Saturday 31 August 2013

Day One: Reversals

This damn camera.

It was having a hissy fit.  I'd arrived at Great Ayton, my very first station on the Esk Valley Line, and the camera had frozen.  There was a green "on" light, but nothing worked.  Remember when cameras were just a series of mechanical processes so if you pushed a button, it moved something that moved something else and click! you had a photo?  Now you're wandering around with a computer in your pocket, something that could conceivably turn malevolent at any time.  It's not restricted to cameras - my television crashed the other day, forcing me to reboot it.  My television.  I only wanted to watch The Big Bang Theory, not find the Higgs-Boson particle.

After a few moments of panicking, bashing, and swearing, I pulled out my iPhone and took the photo with that instead.

Hence my look of barely concealed tension and frustration.

It had been a bit of a fraught day, all told.  I'd managed to get from Birkenhead Park to Great Ayton despite the Gods clearly disliking the idea.  There were overcrowded trains at Manchester, unexplained halts outside Leeds.  At York, my train - along with every other train north - was delayed due to overhead line problems at Doncaster.  I sat on an Inverness train for ten minutes as it slowly filled with fizzing, frustrated people, like we were sinking into the sea.  Only instead of the carriage filling with water it was being flooded with anger and passive aggressive moans.  I ended up jumping off the train, unable to stand the wait any longer, and instead getting a rail replacement bus to Middlesbrough.  I almost missed that because the staff from First Transpennine Express didn't seem to be in any hurry to tell people which was the right coach, and the boy on the information desk at York station was next to useless:

"Can you tell me where the rail replacement buses go from?"

"I'm not sure.  I've seen a bloke with a First Transpennine clipboard outside so I'd guess it's from out there somewhere."

I was feeling so discombobulated I had a Burger King meal, much to the consternation of the girl behind the counter who tried to put me off ordering with "We've got no drinks, only Tropicana".  She seemed annoyed when I wanted my food anyway.

It was a relief to finally get off at Great Ayton station.  I'd made it!  Just the six hours or so of travelling across country to get here.

I took the photo of the station sign with my phone then set off for the next one, fiddling with the camera.  Finally, in desperation, I popped the battery out, left it for a little while, then shoved it back in.  The camera whirred to life as if nothing had happened.  I hate this camera.  It was my second choice, because I needed to make a quick decision and Currys had sold out of my carefully researched first choice, and now I was deeply regretting it.  It's just a little bit off, just a little bit not good enough in places, not so bad that you throw it away as a bad lot but sufficiently awful to irritate you every time you use it.

There was a woman ahead of me on the narrow footpath, a young pretty girl in tight hiking shorts.  She'd clearly been wandering across the north all day, but she was walking very slowly.  I became aware that I was advancing on her at a disturbing pace.  It's hard to try and overtake young women without looking like some disturbing sex maniac; I put my best "I'm gay, honest" look on my face as my footsteps loomed up behind her, then stepped into the gutter to get past to really underline how disinterested I was in being close to her.

Fortunately I was soon in the village of Great Ayton, away from any potential "sex crime on lonely Yorkshire lane" Crimewatch reconstructions.  The streets were surprisingly busy, filled with couples, families, dog walkers.  I couldn't help noticing they were all walking in the opposite direction to me though.  As I headed round through the houses and then out of the village, I met a dozen people, all coming the other way.  It started to get embarrassing.  I'm not sure what was going on in the next village, but apparently it had just finished and now everyone was heading home.  Although in my twisted mind, all I could think about was the ending of The Mist.

The people petered out as I crossed the river at Little Ayton, then I was on quiet empty roads.  Now and then a cyclist would whizz by, head down, his sleek vehicle whirring efficiently.  The Yorkshire Moors are a place for proper cyclists, people with lycra and ambitions, not your day to day perambulators.  There were hardly any cars.  After a while I was wandering in the centre of the road, unconcerned about being mown down by a passing truck - there simply weren't any.

I could smell September in the air.  The late afternoon was still warm, burning off the day's sunshine, but there was the whisper of Autumn underneath.  A tiny chill mixed with the summer vapours, a subtle hint that the trees would soon be dying.  Fields of hay were stripped back to stubble.  Harvested bales formed long shadows.

