Wednesday 15 July 2015
I am, as you know, an exceedingly tolerant and lovable person. My respect for my fellow human beings knows no limits.
That being said, why do some bastards have to walk so fucking slow?
Those two. Those two ahead of me on the staircase at Alfreton. Them. There are tectonic plates that shift faster than them. I was hanging back so I could take pictures of the station, because I am cool like that, but those two tortoises - no, not tortoises, I like tortoises - those two slugs were ambling down the steps like they were making a grand entrance to the Casino de Paris. I had to actually stop on each step to wait for them to move. And of course, like all slow people, they were utterly unconcerned about taking up all the space on the staircase, and were blissfully unaware that someone might want to pass.
When we reached the platform, I burned by them, leaving a trail of fire behind me and muttering to myself. I headed into the car park, past a woman in desperate need of a decent bra letting her dog poo on the verge, to take a look at the station building.
If you want proof that the Beeching Report was a load of old cobblers, Alfreton is your go-to example. It was closed in 1967, and the town lasted a whole six years without a railway station before it reopened in 1973. Totally worth it. The station reopened as Alfreton and Mansfield Parkway, because, at that time, Mansfield was also without a railway station. The name remained until 1995, when Mansfield finally got a station of its own, but as I discovered from various tweets that day, railway nerds still call it by that name.
With all the fannying around in the car park getting shots of the station building and then the sign, I'd given Tweedledum and Tweedledee enough time to finally crawl across the tarmac and get to the pavement. They were now lolloping into town, taking up all of the path, and smoking too so that those caught in their wake got a nice lungful of tobacco. I couldn't take it any more, and I hurled myself across the busy road so that I could walk at speeds that didn't have a decimal point in front.
Alfreton might be on the Northern Rail map, but it didn't feel northern. There was a strange, unidentifiable difference to the town that felt off to me. All this travelling across England has given me a flavour for the north, and this definitely tasted different. It was something about the streets, about the houses, about the people; they were a different chemistry that came up "Midlands" rather than "North". Derbyshire can be the north - Buxton and Glossop are very northern - but this wasn't.
I turned off Prospect Street, past a corner shop without a sign selling unbranded white goods, and continued on the busy road across the A38. At this point, approaching the M1, it becomes a major trunk road, with junctions and cuttings; heavy traffic swirled beneath me.
Around me were industrial estates, blank wire fences screening off brick office blocks and grey steel boxes for manual work. They reminded me of my childhood, visiting my dad at work in a series of dirty units hidden from the view of civilised society. He was a paint sprayer, and I still love the smell of aerosol paint to this day. I don't mean I go around sniffing it, before you get any ideas; just the lingering odour of new paint takes me back to my dad coming in the front door from work, his overalls reeking.
The McDonalds and KFC drive-thrus were already busy as I passed into Somercotes. This was a former mining community - I don't know why I bothered putting "former"; there's no such thing as a "current" mining community in this country any more. The high street was busy, but from another era, with tiny local shops selling odd products, and little old ladies stopping to chat. A barber on the corner had a neon sign with DUREX illuminated in the window.
It wasn't the kind of place you'd expect to see a waterbed specialist, but you never know, do you? I don't like waterbeds. I've never been on one but I doubt I'd enjoy lying on a mattress that was fighting back. There's something tawdry about them too, a bit Reader's Wives, a bit mirrored ceilings and crotchless panties. If one of my friends bought a waterbed, I'd start looking at them out of the corner of my eye.
Far more palatable was Owen Taylor & Sons, butcher since 1922 and displaying a gold medal over the door: "Winner of Best Sirloin Steak in England 2015". I don't know why they got the medal - surely the poor dead cow put in all the effort - but it was nice to see. I often think I should go to the butchers' for meat more often; our local village has an award-winning one too, complete with a fibreglass butcher outside, but I just can't be bothered. It's so much easier whacking a big lump of chicken into the trolley when I'm in Sainsbury's.
