Wednesday 31 December 2014

Contractually Required End Of Year Post





I can't pretend I'm not disappointed that the total visited has slipped.  To be fair, I got some really tricky ones this year, but it's mainly me slacking off over the last couple of months.  I could have fitted another dozen in there, easily.  I've already booked a trip for the first week in January though - just a little one, but enough to get me back on "track" (hahahahahahaha).

I know that posts full of pointless statistics are always popular with my readers - it's almost as though there's a strong streak of OCD running through railway fans (imagine!) - so here are some more.

MOST POPULAR POST OF 2014: This one, in which I introduced my trip on the Settle & Carlisle.  I think that shows the power of the Settle & Carlisle Line rather than being a resounding endorsement of my writing.  That post is also much more popular than the subsequent accounts of my visits to the stations, which makes me think loads of people Googled it, read my florid introduction, and thought "I'm not reading another eight pages of that".

MUSICAL ACTS WHOSE MUSIC I SHAMELESSLY APPROPRIATED FOR BLOG POST TITLES: Abba, Ian Jones, REM, Boney M, Daniel Diges, A1, Simon & Garfunkel, The Farm, Bjork, The Specials, Garbage, Jay-Z.  I think it's fair to say my musical tastes are "eclectic".

NUMBER OF REFERENCES TO RUSSELL TOVEY: A lot less this year, actually.  It's not that I'm going off him, I'm just trying to play it cool.  Though his new blond hair is a serious mistake and I sincerely hope it's for a role.

EXCITEMENT LEVELS ABOUT SPECTRE: Somewhere around 98%.  I'm not really keen on Blofeld coming back.

BAFFLING BLOG HITS: Too many to mention, but basically imagine any of the stations on the right and put the word "dogging" or "prostitutes" after it.  I don't know what kind of list I'm on.  I would like to say, once and forever, that you will not get any advice about whores on this blog.  Sorry.

DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR: Northern Rail wouldn't send me a map for my wall.  Was it really too much to ask?  Just a little map.  I'd even have one of the old ones.  It's not like I'm asking for one of those amazing Northern Rail USB sticks or umbrellas or Santa hats or one of the other five million freebies they seemed to hand out this year to everyone who wasn't me.  But no: the reply from their customer service department was swift and negative.  (Second place disappointment: the lovely and frankly bonkers Tim seems to have left their Twitter team).

NUMBER OF LOVELY BLOG READERS: All of you, of course.  Except you.  You know what you did.

BEST STATION OF 2014: Kirkby Stephen.  I got to drink tea on a station platform in my socks.  Amazing.

WORST STATION OF 2014: Any number of perfunctory halts in Manchester made up of a couple of empty platforms and a bench.  BORING.

And that, I think, is that for another year.  See you in 2015!

Monday 29 December 2014


Waiting at Bedford station for my train north, a thought occurred.  I'd only been along this route once before in my life, on a trip to Keele as a green sixteen year old.  I was checking out my first choice university though, in all truth, there was no need for the trip: I'd already made my mind up where I wanted to go.  It was Keele or bust.  It just appealed.  The trip involved a train to Derby, then another to Stoke, then a bus; the only things I can really remember about the journey now was the cobbled streets outside Derby station and the railway bookshop at the side of the entrance to Stoke-on-Trent.  Even then my imagination was caught by stations and books and not much else.

The Midland Main Line is still run by diesel trains, unlike its electrified brothers to the East and West.  It's dirty and old fashioned.  It delighted the trainspotting teenager and his dad on the island platform though, the boy pumping his arm up and down in a vain attempt to get the driver to blow his horn.  Unfortunately we'd all heard him blow it as he crossed the river, and he didn't want to push his luck by honking twice in quick succession.  The boy shrugged philosophically, and folded up his camcorder and tripod to move to a different spot for a different video.

I bagged a seat by the luggage rack, luckily; my bag was laden with presents after my Christmas at my mum's.  She got me alcohol and my brother got me Blu-rays - they know me so well.  It was a chilly train, the old InterCity 125s not blessed with the same level of comfortable air heating as the Pendolinos (but not cursed with their frequent faults either).  Across the way was a tired mother and son, him watching a DVD on a tiny player, her leaning back and trying to rest despite his frequent interruptions.

Bedfordshire quietly went by.  Flat and unexciting, the land dotted with ponds made from gravel and clay pits.  A dual carriageway appeared alongside and raced us for a while.  Small towns went by, places that probably used to have a local train service until Beeching, leaving behind only the occasional mossed over platform or a sudden widening of the gap between the tracks to accommodate a long-gone building.  The change to Northamptonshire was unmarked and unnoticeable.

Wellingborough was a surprisingly tiny station.  It looked like a little country halt, with preserved lamps and a field on one side.  We discharged a load of passengers then carried on again, to Kettering next, then onto Market Harborough.  They were towns I recognised - names from a distant map - but I couldn't tell you a single fact about them.  Was Kettering Wicksteed Park?  And Market Harborough... nope, nothing.

Snow began to appear on distant fields.  We'd only had rain in Luton over Christmas so it came as something of a novelty.  The snow crept in, first on flat roofs, and far off hills, then the fields became dusted at their tips.  It got thicker and deeper.  Untouched expanses of white that I wanted to break with footsteps.

