Thursday 3 November 2016

Better To Travel Hopefully...

Ending the blog on Manchester Piccadilly wasn't planned.  I mean, it was sort of planned - I don't just chuck these things out you know - but it mainly came about because I realised I'd forgotten about it.  I collected Oxford Road back when this blog was Round The Merseyrail We Go and the name "Merseytart" actually made sense.  I visited Victoria then too, although as I didn't actually take a sign pic, it took a few years for me to collect it properly; pleasingly, I collected it with Ian and Robert, two friends I actually made because of this blog.  And I collected Deansgate on a very special day trip to Coronation Street - the old, Quay Street set that's now been knocked down.  I saw Audrey Roberts and everything.

Manchester's other three stations covered different aspects of the blog, over the years, so it seemed appropriate to finish up at Piccadilly.  It helps that Piccadilly is a fine station.  A fantastic Victorian trainshed over busy platforms, always moving, always thronged.  It could be argued that Piccadilly is the centre of the North's rail network, perhaps only rivaled by Leeds.  Suburban and national trains pour in and out, minute after minute.  Lime Street's great of course, but as a terminus, people tend to stream straight out into the city.  People change trains at Piccadilly, so there's always life.

The station got a hefty makeover in time for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, with a new, glistening concourse and more shops.  Shops everywhere.  If you need a sandwich, or a birthday card, or even a new outfit, Piccadilly's got you covered.  And yet it doesn't feel cluttered.  A mezzanine's been strung along the back, with a curving shopping street, but there's still plenty of space for you to mill about and watch the departure screens.  They'd prefer it if you bought a crab and rocket baguette, of course, but if you just want to hang out, that's ok too.  (You might not get a seat).

I was feeling low, this being the last ever blog trip, so I headed out of the station for a bit of air.  Curving away from the entrance is Gateway House, a great 1960s office block that sidles down from the station entrance in a lazy S-shape.  For years it's been neglected, but a change of ownership has meant it's now being converted into an aparthotel.  The new windows are modern but still in keeping; the architects haven't destroyed what made Gateway House special.

Actually that's not entirely true.  For years, the parade at the base of Gateway House played host to an Ian Allen shop.  Ian Allen prints pretty much every railway book worth reading, and a lot of ones that aren't.  Their shop was a lovely place to browse, with an upstairs filled with model railway supplies.  I'd hoped to have a browse, maybe treat myself to a gazetteer, but it's gone.  Closed forever.  There's a Waitrose and a Subway, but that lovely railway bookstore has vanished.

Even more dejected, I wandered round the back of the station, past the former car park which might, one day, host the HS2 platforms.  That'll not be until at least 2032, when I'll be in my fifties.  I wonder if I'll still care?  I've realised lately how many big, elaborate projects, big national schemes, aren't going to come to fruition until I'm a pensioner.  My excitement for them now is tempered by the knowledge I'll be too old to enjoy them.  (Presuming President Trump hasn't annihilated us all by then).

I also took the time to wave at Manchester's other station, the abandoned hulk of Mayfield across the way.  Opened as a relief station for Piccadilly, it stopped taking passengers in 1960, and closed altogether in the 80s.  Now it rots, looking for purpose, always on the verge of being demolished.  Of course, I love it.

Back round the side of Piccadilly, under the viaduct for through trains.  Platforms 13 and 14 have always been hopelessly overstuffed, and they're about to get even busier once the Ordsall Chord is built and more trains can go through Piccadilly without having to reverse in the main trainshed.  Network Rail has plans to build a second viaduct, with two more platforms; you would think they'd build this first, ready for all the new trains when they come, but things never work out that way.  Instead, 13 and 14 will get much busier for a few years until 15 and 16 arrive.

I ducked into the Metrolink platforms, for a look.  I still adore the trams, and putting them in Piccadilly's undercroft makes them even better.  I just like the word "undercroft".  There's too much space for them, if anything, with a big empty concourse that never fills, but it's clean and modern and charming.  They're another part of Manchester's glistening network that's about to get bigger, with works approved for an extension to the Trafford Centre (about 20 years after it should have been built, but anyway).

And that was it.  I'd pretty much "done" Manchester Piccadilly, which is good in a way, because I can never remember how to spell it (two c's?  two d's?).  I wandered round to the front and took the final sign selfie.

