Friday 27 September 2013

Plaza, Sweet

I am frequently in the right place at the wrong time.  I'll turn up in pubs to be told that some D-list celebrity has just left (often someone from Hollyoaks).  I'll arrive at events once the fireworks have gone off and everyone's calling their taxis.  I'll leave nudist beaches just before the arrival of an entire rugby team.  My timing is just rubbish.

Yesterday I was definitely in the right place.  For reasons far too dull to go into here I was in London for 24 hours, and while scooting about looking for stuff to do, I discovered that the new square outside King's Cross station was opening Thursday morning.  I was tremendously excited.

For those readers who live outside London, or who don't give a monkey's about major UK rail termini, King's Cross Station has long been a pustule on the capital's rail network.  Designed by Lewis Cubitt for the Great Northern Railway and opened in 1852, it's been terrible almost since it was opened; the station was constructed on top of a smallpox hospital, which probably should have given them a clue.  For a hundred and fifty years it's been pretty awful, surrounded by streets full of whores, druggies and muggers.  Things were so bad, the Pet Shop Boys wrote a song about it.

The first phase of the new look station was opened last year, a funnel web of steel supporting an arc-shaped roof.  The half-circle of the new concourse is bright and modern and elegant.  It's full of shops and restaurants - I had a serviceable bacon sandwich on the upper deck - as well as a place for Japanese tourists to pose with a luggage trolley and pretend they're in Harry Potter.  I can't help wondering if its new position as a place of pilgrimage for Muggles convinced Network Rail that they should maybe get on with tidying it up.

Anyway, it's joyous, a huge inspiring space that forms as interesting a 21st Century railway station as St Pancras International across the road.  In some ways I prefer it - St Pancras's position as the Eurostar terminal means it's filled with unfamiliar sights, words like "check in", unusual fonts, foreigners.  King's Cross feels like another National Rail station, albeit one on a rather larger scale.

The works at King's Cross stopped last year for the Olympics.  When that was all out of the way, the builders moved back in to work on the front of the station.  Since the 1970s there's been a tin-roofed shed out there, blocking the pavement and housing the saddest branch of WH Smith you'd ever have the misfortune to visit.  Cubitt's building was almost immediately covered up by shops - it's never really got the respect it deserved - but this green monstrosity was a final humiliation.  It was intended to be temporary and somehow lasted forty years.

It's all gone now.

It's difficult to convey just what a relief it is to see the front of the station.  How it suddenly looks relaxed and less frantic, as though it's been cured of that niggling illness it's had for decades.  There are still a few scars - the brickwork looks a little pale round about where the old structure used to be - but now King's Cross has been opened up and allowed to breathe.

I'd arrived at eleven thirty.  I'd missed "the UK's largest gathering of living statue street performers" which was a relief.  I hate street performers, and I hate living statue street performers most of all.  If I wanted entertainment, I'd actively seek it out, thank you very much.  I know where there are cinemas and theatres; I can find a gallery all on my own.  I really don't need to have a man painted silver blocking the entrance to Waterstone's with his amazing skill of "not really moving".  And then expecting me to pay for it.

(I will however make one exception to this rule, and that is the man I saw outside Madrid's main cathedral who was posing as a living statue of Jesus.  Beard, crown of thorns, stigmata, the works.  The levels of tastelessness were off the scale, so obviously I emptied my wallet into his hat).

I had actually, for once, arrived at what Hugo Drax would call a "propitious moment".  There was a stage set out, and photographers, and then a load of men in suits with King's Cross lanyards round their neck appeared, and I realised something interesting was going to happen.  The odds on it being that interesting slipped a little when I recognised Frank Dobson, but I positioned myself behind the stage to get a good view.  It seemed I was there just in time to see King's Cross Square being officially opened.

The Secretary of State for Transport took the stage, and said a few words.  Then the head of Network Rail, who said a few more, including how great HS2 was and how we should really get on with building it, thanks.  And then - oh dear - then Boris arrived.

