Tuesday 8 May 2012

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

"Where are you getting off?" asked the guard.

"Tonfanau," I said, pronouncing it all in one go - tonf'nau.

"Ton-FAN-au," she said.  Suddenly I realised why everyone else finds it annoying when I correct their grammar.

For years the station was there to serve an army base.  That's long gone, and you can see the roofless hulks of the former base structures from the platform.  It's a lonely, desolate spot and, shorn of its purpose, British Rail applied for permission to close it in the nineties.  That was refused, however, and so the halt struggles on into the 21st Century - a request stop that probably doesn't get many requests.

I headed south, stepping off the main road and onto a side path.  Surprisingly, I wasn't alone.  A couple had parked their car on the verge so they could walk their dog.  I wondered what they thought, suddenly being stalked in the middle of nowhere.  I tried to put on my most unassuming and sane-looking face.  I probably ended up looking like Ted Bundy.  They quickened their step as we all reached the coast more or less simultaneously.

I want to make something absolutely clear: I do not advocate trespass in any way shape or form.  There's a reason why railways have fences round them.  We got several stern lectures from British Transport Policemen when I was at school, telling us about the dangers of walking on railway lines.  We were shown videos featuring little Timmy (it was always Timmy in public information films) getting fried to death by a rogue overhead wire, or getting his foot torn off by a passing InterCity.  It was all very scary and convincing and frightening.

After Tonfanau, however, I was torn.  The next station was Tywyn, directly to the south.  By train, it was a couple of minutes.  Walking, however, meant a six mile hike, because the River Dyssyni is in the way.  It forms a large open lagoon and the roads pass round the edge.  The railway, on the other hand, passes over the narrow neck of the river, cutting all that out.

I made a decision: I was going to walk across that bridge.

I'd only trespassed on a railway line once before, in Spain.  The BF and I misunderstood the instructions on how to reach Sitges' primary gay beach, and ended up walking a mile along the main line to Barcelona with express trains bombing past every ten minutes.  It was an unnerving experience.  This bridge, on the other hand, only saw action twice every two hours - one train in one direction, one in the other - and I'd seen them both pass.  I had plenty of time.

I scrambled over the tiny wall, up the embankment, and onto the sturdy bridge.  Simple.

On the north bank, there had been a low, decrepit-looking fence, rusting gently in the sea air.  As I reached the south bank, I saw that things were radically different.  Here there were tall, eight foot high spikes, made out of strong aluminium and concreted in.  They were utterly impossible to get past.

I immediately panicked.  I had thought it would be ridiculously easy to get out, and now I was trapped next to the railway line.  The spikes extended off into the distance as far as I could see.  I made a half-hearted attempt to climb them, but I'm not physically gifted, and I just can't climb.  The spikes were too close for me to even get my foot it.  Plus, those sharp, three-pronged tops looked lethal.

I carried on, looking for some way out.  A patch of brambles might have provided a ladder, but it was too thick for me to get up to the fence.  I crunched over the stones by the side of the railway, praying I wouldn't have to walk all the way into Tywyn.  Here it was quiet and deserted enough that no-one could see me.  I didn't fancy standing on top of an embankment in the centre of town, parading my trespasses for everyone to see.

Nice view though.

Finally I came across a pile of concrete sleepers, stacked next to the fence.  Salvation!  I clambered up the pile and stood at the top.  All I had to do was take a leap and I'd be over the fence and safe.

Except... I couldn't do it.  It was a big drop.  There was a hard road on the other side, not soft, forgiving grass.  I had visions of taking the leap, snagging a testicle on the spikes, falling to the floor in agony and cracking my skull open on the ground.  I just couldn't do it.

Disappointed with my cowardice, I climbed back down to trackside.  I resigned myself to being stranded on the railway side forever.  I'd live a linear life, wandering up and down the nation's network, eating the plants that grew by the side and drinking the exhaust water from the diesel engines.  I'd become something for families to point at as their train went speeding by.

Then the fence altered, and I found hope again.  Instead of spikes, it changed to a mesh; ok, it was still incredibly tall, but it had a bit more give to it.  I quickened my pace, testing sections to see if they'd move enough to let me through, and then I found it: a low hollowed-out passage under the fence, no doubt formed by some over-ambitious animal who ended up squished under the wheels of the 18:50 to Pwllheli.  I pushed my rucksack under (hoping I'd be able to follow it, because if I couldn't fit, I'd be fucked) and then I slid after it.  The soil was soft and sandy, and my coat rode halfway up my back, exposing a good couple of inches of buttock on the way.  I flattened my head against the earth, ignored the pointy bits of metal centimetres from my easily-pierced eyeballs, and dragged myself through.  Freedom!

