Monday 27 October 2014


For reasons far too dull to go into here, I found myself in Manchester with a couple of hours to kill.  I decided to visit some stations, because what the hell else are you meant to do in Manchester?  They haven't even opened the Airport tram line yet.

I headed to Brinnington, on the edge of Stockport.  It's on a line that forms part of a triangle of railways in the east of Manchester, with the Guide Bridge line forming the top and the Hyde section forming the side.  I'd already briefly touched this part with a visit to Bredbury, so this way I could visit the last four stations and cross off a big section of map.

Brinnington was built in the same style as Bredbury, with a warm-coloured ticket hall in brick and wood.  Unlike Bredbury, however, there was no car park and station inn.  Instead the roof was lined with sharp spikes to prevent climbing.

This was a far more down at heel area.  The houses were in corporation brick, and there was a chippy and a general store in a squat building that looked reinforced with steel.  Shutters covered half the windows.  Soon the houses were replaced by open patches of concrete with tower blocks at their centre.

My eye was caught by a motorhome with one of those strips over the windscreen - the type that says "Tracy and Brian".  This one said Free n Ezy.  Leaving aside the criminal spelling, I wondered if the owner realised he was calling whoever was in the passenger seat "easy"?  Unless that was part of the appeal.  Perhaps the motor home was a kind of mobile whore house.  On the opposite side of the road, beneath one of the towers, a man hovered in a way that looked suspicious despite his best efforts.

It used to be that you could tell who'd bought their Council house because they had a different coloured front door.  Your first action on getting a mortgage was to chuck out the corporation sanctioned door and get something with a bit of glass and style.  Now you can tell who owns their own home on an estate because they're the ones without solar panels.  I like to imagine the tenants "accidentally" wafting their new lower heating bills under the noses of the homeowners, then going inside and running all the hot taps at once just because they could.

I descended down a side road into a mass of trees.  There was a van there, with some council workers sat in the cabin eating their sandwiches.  I assumed my best "I am just out for a perambulation, my good man" air, so they wouldn't think I was cruising the woods for illicit purposes; this was fatally undermined when a few moments later I had to turn round and walk past them again because I'd taken a wrong turn.

I was entering the Reddish Vale Country Park, a long strip of green either side of the River Tame.  A nature reserve, fishing ponds and grazing space have been allowed to flourish around the water.  Horses grazed in fields while birds whirled overhead; it was hard to believe that only a few moments before I'd been on a rough estate.

I love spaces like this.  Unexpected swathes of green that slip unnoticed between houses and cars.  They're often there for the most unromantic of reasons - to provide a buffer for a motorway, as reclaimed landfill, or they're the site of old mine workings - but they're always a joy.  The cities burst with noise and panic around them and then you take a few steps and it all falls silent again.

It's also under threat.  As a way of "regenerating" Brinnington, Stockport Council has suggested selling off some of the country park for new housing.  Their logic escapes me.  Firstly, how will more houses improve people's lives?  Secondly, when has building on a country park ever been a good idea?  I'd been thinking how lucky the residents of Brinnington were.  Despite their slightly grim environs, they had all this greenery within walking distance.  How would taking away the - no doubts magnificent - views from those tower blocks and replacing them with 200 identikit roofs improve the minds of the residents?  How would it make them feel, other than even more isolated and unwanted?

I crossed over the river, past a sign from the Environment Agency warning of a chemical spill in the river making it hazardous for dogs to go in.  The city wasn't as far away as I'd thought.  I walked between low ponds with wooden jetties for fishermen, through a cluster of ducks being fed by excitable toddlers.

In the distance were the brick arches of the Hope Valley line, carrying the railway over the Tame.  I made a slight detour out of my way so that I could have a look at the underside.  It's a fantastic piece of railway architecture and completely uncelebrated; its position on a commuter line in Manchester means we take it for granted.  It's easy to forget what an impressive piece of engineering it is.

It's certainly more impressive than the low bridge that carries the Stockport to Stalybridge line through Reddish.  Robert and I visited this sad, unloved little branch a few years ago; it's baffling that a piece of perfectly adequate railway in one of the largest cities in Britain is so ignored.

I came out of the country park into the Stockport you'd expect.  Red streets of terraces at right angles to one another.  A cat eyed me from the grass outside a closed primary school.  There was a row of pound shops, and a garage, and then I saw Reddish North station, half hidden by trees on a side road.