The tousle-haired loon took to the stage and immediately got my back up by saying that "they" would consider building two railway termini next to one another insane, but the FREE MARKET ECONOMY realised it was a genius idea.  No, I thought; a genius idea would be one large station so you don't have to cross a road if you want to change trains, and where you wouldn't have to replicate all the facilities in two separate buildings, but I understand he had a point to make.  He then waffled on about St Pancras "looking down" on King's Cross, with reference to classical literature, and then he remembered why he was there and started talking about the new square.  Well, that and the fact that the windows in the front of the station looked like a pair of binoculars.  It was a speech that made me look quite harshly upon London's voters.  Really? I thought.  THIS is the man you feel was best to run one of the greatest cities on the planet?  This melted snowman of a humanoid?  

Finally - after talking about Crossrail 2 and HS2 with a slightly disturbing certainty, like he knew they would be built because he'd threatened the right people - Boris began the countdown from ten, and a load of streamers exploded from the balconies in front of the windows.  There was some applause and then all the famous people wandered off.  Almost immediately two men in hi-vis jackets appeared on the balconies to gather up the streamers before they messed up the square.

It is a wonderful place.  It allows you to appreciate the breadth and beauty of the building, much like the opening up of the front of Lime Street station did the same in Liverpool.  People were already using it like it had always been there.  They barreled out of the front of the station and straight across to the bus stops without ever stopping and thinking - "hang on - didn't there used to be a load of construction workers here?"  The seats were already being used by commuters with coffee and books.  An Oxfam chugger was loitering on the periphery.  The square had been folded into London life without any bother.

I will admit that a little part of me was sad to see this quarter of London made glossy and clean.  You could always rely on King's Cross to be filthy and rude.  And admittedly, part of the reason for the square is to stop this kind of behaviour - you'd have to be a very brazen kind of tart to stand in the middle of 75,000 square feet of open space advertising your wares.  It's also part of the plan to make King's Cross into a new district full of bankers and students and "young professionals".  I used to come through this area quite regularly, back when I was at Sixth Form and I'd come up to London to see a film or visit the bookshops, and there was a thrill of walking down these frenetic, scary streets.  There were "cinema clubs" and private stores with blacked up windows and "video shops" that were advertising Electric Blue even though it was 1993.

Retracing my steps towards the old King's Cross Thameslink station (now used as an Underground ticket office) I passed a Starbucks, a Samsonite shop, a juice bar.  Media types have colonised King's Cross - the Guardian is now based here, for goodness' sake.  It's become the new fashionable place to be and a part of me finds that sad.  I love the station, I love the square, I love how it doesn't look like an abattoir with trains in it anymore, but it's definitely lost some of the character.  It's become a bit... AnyLondon.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Content Warning

Content.  It's the buzzword, the idea, the concept behind many of the biggest websites around.  Every time Buzzfeed prints another of its 12 Characters from Harry Potter Who Would Totally Rock If They Were Disney Princesses lists, or the Huffington Post plays host to another serious think piece about Miley Cyrus' tongue, it's content.  Marketeers look at the infinite spaces of the internet and think "we really need to fill that with a load of crap".

Content is why, when your little girl swallows furniture polish and you go to the website to find out the ingredients, you have to battle through a Shockwave animation, sign up for their Facebook and Twitter feeds, and watch a YouTube video of the cast of Geordie Shore buffing up their sideboards.  Someone in the PR department persuaded the company execs that they wouldn't be taken seriously unless their website was filled with content.  It's their fault that you're playing a Flash game involving anthropomorphic chamois leathers while little Molly is choking to death behind you.

I've never really been bothered by content before.  I just write stuff when I feel like it.  I go out and visit places when I have money and a spare day.  I sometimes feel bad about dragging stuff out - it took me way too long to write up the Esk Valley Line - but it's my blog, so I'll just do what I like.

Then I got nominated for an award (voting link is on the right, cough, thank you) and I suddenly panicked.  I had no plans to go out in the nomination period so I'd have no new posts going up.  New visitors would come here and think I couldn't be bothered writing anything.  I needed some new content.

An opportunity presented itself when I went to Altrincham.  I was there with the BF, and our friends Norman and John, to visit the Art with a Heart exhibition I posted about a couple of days ago. 