End of the line.  In the run up to this day, I'd always fancied getting a meal in one of Piccadilly's restaurants to celebrate.  A kind of final hurrah.  However, even though it's overloaded with catering outfits, none of them took my fancy.  Yo Sushi terrifies me, all those domed concoctions rolling by on a conveyor belt; what if you got the wrong one?  What if you picked all the expensive ones and ended up with a huge bill?  I've only been to a Carluccio's once, and it was rubbish.  And eating in a TGI Fridays at 11:30 on a Tuesday morning, alone, would drive even the most happy and well-adjusted ray of sunshine to loop a length of cable round their throat and end it all.  I ended up, appropriately enough, in The Mayfield, Piccadilly's pub, where I ordered a Newky Brown and took a seat on the mezzanine.

I didn't feel like celebrating.  I started this blog in June 2007, a few months after I turned 30.  I didn't know it at the time, but I was in the middle of a bit of a crisis.  All the things I'd thought would happen before I was 30, all my dreams, hadn't happened.  I was in a job I didn't like.  I was going through a very rough patch with the BF that nearly finished us for good.  I didn't know who I was.

Station collecting came along and helped me.  They were a refuge.  Crossing each one off the map became a real triumph.  As it grew, as I went more and more places, it became more important in my life.  I took days off to go to places at the edge of the Merseyrail map.

Then my mind collapsed.  Depression swamped me.  I spent days in bed, not wanting to move.  And yet, this blog was still there for me.  It was a reason to get going.  It was a reason to leave the house.  As I shifted to the much larger Northern map, the pleasure of it increased.  Planning, mapping, plotting.  Excel spreadsheets full of train times.  Ordnance Survey maps covered with routes.  It became my hobby and also, in a way, my saviour.  Railway stations made me smile in a way the rest of the world didn't.

It brought other benefits, too.  I've met some fantastic people thanks to this blog, made actual, real friends.  I got invited to places, nominated for awards.  I appeared in The Guardian.  I actually know what Diamond Geezer looks like.  I got some free flip flops off Merseyrail.

It's also given me some incredible memories.  I've been all over the north of England to places I never thought I'd visit - never had a reason to go to - and it's never failed to wow me.  This is a wonderful, beautiful country we live in.  It's filled with astonishing beauty and fascinating places and great people.  Cities and towns and railway stations that we should all go to, even if it's just once, just to see.

All the memories.  Getting caught up in an apocalyptic rainstorm on the way to Squires Gate.  Hiking over the clifftops below Chathill.  Falling in a ditch somewhere around Goxhill.  A night illuminated by starlight at Kirkby Stephen.  Hot, sticky walks to Langley Mill and Chinley and Heysham Port.   Pints of beer in Selby and Ribblehead and Snaith.  Leeds and Newcastle and Bradford and Carlisle and Manchester and Liverpool and Skipton and Entwistle and Ravenglass and Mytholmroyd and Glasshoughton and Hexham and Urmston and Sandbach and Whiston and every single other spot.  Every single station has a moment associated with it.  The Northern Rail map isn't a map of places any more, it's a map of my brain.

I don't know what I'll do now.  I thought about going somewhere else.  A different railway map, a different network.  It just wouldn't be as much fun.  I'd be doing it out of duty rather than enthusiasm.  I might pop back here now and then, a little odd moment, a little hello, this is what I've been doing.  There are a couple of railway-related things I always meant to do and never did; I might do them.  I had an idea of a book, but I'm finding it hard to get it down on paper; the pressure to make it good (instead of this old guff) gets to me.  Maybe.  I just don't know.  I'm nearly 40, and this seems like a good way to bookend my thirties.  Close it off.

I finished my beer and headed down to platform 14.  I waited.  Then I took a familiar purple train home.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

As Seen On TV

The death of Victoria Wood earlier this year broke my heart.  No-one has influenced my personality and my sense of humour more than her.  As a child, I was allowed to stay up late to watch As Seen On TV: at least half the jokes must have flown over my head, but I still laughed till I cried.  My taped off the telly copies of An Audience With... and her one off playlets became lined and worn.  I got her book of sketches, Barmy, out of Luton Central Library and sat on the wall waiting for the bus reading out choice lines to my mum.  I did sketches from the book for GCSE Expressive Arts.  I even wrote about perhaps her greatest sketch, Self-Service, for my English Language A-level.

