Sunday 29 June 2014

Day Two: While England's Dreaming

The more observant reader will have noted that on Day One of doing the Barton Line, I visited two Grimsby stations and Cleethorpes.  I completely missed out New Clee.  This station is a request stop a little further out in Grimsby, so I thought I'd start my second day from there.  I hate asking the guard to stop the train; I'd much rather climb on board at a request stop so I don't have to talk to a human being.

It was the morning after England went out of the World Cup and everything was subdued.  I'd not watched the match obviously - there was free Wi-fi in the hotel, so I spent my evening reading reviews of 30 Rock on my phone - but there was a palpable sense of gloom hanging over the town.  The streets were, in the main, empty, even though it was 8am on a Friday.  I'm guessing that a lot of people booked the morning off to recover from their celebratory/commiseratory hangover.  The only people I saw who looked jolly were two fishermen, sat by the riverside and chatting amiably.

First, I had to buy a hat.  The strong sunlight of the day before had turned my face red and left me with a brown ring around my throat where the collar of my t-shirt had been.  I do this every time I go away in summer.  I forget that I have an enormous forehead that absorbs sunlight like a solar collector, so I have to buy a hat.  Then I take it home, throw it in the back of a wardrobe and forget about it, which means that next time I go away, I have to buy another one.  I have a collection of single use hats building up.

Worse, the only type of hat that doesn't make me look like a total wanker is a baseball cap, and I'm 37 now.  I'm getting a bit old for a baseball cap.  I tried on a couple of other hats in Asda - shut up, it was the only place that was open at 8am - and they did not work at all.  A straw hat makes me look like Michael Fabricant hunting for some poor children to shoot; a flat cap turns me into the worst kind of indie twat.  I settled for a £3 baseball cap, stretched to fit my enormous skull.  (It's now in the back of my wardrobe amongst its poor dead brothers).

From there it was a walk through quiet streets to New Clee.  Occasionally a parent would appear, dragging one or two kids behind her on the way to school, but mostly the pavements were all mine.  I crossed a busy dual carriageway by "Playgirls Massage"; I wonder what their reaction would be if you went there with a knee injury and asked for a rub down?  I'm guessing the girls who work there don't have a BTEC in Sports Therapy, though I could be wrong.  Perhaps the busty woman on the sign was actually a fully trained physiotherapist and I've got a dirty mind.

I entered a trading estate on the fringe of the docks, a series of metal sheds that mainly dealt in fish and food processing.  Four women had gathered on a wall at the edge of some waste ground to have their last fag before they started work.  Cyclists whipped by; the flat terrain and the fenced off dock estate mean that bikes are a great way to get around.

New Clee station is tucked on a side road behind a home interiors warehouse.  It's another station that might have been useful for dock workers once, but modern changes in the way people work have made it irrelevant.

It doesn't help that when the line was singled, the platform on the side of the docks was put out of use.  It made sense at the time - the industry was on its knees - but without even a footpath to the other side it's an inconvenient walk round the block to get anywhere.

I leaned up against a fence post to wait for the train to arrive.  There are only four a day stopping here, and every one requires you to gain the attention of the driver.  I'm not a fan of sticking your arm out, like a bus; that's a bit obvious.  I'm stood on a station platform and you are a train - it's pretty clear what I'm here for.  Instead I prefer to go for the casual scratching of the head, sticking my elbow out in the direction of the track, so the driver is aware of my presence but isn't offended by me patronising him and his vision.

I may be over thinking all this.

I was dropped off at Healing, four stops up the line.  Most of the stations along the Barton Line are two platform halts serving small villages, where the old Victorian building has been turned into a private residence, and Healing established the tone.

I'm calling it the "Barton Line", but tiny stickers on the platform signs revealed it had undergone a rebranding.  Now it's the "Humberlinc Line", and if you read that without thinking of Englebert you're a better man than I.  I get the principle behind it - it connects the HUMBER with LINCOLNSHIRE, do you see?!?! - but I prefer the original.  Not least because I don't think any train company should mentally connect itself with a song called Please Release Me.

My Ordnance Survey map indicated there was a footpath running alongside the railway, but it was evidently a few years out of date, because there was a housing estate in the way.  Just a little one.  I followed its gentle curves and found a back alleyway behind the houses with a small yellow "public footpath" arrow beside it.  Putting on my best, "I'm not a burglar, honest" face, I walked down the passage, waiting for the local homeowners to accost me and demand to see my particulars.