Leicester - finally somewhere I'd heard of.  Ugly though.  Big blocky buildings and a station that was in need of refurbishment.  We loitered for a while, even though we were already late, and I watched another gaggle of trainspotters at the end of the platform.  Half a dozen of them, drinking Pumpkin cups of coffee; one had a Tupperware of sandwiches.  They were laughing and jocular, and a member of the station staff kept giving them sideways looks.  I wondered if he was going to ask them to move on.  Tell them to take their tripods and their powerful cameras and leave because of, oh, I don't know, "security concerns".  That's as good a reason as any.

Pushing on, and the local stations reappeared, little halts in little towns for commuters to Leicester.  We barrelled past without stopping, not even at Loughborough.  The mother across the way started packing up the crisp packets and bottles of coke she'd accumulated since London.  A man came down the carriage with a bin bag and her son stood up excitedly on the seat.  "Us!  We've got rubbish!"

I nipped to the toilet, clicking the lock and making the "engaged" sign light up (all lower case Rail alphabet, the last bit of Seventies style to cling on in the privatised train).  Those twee, "Please do not flush nappies, sanitary towels, your ex's jumper, hopes..." stickers have migrated to the Midland Main Line.  I expect that kind of crap from Virgin, a train company that probably has EPIC BANTZ on its logo, but I thought East Midlands would be above it.  I pumped with my foot to get the water to wash my hands and went back to my seat.

I thought East Midlands Parkway was the place where HS2 would stop, but it turns out that's East Midlands Hub, about 5 miles away.  Parkway was built to try and act as a midway point for Leicester, Nottingham and Derby commuters, only for it to be astonishingly unpopular.  I can never fully get on board with a station called "Parkway" - it's a made up word that only developers like.  It didn't help that it was built alongside Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station, cowering under its cooling towers and lending the station a bleak dystopian air.  You wouldn't want to come here unless you had to.

Through Attenborough and Beeston, names that rang bells for Dickie and Cheshire reasons rather than anything to do with the stations themselves, and then the outskirts of Nottingham.  I metaphorically closed my eyes.  Nottingham's on the Northern Rail map, so I'll have to come here and visit it properly.  I didn't have time today.  I had a connection to the Liverpool train to get, and I was antsy about getting a seat.  I didn't fancy standing for three hours.

The Midland Main Line is no beauty.  It's the B-team.  The West Coast and East Coast Main Lines, and probably the Great Western as well, connect up properly important places.  They get the big hitters and the big names.  The Midland goes to Conference towns - only Sheffield, as its grand finale, scrapes into the Premiership.  It does the job, but I couldn't see Michael Palin turning up with a camera crew for a Great Railway Journey any time soon.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

319 Problems and My Trains Ain't One

I'm writing this on an iPhone. A 4S as well, not one of your modern times new the size of a dinner plate. I'm tapping at it with chunky thumbs and getting a hunch in my back.  I'm writing it just because I am so devoted to you, my beloved readers. 

Actually that's not true.  What happened was I rode up from London to my mum's house in Leagrave on a Thameslink train yesterday. Not news of course, but the fragment of interest in it this year is that these are the trains us poor souls in the north are going to be gifted with. 

If and when Network Rail get round to finishing the electrification of the Manchester-Liverpool route, these will be the workhorses that will run the services. These are class 319s and they're twenty odd years old: too old for the Capital's commuters apparently, but fine for us northern scum. I suppose the thought is "you've got Pacers right now, so be glad you're getting anything;" this is the same principle I used when I wrapped an empty crisp packet for the BF's gift tomorrow. It's better than NOTHING AT ALL. 

We've been promised a refurb before they come our way. Possibly including air conditioning but I'm not holding my breath. With any luck they'll address the on-board toilets, which have always been a crime against humanity: faeces smeared boxes that are cleaned only once a decade. Still if I squinted I could pretend I was riding THE TRAIN OF THE FUTURE. 

Apparently feet aren't allowed on the seat, but enormous penises are. 

So yeah: they're ok. They're electric trains, which is a plus, and yes, they're not bloody Pacers, or that mad scheme to turn wrecked Tube trains into something suitable for the mainline. Hard not to feel just a little bit unloved though. 

(Also, merry Christmas and all that jazz). 

Thursday 18 December 2014

The Railways vs. Spontaneity


Tea makes everything better.  Tea soothes and calms.  Tea relaxes and massages the tensions away.

I needed a cup of tea.  Another one.

I'd decided to be spontaneous.  It'd been too long since I'd gone out on the trains; a couple of plans had to be aborted, and I'd had a lot of stuff going on at home as well.  The run up to Christmas was getting hectic.  A nice day out in the hills, I thought.  A quick wander round the North.  That'll clear my cobwebs.

I picked the Darwen branch almost at random.  It connected two stations I'd already done, Bolton and Blackburn.  It mixed town with the scenic Pennines.  I figured I could collect it and still be home for four o'clock, because I had some stuff on that evening (it's been a positive social whirl around here, I tell you).

It was only after I'd bought my Lancashire Day Ranger that I realised how bad the "signalling problems at Lime Street station" actually were.  The big friendly board above Costa promised me that my train to Manchester Victoria was running and on time; it was the Newcastle service, so I figured it would get priority over the grunting Pacers running to Blackpool.  As I stood on the other side of the barrier, at platform 3, I watched tense unhappy faces twitch with each announcement.

We are sorry to...

This is a platform alteration...

This service will not call at...

The dull flat tones of the computerised voice drizzled fake sympathy into our ears.  The Wigan service, due to leave at 10, was cancelled by the autotuned woman, only for a bluff Scouser to break in a few moments later - "please disregard the previous announcement.  The 10 o'clock service to Wigan North Western will run as normal."  Words that became sarcastic as it tipped past 10, then 10 past 10, then carried on, with the diesel on platform 2 remaining dark and untouched.

