Monday, 28 May 2012

Ease On Down The Road

There's something deeply pleasing about the name Criccieth.  Just say it: Criccieth.  I don't know why, it just clicks away inside your mouth.

The station's just as nice.  It's been adopted by Criccieth in Bloom, and they've done a sterling job making it an attractive, comfortable place to dwell.  There are painted murals, some from the local school, some a little more professional, all reflecting the local area.

It's a great effort from a dedicated band of volunteers.  There's a part of me that's annoyed that Arriva Trains Wales can make a profit on subsidies and ticket prices but can't be bothered making their property pretty, but that seems churlish when Criccieth in Bloom are doing it so well.

Their efforts extended to the noticeboard, where there was a lovely Regional Railways poster stored under glass:

Basically, Criccieth had me right from the start.

The main street through the village was as desperate for tourist cash as Porthmadog had been, but in a much more middle class, understated way.  There were cafes and antique shops, but they weren't quite so shameless as their cousins down the line.  In the early evening spring sunshine, everything looked pleasing, charming, dappled.  I rounded a corner and came across a tiny square shaded by trees.  It reminded me of small towns I'd been to in Europe - the heart of the village, a place where old men gather to play chess.

A couple of turns through the streets, and I could see the beach in one direction, and the castle in the other.  I didn't even know Criccieth had a castle so that was a bonus.  There was a medieval square at its base, with brightly painted houses and shops.  I was being romanced.  The only downside was more Criccieth in Bloom planters and posters.  I suspected that my somewhat laissez faire attitude to garden maintenance would not be tolerated here.

Down on the front itself there was a row of tall houses, pastels and creams, looking out over a perfect view of Cardigan Bay.  I'd have loved to have lingered and taken it all in.  Perhaps bought a Ninety-nine and sat on the beach.  But it was gone five o'clock, and I still had two more stations to get, so I pushed on.

The seaside road narrowed to a track, then to a path, then I was walking through fields and between hedgerows.  I was following the Llyn coastal path, which circles the whole peninsula, and which had been carefully signposted and laid out.  One of the glories of this country is our dedication to walkers; the way we are careful to lay out paths and routes for us to enjoy.

Annoyingly, I wasn't alone on the path.  A middle aged man joined it just before me and, even more irritatingly, he walked at more or less the same speed as me.  It meant that I was shadowing him, unable to speed up and overtake, unwilling to slow my pace and fall back.  If I was him I'd have been a little nervous.

Of course, standing behind him and taking a photo didn't make me look any less psychopathic.

Fortunately, he turned off the path, wandering onto a deserted beach and standing at the water's edge.  How nice, I thought.  How pleasing.  Then I suddenly thought of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, where Tracy attempts to commit suicide by walking into the sea on a deserted beach.  I kept glancing over my shoulder, hoping he didn't suddenly pull off his shoes and leg it into the water.  I wondered what I'd do.  Given that (a) I can't swim and (b) I'm not exactly the strongest guy around, I couldn't see myself dragging him out to safety.  Finally I turned a corner and he was left behind, gazing out over the bay.  I hope he's ok.

Now I had a few miles of coast walking ahead of me.  It had looked fine on the map, but now it seemed like something of a slog, with a rucksack slung across my shoulders and a day's stomping around in my legs.  The path rose and fell, sometimes practically in the water, sometimes high above it.  I clambered over stiles into fields of cows, who moo'd loudly as I passed.  I don't know if it was a greeting or a warning.

I rounded a hill, and came across a man pulling a t-shirt on, while his girlfriend stood to one side with dry clothes.  It seemed that he'd been swimming in the river and was just changing back.  Of course, I'd missed a sneaky glimpse of penis, as always.  I have an unerring ability to walk in just after anything interesting happens.

A couple of bridges over lacklustre streams, and then I was crossing the railway line again.  I'd already seen the train from Pwhlleli passing in the distance.  Across the railway, a farm had carefully screened off the public footpath from their yard, building a big wall and putting up clear signs to stop misguided ramblers.

It was something of a relief to finally reach a metalled road, and with it, a clear open footpath.  My ankles were starting to ache from the trudge across the wet soil, so to clump along a proper path was a pleasing change.

It was short-lived.  Lawks but that was a dull road.  It was new, so there were no old trees or hedges along it.  It was in a dip, so I couldn't see the hills behind, and it was too far inland to see the coast.  There weren't any farms or villages along it.  It was a two lane highway designed to bypass anything interesting.

I was starting to panic now.  I wasn't sure if I'd make it to the next station, and it was getting on for seven o'clock.  At this rate I wouldn't be in Pwhlleli until nearly ten.  I was sweaty and tired.  I'd run out of water, so my throat was parched.  And this damn road was so uninspiring, I could barely muster up any interest in it.  I was flagging fast.

Time for some music.

Never underestimate the power of a driving beat in your ears.  I hadn't bothered with it for the majority of the trip, choosing to enjoy my surroundings and let my mind wander, but right now all my mind was saying was "YOU'RE GOING TO MISS THE TRAIN."  I jammed the earbuds in and put on my Movie Music playlist.  The Indiana Jones theme buoyed my spirits; Anything Goes made me smile; Night Fever put a spring back in my step.

