Monday 24 December 2012

International Man of Mystery

If you read this blog, odds are that you read diamond geezer's blog as well.  There's a lot of overlap.  We both write about railways, about cities, about curiosities; we both go on long pointless journeys that seem to have no purpose.  My blog is not as eclectic though, and has a lot more jokes about willies and a lot fewer readers, so we're not exactly equal.

The similarities weren't lost on either of us though, and so for the last few months we've been engaged in a lengthy e-mail correspondence.  One of those back and forth chats where each missive is just a couple of lines on the end of the last one.  We've talked about all sorts, and so, when DG revealed that he was off work, I suggested he join me for a jaunt round the East Midlands.  Surprisingly, he agreed.

I had an ulterior motive.  A very strange, very curious, very intriguing part of DG's appeal as a blogger and as a person was that I had absolutely no idea who he was.  Over the course of our months of correspondence he'd never revealed his name, his age, what he looked like, where he worked; these were held back, behind the curtain.  His blog gives no hint either.  The man is an enigma, and I hoped that by inviting him on a trip I'd finally get to see what had been so artfully concealed.

I stepped off the train at Sheffield, hopelessly late, and positioned myself on the platform.  He had me at an immediate disadvantage.  My face is plastered all over the internet.  You can find me all over.  I loitered, waiting for him to identify himself.

A man presented himself to me.  Yes, I can confirm that DG is, in fact, male.  "Made it at last."  We headed for our platform, with me burbling apologies for my lateness, and taking in my travel companion.  It was funny; I had never imagined him to be eight feet tall.  And the perm was a surprise as well.  It shows that you should never judge people based on what they write.

We were getting an outflung arm of the Northern Rail map.  Half the route from Sheffield to Lincoln is within South Yorkshire, but we were crossing the county line to collect the rest of it.  I'd picked these five stations because it's relatively easy to collect the ones within a city region - they have all sorts of ticket options, all kinds of rangers that help you out.  These stations would always be more difficult to get so I figured I'd get them out of the way early.

Our first stop was Shireoaks which, I informed DG, was stuck in my head as "Shiteoaks".  This is because I have a tawdry mind.

The station looked like it had nice Victorian buildings, somewhere we could have warmed our cold feet, but of course it was no longer in use for railway purposes.  A tiny dog strained at its lead as we took our photos, not in an attack manoeuvre  but out of fear; eventually its owner picked it up and carried it across the level crossing under his arm.  It's always nice for the ego to have animals cowering in fear as you approach.

It was time for the station sign photo.  It's always a bit difficult asking for my travel companions to take this - they're aware that this is a pic they can't muck up, and I'm a bit antsy about getting it right.  We didn't have much to work with, either.  Shireoaks has one of the most pathetic station signs I've ever seen.  It's like a piece of A4, barely big enough to hold the station name. the letters buffing up against the edges.

I had a vague idea about how to get to the next station, Worksop - follow the road round in a loop and we'd end up in town.  Sorted.  DG had an alternative suggestion.  He produced Ordnance Survey maps from his manbag, and pointed out that we could follow the towpath instead.  Despite what you have heard to the contrary, I am very easy going, so we tripped down the steps to the canalside.

I was immediately glad we hadn't taken my route.  There was a silence, a calm, to the towpath.  Nature had retreated and had left a still picture behind.  As we walked, DG told me about the local area, the marina that once served a closed colliery, the windmill, the history he'd thoroughly researched the night before.  It's a bit embarrassing when the guest is better informed than the host.  I told him my "Shiteoaks" joke again.

As you'd expect for a canal heading into the flats of Lincolnshire from the Pennines, there were a lot of locks.  I've been boating on the Norfolk Broads, but never on a canal - all the locks put me off.  It all seems like a bit of a faff, and far too much like hard work.  A boating holiday should be about serenely gliding along, probably with a beer, not wrestling with gates while doughy faced lock-keepers judge your technique.

We entered the village of Rhodesia, which sadly wasn't anything to do with the country currently known as Zimbabwe; it was named after an old colliery chairman.  I wondered if they'd considered renaming the village around the whole Ian Smith debacle.  I wouldn't particularly fancy living in such a contentiously titled place.  Though once you start pulling at that thread, you might be there all day; they could have renamed it to something that wasn't contentious in the Seventies, but is now, like Glitterburg or something.

Worksop reared its head in the form of a concrete bypass flying over our heads.  I liked this sudden intrusion of human ugliness; nature can get boring after a while.  Someone had decided to spray paint the supports with a sub-Banksy stencil.  I preferred the days when you just got the odd crudely drawn penis and some initials in a heart; maybe a Chad, if you was lucky.  Now it's all laboured satire from unimaginative art students.


Worksop seemed like a pretty place from our canalside route.  It has the misfortune to have a name that positively screams "grim faced miners wrestling with black lung", while the reality is a working town that's probably had better days, but is doing ok, thanks very much.

