Grange-over-Sands was made by the railways. Until the 19th century it was just another fishing village on the Irish Sea. The Furness Railway brought its wide open sea views and soft beaches within the grasp of thousands of tourists; coupled with its proximity to the suddenly fashionable Lake District, the town was soon straining with visitors.
It's appropriate that the railway station is suitably grand to reflect its importance. A pretty, stone building with ornate roofs and chimneys.
The platforms are covered by clear glass canopies, and there's plenty of seating. In short, it's close to being the perfect seaside station.
Close, but not quite. It fails on two very important counts. Firstly, there's a right jobsworth working there who's very keen that you don't use the toilets. I was by this point dying for a pee but there were A4 printed signs all over the place: "Toilets are for rail passengers ONLY." "These are not public toilets." "A key can be requested from the ticket office."
I have a hard and fast rule, and that is that I will not go up to a ticket window and say, "Please sir, can I go and excrete some urine?". I won't do it on Merseyrail stations either. "Ask the staff at the barriers" - no chance. I'd rather do it in a side alley and widdle all over my boots.
The other complaint I have is there wasn't a station tea room. Grange-over-Sands had been so successful at convincing me that I had travelled back in time that what I wanted to find was a wood panelled tea room inside the booking hall. There, a buxom middle-aged lady would make indiscreet sexual innuendo while she served me a hot cup of char in crisp white china.
I got excited when I saw a sign advertising "hot drinks", but was incredibly disappointed. Inside was a standard station newsagents (sweets, fags, newspapers) with a coffee machine plonked on the end. Not. The. Same.
I had plenty of time before my train (I'd assumed that the town would ensnare me with its astonishing beauty and grace - I was still waiting) so I headed for a nearby parade to top up my tea levels. I passed on a chocolate cafe. There seemed to be an awful lot of chocolate shops in Grange-over-Sands. I guess it's part of that whole "oh, we're on holiday, let's indulge ourselves!" ethos but it doesn't appeal to me. I don't have a sweet tooth at all. One Mars bar is more than enough for me, and I actually like to then brush my teeth or have a mint or something to get rid of the taste of the chocolate in my mouth. It makes me feel sick otherwise. I picked what I thought was called the S Cafe, but which I have now discovered is called Scafe, which sort of makes me wish I hadn't.
Yes, that is some Lego. For Christmas last year Robert bought me a Lego Moleskine notebook, thereby combining two of my loves in one handy form. It has a two by four piece inlaid in the cover - the perfect place to put a Lego minifig. Long-time readers (hello you!) will remember Lego Lady, my favourite minifig when I was a child who I took on a visit to Wrexham. I decided to bring her along with me on this trip, just to have someone to talk to (note: I did not talk to her) (not much).
One pot of tea and a safely discreet wee in the cafe's loo later, and I went back to the station for my train.
Ulverston station has a curious platform layout. Platforms 1 and 2 are either side of the same track.
The idea behind this was to make cross-platform interchange easier. The train would pull into the station and passengers could choose what side to exit on - if they were just leaving, they went to the left, or if they wanted a different train, they went to the right. The idea didn't catch on, and now that train doors are automated and out of the hands of the passengers, it's impractical (although the idea was resurrected for the Central Line platforms at Stratford, as a way of dispersing Olympic crowds).
The station's been nicely restored, the paintwork touched up, the glass roofs cleaned. The ticket hall's a bit bare if you ask me, but for that we should probably blame the Victorians.
Outside, there's a clock tower with - and I know this may come as a shock to you - a fully working clock. I know.
It was a pretty good start for Ulverston. And it got better.
The only thing I'd thought about Ulverston before I visited was "how do I get out of there?". It was a fair old distance from there to the next station, Dalton. I could've walked it, but it would have taken all afternoon; after a whole bunch of online research, I found a bus service, so that left me with twenty minutes or so to loiter in the town.
Not enough time, as it turned out.
Ulverston is lovely. Just wonderful. I immediately regretted spending all that time in dull old Grange-Over-Sands when I could have been here. It's a historic market town, and everything about it was charming. Softly coloured houses with sash windows, twisting narrow streets, cobbles. I loved it instantly.
The Coronation Hall is one of those Victorian buildings that was designed to do anything; delightfully, a poster advertising a forthcoming production referred to it as "the Coro". Outside were a couple of familiar faces.
Stan Laurel was born in Ulverston, and the town is home to the Laurel & Hardy museum. Which confused me, because last year I visited Bishop Auckland and found a statue of Stan there too. Two towns, literally on opposite sides of the country, laying claim to the same man. It seems Stan's parents got about a bit, running theatres across the country, and so Stan went with them. A bit cheeky of Bishop Auckland to try claiming him if you ask me, but looking at their Wikipedia page, the alternatives were Anthony "Suez Crisis" Eden and "one of Britain's most prolific serial killers, Mary Ann Cotton", so I can see why they went with Laurel.