Her comedy runs through me thicker than the writing in a stick of cigarette shaped rock.  Earlier today, I saw some green moss forming at the top of our steps, and said to the BF: "we'll have to have a go at that with the Jeyes Fluid," which isn't one of her lines, but sounds like it could be.  Her language was precise, and elegant, and infinitely quotable.  Get a few gay men of a certain age round a pub table and the lines will start to drift in.  "You've a look of Eva Braun - did you know?" ...  "I said, excuse me, I was wearing leather shorts before George Foreman had a ukulele" ...  "So I leant over - tapped her on the cleavage with a pastry fork"...  "Emotional farewells, dear; they take more out of you than a hysterectomy" ... Mention Urmston and get told there's two ways to get there.  Go to post a letter and mentally hear "walk, walk, walk to the pillar box".  Spot Peter Barlow on Coronation Street and complain about when he went "off up to Scotland.  Coming back after twenty years without so much as a Scottish accent."  (It can get tiring).  And that's without mentioning her Great Railway Journey, "Crewe to Crewe", where she traveled on the Caledonian Sleeper and went to Whitby and Battersby and Carnforth and basically did this blog, only better.

Her death upset me because I realised I'd never get to meet her and tell her just how much she meant to me.  How her funny, clever, sad, heartbreaking words filled me up and made me happy year after year after year.  I wanted her to know that.  I think a lot of people wanted her to know that.  I hope she did know that.

The reason I'm bringing all this up isn't just a belated obituary.  Her passing prompted the excellent Network to release a box set, Wood Work, which collected together her work for ITV.  It's largely her very early stuff, before As Seen On TV, when she was still trying out her voice and her style.  There's Wood and Walters, her first sketch show, hamstrung by a deathly silent audience and co-stars who are very much not Duncan Preston and Celia Imrie.  There's also Screenplays, a collection of her three one-off plays: Talent, Nearly A Happy Ending, and Happy Since I Met You.  It's the last one that brings me to something resembling a point: the final scene is filmed in Manchester Victoria's buffet, and it was instantly recognisable.

That blue and white marble is still there, now scrubbed up of course.  The tables are a little classier, now it's a craft beer emporium, but it's still definitely the same.  The same can't be said for the view in the other direction.

It's like a film with Albert Finney.  The big empty space outside, now filled in with the Cheetham School of Music.  Station Approach actually in use as a road, rather than as a pedestrianised route for the Arena.  Low buildings and mist.  Then that big radiator and the plastic dinner hall chairs.  This is the cafe part of the refreshment rooms, a Pumpkin when I visited back in 2014, prior to the station being refurbished with its not actually meant to be collapsible roof.  The 1981 version is very, very British Rail:

I'm fascinated by the pork pie salad - was it really anything more than a Melton Mowbray on a pile of lettuce?  It cost 94p, anyway, a very Ministry of Works price.  Fruit juices were 24p, and a cup of tea was 16p.  I like the cafeteria from a retro, nostalgia, good old days perspective, but that doesn't hide the fact that this modernist canteen had no place in that glorious marble buffet.

There's also an earlier scene where Julie Walters is out on the station platform and it gives a glimpse of what Victoria looked like pre-Arena, pre-teflon roof.

At least, I assume it's Victoria; it looks so different - there are only six platforms now, for a start.  The next departure is for Wigan Wallgate, so it does seem to be right.  But then Julie goes down some steps which lead to a subway, a bit like at Stockport.

That building behind the man staring at the camera doesn't seem to exist in present-day Victoria either.  Any railway experts want to confirm?  (Incidentally I always hated those red phone boxes with the big pane of glass).

Manchester Victoria was linked to the late great Ms Wood one final time in June, when Sue Devaney hosted a celebration of her life there.  There were songs and quotes and people dressed up in berets (something I have never done, and I never will).  I didn't go because, well, did I mention the people in the berets?  But also because I think I'd have found it way too sad.  For a day it became Manchester Victoria Wood station, and frankly they should have kept it that way.  She was a legend, and I'm sorry she's gone.

Monday 3 October 2016

One Is The Loneliest Number

I've got a spreadsheet where I keep track of my station visits.  I started this when I moved onto collecting Northern stations.  When I was doing Merseyrail, people would say to me, "how many have you got left to do?", and I'd reply "dunno".  I'd just been crossing them off the map, not keeping count.  It made me sound a bit dopey, so when I moved onto the much larger Northern map, I introduced a spreadsheet.  Spreadsheets make everything fun.