I was, technically, on the "ugly" side of the railway.  The border of the North York Moors national park hugs it between Great Ayton and Battersby, and I was in the part that hadn't been included.  To my eyes it seemed just as worthy of inclusion - fine rises of green hills, soft mellow fields, blue forests stretching into the distance.  It was a hard, rugged landscape, uncompromising, inspiring.

Easby was obviously participating in some kind of scarecrow festival; perhaps that was the draw for the villagers of Great Ayton?  I turned right at a Cruella de Vil, her 101 dalmations represented by a couple of photocopied pictures, and passed a mushroom farm and a Union Jack bedecked sign promising Easby Hogs: British Rare Breed Pigs.  All the while the skies closed in, threatening divine intervention.

The line between Middlesbrough and Whitby is actually a Frankenstein's monster of a route, cobbled together from various different lines over the years.  The original Whitby line is now the North York Moors Railway to Pickering.  From Grosmont, on that line, a branch was built off to Picton via Battersby.  Another branch was then built after Battersby north to Nunthorpe, where it connected with the Macclesfield-Guisborough railway line.  You can see the position of the various railways around Great Ayton and Battersby on the North Eastern Railway map at Middlesbrough station:

Do you know how irritated I am that I'll never get to visit Sexhow?  Not to mention Potto.

Various closures over the years, culminating in Oh! Doctor Beeching, cut off branches with the wanton abandon of Leatherface's chainsaw.  The route between Battersby and Picton fell in the process.  That map is actually misleading - Battersby is on the wrong side of the junction; it should be more or less where Ingleby is.

I passed what was once Ingleby station, now commemorated only by "Station Farm" and apparently better known for its cattle these days:

The line to Picton crossed the road and carried on across the fields.  A look to my right, and I could follow the track with my eyes.  More than fifty years since it was removed and nature still hasn't completely claimed it.

In most parts of the country the route would have been appropriated by walkers, cyclists and horse riders.  There'd be a bridleway and gates and finger posts.  Even though you can still follow the old railway line easily on satellite imagery, it's resoundingly closed to the public.  Unfriendly signs put me off any exploration.

I carried on into Ingleby Greenhow, a tidy village settling down for its Bank Holiday Sunday entertainments.  I could hear the men in the Dudley Arms starting to get rowdy.  A little girl leaned out the downstairs window and dropped her doll onto the pavement; a few moments later she dashed out of the front door, threw it back through the window, and ran inside again.  I imagined her mum and dad oblivious to her game as they chatted to their neighbours over pints.  The building next door was a family butchers, a tiny handpainted sign over narrow windows and a van parked outside: Orders delivered locally to meat your needs!

I paused by the parish notice board, always good value.  Anyone in the area might like to know that the village hall will be hosting The Way I See It, "a slide show set to music", on September the 6th.  I've no idea what it entails; I'm guessing it's one of those "light hearted" pieces about why this country's going to the dogs, as you can find in many a local paper.  The now deceased Wirral Champion used to be riddled with them, columns about the terrible state of modern life and how much better it all was in the twenties when we only had rickets and death in industrial accidents and grinding poverty to worry about.  (The BF once managed to get the magazine withdrawn from our local Sainsburys for several months after it published a virulently homophobic piece).

I could be wrong.  It could be a piece of pro-feminist agitprop from the Edinburgh Fringe that wandered south.  If anyone's in the area, could you pop in and let me know?  Tickets are just £4 - light refreshments included.  (Bring your own drinks/glasses).

I headed up the hill out of the village, past ridiculously pretty stone cottages.  Every now and then I was hit with the smell of a Sunday night, the thick meaty scent of roast beef and Yorkshire puddings drifting out through open windows.  I thought back to that Burger King meal and felt like I'd betrayed my country somehow.

Battersby station was once Battersby Junction.  The second half of the name was dropped when the lines were closed, but it still clings on in the odd road sign, and in the name of the hamlet around the station.  I turned left at Tom Roy, Morris Minor Specialist, and took in the hand-crafted station sign.  Very unofficial, very un-corporate, very pleasing.

I hadn't expected there to be anything here except the station, but there were a dozen railway cottages around it.  They formed a triangle, butting up against the old line, and must have once housed workers and engineers.  Judging by the glimpses of front rooms I got from the pavement as I passed, it now seems to be a 50/50 mix of youngsters getting their foot on the property ladder and pensioners who are fond of glass cats and doilies.

