It was barely eight thirty when I crossed the Infinity Bridge over the Tees. Far too early to be up on a Sunday morning. I'd actually been awake since six, desperately trying to pad out my time in the hotel. It's difficult to amuse yourself in a Premier Inn when all you have is Freeview and an iPhone with slow internet access. It's not exactly Rio in carnival season. I'd gone and had breakfast in the Beefeater next door, even though it wasn't included in the room rate, just for something to do. The only other people in the restaurant were a mother and son; the boy was wearing a wetsuit, ready for his day on the white water course. I'd filled myself with a huge cooked breakfast - I'd even had some toast afterwards - and even then it was still too early. I showered and packed - and even then it was still too early.
I was excited. I was excited because I was going home. I was excited because I had only four stations to collect that day. But most of all, I was excited because I was going to finally visit Teesside Airport railway station.
Teesside Airport is Britain's least used station. Last year it got eight visitors. Not eight a day. Eight all year. Eight people used this station, and let's face it, they were probably all as geeky as me. It gets two trains a week, both on a Sunday, one in one direction and one going back, and that's it. And finally, I was going to be able to cross it off the map.
After a quick pause in the Sainsbury's Local to get myself a Double-Decker for my lunch I reached Thornaby station. It was still too early. The ticket office was closed. There were a lot of people on the platform, a surprisingly large amount in fact, but then a Manchester Airport train arrived and whisked them all away.
I sat in the waiting room and kicked my heels. Listened to some more Amy Poehler. Used the loo. Stuff to kill time. Finally my train arrived. It wasn't the one I'd planned on getting, it was an hour earlier, but I had to get the hell out of there and on to Eaglescliffe. I couldn't take it any more.
Eaglescliffe may be one of the oddest stations around. It's just two platforms in the south of Teesside, yet it gets direct services to London thanks to Grand Central, the independent rail operator. It has a ticket office, but the ticket office is run by an independent company who have been franchised for the purpose.
Up top, the publicity material looked... well... amateurish. It's run by Chester-le-track, who, somewhat irritatingly, bought the nationalrail.com domain name a few years ago and so get thousands of hits from people mistyping the address. They seem like very nice people, and I'm sure they love the railways, but it all looks a bit home made. Take a look at their national network map, for example.
It's all irregular angles and looks a bit off. I mean, Cornwall is positively obscene. Similarly, there was a "London Rail Connections" map, supplied by TfL, but with hand written neon stars like a greengrocer's saying We sell Travelcards for London here! It felt a bit like men playing at running a railway, rather than the real thing.
The businesses outside were surprising in other ways. I didn't expect there to be a fully licensed vegetarian restaurant in among the shops, or a motorcycle store, or a pub whose advertised entertainment was Roxy Tart, an "internationally famous female impersonator". This was very different to the spit and sawdust Middlesbrough I'd left behind.
I walked south behind a happy family out for their Sunday constitutional. The dad and the adorable blonde moppet were having all the fun. They ran on ahead, hand in hand, the boy occasionally hiding in the gateways to "frighten" his parents. The mum, meanwhile, followed on, a shopping bag in one hand, pushing a tricycle in the other, resignedly practical. She was still laughing and joking with the rest of the family. There wasn't the seething resentment I'd have brought to the table, yet another reason why I should never spawn.
A steady stream of joggers bounced past, some more serious than others. There is a bathtub curve for my tolerance of joggers. At one end are people who are just out for a giggle and hoping to get a bit healthier; they're fine. At the other end are professional athletes and marathon runners; they're fine too. In the middle, and the ones I cannot stand, are the people who are amateurs but who act like they're professionals. They have all the kit, the serious expressions, and an absolute conviction that they are better than you. One man who passed me had a water pouch strapped to his chest with a pipe poking into his mouth, like a reverse colostomy bag. I can't stand that. You don't see Mo Farrah dressed like that. I was tempted to kick him into the road.
