Sunday, 5 May 2013
Day Five: Keeping The British End Up
In an ideal world, Aspatria would not have been my next station. Ideally I'd have been pulling a Sid James gurn under the station sign at its near neighbour: Cockermouth. My love for the filthiest, most puerile innuendo would have reached its apotheosis; it would have been my nirvana.
Unfortunately, Cockermouth doesn't have a railway station any more, and even when it did have one, it didn't link up to the Cumbrian Coast Line, so I had to settle for Aspatria. The only thing it could provide by way of smut was the headquarters of the Lake District Creamery overlooking the station, and that's just pretty half-hearted.
The station was lovely though. It had been well tended to, cleaned and scrubbed. We were back on two tracks here and the bridge didn't look like it would collapse from neglect. Of course, I'd turned inland now. This was the final stretch, so there were no more train rides above crashing surf, no more salt water rusting the ironwork.
I headed out the stone archway into the little station forecourt, and then up the hill to the village. The home ground of Aspatria RUFC appeared on my right, with a board advertising the next match and advising that the Gymnasium was open to the public. I briefly considered halting my trip to go on a running machine in amongst a mass of sweaty hairy rugby players - or at least hanging around the showers - but instead I pushed on into the village itself.
Despite its grandiose name implying some sort of long lost Roman outpost, Aspatria is just a small town. Or perhaps a large village. At what point do you become a town? Aspatria had a petrol station, a couple of pubs, some shops, but I could have comfortably walked from one end to the other in twenty minutes.
It seemed like a thriving little community, anyway, with busy shops and pavements filled with mothers with buggies and builders nipping out for a sandwich. I wondered what people did for entertainment in the evenings; the local newspaper gave the answer.
I bought a sandwich from the local Co-op (the monopolies board should get onto Co-op's dominance of the Cumbrian supermarket trade; the only Tesco, Morrisons or Asda I saw were in the big towns, and I didn't see a single Sainsbury's the whole time. They've got it all sewn up quite tightly) then I found a bench by the bus stop to eat it. A little old lady appeared close by, but she didn't seem to want to come anywhere near me and my chicken sarnie; even after I got up to offer her my seat she hid inside the shelter instead.
The 300 dropped me off in the centre of Wigton, a town that I suppose you could describe as having a vaguely comic name. It's a bit of a reach. It certainly wouldn't pass muster in a Talbot Rothwell script.
Wigton is a real old-fashioned market town; that elaborate water fountain in the Market Place tells you all you need to know about its wealth and where it came from. There was also a market hall, and a car park that hosted stalls on market day - in a way, it was still the 18th century here, but in a good way.
I wandered down the main street, past the Lazeez Indian Restaurant ("You'r welcome to bring in your own alcohol to dine in with..", it promised, in a way that was so grammatically offensive I almost got out a red marker pen) and the Youth Station, a former pub converted into a community centre. Again, there was that real sense of place, of a town where you could probably encounter four or five friends just walking down the High Street.
I walked past the parish church, and some rows of stone cottages (Collegium Matronarum Provento annuo - John Thomlinson AM - Erexit - Robt. ejus Frater STP - AD 1723 said the stone above the door) and then I was back on the road to the station. Len & Donna's Garage (your local independent) was charging 138.9 for a litre of unleaded, which reminded me that living out in the country isn't all rolling around on hay bales and drinking milk fresh from the udder; you end up paying over the odds for things that people in towns take for granted.
The local theatre, a converted church, was named after John Peel; I'm not entirely sure why, as I can't find any link between him and the town. Presumably the owners were just massive fans of Home Truths. The town's most famous son is actually Melvyn Bragg, who is Lord Bragg of Wigton. I wonder what the residents felt when they read A Time to Dance, his saucy tale of May to December lust on the Cumbrian fells. I expect there were a few locals recognising themselves in the prose and blushing furiously.
The land around the station is dominated by the Innovia factory, a massive industrial complex that doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the town. Suddenly I was back in the ugly world of Barrow and Sellafield. It manufactures cellophane and other films - this was one of the first places to produce Rayon. Innovia is an absolutely rubbish name for a company - it could make literally anything. It used to be called British Cellophane Ltd, which is a far better name.
Wigton station was up on a viaduct, a relative novelty for the line. It's held in by sandstone walls and a bypass on the far side, with a freight line branching off into the Innovia factory.
Wigton has incredibly wide platforms; combined with its position above the town, there's a real feeling of space. Its most notable feature for me was an absolutely lousy flowerbed.
That is just horrifyingly naff. It looks like the centrepiece of the driveway of some horrible nouveau riche McMansion, the kind of building that's been designed to look a bit like Downton Abbey but built out of red brick and with air conditioning and double glazing. The pediments and the name in the centre and the horrible pink stone - it was bafflingly terrible. I wondered if this was a Jubilee project or something; if so, they should have just spent the money on more bunting or buying everyone in town a pint.
