Wednesday 12 November 2014

Only Happy When It Rains

There are 533 stations on the Northern Rail map, as you'll know if you read my Percentiles post a few days ago.  That's not actually 533 stations that are served by Northern Rail services, though.  Seven stations are served exclusively by other rail companies.  One is Liverpool Central, an important station that's close enough to Lime Street to be counted as practically an interchange.  Dalegarth and Pickering are on heritage railways that for some reason they've chosen to include on the map.  The remaining four are all in Cumbria, in the middle of that huge gap between the Cumbrian Coast Line and the Settle & Carlisle.

They're exclusively grey lines; Northern doesn't go anywhere near them, so the only way to reach these stations is by Virgin or First TransPennine Express.  (Incidentally, when I mentioned them to Robert, he suggested that as they're not Northern stations I didn't need to bother with them, even though they're on the map.  This has made me re-evaluate our five years of friendship as he clearly doesn't know me at all).

I got off the Glasgow train at Oxenholme alongside a gaggle of fearsome Latinas.  Big of hair and tight trousered, they babbled in Spanish at one another, strutting along the platform exuding confidence and attitude.  They seemed quite alien amongst the shuffling English people.  Their huge suitcases hinted at a week's holiday in the Lake District; I wondered if the charming guest house they'd no doubt booked themselves into knew what was about to hit it.

Oxenholme itself is just a tiny village that happened to have the good fortune to get the West Coast Main Line driven by it.  It means it gets a better service to Scotland and London than Liverpool does, with fast Pendolinos stopping regularly.  Its importance is as a junction.  A single track railway breaks off here to head into the heart of the Lake District - my destination for the rest of the day.

I headed to the exit for my first sign pic of the day, which is suddenly a lot easier.  I'd finally reached boiling point with my camera.  It had decided that it would only operate when it was in the right mood, leading to numerous occasions when I'd stood on a street corner turning it on and off again.  Frustrated, I went on the net and ordered a replacement.  My new camera is another Samsung, but this one actually seems to be decent; it's the NX-Mini and it features a "selfie screen".  I know, I know.  By buying this camera I am actually perpetuating the horror of the selfie.  But I've been doing this for seven years, and the NX-Mini's flip up screen means I can actually see what I'm taking a photo of while I do it.  This is a refreshing change after years of vaguely lining myself up and hoping for the best.

All the technology in the world can't stop me looking like a twat, though.

I started the descent down into Kendal.  Below me, the town spread out over the valley, its houses the colour of mint cake, white dots spread across the green hillsides.  They were built up as high as possible above the road to try and get a commanding view every time.  Three police vans whizzed past me, blue lights blaring, with an ITV news van following in its wake; the van still had the old network logo on it, making me think that Cumbria wasn't top of ITN's list of priorities.

The river Kent, which gives the town its name, curved along the valley floor, and I followed its course into town.  I passed behind the K Village, an awful faux-heritage outlet mall; its buildings had been designed to look like Georgian townhouses, only built out of breeze blocks and with an underground car park.  Twee nonsense, but at least there was a pleasing riverside walk behind the vacant store fronts.

The town itself doesn't need fake scenery to pep up its attractiveness.  This is the real deal, an ancient market town that retains all of its old school charm.  Tiny yards lead away from the main street like veins from an artery, while at one point the Blindbeck, a narrow stream, cascaded down between two houses and under the roadway like this was the most normal thing in the world.

Kendal's current wealth is based on its beauty and its closeness to the Lake District, and it embraces it wholeheartedly.  There were cafes and tearooms everywhere you looked, vast outdoor shops flogging brightly coloured GoreTex, tiny gift shops selling things that you would only buy when you went on holiday.  No-one has ever bought an ethical, eco-friendly woollen hat while on a regular shopping trip, only when they've got spending money sloshing around in their pocket and they feel guilty for poking around a shop without buying anything.