Having said that, there is no excuse for the unholy blight of the Priory Shopping Mall.  It may have given Worksopians (Worksopers?) a Costa Coffee and an M&S Simply Food, but it looked like a load of pipe cleaners held together with pieces of white bread.  It's bland, unimaginative, crap.  In thirty years time, this will be the stuff people are tearing down, the Arndales of the 21st Century.

We scrambled up to street level (DG's enormously muscular physique giving him an advantage as we clambered over a wall) and headed for the station.  I was taking in its charming Victorian building from a distance when the sirens for the level crossing blared; our train was arriving early!  I was so panicked, it was up to DG to remind me that I hadn't taken the sign picture.

It turned out our train was still a few minutes away; the level crossing had closed for a Sheffield-bound train. There had been no need for us to dash over the footbridge, past the episode of Casualty waiting to happen (man on a ladder at the top of steps, changing a light with a power tool).  We got to appreciate the station's pretty architecture from the platform side - its curved gable ends, the fine stepped chimneys.

It was, in short, exactly the opposite of the Priory Shopping Centre.

It was also pleasingly busy with activity.  The majority of the station was now redundant, with just a ticket office representing all the railway business, but the rest had been turned over to small businesses.  A busy cafe was on the Lincoln-bound platform, showing off its "Monster Breakfast" and its twitter handle.  Greasy spoons have evolved, it seems.

Retford is a station of two halves.  We got off the train onto a miserable concrete platform, tucked in a cutting.  An ugly block of a lift tower was the only landmark as we trudged up a lengthy path to the mainline.

Up top, East Coast passengers had an altogether more impressive station.  Fast InterCity trains whooshed past the yellow brick structure.  It had been nicely renovated, with warm waiting rooms and plenty of seating.

The whole station is oversized for what is, basically, just a little market town.  As we would discover, though, Retford had a habit of being unnecessarily lovely.

I tried to persuade DG that we should take my sign photo from across the street, away from the burly workman having a ciggie.  Unfortunately that would have meant the sign was the size of a postage stamp so I grinned and bore it in close up, while the workman watched us quizzically.  He was probably too intimidated by the spider tattoo on DG's face to say anything out loud.

We crossed a bridge over the canal and walked into town.  It was some distance from the station, so our visit would have to be fleeting; long enough to buy some lunch, then back.  We passed a new development of town houses, where some thought and consideration had been given to their surroundings - nice front doors, careful little gardens - the sort of extra features that can be value engineered out of existence but which just make the whole place much nicer.  Most of the houses we passed had signs with "Santa Stop Here!" in the window or the garden, which seemed a bit premature on December 19th.  Some of even had the children's name on them, which was positively rude.

A left at Thrumpton Fisheries (just closed, leaving us to just take in the smell of the chips wafting into the street without being able to partake), past the Masonic Hall, and we were in Retford town centre, looking for a sandwich.

Don't let that To Let sign put you off; the town seemed to be thriving, with loads of coffee shops trying to tempt us in, and shops filled with customers.  I'd not been hopeful about this stage of the journey, thinking our hour in the town would be a nightmare, but now I wish we had longer.  We called into Crawshaws, and bought enormous chicken and stuffing rolls for less than two quid.  Outside, a portly lad in butcher's apron called to passers by with their chicken offers.  He flirted with the women, and called to his mates as they passed.  "I'll come back tomorrow!  It's pay day, in't it!"

We sadly tore ourselves away and went back to the station, eating our sandwiches in the waiting room while an American lady chatted into her mobile.  It was gorgeous - moist and filling, the stuffing just tart enough beside the soft chicken.

Our train was late, of course.  Worse, my late train that morning meant there was no bus to take us from the next station into Lincoln; there was one at three, one at five, but nothing at four pm, for some reason.  We'd basically have to hang around in Saxilby to wait for the next train, just like we had done at Retford.  And that meant that our time in Lincoln would be non-existent.  Thanks very much, East Midlands Trains.

A little dejected, we got back on the Northern Rail pacer (DG was fascinated by them, seeing as he comes from That London where they have fancy Capitalstars with air conditioning and fitted carpets and on board masseuses) for one more stop.  I got a shock when I peered through the window of the old station building and someone stared back at me; it had been turned into an office building, and the boss had positioned his desk so that it looked straight out onto the platform.  Embarrassed, I made a hasty exit.

With the sun rapidly vanishing, we would have to dash for that station sign picture.  There was still time for me to entertain ("entertain") DG with my Willard Whyte impression though.  "Burt Saxilby?  Tell him he's fired!"


Still, there are worse places to have to wait than Saxilby.  There was a chippy, and a beauty salon, and the village hall took pride of place on the High Street.  We headed for the Anglers pub, a proper old-school boozer, with a tv showing the racing and pictures of snooker players on the wall.  I paid £6 for two pints, which I thought was outrageous for a pub in the countryside, but which DG thought was a positive bargain.  He'd paid £4.40 for a bottle of beer the night before.  We sat at a table in the corner, where I got a little over excited at a promotional standee for Heineken, featuring Skyfall's Berenice Marlohe.  Severine was one of my favourite parts of the film.

