Saturday 29 September 2012


Everywhere I looked there was tarmac.  Acre after acre of open, naked surface.

I get it.  I get that retail parks are incredibly convenient.  I was at one just last week getting a new iron.  I looked in Comet, I looked in Currys, I looked in Tesco Homeplus.  The parking was free, it was close to the store, and there was plenty of choice.

Stood in the centre of the Junction 32 Shopping Park, without any reason to be there, all I felt was emptiness.  I looked all around me at vast, ugly sheds, prettied up at the front with a bit of branding, but basically just four tin walls and a roof.  It was utterly devoid of soul and inspiration.  This wasn't a place to enjoy shopping.  It wasn't like Liverpool 1, where you can promenade, stop for a coffee, have a meal.  Meet your friends.  This was a naked, soulless money extraction system.

The Mount Doom of this particular Mordor is Xscape, a purple and grey affront to the English language.  It's a cinema, an indoor ski slope (sorry - a Sno!Zone), a bowling alley.  It's got a Lloyds No 1 and a Subway and a Nando's.  If I was 14 I'd have loved it.

At 35 though, all I could do was recoil at its lack of imagination.  I hated its boxiness.  I hated its lack of architectural ambition.  I resented it.

On the plus side, it's easy to get away from.  Glasshoughton station was built in 2005 and is connected by bridges to Xscape's car park (though if you're a station user you have to park on the other side of the tracks).  It looks pretty impressive from the street because of the massive stone walls.  Next to the plasticky leisure centre over the road it looks like something built by Sir Christopher Wren.

If I look a little disconcerted there, it's because a man got off a bus right behind me, walked past, and full on stared at my photo taking.

The reason for the high walls is because the station was done on the cheap.  Again, there's no station building, no station staff, and no lifts.  A bit of a problem given that it was built in 2005, a time when people are generally aware that there are some who find stairs difficult.  The result is a pair of massive ramps on either side, longer than the ones at Pontefract Tanshelf, which rise ever so slowly to the overbridge, then drop down again even slower on the other side.

If you were at the bottom of the ramp when your train came in on the opposite platform you'd have no chance.  You'd just have to wait for the next one.

Castleford, my next stop, is a dead end.  For passengers, anyway.  All the passenger services call in at a single platform, then turn and go back the way they came.

I hate that.  I hate the idea of being on the exact same train I just came in on.  I decided that I would head into town and kill time until a train out again.

I was back on the platform within ten minutes.

I try not to be too judgemental about new places.  I'll remind you I'm from Luton.  But by Christ, Castleford was a miserable, sad town.  I passed through a dark arcade onto a drab high street, where nasty blank buildings shared space with empty shells.  Kebab shops and chippies seemed to be the main retailers.  I carried on into town, where a Poundstretcher sat next to a Wilkinsons (still with the old orange logo), opposite a Cash Converter.

As I reached the pedestrianised part of town, two drunks fell out of a pub to my left.  They lurched into the street, grappling with one another, then pulled up sharply: there was a policeman across the way, talking to two old ladies.  They passed me, stinking of lager and ciggies, affecting sobriety.

Ahead of me, the shopping street seemed to be nothing but banks, charity shops and "to let" signs.  I didn't want to go down there.  I didn't want to be in Castleford any more.  I walked back through the arcade - where a homeless man was rubbing his feet - and back towards the station.  A girl in tight denim shorts walked past me; her iPod headphones stopped her from hearing three leering lads across the road demanding a blow job before they went down a side alley, laughing, rollicking.

After all this, it would be nice to say something positive about Castleford station.  It does have a building, of sorts, even if the green and red colour scheme makes it look like a Chinese restaurant.  There aren't any staff but this large shelter does have a ticket machine and plenty of places to sit under cover, which is an improvement on many of the other stations I'd seen.

I passed the two old ladies chugging Rothmans furiously on the platform (seriously, does everyone in Yorkshire smoke?) and wandered down the end.  There's still a footbridge over the tracks.  Even though Castleford's a dead end for pedestrians, it's a through route for freight traffic, giving the Council hope that they might one day be able to provide more services here.  The second platform is therefore kept in a sort of fit state, on the off chance.

I heard a train coming and got ready to depart, glad to be leaving.  It actually turned out to be one of those freight trains, a pleasing little moment, so I raised my camera and took a pic of it.