I wasn't surprised to be the only person getting off at Dalston. I'm not sure anyone ever uses the station.
It definitely wins the prize for "station most ignored by the local community". Wigton might have had a factory right next door, but you have to actually walk through an engineering plant to get out of Dalston. There's a yellow marked pedestrian path through the centre of the plant; the workers regarded me with bemusement as I tried to casually stroll past. It's clearly not something they see very often.
I weathered the pitying looks from the oil-splattered engineers to take the sign photo.
Dalston itself is mainly based around a square, with plenty of small local shops, as well as the inevitable Co-op. I treated myself to a scalding hot meat and potato pasty from the little bakery as I wandered around.
I know it's very practical, and it's what people have been doing in village squares for decades, but I wish they weren't just glorified car parks. It doesn't feel like a thriving centre of the community if you have to pick your way through Ford Mondeos to get to church. Still, it was all quite nice; clean air, happy residents, pretty, well cared for houses with flower-filled front gardens. I've never been to Dalston in London but I am absolutely positive it is just like this one in every way.
Perhaps the most interesting feature in Dalston is its big black cock.
I had to get my smut somewhere. It seems the village decided the best way to commemorate a new century was a cast iron planter with a demented rooster on top. I think this is one of those things that people in the countryside all know about and townies will never understand, like fox hunting or the comedy stylings of Jethro.
There was still some time until my bus so I went in search of something to do.
I pulled my battered timetable out of my pocket (actually the second one I'd had that week - the first had been soaked through in the rain and was rendered unreadable) and silently crossed off the last few stations.
That's it, I thought. The Cumbrian Coast Line finished. There was still Carlisle, of course, but I'd be arriving by bus and leaving via the West Coast Main Line; there weren't any more little stations for me to visit. No more single platforms in the rain. No more tea rooms. No more quaint villages. This was it.
I felt a real sense of achievement striking out that last station. I'm not sure if anyone else has done this - I'm sure someone has - but visiting every station on that long, lonely line felt like a feather in my cap. There had been times when I'd wanted to jack it all in, but there had also been times when I'd never wanted to leave. Nursing a warm cup of tea in a small village somewhere, the high fells in front of me, the taste of salt from the sea on my tongue.
I relaxed into the comfy bench. The radio station in the pub was having a retro hour, and in the process, playing all the songs from the 90s I liked. Could It Be Magic. Renaissance. Wonderwall. An old man came in and took up his usual seat to flirt with the barmaid. I could stay here a little longer, I thought. Then the old man started looking in my direction, and I realised he was gearing up to engage me in conversation, and so I fled.
I tell you what, they have some posh buses in Carlisle. The number 75 had leather seats. Sitting on them for just a little trip into town felt ridiculous, somehow, like arriving at your friend's house in a horse-drawn carriage. I wondered how long these leather seats would last on a service in Liverpool; I bet someone would have jammed a pen in them before you'd left Queen's Square.
Lego Lady seemed to enjoy it. You can't see it properly, because the photo didn't come out right, but she is definitely smiling.
I'd been to Carlisle once before, to see a recording of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. It was being held in a leisure centre on the outskirts of the town, and I got to see Barry Cryer and Sandi Toksvig having a glass of wine outside a fire escape before it started. It was obviously hilarious, even if it was Jack Dee as chairman rather than Humph; the off the cuff quips were as good as the jokey amswers, and it was frequently filthy. I'm constantly delighted by the absolutely obscene stuff they get away with on that programme; it seems that since it's Radio Four it doesn't count. We'd driven up that time so I hadn't seen the station building.
The station was known as Carlisle Citadel when it was built, and it still has an air of an impenetrable fortress to it. I felt like I should have been wielding a lance and wearing a suit of armour.
I got myself a coffee and had a bit of a wander around. It was strange to see trains with the Scotrail branding - not long intercity trains, just little commuter ones. I was within sniffing distance of tartan and shortbread here.
That circular roof motif was particularly pleasing to me - it was simple, but elegant.
The thing that really stopped me and made me think was across the bay on platforms 5 and 6.
Welcome to the Settle-Carlisle Line & Hadrian's Wall Country Line. I hadn't been on either of those lines yet. They were both clean purple slashes on my Northern Rail map; not one single station crossed off on their entire length.
It was a reminder. Even though I'd conquered the Cumbrian Coast Line, there was still so much more to do. My head began to fizz with thoughts; I'd need maps, timetables, spreadsheets. I needed to do some more planning - and soon. I was tired and homesick, but I still hadn't lost my passion for Tarting...