(You're probably wondering why I haven't included a picture of DG.  Fact is, I took loads; it was just when I got home that I discovered those photos had a strange, unnatural blur, rendering them unusable.  I'm not saying that he has the power to warp digital cameras through the power of his mind; it's just a hell of a coincidence.)

I had been looking forward to Lincoln.  I'd wanted to see its famous Cathedral, its historic streets.  I saw none of this.  I barely saw the station.  Our train got in only ten minutes before our trains home departed; all I could do was wander outside while DG took a photo of me in the darkness.

There is a station sign in there, honest.  Zoom in just above the back of the blue car.

We just had time to say goodbye on the platform.  It had been a fun day out with good company; DG is as interesting as his website would have you believe.  I realised, rather like Bond with Eve at the end of Skyfall, that we'd not been properly introduced.  He told me his real name, then said, "Goodbye Scott."

I shook his hand.  "Goodbye Lucy."

And then he was gone.

Friday 21 December 2012

Steel City Blues

My palms were itchy, anxious, moist.  I bunched and unbunched my toes in my boots.  Nervous.  Tense.

The train was late.  Very late.  I checked the National Rail app, and it said we might have made up the time by Sheffield, but it wasn't certain.  As the train inched out of Lime Street and into the tunnels, I thought about the ten minute connection at my destination, and the chap who was waiting to meet me there.  It was going to be very close.

I'd already been wound up on the platform by two German women.  They dumped enormous cases at their feet and broke out cigarettes.  They were incredibly pretty, confident in that way only the beautiful can be, knowing the world was theirs, and they took long drags on their ciggies.  Puffs of nicotine washed over me.

I felt my stomach wrap into a knot.  Should I tell them it was against the law?  Ok, Lime Street's a bit breezy, but there's a bloody great roof over the top.  It's very definitely indoors.  I was sure there were signs around, too, but I couldn't see any.  I'd be doing them a favour, after all.  A copper could turn up any time.

It went over and over and over in my head, back and forth, the debate between telling them for their own good and also letting them suffer.  Because a part of me suspected that they knew full well it was illegal, and just didn't care.  They had an arrogance about them, tossing their blonde hair back over their shoulders as they sucked on the fags.  Combined with the train's continued no-show, I was a bag of nerves before I even got on board.

At least there was plenty of room to sit down.  I spread out my notepad, my iPod (the soundtrack to The Man With The Golden Gun), my book (Goldfinger).  The train was pretty quiet, all told, so if I did decide to have a small nervous breakdown, not many people would notice.

The guard bustled through, snapping at my ticket, making sure that his body language didn't invite any questions.  Seventeen minutes late so far.  We crawled out of South Parkway, so slow that the Merseyrail train from Hunts Cross showed us up.  We've missed our slots now - we're going to have to try and slip between all the other trains on this madly packed line.  Through Widnes, still slow, still not at our full capability.

At Manchester they gave up the ghost and we stopped on a viaduct, not moving at all.  Below us was vacant land, a no-man's land of scrub and concrete.  The arches were piled with rubble and mud, empty of human presence.  We were in the centre of one of the country's major cities but this land is unused.  Surely it could be turned over to small businesses, art studios?  Something small and easy.  Water ran down the brickwork from perished drainpipes.  Then the diesel train cleared its throat and we continued to crawl towards Oxford Road.

I'd started Goldfinger, but I felt my eyes drooping; Bond hadn't even met "The Man With Agoraphobia" and I was nodding off.  I decided to order a coffee to perk me up, only to be horrified when it turned out to be Starbucks coffee.  I'd been boycotting the chain over their tax evasion - and if you knew of my devotion to gingerbread lattes, you'd know what a sacrifice that was - and now it was being served up to me without my knowledge.  It added to my resentment at using East Midlands Trains in the first place, the rail company owned by well known homophobe Brian Souter; I disliked putting my money into his Keep the Clause supporting pockets.

Trouble is, I didn't have much choice.  Surely the point of privatisation was to give us options?  Competition on routes so I got the best deal, or support one company over another?  I'd have had to change a couple of times to slow stopping services on Northern Rail to avoid East Midlands Trains, and then I'd probably have been even later.

The train filled up quickly at Oxford Road.  There'd been some shenanigans with a First TransPennine Express train across the platform, and the passengers who boarded were fractious and stressed.  A Scottish woman behind me complains about the service, about wanting to get to the airport, about it being six days before Christmas.  In the meantime the train waits, waits, waits on the platform, hoping for a gap to cross that tiny viaduct between Oxford Road and Piccadilly.  I lost myself in the fantasy of a good, efficient tunnel under Manchester, carrying cross-city trains quickly through the city centre and leaving slow stopping trains up top.  A real fantasy - no-one will ever spend that kind of money on transport again, just patches and stopgaps.

