I'd marked down an hour's wait at Seaham. It's to the south of Sunderland, but frustratingly far from anywhere else; if I'd tried walking to the next station it would have been a real trek.
I'd got an idea of its isolation on the way. I'd not realised how close the rail cruised to the coast here, rugged cliffs, windswept fields of waving grasses and bleak river mouths. It was coldly beautiful, enhanced by the chilly January weather. It was an aggressive coast that fought with the North Sea for dominance, rather than letting the sea win.
Because I'm a generous soul, I'll believe that the New Year's storms were responsible for the Town Centre sign pointing the wrong way, not the local bored youths. It meant that I took a curved, lazy route from the station into the town, through mostly residential streets. Seaham was once a mining town - indeed, when the station opened it was called Seaham Colliery - but of course that industrial base is long gone. Seaham's since re-established itself as a commuter and retirement town, with new housing developments springing up. It reminded me a little of Rhyl or Prestatyn - those relentless strips of homes that string along the North Wales coast, almost but not quite boasting a sea view.
I finally came out on Seaham's little seafront. When the colliery was here, this was an industrial port, but now it's a strip of green with paths and parks. I crossed to the water side of the road, letting the sea wind batter at my face and cheeks. There were hardy walkers out, mainly pensioners, arm in arm along the front.
I wanted some lunch - it was about eleven, but I'd been up since four - and there were plenty of small cafes and restaurants along the sea road. I was anxious about time though. I'd pictured myself relaxing with a bacon butty and a cup of tea, but the walk had taken longer than I'd thought, so I decided to just find a takeaway and snatch a sandwich.
At the town centre, there were signs that Seaham wasn't as resurgent as it could be. There were empty, salt battered pubs, an ugly glass and steel shopping centre, pound shops and vacant fronts. A drugs rehabilitation charity sat on the high street alongside the butchers and games shop. The recovery is coming but slowly.
With a cheese stottie in hand (a kind of large, flat muffin that the locals swear by) I looped back towards the station. This time I followed the old railway line; there used to be a branch down to Seaham Harbour station which closed in the mid-20th century. Now there's a pedestrian path under the main roads, with the occasional bridge and terrace of houses hinting at its old life.
I passed up the opportunity for a "locally famous" vodka slush from the newsagents next to the station and instead sat on the platform to eat my stottie. The line only gets one passenger train an hour, not least because it's a busy freight route. An endless mineral train passed through ahead of my little Northern Pacer.
Between Seaham and Hartlepool there are even more stunning North Sea views, but I was completely unable to concentrate on them thanks to the passenger in the seat in front of me. He was a young lad, in his early twenties, displaying the famous North-East resistance to the cold by wearing a thin jumper and jeans and not much else. He was shouting into his Blackberry: "I just spent 36 hours in a fucking cell. What for? Two robberies. One robbery and an armed robbery." There then followed a long, impassioned, outraged denial, allegations of police cruelty, and pleas for sympathy.
With that call finished, he tossed the Blackberry onto the seat in front and pulled out an iPhone. In calmer, cockier tones, he told the same story to someone else. His Teeside accent was so thick, at times it seemed like a foreign language; it was peppered with dialect words and turns of phrase, and snapped out at a speed that made me sympathise with the court stenographer on his case. The armed robbery seemed to have been in Darlington, and his fingerprints were "somehow" found on the weapon; he was arrested in Sunderland, ready to be taken to Darlington for questioning, but his solicitor had intervened because the journey would "break his bail conditions."
I was trying hard not to listen, not least because I was worried about the implications if he confessed. Was I required to tell the police if he said it was all true? What about everyone else on the train? Are we all witnesses if he suddenly shouted "yeah, of course I did it, but they can't prove it" into his phone? It was an unnecessary source of stress, and I was glad when I got off at Hartlepool and he didn't.
It won't surprise you to learn that he had his feet on the seat. I'd have locked him up just for that.
Hartlepool station's been charmingly restored. The ironwork has been spruced up, the glass canopies have been cleaned and repaired. A glass walled waiting area has been installed on the platform, between the Trainstop Cafe and the booking hall.
It was certainly a step up from the empty platforms at Seaham. Inside, a whitewashed ticket office opened out onto the taxi rank. Hartlepool station was doing its best to make a good first impression.
