Thursday 28 July 2016

Viva La Deva

I’m writing this on my MacBook with a latte in Starbucks, because I am just that awful.  It’s not just any Starbucks though: it’s Chester Starbucks, a coffee shop that I used to be a frequent visitor to.  Every now and then, before work, I’d wander in and get myself a Caramel Macchiato and a cinnamon swirl to eat at my desk as a breakfast treat.  I was such a regular that the barista finally offered me a discount, because I worked in the city centre; unfortunately it was literally on my last day working in Chester, but the thought was much appreciated.

They’ve done it up a bit since I was last here.  The front is far more open, a plate glass window, and they’ve finally installed decent air conditioning.  And the toilets are actually quite decent, for once.  Why do Starbucks have the very worst lavatories in the world?  They aim for sophistication up front, all matey barista banter and limited blends, and then you go to the loo and it's worse than a toilet in a French service station.

Across from me is a man in a tartan tam o’shanter reading the Daily Record; I think he may be Scottish.  There’s also a pair of dreadful old bores who are referring to the Prime Minister as "Mrs May" in a way that makes me think they call women "pretty young ladies" and share risque jokes at the golf club about the barely out of her teens barmaid.

I’m in town for reasons far too dull to go into here.  I was on the first train out of Hooton, meaning to transfer to a different service at Chester to head into North Wales, but my schedule is light and I can get any train along the coast, so I decided to jump off the train at Bache.  We have history, me and Bache.  When I worked in Chester city centre, I used to get off the train there, then walk into town.  It was a pathetic attempt at getting some exercise into my life, an effort rather undercut by the fact that I then had the aforementioned Caramel Macchiato and cinnamon swirl when I hit town.  It was also the second station I ever visited for this blog, back in the far off days of 2007 when I was just visiting the Merseyrail stations on the Northern and Wirral lines.  Back before I became obsessed.  (If you click that link, incidentally, you'll see a picture of me when I was still in my skinny twenties, all chin and forehead).

The only thing that's changed about Bache station is the giraffe ALF board I mentioned in my old blog has long gone.  The rest is the same, two platforms wedged round the back of Morrison's.  I crossed the tracks via the overbridge, which probably hasn't been painted since I was last here, and down into the car park.  

Funny how quickly your brain slips back into the old routines.  Muscle memory guided me round to the pedestrian exit from the car park, across the road, and onto the Liverpool Road into the city centre.  Sometimes, if I was feeling a bit adventurous, I'd head down the suburban streets the other side of the railway line, crossing Brook Lane and coming out round the back of the Northgate Arena, but today I stuck to the favoured route.  

In the old days I'd have been here about ten past eight, breathing the fumes from nose to tail traffic, but today it was six thirty and quiet.  I crossed at Lumley Road - of course I thought of Joanna, instantly - and continued past big homes hidden behind trees.  Many of them had been repurposed now, acquired by the hospital or the university, name boards tucked at the end of the drive to let you know about their new purpose.  A bus trundled by, not even pausing for me, even though I was right by a stop, the driver keen to get into town for a break.

At the Queen's School, I crossed the road.  When I commuted, crossing was a struggle, the harassed drivers unwilling to pause to let a pedestrian break their grim faced morning routine.  Now I practically sauntered across, past the glass fronted Total Fitness that occasionally gave me a tantalising glimpse of some speedo clad hunk (but more often than not gave me a view of a large lady in a psychedelic one piece), and past the site of Liverpool Road station.

There used to be a railway line passing across the top of Chester, from the Northgate station - now the leisure centre I mentioned earlier - through Liverpool Road and Blacon and then joining up with what is now the Borderlands Line above Hawarden Bridge.  The railway line lasted a surprisingly long time; passenger services were axed by Beeching in the sixties, but freight trains continued until 1992.

It's hard to conceive of trains passing through today, now that it's been surrounded by trees and aspirational apartment blocks.  Every now and then I think about walking the route, just to trace it again, skirting the edge of the city centre and ending up at Mickle Trafford.  

Half the sponsors on that board don't even exist any more.

Further on, the University buildings really start to build up.  It was originally a teacher training college, established by the Church of England, but it became a University in 2000 and has swelled rapidly.  Perhaps it's the glamour of Hollyoaks tempting young people to head to an educational establishment with the potential for plenty of casual sex and the odd murder.  There was a cut through at the bottom of Liverpool Road, an old road too narrow for cars that dropped down to Parkgate Road, but a few years ago a wall collapsed onto the pathway.  As with almost everything else in Chester, the walls were found to be incredibly old and incredibly fragile, so rather than risk them toppling on an innocent student they closed off the pathway completely.