A change of passengers at Piccadilly, one load flowing out, a new load flooding in.  A gang of posh boys take up the table seat and immediately start planning their drinking for the rest of the day - it's not yet eleven.  As we pull out of the station, past the trainspotters with their enormous camera equipment at the end of the platform, the guard comes over the tannoy; he starts with "we apologise" but his tone of voice doesn't sound it.

The "on board retail staff" trolley came round again, dishing out drinks and snacks.  A jolly woman at the back of the carriage pays £5.40 for two coffees and a packet of Quavers - "Keep the change.  It's Christmas!".  The seat behind me seemed to have been occupied by a giraffe.  My chair is jolted forward as knees clatter into its back, then I feel a thud on my heels as the occupier stretches out to full length.  I assumed they would immediately withdraw, aware they had intruded on my space, but instead they push more insistently, and I have to move my feet forward to stop them being kicked.

At Stockport - half an hour late - there's a banner hanging over the waiting room from Virgin Trains:  Thanks for all your support!  I felt ridiculously irritated at the way Virgin had turned its attempt to keep a rail franchise into some kind of battle for the little guy, the little guy in this case being a multi-billion pound conglomerate.  Hanging signs up like you're a football team that's just won the FA Cup isn't endearing, it's patronising.

The giraffe answers his phone.  His lack of social graces is explained: he's French.  He babbles into his mobile, loudly, insistently, kissing his teeth between sentences, until we thankfully enter a tunnel under the Pennines and he loses his signal.  "Alloo?  Alloo?"

I sipped some water to try and overcome the tense cramps in my diaphragm.  I'd texted my travelling companion, and warned him I wasn't going to make it to Sheffield on time; he was fine, he was exploring the city, no problem.  I still felt stupidly guilty.  And this lateness threw out my schedule for the day - buses would be missed, exploration time would be cut into, extra stresses I didn't need.

Grey-green fields passed by, filtered through a brown lens.  It was fast approaching midday but the skies remained dark.  It wouldn't be bright the whole day, just a series of dark cloudy skies swirling  overhead.    Sheep trudge through muddy fields, picking at the grass, a splash of neon paint on their backs making them look like Vivienne Westwood livestock.

Then it was a city again, industry and shops and houses, terraces and villas, bricks and concrete; the countryside faded into Sheffield's outskirts.  Parkland is replaced by warehouses, and tall glass skyscrapers rose up above us.  I've never been to Sheffield, not properly, but I'm saving it; I have a strong suspicion that I'll like it.  I want to enjoy it properly.  As it is, I was just pleased to see it because it meant I'd arrived.  As I climb to my feet, the guard warns the train that they're no longer going to make it all the way to Norwich; Grantham is all they're getting.  Thank goodness I don't come this way too often.

Thursday 13 December 2012

A Festive Intervention

Inside Merseyrail HQ:

"It's Christmas!  Let's put some trees on the stations."

"What a lovely idea.  I'll get right on it."

The doors swing open, and the Colour Tsars burst in, wielding yellow spray guns.  "We've heard you want to put something into a Merseyrail station.  What colour will this tree be?" they demand.

"It's a tree, so it'll be green."

The Colour Tsars mull this over.  "I suppose we'll let that one past.  What about the decorations?"

"Bright colours of course!  Red, blue, silver, gold."

They shake their head.  "Sorry, we can't allow that.  Christmassy colours?  Are you mad?  This is Merseyrail.  We have standards to maintain.  Yellow and grey and black standards.  Nothing - not even celebrating the birth of Jesus - can interrupt this."

"That'll do."

Monday 10 December 2012


Here's the thing: I'm not going anywhere.

I shouldn't have given that impression at the end of the last post.  As regular readers (hello you!) will know, I am prone to bouts of depression and misery.  It's one of those things that makes me the special snowflake I am.

Sometimes it spills over into the blog, though I try to stop it from doing so.  The last post was one of those times.  I'd had a long stressful day.  Anytime I can't stick to my planned out itinerary I become anxious (the week before I had to skip out of a showing of Skyfall because we missed the time we'd planned; if I'm missing out on a Bond film, you know it's bad) and the whole East Coast fiasco was preying on my mind.  Sitting on that lonely station at Bishop Auckland I felt down and miserable, and writing it up a few days later, I felt down and miserable again.  I should have ended on an up note.  A knob gag or something.

Point is, I'm sorry if I got you all sympathetic, and lovely though your comments are, I'm thoroughly embarrassed.  Even the promise of a hug off a certain reader hasn't quashed the shame.  I promise it wasn't a begging post looking for ego-boosts, honestly.  If I was after that I'd have just posted a naked pic (HAHAHAHAHA).

Today I booked a trip for next week, just before Christmas, so I can collect half a dozen stations on the other side of the country.  So please check back to read the write up of that journey.  I'm not going anywhere.  Except Lincolnshire.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Another Fine Mess

The final part of the Bishop Auckland line.  Part one is here, part two is here and part three is here.