Anyway, after my visits to Thirsk and Malton the other week, I came back and added them to my spreadsheet and pressed return.  And this happened:

The end is nigh.  There is just one open, currently served by trains station left for me to visit.  (I've not included Low Moor, Ilkeston or Warrington West, for the simple reason that you can't get a train to them and nobody really knows when you will be able to).

It's the end of the line.  I know exactly what that last station is; have known for a long time.  I decided to make this station the finale a long time ago.  I'm not going to say which one it is, but I will say it's already been on this blog.  I've been there before.  I just never, for some reason, did a proper blog post about it, and I didn't do a snap of my big face in front of its sign.

So there you are: one to go.  I don't know when I'm going there because, obviously, I don't really want to go there.  When I go to that station it's all over and done with.  The end.  But consider this notice: it's all coming to a close.

Saturday 24 September 2016

Mixed Messages

Northern have snuck out a new map!  I only chanced across it - there hasn't been any fanfare that I'm aware of.  I came upon it on the website when I was looking at the map I downloaded in April.  This hot mess had grabbed my eye:

I'd not spotted WARRINGTON West in my previous look at the new map.  This is a proposed station between Sankey for Penketh and Warrington Central - not that you'd know it from the April map, because they forgot to include the dot on the line.  That was probably why I missed it last time.  This mistake has been rectified on the new map.

A few things immediately stand out.  Firstly, the new map isn't scalable.  When you zoom in on it - on the website or as a download - it goes fuzzy.  The second is that the dot for Warrington West destroys the spacing of the stations on the line.  It's also unclear which dot Warrington West is - there are three potential candidates (possibly four, if you count Widnes as well).  Presumably this will all be sorted when the station opens, which won't be until at least 2018, thanks to a funding shortfall.  This is why it's been ghosted out.  (They've also dropped the caps for Warrington, thankfully, because this station is not in the centre of town).

There are other ghost stations too.  On the earlier map, forthcoming stations were simply stuck on the map as though they were open.  Obviously this created huge disappointment, so the stations are now spectres.  In addition to Warrington West, there's Ilkeston:

Low Moor:

And Kirkstall Fo - wait, what?

Yes, despite Kirkstall Forge opening in June - even getting a visit from me in August - the new Northern route map (dated September 2016) shows it as under construction.

(Also, that promise on the map key of "see below for expected opening date"?  Not true.  There's no opening dates on the key, as you can see from this screen grab of Ilkeston.  Where it's also spelled wrong).

On the positive side, a key!  And a grid!  They've also corrected the font for Staveley and Burneside, so they're the same as all the others on the map:

At least I think they have.  The fuzziness of the scaling makes it hard to tell.  Burneside looks right, but there's something a bit off about Staveley - it's too big next to Windermere.

No sign of the sea though.  I'd confidently predicted it would be back but it looks like they're standing firm on that one.  I miss it.  It gave a proper sense of place to the map, a real This is the NORTH.  Without that simple geographical signpost, the map drifts.  The logo's gone too, that big proud northern in the top right hand corner.  This could be anywhere.

Tuesday 20 September 2016

Time Squared

This is a broken country right now.  Brexit, the Labour Party - divisions are springing up everywhere.  We're split and bitter.

Fortunately there are still things that can unite us.  Disgust at Bake Off leaving the BBC, for example.  And, as I discovered at York station, sneering at Americans is still a favoured hobby.

As I stood on platform 5, an American tourist ran for her train across the tracks on platform 4.  She was straight out of Central Casting.  Generously built, with too tight clothes in too bright colours.  A baseball cap.  A bum bag - sorry, fanny pack - slung round her waist.  She ran as best as she could, but her size made her halting and slow.

Sneering at a woman late for her train is wrong.  That's not her fault.  What was her fault was her vulgarity.  As she ran, she called out to the driver of the train on the platform.  "HEY!"  "WAIT!"  "I HAVE A TICKET!"  "YOU HAVE TO LET ME ON!"  Every few metres, a new shout.  "DON'T GO!"

She got there in time, staggering up to the doors.  I looked around me at my fellow passengers, all of us quietly, politely, waiting for our train.  There were pursed lips and raised eyebrows and judgmental faces.  Common.  Rude.  American.  We all became Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey.  We were awful, horrible, judgmental snobs, but we were together in our snobbery, as British people have been for centuries.  Kind of warms the cockles of your heart.

