Tuesday 30 April 2013

Day Four: Welcome To My Nuclear Family

The more I travelled up the Cumbrian coast, the more it became clear that this was England's dumping ground.  It was where we hid all the unpleasant stuff we didn't really want to deal with.  Barrow was there, building nuclear submarines we like to pretend we haven't really got.  I boarded the train and went past fenced off industrial complexes, sewage farms, outfall pipes.  Oh yes, look to your right as you travel north and you've got those fine Lake District vistas.  From down here on the railway line, though, those fells became the barrier dividing "us" from "them".  It was as though you could do anything you like so long as you stayed on the far side of the national park.

Take Drigg as a case in point.  It's got a pretty unattractive name, I admit, but beyond that, it's just another small farming village.  So you'd think.

During the war, Drigg's position in, to use a technical phrase, "the arse-end of nowhere", meant it was perfect for an ordnance factory.  Then, when that was decommissioned, it was replaced by a "low level waste repository" - or, as it's more commonly known, a nuclear dump.

Yes, just beyond that charming pub is a vast acreage that's been filled with vats of radioactive waste for the last sixty years.  It doesn't matter, though, because it's out here, on the edge of nowhere.  I fled as quickly as possible, before my genitals fell off.

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed a slight change in the weather since the previous day.  A storm had swept in from the Atlantic, drowning the north west and battering the coast.  Heavy rain pounded off the hood of my coat, a relentless percussive beat that was really quite annoying.

I pushed on, hardy soul that I am.  Bedraggled livestock stared at me as I passed, clearly resentful of my waterproofs.  I had to keep speeding up and slowing down so that I could get past large puddles before some oaf in a Lexus splashed me.  It was miserable and grey everywhere I looked.

Then the sci-fi turrets of Sellafield emerged from behind a hill.

It's a disconcerting feeling, watching a nuclear power plant grow larger as you approach.  I felt guilty for just looking at it, as though a bunch of MI5 agents were going to swoop in and interrogate me for carrying a camera within five miles of the reactor.

What a disappointing sign.  I was hoping for "Welcome to Seascale: England's first glow in the dark village" or "Welcome to Seascale: home of the three headed labradoodle".  Instead it just pretended to be a normal community, instead of the horrific radiation scarred nightmare I was convinced it would be.

As I advanced, it disappointed even further.  There were no mutants roaming the streets, no shelters, no sirens mounted in high up places.  There was a deserted children's playground, the swings moving of their own accord in the wind for that lazy post-apocalyptic symbolism, but I think that was more to do with the weather than parental terror over radiation burns.

It was all very ordinary.  Not even ordinary: drab.  The houses were cheap pebble dashed structures with double glazing and tarmac driveways.  It was just another boring corner of the country.  There was a minor point of interest: a flag flying at half mast.

It was the morning of Margaret Thatcher's funeral, and clearly one of the residents was paying his own tribute.  I imagined a gruff Colonel Blimp type, sobbing over his Pye television in his front room; he'd retired to Seascale deliberately, as two fingers to all those nancy boy "scientists" who claimed that radiation was bad for you.

In some places, it was almost pretty - the desolate sands, the flowering dunes.  Then I'd notice the long outflow pipes stretching to the water's edge and give up any notion of a quick paddle.

I'd reached the throbbing heart of the village - a little square with a row of houses on one side.  Some of the houses had shops in their front - a butcher's, a coffee shop, a beauty salon.  It never fails to surprise me that tanning salons appear in even the smallest, poorest communities.  I have never had a tan that didn't come from the sun; I can't see the appeal in strapping myself into a dayglow coffin for five minutes so I can turn the colour of burnished teak.  I certainly wouldn't pay for the privilege.

There was also a little playground, with a "fort" for the kids to clamber over.  It featured the most inappropriate memorial I've seen in a good while.  Remember a couple of years ago, when a taxi driver ran amok with a shotgun, killing indiscriminately?  A tragedy that deserved to be memorialised, certainly.  I'm just not sure that a plaque underneath a cannon is the best place to pay tribute to people who have been shot.

