pack a bag when you stay overnight.  A pause at an open gate leaves her fuming at the farmer at the side of the line.  "Dickhead!" she shouts, as though he can hear her.  "Now he's held up the train."

"They have to be careful," says Nellie.  "You don't want to accidentally hit some one.  That can traumatise a driver."

"I know," says Helmet-Head.  "You hear about these suicides throwing themselves on the track.  It's so selfish.  I mean, I've been depressed, but I got over it.  You just need to pull your socks up."

Fortunately we stopped at Aberdovey before I had time to finish crafting a rudimentary garotte out of the straps of my backpack.  I stepped onto the platform lightly and with genuine pleasure at the idea that I wouldn't have to sit across from that woman all the way to Newtown.

Perhaps the escape made me especially generous to Aberdovey station.  I don't think so.  It was in a charming spot, close to the sea, with a bowling green behind it.  The station building had been turned into a private residence, but it wasn't fenced off from the platform, and it still gave the halt a sense of importance.

It also had, as you can see above, a Harrington Hump.  These are ramps built onto a station to avoid the expense of raising an entire platform to modern train heights: typically they occupy the centre and mean that it's easier for less able passengers to board.  I just love that they're called Harrington Humps; it's from the same world as Belisha Beacons and zebra crossings, eccentric names for something boringly practical.

The sun had decided that yes, it would grace us with its presence, after a day of being ambivalent about whether it was needed or not.  It meant that there was something approaching a pleasing warmth as I walked down to the main road for the sign shot.

Aberdovey has two stations, which is quite ridiculous for a town of its size, but handy for me.  They were either end of the main street, so I followed it into the centre.  Above me on the clifftops were white villas with sea views; they looked almost exactly like somewhere a vindictive colonel would be murdered by his despairing family in a lesser Agatha Christie.

In fact, Aberdovey had a general Christie-ness about it, a gentility and elegance that you didn't expect from a seaside resort these days.  Perhaps it's because it's still a working harbour, rather than just a tourist trap, but there was a sense of authenticity to it you don't often get.  The promenade curves round the bay, lined with eighteenth-century houses painted bright colours, while behind it are tiny Georgian streets that intersect at wild angles.

I was disappointed to spot a Fat Face in the town square, though.  That shop instantly marks the town as a place where it is acceptable for men to wear both three-quarter length trousers and Breton shirts; the hipsters had discovered it.  Fortunately they all seemed to be out of town during my visit - presumably they were all in England.

I did a couple of circuits of the centre before going into the Dovey Inn.  It had caught my eye with its carved board near the roof:
This house was built by Athelstain Owens Esqr.  

Ano Dom 1729
I was disappointed to find that inside it had been modernised within an inch of its life.  Not in an especially ugly way; in fact it was inoffensively tasteless, all blonde wood and frosted glass.  As I sat down in a corner with my pint of Milkwood, though, I wished it still felt like a three hundred year old inn, rather than a Wetherspoons with a nice frontage.

I watched the light bouncing off the sea for a while, glinting among the wavelets, and slowly knocked back my pint.  I could live here, I thought.  I could live in one of those houses, overlooking the bay, watching the fishermen leaving in the evening for their catch.  Drinking a beer on the balcony while I listened to the sea below me.  Then wandering down into town to find a nice quiet restaurant for the evening.  The slow life.

Of course, it would drive me mad in reality, the moment I realised I'd have to go fifty miles to get that brand of toothpaste I like, or when all my friends suddenly started trying to use my house as a free hotel.  It was nice to dream for a while.

I carried on through the town, feeling vaguely as though I was in a pirate cove, striding among the close fit houses and the sea walls.  The presence of a Literary Institute, with signs advertising both a "News Room (Visitors Welcome)", and a billiard room, did nothing to convince me I was in the 21st century.

Soon I'd reached the other end of the town, close to Penhelig station, and I realised it was a lot smaller than I'd planned for so I still had a while before my train.  I picked another pub close by, the Penhelig Arms, to kill time in.  It was built into the rock face behind the town, with no pavement outside and the railway bridge overhanging it, and I was pleased to find it was a much more old-fashioned pub than the Dovey Inn.  There seemed to be a "posh bit" upstairs, with a terrace, but I'd wandered into the slightly more threadbare lower bar, the place the locals frequented.

The bar was so authentic, they'd not even bothered with levelling the floor for the tables, and I managed to spill a centimetre of beer right instantly.  I mopped it up with my handkerchief while I listened to the barmaid tolerating a regular talking about his day.  He'd been up until 4am watching a documentary about Burt Bacharach; "do you know he made Cilla Black do 19 takes of Anyone Who Had A Heart?"  I was going to suggest that Burt should have made her do a few more, but instead I stuffed my beer-soaked hankie into my pocket and relaxed.