I hate to conform to the cliche, but a run of musical theatre songs that cheered me immensely.  Since I was alone in the countryside, and the cars that passed seemed to think a speed limit was a suggestion rather than a prescription, I filled my lungs and sang along.  One Night Only from Dreamgirls, I Move On from Chicago (I did both parts - like most people, I'm a better singer than Renee Zellweger and less robotic than Catherine Zeta-Jones), and, most inspiring of all, Ease On Down The Road.  The Wiz is a horrible, horrible film.  It's probably the most joyless musical ever made; everything is made as grim and unpleasant as possible.  It's impossible not to love the soundtrack though - with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Quincey Jones all working together you couldn't achieve anything less than genius.  I had to bounce along, singing the chorus, a demented munchkin who escaped from the asylum.

I was in full song when I saw the familiar and welcome sight of a double-headed arrow.  I had about ten minutes to spare.

I'm guessing that the road has become a haunt for doggers.  The council had posted signs warning that there were CCTV cameras along it - usually you only get that at the station itself.

Penychain was once the main access for holidaymakers to the Butlin's holiday park behind.  As such, it has a rather more impressive shelter than you'd expect for a country station.  A long brick building would once have held dozens of suitcase-clutching vacationers, ready for their train back to reality.

In its full 1950s pomp, I expect there were seats for the ladies, but they're long since gone.  Instead it's like being in an open shed; it feels like there should be hay on the floor and a donkey pooing in the corner.

Butlin's are gone as well.  It's now branded as a Haven Holiday Camp (they have the same owner), which isn't as evocative as Butlin's, but is also less Hi-de-Hi!.  I doubt they get many people arriving by train these days, either.

I collapsed on the platform, exhausted.  My plan had been to get the train from here to Aberech, and then walk from there into Pwhlleli.  That was before I'd been forced to incorporate Tygwyn and Talsarnau into my schedule, though.  The idea of walking along the coast as the sun set was distinctly unappealing now.  The idea of walking anywhere was unappealing.  I took a decision - fuck it.  I just wouldn't bother getting Aberech.  It was just one station - you couldn't deny that I'd earned the right to abandon it.  Three days of travel had got me every other stop on the line.

There were only two of us on the train to Pwhlleli.  We arrived as the sun turned to gold, bathing the town in a shiny sparkle.  The other passenger noticed me hanging back and asked if I was lost.  It was very nice of him but I was actually waiting for him to leave so I could take some photos.

Pwhlleli station is a shed.  Not a bad one.  It's been painted and it's been cleaned but it is, at the end of the day, a shed.  Its one feature of interest, a cafe, was closed at that time of night, leaving a big open space with nothing of interest - not even a bench.

Obviously there was no ticket office.  I should have expected it by now, but it still surprised me.  Pwhlleli is the terminus.  It's a destination in itself.  They can't scrape to a single ticket window?  Not even a machine?  I find it utterly baffling that ticket offices are seen as some kind of luxury - they help raise revenue and stop fraud.  They should be everywhere, especially at the ends of lines.

The town didn't make a great first impression; opposite the station was a giant empty department store.  It had clearly fallen on bad times, but here and there were signs things were changing.  The Ethel Austin was still vacant - not a good sign, given that they went bust years ago - but there were local shops dotted amongst the empty fronts, signs of a gentrification coming.  Around it were good working class businesses and pubs and homes.  Weirdly, it reminded me of St Helens; that same solidity and efficiency, a town that had been humbled and was rising up again.  The most incongruous parts were the new, regeneration money projects, stuck in the centre of the town and too shiny to fit.

My hotel was The Crown, a real boozer in the centre.  Its bars were filled with men watching the football on two screens, knocking back pints of lager; I was tempted to stay because Jamie Redknapp was one of the pundits, but I guessed that wasn't why they were watching.  I was checked in by a solid barmaid in her early twenties, a woman who radiated efficiency and capability.  She was feminine and calm, with a blonde pony tail and a laptop behind the bar with a fashion website on it, but I knew that if a fight kicked off she'd be in there in a moment, pulling them apart without a thought.

I headed up to my room, tired, hot, moist, and started the shower.  It was my last night in Wales.  Tomorrow I'd be heading home.  Eventually.


Anne said...

Oh, I've been waiting for this one!

I used to work at Butlin's, back when it was Butlin's (and it had the apostrophe in the name - an important distinction!) for the last two seasons (it closed as a Butlin's in November 1998).

I don't know if they're still there, but there used to be a set of gates that led directly from the platform to the camp - but even when I was there, those gates were rarely open, and campers had to lug their cases all the way along the lane and to the main entrance (which has been subtly moved post Haven make-over). The train line cuts through the middle of the camp, and as staff we used to have a cut through under the line that you had to walk through bent over - it was only about 5 feet high if that. On occasion trains would rumble over the top, often tooting their horns as they went.

