Wednesday 30 January 2013

The White Stuff

Hammerton station was like Poppleton, only lesser in every way.  There were still level crossing gates, but instead of a cosy signal cabin, there was a dowdy office and a hut painted Northern Rail purple.  There was seating, but no glass enclosure to keep you warm. The station house had been allowed to fall into disrepair.

And the tiny station sign was non-existent, leaving me to squat in front of the platform boards like a nutcase.  More of a nutcase.

After a terrifying moment where a fellow passenger pushed her pram onto the level crossing just as the train started to move (there was a fevered honk on the train horn) things thinned out.  The gates were restored to let the traffic (/one Nissan) through, the signalman ducked back into his little office and closed the door, and the station fell silent.  I was walking in the opposite direction to everyone else, away from the much larger Green Hammerton.

It was a lot lonelier this way.  I had the Kinks playing in my ears (sadly not The Village Green Preservation Society, which would have been appropriate) but it still seemed like there was a deathly hush around me.  Ray Davies was singing his heart out by I felt deserted somehow.  While Poppleton had felt at peace in the snow, this village seemed to be abandoned.

I entered Kirk Hammerton at a fair speed (a line which wouldn't be out of place in the memoir of a 1970s gay porn star).  Getting to the next station, Cattal, in an hour, was a bit of a stretch without me breaking into a sweat.  I was already doing the full I'm a little teapot arms to try and stay balanced; the speed gave me a camp mince that even John Inman would have called "a bit much".

It was obvious that I'd moved up the social scale when I arrived in Kirk Hammerton.  The cars by the side of the road, thick under a coating of snow, were Audi TTs, BMWs, hefty 4x4s with mud splattered up the side.  This was the kind of Yorkshire Jeremy Clarkson came from, the Yorkshire of public schools and hunting and women with a scarf and a fleecy gilet and a steely determination that could sink the Ark Royal.  A different Yorkshire to the cities of Leeds and Sheffield, a place for pony clubs instead of working men's clubs.

I mean, it was all very pretty, but I just didn't feel comfortable there.  I'd much rather have been in the Lord Nelson in Nether Poppleton, drinking my pint of Thomas Taylor and entering the Sunday night raffle (1st prize: £20 credit behind the bar).  Kirk Hammerton didn't even have a pub.

I passed the Methodist church; there was a postbox on the front for you to post your prayer requests, which struck me as appallingly lazy.  Say your own damn prayers instead of getting someone else to do it for you.  Besides, if He truly is omnipotent, surely you can say the prayer anywhere, at any time?  You could be stuck at a traffic light or on the loo and slip out a quick wish list while you're waiting.

The cottages got smaller as I reached the end of the village; one had a flag pole higher than the roof flying the Union Jack, which made me wonder if it was occupied by the Navy Captain from Mary Poppins.  Then the pavement ran out, and I was left with a bench and a village sign and a lot of snowy embankments.

Nasty font.

Have you ever tried walking quickly in snow?  Your feet and legs are fighting to gain some kind of purchase on the ground.  Each step is a wrench, pulling at your muscles in a dozen different directions.  I felt my calves strain as I pushed on, hoping that the station was round each corner, and being disappointed every time it wasn't.  I tried walking in the road, but just as I got comfortable, a Beemer would swing round behind me and I'd have to leap onto the verge.  The slow thaw had filled the gutters with a thick slush; every time a car passed I muttered "please don't splash me, please don't splash me".

And yet, I looked at all that virgin, untouched snow in the fields alongside me, and I had a mad urge to run around violating it.  Stomp all over it, defile it, make it messy.  Strip naked and roll around in it.  Lie down in it and make snow angels.  I didn't of course, because I am at heart deeply repressed, but the idea bounced around in my head for most of the walk.

I passed under the railway line, then back on myself, nearly getting mown down by a cyclist on the way (my fault, not his).  Cattal station was a tiny industrial hub; the goods yard had been turned into a wrecking yard, and there was a garage and some agriculture.  There was also a pub, the Victoria.  This must be Yorkshire's version of Jamaica Inn, a den of thieves and malcontents, a front for all sorts of nefarious activity, because I can't possibly imagine it gets many drinkers out there.

