Friday, 6 September 2013

Day Three: 21st Century Boy

There was still dew on the bench.  I wiped it away as best as I could with a tissue then parked myself to watch the setting up.

I had arrived early in Grosmont, an hour early in fact.  Before nine o'clock it's just another Yorkshire village.  A bit better preserved, perhaps, but it's still got cars, vans, a public toilet, a corner shop selling the papers.  And a railway station.  It's got a larger railway station than you normally see on the Esk Valley Line, admittedly, but it's just another station.

It was just all a little bit different.  Then you spot the clues: the 1950s font, the posters for Ovaltine, the lack of Northern Rail purple.  Yes, I'd entered the world of heritage railways.

Regular readers (hello you!) will know I'm pretty much immune to the charms of the heritage railway.  It's just not my thing.  But in the last map revision, Northern Rail added Pickering to their map.  The only way to get to Pickering by rail is to travel on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, one of the biggest and oldest historic railways in Britain, so I'd booked a ticket online for a morning trip.

It was all slowly coming to life.  Volunteers and employees were arriving at base, mainly but not exclusively men in their 50s and 60s.  They were wearing boiler suits and overalls, ready for a day of shunting and shoveling.  A busty woman in a tight frock disappeared into the - sadly still closed - Signals tea room.  An enthusiastic young lad in his late teens, his walk displaying the twitch of the railway nerd, hurried down the side path towards the engine sheds.

With a hiss of steam and a show offy toot of its horn the star of the show arrived, a jet blue engine called the Sir Nigel Gresley.  It reversed into the platform with the stately grace of an elderly Duchess arriving at the opera.  She knew that the performance couldn't start until she was in place, and was in no hurry.

The platform was beginning to fill now, with families, children, middle-aged men with suspiciously large cameras.  We all loitered, waiting for the ticket office to open.  I ducked into the waiting room to have a look at some of the gorgeous old British Railways posters that have been displayed there.

"The new timetable - packed with information on passenger services - is now on sale: price three shillings".  "Always a success - party outings by rail".  And, most pleasingly for me and my ongoing quest, "SEE BRITAIN BY RAIL with a RAILROVER TICKET".

Back out front, the ticket seller had finally arrived, but the window of his office remained covered with a screen.  We were going to be sold tickets when he was ready. 

Since I'd already bought my tickets online he just handed me an envelope.  I went outside, ripped it open, and experienced my first disappointment.  There was a neat, computer printed piece of paper inside.

What the hell?  What sort of heritage experience was that?  I wanted a dinky little piece of coloured card, a piece of parchment paper printed with my destination and ready to be clipped.  I didn't want a ticket that looked so utterly 21st Century.  That looked like it would get me admittance to the front stalls at Rihanna.  I don't collect my train tickets - I have to draw the line somewhere - but if I did, adding this to my album would be a massive let down.

Still, at least they were letting people on the train now.  I crossed to platform three to board.

Have you seen Murder on the Orient Express - the 1974 version, not the rubbishy David Suchet version?  I went through a major Agatha Christie phase as a teen, and I always loved the sequence where the passengers arrive on the platform for their train.  Each one is summed up in their walk to the carriage - the anxious Ingrid Bergman, the fragile Jacqueline Bisset, protected by her husband Michael York, Antony Perkins doing all the work for Richard Widmark's silently threatening Ratchett - but the one that always stuck with me was Lauren Bacall.  She strides along the platform, impervious to all the peddlers thrusting items in her face, imperious, untouchable, only allowing a small smile when the child sellers gather round her.  She's amazing.  Bacall is actually the best part of the film - she's funny, playing the Awful American to the hilt - and touchingly vulnerable when she needs to be.

Where I'm going with this is, basically, I was aping Lauren Bacall as I walked up that platform to my compartment.  I was sass, attitude and power all in one.  I only wished there was someone trying to sell me a souvenir brochure so I could dismiss them with a wave of my hand.  If that makes me a massive homosexual and about two degrees away from putting on a wig and eight inch heels and calling myself Kitten Heels on RuPaul's Drag Race, well, so be it.  I'm owning it.

I'd never traveled in a train compartment before.  Robert had put the fear of God in me before we left by suggesting that I might have to share my compartment with a group of random strangers.  My social anxieties piled up on top of one another to create a heap of panic.  What if they wanted to talk to me?  What if they didn't want to talk to me?  What if they were a family of loud, raucous Jeremy Kyle exiles, none of whom had been introduced to the concepts of "discretion" or "personal space"?  I had my iPod ready to pound loud techno into my ears to try and cover up any unwanted conversational avenues.

