Tuesday 20 May 2014

Mopping Up

Sometimes I'm genuinely excited to head out on a Tart.  There are destinations that have so much potential - places like Sheffield, or Leeds, or the Cumbrian Coast Line.  They're pretty or they're interesting.  I try to save them and pepper them throughout, like the best Quality Street in the tin; have them all at once and you're left with a load of toffee pennies.  Take Newcastle, for example; eagle eyed readers will have spotted that I still haven't collected that station, for the very good reason that I want to luxuriate in it.

Sometimes, however, I'm visiting places out of a sense of obligation.  I don't have very high hopes of there being anything interesting, but they're on the map, so off I go.  Most of Manchester's suburban stations.  Posh Cheshire.  And today's stations: the little knot around York.

It didn't help that I couldn't get one ticket to cover all the stations.  Northern has a great range of one day rangers, but this area was a blind spot: I'd have to buy individual tickets for each journey.  I ended up collecting a stack of orange card from the machine at Lime Street.

Ulleskelf sounds like an entry in the Ikea catalogue, not a railway station, but that's the Viking influence for you.  It's a long single platform between lines, cobbled together with different heights and one of those enormously long ramps for the disabled.  There was a girl leaning up against the fence, listening to her iPod, not interested in boarding the train or meeting anyone off it.  I left her behind and headed up to the street to find the sign.

There wasn't a sign.  Dammit.  I feigned interest in the timetable and map while I waited for the girl with the iPod to wander up from the platform; I have a little bit of shame about my sign selfies.  She saw me and asked if I needed any help, the damnably polite and cheery hussy that she was.  I thanked her, watched her disappear round the corner, then bombed back down to the platform for the proof of my visit.

Back up again, I skirted the village proper and instead headed south, past the Viking 4x4 Centre ("Ex-Military Land Rover Specialists").  It was positively balmy.  The scent of flowers and grass wafted towards me, installing itself in my nasal passages and inflaming my hay fever.  The path quickly vanished, but there was a wide grass verge for me to walk on, recently mown and a little damp.  Drainage channels were cut into the verge to let water run off the fields; I skipped over them, a camp jump every five yards or so.

It being the Tuesday after Eurovision, I had the Official Song Contest Album bouncing around in my ears.  Strange how your perception of the song changes after you've seen it onstage; for example, I now find it impossible to listen to Poland's song without giggling.  I was ambivalent about Spain's entry on first listen, but seeing Ruth Lorenzo perform it knocked it up to the next level, while the perfectly pleasant tune from Belgium became utterly creepy once I saw the histrionics onstage.  My top three songs were Iceland, France and Latvia; their respective positions were 15th, last, and "failed to qualify", proving that my taste in music is somewhat eccentric.  I was ok with Conchita Wurst winning, but it didn't blow me away.  This is probably because it was just Skyfall with the serial numbers filed off, and I'm afraid that good though Conchita was, Adele did it better two years ago.

Still, Rise Like A Phoenix is good to sing along to, for me anyway; I have a natural bellow.  I let rip as I wandered down the near empty road, only pausing when a hefty looking man jogged past me.

A "crash vehicle exit" seemed incongruous, out here in the quiet countryside.  It was actually a back entrance to RAF Church Fenton.  For seventy years it was a home to fighter planes, before closing at the end of last year.  It's difficult to imagine that this was once home to screaming jet engines.

A little further on, a small estate of redbrick houses clustered around the main entrance to the airfield.  It looked surprisingly busy for an abandoned air base.  There were police cars stationed outside the main building and a delivery van turned into the driveway as I passed.  Soon it'll all be converted into a variety of "live/work" units, whatever they are; there was a planning application pinned on a telegraph pole but I couldn't really work it out.

There are still warning lights, with an aircraft symbol and "STOP when lights are flashing"; the end of the runway was practically on top of the road.  Beyond that was a brick signpost with a carved grey stone aeroplane inlaid into it.