It's actually a great little exhibition, in a really interesting space.  The contributors have dealt with the "no automobiles" themes in different ways, so while there are Jim's oil paintings of trains on one wall, there are also collages of bicycles, and plates painted with tickets.  There's also historic maps of the Altrincham area's railways and exhibits on loan from the Manchester Museum of Transport

After half an hour in the exhibition, we nipped over to the second hand bookshop across the road.  I found a copy of the More Great Railway Journeys book, featuring that wonderful Victoria Wood Crewe to Crewe epic, so I was happy.  And then I bid them all farewell, even though they were going for a delicious sounding lunch in a local Italian, so that I could go out and get some content.  You see the sacrifices I make?

I headed for Hale, rather than Altrincham station.  There are three stations bunched together along the Mid-Cheshire Line in the town (Navigation Road is the other) and I thought I would get them in the "wrong" order.  Just for a change.

I was predisposed to dislike Hale.  From what I understood of the place, it was one of those towns that were quite sniffy about being incorporated into a metropolitan district.  Hale was Cheshire, like Heswall is Cheshire, and they really don't care what you or the Council or the Post Office say about it.  I was ready to prick their pomposity by sneering.

Unfortunately Hale is really lovely.  I was so disappointed.  But yes, it's got a nicely modern Millennium clock tower, some historic buildings with new ones interwoven unobtrusively, a thriving retail centre.  Pubs and restaurants were opening for buoyant lunchtime trade.  It was all very pleasing.

It also has a lovely railway station.  It straddles a level crossing, a level crossing which was refusing to open for some reason that day and slicing the village in half.  Pedestrians were forced to cross the tracks via the station footbridge, which doesn't sound too inconvenient until you see some poor mother clattering a pram down the steps.

It opened in 1862 as Peel Causeway, exhibiting that Victorian genius for calling your railway station the wrong name entirely.  150 years later it's pretty much unchanged, though the southbound platform building is now home to a physiotherapist.  But there are still pretty glass awnings over the platform, and wooden benches for passengers.

I crossed the tracks for the station sign, trying to get it quickly.  The village was full of public schoolboys from the nearby Altrincham School, unleashed on the shops in search of lunch, and they were definitely staring as I tried doing my selfie.

Also behind me was a set of fine gates which lead into what was now the station car park.  Obviously they were closed and bolted.  It infuriates me when architects have designed an impressive entrance to a building, but modern planners create a "more convenient" way in - in this case, a hole in a brick wall.  Couldn't they at least open those gates as a pedestrian way into the station complex?

I went back to the northbound platform to wait for my train, alongside two girls with pink hair who seemed to have no plans to leave.  They were giggling at the end of one of the wooden benches and drinking something from a bottle: I'm guessing it wasn't Lucozade.  When the train came in, neither of them even stirred from their seat.

Navigation Road has two platforms as well, but the track arrangement is very different here.  I'm not aware of any other stations where there's a through platform on one side for trams and a through platform for trains on the other, though I'm sure there probably is somewhere.

The Metrolink took over the direct route from Altrincham to Manchester in 1992, so the "up" platform became the home for all the tram services, and is now painted in the distinctive (robbed off Merseyrail) yellow and grey.  The "down" platform remained for the Mid-Cheshire line, and carries trains in both directions; hence it being painted in standard Northern purple.  It's a clash of two different styles, with different fonts and facilities staring at each other across the track.

Still, yellow and purple were my old school colours, so I felt quite at home.

I darted across the level crossing, feeling quite daring as a tram was just pulling into the platform at the same time.  A man on crutches got off the tram and followed me down the street.  Disturbingly, he managed to keep pace with me as we walked, his crutches clattering on the pavement and never letting up behind me.  I had visions of him as some kind of physically impaired Freddy Krueger before he finally turned off down a side road.

Grosvenor Road connects directly with Altrincham town centre; it's barely half a mile.  In fact, the distance between Navigation Road and Altrincham station is so small you wonder why they bothered keeping it open when the trams arrived.  I expect it was just less hassle to have the trains continue stopping there than go to the effort of closing the railway platform.  It was a reminder that being a MetrolinkTart wouldn't be much fun; between the frequent services and the closely spaced stops I could probably polish off the entire network in a couple of days.  Not that I'm necessarily ruling it out.