I followed the hill downwards, the distant countryside teasing me as I passed tedious suburban homes. They got bigger and grander, the driveways longer and more distant. I felt sorry for the paperboy, trudging up and down to get to each letterbox. Sorry, not paperboy, paperman, a grey haired fellow topping up his pension by handing out the local freesheet. He said "good morning" to me as I approached, then a chirpy, "lovely day isn't it?" I replied, respectively. "hiya" and "yes", because I have the social skills of a pheasant that's just been hit by a Range Rover.
Around the Gate pub ("Sunday 12th: BBQ and Wimbledon") I frowned. Wasn't I meant to be in Riddings by now? Shouldn't there have been a sign? I checked Google Maps and found that, yes, I'd gone the wrong way. I was annoyed, not because of the lost time - my schedule was pretty open that day when it came to trains - but because I'd have to turn around and go back the way I came. I hate that. It's admitting defeat. But any other route would have been a massive detour, so I jammed my phone back in my pocket and turned back.
Of course, this meant that I was going to pass the cheery paperman again, and I just knew he'd say something as I passed. Some chirpy, totally innocuous comment that would none-the-less make me blush from toe to scalp. I tried to think of a jolly response, but came up blank, so I did the logical thing: hid behind a parked van until he'd gone up one of the long drives, then dashed past quick.
I am thirty eight years old.
Past a hair salon, where a woman pushing sixty came out with a new style - neon pink at the front and grey at the back - then I took the turn I should have done earlier, by the Co-op. I immediately encountered the Riddings Pharmacy, so I was reassured I was on the right route, though I was befuddled by its neon green cross flashing up "31%". The date, time and temperature I understood, but 31%? Was it the pollen count?
Riddings was a pleasingly thriving little town; in fact, I secretly hoped the rest of my walk would be terrible so I could call this post "Good Riddings to Bad Rubbish". Its main road was lined with well-patronised shops, its residents looked happy and prosperous, there were buses and a community centre and a recreation ground. I may have been influenced by the local bakery, Luke Evans, which took up a prominent spot and pumped the smell of sweet pastry into the air. Luckily it was on the other side of the road, or I'd have nipped in and stocked up on cream horns and pasties.
Instead I turned off the main road onto the misleadingly titled High Street. The businesses had clearly shifted west, leaving behind neat terraces and abandoned commercial buildings. One large garage building cried out to be converted into a family home, but for the time being it was empty, with bold security notices and metal fencing.
The road swung to the right, past the New Inn - sadly carrying estate agent boards - and down the slopes into the valley. The towns finally ended, and heavy green trees swung their branches over the pavement to cool me. There was the entrance to a caravan and camping park, which put the theme to Carry on Camping in my head for the rest of the morning, and the odd isolated cottage.
I crossed a railway bridge, though it wasn't a mainline route; the Midland Railway, a heritage route, passed through the countryside here.
I was now entering the evocatively-titled village of Ironville. It was originally built for workers at the Butterley foundry, another model village given to the working classes by benevolent millionaires. Eventually the local authority stepped in and took over most of the homes, but there was still the gracefulness of a well-laid out community.
I'd spotted on the map that you could follow a canal all the way from Ironville to Langley Mill, and I thought that would be the perfect way to spend a July morning. I was a little surprised when I ducked under the bridge and found this:
The Cromford Canal opened in 1794, but it lasted barely fifty years before the railways came along and ruined it. It struggled on, but the nearly two mile long Butterley Tunnel suffered from subsidence, and had to be closed in 1900. It severed the canal route in two, and though it still found some use for a few years, it was abandoned by the end of the Second World War.
What's left behind is a kind of artificial wetland. The canal has been colonised by plants and grasses, but the water still trickles through it. I could hear the splash as it churned through old locks and over old weirs, even if I couldn't see the water through the thick undergrowth.
The towpath was rough and broken up, but it was still busy with dog walkers. After a while they fell away, and I was alone, passing under the railway viaduct via graffiti-scrawled arches (WE HATE DERBY NFFC). Stepping stones had been installed at one point, though they were slick with algae, and then there was a junction of bridges over the canal and the river Erewash. The main path went off to the villages of Jacksdale and Westwood; instead I clambered over a stile and into the Erewash Meadows Nature Reserve.