I bought myself a cup of tea.

I stood at the head of the local platforms, watching for trains.  The way into Lime Street is via a long cutting, giving you a moment of excitement as the white lights of the engine burst out of the darkness.  The trains that arrived were rolling Pacers, lolloping from side to side and chugging their way up to the platform.  There was no sign of my First TransPennine train, the long blue cylinder with a first class section and a trolley service.  Just these dying workhorses of the rails.

My departure time ticked by without any sign of the train.  There were no announcements.

The Wigan train was still at platform 2.  They were just taking the piss now.

Suddenly my train crashed out of the station throat, six cars of Desiro, along with an announcement that the Newcastle service would now leave from platform 6.  There was a hustle of disgruntled passengers - none of us actually angry, just resigned - a crash of suitcases, impatient coughs to get old ladies to move to one side to let thrusting businessmen rush by.  I found a seat at the back of the train while around me people looked at the reservation tickets, wondering if they were valid.

As we sped across Chat Moss en route to Victoria, I did some calculations.  We were twenty minutes late.  I was going to miss the hourly service to Darwen, which meant a long wait in the station and a recalculation of my plans.  I didn't have time to do four stations any more.  I could only do one pair - either Hall I' Th' Wood and Bromley Cross, or Darwen and Entwistle.

In the Pumpkin cafe, with my anxiety-crushing second cup of tea, I turned to Twitter.  Which pair should I do?  The response was unanimous: Darwen and Entwistle.  It was the more scenic route, the nicer walk, the more interesting stations.  There was a lovely country pub at Entwistle.

I made my decision.  I would get off at Bromley Cross.

Hey, this isn't a democracy, people.  If you want to influence where I go on my trips you can start paying for the tickets.

Besides, as we pulled out of Victoria, our train began to be battered with sleet.  The weather forecast had been changeable - meaning, they couldn't make their damn minds up what was going to happen.  When I'd left the house there'd been a prediction of snow; it was downgraded to sleet, then rain, then the snow came back on the horizon.  I decided that perhaps Entwistle - a request stop which features a couple of reservoirs, a pub that may not even have been open, and that's it - might not be the best place to be stuck in the snow, particularly after a five mile walk from Darwen.

Bromley Cross didn't seem like a bad station, anyway.  It had a ticket office and a signal box.  There was a working station clock and a barrow crossing to get you between platforms.  It was okay.

No station sign though.  GMPTE had done one of their cheap jobs, erecting a generic BR/PTE sign that didn't name the station on it.  I walked all the way round in search of a proper sign but there was no luck, so I ended up squatting on the platform like a weirdo.

The sleet continued to whirl about me as I wandered into town.  I was right on the fringes of Greater Manchester, with stone terraces mixed with new build cul de sacs and the occasional block of flats.  Innocuous streets ended with a staggering view of the Pennines, like a Government-sponsored mural painted on a brick wall to cheer up a low area.

The weather finally gave up then.  It'd been fighting the too-warm December, trying to bring a little bit of wintry atmosphere to my walk, but it wasn't going to happen.  It folded and let the day become mild.  The sun breached the clouds in laser-shards, low above the horizon and making me squint.

After a brief snigger at a sign for Ramsbottom - I am thirty seven years old - I turned onto a busy main road.  It was lunchtime at the local Catholic school, and teenagers were chomping chips and burgers.  Jamie Oliver would have had a fit.  They clustered in twos and threes with their heads low.  A white van cut into a side street, then paused; it rose from the main road at a ridiculous angle, and he had to rev his engine hard to get the power to go up it.

I turned right at the Bolton Castle pub and saw the railway bridge in the distance.  Is that it? I thought.  I'd seen hardly anything of interest, just the edge of town.  It had taken me about twenty minutes.  And here was my second and last station of the day.

On the plus side, what a brilliantly named one.  Hall I' Th' Wood.  Apostrophes necessary.  Is this the only example of a dialect pronunciation making its way into a station?  I can't think of any off the top of my head, but then again, I have a terrible memory.  The area is named after a 16th century mansion, unsurprisingly in a nearby copse, and referred to by that nickname.  It's great.  It deserves a better sign though.

It's a relatively recent station, too, opening in 1986 and consisting of two platforms splayed either side of the main road.  There's a little wooden shelter and a bench but that's it.  I stood by the track, rocking backwards and forwards on my heels, waiting for my train.

What a let down.  All that way for just two stations.  Not even difficult to get to ones - these weren't Redcar British Steel, just regular commuter towns.  Perhaps I should have listened to my Twitterati?  (No, let's not be hasty).  I resolved to be more organised in 2015.  I resolved to plan better and not be so casual about my station collecting.  And I resolved that, when I got back to Manchester Victoria, I would have a cup of tea.

Thursday 27 November 2014

This Is Not A Blog Post

I was going to write a blog post about the newest manifestation of Saveaways.  They've gone all hi-tech, you see. Smart Saveaways first became available on the 24th November, bringing ticketing on Merseyside into the 21st Century.

This isn't a proper Walrus card, I hasten to add.  It might have Walrus written on it but that doesn't mean a thing.  That scheme - to introduce a Merseyside version of the Oyster card - was announced to great fanfare in 2011.  Season ticket holders would be using it by the end of 2012, with pay as you go in 2013.  It's nearly 2015 and it hasn't happened so don't mention it.  Just pretend no-one said anything.  Ignore that Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire and Tyne & Wear are all rolling out their own smart cards.