I get it Shildon: the railways are your claim to fame.  They're your moment in the sun.  But you can kind of over-egg the pudding, you know?

As I walked round the outskirts of the town, looking for a bus stop, I found repeated reminders of its heritage.  Some, like the "Railway Institute", were genuine relics of its past.  Others, like these gates, had been shipped in with the museum.

The nearby plaque explained that these were taken from the old Euston station, but were donated to the town.  A nice gesture, though all they lead to was a rather dull Brookside estate.

I finally reached railway overload at a roundabout, where a wagon and a signal were sited next to The Crossings pub.  Enough already! I thought as I took up position in the bus shelter.  It was overshadowing Shildon's other attributes - for example, I also passed Good Buddy's CB Radio & Communication Centre.  I was fascinated.  Was CB radio still a thing in this corner of County Durham?  Were people ignoring the delights of FaceTime and Skype in favour of hunching over a handset?  I imagined a scene like the one in The Brady Bunch Movie, where the radio bursts into life for the first time in twenty years.  It's sort of like ChatRoulette, but without the penises.

I was sad I didn't have more time to explore the town as I passed through on the bus.  It seemed like a pretty, busy little town centre, well laid out and thriving.  I was particularly taken with the Millennium Arches (sadly unrelated to Jimmy Corkhill's Millennium Arch), erected to show the entrance to the town centre in 2000, and a charming little artefact of the new century.

Our bus rolled up and down steep hillsides, and I was glad I'd not walked.  That had been the original plan, particularly since I'd spotted somewhere called Busty Terrace on the road to Bishop Auckland, but the sun was setting earlier than I thought it would.  I didn't fancy marching down the country lanes in the pitch black. Instead I paid a couple of quid to the friendly driver and let him do all the work.

I'm not sure if they're celebrating or complaining.

The bus exchange was behind the Newgate Shopping Centre, and I cut through to enjoy a welcome blast of heat.  On the other side I exited onto the central pedestrian way, lined with all the usual chain stores and banks.  It was ordinary, generic; not without charm, but nothing special.  Better than Newton Aycliffe, worse than Darlington.

The side streets were more pleasing, with Victorian railwayman cottages and plenty of trees.

I headed into Beales, attracted by the Lego American Footballer outside and the promise of a cup of tea in the cafe.  It was a classic provincial department store, made up of different buildings knocked together, full of nooks and odd little passageways.  I had a sniff at the Yankee Candle section; there was a gorgeous "Christmas Cupcake" scent, but I would have to be a lottery winner before I spend £20 on something I am literally going to set on fire.

After my cuppa I headed back into the street to search for the railway station.  There was an unexpected pleasure on a corner: a statue of Stan Laurel.  I hadn't realised that the great man was from the town; his parents ran the (now demolished) theatre.

It does look a bit like the artist only knew Stan from the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon, but it's nice enough.

I knew that the railway station would be behind the Morrison's supermarket.  Years of tracking round town centres looking for stations has taught me that giant 1980s retail developments are almost always constructed on top of old goods yards and railway facilities.  So it was at Bishop Auckland, with the little building an afterthought to all the free parking and trolley bays.

The good news is that the station is growing.  It was adopted by Bishop Trains, an enthusiastic band of locals, who have pumped a great deal of energy (and cash) into revitalising the station.  The new cafe and waiting area were sadly closed when I arrived, but they were good to see.  Even better is the news that Bishop Trains will be reintroducing a staffed ticket office to the station, its first since 1969.  This pioneer of the railways will very soon have a facility we've all taken for granted.

There's also a pleasing mural covering the wall of the station building.

Once there were onward services from here, down a number of branches, but they all closed decades ago.  Now it's the end of the line.

I took a seat on the cold metal bench to wait for my train.  Time to go home.  I had crossed off an entire branch of the Northern Rail map, my first - I should have felt jubilant.  Instead I felt deflated, a sense of "is that it?".  Perhaps the terminus had affected me, the feeling of history closing off.  I had travelled right across the country and collected just half-a-dozen stations.  I'd spend longer travelling to and from Darlington than I doing the actual day's jaunts.

I began to think, is it worth it?  Am I wasting my time?  I thought of the hundreds of stations I still had to get, and how long it would take me, and how much it would all cost.  I sank down in my seat.  I had to focus on that end point, the day when I cross off that last station, because right there on that platform I felt like I was wasting my life.  I couldn't justify the effort for so little result.

I'm sure I'll go a few days and I'll be itching to get out there again.  At the moment, it all feels a bit... pointless.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Too Much Of A Good Thing

Part three of the Bishop Auckland branch: part one is here and part two is here.

Shildon is where it all started; Shildon is responsible for everything.  The very first passenger train service in history was launched onto the Stockton and Darlington Railway on the 27th September 1825, and Shildon is where it hit the tracks running.

And on the surface, it looks like just another railway station.  Two platforms, two shelters, a couple of tracks.  Nothing out of the ordinary.

Then you spot the big glowing column behind the station and think "that's a bit different".