Unsurprisingly, Church Fenton is proud of its association with the RAF; the first pub I encountered was called the "Fenton Flyer", and featured the station's wings on its sign.  I wondered what its future was now that the air base was gone.  No doubt a lot of the people who lived in the village worked at the base - not just air force personnel, but kitchen staff, cleaners, drivers.  The Fenton Flyer must have seen a massive drop in its takings once the airmen were no longer around.  As I wandered the village's roads, I wondered who lived there, what they did, and where Church Fenton was headed.

One place it wasn't headed was on a fast train to London.  The connection from the HS2 Leeds branch onto the existing rail network is due to be just outside Church Fenton, and I saw a number of posters around the village saying "NO" to the line.  It seems there are a lot of campaigners in the village who are very much against this link, citing the noise and inconvenience of the building works and the subsequent fast trains.

It made me scratch my head in confusion.  Obviously I wouldn't want a new viaduct built fifty yards from my house; I recognise that when your home is affected by a new development it's almost a violation.  But Church Fenton, up until a few months ago, used to be home to an RAF base.  A base for aeroplanes.   I'd take the whizz of an electric train going by over the howl of a Tornado or the grind of a propeller.  Less chance of a train falling on top of your house, too.

It was lunchtime, so I looked for a bench to sit on and eat my sandwiches; that pain au raisin on the train seemed like a long time ago.  I headed into the churchyard of St Mary's, nodding a hello to the vicar who was just locking up, and took a seat on a bench amongst the gravestones.

For a while I took in the rural scene, the gentle hum of cars going past, the builders bantering over the road.  A steady stream of pensioners in smart togs trekked by on the pavement, no doubt headed for the local pub for their dinner.  A robin drifted down onto a gravestone clutching a caterpillar in its beak.  It swallowed it in one go.

After a while, I realised I was bored.  Charming country vistas are all very well for a while but a view just becomes background after a while.  It was too quiet for me.  I got up, left the churchyard by the back gate, and wandered round the corner.

The White Horse must have been refurbished in about 1997, because it felt sort of modern, and at the same time, dated (much like yours truly).  The TVs showing Sky Sports News were square cathode rays, and the furniture was just a little bit too chipped for comfort.  It was quiet though, and there was a pub dog, always a plus; a sad eyed Labrador wandered over to me for a bit of affectionate patting.  Having received his fill of attention from the newcomer, he wandered outside and flopped onto the cool stone pavement by the smoking area.

It was finally time for my train.  I strolled back through the village, past some roadworks and a lad on a bike who was just circling the block, over and over, and found the entrance on an overbridge.  Sadly, the station building was no longer in use for railway purposes; it's now an Indian takeaway.

Access to the tracks is through a cool passageway in the building, the final remaining piece of the building to still be in use.  Leaflets and timetables were hanging off the walls but there was no sign of a ticket office.

The station sits over a junction, with trains from York splitting onto the Leeds and Pontefract lines, so it was surprisingly large.  There were four platforms, and a constant stream of fast trains ploughing through from city to city.  Once again I wondered exactly what the anti-HS2 campaigners thought would change once they got a little bit of extra track further down the road.

Regular readers (hello you!) will know that I'm not really interested in trains.  I like trains; I like that they exist, and I think there should be more of them.  As actual objects, however, I'm not bothered.  I don't know the different classes, I don't know the carriage numbers, and I don't know anything about wheels or traction.

While I was waiting at Church Fenton, though, the automated announcer broke in to warn me to stand well back from the platform edge as a fast train would be passing through.  I looked down the track and saw that there were, in fact, two trains en route from York, a freight one on my right and a passenger one on my left, and I thought that might make an interesting picture.  So here you go: finally, a picture of trains on the blog.  I have absolutely no idea what type of train they are or where they were going but, there you go; a proper treat for my trainspotting friends.

The driver of the passenger train saw me taking a picture, incidentally, and fired his horn.  I don't know if it was meant as a cheery acknowledgement of the rail lover or if he was taking the mick; either way, it scared the shit out of me, and made me jump so hard I didn't get a chance for a second picture.

Finally my train arrived and I was whisked off to Sherburn-in-Elmet.  Isn't Elmet a type of hairspray?  Anyway.