Before long, the path opened out onto the village's sports ground - a football pitch with a metal packing crate to change in - and then I was on the edge of a field of green wheat.  The ears whacked at my naked legs, making me regret wearing shorts, while the last of the dew splattered into my boots.  Then there was a high pitched whistle, and an East Midlands Train appeared on the tracks above me, the morning service from Grimsby to Newark.

The path veered away from the fence then, taking a diagonal across the field, until it hit an embankment with rough wooden stairs embedded in the side.  I clambered up them and was a little surprised to find myself on a busy bypass.  I nipped between the cars and back down the second flight of stairs on the other side.

Houses appeared on the horizon.  As I got closer I realised how large they were - one had a courtyard, another backed onto a field of ponies.  The footpath eventually brought me out into a cul-de-sac that was so posh, it didn't have tarmac on the road, it had block paving.  A couple of builders were in the middle of constructing an extension to one of the already huge detached homes.

I crossed Station Road at the same time as a little Miss Marple lady on her bike (obviously there was a basket on the handlebars) and went looking for somewhere to sit down.  I still had a couple of hours until my next train and I hadn't yet eaten my breakfast - a falafel flatbread I got at Asda with my hat.  The village of Great Coates didn't seem to have a centre, just a series of houses strung along the main road, but I finally found a little bench by a bus stop opposite the church.  I ate my flatbread and drank my travel mug full of tea.

Walking back along Station Road, I found a lot of decent, well appointed homes with long drives and discreet entryphones, but not much to catch my eye.  Before I knew where I was I'd reached the station, and more or less the end of anything interesting.

I still had an hour until my train so I took my sign photo and resigned myself to a long wait on the platform.

It was then I spotted the "local information" map, with its handy key to vital amenities.  It seemed there was a post office within ten minutes' walk; I imagined that if there was a post office, there might be a row of shops, and possibly a little cafe where I could have a sit down and a cuppa.  It was reached through a footpath I'd already seen on the way up, so I turned back the way I'd came to hunt it down.

Remember The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?  When Lucy pushes at the fur coats in the wardrobe, and walks through, and keeps going, and when she comes out the other end there's a lamp post and snow and Mr Tumnus?

Going down that path was a lot like that experience, except without James McAvoy.  I left a comforting green English village, and when I emerged at the other end, I was on the set of Shameless.

A long road curled around a series of differently angled houses, blocks of flats and maisonettes.  Narrow concrete paths ran between gardens.  The walkways delighted in names like "Fountains Avenue" and "Melrose Way", plus "Buckfast Way", which just has unfortunate connotations.  However, they were reached via Service Roads, each one numbered and leading into dead ends of garages and fencing.

If you want to dehumanise an area, give its streets names like "Service Road 22".  The whole district was a frustrating mix of bad architecture and bad planning.  I could imagine the town's designers, sat in their office, thinking that the tight walkways would generate community.  I pictured them drawing children playing in the gaps between houses.  I imagined their drawings of ladies leaning over the fence to chat to one another.  Mums walking home with the shopping.  Dad coming home on the bus, because there was no need to have a car.

I'm guessing none of their drawings featured teenage girls walking home after dark.  Or delivery men looking for a front door.  Or people parking their cars in garages and having to trek another 200 yards to get to their kitchen, with bags of shopping and a pushchair.  The principle of a pedestrian friendly housing estate is a sound one, but people don't live like that.

As I walked around the walkways, two things struck me.  Firstly, how close together everyone was.  Each house crowded against its neighbour, and there was only a three foot wide walkway separating front gardens.  It was claustrophobic.  Imagine getting just one bad neighbour in there, one person with a loud barking dog, one person who didn't mow their lawn, one person who listened to Iron Maiden at top volume at 3 in the morning.  There would be no escape.

The other thought was how quiet it was.  Without the gentle pulse of traffic in the background, the "streets" seemed dead and lifeless.  There was no sign of humanity in there.

With a slight shudder, I headed back towards the Narnia-alley.  I didn't find the Post Office, never mind a cafe.

A short train journey took me to Stallingborough.  I had a brief moment of confusion as I tried to take the sign picture; a shirtless workman appeared from the old station house and threw my concentration.  I can normally get my fat head and the station sign in the picture first time, but this one took me eight tries.  Ahem.

I crossed the road and found the pathway by the railway track that would take me to the next station.  There were two vans parked there, with a small barrage of men leaning up against the bonnet and laughing.  I assume they were there to do some work but they didn't seem to be in much of a rush to start.  I suppose it was almost lunch time.