Moving on from this amazing display of insensitivity, I made my way up to the railway station on top of the viaduct.  There wasn't a proper station sign that I could see; I only spotted it in the distance when I was about to board the train.  So you'll have to make do with a platform sign.

It was very dark that day.

I boarded the train across from a couple of nice ladies chatting over the aisle.  One had a security pass on a lanyard round her neck and was complaining about her morning off.  "I just used up some time off, but you can't really do anything in a morning.  You're just counting time until you head into work."

"Work" was, of course, Sellafield: the dirtiest of all the secrets along the coast.  At first everything was normal, but slowly I began to notice the changes in the landscape.  The fences became taller, harsher; they acquired a second run a metre behind the first.  They rose up on artificial embankments, like the bailey of an ancient castle.  Its purpose was much the same, to protect the valuables within from attack, but instead of jewels, it was shielding uranium cores.

I have a complex relationship with nuclear power.  On the one hand, I am anxious about anything that can obliterate thousands of people within moments, and then scar the landscape for decades afterwards: I was nine at the time of Chernobyl, after all.  It would be a lot nicer for all of us if we could get our power from solar panels, or wind turbines, or magic buttons.

However, we do need all that power, and we need more of it every day.  In the absence of dilitihium crystals, nuclear power seems the cleanest, easiest way to generate a hell of a lot of power with as little pollution as possible.  Yes, we're going to have to shove all those old plutonium rods somewhere, but that's what Drigg is for.  Besides, I don't have any kids - stuff the future generations.  (This is the point where I dearly hope there's no such thing as reincarnation).  They're all going to burn up thanks to global warming anyway so we may as well let them charge their iPods while they wait.

Also, and I realise this is appalling, but fifty years of Bond films have made me regard nuclear power as a little bit sexy and glamorous.  Thunderball wouldn't be half as interesting if Largo had stolen a boring old regular missile, and the climax of The World is Not Enough would probably have been quite dull if 007 and Renard were battling over a wind turbine instead of inside the reactor room of a Russian submarine.  Never forget: if it wasn't for nuclear power, we wouldn't have had Denise Richards as Dr Christmas Jones, saying "up here we've got hydrogen bombs your lab built leaking tritium" as though she knew what she was talking about.  I couldn't live in a world without Christmas.

In short: I am wobbly on the subject, in a very English, very woolly liberal way.  I'd really rather someone else made the decision about it frankly.

I could tell Sellafield station was getting close from the sidings - row after row of tracks with empty wagons marked BNFL.  Sellafield's presence kept this line going; the tracks were needed to ship nuclear materials back and forth, while the plant's workers commuted here from homes further along the coast.  So I guess it's sort of a good thing?

Oh I don't know.  Here's a picture of the station.

I waited for the click of a rifle, the approach of heavy footsteps, my camera snatched from my hand.  I had genuinely worried about what I would say to the nuclear police if they objected to me taking photos of the station.  I prayed they wouldn't take my memory card off me, rendering the whole trip a waste of time; equally, if they made me just delete any pics of Sellafield, I'd have a hole in the project I could never fill.

Nothing happened.  No police, no security, not even the gentle whirr of a CCTV camera turning to eyeball me.  I just left the uninspiring station behind and walked outside.

That police notice is a bit sinister though.

The plan now was a walk across country to the distant town of St Bees, a walk of several miles that would take me about three hours.  I didn't do this.  Instead, I got a lift.

The night before, the BF had unexpectedly turned up at the hotel with a bottle of wine.  Being unable to resist alcohol, I let him in, and decided to take advantage of his good nature.  The walk from Sellafield to St Bees was a long, tortuous one, and I had a real deadline.  I absolutely, positively, had to be at St Bees station by midday.  That was the only southbound train that stopped at Braystones.  I calculated it, and it looked like it was just about feasible, but after the day before's troubles, I was anxious.  If I'd miscalculated again, I didn't have another chance to collect Braystones and its neighbour, Nethertown.  Their service was so irregular that I wouldn't be able to revisit them any other way.