This is interactive art, people; none of that sit back and watch nonsense - take part!  Apparently if you text a name of one of the original engines to a number on the base the lights change.  I wasn't going to do that, because there was no info on how much it cost, and I'm cheap.  I like the idea that a device was invented here two hundred years ago, and is still being used today, and they're commemorating it with a technology that's already going out of style.  In another twenty years kids will be looking at this with far more befuddlement than the third class carriages in the museum.

Yes, there's a museum.  The National Railway Museum has an annexe here to properly acknowledge Shildon's place in history.  Called Locomotion because, again, "museum" is such an off-putting phrase, it threads itself along the railway track, taking in the old works and climaxing in a large new shed full of engines.

Inside, there was a reverential hush, as though I'd entered a cathedral or a mosque.  It was a temple of trains, a locomotive Lourdes, and talking too much would be deemed tasteless.  Even the staff in the gift shop were whispering.

The shed is laid out with rows of tracks, each stocked full of engines, carriages and other railway stock.  Working your way from one end to the next is exposing yourself to a mass of industrial history.  I picked one end at random and was soon grinning with pleasure at the sight of an InterCity carriage, wedged up against a green Southern railway carriage, behind a steam engine with a Christmas wreath hanging from the front.

This is the point where I lose half my readers.

After a while, a parade of trains just becomes... a parade of trains.  One steam engine looks much like the next.  It might be a bit taller or a bit wider but it's still a load of iron on top of some wheels.  I lost a bit of interest.

The delights for me were round the edge, the detritus and sweepings from closed stations.  I've long said I'm more interested in stations than trains and Locomotion just underlined this.  I was probably the first visitor to walk straight past an engine so I could coo at a platform ticket machine:

Platform tickets are such a romantic idea.  Paying a little bit of money so you can kiss your wife or husband goodbye.  I know theoretically you can still buy them, but I'd die of embarrassment just asking for one.  I have problems enough buying Day Ranger tickets from people with a computer in front of them, without trying to buy a ticket that's not valid on any train.  Also, of course, in these days of unstaffed stations, anyone can wander around trackside without paying a bean.

I was equally excited by a sign from the Tyne & Wear Metro:

One of the best aspects of this whole Northern Rail expedition is the fact that one day I'll be in Newcastle, and one day I'll be able to ride on the Metro.  That is stupidly exciting to me - in fact it's one of those parts that I'm putting off doing, because I don't want it to go by too fast.  Just look at that font!  Margaret Calvert, you are a genius.

OK, there were some exciting trains.  The APT-E, for example, a British Rail High-Speed prototype that was powered by gas turbines.  That square front, the buff colour scheme, the Buck Rogers-future styling; adorable.

More beautiful still was the Duchess of Hamilton, a throbbing powerhouse of a steam engine.  Built for the route between London and Glasgow, this muscular train called to me: a rare example of an old school coal train matching the elegance of an electric one.

Though I admit part of the appeal is that gorgeous colour scheme.

After a while I just felt overwhelmed.  There was so much, engine after engine, histories piling on top of one another, until I had to get an overpriced cup of tea and have a sit down.

It was all very good, and well-presented, if a little bit worthy in places (thanks, NRM, but I really didn't need an exhibition space devoted to your waste water harvesting and your wind turbines).  If you like locomotives you'll be orgasmic.  I was just mildly thrilled.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

A Bad Taste In The Mouth

Part two of the Bishop Auckland branch: part one is here.

New Towns seem like a very Southern England concept to me.  Growing up near Hertfordshire, with plenty of aunts and uncles in the county, places like Stevenage, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City were familiar destinations.  I was well aware of their colour coded streets, their fondness for avenues instead of roads, their innovative tourist attractions (dry ski slopes!  Multiplexes!).

Most familiar of all was Milton Keynes, just up the M1, whose shopping centre was spoken of in tones of reverence by my parents.  Compared with the dull Luton Arndale, with its pink flamingos and dark oppressive ceiling, Milton Keynes' mall (the Americanism imported unselfconsciously) seemed bright and airy.  Also, it had a Habitat and a John Lewis, hopelessly aspirational stores my mum and dad loved to wander round even if we couldn't afford anything.

There were northern New Towns as well, though.  Skelmersdale is probably the most familiar to Merseysiders, but Runcorn, Warrington and even Preston all benefited from the New Towns Act.  With Darlington behind me, I was now headed to one of the north-east's created communities, one whose name gave you a clue to its provenance: Newton Aycliffe.

Heighington station, on the southern tip of the town, predates the town by over a hundred years.  It was opened along with the initial stretch of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, and for many years served a munitions factory.  It was this factory that then formed the core of Newton Aycliffe - after the war the land was given over to factories.

The station building here has been turned into a pub, the Locomotive No. 1, but that's the only feature of interest.  I let the train pass then crossed over the tracks for a picture of the station sign.