It transpired I wasn't the only person snapping a photo that day.  I became aware of a man close by, writing in a small notebook.  Yes, it was a proper trainspotter, a real one, who knew numbers and train types and all that sort of thing.  One whose knowledge completely overawed my own.  I was basically just waiting for him to find me out.  He sidled up to me.

"Do you have the twenties?"

"Erm... no."  I said.  I have no idea what twenties are.  "I just take photos."

"There's a couple of twenties going through at seven minutes to."

"Oh.  I have to get the next train.  Sorry."

He shrugged, a sort of "your loss", as the Northern Rail train came in.  The driver greeted him with a friendly wave, and they had a brief little chat as he changed train ends; the man was obviously a fixture at Castleford. The female guard, meanwhile, ignored him; I like to imagine this is because women have more important things on their mind than railway trivia.

Normanton used to be a big station, with main line trains as well as local stoppers.  Beeching put paid to a lot of that, and what's left is a weird mish-mash of a station.  The island platform is ridiculously wide, and the train-facing parts are at odds with one another.  The spaces either side hint that there was once a lot more here than we now have.

It feels a bit like a remnant of a station.  The remains of something once great.

I headed into Normanton hoping that my last town would be an improvement on the last.  I was in luck.  It was a good little town, nicely kept.  The railway's importance was underlined by the two pubs at the central crossing, the Station Hotel and the Midland Hotel, and a pedestrianised shopping street rose up the hill.

Ok, the Jubilee's finished, the Olympics have finished, the Paralympics are done.  Perhaps it's time to take the bunting down?

Still, it was a pretty little street, with plenty of variety in its shops - Hofmann's butchers (est 1896), hairdressers, a frozen food store.  The Black Widow Taekwondo Academy (no town should be without one).  I was particularly taken by the green tiled Womack Central Fisheries, the kind of chippy that steams up the windows on a cold evening while a chubby man ladles potatoes into a sizzling fryer.

The schools had just kicked out, leaving spindly children loitering round the war memorial and the clock tower.  I decided to go somewhere they couldn't go - the pub.  I picked the Midland Hotel, becoming only the second customer inside.  As I sipped my pint, a man with thick black sideburns came in for a beer; his hair was so completely at odds with the rest of him, I decided he must be an Elvis impersonator, perhaps with the same agent as the Tragical Mystery Tour Beatles-tribute act on a poster in the window.

I liked Normanton.  It was a clean, pretty little town, still alive.  It didn't have the desperate feral nature of Castleford, or the empty drifting feeling of the retail park.  It was what life should be about.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

A Day at the Races

I am trying, with every inch of my being, to remember that this station is called Streethouse.  Streethouse.  Streethouse.

The reason it's a struggle is because before, during, and after my visit, it became corrupted in my mind to Shitehouse.  This is no reflection on what is a perfectly ordinary station.  Two platforms, two shelters, a little car park and some bike racks.  A Metro sign in that vaguely sinister font (it's a little bit too East European dystopia for me).  There's a level crossing, too.  All perfectly fine and normal.  It's just that my head heard Shitehouse instead of Streethouse, and I couldn't think anything different.  This is probably more of a reflection on my filthy brain than the pros and cons of this Yorkshire village.

I passed over the crossing on my way to Featherstone.  It was a long, straight road, fairly busy.  I was the only pedestrian, though there were plenty of people waiting for buses.  I was a little tempted to jump on one, just out of laziness, but I persisted and I was soon at the edge of town.

They're very keen on their signs, are Wakefield Council; the city centre was festooned with banners and posters.  Which is unfortunate, given that they were finalists in b3ta's Phallic Logo Contest.  Once seen, never unseen.

It turns out that Featherstone is the HQ of Linpac Packaging, international leaders in brown paper and bubble wrap.  Their factory stretched for acre after acre along the road. each entrance giving way to a different zone and area.  It all seemed out of scale with the town next door.

Soon I was in Featherstone itself.  There was something charming about it, something pleasing.  It wasn't rich or prestigious or even very pretty, but it was honest and unassuming.  I'll take a town that knows its strengths and its limitations over one that has an inflated opinion of itself, Chester.