I was in luck.  It was too early for the majority of the railway's tourists, so I got a whole compartment to myself.  There was something delightfully snug about it.  A tiny little house on wheels for my  personal transportation.  The rich wood decoration added to the feel of luxury travel, though it must be noted that the seating was a bit threadbare and badly sprung.  There was also a pair of mirrors in the compartment, both inscribed with the BR logo, which I gave serious thought to pulling off the wall and wedging in my backpack.

I wouldn't fancy being compartmentalised late at night, though.  After the pubs are closed, on the final train back home, with drunks wandering the corridor.  Or on a train full of schoolkids, wedged in a corner of the Hogwarts Express with rowdy children spitting paper at one another.  Or if I was a woman on my own at any time, ever.  Those snug, intimate spaces suddenly became a sealed box where all sorts could happen; now I was thinking about a different Agatha Christie - 4:50 from Paddington.  You could be throttled and tossed onto the tracks before anyone had a chance to check your ticket.

The heavy clunk of slam doors being forced closed.  A gasp from the engine.  The guard, in hat, tight jacket and waistcoat, blows his silver whistle, and the driver responds with a blow of his own whistle.  The train creaks, bangs, and slowly begins to move out of the platform, jerkily, stop start.  It's not the elegant movement I thought it would be but is instead guttural and hesitant.  We seem to take an age to clear the station, and then we're immediately inside a tunnel.  There are no lights in the carriages - well, there are, but they don't work - and so we're in unashamed blackness.  I have a sudden memory of those Victorian ladies who put hatpins in their mouth in tunnels to stop men from forcing kisses on them, and once again I fear for my honour in the dark space.  Then we reemerge and, after a brief examination of my lower parts to check for any violations (none) I relax into my seat.

The door to the compartment was pulled open by an elderly ticket inspector who was clearly enjoying his job far more than is necessary.  He punched my ticket and then left me alone to gather my thoughts, enjoy the ride, and make a video:

The landscape looked untouched by human hands.  I imagined the hordes of workers driving their way through the rough moors, the trees, bridging the river.  Cold unfriendly work.  Hard and brutal and miserable.  Work camps moving down the railway as more irons were laid, all to get a single track to Pickering and for it to then close again a few decades later.  I wonder if they thought it was worth it?

A nice lady appeared at the door, trying to sell me a batch of anagrams to support the railway.  I decline - I'm hopeless at anagrams - and she agrees with me.  "Daily Mail, a cup of tea and a Sudoku are alright with me."

We pass through Goathland - as seen in Harry Potter and Heartbeat - and then through Newton Dale Halt.  It's all very Railway Children, though that was filmed in West Yorkshire, at the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway.  It means I have no chance of seeing Jenny Agutter's knickers, though a family of hikers do wave at us as we pass, and a gang of campers do a Mexican wave at us.

The train stops at Levisham and the ticket inspector pokes his head round the door.  "We're just going to have a bit of a delay here.  The other train hasn't left Pickering yet.  About twenty minutes."  Twenty minutes? I think, though I just nod and smile and say "oh, ok," because I am British.

It's an incredibly dull delay.  The children elsewhere in the carriage begin to turn feral, running up and down the corridor, usually followed by a harassed mother.  I'm bored and annoyed.  How hard is it to run a railway?  The NYMR has got exclusive use of all the tracks - it's not like they're waiting for a Pendolino to leave or a delayed freight train is holding up the passenger services.  They barely run a dozen services - pull your finger out.  A little boy shouts, "I want to get off!"

"We can't get off," his dad sighs.  "We haven't got where we want to go yet."

Finally another train pulls alongside and we're allowed to proceed.  A bit more countryside and then we start encountering the rusting hulks of old carriages, dead and gutted, waiting to be resurrected.  The yard at Pickering is like Doctor Frankenstein's workshop with half gutted corpses being picked at by sensible men in overalls.

Pickering is the end of the line, so I get off - minding the gap - and push my way through the crowds.  There really are a lot of people waiting to get on the train.

It's a decent station.  The roof is a replica, only a few years old, but you can't tell, and there are plenty of period details to keep you interested.  A tin sign claims Virol: School children need it, which sounds all kinds of wrong, and a WH Smith kiosk makes me sigh longingly.