It meant that the town had a breezy, comfortable feel about it.  It wasn't as classy as perhaps it thought it was - for all its eating options, the only place with a queue out the door was Kentucky Fried Chicken - but I had a good wander round its pedestrianised streets.  I was particularly intrigued by ABC Lloyds, whose sign advertised "Ladies & Gents Hairstylists - Fountain Pens & Accessories", one of the more random retail combinations I've seen.  ("I'm just going into town to get my hair done and to buy some India Ink.  What a hassle that will be.  If only there was a shop that did both!") I finally ended up back down by the river, crossing the Stramongate Bridge and taking a seat by the weir to eat my sandwiches.  I looked at the salmon ladder, hopefully - the sign said that you could see salmon going upstream in November and December - but the only sign of life was a flock of seagulls arcing under the bridge.

It was a lovely, quiet spot; even when the silence was broken, it was by a school trip.  Forty tiny children in hi-vis jackets trotted by me, holding hands so they wouldn't get lost, chattering enthusiastically.  It seemed like a wonderful place to live.

I turned back to head for the station.  The arrival of the railways was a source of great controversy; it was not long after visiting the Lake District had become fashionable, so people were annoyed that the undisturbed landscape they had just discovered was now going to get a train line driven through it.  The fact that it would enable a lot of working class day trippers to visit the previously upper class preserve probably didn't help.  Wordsworth himself protested against the building of the line, though once it was finished, he changed his mind and bought shares in the company, a delightful piece of hypocrisy I fully expect to be repeated by lots of Chiltern stockbrokers once HS2 is built.

I was pleased to see the station had an impressive gable roofed building high above the road.  It's always good to see a proud town station.  It was accessed by a long driveway, so I paused for the obligatory photo then trekked upwards.

There was something odd about the station though; as I got closer, I spotted a Lloyds Pharmacy on the ground floor.  I'd never seen that in a station before - a WH Smith, a sandwich shop, even the odd delicatessen, but never a pharmacy.  I realised that the huge station building wasn't a station any more.  It was a doctor's surgery, with a chemist's for the patients.

It was even more disappointing at platform level.  A single track - the other was removed in the Seventies - and a couple of undistinguished shelters.  A next train indicator squeaked slightly in the wind.

Not even a ticket machine.  It was a "secure station", because of all the CCTV cameras, but beyond that it was just another deserted hilltop halt.  Its saving grace was the view, out over the top of the old goods yard and to the hills beyond.

A long First Transpennine Desiro chugged up to the platform, three comfortable carriages that certainly put the clunky Northern train I'd got to Preston to shame.  I found a seat for my trip to Burneside.

Northern Rail map fetishists - or indeed, anyone who was paying attention to the map at the top of this post - will have noticed that Burneside isn't actually on the map.  It's not a destination so they didn't bother adding it when they crayoned the Lakes Line on.

I couldn't just ignore it, thought.  Partly because I have a very, very bad habit of anthropomorphising inanimate objects and then feeling guilty for not paying them enough attention.  It's why I regularly rotate my way through all my mugs, so no-one feels left out, and why I try to view all my DVDs at least once during the year so they feel loved.  I realise this is insane.

The second reason is - obviously - I can't pass up the opportunity to visit a railway station, especially one so close.  It's like when I visited Berwick Upon Tweed - I didn't have to, but it was there.  Like Everest, only flatter.

So I'd added two more stations to my trip unnecessarily.  What else was I going to do with my time?  Something useful?

The station was getting a lick of paint from a gang of boiler-suited men.  The signs said they were from a private company, but they all looked like they were on community service - a load of bald heads and chunky arms that just shouted "five to ten suspended sentence".  I kept my head down and went out to the road for my sign picture.

Burneside village was a reminder that the Lake District isn't just scenic vistas for us city folk to coo over as we pass through in our Mondeos.  People actually live here - not millionaire retirees, ordinary working class people.

This is a polite way of saying that Burneside wasn't very attractive.  Don't get me wrong, it was a lot more charming than, say, inner city Manchester, but it was a real come down after Kendal.  The village was dominated by the James Cropper paper mill, to the extent that until recently they even owned many of the homes.  It sat in the centre, grumbling, pumping out steam and smoke.