A return to the old ways was appropriate, because I was headed for Malton, an act of time travel in itself.  Despite getting there on a fast, modern TransPennine Express train, I may as well have turned up on a clattering steam train.  Beyond the station was a square lined with modern houses in an old-fashioned style - bay windows and pediments over the door.  The back entrance to Asda was been hidden by a wooden gate with a wrought iron arch over the top.  It was recognisably inauthentic, new pretending to be old, but its true purpose was as a primer, a way to get me used to old and new mixing together.

A little further and there was a bus exchange.  A long, sturdy brick building with stands along one side.  Simple, municipal architecture.  The corrugated iron doors were open as I passed; inside, a man in overalls lazily hosed down the concrete floor.  If Reg Varney had appeared, fresh from sexually harassing some young girl, he'd have slotted right in.  Into the scene, not into the young girl.  I don't want to imagine Reg Varney as a sexual being, never mind his weird conductor mate.

Beyond was the river, and that was the clever part of Malton's journey.  Rivers are eternal.  The Derwent has gone through this spot for millennia.  It could have been any time period as I looked over the side of the bridge.

It meant that when I rounded the next corner, and saw two lads on a horse and cart outside a stout hardware store (est. 1845), I was ready.  It wasn't a shock.  Malton was just going to be that kind of place: old and new all at the same time.

There's something reassuring about a hardware store.  In my head it was full of gruff middle aged men, their beer bellies concealed by brown aprons, ready to sniff dismissively at every customer request.  You'd ask for a light bulb; they'd return from the store room - because there won't be anything resembling a light bulb on display - with a box covered in dust that will have an exact copy of the bulb you've just brought in.  While you're there, he'll quiz you about the state of the washers in your tap, and you'd end up leaving with your arms full of grommits and whatsits.

It is, in short, my absolute worst nightmare of a shopping experience, and I would head for the corporate blandness of B&Q every time, but I like that it's there.  It's a bit of retail past that's still stored in aspic, and I like that.

I followed the road round onto the main shopping street, where the familiars - WH Smith and Costa - were mixed in with smaller, local shops, and the Yorkshire chains.  There was a Yorkshire Trading Company - a kind of white rose Home Bargains - a Cooplands bakery, and. on the corner, a branch of Boyes, its logo absolutely refusing to cave into modern ideas about "style" and "corporate identity".  I imagined Mr Boyes, the gruff Yorkshireman who heads the company, pulling a cigar out of his mouth and barking at his marketing people.  "It's got me bloody name on it - what more do they want?"

In the town's Market Place, though, the time travel was complete.  While Thirsk's market square had been a wide echoing space, Malton's was broken, interrupted by sloping hills, the church, the town hall.  It clattered into place like you imagined a Medieval town would, a bit sloppy, but incredibly charming.

I circled the Market Place with a big stupid smile.  It was how an English country town should be - quiet and intriguing.  Busy shops and restaurants - a greengrocer, his fruit spilling onto the pavement, a butcher (This week's special: 3 Brace Pheasants), pubs.  Alleyways and side streets to tempt you as you passed.

If a woman in a hooped skirt had clattered out of an entry I doubt I would have batted an eyelid.  Passing cars were momentary intrusions before you slipped back into the past.  It was undeniably well off - there was more than one interior design store, the Farrow & Ball logo prominently displayed - but not ostentatious.  It wasn't vulgar with its money.

I looped round the Market Place two or three times, no doubt to the consternation of the pavement diners who probably thought I was a homeless person.  I was just enjoying drinking it in.  Malton has, in recent years, tried to reposition itself as a foodie destination, and certainly you couldn't move for cafes.  I'd just missed a food festival, a fact I learned when I passed Butterbees (Britain's only butter boutique) and saw that it was closed "because the food festival cleared us out!".  

Yes, you read that right: Britain's only butter boutique.

Finally I found a place for a cup of tea and a moment to relax.  All that smiling was straining my face - I'm not used to it.  

It wasn't all great, of course.  There was a fair few empty shops, gappy teeth in the town's smile.  The headline on the York Press was "Grandad Pointed Machine Gun At Driver".  And the residents of the district voted to leave the EU.  Even the past is imperfect.