It was a glorious part of the world, and was probably the best 18 months of my life. If you were a Scouser born-and-bred, you'd have probably gone there on your summer holidays, to join the up to 7 Thousand other holiday makers getting away from the drabness of Liverpool, Manchester and other North-West towns.

The air was just so clear, I miss it even today.

I don't of course miss the pre minimum wage "salary", the intense sense of isolation which could befall you at either end of the season when the punters were only there at weekends, and the staff levels weren't at their peak, the terrible food in the staff canteen, and the aggressively bullying security staff. But you can't have it all. It's a mark of the place that 14 years after I stopped working there, I am still in touch with many of my colleagues, and we're planning on having a staff reunion on Haven, next summer, 15 years after we all got unceremoniously laid off.

And Criccieth rocks - I have a video of an animation about the life of "Gerald of Wales" that I got from the Castle gift shop on one of our many family holidays there as a kid. I still have the VHS tape, despite the lack of anything working to play it on!

Scott Willison said...

Thanks for that Anne! Were you a real-life redcoat? I'm impressed! I actually wanted to stay in the holiday camp, just to see what it was like, but unfortunately you can't just be there for one night. Also, as a single man with no kids, I'd have probably looked like a perv. I did pass the Haven camp entrance on my way to Penychain though. And you have no idea how much back and forth I had about whether to include the apostrophe in Butlin's or not.

I've had a look through my photos of the station and I can't see any gates to the park. I didn't notice one while I was there but I was half-dead at the time. There was a long ramp system up to the lane, as though they expected a lot of crowds. The tunnel under the track sounds fun - the low wages and dodgy meals less so.

Robert said...

When I was about 7 or 8 years old, our family had a holiday at Butlin's Pwllheli (or Starcoast World as their marketing insisted on calling it at the time). The most exciting part of it for me was, naturally, the trains passing through (we were in a chalet near the railway). Mostly Sprinters, but on our last day there a special rumbled through - about ten Network SouthEast coaches with a growling diesel loco on the front. Marvellous.

I share your frustration at the lack of ticket buying facilities. When I was in Cornwall, I saw that St Ives station had a privately run ticket office separate from the railway company. Surely there is a similar opportunity for an enterprising individual at Pwllheli?

Scott Willison said...

You had a week at Butlin's but the best part was the trains rumbling past? That makes me sad. There was a sign for Starcoast World visible under a cracked Haven one; I wondered where that fitted into the history of the site.

A privately run ticket office is one option, but I can see all sorts of shenanigans when it comes to responsibility for sales (A sold you a ticket; B refuses to honour the ticket; etc). It also introduces another level of someone wanting to make a profit in the sales process.

I think the MtoGo concept is perhaps the best one - a shop, run by the railway company, that happens to sell tickets as well. Though Pwhlleli station was in the centre of town, a simple convenience store with magazines, sweets, etc would always be welcome. Or perhaps take the cafe under the train company's wing and have them sell tickets alongside the lattes. I thought there was something very sad about the fact that I was enjoying using a ticket that I couldn't actually buy anywhere en route; it's only available from staffed stations.

Anne said...

Hi Scott,

I was not a Redcoat, I was "Stage Crew" - we did the technical side of the entertainment. My CV is suitably vague about it, because history teaches me that people will invite me to interview just to ask if I *was* a Redcoat. The apostrophe quandry is entirely understandable. I believe they keep on changing their minds as the ownership alters. I'm aware that the entrance is very impressive these days - it was much more subtle in my day! Also, I imagine the gates from the platform may well have gone, there was a very obvious desire to get rid of anything "too Butlin's" when the conversion to haven happened.

Hi Robert,
The "Starcoast World" branding was, IIRC, a result of some late 80s/early 90s corporate re-branding attempt, when some marketing suit felt that the Butlin's name was a bit old hat, and the occupancy levels had fallen through the floor, as a generation of aspirational Brits realised you could get a week in the Med for the same price as a week on camp, and that in the Med you were guaranteed sunshine, and were also guaranteed not to have Butlin's Radio waking you up at the crack of dawn! All the sites (5 by then) were give "xxxCoast World" names. I know Ayr (also closed in 98 and converted to a Haven)was "Westcoast World", but I can't remember the others.

Re: Private ticket offices - doesn't the Ffestiniog Railway have such a thing at their Porthmadog Harbour station? IIRC they certainly used to, and curiously, they used to have the ability to sell you tickets for European travel as well. Scott, where did you buy your ticket - have I missed/forgotten the bit where you mentioned it?

Scott Willison said...

Being an "ex-Redcoat" has a certain feel to it, I suppose - it's got an air of Shane Ritchie about it. People probably hoped you'd come into the interview doing jazz hands.

I bought my ticket at Lime Street a couple of weeks before I headed out. I wanted to be sure I had it ready and I wasn't sure I'd be able to get it en route. Which was lucky. The Ffestiniog Railway had a significant station at Porthmadog but I didn't check it out. That railway's a real link between the line from Llandudno Junction and the Cambrian Coast Line, though, so through ticketing's more of a necessity.