The BF, and his Prius, was the solution.  He waited for me in the station car park and whisked me to St Bees in ten minutes.

You might think this is cheating.  I don't.  This is taking advantage of the resources available to me.  If I'd taken a bus, you wouldn't be complaining, would you?  Since I used the railway to arrive or depart from all the stations on the line, it all counts, and one little car journey doesn't invalidate anything as far as I'm concerned.

It meant that I missed out on the delights of St Bees, but from what I saw, that wasn't much of a loss.  The town looked grim faced under the wintry skies, huddled away from the sea and guarded.  A large public school sat up on the hill, the windows lit up against the storm even though it was theoretically mid-April.  I nipped to a public toilet on the front for a pee, and found a group of hikers hovering in the porch: "We're just trying to decide how mad we really are."  St Bees is the start of Wainwright's coast to coast walk, and their packs and thick socks indicated they were going to have a stab; their cowardice at a bit of rain made me think they probably wouldn't get all the way to Robin Hood's Bay.

The rain was getting worse.  I was only going to get wetter and colder.  There was a part of me that secretly hoped the BF would say "never mind all this.  Come back to Birkenhead with me and we'll have beer and pizza for dinner in our nice warm flat."

He drove away without even looking back.  Bastard.

Day Three: The Good Old Days


Fifty percent of my readers are now saying "that's a pretty name."  The other fifty percent are aroused.  I am neither.  I hear 'Ravenglass' and think "that'd make a good name for a Bond film".  ("Good evening Mr Bond.  My name is Henrik Ravenglass.  Welcome to my moonbase.")

For Northern Rail, Ravenglass is just another station on the Cumbrian Coast Line.  It's not a request stop, admittedly, but apart from that it could be anywhere.  Couple of platforms, no booking office, little shelter to hide you from the wind on the bay.

The platforms are staggered, rather than opposite one another, but apart from that, same old same old.

Cheap-ass sign, though.

Ravenglass's true fame is as the terminus for the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway.  This is a preserved narrow-gauge line which has become internationally famous, and a massive tourist attraction in the region.  It's so popular, in fact, that they ran out of historic engines and had to build brand new ones.  I'd missed the last train out of there (besides, if I'd got it, I'd have just been dumped in the hills with no way back) so there was little point in looking.  I did see one of the tiny engines cross over the bridge above me, like Thomas making his escape.

Instead, I headed down to the port.  Ravenglass is built at the estuary of three rivers, the Esk, the Mite and the Irk, and in the evening light it was astonishingly pretty.

There's been a harbour here since Roman times, with antiquities all around the bay.  It's a sheltered spot - there was barely any wind coming across the water, even on a fairly gusty April evening.  It lapped against the low beach, a repetitive trickle of calm.

A calm that could have been interrupted at any time by gunfire and explosions.

"Ooh, mummy look at this funny pebble!"


At that moment in time it was difficult to imagine any kind of violent incursion into the idyll.

I went into what's technically the Main Street, but which is in reality a small lane.  It was all very French Lieutenant's Woman; Meryl Streep could have popped up in a Scottish Widows frock and I wouldn't have batted an eyelid.  There were a couple of bread and breakfasts, a couple of places that probably served cream teas in high summer, a big car park.  I cast an eye over the community notice boards, often one of my favourite things about little villages: there were notices from the Environment Agency about flood warnings and where to get sand bags.  A notice of the County Council elections, an antiques fair in the parish hall, a book fair ("Literate dogs welcome").  Another St George's Day celebration with "traditional English food" and "Old Time Music Hall", which I bet is the woman who runs the Post Office dressed up like Marie Lloyd and telling blue jokes.

The village ran out and deposited me on the beach, Main Street turning directly into a slipway.  For a few moments I just stood and watched the sea, the little fishing boats, the birds.