As I walked under the high retaining wall tram after tram passed, making me jealous of the superb public transport Manchester enjoys.  I want some trams near my home, clean whizzy trams to take me somewhere interesting and fun.

In Altrincham town centre for the second time that day, I headed towards the station.  I found a building site.

The station at Altrincham was home to one of Manchester's earliest efforts at an integrated transport hub.  I'd seen a leaflet promoting the original plans in the Art with a Heart exhibition.  In 1975, a bus station was opened in the station forecourt, while a concrete footbridge was built over the road to allow direct access to the shopping precinct over the road.  Unsurprisingly, after nearly forty years, it was all starting to look a bit tired, and now the forecourt had been ripped up ready for a new bus station and travel centre.

If I'm honest, I felt let down.  I was collecting Altrincham station when she wasn't at her best.  I resolved to come back when the works were complete so that I could see it in its full pomp.

After negotiating a seemingly endless maze of temporary access routes I found myself on the station platform.  There are four at Altrincham, two bay platforms for the trams - it's the original Metrolink terminus - and two through platforms for the Mid-Cheshire Line.

It was all very much a work in progress.  In some places the paint was peeling and the concrete was broken; in others, there was the gleam of recent works.  The ticket office, for example, was brightly painted with white walls and glass sliding doors.  I hope they're going to fill it up with some seats or something; at the moment it looks a bit empty.  Stepping through the glass doors and walking up to the ticket window feels like approaching the headmaster's office.

I'd thought I'd be able to get some lunch at the station - there was bound to be a cafe.  It turned out the catering facilities extended to a milkshake and frozen yoghurt hut.  I actually wanted a sandwich, not something that would give me a frozen brain headache.  There was a little shop, but it was filthy inside, like a black walled cabin, and smelt strongly of penny sweets.  The waft of artificial flavourings was so overpowering it actually made me nauseous, so I bought a bottle of water and a packet of sour Skittles and crossed to platform 4 to wait for my train.

I texted the BF: Three stations down - two to go.
He replied: Okay.  We're just looking at the dessert menu.  Had a great salmon risotto.  We should come here again.

Bastard, I thought, and glumly chucked a Skittle in my mouth.

Incidentally, the builders at the Interchange should be proud of the work they did bricking up the wall where the footbridge to the shops used to be.  It was a really professional job.  See if you can spot the join.

We passed out of the city, into the leafy countryside, the concrete overpass of the M56 acting as a border crossing.  I got off at Ashley, the next station, with one other person.  He jumped into a waiting car and left me alone on the platform.

Now that I was out of Transport for Greater Manchester's sphere of influence, the level of facilities dropped precipitously.  No ticket office or machines here, just a little shelter to hide you from the rain.  The station building had been turned into a home, as a sign reminded you.

That sign seemed a bit rude to me - a bit exasperated.  If you've bought a station building, one that literally sits on the platform, you have to put up with people thinking you're still railway property.  Sticking up a sign won't change that.

I headed up to the bridge, past the warning triangle telling me to say NO to strangers; the local kids had scratched out the eyes of the supposedly friendly dog on the picture and tippexed drool from his mouth, turning him into Cujo.

I left Ashley past a charmingly tiny village store - barely more than a front parlour converted into a shop - and onto the main road.  There was a tempting looking pub, but I manfully ignored it, crossing the forecourt of an abandoned car showroom to get to the footpath.  Across the way, the Save Tatton Action Group (STAG) had hung a banner on the fence: Save Tatton - Say No To Theme Park!!!

"A theme park?" I thought, confused that the home of the Royal Horticultural Society's annual flower show would be turning itself into Chessington World of Adventures.  A bit of digging reveals that the planning application is actually for a "treetop village" aimed at "3-11 year olds", which isn't exactly the Nemesis at Alton Towers.  Maybe I'm naive, but I doubt that a few treehouses, a "story telling area" and a "park train" will cause Knutsford to be turned into a car park, as STAG seem to think.