It's retained its original station building and, more impressively, it's still in use.  Northern have refurbished it so there's a decent little ticket office and waiting area inside.

What lets it down is the sign.  GMPTE have sprung for a sign at the roadside, but it's just a generic one, with the BR logo and their symbol on it.  The actual station name is stuck on the side of the building; an afterthought.

Sidebar: that Northern Rail poster is a classic example of marketing speak doing nothing apart from pissing off the customers.  If you can't read it, the poster says:

You're saying...
"I want better value."

We're listening...
"We are installing more ticket machines at busy stations across our network.  We know your time is precious, so want to reduce your queueing time as much as possible."

Cue a hundred thousand commuters saying, "that's not actually what I meant by 'better value'."  It's someone taking a poll result and desperately manhandling it to try and get a positive.  I'm sure the people who said "I want better value" actually meant "I'd like my rather expensive train ticket to buy me more than standing space on a rickety pacer as it chugs between Liverpool and Manchester at four miles an hour."  

Speaking of rickety pacers, one soon appeared on the platform to take me to Belle Vue.  We were back to the two platforms and a bus shelter model of railway station here.

I didn't mind that so much, because I assumed Belle Vue was built for crowds.  For a century this was the home of a large entertainment complex, intended to amuse and delight the city's middle classes.  Belle Vue had a zoo, pleasure gardens, amusement arcades, lakes and ballrooms.  There were firework displays, circuses, boxing matches and exhibitions; hotels and tea rooms catered for the crowds of visitors.  It was a sort of inner-city Alton Towers.

I knew there wouldn't be much to see now.  The park's admittances declined with each passing decade.  Growing public discomfort over zoos meant that Chester, with its large open spaces, became the way forward, and Belle Vue couldn't compete.  The amusement park rides were offered for sale, one by one, and when there weren't any takers, they were demolished.  The Speedway stadium was sold to a car auction firm.  Houses were built over the sports ground.  All that remains of its pleasure ground past is a multiplex, built on the site of the main entrance, a snooker hall, and the greyhound racing track.

I knew the greyhound stadium wouldn't rival Wembley, but I was shocked to see it across the road from the station.

Concrete walls and rickety sheds; it wasn't exactly saying "a fun night out for all".  Greyhound racing outside London always seems odd anyway. It's a sport that needs an audience of bulky Cockneys with sheepskin jackets and photochromic glasses.  Mike Reid, yes; Liam Gallagher, no.  It reflected how quickly the whole Belle Vue site fell from grace.  By the time it finally closed in the early Eighties it was unmourned by most of the city, regarded as a dated blot that needed to be dealt with.

I turned left from the station, crossing the site of the former Midland Hotel (now demolished and replaced with advertising hoardings; one, incongruously, was advertising Heathrow expansion - a vital issue to this area, of course).  There was a certain amount of irony in the name Belle Vue, an irony compounded by streets named after royal palaces - Sandringham, Windsor, Balmoral.  This was a poor, underprivileged area.  It was struggling.

It was little things.  The litter on the street.  The occasional boarded up, burnt out home.  The shops selling brands you'd never heard of.  The adults strolling down the road at 2 in the afternoon, jobless. Tiny signs that added up to an area that needed help.

I turned into a tight street of social housing.  When they'd been built, cars hadn't been a consideration, and so the roadways were hopelessly narrow, with cul-de-sacs only big enough for a single vehicle to drive down at a time.  Road humps and chicanes had been introduced to try and stop joy riders.  It deterred two lads on a dirt bike, who swung into a side road at the last possible moment to try and avoid the barrier.

I passed the Estate Office - a lovely hangover from its Council days - and turned left by a row of shops; an off licence, a Chinese takeaway, and a chip shop called, somewhat bizarrely, "Fantasy".  Who has fantasies about chips?  No, wait, I know; Rule 34.  Best not to ask.

I'd reached my final station, Ryder Brow.

The GMPTE signage lingers on out here.  Transport for Greater Manchester's been in existence for three years but they can't be bothered updating the corporate look where no-one important can see it; in fact, there was a poster on the platform heralding TfGM's arrival.  The plastic case had been smashed.