I skirted the factory and took the road out of the village, between low grey houses built to withstand the winter.  The automated voice on the train had pronounced it Burnieside, like "and Schnorbitz", instead of like the policeman from The Bill.  I was wondering if this was strictly accurate, a bit like when the computerised woman trips over the "brough" in "Middlesbrough"; in fact, I was wondering about it so intently I missed my turn and had to double back to find my footpath.

For a while I was following the back of the factory, right up against the fence.  I put a suitable "rambler at work" expression on my face because I was sure that I looked like a cat burglar testing the perimeter for access points.  A couple of times I nearly skidded over in the wet mud.  I imagined the factory workers in the canteen, watching me with their mugs of tea, cheering as I skidded and waiting for me to do an undignified flip.

I'd booked my tickets for this trip at the start of October.  Normally, once the Autumn comes in, I move away from country walks.  Paths become waterlogged, rivers burst their banks, and the weather becomes temperamental.  On this occasion, though, I'd got a certain fantasy in my head of walking in the rain.  I'd romanticised the idea of walking across the Lake District in soft drizzle.  It seemed like the best way to see it.

The weather was being firmly uncooperative.  It was nearly Bonfire Night, and I was in shirtsleeves - rolled up to my elbow at that.  I didn't even have a coat; the weather report said there was no need.  It wasn't the charming autumnal scene I'd pictured.

Obviously it was still beautiful.  Weak sunlight peeked through constantly churning clouds.  I watched a heron perch on top of a weir, pecking at the water, before picking up and circling away with a fish caught in its beak.  Stark leafless trees formed veiny silhouettes on hilltops.

The River Kent was back alongside me, only angrier.  It churned beneath me, the noisy water a constant backdrop to my walk.  More than once I mistook the heavy crashes for a train passing by.  I clambered over a succession of stiles; at some point, my map worked its way free from my pocket, and I spent the rest of the afternoon feeling guilty for accidentally littering.  The fact that I had absolutely no idea where I now was and had to rely on memory to find my way was a secondary consideration.

The tiny village of Bowston interrupted my country jaunt, and I crossed the bridge by a car workshop that would fit right into Emmerdale.  Except in Emmerdale it would probably be run by sexy lesbians, and there'd be a body tied to the air pump.  A sexy body.  Who was also a lesbian.

Bowston was barely a spot on the map, just a main street and a couple of cul-de-sacs, and I was soon back on the Dales Way footpath beside the river.  It was barely three o'clock but it felt like the day had given up and was getting ready to hand over to the evening.  I hoped I'd make it to civilisation before it turned pitch black, not least because the signal on my mobile had finally given up.

I was back on the road again before long.  I sauntered along, minding my own business, when a BMW roared out of nowhere.  The driver took an elaborate diversion around me then burned away.  There was a gate further on; he paused at the outside, pushed a button on the console, and let himself into a compound.

It was a compound.  A bit of Docklands had somehow become detached and drifted into Cumbria.  Tall white apartment blocks with steel and glass balconies, plus a token bit of limestone cladding to make it "blend in".  A seven foot wall blocked access to passers by and stopped snooping eyes from catching sight of the residents.

Cowan Head was built on the site of an old paper mill, and replaced the industry with a leisure centre, Sky TV and a private nine hole golf course.  I hated it.  It was inappropriate and ugly.  The mill, I'm sure, hadn't been pretty - the one in Burneside certainly wasn't - but at least it was useful.  It provided employment and a livelihood.  This was a place for London-types to spend their weekends.  It wasn't for the locals - unless you count the "cleaning services and interior window cleaning" the website mentions.  I found it hideous and profoundly depressing.

Fortunately it was soon left behind.  I was approaching the centre of the National Park now, and the landscape became harsher and less well-groomed.  The grass under my feet was thinner; I could feel hard rock with each step.  Lonely barns were pockmarked with weather damage.  Across the way, a stream emptied into the river, an endless torrent adding to the flow.

I felt lonely now, the good lonely, the lonely where you don't want anyone around.  If I'd spotted another hiker at that point I'd have been disappointed.  I was enjoying the isolation.