I was going to write about how the new Saveaways are not able to be pre-loaded with cash, like a pay as you go Oyster.  I was going to write how, if you have a Smart Saveaway, you have to take your card to a shop and ask them to put a day's travel on it.  I was going to point out that I could do that right now, if I wanted to buy a paper one, and so the fact that it's got a magnetic strip means nothing to me.

I could have written about how you can't buy a Smart Saveaway over the internet, or how you can't top it up online, or using a ticket machine in a bus or rail station.  About how you can't buy one in advance, like you can with a scratch-off Saveaway, so that you can have a spontaneous day out if the mood takes you.  About how my nearest Pay Point is actually in the opposite direction to my nearest bus stop.  About how there will be a £1 charge for registering it after the 1st of April.

There's probably a lengthy and detailed blog post to be written about how Merseyrail will not be issuing or crediting Smart Saveaways, and will instead stick to the paper version.  I could probably get quite a lot of humour about the fact that Merseyrail ticket inspectors will have no technology to check if your Smart Saveaway is actually valid, so, in the words of the website:

In other words, to make sure you don't get fined for not having a ticket, carry a piece of paper with your paperless ticket at all times.  Unless there's a station with ticket gates.  There's a whole eight of those on the Merseyrail network (assuming that the one in Chester accepts this smartcard, which isn't guaranteed as it's outside the County line).

And I could probably get a bit of wry fun out of the fact that when they opened the new Ferry Terminal two years ago, it came with smartcard readers, but they won't be used in 2014.  Instead you queue up, show your Smart Saveaway to a person at the ticket office, and they'll give you a boarding pass for the ferry.  Saving you absolutely no time at all.

In short, I probably could have written a lengthy, extremely angry blog post about the Smart Saveaway being inconvenient, pathetic, ridiculous, customer-alienating, a blight upon Merseytravel, and a major cause for red faces among everyone at Mann Island.  However, it's all just too bloody depressing, so I shan't bother.

Saturday 22 November 2014

Map! Rant (Temporary Version)

Hamilton Square's been back in the news this week.  The works there have exposed some of the fine Victorian tile work - which will sadly be covered up again with new cladding - and also a load of old posters.  Many of these seem to be from the 50s and 60s.  (It would be remiss of me not to point out the one that says New Brighton is "gay").  You can view an excellent gallery of the rediscovered posters at the Echo website - here.  Or, if you'd prefer, here's a badly filmed video of the station done by me through a train window yesterday.

Please send my Oscar to the usual address.

The continuing closure of the station has resulted in a new, temporary version of the Merseyrail map.  My heart sinks just typing those words.  Merseytravel produce some fine display materials and some excellent posters, but for some reason, when it comes to the network map, they always fail.  It's as though they assign the work experience boy to those jobs, even though the map is one of the most important pieces of artwork they produce.

The closure of Hamilton Square is more inconvenient to passengers than the closure of one of the Liverpool underground stations.  Hamilton Square is at the heart of its own district, separate to the rest of Birkenhead.  There are Council offices, the Wirral's Magistrates Court, a police station.  A significant legal centre has grown up in the area.  There's a college nearby, not to mention the bus and ferry termini at Woodside.  In addition, Hamilton Square is the point where the Wirral Line splits north to the New Brighton and West Kirby lines and south to the Chester and Ellesmere Port lines.

Merseytravel have provided a bus service which travels between Conway Park (on the West Kirby line), Birkenhead Central (on the Chester line) and the Hamilton Square district to enable as many journeys as possible to continue uninterrupted.  The Merseyrail map needed to be adjusted to show both the closure of Hamilton Square and the alternative bus service.  This is how they did it.

That's not right.  In fact, that's so wrong, it actually hurts.

Here's a few basic rules of railway map design.  A solid line indicates a regular service.  A broken line shows an irregular or interrupted service.  A circle indicates an interchange between train services.  These are rules that have been established, at least since Harry Beck's Tube diagram in 1931, and probably before.

This map violates those rules.  The broken lines seem to say that Wirral Line services terminate at one of the three stations in Birkenhead town centre: Hamilton Square, Conway Park, or Birkenhead Central.  The broken lines hint at their former paths, but, for some reason, they can't go that way.  Your journey will be inconvenienced in some way.  The new map implies that there was a direct Conway Park-Birkenhead Central service, which there wasn't.  And Hamilton Square has exactly the same symbol as the open interchange stations.

Yes, there's a big green box at the bottom of the map saying Hamilton Square is closed.  But it's at the bottom of the map.  It's near Chester, in the spot that used to tell you about the bus service into Chester city centre.  It's not near Hamilton Square.  There's not even an asterisk on Hamilton Square to show that there might be something unusual going on.

Contrast with a similar situation in London.  At the moment, Embankment station on the Underground is undergoing escalator maintenance.  The escalators there are the only way to reach the deep level Bakerloo and Northern platforms, so the works mean those lines are no longer accessible.  Here's how TfL handled the change on their map:

It's abundantly clear what's happened there.  The brown Bakerloo and black Northern lines continue uninterrupted to Waterloo from Charing Cross.  The District and Circle lines at Embankment (which remain open) are still on the map.  And a dagger next to the Embankment station name shows you that there is something unusual about that station, and so you should refer to the box at the bottom for further information.  It's simple.  In fact, Merseytravel had it even simpler, because they didn't have the complication of only half the station being open.  Yet they managed to hash it up quite royally.

Here's what I would have done.  Now bear in mind: all I have to work with is MS Paint and my own clunky fists.  I don't have access to Photoshop and years of training and artistic skill.  So this is the best I could come up with, but it shows the principle.