I stopped by the station sign for my picture. You'll be happy to hear I've had my hair cut since this photo was taken. I'm less happy, because I quite like having longer hair - it gives you something to play with - and I also didn't want to give any satisfaction to the many people who kept saying "when are you going to cut your hair?" I'm extremely bloody minded, and the minute someone says I should do something, I make up my mind not to do it, even if I was planning on doing it anyway. Still, it's all gone now, so the wind can no longer catch it and whisk it into comedy shapes like the one below.
Plus side: at least I'm not bald.
I've often mused on the priorities of "regeneration" schemes. Different Northern towns in need of a boost spent their Government cash on different schemes. In Barrow, the windows of empty shops were covered with large photographic murals to make the street look less abandoned. Hull had turned its quaysides into a new residential and leisure destination.
One constant in all these regeneration schemes is that the street furniture will be replaced. All the bins, lamp posts and benches will be ripped up, thrown out and new ones are cemented in.
Hartlepool seemed to have spent all its money on new lamp posts and paving slabs and signs and then given up. I have never seen so many elaborate light fixtures outside of John Lewis. Each one was peaked by a flying final and embedded in creamy white pavement. Meanwhile, each of the adjacent streets had a high metal arch at its entrance, like the one welcoming you to Carnaby Street in London. Except here, the arches were welcoming you to "Station Approach" and "Whitby Street", which don't have the same frisson of fashionable experimentation and Biba glamour.
I could perhaps forgive all that if I stepped out into a thriving, bustling town centre. Instead almost the first shop I saw was occupied by the Hartlepool Food Bank (bloody coalition). The proper town centre was off to the side, across the main road, and I was in a strip of grim pubs and closed takeaways. I headed down Whitby Road, past pay and display car parks and a fishmongers' with a giant crab painted on the side, until the town just seemed to stop. Lumpy houses and industrial units appeared, surrounded by acres of empty grass and mud. There were still Christmas decorations in some of the windows ("Santa! Please stop for Poppy-Letitia!") which made it seem even more grim. After about December 27th all the joy and happiness seems to leak out of decorations, making everything tired and sad.
I just about managed to not get run over by a white van and headed for the coast. Coronation Drive crosses over the railway tracks and then hugs the beach to the south of Hartlepool. There was a generous promenade between the sea and the road, dotted with playgrounds and benches.
I stood above the sea defences and stared out across the water. It was hard to believe that only a couple of days before this coast had been attacked, repeatedly, violently by storms and tides. It was beautifully calm, looking like a summer's day; only the tingle in my nose and the tops of my ears gave a hint of the true season.
Off in the distance, the steelworks on Teeside belched out white clouds of smoke and steam. They became somehow romantic: cloud makers. I couldn't tear my eyes away as I walked south.
There was a cafe with an adventure playground in the front, quiet today, but still with a scent of chips to tempt the passing motorists. A single jogger pounded the beach. How wonderful, I thought, to have this as your local running track, the soft sand cushioning your sprint, the music from Chariots of Fire playing on your internal jukebox.
Seaton Carew rose up on the horizon. The Staincliffe Hotel - no really, that's what it was called - caught the sun and formed a sinister silhouette in the distance. In my head it became the kind of seaside B & B that has at least one escaped lunatic and probably a couple of sexual perverts as guests. When I finally reached it, the hotel was disappointingly ordinary, advertising its availability for weddings and functions.
There was a little square, almost a village green, with a red telephone box and a parade of tidy houses around it, before I turned up Station Lane. I liked Seaton Carew, not least because it sounded like a character from a James Robertson Justice film. It was a bluff, unpretentious seaside town, one that had given up on attracting holiday makers for a week and had repurposed itself as a cheery day out.
The station wasn't actually on Station Lane, but was instead down a little side path. On the platform you could see the track recede into the distance in both directions, off into the horizon. There was also a mosaic on the platform, which I thoroughly approve of - more of this sort of thing, please.
Alright, I'm not actually sure what it is - a man in a onesie on a boat? A sort of furry figurehead? The first all kitten voyage to the New World? - but it's better than just another set of Northern Rail posters about violence to the staff and rail replacement buses.
(Also, why is there a tree in the sea?)