Also on the platform was this slightly patronising sign.  Some trains skip the odd station along the line, and so there was a warning for drivers.  I can't help thinking it could have been phrased better.

And that was that.  Another bit of Greater Manchester tucked away.  There's still loads to go, of course, because Manchester has more railway stations than it knows what to do with.  The rest will have to wait for the next time I'm in the city with nothing to do.

Thursday 23 October 2014


Yesterday, two separate people - one by text, one in the comment on my latest blog (hello Fnarf!) - asked me how much of the Northern Rail map I've actually done, and whether there was a map anywhere with all the ones I have still to do.  In light of this unprecedented public interest in the blog (no, seriously; most of the time it's tumbleweeds around here) I thought I'd do a little post answering those questions.

I'm not going to do it in map form though.  That map, with the stations crossed off on it, is for my eyes only.  We have to have some secrets, dear reader.  Plus I don't want you turning up at the stations I have yet to do, screaming in adoration and trying to get my autograph.   

So here are some STATS, taken directly from my spreadsheet:

Yep.  I'm in the last quartile of the Northern Rail map.  (Please note these numbers include four stations I visited last week and haven't written up yet - cliffhanger!).  That doesn't mean I'm nearly finished, because that's still 130 stations to be visited, many of which have terrible service, or are in the wilds of England, or are probably a bit unpleasant to visit.  There's also Dalegarth, the heritage railway in Cumbria that I don't particularly want to visit but which Northern added to the map for reasons unknown to any sensible humanoid.  The "total" is constantly in flux.  James Cook University Hospital was added to the list last spring; work has just begun on two new stations in West Yorkshire, and Ilkeston station in Nottinghamshire is due to open at some point.  Northern - or their replacements - may also lose some stations in the new franchise, like the ones on the Grimsby line.  

You want it broken down a bit more?  How about a list of how much of the map I've done, split up into Public Transport Executive?

Again, this gives you a bit of an idea of the geographical stretch I still have to do.  A bit of town, a bit of country.  I like to keep things mixed up and spread over a wide area - for example, at one point I realised I'd done an awful lot of West Yorkshire in a short period of time, so I laid off there for a while.  It keeps things interesting for me, and hopefully for you as well.

Fnarf also suggested that I'd get some kind of ceremony when I did the very last Northern station.  I believe the phrase is, "LOL".  Merseyrail didn't do anything for me after I visited all their stations, and they were lovely to me most of the time (I went to their Christmas party!).  Northern wouldn't even send me a map for my wall when I asked them.  I'm not counting on a 21 gun salute.  I will probably get drunk, though.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

The House of God, and Other Mistakes

Four hours.  Four hours of travelling to end up in Nafferton.  I could have got to Glasgow in that time.  I could have got to London, checked into my hotel, and been halfway through a nice lunch in that time.  Four hours.  The sooner they electrify the cross-Pennine routes - or even better, build HS3 - the better.

I was here to finish off the Yorkshire Coast Line, only two years after I started it.  Running south from Scarborough the route picks off a variety of small, historic towns and villages, plus some seaside resorts, before terminating in Hull.  I'd done as far as Bridlington so now it was time to cross off the last half a dozen stations.

I got off the train behind a wild-haired student, who strutted down the platform and across the level crossing with supreme confidence.  I hung back, the weirdo trainspotter in an anorak, skulking under the sign with my camera and trying not to look like a pervert.

The air was thick with the smoke of morning fireplaces, a scent of coal and logs that made the village feel warm and welcoming.  I strolled into the centre along a narrow footpath.  There were cottages pressed against the roadside, a red phone box, a lady walking her dog.  Mixed in amongst them were larger, symmetrically fronted homes behind green verges.

It was all thoroughly charming.  On a day that wasn't coated in drizzle it would have been lovely.  I reached the centre and found a lake, complete with island in the middle, just a few metres from a historic parish church.

Shame about the name, really.  It was all very nice but imagine living here and telling people you lived in Nafferton.  I bet almost all the conversations at dinner parties include the words "'s not as bad as it sounds."  The place names in this part of the world are distinctively old English, with an undercurrent of Viking, and now, to our English language that's been softened by namby pamby Norman French, they sound cold and harsh.

