The landscape was dystopian. Not the real kind, the terrifying kind you get in Threads or Children of Men, the type that makes you want to hug your loved ones close. It was the kind of post-apocalyptic you got in a lot of straight to video films in the 80s. They were directed by people who'd seen the poster for Mad Max (not the actual film, mind) and they were produced by shady businessmen who thought the film industry was full of suckers he could leech off.
Look closely in among the scrub and the abandoned factories and the railway lines and you can spot Marc Singer hiding from a gang of crazed biker thugs, his laser pistol held dramatically against his face. He's with a girl who's been rendered mute by the devastation, but who knows how to fight, and who's wearing an outfit that's three parts chamois leather to eight parts exposed flesh. She's played by an actress called Tawny or Meredith or Amber, and later on she'll take her top off because then they can tease it in the trailers. There will also be some rubber faced radioactive mutants in there somewhere, because there always is, and then it can be released to your local video shop-slash-off licence where it will hang around on the bottom shelf with Porky's III: Porky's Revenge and a crime film called something like Deadly Passion which exists only for people who don't have access to porn.
This was South Bank station, located somewhere between Middlesbrough, Redcar British Steel, and the dust flats of Tarsus V. I was unsurprisingly the only person to get off the train. I hustled to the exit, keen to get away from the desolation.
Beyond the station was a wrecking yard and the high brick walls of anonymous industrial plants. This was a place for dirty work. It was for the stuff that civilisation didn't want to see.
I followed the road down to a dual carriageway, which conveniently sliced the business area off from the residential part of the town. There wasn't a crossing, because who would walk this way? I dashed across, pausing only to lean on the crash barrier at the halfway point, and entered the area of South Bank proper.
There was a long road lined with old pubs, discount stores, takeaways. It was the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday but it already felt tired. The area felt like it didn't have the strength to keep going, only for the alarm to wake it up every morning and it forced itself to go on.
Pockets of regeneration popped up here and there. Houses had been knocked down and replaced by new ones; patches of green hinted at busy streets turned into open spaces. A community centre came with a set of elaborate gates and the unlikely name of Golden Boy Green. The occasional bit of "improving" artwork graced a corner.
Most curious were a series of older houses with strangely curved roofs. They looked Dutch or Belgian, somehow, definitely not English. It was a weird moment of architectural fancy in an otherwise plain environment.
Another dual carriageway, and a retail park, and I was starting to worry. I knew that my next station, James Cook University Hospital, was a fair way away, but I hadn't realised it would take this long to reach it. The roads were long and straight and dull which added to my anxiety. If I missed my train, there was a two hour wait for the next one, and I didn't much fancy that. South Bank wasn't exactly painting the cheeriest picture of this part of Teesside.
I passed over the former Normanby branch, which operated trains between Middlesbrough and a brickworks and was now a footpath, and carried on past candy-coloured blocks of flats. The path swung away from the road, taking me past a boarded up school and litter-strewn concrete. A left by the Buccaneer pub, which featured some brilliantly 1950s Joe Maplin font work, and I disappeared into the streets of Ormesby.
I'd given up hope of reaching James Cook in time for my train. Cross referencing the Next Train app and Google Maps on my phone (remember when we used to just hope for the best?) I'd concluded that the station was way too far for me to reach in time, so I slowed my brisk canter to a saunter.
The streets were empty in a uniquely "Saturday afternoon" way. The residents, I felt, were busy being together and having fun. I imagined families around the tv watching the football, piled into cars for day trips, on buses back from town. I pictured mums herding kids round the table for sandwiches. Dads finally getting round to fixing that squeaky back gate. Birthday parties for children. I imagined normal, happy, family lives going on behind each front door. As though to prove my point, one family had spilled out into the garden. A dad and two children, neither more than six, were playing with their cars in the flowerbeds outside their house. The father lifted the dirt with a dinky digger, while the little girl whizzed round and round with a sports car.
I realised that I wasn't enjoying this trip as much as I should have done. Now that I'm getting to the end of the Northern Rail map - these stations took me past the 80% complete mark - trips are becoming a bit "tick box". Instead of "where shall I go?" it's become "where haven't I been?".
It didn't help that the one station I'd been looking forward to, James Cook, seemed to be out of my grasp. The station is one of the newest in Britain, only opening in July 2014. It was one of the reasons I'd left off visiting this stretch in the first place - there's nothing quite so annoying as collecting a set of stations, only for Northern to add another to the map afterwards (I'm looking at you, Dalegarth).