I walked back along the beach, round the back of the houses.  For a moment I was envious of them and their view, and then I remembered that "what to do if there's a flood" poster and was glad I lived on a hill.

Having exhausted the village and its views, I headed for a drink.  The old railway building has been turned into a pub (but of course it has) so I wandered up and ordered a pint and had a bit of a think to myself.

As I sat down, the barmaid with the underbite began singing along to Waterloo on the radio.  Obviously: everyone sings along to Waterloo.  They were playing Chris Tarrant, which was odd to me, as I didn't realise he still did the radio; I thought he just slept all day on his mattress made out of fivers from his Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? money.  A bit more listening and I realised it was Radio Two: Tarrant was filling in for Chris Evans, who was ill.

Of course it was Radio Two: there would be no other radio station to play in here (maybe Radio Three at a push).  Radio Two is the home of the terminally nostalgic, as was Ravenglass.  I just don't buy into it.  I could enjoy the odd ride on a steam train, just about, and a nice station done up like it's 1948.  It's not real though, is it?  It's all a construct.

(Chris read out a dedication, starting with "dear Chris": I immediately thought of when Victoria Wood's Kitty filled in for the agony aunt - "Dear Kitty (it actually says Arabella)").

Real railways - ones that actually take you places - they're a proper thing.  They're a reality I can get behind. They're a bit grubby, they get late and cancelled and they're full of drunken teenagers playing dubstep on their iPhones, but they have a purpose.  These narrow gauge and preserved railways and steam trains - bless them for doing it, bless all those nice men with beards who spend their weekends squatting over a piston - but I just don't care.  (And it's absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I can never remember how to spell 'gauge').

It's all wrapped up in a nostalgia that I don't have.  Trains have always been electric for me; I grew up right next to the electrified BedPan line.  I'd go up to London on an electric train and then get on an electric Tube train.  Then I moved to Merseyside, where the electrics were underneath instead of on top, but they were still the same smooth, quiet, swift trains.  There were rubbish diesels going out of Lime Street, but I could see they were rubbish because they were noisy and dirty.

Steam trains are even noisier and even dirtier.  They're not as fast.  They use tonnes of coal and have to be filled with water after a while.  Being nostalgic for them is, to me, like being nostalgic for the good old days of outside toilets: yes, I'm sure you have many amusing stories about peeing in the dark on a cold night but we've moved on now.  You don't need to do it any more.

It's also a very specific brand of nostalgia, a nostalgia for a period roughly about 1953.  The Victorians were too remote and technologically unsophisticated; the Edwardians were the same, but with smaller hats.  The World Wars mean restrictions and blackout curtains and ugly troop carriers.  The 1930s have a certain appeal, because they had the big railway companies and rail travel was at its height, but it has to be carefully done - you don't want to end up with modernism or art deco or art nouveau slipped in there.  It's a domestic nostalgia, not the Poirot world of chrome and elegance; it's much more antimacassars and carpets and swirly wallpaper.

So the 1950s often gets the nod - those lozenge signs, the British Railways crest.  Adverts for familiar products done on tin.  This is where I start to get a bit uncomfortable, because often people who are nostalgic for the 1950s end up with a Daily Mail view of it.  Women knew their place and gay meant "happy" and there was still an Empire.  A slight prod and they'll talk about the evils of political correctness, which is often their way of saying "I'm not allowed to say coloureds any more".  That's not everyone, of course; there are plenty of lovely people who work on old railways and who aren't potential UKIP voters.  I'm generalising hopelessly, but it's just an undercurrent that I don't like about these old railways.

I should also point out that there's a difference between history and nostalgia.  History is educational and worthy; history is about preservation and maintenance.  The Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway made brand new engines, but built them to the old standards and made them steam engines.  In the 1970s and 1980s.  The Northern Rock made its railway debut in 1978, when punk was in the charts and kids were playing with Atari 2600s and Concorde was flying to New York in three hours.  That's the point where I say, "fellas, I think you're taking it a bit too far."  That's nostalgia.