Immediately after tweeting that photo I got a reply from Carrie: "ULVERSTON!". I know Carrie through Lowculture and then, Twitter; it's one of those 21st century friendships where you gab away to one another about Strictly without ever meeting. She's an expert on musical theatre and wrestling, not the most frequently put together combination of interests (though I have heard Julie Andrews does a mean roundhouse). Incidentally she's written a book about wrestling, which you can pre-order here (I'll take 10%, thanks).
Anyway, Carrie is frequently in this part of the world, and she peppered me with excited tweets about places to go. I didn't venture into her recommended pub in Barrow, the Duke of Edinburgh, because I was usually too exhausted to move when I got back to the town, but it was handy to have some local knowledge. She said that Ulverston held an excellent Dickens Festival every year; a bit of net research reveals that the town markets itself as a "Festival Town", with some kind of shenanigans always going on - Lantern festivals and Flag festivals and, slightly terrifyingly, a Breastfeeding Festival.
I pushed on into the pretty market square, past busy shops and smiling locals. The sunny weather made everything so much crisper and happier. It was just an immediately pleasing place.
I resisted the pull of a pub garden and a pint of frothy beer and headed out of town in search of my bus stop. I passed an old-fashioned cinema, the Roxy, its "coming attractions" displays filled with hand inked posters for the new releases rather than glossy posters; if they'd been advertising the imminent arrival of Eskimo Nell and Confessions of a Driving Instructor instead of The Croods I wouldn't have been surprised.
The bus exchange was just half a dozen stops with a little kiosk selling ice creams and cups of tea. I waited patiently by the totem, but an old lady, far more used to the vagaries of bus travel than me, plopped herself on a bench a few metres away to enjoy some sunshine. While I anxiously waited for the double decker, and waved frantically to attract the driver's attention, she just ambled over.
I did something I haven't done for years: I sat at the front on the top deck. I don't think I've done that since I was about 12. We used to always go on the top deck, coming back from town, because my mum wanted to have a cigarette; yes, children, you used to be able to smoke on the upstairs of buses*. As I got older, I still went upstairs sometimes, but I always felt that those front seats were for little kids to enjoy. The bus was empty, so I didn't feel like I was depriving anyone, plus - I was on holiday. I was disappointed to find that little view tube from the driver's cabin up to a mirror has been replaced by a CCTV camera. It was pleasing to get the high-level view as we tore through the countryside on our way to Dalton-in-Furness. Look how excited I was!
In Dalton I made the classic mistake of a tourist on a bus: I rang the bell too early. I could see the town square approaching and panicked that we'd drive straight past. Being English, I couldn't just explain my error to the driver; instead I got off, and then pretended this was the stop I wanted in case anyone on board watched me when the bus parked up fifty yards further on. This involved a strange little pantomime that made sense in my head.
After Ulverston, Dalton was going to be a disappointment. It was a perfectly ordinary town but compared with its neighbour it was distinctly second best. It didn't help that the town centre was lousy with schoolchildren on their lunch. They queued out of chip shops, bakeries and newsagents, clogged up the pavements by walking - very - slowly - indeed, and clustered round benches giggling behind their hands. They irritated me beyond all reason. Go somewhere else, I thought. Go back to school and stop getting in my way.
(Before you go saying, "that was you once!", no it wasn't. I used to spend my lunchtimes in the empty art room playing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. ROCK AND ROLL).
I headed out of the town centre while I still had my sanity, up to the top of the hill where Dalton Castle sits. It's not actually a castle; it's just a tower, and a small National Trust plaque said it was believed to be "the manorial courthouse for Furness Abbey". Also, it was shut.
I went back the way I came, past a house with a poster saying WE VOTE PRO-LIFE in the window. There were tiny courts behind the main street, little medieval cottages clustered around a shared space. I tried to find a cafe that wasn't full of hyperactive 13 year olds, but the only one they hadn't annexed had been thoroughly claimed by pensioners. I gave up on Dalton and wandered off towards the railway station.
I kind of doubt that Ben Drew has nothing better to do of a Saturday night than to trek up to the Lakes to perform in the back room of the White Horse.
The main station building was closed forever of course, but they'd had a bit of a go at making the place more of a landmark. There was a cast iron archway welcoming you in, which was nice enough:
On the platform the town's schoolchildren (them again!) had decorated the place with their interpretations of the paintings of George Romney. I'm afraid I'd never heard of him, but he was local, so Dalton was immensely proud of him. I passed the time trying to guess who the portraits were of - for example:
Siouxsie Sioux and Frank Bough.
Catherine Tate and Jason Orange having a romantic stroll, plus Janine from EastEnders.
Liz Taylor c. X, Y and Zee, and Graham Norton.
When even that started to get boring, I settled down on the bench to get some sun. Lego Lady decided to join me, and for a little while we baked, until I began to get concerned that she'd melt.
I'm sorry Dalton. It's not your fault you've got a far more attractive neighbour. Perhaps you could start your own festival programme? That might get me back. That and a curfew.
*My mum has been in touch to inform me that she NEVER smoked on the top deck of buses as it would set off my brother's travel sickness.
This is why I resisted getting her on the internet for so long.