I have absolutely no idea what that means. I like to imagine it's a notice for the birds themselves, and that there have been many awkward pauses on the table when a blue tit has brought up EU subsidies and a couple of starlings have had to politely point out they don't like that sort of talk round here.
I'd been walking through Eaglescliffe; now I'd moved into Egglescliffe. The similar names are not a coincidence. Egglescliffe was the original settlement, and the reason for a railway station being built. However, somewhere along the line, the sign at the station was printed up as Eaglescliffe, and didn't get amended. Personally I think there was an outrageously snobbish signwriter down south somewhere who decided Egglescliffe was common and thought he'd make it better. The new station resulted in new developments around it, and the new homes took the name of Eaglescliffe, leading to a century of furious postmen.
This all makes Egglescliffe/Eaglescliffe sound more exciting than it is; in reality it's another suburb with a large Tesco and retirement flats. There was the thwack of hockey sticks as grown men hurled themselves around an all-weather pitch across the road. I wasn't allowed to play hockey at school, due to my excessive competitiveness; I mean, if you give me a stick and tell me to get a ball off another player, obviously I'm going to use it as a weapon. That's the easiest way to get the thing.
Further up was a pub advertising its Mother's Day steak deal with a poster saying "Licence to Grill", making me groan inside. It's a Bond phrase that is continually corrupted by advertisers; that, and A View To A Kill, which usually becomes A View To A THRILL in another lazy article about how Lea Seydoux is a strong Bond woman and not just a girl and is 007's equal. There are a whole load of film titles you never use, journalists; why not see if you can make something out of Quantum of Solace?
Allens West sat between the homes and the industrial estates, the railway line acting as a handy demarcation point. I set myself up for the sign picture as cars clattered over the level crossing.
The early start came back to bite me now. I had an hour to kill on the platform, the local area not being blessed with coffee shops and it being too early for the pub. I took up residence in the shelter, leaning on the hard metal seats that are designed to support your arse but not let you get too comfortable.
I ate my Double Decker. I listened to my iPod. I had a pee in the bushes. I wiped my hands with antibacterial gel. And all the time, I could feel the excitement building up inside me. Not long now!
I was in there so long the local fauna started to see me as part of the landscape. A robin skipped into the shelter, not caring about the human inside, pecking away at the floor for scraps. He flew off, but came back twenty minutes later for more. I was still there.
I flexed my fingers. I rolled my head. I was tense and anxious now. Come on, I thought. Come on. And then I looked down and realised I was doing this:
I hadn't even noticed. I was shuddering all over with the anxiety. Frankly it was a relief when the train finally arrived: I'd have shaken my teeth right out of my face. It was three minutes late, but it didn't matter. I was finally on my way to Teesside Airport.
I sank into a seat with a window view and watched with nervous anticipation as the landscape rolled by. There was an expanse of countryside, then I began to see the edges of the airport; security fences, mown grass, and then the lengthy runway. I sat up, ready to jump off when the train stopped.
But... no. I saw what looked like a station structure, a platform and a waiting shelter whizz by, but the train didn't stop. I looked around me. The guard was trying to sell a return to Sheffield to an old lady; he seemed unconcerned by our failure to stop. I decided I must have seen a signal box or something. That couldn't have been the station. It must have been a different railway structure.
Yet, we were still going. And the airport seemed to be receding. There were houses appearing now. I looked behind me, down the line, round the carriage. No-one else cared. Was I over-reacting? Had I missed something?
The guard's voice broke over the tannoy. "We're now approaching Dinsdale."
The horror of it hit me. My stomach lurched. To make up the late time, the driver had taken it upon himself to simply skip Teesside Airport. It must have seemed like a safe bet - eight passengers a year, remember - and he probably would have got away with it if it wasn't for me. Me, sat in the carriage, my head spinning. I staggered onto the platform at Dinsdale and stood for a moment to get some air while the train took off.
