Saturday 14 December 2013

Time and Motion

You probably didn't care.  You probably shouldn't care.  Time, the measuring of time, is an artificial concept.  Calendars aren't universal, aren't definitive, aren't anything except an attempt by humans to bring some order to the fourth dimension.

I did care though.  When I realised that Wednesday was the 11th of December - that is, 11/12/13 - I had to go out.  I meant to go out on the trains one more time this year, before it all got too dark and miserable, and 11/12/13 seemed like an auspicious date for my final trip.

I decided on South Yorkshire as my destination for two reasons.  The first is that the 06:47 service from Lime Street to Norwich via Sheffield includes a stop at Dore & Totley, for some reason.  I'd be able to cross off a station without even needing to change trains.  The second reason was that last December I traveled on the Sheffield to Lincoln line with diamond geezer, and I liked the repetition.  Basically, between that fact and the whole date thing, my OCD and desire to slot events into neat little patterns was working overtime.

Taking that OCD a bit further, I downloaded a digital clock app to my phone that included seconds, then set an alarm so that I could observe the exact moment when it was 08:09:10 11/12/13.  I stared at my phone, watched the seconds tick over onto :10, felt a slight moment of giddiness, tried to take a screenshot, pushed the wrong button, blacked my screen, tried to bring it back, and dropped my phone on the floor.  I then had a few moments of undignified scrabbling before I could get it back.  The woman in the next seat didn't seem amused, but I didn't care, because I'd put up with her unselfconscious yammering all the way from Liverpool South Parkway.  She was even less amused when I decided to get out of my seat before Sheffield (thanks to her loud mobile conversation I knew this was where she was getting off) and she huffed and sighed as I meekly said "excuse me".

Dore & Totley was a bit of a surprise.  I'd expected a suburban station, a couple of platforms and a car park in the middle of a housing estate.  Instead I stepped onto the station's sole platform, deserted, amongst foggy woodlands and empty space.  It felt like an abandoned out of the way halt.

Round the corner though, everything changed.  There was a stream of traffic, building works, a packed park and ride facility.  A CrossCountry train wailed past behind me, shattering that rustic illusion quite firmly.

It was just Dore station for years, the Victorian suffix being dropped in a British Rail efficiency exercise that also singled the track and removed the southbound platform.  As with many of BR's decisions at the time, it was ridiculously short-sighted, and left a bottleneck on the edge of Sheffield.  Now they're campaigning to have the line redoubled and another platform put in; in the meantime, Northern Rail restored the Dore & Totley identity when the Purple Gang were let loose in 2008.  I like the full name better: Dore is tedious, while Dore & Totley sounds like a music hall double act.

The station building still bore the scars of its previous life as an Indian restaurant.  I'm hoping that this little round of investment means it'll go back to being a ticket hall again, but I'm not holding my breath.

I avoided the first station sign I saw, because there were a load of builders milling around it, and instead crossed the car park and took my snap further down the road.

I have to confess: I'd already decided I'd like Sheffield.  My previous visits had been limited to changing trains at the station and a brief visit to Meadowhall in the late 90s when I was staying with my friend who lived near Rotherham.  There was something about the city that had always appealed to me though, just based on its reputation and its alumni.  It's the city that produced Pulp, for goodness' sake.

As I walked down a wide road, sandwiched between trees and parkland, I was charmed.  Sheffield is famous for its parks; it's as though the city planners couldn't quite abandon the Peaks around them.  They knew they had to build houses and factories, but they insisted on pockets of green to remind the residents that they were still part of nature.

It was still relatively early.  The rush hour was just finishing, but it was too cold and misty for people to want to leave their homes.  The greens and tennis courts were empty; only the odd dog walker and extremely brave jogger brushed past.  A single pedalo floated forlornly in the boating lake.  Beside it, the cafe was lit up extravagantly, not yet open, but still burning every Christmas light in their repertoire.

The city began to close in on the suburbs.  The houses became smaller and tighter together, the traffic more insistent.  There were shops and pubs - not the high class hotels I'd seen round Dore, advertising their suitability for weddings, but low Victorian buildings with "function rooms".  Beauty salons - Shellac Gel Hands: £10 - and butty shops.  A phone shop with a laser printed sign advertising mobile accessories and "fancy goods", which made me think they had a stock of tiaras and furs among the novelty Nokia holders.

Now and then an Asian supermarket would offer up a welcome slice of colour, with racks outside displaying fruit and vegetables.  The big supermarkets were just closed off boxes - a Morrison's Local was so unfriendly looking I couldn't actually work out how you got into it - but these grocers actually looked like shops, their produce begging to be touched and bought.