There was a little pedestrianised market square, with currently covered up stalls, some fancy paving, some street art.  The shops were busy and well patronised, with a nice mix of essentials and indulgences, plus some local colour ("Next to Nowt").  Hobby Homebrew had a sandwich board outside extolling the virtues of do it yourself booze: "30 bottles of wine in 5 days for less than £1 a bottle".  Of course, it would all taste like vinegar, but at least you'd be pissed.  A second hand store had two man-sized Oscars standing guard outside the front door.  It was eclectic, interesting, and not in a trendy handicrafts way; it was just a high street working well.

I ducked down a side street in search of Featherstone Rovers' stadium.  This wasn't because I was hoping to see a load of sweaty rugby players practising with their shirts off - well, not entirely - but because my Ordnance Survey map informed me that their home ground was the "Chris Moyles Stadium".  Despite being from Leeds, and a Leeds United supporter (and also, a twat), Featherstone Rovers had named their stadium after the oafish DJ.  I'm not sure why.

As it turned out, my map was out of date.  Thanks to sponsorship from a Pontefract nightclub, the rugby team now played in the "Big Fellas Stadium".  Which made me sad.

The station is tucked behind a level crossing.  I took a seat in the shelter and ate my sandwich, which tasted exactly the same as all shop-bought sandwiches do.  Too cold, a bit wet, messy.  It was edible, but I felt sorry for the chickens and pigs that died for such an unworthy cause.

The barriers came down, blocking the street, and then there was that uncomfortable period where the traffic is stopped but there's no train.  I was the only person on the platform and I felt embarrassed, as though I was holding all these people up.  There were two teenage lads waiting by the barriers, and I could see they were itching to run across.  I became more and more anxious, waiting for them to dash over, until finally with a toot of its horn the train came round the corner and I got on board.

There were a couple of traffic surveyors working for West Yorkshire Metro on board, and one looked at my Day Saver with undisguised annoyance.  It wasn't a nice simple journey for him to stick in his book - I could have been going anywhere.  He made a note on his pad then went over to his mate, where they complained about the long day and the different lines and the trains and basically the effort of actually having to do some work.

The next station was Pontefract Tanshelf, which easily wins the prize for Finest Station Name In The History Of Everything.  It's a combination of syllables that doesn't seem to make any sense whatever; it could be a missing wizard from Harry Potter.  It means absolutely nothing, and I was thrilled to be there.

Pontefract Tanshelf (I really can't say it enough) is next to the racecourse, and like its cousin at Aintree, the station's been built for crowds.  Long open ramps carry the passengers up to street level.  It was lunchtime, and there's a college nearby, so my train was full of excitable students ready for the afternoon lessons.  They barrelled up the ramp, treating it like a launching pad, while I sauntered up at the back to take photos.

I left Pontefract Tanshelf behind (last time, I promise) and headed for the racecourse.  There were stewards directing the cars around but they didn't pay much attention to me.

I was nervous that I would soon encounter a ticket gate, or a demand for ID.  While my map showed a route straight across the racecourse and its park to my next station, I hadn't counted on there being a race meet.  I was sure that my path would soon be blocked.

In fact, I wasn't stopped at all, and soon I was walking right over the racetrack itself to get to the centre space.  Though it's a working racecourse, the area within it is a public park, complete with a playground, football pitches and a stream.  I found myself in the odd position of being able to see just as much of the racecourse as the punters in the stand across the way, without paying a penny.

The race was still pending.  Tiny jockeys walked the track, focused on the springy grass underfoot.  The rain had an attempt at falling, just to stir things up a bit, but it could only manage a brief shower before it gave up.

I've never been to the races.  While I like horses generally, and I would have loved to have been able to ride as a child, watching them run very fast has never appealed to me.  Especially since you can only see a bit of the course at any one time; you'd be better off watching it on telly.  Still, from what I understand of the Chester Races, it's just an excuse to wear a hat and get drunk anyway.  The horses are irrelevant.

I'd somehow missed the crossing spot to get me out of the racetrack's centre.  It was fairly clear on the map, but there was no sign of it at the rail.  Instead I ducked underneath and ran across the turf, feeling a little thrill at my trespass, and then following a path down to the base of the motorway.  Juggernauts and power lines craned above my head before I entered a dark concrete tunnel under the carriageway.  It was a real contrast to the green grassed horsey world I'd just left.

There was a time when, needing a break after a long walk, I'd have dived into the nearest pub.  Clearly something's changed.  Because when I decided to take a rest on the other side of the motorway, I headed for McDonald's and had a milkshake.