Passing the not-at-all-amusingly-named Gaymoore Close I was surprised to see the garage nearby had closed.  Even more surprisingly, now the trappings of the service station had been stripped away, it turns out there was a fine Victorian villa hiding underneath.  There's another wonderful villa on the other side of the road, with a stained glass orangery at the side; I was upset to see that it was undergoing work, and the glass roof was open to the elements.  I hope there is a Heritage Officer from the Council making sure that it's restored exactly as it was.

I was pleased to see the fountains at the Fountains Roundabout were actually turned on for once, as I descended into the underpasses beneath.  Underpasses are never nice.  There isn't a single one on this planet that doesn't carry a vague sniff of urine.  The ones beneath the ring road in Chester were built with ambition, to try and stop them from turning into the usual rape alleys.  The one at the bottom of Brook Street leads into a submerged garden beneath the roundabout, while the Fountains underpass sends you through a central circulation area.  

There's something bleakly futuristic about it, a bit Clockwork Orange, a bit THX-1138. The roar of the fountains fills the space.  In the ceiling, plexiglass domes are set into the ceiling, meant to let in light but now covered with dirt and mould to turn the sunlight brown.

The top of Northgate Street has changed beyond recognition since I was last along here.  There's a huge student residence on the ring road - built as a Travelodge, but closed barely a year later - and opposite the old bus station has disappeared beneath a hefty office block.  Sadly, the Bull & Stirrup - a regular haunt for me and the BF; the very first time I ever visited Chester we met up there - was closed up, its windows covered by metal grilles.  

Across the canal and under the Northgate, one of the city's ancient entrance points and part of the Roman Walls.  Chester is the only city in Britain to still have its entire run of walls still in one piece, thanks to an eternal fear of rampaging Welshmen wandering across the border to pillage.  Behind the gate is Chester's oldest gay bar, the LA (I still call it the Liverpool Arms, because I'm ancient).  I'm not sure what the status of the city's other gay bar is, the subtly named Bar Six T Nine.  Gay bars are falling away now; Grindr and Gaydar and other, more niche, internet sites have taken away the traditional way of meeting other homos (standing by the bar until you're so drunk you just go home with the first person who says hello).

I wandered down Northgate Street, noticing the new shops, the new restaurants, which ones had updated their signs, which ones looked exactly the same as they always did (the Cheese Shop).  My job at Chester City Council had meant dealing with a lot of these businesses, and over the years, I grew to know them by heart.  I could practically list from memory the shops on the streets within the walls, one after the other.  When I left I stayed away from the city for a long time, just so that I could lose those memories.  I needed to come back to Chester with a blank slate.

Town Hall Square still looked the same, dominated by William Lynn's town hall, its three faced clock  tower still refusing to give Wales the time of day.  (By the way, no, you can't shoot a Welshman within the walls after sunset - that's murder, and no ancient law can get you out on a technicality).  I looked up when I left my job here, and I was shocked to realise it was eight years ago: I shared my leaving do with a girl who was going on her maternity leave.  That child will be old enough to join the Cubs now.  It's still all there, tucked in my mind, though.  It's nearly eight thirty as I type this.  In the old days this would be when I arrived at my office in the Forum, finding a space amidst the mess of papers, settling in for a day's work.  Instead I'm going to head to the seaside.  Much better, I think.

Friday 15 July 2016

Return Ticket


Yes, I'm back.  Miss me?  You don't have to answer that.  I always hate it when bloggers apologise for their absence and beg for the readers to tell them how empty their lives had been while the writer was away; it's so self-serving.  Mate, people aren't out there hanging on your every word - you're a blogger, not Peter Ustinov.  So yes, I've been away for a while: a whole load of stuff has been happening at home - good stuff - which has meant my opportunities to go romping around the north have been restricted.

But now they're done, so, finally, I got on a TransPennine Express train and headed to Northallerton.  It was the first time I'd been on the Liverpool-Newcastle train since the franchise was renewed.  The only on board difference I could tell was that the First Class breakfast muffin now came in a paper Carluccio's bag instead of an unbranded plastic one.

At the station however, I noticed that the signs were now emblazoned with the glamorous new TPE branding.  I don't like the font.  It's too informal, too game show, for a railway station sign.  Stick with Rail Alphabet - it's a classic for a reason.