I've got three quarters of an hour in Pickering, which I decide is not enough to explore the town.  Truth be told, I'm resentful of having to come here at all; steam railways should have no place on a modern transit map.  I'm one of those people who's still a bit sniffy about Overground services on the Tube map, and at least they're a real railway.

Instead I go for a cup of tea.  It's Yorkshire tea, of course, and I order a sausage roll to go with it.   There are two types of employees in the cafe: perky, bouncy young girls, students in their holidays probably, who answer your "can I have..." with "course you can!".  Then there are matronly, sterner ladies, who stand at the back buttering the bread for sandwiches and don't smile.  They're here permanently and that's more than they want to be here, thanks very much.  I suspect that this is the only way some of the older ladies get to see their husbands, serving him a bap now and then between sessions with a blowtorch.

The tea room's a triumph, of course, right down to the tablecloths with engines all over them, and I managed to eat my sausage roll without setting fire to the roof of my mouth.  Then I return to the platform and collar an employee to find out which platform the Whitby train will leave from.

"That'll be platform 1," he says.  "But it's late.  Prob'ly be about twenty past."

But my train HERE was late, I want to tell him.  I've already experienced a genuine old-fashioned delay.  I've DONE that part of the British Railways experience.

The anxiety suddenly rears up inside me, not only because the train platform is filling up very quickly with a huge amount of people.  They were having a day out on the trains - they weren't really bothered about when it got to places.  I had more trains to catch though.  I had walking to do.  I didn't have time for more delays.

The train arrives, a diesel, and I climb aboard.  There aren't any compartments this time, just big open carriages which the tourists spill over like spiders escaping their eggs.  They flow over the front and backs of seats to annexe their spaces.  I manage to get a window seat and then a fat couple in dark glasses sit opposite me, their faces pointing in my direction, making it look like they're staring at me because I can't properly see what their eyes are doing.  Across the way is a party of German tourists: two frighteningly athletic looking ladies and their less healthy looking male companion.  He has the distant look of a man who has spent the last few days being ignored in gift shops while the women discuss which souvenir tea towel to buy; he wants a little nap and a pint and a conversation without any emotional depth whatsoever.

The diesel train pulls out of Pickering station and at that point the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and I part company.  I'd been pretty cool on the idea to start with but this was the final nail in the coffin.  A diesel?  I could go on a diesel train anywhere.  I rode on a diesel train to get to Grosmont, a bloody Pacer at that.  Just because you stuck some old carriages on the back it doesn't make it a genuinely thrilling experience.

I realised that I don't really like steam trains because it's a journey without any thrill.  It's television.  You've paid for a ride on an old train, but you don't actually know what kind of train you're on until you get to a bend in the track and see it in the distance.  There's a view going past outside your window but that's just a load of trees really.  You'd get that view if you was in a car or a tram or a rollercoaster.

It reminded me of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "Homeward" (hold on, stay with me on this).  In it, Worf and his brother are moving a group of aliens from one world to another because their planet is about to be destroyed.  They're a very primitive people, so they're beamed up to the holodeck, which creates a "journey" for them across difficult territory, then they're beamed down to the new planet without realising they crossed light years.

The train I was on was the holodeck.  Anything could have gone past the windows - the Moulin Rouge, the Bajoran Fire Caves, a life size model of David Bowie's buttocks - we were just travelers, going from A to B, and relying on the NYMR to give us a suitable experience.  I was disappointed that it wasn't enough.  It wasn't enough for them to say "you're on an old train!"; that wasn't a pleasure for me.  For a journey to be pleasurable, I have to properly experience it, feel it, smell it; here I was just sealed in a tube and taken somewhere.  Frankly, if there had been a transporter available to get me to Whitby, I'd have used it.

At Goathland the Germans got off, so the fat couple move to their seats, and a family spread their way across the remainder.  The seat next to me is taken by a woman with the most enormous buttocks I have ever known.  They push me into the corner, and seem to grow over the course of the journey, as though her body is settling into place.  Her copious flesh annexes more and more of the seat until I'm practically sideways, twisted in my chair to avoid her Quatermass-like form.

We stop at Grosmont for what seems like an age.  They're actually changing the trains, attaching a steam engine to the front to replace the diesel, which feels like a massive cheat to me.  It means that when we arrive at Whitby it'll be amidst a swirl of smoke and nostalgia instead of the grey fug of fumes.  The tourists will get all excited by it.  Little Charlie, the angelic child across from me, reads from his guidebook with the studious care of a young boy: "It-is-twenty-five-minutes-from-Grosmont-to-Whitby".  I want to slap his legs.  Twenty five minutes!