Cattal's little station building housed a tiny waiting room, which was warm and dry, if a bit rough round the edges; the signs inside still had the logo for Regional Railways in the corner.  Northern Rail clearly weren't too bothered about making this part of their empire.

I wandered out onto the platform to wait for the train to arrive.  I couldn't imagine that this scene had changed much for fifty years.  The rusting gates, the semaphore signals, the cold little hut.  A few more electric cables dangling down, perhaps, but the rest could have been cowering under the Beeching cuts.

One thing was very definitely not 1960s.  The door to the cabin swung open and a blonde woman walked out to operate the level crossing.  I know it shouldn't have surprised me that there was a woman doing the job, but it did.  Trains are boy's toys; I'd seen it a couple of weeks earlier at the National Railway Museum, with enthusiastic men and less enthusiastic wives.  It still feels odd to see a woman doing a role on the tracks that isn't customer service related.  Sorry.

Abandoning my horribly sexist preconceptions, I got back on the train to York.  My legs were tired (they still hurt now), my feet were wet, I looked a complete mess.  But that was another three stations done.

Tuesday 29 January 2013

You've Got A Friend In Me

I'm a very good friend.  A wonderful, caring, lovely friend.  If you ask for my opinion, I'll gladly give it.  If you want someone to go to the pub with, I'm there.  If your boyfriend dumps you, I'll take your side and say all those rude things about him I'd kept quiet about.  And I'll never say nasty things to you, only ever behind your back, where you won't hear them.  I'm great.

This is my friend Jennie.  We've known each other for years, and she's now a lecturer, who occasionally has to travel all over the country to hold tutorials.  When she told me that she was dreading the long trip cross country to York for a session, I volunteered to accompany her.  This is because I'm basically a fantastic person.


After tea and toast in the lovely Me and Mrs Fisher cafe, where I derived great pleasure in listening to the ladies at the next table talk about internet dating ("He said he was in an open relationship, but I doubt he's told his wife.  It was only a fling anyway"), Jennie went off to the University and headed for a bus stop.  I was slightly hampered by York City Council's decision to not grit or clear the pavements; the trudging of Saturday afternoon shoppers had turned the snow into thick grey slush.  It was only a ten minute walk but when I reached the bus stand I had soaking ankles and damp socks inside my boots.  They wouldn't dry out all day.

I was headed for Poppleton, a village just outside the city which sounded like it had escaped from Winnie the Pooh.  I was able to watch the slow evolution of York as we drove away from the centre.  It's like a series of tree rings, each one marked by a particular era in its architecture and layout - the medieval core, surrounded by Georgian grandeur, followed by Victorian villas and 1930s suburbs.  Finally there were 21st century boxes, and we were crossing the ring road.

The bus dropped us in Nether Poppleton at 1:19, four minutes after my train had left.  It meant I had an hour to kill.  What to do?

It wasn't my fault.  The bus dropped us off right outside the Lord Nelson; it would have been rude not to.  I had a quick pint in the silent atmosphere of the village local.  There was no music, no tv blaring, just a couple of pensioners eating fish and chips in the "restaurant" part, not talking, just staring slightly past each other.  The only other patron was a young lad with blonde hair nursing a coke; he kept jumping up and peering through the window, nervously waiting for someone.  The air was thick with the fug of a deep fat fryer.  The dart board had a hand-written sign saying that flights were available for 40p at the bar; I could see them in a biscuit tin marked FLIGHTS in permanent marker.  It was a snug little place, a bit threadbare, not at all glamorous, but pleasant and warm.

After a quick pee in the tiny toilet I ventured outside.  The paths here weren't even sludge, just trodden down snow, and I took care not to slip, while being aware that I had to get to the other end of the village for the train station.  Main Street curled round a corner, brushing up against the Ouse, a bench ready for summer.