I passed the village noticeboard, which included a picture of a lady on her doorstep saying "Not tonight darling - I'm off to the WI!".  Bit risqué for the Jam & Jerusalem crowd, I would have thought.  Further on was a curious little brick building named the Citizenlink.  It was a kind of video booth so you could talk to the local council; push the button, take a seat and someone at the Town Hall would appear to talk to you about benefits or your bins.  I'd never seen one of these before.  It was a lovely idea, but I bet there's a fair few times when the poor man from the Council turns the camera on and just gets a big close up of some pervert's genitals or a befuddled old man who thinks it's a public toilet and is looking for the flush.

The picturesque country scene was sort of ruined by a police siren on the bypass as I left the village.  I was the only pedestrian on a narrow strip of pavement by the side of the road.  Churned up empty fields stretched away on both sides.  I saw only one other person during my walk to Driffield; an old lady stood at the side of the road outside her house, apparently waiting for a bus.  She stood so still I thought she might be a scarecrow, or a Hallowe'en advert, until she turned to watch me pass.

Driffield Hospital is next to Driffield cemetary, which I'm sure saves the council a lot of money in transport costs but probably wouldn't fill me with confidence if I was in the geriatric ward.  I crossed the road by a large square box that concealed a leisure centre and soon I was reaching the town.

Driffield itself seemed to be much like Nafferton, only larger.  It was genteel and tightly buttoned; I've never seen a shop specialising in bowling accessories before - not ten pin, crown green.  There seemed to be a disproportionate amount of furniture and homeware shops.  Small, one man operations, promising genuine offbeat pieces.  One was called "Auntie Audrey's Vintage Home", which made my teeth ache like I'd just chewed a hundredweight of toffee.  There were also a lot of solicitors advertising their cheap will writing services.  I drew the conclusion that Driffield may be to the Yorkshire coast what Bournemouth is to the south coast; where people go to wind their clock down.

The pockets of pensioners blocking the pavement in the high street added to the impression.  Every five yards some old dear stopped to chat to someone; a lovely community spirit, I'm sure, but some of us have trains to catch.  I was intrigued by a board for a "silent barber" - can we have that franchised and rolled out across the country?  Talking to the man cutting to your hair is one of the most excruciating experiences men have to endure; I think I'd rather have a vasectomy.  It's why my hair is always such a mess.  I'd rather look like a state than put up with those ten minutes wedged in a chair talking about my plans for the weekend (especially as my plans for the weekend are usually "drink some wine in front of Doctor Who").

I was taking a picture of the old bus garage when I heard the level crossing alarm sound a bit further down the street.  I got a prickly feeling at the back of my neck; that couldn't be for my train, could it?  Mine wasn't due for another ten minutes.  I began to hurry down the road, and got their just as the southbound train - the "Fred Trueman" - the one that I wanted - passed through the level crossing.

I'd got my timings wrong.  I'd mixed up the arrival time for my train at the next station with its departure time from Driffield.  Instead of hurrying through the town as I should have done, I'd stopped to take stupid pictures of stupid abandoned bus garages.  Worse, the train I'd planned on getting was the only one outside the peaks that stopped in Arram.

I sat down on the platform bench with my sandwich and a timetable to try and work out an alternative route to Arram.  There was another train around four o'clock, but Arram is a lonely village.  I'd calculated it'd take me a couple of hours to walk into Beverley, and it was a dark Autumn day.  I didn't want to be on possibly pavement-less roads after sunset, not least because if my calculations were wrong, I'd miss my "this train and NO OTHERS" trip home from Scarborough.  I'd cocked up.

Driffield had a charming station, to be fair.  A canopy, and decent platform buildings, and a waiting room with a cast iron fireplace.  The pub on the end had, sadly, been closed by bailiffs, but the rest seemed well-cared for.

I wasn't in the mood to enjoy it.  You may be able to tell from the subtle body language in my sign picture.

It meant that my schedule for the day was derailed, so I decided to head into Beverley - the largest town between here and Hull - and spend a little more time there.  There was a fast train passing through Driffield half an hour later, so I boarded that.

The station was opened in 1846, as you can tell from the pitched roof.  The earliest railway stations, where they had roofs, had ones like this - there are similar examples at Filey and on the Darlington line.  However, the fashion changed for large curved roofs, no doubt inspired by Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace opening in 1851.  It made Beverley feel quaint, outdated; like a heritage railway that Northern were just borrowing for the day.