The Wirral Line remains unmolested, so you can still take a train straight into Liverpool city centre.  Hamilton Square's circle is removed from the line completely, and an asterisk guides you to a key at the bottom of the map.  And the purple line shows the bus services, including the stop at Hamilton Square.  It's not perfect, of course - I had to get rid of the large BIRKENHEAD caption, and the purple line shouldn't go through the station name - but I repeat: I am not a trained graphic designer.  That revision shows there's something odd going on but most of your train journeys will be unaffected, and there's a bus route for those you who are affected.  (You could possibly add the ferry in as well, given that it effectively replicates the James Street-Hamilton Square portion of the line, but that would probably be over egging the pudding).

It's not difficult.  It just requires a little bit of thought from the designers at Mann Island.  They need to put themselves in the mind of an infrequent traveller, a foreign tourist who wants to get from Liverpool to Chester to visit the Walls and wants to know the quickest, easiest way of doing it.  I'd be put off travelling on the Wirral Line by that dotted section if I didn't know better.  It hints at hassle that doesn't exist.

Please, Merseytravel.  Try harder.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Fat Malaise

As I write this, I'm not in Yorkshire.  I should be in Yorkshire.  I had tickets booked and everything.  But I'm not in Yorkshire.

I woke up with my alarm at 5:30 this morning - my train from Lime Street was at 7:12 - and I just couldn't face it.  I couldn't face travelling across the country to loiter by a station just outside Barnsley.  Even if it was the hilariously named Penistone.  I felt miserable and unhappy, and I still do.

Part of this might be simple tiredness; I went to Ikea yesterday, and walking round Ikea is roughly equivalent to walking a 10,000 metres.  Only with a bag full of tea lights and wine glasses slung over your shoulder.

Part of it, however, is a more general disaffection with the whole project.  My last few trips have not been very inspiring.  Bits of Manchester.  Suburban Hull.  OK, I was in the Lake District a couple of weeks ago, but that's not even on the proper Northern map.  I've felt a bit like I'm going through the motions, and that worries me for two reasons.

The first is, at its best, visiting stations is tremendous fun for me.  I like going to places I've never been to before, and there's a tremendous sense of satisfaction from crossing them off the map.  I don't want to get bored of it.  I don't want my writing to get boring either, which is something I've also been afraid of lately - I feel a bit like I'm repeating myself.  I don't want this to become a chore.

The second is a deeper reason.  When I was at my lowest, most depressed point, I didn't enjoy anything.  I was just existing, not truly living.  I'm a bit concerned that I may be slipping back that way.  There have been days lately when I've just wished it away, counting down until lunch, counting down until dinner, counting down until bed.  Little markers that tell me another day is almost over.  I had a bit of a breakdown in Sainsbury's car park last week as well; I got some very funny looks from the Afghan refugees who do the hand washes.  I don't want to feel that way again.

This is probably just a blip.  This is probably something to do with the turn of the weather, the darkening evenings, the rapid approach of Christmas.  I'll probably be clawing at the walls by Friday, desperate to get on a train and go anywhere.  It's just not happening today.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Only Happy When It Rains

There are 533 stations on the Northern Rail map, as you'll know if you read my Percentiles post a few days ago.  That's not actually 533 stations that are served by Northern Rail services, though.  Seven stations are served exclusively by other rail companies.  One is Liverpool Central, an important station that's close enough to Lime Street to be counted as practically an interchange.  Dalegarth and Pickering are on heritage railways that for some reason they've chosen to include on the map.  The remaining four are all in Cumbria, in the middle of that huge gap between the Cumbrian Coast Line and the Settle & Carlisle.

They're exclusively grey lines; Northern doesn't go anywhere near them, so the only way to reach these stations is by Virgin or First TransPennine Express.  (Incidentally, when I mentioned them to Robert, he suggested that as they're not Northern stations I didn't need to bother with them, even though they're on the map.  This has made me re-evaluate our five years of friendship as he clearly doesn't know me at all).

I got off the Glasgow train at Oxenholme alongside a gaggle of fearsome Latinas.  Big of hair and tight trousered, they babbled in Spanish at one another, strutting along the platform exuding confidence and attitude.  They seemed quite alien amongst the shuffling English people.  Their huge suitcases hinted at a week's holiday in the Lake District; I wondered if the charming guest house they'd no doubt booked themselves into knew what was about to hit it.

Oxenholme itself is just a tiny village that happened to have the good fortune to get the West Coast Main Line driven by it.  It means it gets a better service to Scotland and London than Liverpool does, with fast Pendolinos stopping regularly.  Its importance is as a junction.  A single track railway breaks off here to head into the heart of the Lake District - my destination for the rest of the day.

I headed to the exit for my first sign pic of the day, which is suddenly a lot easier.  I'd finally reached boiling point with my camera.  It had decided that it would only operate when it was in the right mood, leading to numerous occasions when I'd stood on a street corner turning it on and off again.  Frustrated, I went on the net and ordered a replacement.  My new camera is another Samsung, but this one actually seems to be decent; it's the NX-Mini and it features a "selfie screen".  I know, I know.  By buying this camera I am actually perpetuating the horror of the selfie.  But I've been doing this for seven years, and the NX-Mini's flip up screen means I can actually see what I'm taking a photo of while I do it.  This is a refreshing change after years of vaguely lining myself up and hoping for the best.

All the technology in the world can't stop me looking like a twat, though.