I was following a family of three, towing a sledge.  Mum pushed on at the front, briskly calling back instructions over her shoulder - "watch the path here!  Don't run!".  Dad was pulling the sledge, a little skip in his step, and the kid was resolutely unamused.  He was a porky little fellow, and I guessed that this was his parents' idea, to get him away from his Nintendo XBoxStation.  Now he was making everyone regret it, moaning about the cold and the wet.  The pink sledge probably didn't help.

Poppleton was really quite lovely.  A delicate stream, almost frozen, ran between trees and past houses; soft white gardens lead up to well-maintained porches.  The snow absorbed the sound, so all I could hear was the trudge of my boots.  There was a library, and a community centre; a sports field and a surgery.

I was already having good thoughts about the village, and that was before I hit Upper Poppleton, the second half of the settlement.  Then it developed into full blown love.  A wide open village green was bisected by the main road, looked over by a war memorial and church.  A pub, a post office, a red telephone box, and in the centre of the green, an actual Maypole.  It's the first time I've ever seen one for real (the one put up in the school hall at Juniors' doesn't count) and I was surprised by how tall it was, a stripy rocket bursting into the grey skies.

I passed the kids leaving the general store with a twist of sweets clutched in their hand and pushed on out of the village.  I only slipped once, but managed to stop myself from doing a complete somersault.

Poppleton station was a wonderful surprise in many way.  The station building was no longer in railway use, but they'd done something clever with it: glassing over part of the platform so that it created a sort of conservatory waiting area.

I've never seen this done before.  It's a brilliant idea.  It provides a secure, architecturally pleasing space for waiting, as well as some cycle racks.  It means a station structure isn't left to rot.  It'd be better if there was a ticket office in there (or even a ticket machine) but still - well done Northern Rail.

As the sign above indicated, there's a level crossing at Poppleton.  It's not got flashing orange lights or a siren or even automatic barriers.  Here, they do it old school.

A signal cabin.  Gates that have to be wheeled across the track, gates that I've never seen for real in my life, only in my Hornby railway set when I was a child.  When the time came, the grey haired signal man pushed them into place by hand to block the road.  There was something so quietly civilised about it.

Before I got my train, however, I had time to take a look at Poppleton's other claim to fame.  There was a time when railway companies had plots of land devoted to horticulture - growing flowers for stations, plants to shore up embankments.  British Rail slowly reduced the reliance on these, and privatisation killed them off completely; it's easier and cheaper to simply buy flowers in bulk.

At Poppleton, they've reversed this trend.  The local community have reclaimed the abandoned railway gardens and are slowly resurrecting them.  Their excellent website shows how these neglected patches of land, the greenhouses and sheds are now being turned into facilities for the whole village.  The coal yard alongside the station even retains an old wagon.

It's a wonderful idea, well executed, and my only regret was that I was seeing it at the very worst time.  I imagine it's a joy to see in summer.  I left Poppleton full of optimism, a smile on my face, a strange feeling coming over me: happiness.

Sunday 27 January 2013

Stalking Norris Cole

When I'm not romping round the North collecting train stations, or lazing around in bed, I write for the Coronation Street Blog.  I'm not the most prolific of contributors - I'm not the most prolific contributor to my own blog - but now and then I'll write a sarcastic hatchet piece that cruelly mocks a character.  Fun stuff.

Our efforts caught the attention of ITV, and all the blog writers received an invitation to visit the cobbles for real.  A very rare, and tremendously exciting event; since they closed the Granada Studios Tour at the turn of the Millennium it's been closed off to the public.

In a unique two for one, I decided to combine my two blogs together, and include a Tart with the visit.  I was headed for Deansgate, Manchester's red-headed stepchild of a station.

Piccadilly's got the size and importance.  Oxford Road's got the cool wooden building and trendy clientele.  Victoria has the history and the architecture.  Deansgate's just... there.  It gets far fewer services, and is often quiet and empty.

