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.