I started the descent down into Kendal.  Below me, the town spread out over the valley, its houses the colour of mint cake, white dots spread across the green hillsides.  They were built up as high as possible above the road to try and get a commanding view every time.  Three police vans whizzed past me, blue lights blaring, with an ITV news van following in its wake; the van still had the old network logo on it, making me think that Cumbria wasn't top of ITN's list of priorities.

The river Kent, which gives the town its name, curved along the valley floor, and I followed its course into town.  I passed behind the K Village, an awful faux-heritage outlet mall; its buildings had been designed to look like Georgian townhouses, only built out of breeze blocks and with an underground car park.  Twee nonsense, but at least there was a pleasing riverside walk behind the vacant store fronts.

The town itself doesn't need fake scenery to pep up its attractiveness.  This is the real deal, an ancient market town that retains all of its old school charm.  Tiny yards lead away from the main street like veins from an artery, while at one point the Blindbeck, a narrow stream, cascaded down between two houses and under the roadway like this was the most normal thing in the world.

Kendal's current wealth is based on its beauty and its closeness to the Lake District, and it embraces it wholeheartedly.  There were cafes and tearooms everywhere you looked, vast outdoor shops flogging brightly coloured GoreTex, tiny gift shops selling things that you would only buy when you went on holiday.  No-one has ever bought an ethical, eco-friendly woollen hat while on a regular shopping trip, only when they've got spending money sloshing around in their pocket and they feel guilty for poking around a shop without buying anything.

It meant that the town had a breezy, comfortable feel about it.  It wasn't as classy as perhaps it thought it was - for all its eating options, the only place with a queue out the door was Kentucky Fried Chicken - but I had a good wander round its pedestrianised streets.  I was particularly intrigued by ABC Lloyds, whose sign advertised "Ladies & Gents Hairstylists - Fountain Pens & Accessories", one of the more random retail combinations I've seen.  ("I'm just going into town to get my hair done and to buy some India Ink.  What a hassle that will be.  If only there was a shop that did both!") I finally ended up back down by the river, crossing the Stramongate Bridge and taking a seat by the weir to eat my sandwiches.  I looked at the salmon ladder, hopefully - the sign said that you could see salmon going upstream in November and December - but the only sign of life was a flock of seagulls arcing under the bridge.

It was a lovely, quiet spot; even when the silence was broken, it was by a school trip.  Forty tiny children in hi-vis jackets trotted by me, holding hands so they wouldn't get lost, chattering enthusiastically.  It seemed like a wonderful place to live.

I turned back to head for the station.  The arrival of the railways was a source of great controversy; it was not long after visiting the Lake District had become fashionable, so people were annoyed that the undisturbed landscape they had just discovered was now going to get a train line driven through it.  The fact that it would enable a lot of working class day trippers to visit the previously upper class preserve probably didn't help.  Wordsworth himself protested against the building of the line, though once it was finished, he changed his mind and bought shares in the company, a delightful piece of hypocrisy I fully expect to be repeated by lots of Chiltern stockbrokers once HS2 is built.

I was pleased to see the station had an impressive gable roofed building high above the road.  It's always good to see a proud town station.  It was accessed by a long driveway, so I paused for the obligatory photo then trekked upwards.

There was something odd about the station though; as I got closer, I spotted a Lloyds Pharmacy on the ground floor.  I'd never seen that in a station before - a WH Smith, a sandwich shop, even the odd delicatessen, but never a pharmacy.  I realised that the huge station building wasn't a station any more.  It was a doctor's surgery, with a chemist's for the patients.

It was even more disappointing at platform level.  A single track - the other was removed in the Seventies - and a couple of undistinguished shelters.  A next train indicator squeaked slightly in the wind.

Not even a ticket machine.  It was a "secure station", because of all the CCTV cameras, but beyond that it was just another deserted hilltop halt.  Its saving grace was the view, out over the top of the old goods yard and to the hills beyond.

A long First Transpennine Desiro chugged up to the platform, three comfortable carriages that certainly put the clunky Northern train I'd got to Preston to shame.  I found a seat for my trip to Burneside.

Northern Rail map fetishists - or indeed, anyone who was paying attention to the map at the top of this post - will have noticed that Burneside isn't actually on the map.  It's not a destination so they didn't bother adding it when they crayoned the Lakes Line on.

I couldn't just ignore it, thought.  Partly because I have a very, very bad habit of anthropomorphising inanimate objects and then feeling guilty for not paying them enough attention.  It's why I regularly rotate my way through all my mugs, so no-one feels left out, and why I try to view all my DVDs at least once during the year so they feel loved.  I realise this is insane.

The second reason is - obviously - I can't pass up the opportunity to visit a railway station, especially one so close.  It's like when I visited Berwick Upon Tweed - I didn't have to, but it was there.  Like Everest, only flatter.

So I'd added two more stations to my trip unnecessarily.  What else was I going to do with my time?  Something useful?

The station was getting a lick of paint from a gang of boiler-suited men.  The signs said they were from a private company, but they all looked like they were on community service - a load of bald heads and chunky arms that just shouted "five to ten suspended sentence".  I kept my head down and went out to the road for my sign picture.

Burneside village was a reminder that the Lake District isn't just scenic vistas for us city folk to coo over as we pass through in our Mondeos.  People actually live here - not millionaire retirees, ordinary working class people.

This is a polite way of saying that Burneside wasn't very attractive.  Don't get me wrong, it was a lot more charming than, say, inner city Manchester, but it was a real come down after Kendal.  The village was dominated by the James Cropper paper mill, to the extent that until recently they even owned many of the homes.  It sat in the centre, grumbling, pumping out steam and smoke.