It's not too attractive at platform level, either.  Too much red brick, too much modern "improvements" that have dated badly.  The metal struts holding up the canopies look tired, the shelters are windy.  Step away from the platform and you encounter the 1980s bridge across the road to the Metrolink station; a bridge that hasn't been maintained at all.  I bet there are all sorts of buck-passing behind the scenes, the tram people asking the train people to clean it, the train people saying it was the tram people's responsibility.  While they debate, the tube gets darker, and mouldier, until it looks like an underwater passageway.  You expect to encounter a barnacle or two.

As you head downstairs though, something strange happens.  Deasgate unfurls before you, spiraling open, the tendrils of history gradually rising up around you.  Dull modern steps take you down into a tiled brown ticket hall, lights bouncing off ceramic, shining out at you.

The station's layout's odd and disconcerting.  The ticket hall's at ground level, but at the same time, up some stairs; there's a subway underground which doesn't go anywhere except to the street.  Even here you can see how the station's forgotten about, with signs directing you to Manchester Central's old name, G-Mex.  Indeed, some of the train indicator boards still call it Deansgate G-Mex, pointing out how old-fashioned and abandoned it is.

It's romantic though.  It has a wonderful sense of history and Victorian might.  In that lower-level corridor, even the cones can't hide its atmosphere and bulk.  Those metal studded girders, the portcullis entrance gates, those tiles.  It was a delight.

The building's curved to fit the corner, a little feature I always love, and the Victorians once again humiliate the present day.  That tedious white Deansgate sign is nothing compared with the fancy scrollwork of the Knott Mill Station stonework above (Knott Mill was its original name).  Underneath are ironwork gates, which have been violated by Northern Rail purple, but which are still beautiful.

It could do with a bit of TLC, Deansgate.  A bit of a scrub up and a tidy.  So long as it retains that charming sense of nineteenth century style.  I'd hate for it to lose that.

Granada's just round the corner (yes, Granada; I hold no regard for this "ITV Manchester" nonsense).  Soon I found myself actually outside the Kabin, by the Rovers, stroking the astroturf in Sally Webster's front garden.  Sadly there was no sign of a tram - probably for the best - but I did loiter round the bus stop, looking for a Weatherfield Wayfarer.

 Much to my delight, the bus map has actually got Weatherfield on it.

It's a weird little place, the Coronation Street set.  Utterly familiar - you know every nook - but tiny and full of odd little details.  After all, who would even notice that on a map?  Who even cares?  We were allowed inside to the even tinier sets, where, yes, I stood behind the bar of the Rovers.  Because I had to.

It was a thrilling day, though, and for probably the first time, a railway station was overshadowed by the stuff afterwards.  Poor old Deansgate.

*cue mournful trumpet solo*

Monday 21 January 2013

Elegant Symmetry

Even though I count myself as a Tube aficionado, I've never really ventured beyond about Zone 3.  The problem is, once you head out to the extremities, the Underground station becomes the most interesting thing about it.  I'm sure there are some thoroughly charming little streets around, say, Wood Green, but for a visitor all you see is a load of semis and little shops.

It means that there are absolute gems of the Underground network that I've never seen.  Cockfosters is one of them.  More than just a slightly smutty punchline to cheap gags, Cockfosters is one of Charles Holden's supremely gorgeous designs for the Piccadilly Line.  I've written about Holden before, and his masterpiece at Arnos Grove.  Cockfosters is the terminus to the line, opened in 1933.

I took a bus from High Barnet tube station, at the top of the Northern Line - a disappointing little terminus, just a load of platforms with a tiny box of a building below street level.  I'd planned on walking but there was a bus waiting, so why not?  That's the genius of the Oyster card - it frees you up, makes you feel able to gamble.  The bus traveled through back streets of the district, squeezing between parked cars and making seemingly impossible 90 degree turns, filling me with admiration for the driver.

We pulled up in Cockfosters' specially constructed bus layby.  Right away you got a sign of Holden's clever forward planning; there was a subway straight from there, under the street, into the station.