I crossed the footbridge behind four excitable old ladies.  They were noisily debating where to have lunch, so noisily that they failed to operate the door that let you out of the ticket hall.  After a few moments of tense silence, I pushed the button that opened the doors for them; they all leapt out of their skin as it were possessed.

I was impressed by Beverley station's grand frontage, though I have to confess I was even more charmed to find a white phone box outside.  This used to be part of the much unloved county of Humberside, so they had the Council-run telephone network rather than British Telecom.

I'm quite easily pleased.

Beverley is almost exactly what you'd expect a town called "Beverley" to be like.  While I was on the train, I tried to come up with a list of all the Beverleys I could think of.  I ended up with:

  1. Dr Beverley Crusher, mumsy chief medical officer on the Starship Enterprise;
  2. Dr Beverley Marshall, the mumsy second Mrs Jim Robinson on Neighbours;
  3. Beverley Craven, mumsy piano tinkling singer of Promise Me, whose tour was sponsored by Tampax; 
  4. Beverley Knight, mumsy soul singer who does the Lulu bit in Relight My Fire on Take That tours;
  5. The Beverley Sisters, three mumsy singers who were sex symbols because there was a war on.

Beverley is that nice lady with the big hair who you can rely on to give you a lift back from the shop in her estate.  Beverley is white, heterosexual and happily married.  Beverley is the poster girl for the Daily Mail.  And Beverley the town is just like that.  I wandered round its nice, historic streets, with its nice pedestrianised arcades and its nice quaint buildings, and wondered if I should perhaps hand myself in to the authorities as a loony leftie.  There was an M&S and a Holland and Barrett but no sign of an Argos or a Home Bargains.  

I should incidentally point out that Beverley is a very different person to Bev.  Beverley has a cup of tea and a custard cream if she's feeling daring; Bev drinks Tesco Value Vodka out of a mug.  Beverley wouldn't dream of leaving the house without doing her make up and hair; Bev wanders down to the chippie with a coat over the top of her nightie.  There's a clear distinction, like the difference between Barbara and Babs.

I finally gravitated towards Beverley Minster.  It's so huge, so out of proportion with the rest of the town, you can't avoid it.  It's like a giant black hole that will eventually suck you in whether you like it or not.  I thought it would at least be dry, and there was free entry, so that was a positive.

I was immediately accosted by a man inside.  He had a badge that said he was a "welcomer"; I didn't get his name but if this was a film he'd be credited as "God Botherer #1".  He welcomed me loudly and enthusiastically and pushed a leaflet in my hand.  I think the older lady at the back - the wise counsel - spotted my slightly bewildered face and gently asked, "do you want a leaflet?"

I wandered the wide open spaces of the church.  Beverley Minster is one of the largest churches in Britain (it's not a cathedral, despite appearances) and it was hard not to be impressed by its scale and grandeur.  It was epic and had a beautiful symmetry.  Every facet of it had been toiled over with love and devotion.

The more I walked around, though, the more angry I got.  I should say that, in the rush to catch my train that morning, I'd forgotten to take my medication, so my emotions were out of control.  But I kept thinking, how much did this cost?  How much money was spent on all this grandeur and craftsmanship?  How many people devoted their lives to building it, and what was their reward?

This wasn't like, say, Westminster Abbey or Liverpool Cathedral, where the huge religious building lay at the heart of a large population of worshippers.  Beverley was tiny.  Everywhere you went in the town the Minster stared back at you - it was grossly disproportionate to its parish.  The people who lived out the Middle Ages in filth and poverty had to spend their days looking up at this folly.  It was obscene.

Even today's church angered me.  If you're going to have a huge religious building, then embrace that.  Make it a building devoted to God.  Don't - as happened here - squeeze a gift shop into the North Transept, stacking your shelves up against memorials to dead benefactors, making the customers actually push their way round a tomb to some long-deceased worthy so they can reach the CDs of Christian music.

Oh, and definitely don't sell mugs like this in the shop - 

- because that's just revolting.

I went back outside, nodding a yes to the welcomer's enthusiastic "did you enjoy yourself?", and walked round the Minster.  It was, absolutely, a beautiful building.  I just couldn't get on board with it that day.

I was feeling a bit miserable now, so I went to the market place and found something more deserving of my devotion.