I kicked the chalk with my boot as I followed the straight path through the fields.  In the distance, a red tractor was spraying the crops, performing languorous turns at the end of each run before going back for another spray.  Butterflies flew up in panic as I approached.  The white surface of the walkway made a perfect spot for them to bask, until my lolloping great steps intruded.

Cards on the table time.  Lincolnshire's dull.  It's flat and it goes on forever and there's nothing to see.  Everywhere I looked was just a plain vista of green going off to the horizon.  Not a hill to break the view.  When you start looking affectionately at electricity pylons as a break from the norm, you've lost it.

And it's so straight!  Roads, paths, fences; with no obstacles in sight they just go from A to B in the shortest, most boring way possible.  I could see every inch of the path ahead of me, and when I turned round, I could see everywhere I'd been.  There were no surprises or excitement.  Just long, straight, tedious walking.

I crossed the road at Little London - very Little London; there wasn't even a house, which makes me wonder if the name was sarcastic - and entered a small paddock.  The two horses inside barely looked at me.  A sign on the gate had warned that they were microchipped and freeze marked, which made me expect some kind of cyborg super horse, but they looked quite ordinary.  After a brief moment where the path detoured through a tiny copse, I came out by the signal box at Roxton Sidings.

The signal box is not much longer for this world.  The whole line is due to be upgraded and resignalled very soon, a process which will see it all remotely controlled from York.  The manned level crossings will be replaced by automated ones and the signal boxes will be closed and demolished.  I'd feel sad, but that portaloo out the back makes me think it's not the nicest place to work.  (Where did the old Victorian signalmen go to the toilet?  Never mind; I don't want to know).

More walking, more grass, more stinging nettles to avoid.  I could feel the back of my neck toasting.  By the end of the day it would be pink and flaky, like gammon.  I was distinctly bored with all this.

Then - blessed be! - I saw civilisation appear in the distance.  The buildings got larger, revealed themselves to be houses, and shops, and best of all, a pub.  I practically ran inside.

The only customers in the Station Hotel apart from me were a small knot of middle aged men.  They'd arranged themselves in a square in the centre of the pub, beers carefully placed to one side, and they were chatting through thick country accents.  They were all racing fans, and talked at length about odds and the different bookies in town - going from one place to the next to get the best odds.  One man suddenly said, "I don't know what to do w' meself until half two, when the racing starts.  I just potter about."  There was a moment of quiet, and I suddenly felt sorry for him.

Inevitably, England came up.  I guessed that they'd already done the post-mortem earlier on, lengthy, emotive discussions about the shortcomings of every player.  It seemed that the national team's failure had already gone from tragedy to farce.  "In t'Racing Post they're already doing odds for Euro 2016.  England are 14 to 1.  Should be 14 fucking thousand to 1!"

Weirdly, I like it when we're pessimistic about England's chances.  It seems much more English.  Shouting "we're going to win the Cup!" doesn't feel right.  I much prefer, "hopefully no-one will get hurt and we might beat a couple of decent teams."  It makes any actual victory even sweeter; the London Olympics were so much better because the country was deeply cynical about them, only for them to turn out to be really bloody good and Team GB won hundreds of medals.

I was mulling it over when the landlady appeared.  "I'm just closing up now, love.  You can take the beer and sit outside if you want."

It seems all day opening hasn't hit rural Lincolnshire yet.  It was one o'clock; time for everyone to go off and do something else.  Clutching my beer I wandered outside, a bit discombobulated; it's a long time since I was in a pub at last orders.

On the plus side, the railway station was right next door.  I took up a seat on the platform to wait for the train.  After a while, a woman was dropped off by a passing car and she came towards me.  A small glance and she decided, no, she wasn't going to sit on one of the spare seats beside me.  I was insulted until I realised I was still clutching an empty beer bottle.  She probably thought I was still drunk from the night before.  I hastily dropped the bottle in the bin, just as the train came in.


PlatformCat said...

Why no photo of the shirtless workman? I feel let down...

Anonymous said...

One interesting fact about being 37 - you're older than William Hague was when he wore that baseball cap to visit a theme park.

Scott Willison said...

The workman was too close for me to take a picture without being seen. I may be a perv but I'm not daft.

Are you saying that William Hague looks better in a baseball cap than I do, Anonymous Person? RUDE.

Anonymous said...

My friends live on the 'Shameless' estate (either Willows or Wybers, I always get the two mixed up). As Grimsby estates go, it's nowhere near the worst, although I agree about the service road naming, which I assume is due to the industrial estate next door, once upon a time much more thriving than it is these days.