It was a little protusion. Three stations, sticking out the side of South Yorkshire. A purple stub.
It's not a stub on the First Transpennine Express map, because trains pass straight through Scunthorpe on their way to Cleethorpes. All the Northern Rail services turn back at Scunthorpe though, so it forms a dead end (and incidentally leaves the Grimsby line stranded on the edge of the map, untouched by all Northern trains except the odd Gainsborough service on a Saturday). I got Thorne North and Thorne South back in 2012, so I thought a little trip out to Lincolnshire would just tidy the three of them away.
In many ways Scunthorpe station is a miniature version of the town itself. It feels like it should be a little rural halt, with only two platforms and pleasing glass canopies. It's silent between trains, like all the best isolated stations are.
Look closer and you start to spot the ugly edges. The old sidings which have just been gravelled over. The factories and refineries and power stations on the horizon. What should be a small town station is, at heart, a dead end.
Good to know it's being refurbished, though. I stepped past the line of minicabs, their drivers leaning on the bonnets and eyeballing the departing passengers, and headed for the edge of the car park. I positioned myself beside the Scunny Car Wash and took my sign pic.
I was heading outwards, leaving the delights of the town centre for later, and instead making for the Doncaster Road. I crossed by the North Lincolnshire Museum, a starkly modern building that looked a bit like a municipal library, and passed a pretty Royal Mail sorting office. It had Ministry of Works signage and a pleasing curve on the corner. In close up, I saw that the doors were boarded up and the windows were held together with parcel tape, but it was great from a distance.
Then there was a long, straight, unchanging avenue out of town. Big semis lined the way, behind generous grass verges and trees. At one point a slight undulation - in the flat Lincolnshire landscape it was practically a hill - saw me walking above the road, with a distant view of wind turbines.
Back at ground level I found myself behind an old lady with a guide dog. I wasn't sure how to proceed. She was walking very slowly, as befits a woman of her age, so I needed to overtake, but I didn't want to startle her or the dog. I ended up walking all over the grass verge, carrying on way past the woman so that she didn't get the idea that I was avoiding her, just that I fancied walking on some grass. For some reason. I don't know what I was thinking. I was putting way too much consideration into it just because I saw the words GUIDE DOG on the lead.
There were parks and recreation grounds, a set of football pitches with one of those teenager shelters in the corner. The idea behind these open but roofed structures is that bored kids will use them to loiter instead of outside people's front yards; I noted the bins either side for them to chuck their empty cider bottles into. A nice idea, I suppose, though the hedge by the road was still littered with cans and crisp packets, and really all you've done is give the teenagers somewhere to go, not something to do that will distract them from graffiti and mugging pensioners.
I liked the uncompromising height of Berkeley Court. It formed a landmark amongst all the flatness, that and a ridiculously huge pub over the road that flew a union jack and advertised live bands. The M181, a spur motorway that has only one junction and seems to have been built just because the Department of Transport had some money left over after their Christmas do, dumped all its traffic on a roundabout here. Like a game of SimCity (the good SimCity, not the abomination currently masquerading under the name), there were long straight roads forming grids, and then the grid squares had been filled with commercial development. There was a Tesco Extra, and a Next, and a Toys R Us, and what I like to call the Avenue of Gluttony: a KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut neatly lined up in a row, while a pub with a Wacky Warehouse was just on the corner.
Almost unnoticed behind all this was the home of Scunthorpe United, hemmed in by a Boots and the drive-thrus. I dashed across the busy road and onto a quieter route, still walking away from the town.
It's here I have to register a complaint. The most interesting thing about Scunthorpe, that I could see anyway, was that its name contains a very rude word indeed. The word that we can all see, and silently giggle about, even though we pretend we're adults and are above that sort of thing. I was looking forward to the many, many abused signs around town. A row of you-know-whats, as far as the eye could see.
What did I get? Nothing. Not one.
I'd hoped for a huge sign as I left town, a Thank you for visiting Scunthorpe, only with the "S" and the "horpe" painted over. Nope. There wasn't a defaced You are now entering Scunthorpe, either, which was probably hoping for too much, but which appealed deeply to the Kenneth Williams in me (matron!). I was deeply disappointed. I'd come all this way hoping for one piece of smutty vandalism, and there was nothing. Buck your ideas up, Scunny.
I pushed on, trotting down a path beneath acres of sky. More wind turbines rotated languorously on the horizon. Soon I was entering Gunness, a hamlet beside the River Trent. The Jolly Sailor pub was closed and boarded up; the car park had been annexed by the auto traders next door. There's a wharf at Gunness, as far inland as coastal vessels can make it on the river, and as I passed there was a Dutch ship moored up behind the Tata Steel works.
Large vessels are held up here because of the George V bridge, a twin road and rail crossing that goes across the river here. It was built as a bascule bridge but as the decades wore on it was used less and less, until it was finally welded closed in the Sixties.
The result is a lot of engineering that doesn't serve any purpose any more. I passed the giant rollers that once hoisted the mechanism vertical, and which hadn't been used for fifty years. They were still impressive. I wished there had been a way to keep all this effort in good use.
Crossing the river took me onto the Isle of Axholme, the romantic name for an area of drained marshes. Before the intervention of the Dutch this was miles of marshland, with small settlements on the few bits of raised land. Sir Cornelius Vermuyden came to England and worked at the behest of the Crown to drain our low-lying land and create fertile farming areas. Honestly, bloody foreigners, coming over here and making our marshlands into something useful. Where's Nigel Farage when you need him?