Also, STAG spell "tenacity" as "tanasity" on their website, and I can't support such a flagrant disregard for the English language.

The footpath quickly ran out.  This makes me nervous at the best of times but here, in footballer country, it was even worse.  Every other car was a Porsche; there was a stream of 4x4s and Lexuses (Lexi?).  Most were being driven with a disregard for speed limits, the Highway Code and general human decency.  I remembered the recent story about a footballer allegedly hitting a cyclist and then telling him "good luck finding me on foreign plates"; out here in the perfect home for Liverpool and Manchester's millionaire mansions I didn't want to end up buried under Colleen Rooney's Audi.

Instead I criss-crossed the road, walking on the verge wherever possible, pressing myself into the hedge when another BMW came roaring round the corner.  It became tiring very quickly.  Above my head, aeroplanes roared - Manchester Airport's twin runways were pointing straight at me, disgorging Boeings and Airbuses at regular intervals.  It made STAG's claims that the screams of excitable children would ruin this rural idyll seem even more hysterical; as well all know, a four year old hyper on E-numbers is far noisier than a fucking jet airliner.

I had a bit of trouble finding Mobberley station.  I could find the railway line, no problem, but all the roads seemed to go away from it, and I couldn't reconcile the street layout with my Ordnance Survey map.  Finally I picked a road at random and walked down it, and almost immediately saw a sign for the station.

A round of applause, incidentally, for Waugh Brow Farm Shop and its collection of fibreglass livestock.  I particularly like the slightly indignant looking sheep.  I should also award bonus points for the farmhouse next door, which not only looked exactly like a farmhouse should look - ridiculously inviting - but also had its front door open with a sheepdog sat on the threshold.  I was severely tempted to go in and ask for a glass of milk, fresh from the udder.

I crossed a narrow bridge over a stream; someone had laid a single apple, a blackberry and a raspberry on the parapet, like a still life.  I couldn't quite work out why.  I passed another pub without going in - I should get some kind of award - and reached some pretty railway cottages by the level crossing.

I can't take Mobberley seriously.  I know it's a highly desirable village - it's where Dolly from dinnerladies wanted to retire to, until she finds out it's the centre of a huge rubber and bondage scene - but it's just a ridiculous name.  It sounds like the kind of noises you make when the dentist has anaesthetised your gums and you're trying to tell him where you're going on holiday.

The station was a let down too.  Though there was a pretty signal cabin, the station facing parts of the main building had been artlessly bricked up.  The new owners had basically turned their back on the whole reason for their home existing in the first place.

I took a seat and finished off my water.  Mobberley was a landmark of sorts: it meant that I had completed the Mid-Cheshire Line.  I'd actually started this line back in 2011, and it represented my first tentative step into Northern Rail territory.  Up until then I'd been pretty much restricted to the stations on the Merseyrail map, but the station name Lostock Graham had been too much for me to resist. 

There was Stockport, I suppose, and bizarrely I still haven't collected Manchester Piccadilly; I'm not sure why, because I'm there all the time, but now I'm starting to take a perverse pleasure in not collecting it.  They didn't count as Mid-Cheshire stations, anyway; until the Metrolink came along the trains didn't even go via Stockport.

The thought of finishing off the line - of closing down a section of the Northern Rail map - made a warm feeling wash over me.  A strange type of happiness.  I reached for a word to describe it.  Ah yes.  Content.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Hear The Train Blow!

Hmmm.  I like James Bond.  I like railways.  If only there were a way to combine the two interests.


Well done, National Railway Museum.  With this 1965 publicity shot - intended to promote the "Anglo Scottish Car Carrier Service" - you managed to bring two of my hobbies crashing together in a whirlwind of awesomeness.  Just think: if this train was still available today Bond needn't have put up with Dame Judi whining all the way to Glencoe in Skyfall.

I wonder if this means all of my wishes are going to start coming true?   Time to cross my fingers and think of Russell Tovey...

Thursday 19 September 2013

Nom Nom Nom

I will never win an Oscar.