I skirted the factory and took the road out of the village, between low grey houses built to withstand the winter.  The automated voice on the train had pronounced it Burnieside, like "and Schnorbitz", instead of like the policeman from The Bill.  I was wondering if this was strictly accurate, a bit like when the computerised woman trips over the "brough" in "Middlesbrough"; in fact, I was wondering about it so intently I missed my turn and had to double back to find my footpath.

For a while I was following the back of the factory, right up against the fence.  I put a suitable "rambler at work" expression on my face because I was sure that I looked like a cat burglar testing the perimeter for access points.  A couple of times I nearly skidded over in the wet mud.  I imagined the factory workers in the canteen, watching me with their mugs of tea, cheering as I skidded and waiting for me to do an undignified flip.

I'd booked my tickets for this trip at the start of October.  Normally, once the Autumn comes in, I move away from country walks.  Paths become waterlogged, rivers burst their banks, and the weather becomes temperamental.  On this occasion, though, I'd got a certain fantasy in my head of walking in the rain.  I'd romanticised the idea of walking across the Lake District in soft drizzle.  It seemed like the best way to see it.

The weather was being firmly uncooperative.  It was nearly Bonfire Night, and I was in shirtsleeves - rolled up to my elbow at that.  I didn't even have a coat; the weather report said there was no need.  It wasn't the charming autumnal scene I'd pictured.

Obviously it was still beautiful.  Weak sunlight peeked through constantly churning clouds.  I watched a heron perch on top of a weir, pecking at the water, before picking up and circling away with a fish caught in its beak.  Stark leafless trees formed veiny silhouettes on hilltops.

The River Kent was back alongside me, only angrier.  It churned beneath me, the noisy water a constant backdrop to my walk.  More than once I mistook the heavy crashes for a train passing by.  I clambered over a succession of stiles; at some point, my map worked its way free from my pocket, and I spent the rest of the afternoon feeling guilty for accidentally littering.  The fact that I had absolutely no idea where I now was and had to rely on memory to find my way was a secondary consideration.

The tiny village of Bowston interrupted my country jaunt, and I crossed the bridge by a car workshop that would fit right into Emmerdale.  Except in Emmerdale it would probably be run by sexy lesbians, and there'd be a body tied to the air pump.  A sexy body.  Who was also a lesbian.

Bowston was barely a spot on the map, just a main street and a couple of cul-de-sacs, and I was soon back on the Dales Way footpath beside the river.  It was barely three o'clock but it felt like the day had given up and was getting ready to hand over to the evening.  I hoped I'd make it to civilisation before it turned pitch black, not least because the signal on my mobile had finally given up.

I was back on the road again before long.  I sauntered along, minding my own business, when a BMW roared out of nowhere.  The driver took an elaborate diversion around me then burned away.  There was a gate further on; he paused at the outside, pushed a button on the console, and let himself into a compound.

It was a compound.  A bit of Docklands had somehow become detached and drifted into Cumbria.  Tall white apartment blocks with steel and glass balconies, plus a token bit of limestone cladding to make it "blend in".  A seven foot wall blocked access to passers by and stopped snooping eyes from catching sight of the residents.

Cowan Head was built on the site of an old paper mill, and replaced the industry with a leisure centre, Sky TV and a private nine hole golf course.  I hated it.  It was inappropriate and ugly.  The mill, I'm sure, hadn't been pretty - the one in Burneside certainly wasn't - but at least it was useful.  It provided employment and a livelihood.  This was a place for London-types to spend their weekends.  It wasn't for the locals - unless you count the "cleaning services and interior window cleaning" the website mentions.  I found it hideous and profoundly depressing.

Fortunately it was soon left behind.  I was approaching the centre of the National Park now, and the landscape became harsher and less well-groomed.  The grass under my feet was thinner; I could feel hard rock with each step.  Lonely barns were pockmarked with weather damage.  Across the way, a stream emptied into the river, an endless torrent adding to the flow.

I felt lonely now, the good lonely, the lonely where you don't want anyone around.  If I'd spotted another hiker at that point I'd have been disappointed.  I was enjoying the isolation.

There was the occasional moment when I wondered if this was perhaps a good idea.  When I skidded on a waterlogged path and came dangerously close to the river's edge.  When I clambered over large lumps of stone, managing to avoid the mud but putting myself at a much greater risk of slipping.  When I stumbled slightly and felt my ankle give way underneath me.  I wondered what I would do if I ended up stranded on the path: no coat, no phone signal, no-one really knowing exactly where I was, no map to show me the way to go.  I clung to the knowledge that the railway line was somewhere over there; maybe over the top of that hill, maybe a bit further on, but the point is there was a route to civilisation within a fairly accessible distance.  Assuming I didn't break my leg or something.

I scrambled up and over the wall and into a woodland.  The path was obscured by thick leaves.  I wondered when someone last walked this way; they looked bedded in.  On the other side, I scoured my memory of GCSE Geography (A grade, just saying) to try and remember what the word was for rocks left in odd places by retreating glaciers.  I wasn't a fan of physical geography - not more about oxbow lakes - so I'd purged it from my mind the minute I didn't need it any more.  A Google search just now reveals they're called "erratics" but I was thinking of the much more pleasing sounding "drumlins", so apparently all that fuss about educational standards plummeting isn't a recent thing.