As if on cue, Chris Tarrant starts talking to Jean Boht, who was doing a tour of nostalgic songs, with the life story of the Queen in the second half.  Funnily enough, the Ratty Arms featured a life-sized standee of Her Majesty in the bar - I have no idea why; I hope it's a leftover from the Jubilee celebrations, and not something they all salute at the end of the evening.  Jean Boht - the former Ma Boswell - said that Elizabeth and Margaret played together as children "like any working class family".  That's pushing it, I feel.  Larking around in the nursery of your Piccadilly townhouse with your nanny and servants was not the typical experience for a working class child growing up in the 1930s.  I could almost hear her touching her forelock as she spoke.

My scampi and chips arrived.  I'd felt a bit light headed from the pint of Bluebird and wanted to soak it up - I figured I'd get my tea here rather than back in Barrow.  The beer is CAMRA approved, because of course it is, but the food was disappointing.  Nine quid for a very standard pub meal, freshly defrosted.  I shovelled the deep fried fish in my mouth, washed the taste away with another pint, then headed back to the platform for the last train of the day.

Sunday 28 April 2013

Day Three: Happiness Is A Warm Teapot


It's a proper tea room too, not a "coffee shop" or a "breakfast bar" or a "lineside snack based experience centre".  It's got lozenge signs and a nice green fence.  It's basically perfect.

In fact, the only bad thing about the Trackside Tearooms was the fact that I didn't have time to visit it.  My dodgy planning that morning meant that my schedule was on a knife edge; I couldn't afford to loiter, no matter how tempting it was to nip in for a cup of PG.  

It's a shame because Millom Station is worth a visit.  Unlike most of the stops on the line, there's a ticket office; even more unlikely, the ticket office is there thanks to the work of the locals, rather than Northern Rail.  It's linked up to the local heritage centre, which also occupies the building.  Sorry, did I say heritage centre?  I mean the Millom Discovery Centre, which uses a very annoying logo that merges the "r" at the end of "discover" with the "m" of Millom.  It ends up looking like DiscoverNillom, or perhaps DiscoveMillom - you can see it here.  I think it's a museum, but it's hard to tell.  Presumably calling it a museum would send children fleeing in terror.

I immediately headed out of town, passing the boys playing rugby at the grammar school and down a side street.  The road narrowed to one lane, then a track, and then I was following the railway line back the way I came.  

If I'd known Millom was going to be so good, I'd have got off at Green Road and walked there, because it's easier to relax once you've arrived.  As it was I had a trudge in the hot sun ahead of me.  And it was a hot sun: if you look closely at the sign photos over the course of this day I gradually turn a lobster pink.  My excellent South African genes have since turned this rosy glow into a mellow tan (thanks Nana!).

The clear day and my remote location meant I got my first real look at the Lake District's peaks.  It's strange how little I've been here, considering it's only a couple of hours up the motorway from my house.  I still have that idea that it's really far north, inaccessible, when the M6 and the West Coast Main Line bomb right through the centre of it.  In fact the main negative of this whole trip was that I only skirted the edge of it and didn't have a chance to do a Julia Bradbury all over the Fells.  In fact I never will - not as part of this quest, anyway: the Northern Rail map has a big hole where the Lakes are, as Oxenholme and Kendal are not served by their trains.  If you follow their map the only way from Lancaster to Carlisle is round the edge of Cumbria.

Still, it was good to see the distant hills, a light froth of clouds still hanging over their tops, the ground already turning green in the spring.  It was postcards and paintings, a view it was impossible to dislike.

The road was called Aggie's Lonnin.  I have no idea who Aggie was, or what a Lonnin is for that matter, but I felt it was important to record this name for posterity.  It passed over the tracks, where there was a brief moment of excitement as I saw another human being: a man with a 4x4, pulling a dirt bike on a trailer.  Then there was a more heavily shaded, tree-lined walk to Green Road station.