I'd missed it. I'd missed the one station I'd come here to collect. Four days of travelling, all that expense, all those miles, and the one station I absolutely had to get had slipped out of my fingers.
At first I was angry, but, as often happens, it turned inwards and became gut-wrenching agony. I felt so upset. I felt tears at the back of my eyes. I tried to make something out of the situation and went up and got the Dinsdale sign because, you know, while I was here.
Note the joyous expression.
I walked, slowly, back down to the platform. There was another train to Darlington due in ten minutes; from there I could get a train to York, and from York to home. I'd failed, I thought. I'd failed the whole thing.
Then, like many angry, frustrated white men across the globe, I turned to Twitter as a way to vent my tension. I tweeted Northern Rail. I told them that the service skipped the Airport, and that it was the whole point of my trip. They came back with "did you tell the guard you wanted to stop?"
"No," I replied. "It's not a request stop so I didn't feel like I needed to."
The next train came in and with it came the ping of my phone. Northern had replied with this:
It seemed that Northern Rail were actually offering to stop the train for me. I replied quickly, politely, trying not to betray my extreme enthusiasm, that I'd be very much up for that if it were at all possible. There was a bit of a pause, then the person at Northern's Twitter asked what train I'd be on. I said I was on my way to Darlington, so...
The reply came back:
Meanwhile, Robert had been sending me slightly concerned, slightly smug texts. He'd managed to make it to Teesside Airport with very little bother the year before; he'd even made a new friend. Suddenly his text was full of exclamations as Teesside Airport showed up on the next Darlington service: a stop inserted just for me. I couldn't resist rubbing it in. I'm a very bad winner.
Northern also tweeted:
The joy of the moment was quickly overcome by embarrassment. I don't like being singled out; I don't like being "special". The train was going to make an unscheduled stop, delaying all the passengers, and I was going to be the only person who got off. It would be abundantly clear whose fault it all was. I dashed into the Darlington station buffet in search of something to make me feel better.
Obviously, deep down, I was thrilled. When I complained at Northern I was just venting tension. I wasn't really expecting them to do anything; I was being that horrible person I always hate, fulminating against some poor lad behind a keyboard even though it wasn't his fault. Part of me hoped that it would at least get reported. That the driver wouldn't be allowed to get away with skipping timetabled stations. But this... I tweeted my thanks.
I did a bit of scanning back through the Northern timeline, and I believe the person on duty that day was Will. Thank you Will. You're quite clearly the best person working on Northern's Twitter feed. Yes, even better than Tim (not least because Tim's gone over to the passenger information systems now).
When the time came, I made my way to the train. The guard, thankfully, wasn't the one I'd had before; he was a chirpy, excessively cheery man who welcomed us aboard like the entertainment director on a cruise ship. He shouted the destination and added, "plus, Teesside Airport, because someone needs to get off there."
"Erm... that's me," I said, then ran aboard and hid so my glowing red face didn't set off the station's sprinklers.
The guard was, let's just say, "quirky". He gave out the safety messages in the form of rhyming couplets. It was like having Pam Ayres making the announcements. Normally, this would have irritated me beyond all belief, but he was going to let me off at my station (yes, it was my station now) so I forgave him.
As we left Dinsdale, I made my way to the back of the train to wait for the airport. I wanted to remind him that I was getting off. He grinned and opened the door for me. "I hope you're not going to wait for a train back!"
And then they were gone and I was alone on the least used platform in Britain.
Teesdale Airport doesn't look especially lonely. Compared with some of the others I've visited, it's positively urban. I've been to stations built onto the side of lonely cliff faces, on the edge of river estuaries, in the middle of factories. This didn't feel especially isolated.
The problem with the station is that it's in the wrong place. It was opened in 1971 as an admirable attempt to tie different forms of transportation together. Other airports across the country would kill for a busy railway line right next to their land, and Teesside Airport took advantage.