I'm getting old.

Friday 21 September 2012

The Worst Railway Station in Britain

Most of the Northern Rail map is nice and simple.  Plenty of long, straight lines, crossing over one another cleanly, and occasionally ending up in a nice simple hub somewhere like Hull or Leeds.  It's perfect for my style of "one on, one off" railway station collecting.

And there's the bit of the map round Wakefield, where it all goes mad.

Suddenly we've got curves and links all over the place.  Glasshoughton on its own tiny little branch.  Normanton accessible from three different directions.  The dead end at Castleford.  It's a loop, but not a loop (you can't get a train direct from Featherstone to Normanton).  It's a knot, basically.

I decided the only way to free up this Gordian knot was to simply slice through it.  If I collected all these stations in one go, it would remove them all from the map and leave me with some easy, straight lines.

A morning train out of Lime Street, and soon I was at Leeds, waiting for my connection.  I love Leeds station.  It's an epic slice of railway goodness, massive, busy, and dazzling.  It looks even better since they refurbished it a couple of years ago (love the blue neon under the escalators).  I could have stood in front of the blinking Destination board all morning, watching the numbers change.  Like being at centre of a tornado and watching the cows and trailer homes swirl around you.

Instead I headed for platform 15c for my train to Wakefield Westgate.  My companion in the carriage was an old lady with a tight bun stretching her skin to paper thin levels.  She pulled out two fish paste sandwiches, making the inside of the train smell like the Little Mermaid's gusset, and wolfed them down.  I felt like telling her she'd miss those when lunchtime came.

Luckily there were only two stops to Wakefield, so I didn't have to put up with the smell for too long.  The station was the subject of regeneration back in the 1960s and now it looks a little bit tired.  Sadly British Rail  (and their successors) seemed to look at maintenance like a child looks at tidying its room; instead of keeping it in a reasonable state on a day to day basis, they just let it collapse into a mess, telling you that they just cleaned it when you object.

Yes, there are modern ticket machines and LED screens, but the rubber floor and strip lighting are straight out of the Wilson era.  Outside it's no better, with pollution-stained white tiles and ugly metal roofing.

It was a messy little forecourt too, seemingly designed for taxis and people arriving by car, and forcing pedestrians off to one side.  I had difficulty finding a spot on the tarmac to take a pic in front of the definitely-not-Rail-Alphabet station sign without being mown down:

There was a little map outside the station, as you'd expect, so I had a look to get my bearings.  There was a dotted line threading through the city centre, which I assumed was the route to Wakefield's other station at Kirkgate so you could change lines.  It wasn't.  Instead, it gave the route to The Hepworth, the city's brand new art gallery.

I didn't approve of that.  Maybe I'm overreacting, but that seemed to do the city a disservice.  The implication of that route was "you've just got off the train to visit our art gallery.  Here's how to get there quickly without seeing Wakefield."  I imagined London critics rushing through the streets, shielding their eyes in case they caught a glimpse of Greggs, their balloon pants thwacking against their shins as they rushed by.

Wakefield will never be confused with Florence or Paris.  The road leading away from the station is a strip of binge bars, covered with garish posters advertising their drinks offers ("Fishbowls for a fiver!").  They reeked of hedonism and abandon, and come Friday night this street would probably be awash with vomit and blood.  At eleven on a Thursday morning, they were just empty black spaces, with the occasional grim cleaner in a tabard pushing a hoover around inside.  It wasn't pretty.

Push on a little further and it became more scenic.  The area around the cathedral's well laid out, with plenty of trees and open space.  The cathedral itself is pretty and a real landmark from the surrounding streets.  

It was a good, second division city.  There seemed to be a few closed shops, but beside were local businesses, many of them squeezing "Yorkshire" into their name somewhere.  This is the first time I have ever heard of a "Yorkshire pillowcase" - is it made out of whippet?  

Towering over the city centre are the lemon and mandarin tower blocks.  Their colours should be cheery, but  combined with their ugly architecture and the dark clouds, they seem to be somehow laughing at their residents; they're a clown suit at a funeral.  The colours manage to rip any dignity away from them and leave them as piss-yellow stains in the sky.