Althorpe station is just across the river. I have to admit, when I was looking into where I was headed, I got momentarily excited; I thought this was the place Diana Spencer was from, and there'd be a nice big stately home for me to while away the hours in. Turns out that's Althorp (no 'e') in Northamptonshire. Althorpe railway station isn't anywhere interesting at all, and actually should probably be called Keadby, as Keadby is right next door.
I felt a little bit ill taking that picture. I was stood on top of the footbridge and as such I was quite the highest thing in the area.
There are two shelters at Althorpe; the one on the westbound platform is like a little half timbered cottage, which seems lovely until you get inside and it smells of stale urine. Someone had burnt Jack loves Ian cock in the roof of the shelter with their cigarettes; while I disapprove of their objective I have to admire the many hours of dedicated vandalism they'd put into it. I decided I'd eat my sandwiches on the other platform and cross back in time for my train.
Freight trains rolled by, carrying fuel for the power stations or headed for the factories at Doncaster and Sheffield. A Transpennine train would occasionally burn through on its way to the coast. I ate my Philadelphia cheese sandwich and stretched out my legs from the bench.
From the train I could see more of Vermuyden's handiwork. Deep drains ran in parallel to one another, unbroken lengths, a repeating landscape of lines and horizontals. Normally this much water would be an asset, but it was all so practical, so clinical. They weren't even canals, they were just holes for soggy earth to discharge into. The land between them, too, was relentless, uninspiring, unending.
At Crowle the sudden burst of yellow railings gave a much sunnier look to the station. It helped that there was a proper canal here, and a high road bridge flying over the rails and the water, giving a bit of scale to the area.
I let the train depart then made my way across the Barrow crossing and into the little village of Ealand. The village seemed to be down on its luck, no doubt thanks to that bridge taking all the road traffic off to one side. The pub behind the war memorial was long abandoned; the trees in the garden obscured most of the front, and an old woman was letting her dog poo in the remains of the car park behind.
I'd got all the stations I needed to get. I'd got a cheap ticket home from Scunthorpe, though, one that I couldn't use for another four hours, so I decided to kill some time by heading into Crowle itself. I'd seen on Google Maps that there was a market square, so I imagined that would be a pretty place to while away some time. As I left Ealand the sun sparkled off the artificial lake, formed in an old clay pit and now surrounded by dozens of static caravans.
There were daffodils everywhere. Daffodils are basically a very pretty weed, aren't they? You plant one and a couple of years you've got a garden full of bright yellow Triffids. A single flower has appeared in one of my flowerbeds, despite me not actually planting anything (we have very industrious squirrels round our way). I fully expect them to perform a bloody coup on the rest of the flowers sometime around 2016.
The homes were in a better state than in Ealand, well taken care of and dotted with those unfriendly signs that are the preserve of homeowners with too much time on their hands. No turning! Private Drive - NO school parking! No callers! One bungalow was sealed off from the road by an entrance that was less a gate, more a complex piece of machinery; it looked like you'd something from the Crystal Maze. As I tried to work out how you'd get in, a woman passed on a bike; she was wearing tight black leggings and a crop top and had purple hair, and she looked so much like Julia Davies in Nighty Night I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from shouting "Hiya Cath!" across the road at her.
Georgian bays and a narrowing of streets meant I was reaching the centre of the village itself. I could see a pub sign for the White Hart, another for the Cross Keys, and a bend which surely indicated the Market Square.
Regeneration projects are usually a very good thing. Their sole aim is to make life better for people, and as such we should generally support them.
I can't support what has happened to the centre of Crowle in the name of regeneration.
What could have been a centrepiece for the whole village has been turned into a greystone plaza. It's a piece of urbanism in a rural setting, and it doesn't work at all. Two hundred year old houses stare down at granite flats and block seating and seem to frown on it.
Scattered planters of flowers can't bring any charm to the place. If this was a space in a city centre, tucked in the middle of Ropewalks in Liverpool for example, it would be a welcome breather from the crowd of the metropolis. Here it was stark and bare. There should have been greenery, trees, cobbles, something to reflect the heritage of Crowle. Instead it looked like something the council had ordered out of a catalogue.
As for that water feature - what's the point?
You may have spotted that the Cross Keys pub turned out to be Cross Keys Training, but there was still an old fashioned butchers' on the square, and a chippy, and Chafors hardware store round the corner with a window display of weedkiller, hoses, and a selection of hand tools. There was also a hairdresser called Scissor Sisters, which suggests that someone didn't check urbandictionary.com before they called the signwriter. I did a lap of the centre in a few minutes and, still disappointed by the lack of a throbbing village centre, I did the only logical thing.
This is the point where I should talk about Scunthorpe, because I headed back there on the train and spent an hour wandering around. It was a long promised visit too, as I'd been to the bus station back in August 2012, but as I'd written then:
This is going to sound odd, but I didn't want to explore Scunthorpe. Its station is on my to-do list, and so I wanted to save the town for when I collected it. Using up all its delights on a bus journey just seemed wrong. I wanted to keep it for when I arrived by rail.
It turns out, there aren't any delights. Scunthorpe possesses one of the most boring town centres I have ever wandered through. Admittedly it was five o'clock, so everything was closing, but it was still a pedestrian stream of tedious chain stores and uninspired window displays. The library was surrounded by youths smoking cigarettes, there were skateboarders plying their wares up and down the precinct, and the most interesting building I could find was the HSBC. I walked around for a bit, looking for something interesting to visit, something attractive to photograph, something nice to say, until I spotted the Post Office building I'd seen earlier coming up in the distance. I'd managed to walk a complete loop of the town centre. I took it as a sign, and spent half an hour sat on the station platform listening to That Mitchell and Webb Sound.
If you'd had one dirty sign Scunthorpe, I might have given you a passing grade. As it was I was glad to cross this little stub off the map, and to know I'd never have to come back.