And still there were trees, pocket parks, gardens.  The River Sheaf was shadowing my route, occasionally visible under bridges on side streets.  I continued past the curiously named I've Gone Mirror Mad and up a bit of a hill.  A gorgeous wreck of a cinema was quietly crumbling, its previous life as a snooker hall sadly over.

The mist made everything look glamorous: nature's version of Vaseline on the lens.  There was a soft focus to the distant city centre, and the green hills in the background looked mysterious and tempting.  I turned a corner and was surprised to find a large mosque, a proper one with minarets and a dome.  There should have been something odd about this proud, tall building on a street of terraced houses, but it didn't feel strange; it was a lovely building, right in the heart of its community.

I followed the ring road, instead of going into the city centre.  I wanted to visit it properly, on a day when it wouldn't be filled with panic-stricken lunatics Christmas shopping, and maybe ride the tram as well.  I didn't want my impressions to be spoiled by a load of feverish people streaming into Marks and Spencer and screaming for bargains.

That's St Paul's Tower, a 32 storey apartment block that doesn't really fit the city centre at all.  I don't see the point in building high just for the sake of it.  In places with limited space, fair enough, but I'd passed plenty of brownfield sites that could have been redeveloped with ease.  In regenerating cities, the more people are spread about the city centre the better.  It makes the place lively, encourages movement, creates neighbourhoods.  Hundreds of people trapped in a single tower isn't the way to go.

The remains of the Platform 3 Restaurant signalled my arrival at the station, and at a piece of regeneration that Sheffield definitely got right.  Sheaf Square was carved out in front of the station by simplifying the road network, and it's a real triumph.  Water cascades down steelwork, while clear pedestrian routes send you down to the restored station frontage.

I love these new open spaces in front of railway stations.  Not car parks or cluttered taxi ranks, but places to wander and talk and think.  A place that welcomes you to the city and gives you a fond goodbye.

Sheffield station was restored at the same time as Sheaf Square was built, and the result is a light, airy building that you can't help loving.  Of course, they had a good foundation; the low frontage, with pointed arches and a glass roof, is pretty and understated.  The 21st century works just improved on it.

Inside there's a bright and clean concourse.  East Midlands Trains have gone a bit mad with the queuing barriers - there is a bit of a hamster in an experiment feel to it all - but it's clearly laid out and simple to find.  You can't really miss the BUY HERE sign with a giant illuminated orange ticket next to it.

I wandered over to the Caffe Ritazza for an Earl Grey to warm myself up.  Behind me, two middle aged ladies said "it's a lovely station, isn't it?" with a slightly surprised tone to their voices.

As I waited for my turn the manager suddenly exclaimed, "some bugger's left a muffin out!" and dashed away from the cafe.  I turned to see two pigeons sat on a table, pecking away at the leftover pastry like paying customers; he shooed them away and chucked the muffin in a bin, but I noticed that the pigeons only flew onto the roof of WH Smith.  They knew there'd be more food for them soon enough.  I pictured them at the station entrance every morning, tapping their feet and waiting for the doors to open so they could go in and get some breakfast.

(Incidentally, if you haven't got a Bite Card, you really should get one.  20% off at station food and drink outlets, and it's free.  Just tuck it in your wallet - it's dead handy).

Tea in hand, I crossed over the footbridge, internally tutting at all the people ignoring the "no entry" signs and walking down the up staircase, and headed for my platform.  I'd got myself a "Travelmaster" ticket, giving me unlimited travel on the trains, bus and tram; the tram stop was temptingly just at the end of the bridge but I managed to resist.  The Travelmaster is printed on a hideously garish bit of card.  It's so 80s it should really have a perm and deely boppers.

At platform level Sheffield's a bit chilly; there's no overarching roof, and as a through station, the wind tends to whip through from one end to the other.  There are enormously long platforms everywhere, divided up into A B and C to ensure that confusion is always just under the surface.  I almost got on a Leeds train when it arrived into my terminal platform ahead of the Lincoln train; you just don't expect two services to stack up like that.

I wandered down to the end of the platform to get a look at Park Hill, the brutalist icon that overlooks the station site.  It's a magnificent slab of concrete and colour staring down at you, uncompromising, proud.  The regeneration works have softened its edges but it's still a bit of Le Courbusier in South Yorkshire.

I resolved to visit it when I returned to Sheffield.  But then, there's so much I want to revisit in Sheffield.  I'd short changed it this time.  Tell you what: let's all meet up in the year 2000?  Be there, 2 o'clock, at the fountain down the road...

(Yes, I know the fountain's gone now.  And it's 2013.  Don't spoil it.)

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