With the beer inside me, I headed back to the station for my next train.  My last two stations were jump on, jump off affairs; there wasn't going to be any extreme walking between them, so I had a bit of a lazy afternoon ahead.  First was Cottingham.  The Purple Gang had been out in force here, but their determination to spread the Northern way hadn't impeded on the pretty ironwork of the footbridge.

What will happen if Northern lose the franchise?  I wonder if their successors have realised that they'll have to devote millions of pounds to erasing every trace of them from five hundred stations.  They might not have bothered bidding if they knew.

The buildings at Cottingham are original to the line opening, and are listed buildings.  Sadly, the station master's house is in private hands, and the goods shed is empty and up for lease.  I'm not sure what you could do with it either - it's out of the village centre and not a large enough stop to attract a cafe or restaurant.  You could turn it into a ticket office and waiting room, but I realise that's a ludicrous idea.

There was a burly man stood under the station sign - he looked like Sandor from The Spy Who Loved Me, only not quite so lively and vivacious - so I decided to get the picture on the way back and instead walked into the village for a look round.  

It's actually been swallowed up by Hull, and is now basically a suburb of the city, though it still clings to its villagey heritage.  It had attractive homes, a pleasant church, and a Victorian school.  In its centre it was much more "towny"; there were pubs and bookmakers and a bus exchange.  I felt a bit peckish so I bought myself a couple of sausage rolls, then ate them on my way back to the station, their greasy glow keeping me warm against a sudden downpour.

I shivered under the footbridge at the station as the rain barrelled down, heavy and cold.  Nearly done, I thought.

Between Cottingham and Hutton Cranswick the rain changed.  Instead of a downpour it shifted into a soft misty precipitation, the kind that doesn't seem to fall from the sky but instead just hangs in the air for you to walk through.  It's like standing in a car wash.  You end up dripping all over yourself.

The station straddled a level crossing, with the station house now a home.  It was clearly cared for though; on the southbound platform was a train shaped planter, and the waiting shelters looked clean and graffiti free.  I paused in the wet for a photo.

I was fascinated by the station sign, because there had obviously been a mistake with the name and it had been rectified with a small patch of white plastic.

What was under there?  A misplaced letter?  A rogue comma?  A small, offensive cartoon of Allah?  If I'd had more time and longer fingernails I'd have picked at it to find out, but instead I hurried on, pausing only to stick my tongue out at this poster:

I really, really hate Hallowe'en; it's like St Patrick's Day, but somehow everywhere.  I know it comes from an ancient pagan tradition, but that's not what these idiots are celebrating; they're just using it as an excuse to eat sweets and get drunk and wear stupid outfits.  Newsflash - I do that ALL THE TIME and I don't need Mr Kipling "Fiendish Fancies" to enjoy myself.  We have a perfectly good pagan festival around that time: Bonfire Night.  We stand around in a field, we eat toffee apples, we watch some fireworks explode, and we burn an effigy of a Catholic traitor.  That's a fine British tradition.  Not this appalling American pumpkin rubbish.  PUMPKINS AREN'T EVEN FROM THIS COUNTRY.

And, yes, it's called Hallowe'en with an apostrophe, no matter what your spell check tells you, because this is England, dammit.  

At the centre of Hutton Cranswick is a huge village green; more of a field, really.  It's the kind of green you can imagine a May Fair being held on, one with maypoles and Queens of the May and teenagers drinking cider and vomiting into the pond.  Oh yes, there's a pond as well.

There was a pub across the way, so naturally I decided to go in and sample the local ales.  Or rather, Kronenburg, because it wasn't a "local ales" kind of place.  It was panelled in what looked like chipboard and had a pool table dominating its centre.  There was only the barmaid in there; she looked at me, dripping from head to toe, and said, "is it raining?"

I managed to not punch her in the jaw and instead went and sat in a corner.  A man came blustering in through the back door from the smoking area.

"There's a dead rat out there."

The barmaid didn't seem surprised.  She went out and had a look, then conceded, yes, there was a dead rat out there and yes, it did look like a cat had had it.  "On t'doorstep this mornin', two gullies," she confided.  "I 'ad to chuck 'em in t'pond."

Ah, country life.

I leaned back against the radiator to dry myself out and sipped at my lager.  At least that was another line crossed off the list, I thought.