Northallerton's a stop on the busy East Coast Main Line, so while it only gets a couple of services an hour, there's a constant stream of roaring London-Edinburgh trains burning through and threatening to suck you under the wheels.  I crossed under the tracks and headed out into the car park, past the Executive Parking Spaces - fancy! - and off to get my first station sign picture in ages.

The beard's not staying, by the way.  I let it grow through sheer laziness and I keep meaning to shave it off again but as I said: laziness.  Next time I take a sign pic I'll hopefully be a glowing pink cue ball.

I headed into town, past the grand entrance to North Yorkshire's County Hall, and along a street lined with neat villas and B&Bs.  There was a lovely looking pub, the Station Hotel, proudly displaying the coat of arms of the North Eastern Railway on its exterior:

Later that day I went into the pub for a pint while I waited for my train home.  The bar had been knocked through into one large room, rather than the old mix of lounge and snug, but there were plenty of original features and railway posters.  I can't recommend the pub unreservedly.  Firstly, the frosted glass windows clearly showed that the pub used to be the Railway Hotel, and the name change annoyed me.  If you're going to change the name to the Duke of Kent or the Roadside Tavern or Tricky's Booze Shack, fine, but if you want a pub name that's train themed, well, stick with the original.  It's on the window.

The second reason I can't fully endorse the pub is because the barman and a couple of regulars had a good laugh when Some Girls by Rachel Stevens came on the jukebox.  They seemed to think that it was a terrible song, when it is in fact a stone cold banger.  I didn't pop up to correct them, and I still regret it; that kind of cowardice and failure to confront people with horrible opinions is what landed us in this whole Brexit mess.

It was clear that this was a town with a fair bit of cash in its back pocket, an impression confirmed when the first shop I saw in the centre was Laura Ashley Home.  There isn't a Laura Ashley Home in Birkenhead, though we have just got a new Farmfoods, so you know, it's not all bad.  It was market day, and the high street was lined with stalls selling all the usual - handbags, dog beds, hilarious signs that say Sisters are like fat thighs... they stick together!  I hovered over a second hand bookstall, but it was incredibly overpriced: a paperback of On Chesil Beach in not too-great condition was £3.99.  It's barely a hundred pages!

I weaved through the crowds, a mix of pensioners and people on holidays looking for something to do.  A woman in a fluorescent lemon skirt with a tropical coloured jacket barreled out of Betty's Tea Room and marched onwards.  She was wearing high heels that were highly inappropriate for a woman of her advancing years and carrying a couple of huge shopping bags; clearly she'd just had a fantastic morning of scoffing scones and knocking back Darjeeling with a couple of equally well preserved moneyed widows.  I followed in her fabulous wake for a while, then swung into Barkers department store, partly because I love wandering round provincial department stores, but mainly because I needed a wee.

Unlike many other small-town stores I've been to, Barkers was in rude health.  Clever displays and plenty of smartly dressed staff.  The huge number of bored looking husbands sitting on banquettes around the store showed how popular it was.  I headed up to the top floor for the gents, and found it was rainforest themed, with pictures of ferns in the cubicles and piped in cicada noises.  You don't get that in Debenhams.

I looped round the back of the fine town hall and back down the other side of the high street, calling in at Lewis and Cooper, an absolutely superb delicatessen.  I could have wandered its aisles for hours, coveting spiced sausages and fine cheeses.  It was so good, I'm even willing to overlook the fact that it had plum puddings on sale, despite it being, you know, July.

By the time I emerged, my stomach rumbling for exotic breads, there were spots of rain beginning to clatter on the canvas stall roofs, so I headed for the pub.  I picked the Tickle Toby Inn based entirely on its name.  As good a reason as any, I thought, until I got inside and realised it doubled as the local branch of Help the Aged.  All those pensioners I'd seen picking at slippers in the market had descended on the pub for their lunch.  I considered joining them until a waitress wandered by with two plates and I saw what the food was like (Beef baguette served with or without gravy - £6.20) so I just got a pint and sat down.

There was a particular woman in there who seemed to be doing her own recreation of Victoria Wood's Two Soups sketch.  In an innovative twist, the doddery old lady was the customer and not the waitress.  She tottered up to the till to order food for her and her unseen companion, only to keep staggering back with questions - chips or jackets?  Tea or coffee?  Oh, do I have to pay now, I haven't brought my purse, I'll just go and get it.  On her third trip back to the till she called out, "at least I'll have lost a few pounds!", overlooking the fact that she weighed about four stone anyway.