I wasn't on the official, Council-sanctioned route across the city.  I was heading round the back, nipping down side streets - always the most interesting part of a strange town.  You get much more of a feel for the place.  I walked past a health centre with two nurses hiding in a nook, sneaking a cheeky fag, and past a terrace of old workman's cottages with a laughing woman chatting to her friend on the doorstep.  There was a drop in centre for Wakefield's youth in an old chapel, and then I was out on the ring road.

I was now within striking distance of the Hepworth, so I went down to have a look.  It's been built overlooking a weir, and it's a lovely spot.  It's not an especially lovely building though.

Art galleries are, by necessity, a series of boxes; the star is what's inside.  The Hepworth took this a bit too literally for me.  It was a series of concrete slabs that didn't fit in to its surroundings - in fact, it seemed to ignore them.  There weren't many windows to enable you to admire that view.

Its position annoyed me, too.  It was a prime spot, but it was already taken.  Off to one side is the Chantry Chapel, a Medieval bridge chapel and an attraction in its own right.  

There were plenty of other sites in Wakefield that could have benefited from a new tourist building.  But they picked this one, outside the city centre, away from everything, unburdened by all that real life.  And now it overshadowed a historic building that had been there for centuries (there was no recommended walking route to the Chantry Chapel).  The Hepworth felt like an "other", outside the city (the railway viaduct acts as an effective divider).  It could have been anywhere.

If I'd had more time, I'd have visited the chapel and not the gallery, just to show some loyalty.  Unfortunately,  I had a train to catch - from the Worst Railway Station in Britain.  That's not my view: that's the view of former Transport Secretary and current baldy, the disappointingly monikered Lord Adonis (talk about a name writing a cheque the face can't cash).

I didn't know Wakefield Kirkgate had a reputation until I met up with Robert the day before my trip.  When I told him where I was going he fired up his iPhone and read from its Wikipedia page.  "Kirkgate has been neglected and is in a poor state of repair".  "A rape, a serious assault and several robberies took place there".  "In the same week that Lord Adonis visited, a man was brutally attacked at the station with a baseball bat."  There were even reports of a ghost.

I walked up to it with some trepidation.  The bricked up pub outside didn't add to the ambience.  Neither did the minicab that swept up as I turned the corner, like something out of The Sweeney, chucking its passenger out and then getting the hell away again. 

And yet.. it's not that bad.  It's neglected.  It's abandoned.  That's still better than somewhere like Luton station, which has despair actually built into every brick.

Of course, part of that is down to managed expectations.  After that write up on Wikipedia, I was fully expecting druggies shooting up on the front step and rapists on the platform.  Instead it looked like what it was: a once grand station that had seen better days.

The sad thing is that Wakefield turned away from it.  The ring road defined a "city centre", for better or worse, and Kirkgate is on the wrong side of the line.  Worse, the area between the station and the dual carriageway had been infilled with 1960s council housing - flats and semis, all great for the residents, but not the kind of high-density community of businesses and commerce and people that a large railway station needs.  It's out on the edge, and if Network Rail could find a way to send the tracks into Westgate instead, you can bet they'd have done it a long time ago.

The other reason I couldn't condemn Wakefield Kirkgate was: there's hope.  Being damned by the Transport Secretary is quite embarrassing for a rail company and a PTE, so there's now a scheme to get it into a slightly better state.  Builders were on the platform constructing a canopy (there used to be an over-arching roof, but that was demolished in the seventies).

The workers have also constructed a new waiting area on the island platform (one of those prefab ones that are all over Merseyrail), and the subway looks clean and fresh, with CCTV cameras.  I wouldn't fancy being down there after dark, but you know, everything's relative.

The plans also include one thing that'll make a big difference: people.  At present, Kirkgate is completely unstaffed - the former ticket hall is blocked up.  The new Kirkgate will have the ability to talk to a person to buy a ticket, and that'll make a hell of a difference.  I've said it before but having even just one person on a station changes everything; it makes it friendlier, safer, a better place to be.

The scheme's only just started, so there's still loads of work to do - this wall on platforms 2 and 3, for example, where the former window spaces have been infilled with the cheapest corrugated plastic:

The point is though, something's happening.  Something's making this sad, neglected piece of Victoriana  worth seeing again.  I'm genuinely pleased, and I hope that next time I pass through Kirkgate I'll be happily surprised by the transformation.  The Worst Railway Station in Britain?  Not even close.