I was worried that I'd be underdressed for Thornton Abbey. Would I be met off the train by a bewhiskered butler? Would I be expected to dine with the Lord of the Manor?
Obviously not. I was the only person to get off the train and I found the most decrepit station so far.
At some point, Northern had installed the Harrington Humps and then thought "meh. That'll do." The platforms were broken up, the concrete rough and patchy. It was like a dirt road rather than a modern railway station in the UK. I crunched over the gravel to get the station sign; even that's a bit rubbish.
Thornton Abbey gets its name from the monastery that once stood nearby. It was destroyed in the Reformation, and the houses that replaced it didn't last long either. All that remains is the ostentatious gatehouse, which admittedly looked impressive in the distance, but which I couldn't quite drag up the enthusiasm to go and poke round.
And speaking of a lack of enthusiasm... I had another walk along a rail side path to keep me entertained. The OS map did at least show a few contours on this route and, sure enough, there was occasionally the odd rise to keep me on my toes. In the rest of the country they'd be a speed bump, but I welcomed the variations as a break.
I'd put Madonna's last album, MDNA, on my iPod in a hope that it would get my blood flowing again. The beer and the sun were making me lazy. It saddens me to report that MDNA still isn't a great Madonna album; there are some great parts ("Masterpiece") but there are also some truly appalling tracks that leave you baffled. Here are some things I hope she doesn't put on her next album:
2) Rapping about her life ("Gotta call the babysitter...I could take a helicopter")
3) Collaborations with of the moment artists that date horribly (i.e. LMFAO)
4) Swearing (remember when she would "teach you how to - mmmmm" in "Justify My Love"? MDNA features a song called "I Fucked Up". Classy, Madonna. Do you kiss your kids with that mouth?)
5) Did I mention the rapping?
It was at least keeping me awake. Madonna is never dull, even when she's wrong.
The footpath turned into a road; I walked along the centre of it, not expecting any traffic. I soon regretted this when a cyclist appeared out of nowhere and burned past me. If it had been a cartoon my cap would have spun round and round on my head. There were occasional farms, including one called "Hillcrest", which amused me because I hadn't even realised I was on a hill. It really is VERY flat.
Soon the tendrils of Ulceby village began to reach out. A pavement appeared, then a couple of parked cars, then some houses. A UPS delivery van passed with a load of Amazon packages. Neat hedges lined the driveways of tiny cottages. Children had chalked on the pavement; I don't want to go casting aspersions about the intelligence of the locals, but, well:
Ulceby station lies between two junctions. Below it is a triangular junction that connects the Barton Line to the rest of England's railways; trains can travel from the north or south on to Barnetby and Scunthorpe. Above the station, a branch veers off to Immingham docks and the power station at Killinghome. It's a point where freight and passenger services intersect, and there was a spotter there with a high powered camera ready to snap a passing train.
I retreated, in case he thought I was some kind of railway expert, and found solace in the nearby Yarborough Arms. It was deserted when I went in, but I could hear voices in the back, so I waited at the bar. Soon enough a woman appeared, poured me my pint of lager with a smile, and took my money. I turned to find a seat. It had been laid out as a gastropub, with lots of small tables; the first one I went to had a "reserved" notice on it, so I backed away, and looked for another.
"They're all reserved," the barmaid said over my shoulder. "But there's plenty of room in the lounge."
There was plenty of room in the lounge, of course; there was plenty of room everywhere because I was the only customer, and it stayed that way during my entire visit. I don't know who'd reserved the entire dining room - a coach party visiting the Abbey? The Band of the Grenadier Guards? Her Majesty the Queen and her security detail? - but they didn't show up.
I was three quarters of my way through the pint when the barmaid's head appeared round the corner. "Did you want anything else? Before I close up, I mean?"
It was three o'clock in the afternoon. Lincolnshire.
Drax! As in Hugo Drax, the villain in Moonraker! Yes, I'm fully aware that there is a power station of the same name, and this was carrying nothing more sinister than coal. I'm personally clinging to the idea that it's part of the shadowy Drax Corporation and is filled with a cargo of shuttle parts and/or glamorous space vixens.
The train sadly didn't reappear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season so I got on a regular Northern train and went to Goxhill. It was a popular destination; I disembarked with a couple of tired looking pensioners and some excitable teens. I guessed that they were on their GCSE study leave and had put it to good use with a day at the seaside. They rolled onto the platform, clambering over one another, giggling and laughing.
The station building still stands proudly in the sunshine, though it's not in railway use any more. The current owners have kept it in good condition, right down to preserving the hatch into the ticket office in one wall. Meanwhile, another signal box stands guard over the level crossing.
In my head is an extremely effective, top drawer compass. Combined with an Ordnance Survey map I become a one man SatNav. I know where I'm going, where to turn, everything.
I can only conclude that Goxhill is built on a massive magnet, because somewhere along the line, I made a wrong turn. Instead of ending up on a busy, direct road to New Holland, I found myself on a long suburban avenue. For a long time, I didn't realise I was on the wrong route. I was too busy admiring the neat houses, the lawns mowed into stripes, the daisies peppering the grass verges. The houses all had names; one was called "Dunvegan", which made me think the owners were probably cannibals.
It finally dawned on me that something wasn't right, so I turned to the flickering 3G signal and started up Google Maps. It confirmed that I was on the wrong road, and that I'd basically walked in a giant arc around the village. With a sigh, I took the first left hand turn I saw, in the hope that it would take me across the fields to the correct route. Who knew - maybe I'd cut a corner here or there.