I'm frustrated, angry and anxious as we crawl towards Whitby.  God only knows how late we will be; at least half an hour, I reckon, if we get a wind behind us and nothing else happens.  The steam train shares with the mainline now through to the coast, and I get a brief glimpse of stations yet to come as we pass.  I quietly write Whitby off.  I've been here before and, pretty though it was, I realise I wouldn't be able to enjoy sauntering round the streets when I still have the walk to Ruswarp ahead of me.  It would be a nagging sore at the back of my skull the whole time.

At the terminus I practically leap off the train to make for the station.  Holidaymakers loll and saunter and I resist the urge to kick them onto the rails.  I have stations to collect!  I have places to go!  I'm not here for the crabs!

I did pause to take a pic of the old British Railways logo on the side of the train.  Nope, don't like that either.  The double arrow logo is infinitely preferable. Basically, I'm just not the nostalgic type.  I'm a 21st Century boy.


The Shillito said...

This sounds a lot like my experience with the Severn Valley Railway (in London Midland territory way away from Northern land, don't panic). Lots of delays (leading to missing my connection at Kidderminster) and the views weren't much to write home about. It would've put me off heritage railways for life, but I was always taught to try something twice before I say I don't like it.

Couple of weekends ago, I went to Wales to try out the narrow gauge Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland railways. You had a pullman-style observation carriage at the back (in first class, but not much more expensive) an on-board kitchen serving hot food bringing stuff to your seat (the Welsh lamb burger was very nice) and the views were fantastic.

So yeah, I understand the "it's just being on a train" bit, but some of them offer a much nicer experience than others, and those are the ones that I'd be okay with going to.

( oh, and the Welsh ones were bang on time :D )

David said...

I'm with you on steam railways. Much better to visit the charming restored stations and look at the locos than sit behind what could be anything-pretty-much in a usually- dirty 1970s BR coach. Not to mention paying through the nose for the pleasure!

Looked at your old Whitby post; in fact Whitby station was much better appointed before the thought of running steam trains back in was ever mooted. In the late 70s and early 80s there were three platforms (one was a one of a pair of bay platforms now built over by the supermarket); a lovely high-level signal box (now demolished for said shop); full semaphore signals and track layout with coal sidings and goods shed - plus a staffed ticket office where the print shop now is - I used to buy my Student Railcard there to support them! In fact the whole line was signalled, with manned signal boxes at Glaisdale, Castleton and Battersby. Now all replaced by self-service single-token machines. Guess such economies are the price of keeping the line open - though Network Rail had to spend £2m on replacing four bridges a couple of years back, which puts such savings in perspective.

David said...

PS You're keeping very quiet about your nights in lovely, lovely Middlesbrough. Did you succumb to a Parmo?

Scott Willison said...

I might have enjoyed it more if I'd been able to jump on and off at stations, I admit. You also have to remember that I resented Northern Rail adding Pickering to the map in the first place so I was under sufferance. A Pullman coach would have made the experience 100x better, but then, luxurious dining makes everything better.

I'm going to do a summary post about Middlesbrough at the end of the line: I was there for three nights so I felt it should get an "overarching" post of my impressions rather than dropping bits here and there. Sadly I did not have a Parmo. Next time...

Anonymous said...

Can be pretty hard to run a railway if you only have volunteers to maintain and crew the train. And if the trains can't reach the passing loop at the scheduled time, there's not much they can actually do about it...

Andrew Bowden said...

NYMR have some very nice observation cars that they can put at the end of the train. Have wingback chairs and everything. Very cool. Well they look good anyway.

Compartments are a weird concept for trains too. My first experience of them was in France twelve years ago, and then again in 2007. In 2001 we had the horrible compartment experience on an intercity from Paris. Crammed in with six other people, with no space for our luggage as we'd boarded late as we hadn't understood that the train carriages weren't numbered logically, but that you had to go and look at the diagram on the platform to find out where coach 22 was. Basically it was horrible.

Then in 2007 we did a local train in the south of France. It was a diesel hauling a random assortment of clearly ex-intercity stock. Most of it was open carriages, one was an old compartment coach. The train was mostly empty, and we had the compartment to ourselves. It was absolutely wonderful.

As it was a few years later when we visited Lymmington in South England where South West Trains used to run "heritage" slam door stock, which had some old 1st class compartments.

Compartments are lovely. In the right circumstances. But not so in other situations.