I left the Market Place via a back street so I could take a look at the Palace Cinema.  Its ground floor had been converted into a kind of upscale flea market, but the upstairs still showed films.  The red doors ushered you up a staircase to a showing of Ben-Hur, as it probably had done in 1959, and maybe in 1925 before that.  

It was time to head back to the station, for a return to the modern world.  The front of Malton station looks impressive, a long Victorian edifice, but it's been filleted, the sides handed over to other, non-railway businesses.  It's a let down.

Inside, there's just one platform, taking trains to Liverpool in one direction and Scarborough in the other.  I'm sure there are long, tedious, extremely valid operational reasons for reducing a station down to one platform, but it always frustrates me.  People are easily confused.  Give us one eastbound and one westbound.  Keep the trains separate.

I could have got a train all the way home, right back to Lime Street.  I didn't though.  I had one more stop to make, at York.  This was the last time I'd be travelling this way for the blog, and I wanted to take one last look at its magnificence.  To revel in the cathedral of the rails.

Ok, that's a lie.  I wanted a pint of beer in the York Tap, the absolutely wonderful pub on the platform.

Time travelling takes a lot out of you.

Thursday 15 September 2016

All In The Head

If there has been one constant through the nine years of this blog, it's been my never ending love for smut.

If there has been a second constant through the nine years of this blog, it's been the ups and downs of my mental health.

Starting out as a relatively sane individual (as sane as you can be for a person who visits railway stations as a hobby) I gradually descended into a depressive, mentally unstable mess.  Then, quietly and slowly, I climbed back up to my current state of mind: fractured, prone to breakage, but back to something resembling human.  I get through the days pretty fine now, a change from the multiple breakdowns I'd endure a couple of years ago.  The worst of the depression is gone.  But there's still the anxiety.

Anxiety is a tightness round your brain.  It's a tiny voice at the back of your head that undermines you and wrecks you.  Anxiety looks at a given situation and examines all the ways it could go wrong, then whispers it in your ear.  "A night at the theatre?  Think of the crowds.  Think of the people everywhere.  Think of the tiny seats and noisy streets, the queuing, the noise.  And what if it goes wrong?  What if you miss the start?  What if you've got the wrong night?  Are your palms sweating yet?"

Monday started out fine.  A trip across country to York on TransPennine Express - first class of course, because that extra tenner is worth it for the space and the coffee and the calm.  We were on time.  We cruised into the platform with fifteen minutes until my train out again - plenty of time for me to nip up and over the bridge for a quick pee.  Then back for a different TransPennine Express train, this time headed towards Middlesbrough.

I settled into my seat for the fifteen minute journey to Thirsk, dropping my ticket onto the table in front of me while the guard went through his spiel.  He fancied himself as a comedian, this one, listing the "delightful" Thirsk and the "beautiful" Northallerton, before arriving in "Boro".  As he told us he was about to embark on a ticket check - "because I get lonely at the back of the train all on my own" - I noticed something written in tiny letters on my ticket.

Valid only on Grand Central services.

Prickling tension.  A surge of panicked adrenaline bouncing off every surface on the inside of my skull.  A sudden dryness in my throat.  Horror.

You might think this was just a small matter.  A quick word with the guard and that was fine.  "I didn't realise when I bought it, sorry."  In the real world, it turned out to be a complete non-issue.  The guard stamped my ticket, wandered back to his eyrie at the end of the train.  Didn't mention it at all.  (Thank goodness for those terribly designed new tickets, with their miniscule type).

In the fantastical landscape of my psyche, though, the damage was done.  My brain was fizzing.  The tension of watching him walk down the train, perhaps about to tell me I was wrong, I was mistaken, I was breaking the rules.  The knowledge that I had a return ticket, one that was equally invalid on the train I planned getting back to York.  Knowing that I had to either risk the guard missing the small print again, or I had to buy a new ticket.  Anxiety grabbed hold of my mind and squeezed it in its tight, nasty little hand.

You're sitting there thinking how over the top all this is, and yes, writing it down, it sounds horribly melodramatic.  A few calm thoughts and I might have been fine.  Perhaps I should take up colouring books; I hear they're good for the nerves.  But all that presumes I can tell my brain what to do, when it's actually my brain causing the problem.  It's like trying to put out a housefire using the hose inside the house.