With the beer inside me, I decided I'd seen all Northallerton had to offer, so I rolled back to the station for a train to Yarm.

I really didn't want to go to Yarm.  This is nothing against the town which - spoiler alert! - turned out to be delightful.  I didn't want to go to Yarm because people kept telling me to go to Yarm.  When I decided to collect the additions to the Northern map, it was absolutely my intention to go there.  Then people kept mentioning it in the comments.  "Go to Yarm!"  "When are you going to Yarm?"  "Yarm!"

It got my back up.  I don't like being told to do things, not by anyone, not the BF, not my mum.  It brings out that childish, bloody minded, awkward side of me, the side that really isn't attractive, where I just think, "in that case, I won't go to Yarm.  See how you like that!"

I did, actually, have to go to Yarm though: I couldn't avoid it forever.  And with Northallerton out the way it made sense to go there.  It just got my back up.

Incidentally none of the people who demanded I go to Yarm offered to pay for my ticket.

I crossed the busy road outside Yarm station and dived down an alleyway signposted "Town Centre".  I was immediately dropped into a sedate, calm suburban still.  Silent cul-de-sacs curved off winding avenues, their lawns cropped, their letterboxes shining.  Neat semis surrounded patches of communal green; each home had its own gardens, front and back, but the planners had dotted the estate with wider areas for the kids to play football and to give breathing space.  It was wonderfully civilised.

Even when I reached a main road, with bus stops and a care home, it felt relaxed and unhurried.  A tiny stream shadowed me, diving under the roadway, while maisonettes and a community centre were hidden behind trees.  The centre's noticeboard spoke of sweet residential living - Tuesday: Coffee morning with raffle, Thursday: Brownies.  Even the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on Sunday was probably full of sherry drinkers.

A swing past the newly refurbished gates of Yarm School, which dates back to the sixteenth century, and I'd reached the town centre.  It stands on a bend in the Tees, and the High Street was lined with discreetly expensive shops and Georgian homes.

If Northallerton had a few pennies, Yarm only dealt with the folding stuff.  The cars parked here were BMWs and Audis and convertibles; the women sat at the outside tables of the coffee shops clutching elegant white cigarettes in manicured fingers.  There was a shop selling both equestrian and ski wear, for the ultimate upper middle class fix, and even a Bang & Olufsen for anyone who wanted over-designed audio gear.

It was all really quite lovely, and I felt guilty for despising the people who wanted me to come here.  They were right: it was absolutely worth visiting.

I walked up to the stone bridge over the river that peaks the town centre.  A plaque on the bridge informed me that it was built in 1806 to replace an iron one from 1805 that collapsed; I imagine the town council had a very interesting discussion with the engineers after that.

The bridge is also a great spot to gaze at the magnificent railway viaduct that bypasses the town,  Finished in 1851, it's crowned by a magnificently boastful plaque commemorating everyone involved.  It's Victorian arrogance at its zenith, though I bet a little part of them was praying this bridge wouldn't fall down too.

You may have noticed that, for a town with such a lengthy history, Yarm had a bit of a rubbish station: just a couple of platforms and a shelter.  That's because it's actually the second station to serve the town and only opened in 1996.  The original station was at the far end of the viaduct, on the opposite side of the river in Egglescliffe.

Readers with long memories will remember that I passed through Egglescliffe before, last year, on my way to Teesside Airport.  I had in fact walked along the road that leads to Yarm.  When I spotted this, I realised I had to cross the bridge so that I could connect the two trips in my mental map.  It was non-negotiable.

As a plus, I got to see the old railway station building.  I wondered if the closure had as much to do with it being on the other side of the river as anything else.  Rivers are funny things.  Humans have bridged them for millennia - we're quite good at it by now - but they still act as a mental barrier.  Look how many hackneyed comedy routines there are about taxi drivers refusing to go "south of the river".  I still have friends in Liverpool who blanch at the idea of having to go "over the water", though to be fair that may be more to do with them not wanting to see me than a prehistoric antipathy to crossing the Mersey.  Still, it was interesting that when they built a new station, they didn't put it in the same place as the old one, even though it was far more convenient for the town.

I cut round the back of the apartment buildings that now occupy the old station's sidings and up onto Urlay Nook Road.  Click! went my brain, knotting the new and old geographies together, meshing the memory of a tense Sunday morning heading for a rarely served railway station with the current reality of a warm, comfortable Wednesday afternoon.  My mind joined up the highlighted routes so they touched.  Then I turned around and went home.