The mid-morning heat had brought out the wildlife. Insects buzzed and swirled around me, the occasional fly buzzing a little close to my face. Butterflies basked on the path ahead of me. Familiar red admirals and cabbage whites, plus different, unknown ones, over and over. They fluttered, panicking, up into the air as I passed, then settled down again in my wake to continue refueling.
I'm happy to report that I was able to squeeze through that gap. In your face, diet!
The landscape opened up into a series of meadows, the path a streak of green between soft brown and purple flowers. It shifted in the breeze, undulating, rolling.
My mind was wandering as far as my feet. Random topics flitted into my brain without any apparent logic. When I found myself wondering what I would call my pet cat, if, theoretically, I ever got one, and then started considering "Nanette", I realised that I might be losing my mind and I should concentrate a little harder on the walk. I didn't want to end up gibbering in amongst the grasses.
The never ending cacophony of a dog kennel woke me up again, as I branched away from the road and down towards the river. It looked so tempting, the cool water, the glistening rocks, the speckled sunlight through green leaves. I wanted to go down to the edge and sit with my feet dangling in it, slowly dozing, perhaps slipping under the water for a tiny swim. Wash away the sweat of my walk and the grime of the town and then dry off on a rock under the hot sun.
Round the next corner I was greeted by a herd of cows. They'd gathered by the river's edge to cool off, and my appearance proved an unwelcome distraction. One by one they turned to face me, until I was staring down three dozen huge brown eyes. I carried on, because there was no other way to go, but I was aware that if they came towards me I could end up crushed underhoof. I didn't need to fear; the nerve broke in the cattle, and they belted into the field, a little resentfully I should imagine.
Another stile, another bridge, and then I was on a path directly beneath the railway embankment. I could hear the trains passing but I couldn't see them through the thick vegetation. A few discarded crisp packets and soft drink bottles hinted that I was approaching civilisation again - if you can call people who litter civilised - and the roar of traffic on the A610 rose up to replace the birdsong.
Shortly afterwards, I left the countryside and reconnected with town, stepping onto a quiet residential street. Two women were delivering leaflets to the houses, and they took a double take as I approached; the sun had baked my face as pink as my shirt, and my clothes were damp with perspiration.
I ended up on Cromford Road, paralleling the route of the old canal with a series of terraces and yards. I started to realise I was feeling a little weak. I'd been drinking water throughout my walk - got to stay hydrated and all that - but I'd not eaten for a few hours, and I think it was combining with the heat to make me feel faint. Each step was an effort, each turn that didn't produce the station a disappointment. I passed a neat row of restored shop fronts, then a loud and obnoxious Asda, before the railway bridge appeared on the horizon.
I staggered up the slope to the platform. There was half an hour until my train, and I was looking forward to slumping on a bench and getting my breath and my head back to normal. Unfortunately I'd not realised that Langley Mill station was currently playing host to a gathering of trainspotters.
I love trainspotters; they're my brothers from another mother. I like seeing the little gatherings of men and their cameras at the end of railway platforms, enthusiastically jotting down numbers. I especially like it when there are younger trainspotters, because I like to think that it's a hobby that isn't dying.
At Langley Mill, however, they were in my way. The only seats on the platform were in the shelter, and the four spotters had colonised the space as their clubhouse. There was a tripod set up in there, and they occupied the remainder with the assured confidence of regulars in a pub. I slunk off to the side and collapsed on the hard platform floor, leaning against the chain link fence for support. I had to sit down somewhere.
I ate one of the Chicken Caesar wraps I'd stowed in my backpack and felt myself come back to normal. An East Midlands train passed through without stopping, but it didn't raise any interest in the trainspotters. They were here for a freight train. When it rattled in the distance, the guy with the camera tripod was straight out, taking up a commanding position on the platform. His colleagues hovered behind, notebooks in hand, as the train slowly rolled through.
I was disappointed. Is that it? I thought. Freight trains are boring. They're usually rubbish diesels, and they're brown, and their cargo is inevitably a load of tedious boxes with acronyms on the side. Who cares about freight trains?
And that is the case for the defence as to why I am a station spotter, and not a trainspotter.