Heighington today now mainly serves a colossal industrial estate, one of the largest I have ever seen.  The planners concentrated all of the town's businesses to the south of the centre, and the result is a dizzying wander through a bland landscape.  White box after white box , neatly set back behind a grass verge and some car parking, with large signs on the side declaring Countdown conundrum-named occupiers.  None of the factories seemed to be keen to tell you what they did; their contents remained a mystery, unless you could deduce what RTFD or SSUN stood for.  Trucks rolled by, broken up by the occasional empty bus, but there were no other pedestrians.

The roads were named in the most perfunctory way possible.  Heighington Lane - that's ok I suppose.  A bit on the nose.  The tedious Grindon Way was followed by the dully-predictable Millennium Way and then the nadir: Fujitsu Way.  A salutary lesson to planners everywhere, as Fujitsu promptly closed their factory and left it as an embarrassing fossil; the town extended Millennium Way on the maps but the road sign is still there.

I was trekking round the estate in search of a Big Giant Head.  Not William Shatner (though wouldn't that have been ace?), but instead a piece of art called In Our Image, by sculptor Joseph Hillier.  The piece was commissioned as a landmark for the entrance to the town, a symbol of its industrial might.  I'm not quite sure how that works - are people meant to come off the A1 and say "ooh, they've got a big metal person on a roundabout - let's relocate our assembly line here!".

It's actually a pretty interesting piece of work.  The smaller men crawling all over it are meant to imply that the head is still under construction, as a tribute to workers from the town.  I should imagine it's much more impressive in summer, when the trees hide the spindly support poles, but it's still gloriously incongruous; a bit of Iron Giant in the middle of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist.

I could have gone back through the business park, but it was frankly depressing, so instead I made a long loop round through Aycliffe village.  This was the original settlement that Newton Aycliffe has eclipsed, and it has a prickly relationship with the larger town.  They weren't even keen on it taking their village's name, and referred to them disparagingly as "them up the road".

The village is nice enough, I suppose; nothing special.  It didn't have that effortless beauty that the best English villages have - it was, after all, still a place whose residents were mainly munitions workers.  There was a pretty church, and a couple of pubs, but soon enough I was back on the main road to Newton Aycliffe.

It was an incredibly dull road, straight and empty.  I began to feel the tiredness hitting me - I'd been awake for nearly eight hours at this point, and I'd slept badly the night before.  Each step seemed to drag.  I felt like I'd wandered miles away from anything interesting.

There was a big junction, and I was back in Newton Aycliffe.

I like the full stop after "Sweden".  It implies a tidy mind.

Unfortunately, I was still in industrial estate-land.  These were much older factories though, from the forties and fifties, and they housed less glamorous looking businesses.  In the distance, chimneys churned out black smoke from an old-school plant.  I followed the curve as it slowly gave way to more human sized businesses - garages and tyre sellers, a funeral home with We proudly support our troops overseas on a board outside, which seemed a bit tasteless, as though they were canvassing for business from the grieving families of soldiers.

The "blue bridge" is a local landmark, and marks the point where the factories give way to the residential districts.  There used to be a railway here, linking up the two Darlington lines that pass either side of the town, but now it's just a foot and cycle path.  Beneath the bridge, proud stone buttresses commemorate the unveiling of the bridge and the town's position in the Durham diocese.

Beyond, gently arcing roads thread between solid red brick houses and blocks of flats.  There were huge quantities of trees, cycle lanes, crossing spaces - everything you'd want from a decent, civilised town.

Soon I reached the town centre itself.  I crossed by the parish church and the war memorial, and entered the Thames Shopping Centre.  I was immediately disappointed.  The tiny mall was lined with horribly down at heel retailers - charity shops, pound stores, a pub that was built purely for people to get drunk in.  There were stalls in the middle of the aisle, making it feel messy and disorganised.

I passed through hurriedly, and into the precinct.  I'm using that term deliberately; you couldn't get more "shopping precinct" if you tried.  A concrete square surrounded by half-filled shops, with a second, mostly empty row above.  It was a tired, grey place.  No-one particularly wanted to be there.  It felt like a one-two punch of a down hearted populace and the recession had knocked any enthusiasm or cheer from the precinct.

I later found out that there was a Tesco Extra a couple of streets away, which explains a lot.  No wonder the Woolworths sign is still there, nearly four years after the shop was closed.

I headed up the ramp to the second floor, lured in by a sign promising me The Finest Coffee In The World, Probably!  It was lunch time and I was still craving that cup of tea, so I went inside.

In retrospect, all the signs were there.  The cakes in the chiller were luridly coloured and reeked of e-numbers; the sandwiches looked oily and unpleasant.  I was too embarrassed to turn around and go out again so I stood politely at the empty counter and waited for service.

A huge woman came out of the back with a plate in each hand.  She was solid, rather than fat, like an ogress made of solid granite, and she fixed me with a stare before bellowing "THIRTY!".  The customers waiting for their order, two pensioners, raised their hand, and she deposited their plates of brown on their table before returning to the back.  There was another pause then, where I stood smiling hopefully, as though being polite to the till would get it to take my order, before she reappeared.