There was the occasional moment when I wondered if this was perhaps a good idea.  When I skidded on a waterlogged path and came dangerously close to the river's edge.  When I clambered over large lumps of stone, managing to avoid the mud but putting myself at a much greater risk of slipping.  When I stumbled slightly and felt my ankle give way underneath me.  I wondered what I would do if I ended up stranded on the path: no coat, no phone signal, no-one really knowing exactly where I was, no map to show me the way to go.  I clung to the knowledge that the railway line was somewhere over there; maybe over the top of that hill, maybe a bit further on, but the point is there was a route to civilisation within a fairly accessible distance.  Assuming I didn't break my leg or something.

I scrambled up and over the wall and into a woodland.  The path was obscured by thick leaves.  I wondered when someone last walked this way; they looked bedded in.  On the other side, I scoured my memory of GCSE Geography (A grade, just saying) to try and remember what the word was for rocks left in odd places by retreating glaciers.  I wasn't a fan of physical geography - not more about oxbow lakes - so I'd purged it from my mind the minute I didn't need it any more.  A Google search just now reveals they're called "erratics" but I was thinking of the much more pleasing sounding "drumlins", so apparently all that fuss about educational standards plummeting isn't a recent thing.

It was when I began talking to the sheep - not just talking, but talking to them in a Russian* accent, because I thought that make it more interesting for them - that I realised I should perhaps get to civilisation quite soon.  Fortunately I was approaching Staveley.  I passed some farm buildings that had been converted to private residences - along with a snotty sign on the gatepost: Footpath diverted Aug 1993 now 250m >, because heaven forbid that walkers should be allowed to violate their driveway - and I found myself in the village.

Staveley was a community.  You could feel the village breathe in and out, its residents flowing through its lungs and making it live.  There was a butcher, a chemist, a couple of pubs, a cottage that still had Martins Bank Limited etched over its front window.  The River Gowan burbled through the centre, and all around were those epic, brown and green hills.  I followed the lead of a lady in an impressive knitted cap and took a look at the notice board.  I learnt that the local MP is Tim Farron, the most Northern man who has ever lived, and that dog fouling is an issue "yet again" ("six or seven dollops of the stuff had recently to be removed from the football pitch before the junior footballers could start their practice").  Further on, mothers and fathers were starting to mill outside the village school, ready to pick up their kids.

I'd stopped outside the public toilets, because I was amused by a sign saying that it was run by "Staveley Stop 'n' Go"; I was wondering if that was a deliberate pun or if they were blissfully unaware of how it sounded.  There was another noticeboard, and I was just about to read the What's On in Staveley calendar when a woman appeared at my elbow and barked, "Are you looking at our noticeboard?"

"Erm... yes."

She was a tiny woman, buttoned up in a padded jacket that looked like it had been made out of a duvet.  Pegged into her lapel was a large and elaborate poppy, the type that is there to let you know that she cares about the departed just that bit more than you.  "I work on this noticeboard," she continued, "with those ladies over there."  Two women, one sharp and angular, one small and bookish, were wandering towards us from the village.  "We come here every night to check on it.  And to lock up the toilets.  Check it's all up to scratch."

I felt a tiny prickling at the back of my neck.  What was she trying to say?  "I was just curious," I stammered, and began to walk away.

"Nothing wrong with just being curious," she said to my departing back, while I wondered if I'd been bagged as some kind of sexual deviant and a photofit of me was going to appear on the noticeboard next week.

I headed for safer ground: the station.  A building nearby still had Railway Hotel painted on its upper wall, but it had long ago been turned into a private home.  The station did boast something I'd not seen outside the big stations: an LED screen, showing a rotation of information posters, timetables and adverts.  It seemed like a good idea until I had to sit in the shelter alongside it and listen to it hum noisily.  You don't get that with a noticeboard.

The station was up on an embankment, and as with Kendal, the best that could be said about it was it had a great view.