The classic font.  The wide glass windows.  I was already excited.

The station building is surprisingly low.  Holden favoured tall, prominent stations, acting as beacons to attract passengers.  His planned towers were never built, so what we have instead is a long, symmetrical brick building.  The roundels on the end still call out to passers by.

It's actually just a supremely elegant access point to two staircases.  The terminus is below the road bridge, so this pretty building is just the trailer for the main feature.

It's just astonishingly beautiful.  A wide open ticket hall with plenty of natural light; cleverly lit alcoves; dark wooden doors and paneling.  It's a masterpiece of simple, understated, good design.  Plenty of room for passengers to flow in and out.  And it's concrete - such a derided, despised building material.  This shows how inspiring it can be if used right, and maintained well.

In the opposite direction is the train shed.

Again, that wonderful symmetry; platforms laid out clearly and simply, easy to negotiate, easy to get to.  All that light and openness.  Not perfect though - that clock isn't working, and neither is the old "next train" indicator.  I know there are modern LEDs further down the platform but... it's not the same.  The building's Grade II listed and I wish this was included in that listing.  A working station clock is an essential.

I boarded the Southbound train, ignoring the mad lady who walked into every train, talking to herself.  One day I'll visit all of the gems of the Underground.  One day.

PS: while I was riding up the Northern Line, this young man appeared on Grindr.  If you feel like getting in touch, sir, I'd be happy to explain my fondness for the Underground to you in person.

Thursday 17 January 2013

York Fruit

It was birthday last week and not one of you bastards bought me a present.  I mention it every year, in the hope that one of my readers will send me a gift in return for all the free entertainment I provide you with throughout the year.  I know you don't know where I live, but this is the 21st century; you can e-mail me a voucher for Harvey Nicks, or something.  Or alternatively use the internet to cyber stalk me, find out my address, then turn up on my doorstep with something wrapped in tinfoil (NOTE: please don't do that).

One person who has to buy me gifts is, of course, The BF, and I have him very well trained.  An Amazon wish list (not that we actually buy the stuff from Amazon - not until they pay proper amounts of tax) that has been carefully graded in order of preference.  He purchases the presents then lays them out in front of me, much as the Magi once did to Our Lord, seeking my approval.

This year I added a new twist to the Birthday Season - we would go away for the weekend.  The one good thing about being born in January is no-one else wants to go anywhere at this time of year, apart from the Seychelles, so it's quite easy to get a cheap hotel room in this country.  I chose York as our destination, because I'd never been there and I had heard it was a place of beauty and history and well worth a visit.

Which is of course, bollocks.  York is home to the National Railway Museum, and this was the first and last reason I wanted to go there.  The city was pretty enough, in a Chester-sort of way; there were lots of old buildings, some quite awful 20th century ones, a lot of Americans looking confused at boot scrapers.  We went to the Minster, but it was NINE QUID to go inside, so we just turned round and marched back out again, muttering about money lenders in the temple.  Similarly, there was a queue outside the Jorvik Centre, so we didn't bother with that; besides, as a child of the 80s, I felt I knew everything about the Jorvik Centre thanks to the fact that it was seemingly always on Blue Peter.  Mark Curry was permanently in a medieval shift getting pillaged.

This was all background noise to the main attraction.  We turned up at the NRM just as it opened, and were there for four hours.  The only reason we left was because it all became exhausting after a while.  It's like the British Museum, where there's just so much to see you end up becoming overwhelmed and a little bit light-headed.  However, while the British Museum has nice handy halls full of dull stuff like Medieval pottery or Sumatran coinage that you can skip through on the way to the Phonecians, everything at the NRM is interesting.  Everything.  Even the benches are beautifully designed historic relics.

We'd barely got inside and had time to coo over the enormous engines before the tannoy started plugging a talk on the Bullet Train, so we dashed over.  The Bullet Train is the only one outside Japan, a gift from that nation to ours, and an "Explainer" went through its features, history and innovations.  She was very good, despite the BF's misogynistic mutterings ("What does a woman know about trains?  Is she just going to tell us about the seat cushions?").