Passengers had to cross the track to reach the village, which isn't unusual in itself, except this crossing had flashing lights and a barrier.  It all seemed a bit over the top for a simple barrow crossing like they have at hundreds of other spots on the network.

A walk down Moor Lane revealed the real reason for this excess of equipment.  Sherburn-in-Elmet had been bypassed, with the A162 sent on a wide circular route around the town.  At the same time, the bottleneck created by the level crossing had been overcome with a road bridge, leaving the station on a quiet cul-de-sac instead of the busy main road.

It was chucking out time for the local schools, and the roads were brimming with excitable tykes in white shirts and shorts.  I picked my way through a queue at the bus stop on my way into the town centre.  I ended up following a teenager with a dog for almost the whole way in.  The dog was a colossally ugly pitbull, with a face like a cone of fur.  I didn't dare overtake the boy in case his little angry pooch took a dislike to me so I shadowed him all the way to the crossroads.

Sherburn's a proper old market town, with stone buildings clustered around a medieval crossroads.  At the edges twentieth century homes, blank and uninteresting, have been built, but in the centre there's a feel of a community and a busy shopping district.  Ok, there's a Tesco Metro and a Spar, but there were also small local businesses.  I turned left, going southwards on Low Street towards the town's other station at South Milford.

The modern houses soon swept back in again; Sherburn must have experienced a Milton Keynes-like explosion in population in the sixties.  A girl hung around the back of a bus stop, chatting urgently on her phone, in a way that I'm sure would have got her father very worried indeed.  Across the clear spring skies I could see a power station, its cooling towers pumping out steam.

It was all remarkably cheering.  I pulled my smartphone out of my pocket to find out how long I had until my train to Leeds.

A chill swept over me.  Cancelled?  It couldn't be cancelled.  I couldn't miss that train.  As you may have spotted from the timings above, trains via South Milford were not that regular.  I needed to be in York by 18:40 for my appointed train home.  I couldn't have a cancelled train.

In an example of pathetic fallacy that even Stephanie Meyer would have rejected as trite, the skies darkened.  As I walked down the road, furiously tapping at my phone to try and calculate a new route, and trying not to panic, angry black clouds began to creep in from the west.

I missed the Huddersfield train by about five minutes; I couldn't turn round and go back to Sherburn-in-Elmet station because the trains there were just as infrequent.  I was going to have to go to Selby, wait there for an hour, and then hope that the train to York was on time and not too far from the Liverpool platform.

You can just sense my gritted teeth there, can't you?

I wandered up to the platform - there was no rush - and for a while I stood there and watched the grey clouds getting closer.  The absolute flatness of the landscape made it even more apocalyptic.  Tiny features on the horizon were overshadowed by the vast churning storm.

Then the rain finally came, and I retreated to the shelter to hide.

Luckily the Selby train was on time, and though I had an hour's wait on the platform, there was shelter and seats and a 3G signal so it wasn't too bad.  I had a bit of a whinge on Twitter, and Robert helpfully came back to me with the Realtime Trains website; it not only features updates on a train's position, but also tells you what platform it will be using.  In the cavernous expanse of York station, it was a considerable advantage to know where I'd arrive and where I needed to be without consulting a departure board.

The detour meant that I didn't get to visit Micklefield station, on the edge of Leeds; but on the plus side I discovered that Selby station has what looks like a beautifully preserved Victorian public toilet.  Sadly it's locked behind a barred gate but still; it was a little heritage feature I'd missed on my last trip, and I was glad to find it existed.

I actually made it to York with enough time to pause at a vending machine and buy a Twirl.  My stresses were all for nothing.  It didn't matter.  I had the luxury of a first class seat on the train home waiting for me.


Ithilien said...

I'm with you. The actual trains are the most boring bit!

Love the blog, it's one of the few things in my feed that I never miss.

Plymothian said...

And striding around to the strains of 'my sweet cheesecake' or 'can you be a masterpiece of love?. You should have been 'dancing in the rain' while waiting at South Milford.
'Power to the People'!

Anonymous said...

I really liked this. Well written. Keep up the good work!


Scott Willison said...

Aw, you guys. *blushes girlishly behind fan*