I ordered a tea and a cheeseburger, on the basis that it was the simplest meal on the menu and the least likely to get wrong, and she stared at me again.  "LIZ!" she yelled, and a tiny grey haired woman came out and asked me what I wanted.  I ordered it again, and paid (only a couple of quid, to be fair), while the ogress poured hot water into a stainless steel teapot.  She dropped it on the counter in front of me.  It took me a while to realise that I had to collect my own mug and milk from the pile off to one side, and then I sat down as she prepared my order.

My heart sank as I heard a "ping" from behind the drinks cabinet.  My cheeseburger was being microwaved.  She brought it over and dropped it on the table in front of me.  My stomach flipped inside me.

It smelt.  It stank of rancid, dead souls, of dirty clothes, of unscrubbed changing rooms.  It smelt of agony and misery.  It smelt of cheapness and age.  I nudged it, almost as if I expected it to spring to life, and the thin film of cheese slid sideways towards the plate.

I didn't want to eat it.  I didn't even want to look at it.  But I was hungry, and I didn't know when I'd next get a chance to eat.  Plus I'd paid for it, and I resented throwing my money away.

It tasted so bad.  The floury bap crumbled in my mouth on the first bite, collapsing into a frothy mess of gluten that churned in my mouth.  I tasted limp onions, the sharp twist of processed Cheddar, and then my teeth hit the stodgy flesh of the burger.  It was like chewing on a washing up sponge.  A slab of gristle and filler, nothing like meat, nothing like food, swilling around my mouth in lumps.  Blobs of greasy pink ketchup, oily from the microwaved cheese, dripped onto the plate.

I felt sick.  I gulped at the tea - at least you can't get tea wrong - letting it ferment in my mouth, swilling it round behind my teeth to wash out all the aftertaste.  I ate the burger in three huge bites, trying to minimise the amount of time I'd have to keep it on my tongue, wiping the disgust off my fingers.  They would smell of onions and red sauce for the rest of the day, no matter how many times I scrubbed them.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Coffee Pronto probably isn't home to the finest coffee in the world.  It all came out of a machine, for a start; there was no barista-ing on display.  I looked around at my fellow customers, all pushing their way through heaps of food with sad faces.  The food was awful, but there were large portions.  That's what you want when you're a pensioner, or you're unemployed, or you're a harrassed young mother with a hyperactive toddler.  Just food, and as much of it as you can get.

I left quickly, trying to get back out in the open air fast to try and calm my rebellious guts.  I needed to get out of this town.

The station's out on the edge of the residential district, giving me more time to walk along manicured avenues and neat verges.  I wondered why New Towns had this feel of deadness to them.  Why do they often look like the leftover homes in a post-apocalyptic drama?  Part of it is because this is a place where people lived on their own.  There weren't families and connections in the town, just individuals with no loyalty or pride.  People just live in New Towns.  They moved there because it was clean and better than what they had, but their hearts weren't there.  Over fifty years later these places are still without souls.  We're into the third generation of residents now, but people don't love Newton Aycliffe; the population never reached its projected figures, and businesses have struggled.  It's become a place of despair and deprivation.

There's something in the British character that likes a bit of chaos, and I think the New Towns are too regimented and thought out for us.  Those long clean avenues are a bit too formal and plain, not like the messy, unplanned streets of our favourite cities.  London is a hopeless mess, but we love it; Milton Keynes is built with its residents right at the top of its priorities, and it's a national joke.  The game between MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon last weekend personified this - the New Town that simply bought a football team, shipped it in wholesale, gave it a brand new modern stadium and claimed it as its own, versus the one that was loved and cherished by its supporters and its community.  AFC Wimbledon were scrappy and operated out of a dinky ground and everyone liked that.  Did anyone actually want the MK Dons to win?  No.  We wanted them to be obliterated.  We wanted their cold, tedious, franchised legs broken, to teach them a lesson about true spirit.  New Towns have everything you could want except that spark of passion.

It's very badly signposted, Newton Aycliffe station.  I mean, it's fine if you're on the road, but they've built the pathways a fair way away from the tarmac.  It suffers from that compulsion town planners occasionally get to make pedestrians go out of their way.  "We'll give the people with a combustion engine the quickest possible route," they think, "but the pensioners, young mums and people with heavy shopping would love to stroll all around the place rather than head straight home."  My path went up a slope, then down into a dip beside a flooded underpass, in what I can only assume was a twisted architect's secret plan to make the absolute best place for a rapist to lie in wait.

Newton Aycliffe station, at least, is half-decent.  It was only opened in 1978, and has two platforms, though someone skimped along the line and built them out of wood.  False economy, I think.  Still, there's a footbridge and a shelter, which is better than anything else I'd encountered on the line so far.

A man settled into the shelter opposite with a pack of chips, which he began to devour eagerly.  I eyed it jealously.  And wished I had a breath mint to get rid of the nasty taste in my mouth.