It's taken me years to finally come to terms with this.  I am never going to win Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor at the same ceremony (I'm not arrogant enough to think I could be a leading man; the quirky friend or sadistic German adversary, perhaps).  I will never get to go up on the stage at the Dolby Theatre to tearfully thank my peers, clad in chic Gaultier (a black tuxedo with daring accessories to make me just that little bit more interesting).  I'd accept Best Screenplay gracefully from an admiring Jodie Foster (we'll become best friends backstage, though she'll be secretly jealous).  I'd get Best Supporting Actor from a clearly awestruck Helen Mirren.  I'd field questions from the press, halting the conference so we could have a moment of dignified silence during the In Memoriam montage, because I'm just that classy.  Then I'd go to Elton John's Party, where Adele and I would perform a drunken duet of Skyfall while taunting Peter O'Toole with our statuettes ("fifty years as a cinematic great and you can't even scrape a single competitive award?  LOSER!").

Something like that.  I haven't really put any thought into it.

I realised that as I'm 36 and living in the North of England - and I haven't written any screenplays or done any acting either (technicality) - I will not attract the attention of the Academy, so my chances of rubbing shoulders with Brad and Angelina next February are pretty slim.  I know what you're thinking: there are BAFTAs!  Screen Actors Guild awards!  MTV Awards!  The Nobel Prize for Literature!  But no: these awards would just be second best, hollow gestures that wouldn't satisfy my Oscar shaped hole.  I dismantled my trophy shelf, threw away my life sized standee of Billy Crystal, turned my tux into dishcloths.  I would never receive the undeserved love of random strangers personified in a piece of hollow perspex.

But then!  Salvation!

This afternoon, I received notice that I'd been nominated for a Blog North Award.  An actual award nomination for an actual award that is clearly more than equal to the Oscars.  Perhaps even better, because I bet the Blog North People wouldn't ask James Franco to host.  I'm one of five finalists in the category of Best Personal Blog, which is clearly the Blog North equivalent of "Best Picture".  There are some other categories as well, but I'm not in any of them, so I haven't really noticed what they're about.

I'm touched, flattered, astonished and very competitive about it.  I'm trying not to be because there's only a one in five chance of me winning anything - actually less than that; I've read some of my competitors and I'm feeling a bit like any actress who sees she's up against Meryl - but that deeply unpleasant part of me would really like to win.

I'm afraid, therefore, that I'm going to have to whore myself a bit.  I apologise in advance.  I'd very much appreciate it if you - someone who has enjoyed my previous blog posts, someone who has contributed comments and thoughts, someone who took all the free entertainment I was throwing your way and didn't even offer to buy me a pint - I would appreciate it if you would vote for me at the link below:

That would be very kind of you and I'd be very grateful.  The closing date for voting is October 1st, so best not put it off or anything.  I promise if I win I won't do the full Halle Berry; maybe just a bit of a Gwyneth, but the pink frock will look much better on me.

Thank you again.  Of course, if you don't want to vote for me, that's fine too, and as soon as I find some IP blocking software I'll let you know that I appreciate your honesty.

(But really, I am very very chuffed right now.  Stupidly so.  I'm grinning as I type.  You like me!  You really like me!).

P.S.  If Barbara Broccoli or Michael G Wilson are reading this, I am TOTALLY up for writing a Bond film.  Despite my lack of screenwriting experience.  I'll even play the villain for free.  Call me!

Wednesday 18 September 2013

ARTPOP (in and see some nice paintings)

Readers with long memories will remember me writing about my friend Jim, who sadly passed away in 2010.  Jim was a huge fan of the railways, especially the tiny networks that used to run in the Caribbean.  One of his many hobbies was painting.  He produced dozens of huge canvases depicting railway scenes, sometimes among the exotic Barbadian landscapes of his studies, sometimes in the grey Lancashire of his childhood.

His partner Norman retained his artworks after his death, and occasionally puts them on show at specialist events.  They're currently on show at the transport-themed Trains, Trams and No Automobiles show in Altrincham's Art with a Heart gallery. 

It's only a limited show, opening last weekend and open for a couple more, but it's definitely worth visiting if you're in the area.  There are events planned for the 22nd of September in Altrincham, to celebrate Car Free Day, but there's plenty of time to visit it on the other days. The gallery has plenty of other shows on throughout the year if you have interests that don't have wheels, so be sure to check out their website.