I staggered off the train, behind a retired lady who was looking for Pokemon on her smartphone (it's a miserable state of affairs when people old enough to be your mother are more up on pop-culture trends then you are) and had a bit of a rest on the platform.  A few deep breaths.  A drink of water.  Then I clambered up and over the footbridge.  Thirsk is a kind of layby on the East Coast Main Line, its two platforms off to the side of the fast route.  A red and silver Virgin burned through as I went down the steps to leave the station.

The station is way out of town; if you were being geographically accurate it should be called Carlton Miniott, but that sounds like a character from a lesser Graham Greene so Thirsk it is.  Between the station and the town centre is a mile and a half of long straight road, past the empty Austin Reed HQ, abandoned since the company went into administration earlier this year.  A handwritten banner said NOW CLOSED, the felt tip running out mid-phrase, so only NOW CL had been coloured in.  Next to it was an industrial estate called Europark.  Rumours that it is to be renamed Winston Churchill HM The Queen White Cliffs Of Dover Blue Passport Park post-Brexit are entirely false (but only just).

The main landmark on that long, dull road was the racecourse.  On the social scale of racecourses I've encountered over the years, Thirsk seemed to be at the grubbier end, a bit more workaday than the grand enclosures of Aintree or the scenic location of Chester.  Its grandstand was in an uninspiring brick building that looked like a converted warehouse; parking was on a field across the way, currently used as grazing for a handful of sheep.  It was the kind of racecourse that bookies care about more than the general public.

I negotiated a mini-roundabout between a Lidl and a Tesco, cars spinning in and out of both supermarkets too fast to let you cross without a spurt and a wiggle, and headed into the town centre.  The road kinked past an arts centre and a cinema, the Ritz.  In a world of multiplexes and THX surround sound, the Ritz was proudly flying the flag for old-school cinemas, showing a film (Jason Bourne) on its single screen that had already been out in the rest of the country for about six weeks.  I've sort of stopped going to the pictures these days.  The anxiety kicks in again and again, convincing me that the screening will be full of yammering teenagers chucking popcorn and antisocial idiots texting on brightly lit smartphones.  It takes a Bond film to get me to the flicks these days; even my mental illnesses can't win against 007.  But I imagine the Ritz would be more my scene, too unglamorous for the teens, too old fashioned for the blockbuster crowd; just me and a half dozen pensioners watching something that everyone else torrented the day it came out.

No, the Ritz isn't under attack from aliens there; it was a very sunny day.

I passed a butcher's shop with a chalkboard advertising its Olympic sausage (so called because it was "full of Brazilian flavours", apparently, and nothing to do with tight running shorts) and entered Thirsk's medieval market square.

A wide expanse of cobbles and old fashioned shops utterly ruined by cars.  It could have been an impressive space - probably is on market day, when there are coloured stalls taking up all that space.  On a Monday morning though, it was just a car park.  A badly managed one, too, the side streets hurling automobiles into the mix at random to swirl and spin in the aisles.  There was a peppering of irritated horns under the growl of gunning engines.

The pavements weren't much better.  They were crammed with the elderly and the dawdling, tourists pointing at blue plaques ("apparently Wordsworth stayed in this Wetherspoons"), shoppers stopping dead to stare through shop windows.  People in my way.  My anxiety cramped mind couldn't bear it.  Too many bodies, too many noises, too much hectic.  It was a small country town but in my head it felt like Piccadilly Circus.  I ducked into a bookshop, hoping for a bit of quiet contemplation in the aisles, but it was a kind of bookshop/cafe hybrid, with the cafe part winning handsomely.  Clattering crockery and squeaky chairs and hissing steam and every table filled, the books relegated to the edge of the shop.

I headed back outside, crossing the road by the Hung Moey takeaway (see, always in search of the smut) and following the pavement round.  Hemmed in between shop fronts and a chain of small stalls selling garden statues and house signs.  Before I knew it I was back at the entrance to the market square, where I'd come in, and I took it as a sign and headed back to the station.

Sometimes, when it all gets too much for me, when I need a break, the best place for me to be is on a railway platform.  I sat on a bench for twenty minutes, letting the breath hiss between my teeth, calming myself down.  Anxiety quietly receding.  The healing power of stations.

(And yes, of course I bought a brand new ticket for the trip back to York to replace the Grand Central Only one.  It was the sane thing to do).