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).

Saturday 10 September 2016

Boldly Going

It's five years since I last went to Blackpool.  There are some towns and cities that, once I've visited for the station, I want to return to again and again.  Newcastle, for example, or Barrow.  Places that capture my imagination.

Blackpool is not one of those towns.  I've been to Blackpool twice in my life, and frankly, I'd have been happy to leave it at that.  It's just not my kind of town.  But then a Star Trek exhibition opened down on the front and, well, there it was: a third visit was needed.

Yes, I'm a Trekkie, though my love has been severely tested over the past few years.  It wobbled half way through Voyager, it collapsed entirely after about five episodes of Enterprise, and as for bloody Into Darkness - nope (or, in Klingon, ghobe').  The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine however - absolute brilliance, hours of thought provoking, exciting telly that I can immerse myself in.  DS9 in particular has a level of characterisation and intrigue that none of the other Trek shows can equal.

I headed to the exhibition with fellow Trek fans Robert and Barry; I decided not to wear my command red TNG hoodie, because I didn't want people to think I was a complete nerd.  (I wore a t-shirt with the logo of the Drax Enterprises Corporation from Moonraker instead, because that's much cooler).  The exhibition was ok - a lot of costumes and props mainly, probably sourced from a private collector.  There was a Tribble that moved on its satin cushion, and a Borg drone, and some bits of torpedo.  The odd PADD and tricorder.  A mock up of the Original Series bridge, which I couldn't get over enthused about because I really don't like the Original Series.

As you can see, Robert relished the opportunity to play Kirk.  Later that day he punched a man in a lizard suit in the face, ripped his shirt, and shagged a green skinned alien.

We headed out via the extremely expensive gift shop - I would dearly love to own a metal communicator pin, but I'm not paying forty three pounds for it - and continued the theme of "people who have hobbies you are encouraged to laugh at" by walking down to the front for a bit of tramspotting.

Blackpool was the only place in Britain to keep its trams; while other cities tore their networks up and converted them to bus routes, Blackpool kept the steel along the coast.  Admittedly, for most of the 20th century they were a tourist attraction.  In 2012 however, the old-fashioned network was upgraded to modern, low floor trams.  The heritage trams operate alongside the newer ones in tourist season, but otherwise, Blackpool has been gifted with a transport route other towns would kill for.

Fast, quiet, efficient trams ply the route from Starr Gate to Fleetwood, with a day pass costing only a fiver.  We got on board and followed the line north, under the illuminations, which looked a bit abandoned during the day.  It's a surprisingly long journey all the way out to the end of the line, passing hotels and seafront homes and through the town centres of Cleveleys and Fleetwood before ending up at Ferry terminus.

Pleasingly, the new trams have been a success.  There had been a lot of grumbling when the historic trams were replaced, but the new trams are superior by almost any criteria, and they seemed extremely well used.  Blackpool have recently finalised plans to extend the route to run to North station, which is an excellent idea.

On top of all this, as we travelled back to Tower stop, I realised that this trip meant I have travelled on every single tram network in the UK.  Manchester, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Croydon, Birmingham, Nottingham and now Blackpool to complete the set.  This pleases me immensely.

I am such a nerd.