Unfortunately, as you can see if you squint, the terminal buildings are off in the far distance. If there was a bus, perhaps, using that nice turning circle, then the station might be more attractive, but as it was, hardly anyone used it. Slowly the service was cut back and back until we ended up with the two trains on a Sunday situation.
At the same time, Durham Tees Valley Airport (as it's now known) suffered a collapse in its passenger numbers. An ambitious redevelopment plan saw a new terminal built, just as the Credit Crunch destroyed people's finances and ability to travel. The number of people passing through the gates went from just under a million in 2006 to less than 150,000 last year. There are no longer any charter flights from the airport, only a couple of scheduled services a day to Aberdeen and Amsterdam.
It is, in short, a dead station serving a zombie airport. There is a suggestion that rebuilding the platforms closer to the new terminal might help but with the airport doing so badly, no-one has the time or the inclination. The polite thing to do would be to kill it off.
I didn't care about all this of course. I'd made it to the hallowed ground.
LOOK AT THE JOY.
(A word about the name: National Rail calls it Tees-side Airport, the Northern sign boards say it's Teesside Airport. I flick between the two depending on what mood I'm in).
The lack of a pavement anywhere is another barrier to rail users trying to get to the airport. Imagine wheeling a suitcase along that cracked tarmac. I followed the road by high wire fences that offered me a glimpse of the runway, past a small flight training school and a series of tiny private planes. There was no sound, an incredibly disconcerting feeling at an airport. There wasn't a single aircraft actually running that day.
I carried on past hangars that looked distinctly World War II and saw the distant shape of the new, shiny terminal. It was screened off from me by a heavy security fence with a keypad controlled gate. Two women, dressed like cleaners, let themselves out through the gate and looked surprised to see a pedestrian wandering by.
A little further on was a building marked the International Fire Training Centre: probably the reason the airport still functions at all. It was currently flying Austrian, German and Israeli flags, and I imagined planes of air fire crews being deposited and taking off every week, spending their days spraying foam over fake plane crashes.
Beyond an impressive roundabout that was no doubt built anticipating an upswing in passenger numbers, I headed into the little village of Middleton St George. I bet the residents here were delighted when the airport experienced a crash in popularity. Farm buildings had been turned into homes, and new estates had been constructed to take advantage of that fast dual carriageway to Darlington.
I passed under the railway line, closer to the centre of the village, and found more new estates. Blocks of executive flats and four bedroom detached homes were grouped in cul-de-sacs off the main road. In many of their windows were neatly printed flyers: Middleton St George - No More Homes Here. Given that their houses couldn't have been built before the turn of the millennium, I considered this grossly hypocritical. I wondered what the residents in the older, traditional cottages thought when these three storey blocks sprung up on the edge of the village? I wonder if they had flyers too?
Certainly the two metre high sign on the other side of the road shouting in red letters "Private Property - Keep Off - Strictly no dog walkers" hinted at a burbling class war. The centre of the village added to the feeling. It wasn't that it was rough, so much as it was a proper working village that you'd expect to find in this part of the world. Small, undistinguished homes crammed next to one another, a Spar, a hairdressers, a chemist that had emergency contraception available here on a big red sticker in the window.
I was still early so I found a pub. It was packed with locals on the bar side, so I went over to the lounge where a woman was celebrating her birthday with her husband and two little girls. They had crisp packets sliced open on the table in front of them, and every now and then a man on his way to the loo from the bar would stop to hug her and wish her all the best.
I drank my Newky Brown and slowly came back down to earth. The adrenaline of the day was popping in my ears, making me shake all over; the next day I was absolutely wrecked as my body tried to rebalance all the odd chemicals that had flooded me. I'd done it though. Teesside bloody Airport. Finally crossed off the map.
With the beer inside me I headed to Dinsdale station for the second time that day. I was a lot cheerier now. And maybe a little bit pissed.