It's a surprisingly urban station for such a rural spot.  It's a request stop, and there are only a few scattered houses around it, no villages, but the building wouldn't look out of place on a city commuter line.  Something about its 20th century lines, the red brick, the lack of ornamentation.  

It's definitely out in the countryside though.  You wouldn't get someone in the city attaching their bike to a flimsy fence like that and wandering off for five minutes, never mind boarding a train and disappearing for the day.

My next station was another request stop, but a bit closer to civilisation.  I had an hour to kill at Silecroft but I wasn't bothered, because it was bang in the centre of the village.  I was sure there would be something to distract me.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Yes, the station was at the heart of the village - it's just there wasn't much of a village to speak of.

A single road with stone houses arranged haphazardly either side.  I walked one way, past a red phone box with Coins not accepted here in the window (then what's the point?), to where the houses petered out.  Then I turned and walked back the other way.

Don't get me wrong - it was very pretty.  But there wasn't even a shop.  My fantasy of a rural cream tea while I waited - proper scones and sponge cake - was out the window.  I couldn't even get a Twix.  There was a pub, The Miner's Arms, but that was closed during the day (and quite possibly in the evening too; it looked like that kind of place).  Finally I went back to the station and sat on the platform.

Two men in Network Rail orange jackets had emerged from the signal box, and they were doing something to the track.  They hammered and kicked at the rails for a bit, then went back inside.  It seemed to be a very physical job, whatever it was.  I just baked slightly while Lego Lady took in the view.

It certainly wasn't filling me with confidence about my next station.  That had been even more isolated that Silecroft on the map.  On the plus side it was called Bootle.

Just imagine the hilarious shenanigans if you got on the wrong train.  You go looking for the New Strand shopping centre and end up in the middle of nowhere.  Or alternatively, you're hoping to end up in some pretty rural idyll and then you're clubbed about the head by a smackhead beneath the Triad.  Either way: LAFF RIOT.

Bootle station (this Bootle station) does have a lovely waiting area - this open barn arrangement, as though some cows regularly caught the 14:02.  It had some very nice tiles on the floor.

The village beyond was probably once a decent settlement.  There was an old post office building, and an old bank building, and an old pub.  The key word here being old.  They were all houses now, a residential enclave here, desirable homes snapped up by people who didn't really want to engage with the community.  People who drove in BMWs and Range Rovers, parked up outside on a Friday night and left on a Sunday.  Or they were here all week, but worked at the other end of the railway line, and bought their groceries in a Morrison's superstore.  This was less a village, more a dormitory.  As though to underline the fact, a FedEx van swept around the green at speed, no doubt bringing another Amazon delivery to the sticks.

I plonked myself down on the bench on the tiny village green, next to the bin for dog poo.  I had resigned myself to another hour sat here.  I wondered if the curtains would start twitching as people identified a random person in the village.  A stranger.

Across the way, the signalman clambered down out of his box and started dragging the gates across the road.  A train's coming, I thought.  Then it hit me: a train's coming.  I dashed back to the platform and got there in time to catch a southbound train.

Where was I heading?  Millom of course.

The Trackside Tearooms were exactly what I wanted them to be.  Cosy and welcoming.  A smiling proprietress, who told me to take a seat while she warmed my sausage roll (not a euphemism).  Pictures of steam trains on the wall.  Free wi-fi.  Red stone tiles on the floor, and a large fireplace, and a row of fairy lights behind the net curtains in the window...

In other words, I could have stayed there all day.  I only had twenty minutes until my next train, but I settled into the comfortable chair and allowed the stresses so far to slough away.  My eyes drifted over the community noticeboard, taking in the book group, and the slimming group, and the holiday cottages to let.  Ok, the St George's Day Celebration didn't sound too much fun ("Singing: encouraged.  Dancing: optional.  Flag waving: COMPULSORY") but beyond that, I was content.  A good cup of tea on a station platform - once again, it solved everything.