Battersby station is now an anomaly.  Even though the trains are meant to go from Middlesbrough to Whitby, they have to do a reverse at Battersby.  This is because of that odd mismatch of lines I mentioned earlier.  The two lines both turn away from each other, trying to go to Picton, and all they can do instead is collide here.

The best way to illustrate this is through highly expensive CGI.

That took me literally moments, I tell you.

As you can see, since there's no connection at the curve between the Middlebrough section and the Whitby section, every train has to pull into Battersby station and stop.  There's a "token" scheme here, operated by the driver, because the line is single track.  This means that only the train with the "token" can travel on the railway, and stops two trains from ending up on a single set of lines.

Normally there's a signalman who would handle the token for you, as an extra safety measure, but Battersby is so isolated and underused the driver himself does all the work.  A cabinet on the platform houses the equipment and a telephone for him to obtain permission to travel onwards.

In an ideal world all this would be engineered out of existence.  A link would be built between the Middlesbrough and Whitby sections and Battersby station would be closed, allowing through services without an inconvenient five minute wait.  It'll never happen though.  The line just isn't important enough for that kind of investment.  Plus, closing a station is an expensive business, and would mean depriving a community of a rail link (okay, only 1500 people use it a year, but that's not the point).  Building a new one to replace it would be an expense utterly out of proportion to its benefits.

Basically Battersby is destined to remain a strange, clunky dead end on the rail network.

I like it.  I would probably find that five minute wait incredibly annoying if I used the line every day, but as an outsider, I relished its quirkiness.  I liked its anachronistic behaviour.  I wondered if the men at British Rail had left it this way out of a secret hope that one day the line through to Picton would be restored.  "Trust us," they'd whispered to local councillors, "we'll reopen it in twenty years time and you'll be glad we left all that track lying there!"  There's even a tiny spur riding on beyond the station, going nowhere except round the corner, but enough to look ambitious and exciting.

Yeah, I can pretty much guess what those "instructions" will be.  Turn back you idiot!

I dumped my bag in the shelter and changed out of my sweaty t-shirt into a clean one; the only advantage of the replacement bus was that I'd not yet had time to check into my hotel, so I still had all my stuff with me.  I sat on the floor, cross legged, and let the quiet station capture me.  Victoria Wood visited Battersby Junction as part of her wonderful Crewe to Crewe documentary, in 1996.  Its silent spell prompted her to say:
What a filthy old world it is.  There's still a few good bits left though.
The BBC still hasn't given me that documentary series, so I had to settle for putting my thoughts on my iPhone.

Come on: 6 x half an hour, 7:30, BBC Four.  I'm better than Portillo.

I was at Battersby for about three quarters of an hour, waiting for the train to come cresting round the corner.  There's not much to see.  The station house has been lovingly preserved, though the owners have put up a small wire fence to stop people sitting on the wall and crushing their petunias.  There's a water tower, rusting idly, long past its usefulness but too much hassle to remove.

The last train of the day finally arrived to take me back to the city.  Two stations done.  Not a bad start.


David said...

Macclesfield? Subliminal slip there!

You managed to cover Great Ayton without referring to Captain Cook! You won't get away with that in Whitby!

I'd never noticed the wrong position of Battersby on the tile map. Well spotted.

I wonder if the cottages at Battersby are more to do with the former incline ironstone railway to Rosedale than the 'regular' line

Presumably you're planning to capture Marton (formerly Ormesby), Gypsy Land and Nunthorpe some other time using the (slightly) more frequent commuter runs?

Scott Willison said...

I've been saying Macclesfield instead of Middlesbrough for days! I'm not sure why.

The commuter stations are far easier to collect so I thought I'll go and get them some other time, probably when I do the Saltburn line. Although, as you'll see, I did manage to get to Nunthorpe after all.

Plymothian said...

Funnily enough I homed in on Sexhow immediately too, and instantly thought of Victoria Wood when you got to Battersby.
And any more pics of the dishy looking driver? ;)

Scott Willison said...

"Dishy looking driver"? But all you can see is him from behind!

Oh. Fair enough.