See you there!

Art With A Heart Gallery, Normans Place, Altrincham, WA14 2AB

Sunday 15 September 2013

Epilogue: Facts and Fancies

It's taken me a while but yes, that's the whole Esk Valley Line finished.  Apart from Marton and Gypsy Lane, which will have to wait for another time.



Total stations visited: 18
Distance traveled by rail: 308 miles
Distance walked: 19 miles
Distance traveled by bus: 49 miles

Best station (architecturally): Middlesbrough
Best station (location): Commondale

Worst station (architecturally): Redcar Central
Worst station (location): Castleton Moor (though to be honest, none of them were that bad)

Best places to visit: Grosmont, Whitby, Egton
Worst places to visit: Middlesbrough, Ruswarp

Best place for a pint: The Postgate Inn, Egton
Best place for a pint so long as that boring twat isn't there: The Duke of Wellington, Danby
Best place for a cup of tea: The tea room at Pickering

The Epic Journey With No Purpose In Full:

Prologue: There and Back Again

Day One: Great Ayton & Battersby

Day Two: Kildale & Commondale
Day Two: Nunthorpe, Castleton Moor & Danby
Day Two: Lealholm, Glaisdale & Egton

Day Three: Grosmont & Pickering
Day Three: Whitby, Ruswarp & Sleights

Day Four: Redcar British Steel
Day Four: Redcar Central

Days One to Four: Middlesbrough


The excellent Esk Valley Railway website
The North Yorkshire Moors Railway

Addendum: Ancient and Modern

The default setting for most Victorian terminii was "Graeco-Roman Temple".  Columns, pedestals, cornices, the Golden Ratio.  Huge stone faces with grand archways.

A smaller subset of stations went with the other big Victorian architectural fashion: Gothic.  Middlesbrough is definitely in this category.  It's a compound in the middle of the city, raised up above the streets with walls around it, like a vampire's castle.

Its pointed roofs and windows beg to be on a moor, a single dog howling in the distance, a lady in a white dress peering anxiously through the glass with a candlestick in her hand.

It was a bit disappointing to be there on a hot August day instead of in the middle of a grim rainstorm.  In the snow, it must look amazing.

Inside it's just as good.  The station's been lovingly restored and now it's like stepping into a banqueting room.  Tall wooden beams high above a tiled floor; rich dark paneling making even the newsagents and ticket kiosks look thrilling.

Only the presence of incongruous CCTV cameras and potted plants stop you from thinking you're in a baronial hall, about to tear the flesh off some recently killed animal with your teeth while wenches bring more mead.

Below ground, the underpass has the vague air of a wine cellar, or perhaps a secret passage.  It's a shame that the 21st century intervened with the lift, spoiling the atmosphere somewhat.

Adding to the modern intrusions is an art project.  Normally I'm pro-art in station spaces, turning unused parts of the building into canvasses, but here it seems to ruin the mood.  It doesn't help that it's partly been sponsored by a publishing house as a plug for a local author, Richard Milward.

I actually bought the book on the right, Kimberley's Capital Punishment, admittedly mainly because of the line diagram on the front.  Unfortunately a very wet afternoon out with Ian left the book sodden and unreadable; I'd only got about three quarters of the way through.  It's a very strange book - I should really pick up a new copy, because I have absolutely no idea how it was going to end.

Sadly the tribute to Game of Thrones doesn't carry on throughout the whole station.  It was struck by a bomb in 1942 - a plaque pays tribute to the victims - which destroyed the arching roof over the platforms and parts of the building.  The roof had carried on the high Gothic feel - it was 75 feet wide, but 60 feet high, with elaborate end screens.

Replacing it on the ticket hall side is a low concrete concourse which manages to be elegant in its own way.

It's unfussy and doesn't try to compete with its over the top neighbour, which gives it its own charm.  Unfortunately its seats and roof and late opening hours meant that it seemed to be a sort of unofficial youth club; whenever I passed through the station in the evening there were half a dozen overexcited teenagers screaming at one another from the benches.