A heavy clock over the fireplace noisily ticked away, knocking down the minutes until my train.  The barmaid perched on a sttol, turning the pages of her Western Mail, enjoying a moment's silence while John regathered his thoughts.  Suddenly he exclaimed: "I don't care what anyone says; I like sprouts."  She took the non sequitur in her stride, and joined him in a chat about which green vegetables are best (the winner: broccoli).  I heard the Pwllheli train rattle past, and realised it was sadly time to go, before I could stir things up by chucking kale into the equation.

Penhelig station was just across the street, with a metre of pavement giving me space to stand and take the sign picture.  Above it was a narrow staircase taking you up the embankment to the platform.  No wonder they put in a Harrington Hump at Aberdovey - this is very wheelchair-unfriendly.

The station is built in the brief gap between two tunnels in the rock.  The train has just enough time to emerge from the darkness and stop before it's back inside for another underground trip.  The Welsh version of the Colour Tsars had struck again, painting the little wooden shelter red, green and white.

It was probably the two pints of beer, but I found the little hut charming, even more so when I found that the local graffiti artists were clearly as OCD as me.  There was a window in one wall of the hut, but not the other, so someone who deeply values symmetry had drawn one in:

It could have done with a ruler and set square to get the angles right, but well done you.

My train turned up and, even better, stopped for me (I was worried that the driver wouldn't see me in the time it took for him to come out of the tunnel).  My next stop was the famous - almost legendary - Dovey Junction.  Even the guard seemed to recognise its special place on the line: "Ladies and gentlemen.  This... is DOVEY JUNCTION," pausing for it to sink in as though it were a headliner at the Las Vegas Hilton.

As I've said before, the Cambrian Line is in two parts: the Main Line heads south to Aberystwyth, while the Coast Line heads north to Pwllheli.  The point where the line splits is at Dovey Junction and, for reasons best known to themselves, the line's architects constructed a station here.  Now it's one of the least used stations in Britain, and as such, on Robert's list for his Station Master blog (but I've beaten him to it, ha ha).

I was the only person to get off.  Most people who want to change trains will stay on until Machynlleth, further up the line, which at least has a station building and somewhere pleasant to sit and get a Coke.  I dropped my bag off in the shelter (who was going to steal it, a vindictive otter?) and walked down the ridiculously long Aberystwyth platform.  There's been talk about restoring London services to this line, and this is reflected in a platform built for Voyagers.  A refurbishment in 2011 also raised it above the flood plains and gave it new tarmac - it has the unfortunate effect of removing any old-world charm the station might have had.

It was a mile and a half from the station to the nearest road; a map advising you of where to catch a rail replacement bus was more or less just an arrow saying "walk this way".  The road passes through high reed beds - it's a protected wildlife area - until you reach the "Station House", and with it, the main road.

In a further blow to Dovey Junction's image as an isolated spot, the main road was undergoing a major upgrade.  There were diggers, trucks and steamrollers loudly hammering at the rock face, while workers crawled all over the site.  The noisy jackhammers echoed throughout the valley.

Up the nose shot taken, I turned round and went back the way I came, pausing only to pee.  I now had an hour to kill until the train back to Barmouth.  The services aren't even aligned to help with the interchange; two eastbound services pass within ten minutes of each other, then it's almost two hours before the next westbound train.

To pass the time, I decided to make a little video.

Even during the course of that video, my attitude to the station was changing.  I'd been let down at first.  It was, after all, the famous Dovey Junction, and yet it wasn't that isolated and it wasn't that pretty.  Look beyond the drab Arriva Trains Wales corporate colours and the easily maintained pebbles and you realise how lucky you are to be here; in the centre of a wide expanse of natural beauty, with no-one but yourself and your thoughts for company.  Out there - beyond the platforms - out there was the world to explore; Dovey Junction was just a means to get there.  Its magic is its surroundings, not the station itself.

I got back on the train and settled into my seat, taking just a moment to perv at the hot conductor (hello Alex!).  It was finally time to return to Barmouth, to a shower and a drink and a sleep.  Day one: done and dusted.


Robert said...

"He pulled out his wallet, one of those ones with a section for coins that are used exclusively by the emasculated"

But my wallet has a section for.. oh.

Dovey Junction is disappointingly well-provisioned. I can't believe it has "next train" indicators!

Nice idea to make a video on the station platform, though. Who or what inspired you to do that?

Anonymous said...

Given that Dovey Junction is being downgraded to request stop very soon, it's nice to see the tradition of newly painted station = imminent closure is being maintained.