It was when I began talking to the sheep - not just talking, but talking to them in a Russian* accent, because I thought that make it more interesting for them - that I realised I should perhaps get to civilisation quite soon.  Fortunately I was approaching Staveley.  I passed some farm buildings that had been converted to private residences - along with a snotty sign on the gatepost: Footpath diverted Aug 1993 now 250m >, because heaven forbid that walkers should be allowed to violate their driveway - and I found myself in the village.

Staveley was a community.  You could feel the village breathe in and out, its residents flowing through its lungs and making it live.  There was a butcher, a chemist, a couple of pubs, a cottage that still had Martins Bank Limited etched over its front window.  The River Gowan burbled through the centre, and all around were those epic, brown and green hills.  I followed the lead of a lady in an impressive knitted cap and took a look at the notice board.  I learnt that the local MP is Tim Farron, the most Northern man who has ever lived, and that dog fouling is an issue "yet again" ("six or seven dollops of the stuff had recently to be removed from the football pitch before the junior footballers could start their practice").  Further on, mothers and fathers were starting to mill outside the village school, ready to pick up their kids.

I'd stopped outside the public toilets, because I was amused by a sign saying that it was run by "Staveley Stop 'n' Go"; I was wondering if that was a deliberate pun or if they were blissfully unaware of how it sounded.  There was another noticeboard, and I was just about to read the What's On in Staveley calendar when a woman appeared at my elbow and barked, "Are you looking at our noticeboard?"

"Erm... yes."

She was a tiny woman, buttoned up in a padded jacket that looked like it had been made out of a duvet.  Pegged into her lapel was a large and elaborate poppy, the type that is there to let you know that she cares about the departed just that bit more than you.  "I work on this noticeboard," she continued, "with those ladies over there."  Two women, one sharp and angular, one small and bookish, were wandering towards us from the village.  "We come here every night to check on it.  And to lock up the toilets.  Check it's all up to scratch."

I felt a tiny prickling at the back of my neck.  What was she trying to say?  "I was just curious," I stammered, and began to walk away.

"Nothing wrong with just being curious," she said to my departing back, while I wondered if I'd been bagged as some kind of sexual deviant and a photofit of me was going to appear on the noticeboard next week.

I headed for safer ground: the station.  A building nearby still had Railway Hotel painted on its upper wall, but it had long ago been turned into a private home.  The station did boast something I'd not seen outside the big stations: an LED screen, showing a rotation of information posters, timetables and adverts.  It seemed like a good idea until I had to sit in the shelter alongside it and listen to it hum noisily.  You don't get that with a noticeboard.

The station was up on an embankment, and as with Kendal, the best that could be said about it was it had a great view.

My heart sank when the train came in.  It was a school train.  All over the country, rural trains around 3:30 become filled with hyperactive, over loud children, who temporarily take over the length of the carriage and turn it into a small Grange Hill.  I climbed aboard and pushed my way through the yammering kids, some of whom were in seats, some of whom were wedged into the luggage space, and I dropped myself into a seat with what I hoped was just enough casualness that they wouldn't pay me any attention.  I miscalculated my landing though, and whacked my backside into the arm rest, leaving a five inch bruise on my left buttock that is still angrily purple.  (Pictures available on request).

It was getting properly dark as I reached Windermere, with purple lacing through the skies.  The schoolkids all clambered over one another to get off the train, turning the car park into a circus, with cars and parents weaving in and out of one another.  Windermere had a small wooden station building, which would have been perfectly nice if it wasn't next to the old Windermere station building.

That is - let's be honest - a shed.  A very posh shed, but just a shed.  Next to it is a stone building, with a porte-cochere and a pitched roof, but that's been turned into a branch of Booths.  For the benefit of readers from outside the North West, Booths is what Waitrose would be if it stopped being so downmarket.  Booths have olive bars and juice bars and art galleries with artisan breads and cheeses.  Booths makes Sainsburys look like a food bank.

They've not done a great job with the Windermere store, it has to be said; it faces the car park, on the other side of the building, so the railway side feels like an afterthought, and the porte-cochere is dark and unlit.

I headed into town.  I hoped that I'd be able to see the lake before the sun set.  It seemed odd to come all this way and not reach the largest lake in England.  I passed through a pretty town centre, devoted to healthy outdoor pursuits and the extraction of tourist pounds.  An open topped bus wound its way through the streets - you'll be unsurprised to hear the top deck was empty - and hardy looking pensioners stared in shop windows at stuff like I'd seen in Kendal, only more so.

I passed the library, which was advertising an exhibit called "From Auschwitz to Ambleside" - a title that had the inadvertent result of making a small Cumbrian town sound as bad as a concentration camp - and I was walking happily down the hill when I saw this sign:

One and a quarter miles?  I realised I'd never make it to the waterside before the sun set.  I made a mental note to write to Windermere Town Council, demanding that they change their name because it's flagrant false advertising, and instead headed back up the hill for a place I knew would be warm and comforting and satisfying.  

Windermere is home to Lakeland, and houses the chain's headquarters and flagship store.  I love Lakeland, even if I'm convinced they pipe mind altering drugs into the air conditioning system.  At first, you're wandering around giggling at the products on display, wondering who has the room in their home for a banana guard or a tomato corer.  But after a while it starts to overtake your mind, and you begin thinking, "why don't I have a silicon spoon guard for the edge of my saucepans?  Does everyone else have one?  Is this solving a problem I didn't know I had?" and then next thing you know you're at the checkout with an armful of Teatools because the idea of using a spoon to take the tea bag out of your mug seems positively repellent.  Well played, Lakeland.  Well played.

*bad imitation of Boris Grishenko from GoldenEye.