I shook myself down and tried to make myself look dignified again, then casually strolled away towards the town.  Out here everything was still countryside, but it looked like Tywyn was starting to reach out and colonise it.  Just beyond a small waterworks was a board advertising a coming residential development - Low cost homes for local people.  They started at £118,000, which wasn't my idea of a low cost home, particularly one downwind from a sewage farm.

The start of the town proper was marked by more abandoned ordnance; in this case, an RAF base now standing empty.  Low prefab sheds sat in rows, vacant and looking for some purpose.  An optimistic sign advertised "storage potential", but I bet if I come back in five years it will have all been knocked down and replaced by holiday homes and caravans.

Tywyn is a boring town.  It could have been anywhere in the United Kingdom, with red brick rows and corner shops.  A row of railway cottages had been attacked by PVC windows; there was white double glazing in every possible spot.  Every house had boxed in its entry with a plastic porch, a sort of charm removing room.  Only the occasional field of sheep and, off in the distance, the blue mountains under endless sky made you realise you were somewhere special.

I wanted a cup of coffee and a sit down.  I had a while before my train so I headed for the Talyllyn Railway.  It's within shunting distance of the mainline station, and as a major tourist attraction, I assumed it would have a decent tea shop.  I got a drink from a young lad in the cafe who quite clearly only worked there so he could be close to the trains and settled down.

There was a soft cough.  "I've never met a famous person before."

I looked up at a pair of startling blue eyes.  Phil introduced himself as both a reader of the blog and a volunteer at the railway.  In return, I babbled.  I was overwhelmed - hundreds of miles from Merseyrail, and I have a reader introducing himself.  I'm blushing just writing this.

Phil had actually sent me a message on Twitter that morning, which I hadn't got because of the patchy service, offering me a ride on the footplate of the train.  Obviously, under normal circumstances, I would have been all over that, but I had a schedule and my OCD wouldn't allow me to vary it.  We chatted for a bit, with me burbling absolute nonsense because I was still too embarrassed and shocked to be coherent, then he went back to his sandwich.

Once I'd finished my drink, I went into the small museum attached to the station.  It's an absolute gem of its type, and I can highly recommend it.  This kind of specialist museum can be alienating to people who don't have a deep interest in the subject, and I've been to transport exhibitions in the past that are aimed solely at people who hear the word "bogie" and don't giggle.  The Talyllyn museum gives you an overview of both the narrow gauge trains of Wales, and also the history of the line and its preservation, and it neither patronises or assumes you have a load of specialist knowledge.

The Talyllyn Railway was the first in the world to be preserved by volunteers when the line closed.  Opened as an attraction in 1951, the railway is the grand-daddy of all the other Little Railways that track across Wales.  There's something about the Talyllyn which makes it stand out though; it seems like a genuinely happy railway, well-run and pleasant, preserved through love and respect for the past.  Some heritage railways are run by people who just want to play at being the head of a franchise, and become soulless.  The Talyllyn still feels fun.

Who doesn't fancy a rough pup now and then?

It came as no surprise that the Reverend WV Audrey was a fan and a volunteer on the Talyllyn railway, and he incorporated a fictionalised version of it into the Thomas the Tank Engine books.  I doubt he would have been half as inspired if the railway wasn't so pretty.  The museum preserves his study, which had a three dimensional map of Sodor on the wall, but disappointingly few Ringo Starr albums.

Phil suddenly reappeared and pressed a copy of the official guide on me, which he'd wangled out of the marketing department.  I've said it before and I'll say it again: give me a freebie and I'm yours.

I watched a train pull in, emptying its cargo of pensioners looking for "something to do" onto the platform, then sadly left for Tywyn station.  After the prettily restored Wharf station, it could only disappoint me, but a bricked up station building seemed to be just there to annoy me.  There were some mosaics on the walls, representing the local area of natural beauty, but what really grabbed my attention was on the opposite platform: an ALF!

It's not perfect, but an excellent effort.  Well done Tywyn.  Good try.


Ian said...

Crikey, this is turning into the most action-packed quest so far. Although I do feel that walking along railway bridges as a means to cross rivers is something that really belongs only in films about the 1950s made in the 1980s.

Scott Willison said...

Don't worry, it all starts getting much more dull after this.

rincew1nd said...

They've built a footbridge across the river now, perhaps they should ask you to do the opening ceremony!

Scott Willison said...

One down, five hundred to go.

I'm tempted to go back.

David said...

I walked that bridge back in , it must have been, 1981-ish and don't recall the fences then. happy days. Mind you, Towyn was staffed then - I recall the booking clerk laboriously selling me a paper single ticket to Whitehaven with a Student Railcard. That was a journey! - Change at Machynellth, Shrewsbury, Crewe, Preston and Barrow. 6 hours!

Looking at Trainline, I see that the recommended routing now is via Wolverhampton and Carlisle: 2 changes , 7 hours. Progress?