My heart sank when the train came in.  It was a school train.  All over the country, rural trains around 3:30 become filled with hyperactive, over loud children, who temporarily take over the length of the carriage and turn it into a small Grange Hill.  I climbed aboard and pushed my way through the yammering kids, some of whom were in seats, some of whom were wedged into the luggage space, and I dropped myself into a seat with what I hoped was just enough casualness that they wouldn't pay me any attention.  I miscalculated my landing though, and whacked my backside into the arm rest, leaving a five inch bruise on my left buttock that is still angrily purple.  (Pictures available on request).

It was getting properly dark as I reached Windermere, with purple lacing through the skies.  The schoolkids all clambered over one another to get off the train, turning the car park into a circus, with cars and parents weaving in and out of one another.  Windermere had a small wooden station building, which would have been perfectly nice if it wasn't next to the old Windermere station building.

That is - let's be honest - a shed.  A very posh shed, but just a shed.  Next to it is a stone building, with a porte-cochere and a pitched roof, but that's been turned into a branch of Booths.  For the benefit of readers from outside the North West, Booths is what Waitrose would be if it stopped being so downmarket.  Booths have olive bars and juice bars and art galleries with artisan breads and cheeses.  Booths makes Sainsburys look like a food bank.

They've not done a great job with the Windermere store, it has to be said; it faces the car park, on the other side of the building, so the railway side feels like an afterthought, and the porte-cochere is dark and unlit.

I headed into town.  I hoped that I'd be able to see the lake before the sun set.  It seemed odd to come all this way and not reach the largest lake in England.  I passed through a pretty town centre, devoted to healthy outdoor pursuits and the extraction of tourist pounds.  An open topped bus wound its way through the streets - you'll be unsurprised to hear the top deck was empty - and hardy looking pensioners stared in shop windows at stuff like I'd seen in Kendal, only more so.

I passed the library, which was advertising an exhibit called "From Auschwitz to Ambleside" - a title that had the inadvertent result of making a small Cumbrian town sound as bad as a concentration camp - and I was walking happily down the hill when I saw this sign:

One and a quarter miles?  I realised I'd never make it to the waterside before the sun set.  I made a mental note to write to Windermere Town Council, demanding that they change their name because it's flagrant false advertising, and instead headed back up the hill for a place I knew would be warm and comforting and satisfying.  

Windermere is home to Lakeland, and houses the chain's headquarters and flagship store.  I love Lakeland, even if I'm convinced they pipe mind altering drugs into the air conditioning system.  At first, you're wandering around giggling at the products on display, wondering who has the room in their home for a banana guard or a tomato corer.  But after a while it starts to overtake your mind, and you begin thinking, "why don't I have a silicon spoon guard for the edge of my saucepans?  Does everyone else have one?  Is this solving a problem I didn't know I had?" and then next thing you know you're at the checkout with an armful of Teatools because the idea of using a spoon to take the tea bag out of your mug seems positively repellent.  Well played, Lakeland.  Well played.

*bad imitation of Boris Grishenko from GoldenEye.


Andrew Bowden said...

You should have got the open top bus to the Lake. It's marginally faster than walking :)

And yes the name of Windermere is a bit wrong - it's Bowness-on-Windermere that has the lake, and the town of Windermere itself basically came out of the railway station naming itself out of the lake.

Scott Willison said...

I try to avoid buses wherever possible. Open topped or not.

rincew1nd said...

It's not just the Lakeland Air-con that has drugs in it, their website emits something magic too; why I have I just bought a pair of "Magnetic Toast Tongs"?

All aboard said...

I stayed at the Eagle and Child pub in Staveley, for few days it was really nice, good food and beer. Used to catch a small bus from the village into the fells, last time I was there it had been withdrawn.

Klepsie said...

Pedant alert: if your veins lead from your arteries medical science would be very interested to hear from you. I think you mean capillaries...

Scott Willison said...

And that is why I got an E at A-level Human Biology, Klepsie.

The Eagle & Child looked like it would have been good for a pint - all the pubs looked good. I was pressed for time unfortunately.

Magnetic toast tongs? *throws credit card at Lakeland*