There are only two platforms in use at Middlesbrough these days, though if the Tees Valley Metro project ever gets off the ground, a third will be brought back into use.   Platform 2 does, however, feature one of those tiled North East Railway maps, and so it can do no wrong.

Did you know you can buy tile replicas of that map for your home?  I must start working on the BF to persuade him that we need to redecorate the bathroom.  Or the hall.  Or something.

Basically Middlesbrough station is gorgeous.  It's a credit to the city and First Transpennine Express, who run it.  Middlesbrough itself, however...  Oh dear.

I should say that I never saw the city at its best.  I arrived on the Sunday of a Bank Holiday weekend, and my trains meant that I left at 7 am and returned at 9 pm.  So in the daylight hours it may be a thrusting, lively heartland, a veritable Rome on the Tees.

What I saw of it just seemed sad.  Like the town had been kicked in the groin and left there.  Middlesbrough's a town birthed by the railways: when the line opened in 1831 there were 40 residents.  By the turn of the century there were 100,000.  The trains brought goods and people to the new docks on the Tees, and industries sprung up to take advantage of the link.

We're in a post-industrial society now, though, and Middlesbrough's given up.  As I wandered the streets I didn't sense any pride or joy.  The people I passed - the few people I passed - had their heads down, barrelling somewhere else, somewhere more important.

The Germans didn't help, hammering the city with bombs during the War, but the city fathers have to take some of the blame too.  The central shopping area is pedestrianised and empty, a few streets that connect up with big ugly malls.  The bus station is a concrete gyratory with more low rent shops inside.  A ring road slices past the railway station, chopping it off from the town with its overpass.  The dark space underneath has been filled with LED lighting to try and liven it up; the colours strobe sadly, like a single disco light left on after everyone's gone home.

The shops and offices all seemed to have occupiers called Go Workforce! or Community FIRST that smacked of grants and hand outs and schemes.  There didn't seem to be many actual businesses at all, but then, those closed shopping centres largely hid them from my view.

I was there for three nights, and at no point did I venture out of my hotel to explore.  I love grimy, down at heel cities - I'd much rather visit Barrow than Chester - but this one just made me sad.  When Liverpool was kicked in the nuts, bent double by crime and poverty and unemployment, it turned round and snapped.  It shouted back.  It said, We're better than this. This isn't who we are.  We're fucking Liverpool.  They punched back.

Middlesbrough feels like it was kicked and punched and went, "Fair enough.  We probably deserve it."  I wonder if it's because it's a fairly recent town.  1831 is only a few generations ago, five or six.  Perhaps that sense of loyalty and civic pride never really developed.  A bit like Milton Keynes, another town which is full of people who can't really tell you why they live there.  "It's alright," they say, because there's nothing there to love.

I went to the city's Central Square and I was hit by a succession of failed enterprises.

There was a Victorian Town Hall, a 1970s civic centre, a 1980s municipal annexe, and a 21st century art gallery.  All of them on top of one another with a bit of grass in between.

They were all so absolutely of their time it was painful.  I imagined the city announcing each new construction with a shouty press release about how it was cutting edge, modern, the future, and now they all looked like fashion disasters piled on top of one another.  Brutalism in one corner, pink mirrored glass in another, the post-modern brick of the 1990s court house.  Now there was the cultural centre, the newest attempt to be "with it".

It's the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, or mimaYou can't do that, I thought; you can't ride the coat tails of a far more famous and prestigious institution to try and get people through the doors.  It's like they'd called their museum the Kritish Museum or their university Boxford.  It's cheating.  And it looked uninspired and uninteresting: a cold Lottery project dumped in a city that wasn't really interested. A sign in the window said We're family friendly! which, in the middle of the school holidays, seemed a wee bit desperate.  It didn't help that its big piece of modern sculpture outside, titled Bottle of Notes, looked like a giant advert for Absolut vodka.

I really wanted to like Middlesbrough, I really did.  I wanted it to surprise and excite me.  I just wanted to get out of there by the end.  I was demoralised and miserable.  God knows what it must be like if you live there.

Also, I resent that missing "o".  What's wrong with Middlesborough, eh?  That makes much more sense.  Fix it, please.