Key facts I took away from the talk:

  • Japan built an entire High Speed network, from scratch, in 1964, while we in the UK are wondering whether it might possibly be a good idea to get round to it sometime.
  • Each carriage has a member of staff dedicated solely to the happiness and comfort of the passengers.
  • If a train is more than a minute late the driver has to go to his bosses and personally account for his tardiness.  If he does it three times, he's sacked.
  • If you climb on the tracks and are killed by a Bullet Train, your family are fined.
  • Japan is a fantastic, weird country.  I must visit some time.

We'd barely finished with Explainer-san when there was a demonstration of the turntable at the centre of the Great Hall.  Two men rotated a mighty steam engine while we watched; it was like the world's heaviest merry go round.

After that we were free to wander around, trying to take it all in.  There was a history of British Rail, which strayed from being unbiased into a full-on obituary; the concluding panels, where everything was broken up and flogged off, were utterly depressing.  Also depressing was a bit of Stalin-esque revisioning when it came to thanking the contributors to the display:

"We've covered up Jimmy Savile's name!  NOW OUR CHILDREN ARE SAFE!"

Regular readers will know that I find steam trains a bit dull.  Noisy, old-fashioned, dirty; I'd much rather spend my days on a sleek electric train than a chugging Thomas the Tank Engine.  The exhibits at the NRM are more interesting, because they have a significance behind them - they're not just preserved for the sake of preservation, but instead have a story behind them.

While I was taking that photo, I overheard a woman nearby talking to her friend on her mobile.  "We'll be a bit late, love," she was saying.  "Nick's on the Mallard at the moment."

Nick, it turned out, was a middle-aged man.  He was typical of the museum-goers.  There were lots of kids, yes, but they were more usually accompanied by a Dad rather than a Mum, and there were plenty of men on their own just wandering around.  Occasionally stroking a boiler, which is frankly disturbing.  I wasn't even tempted to do that with the green Southern Railway train, and that was beautiful.  The accompanying information piece on electrification made no mention of Merseyrail when it talked about third-rail systems, though, and so I shall be writing a sternly worded letter immediately after I finish this blog.

There was even a hint of the future, in the form of a railway manufacturer's mock up of new interiors for the East Coast mainline trains.  Have you ever wanted to have glowing purple cup holders?  You're in luck!

The Warehouse was where they stored the museum's collection, and you were allowed to wander around.  Station signs, maps, models, badges, even railway company toilets, everywhere you looked; frankly the only thing that stopped me from moving in was the lack of a telly.

An architect's model of Euston Station's rebuild smelt of naive hope; badges of long gone railway companies were glistening with corporate pride.  There were uniforms, badges, hats, even crockery.  

I could have stayed there forever, but I doubt I'd have been able to last very long without sticking something in my pocket, and an arrest for theft is not a good way to finish a day trip.

We paused for lunch in the cafe, where a couple of bored five year olds kicked the back of my chair while their Dad tried to sell them on the museum's virtues.  Then it was back under the road to the other hall, filled with Royal trains.

They were very pretty, but Royal trains don't have the same social significance and interest for me that the regular trains do; it's like trying to learn about how people used to live by studying Buckingham Palace.  I was intrigued by the fact that George V had a telephone on board.  I had visions of him bellowing "I'M ON THE TRAIN" to Queen Mary somewhere around Leicester.

We were tired out by this point so we departed for the gift shop.  It was just as overwhelming; I wanted everything from the entrance onwards, including the Hornby railway and the guard's hats.  In the end I settled  for a fake platform ticket and one of those clicky hand devices inspectors use to count the passengers, much to the BF's horror.  "That's just another device to fuel your OCD," he warned.  "If you start using it to count the number of bites you take out of a sandwich I'll throw it out the window."

So: the National Railway Museum.  It's bloody marvellous.  You can put that on the poster, if you like.