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.
Yeah, TAKE THAT, THE MAN.
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.
The funny thing about the Priory Centre gable is that it replaced a perfectly serviceable concrete supermarket that was perched on the corner. It's completely out of sync with the rest of the shopping arcade, with its massive glass roof towering over everything else ...
There used to be an M&S in the middle of Worksop, but it closed after the main street was pedestrianised and Meadowhell opened in Sheffield, so a Simply Food returning to the town was considered a good thing.
Oh, and BTW, it's "Worksopian", though that also refers to students of the local private school.
We may have fancy Capitalstars now in contrast to the Pacer, but don't forget the South East was one of the last bastions of the slamdoor commuter train!
Still, I can't imagine many people being upset when those awful Pacers finally do go.
If he told you that his real name was Nigel, as he usually does, then he was lying. Just sayin' ;)
Happy FOTCR™ to you.
I don't believe any of this stuff. Surely DG never travels without his extensive entourage of kittens.
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