But then I realised there might be hope. My obsessive checking of the rail app revealed that the train to James Cook was late. Well, sort of; the software still hasn't been updated with the station's name so it just says [Unknown] between Marton and Middlesbrough. Point was, I had a valuable couple of extra minutes to make it to the station. And now I could see it.
No, it won't win any prizes for architectural beauty, but it doesn't need to. On one side is Ormesby Beck, and on the other is James Cook University Hospital, one of the largest in the country. The hospital is familiar to me due to the BF's obsessive viewing of Helicopter Heroes; there's always a chopper being dispatched to the hospital from some horse riding accident somewhere on the North York Moors. The station's main purpose is to give greater access to the hospital, so it's no wonder it ended up as a single platform squished in besides the railway. Cheap but useful.
I crossed the footbridge, increasingly hopeful that I might catch the train. There were still people on the platform: a good sign. I didn't dare loiter too long for the sign pic, hence the rather disastrous photo you see below.
Look at that flailing gay hand. Oh the shame.
The picture also cleared up a question mark I'd always had. When it was announced, and during construction, the station was referred to as James Cook University Hospital. When it appeared on the map, however, it was just James Cook, with an odd-looking gap underneath that hinted at a last minute name change. All the signs on the platform just said James Cook, so it looked like that was its name now.
Personally I prefer James Cook. It's shorter, it's easier to say, and it's one of those stations that doesn't give away where it is in the slightest. I always like those stations, the ones named after people or the wrong local attraction. The Paris Metro is very good at this: it has stations named Victor Hugo and Louise Michel, while the Tube absolutely refuses to have stations named Trafalgar Square or Buckingham Palace just to annoy the tourists. Well done them.
The train arrived just as I hit the platform, and I fell onto it, raspily breathing like a paedophile at a children's gymnastics display. I'd not long recovered before I got off at Gypsy Lane.
I had an irrational grudge against Gypsy Lane. The last time I'd come this way, back in 2013, I caught a train from Battersby to Middlesbrough that was full of drunken, boorish oafs. They were noisy and loud and rude. They swore at the top of their voices, danced in the aisles, laughed raucously. They were so drunk, they missed their stop, which was apparently the conductor's fault, and they started demanding Northern Rail pay for their taxis from Marton to, yes, Gypsy Lane. (Northern didn't, I hasten to add).
Hiding at the back of the train my heart sank. Was this the kind of person I could expect when I visited Gypsy Lane?
Having actually been there, I can only report confusion. The area around Gypsy Lane seemed like a perfectly ordinary suburb, very middle class, very buttoned up. It didn't seem like the kind of district that would produce lager louts.
I skirted the edge of the estate on wide verges, laid out to direct through traffic away from the little cul-de-sacs. Footpaths ran to bus shelters. It reminded me of Sundon Park, the district of Luton where I grew up; it came from the same era, and had the same ethos of pedestrian routes connecting small closes.
I cut under the busy A174 and through a stretch of grassland, until I reached a narrow alleyway between houses. It was incredibly begrudging. Clearly the developers had been under instructions to maintain pedestrian access, and hated every minute of it, so they provided the smallest possible walkway.
I emerged into a quiet tree lined avenue and a different social whirl. The houses here were large and uncompromising. They had gates with video entry phones. This was where the captains of Middlesbrough's industries lived, though the captains were different from the Industrial Revolution days; at least two homes incorporated the Sikh Khanda into their design. (Full disclosure; I recognised the logo, but couldn't think where it was from; I thought it might be the logo of the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars).
To try and inject a bit of excitement into the staid, lifeless environment, I put some heavy rock on my iPod. Back in 1993, I was being heavily influenced by a new friend, Davinia; she was into rock music and wore leather jackets and DMs and went drinking in a pub in town, so in a craven attempt to be more liked by her I bought Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell, even though I hadn't, and still haven't, heard Bat Out Of Hell. I don't know if she was actually impressed by my purchase, but we carried on drinking together throughout Sixth Form, so I guess it worked?
|Pictured: me, my oldest friend, Heather, and Davinia. So cool.|
My final station, at the end of the avenue, was Marton. The road was heavily painted with double yellow lines here to stop commuters from polluting the posh bits with their lower-class cars, while the actual station - another single platform - was up on the viaduct.
That was another swathe of stations wiped off the map, but if I'm honest, it was all just foreplay. The following morning would be the main event. Finally I'd collect Teesside Airport.