I followed one finger post after another, left, right, north, west. Sometimes I was alongside fields of waving crops, sometimes it was muddy tracks. At one point I passed a paddock with a lazy looking pony. I realised, with mounting fear, that I really didn't know where I was. I knew where I wanted to go - over there - but the paths I followed didn't seem to relate to my OS map. I couldn't get my bearings. The 3G signal had gone completely now.
At a fork in the road, the little friendly yellow arrow failed to show up to indicate the way. I took a punt, and found myself trekking down the side of a field, not entirely sure if I was on a right of way.
I know what you're thinking; why didn't I just turn back? I'd invested too much time in walking so far; if I turned back, I'd be back to square one. And I hate turning back. It's an admission of failure.
So I pushed on. I leapt over a ditch, impressing myself with my own spriteliness. A distant, intermittent boom sounded across the fields; a tiny part of me worried if it was a farmer with a shotgun out murdering trespassers. It turned out to be a sonic cannon, powered off a car battery as a twenty-first century bird scarer. Far less intimidating. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the railway embankment up ahead; at least I'd been heading in the right direction all this time. All I had to do was get to the other side of it. I could see that there was a small crossing further up the track, so I walked along a little further, only to encounter another ditch in my way.
"No problem," I thought, limbering up for another Greg Rutherford-esque hurdle. And then the ground gave way underneath me.
It turned out I hadn't been stood on solid earth, but I was instead putting all my weight on a matted mass of grass at the edge of the ditch. It sent me toppling forward; my left foot went out to steady me, and went straight into the thick black water. Still unstable, my brain sent the right one in as well, and I found myself up to my knees in filth.
I paused and let the air slide out of me. Bugger. I could already feel that my boots were now just two goldfish bowls of liquid at the bottom of my legs; my socks had turned to soggy dishrags. In for a penny, I thought. No point in trying to jump now; I may as well just walk across. I pulled one boot out of the thick mud, and it belched out a noxious ball of composty smells. I lurched to the other side of the ditch, and let out a huge, enormous, really quite obscene swear word.
In close up, the far bank of the ditch revealed that it wasn't grass and maybe a few flowers as I'd thought. It was thick, sharp brambles, intertwined with stinging nettles. It wasn't going to be easy getting out.
Reader, I tried. I tried to move the thorns out of the way enough to facilitate my passage. I tried to get enough of a hand hold to pull myself up out of the water. I reached deep into the nettles, my arm screaming in pain, trying to find a blessed gap. I felt the blood trickle down my arm as sharp points clawed at my flesh. But finally I gave up.
I lurched back, the ditchwater farting out more smells as I did so, my boots becoming even more sodden, the bottom of my shorts becoming stained, and dragged myself out the way I came. For a moment I sat on the soil, feeling defeated. I couldn't see a way to get over the line now. I'd have to go back to that fork, way back when, leap over that ditch again, take the other path and hope it was right. Unless...
Let me clarify; I do not condone trespass in any way shape or form. Especially not trespassing on railway tracks. But right there and then, in pain, limping, my shoes squelching with each step, I didn't care. I clambered up the embankment and dashed the few hundred metres to the pedestrian crossing and civilisation. It was absolutely the wrong thing to do, but it got me closer to salvation.
For once, I wasn't in search of a pub. I just wanted a shop. A little Co-op or a Londis where I could buy a bottle of water for my parched throat and a tube of Germoline for my cuts and grazes. Both arms were now singing to me, but from different hymn sheets; the left was numb from all the stinging nettles (it remained that way until next morning) while the right was a series of sharp, serrated gashes that mixed delightfully with my sweaty body to produce a constant underscore of discomfort and pain.
Thirty five years ago I might have been in luck. That was when New Holland was home to the Hull ferry, the only way to cross the River Humber between here and Goole. There might have been a petrol station or a small shop or a cafe.
The opening of the Humber Bridge turned New Holland into a backwater literally overnight. There was no reason to come this way at all any more. I wondered what this little village must have been like when there were queues of trucks waiting for their turn to cross. The residents must have prayed for it to go away, until it actually did, and they realised that they were suddenly in the middle of nowhere.
I didn't find my little shop. I did find Cooks restaurant, which advertised itself as being in "the Old Co-Op", a particularly cruel way of taunting me I thought. I passed some pleasing alms houses, and a small factory where all the bosses were leaving one after the other, a little chain of BMWs, and then I saw the sign for New Holland station.
I sat on the bench and tipped the water out of one boot, then the other. I peeled the socks off my feet and laid them on the seat to try and dry them in the late afternoon sun. I felt like a tramp airing his underwear out in the middle of an Arndale Centre; I was waiting for a security guard to move me on.
Slowly I started to return to normal. I was able to wipe away the worst of the blood with my handkerchief, leaving crisscross slashes on my arm like I was self-harming again. My feet warmed and dried, though my socks and boots never really felt the benefit, and they both stank of rancid water. I pitied anyone who sat near to me on the train home. There was, thankfully, a 3G signal, so I went online and ordered a pizza for collection from Grimsby; a small treat to cheer myself up when I got back. By the time the train arrived I was pretty much human again.
After a train journey that felt only slightly shorter than the Trans-Siberian Express, I was able to pick up my pizza and get back to my tiny little hotel room. I then had a very long, very thorough, very well-deserved bath.