Monday 8 October 2018

Notty, But Nice

You let me down, nerds.

The comments used to be full of people demanding I go places.  "When are you visiting x?"  "Why haven't you done y?"  There was such pressure on me to visit Yarm I actively avoided it.

And yet Ilkeston?  Not a word.  It's been open since April 2017 and nobody has said "when are you going to Ilkeston?"  No-one.  Shame on you all.

I decided to finally right this wrong and took an early train to the beautiful Nottingham station.  It was a relief to see that it was more or less intact.  The videos of the fire that hit it in January this year had looked apocalyptic.  There were a few signs from East Midlands Trains asking for your patience while things were sorted out, but I couldn't see anything cataclysmic.  Certainly the wonderfully restored booking hall looked just as good as it had when I'd visited three years ago.

I like Nottingham.  It's a really good second-tier city, and I'm not using "second-tier" as an insult in anyway.  It's not Premier League like Manchester or Liverpool or Bristol; it's a large, historic city that's made its mark.  It has some beautiful buildings and charming streets.  It works.

I followed the dual carriageway round the edge of the city centre, heading for the Ilkeston Road.  I'd decided to walk all the way out to the new station rather than simply take the train there and come back.  It'd be more interesting, I thought, and justify the two and a half hour journey to Nottingham.  How is that still a thing, incidentally?  You take a train for two and a half hours and you're still only in the Midlands.  More electric trains now, please. 

It was ten in the morning, and the streets were mainly filled with students.  So many students.  Still excited at their new studies, still enthusiastic, still actually getting out of bed before lunch.  They clustered together, little knots of new friends finding their way around, not realising that they'd all have new pals by Christmas and wouldn't talk to these losers again.  I latched onto some bloke in Fresher's Week and we were friends until about Bonfire Night.  We had literally nothing in common beside the fact that we knew nobody else and we happened to be in the same induction class.  I think it was a relief to both of us when we stopped talking.

It had been a steady climb up a hill out of the centre, and I paused at the top to catch my breath.  Ahead of me was the stretch of the city, out into the countryside.  It looked far.  I'd worked out my route on the map - eight miles, two and a half hours, easy - but seeing it from there caught in my throat.  That was a fair old walk.  I might have reconsidered then, turned back to the station, but a white man with dreadlocks appeared at the edge of my vision, walking back the way I came.  His dreadlocks went down to his waist.  It was quite repellent, and I realised I couldn't walk behind that, so I carried on out of town.

Fortunately the road was straight and well-maintained and interesting.  It was the outer band of the city, the circle between the prestige of the centre and the rarefied suburbs, with ethnic shops and engineering firms and small backstreets.  Asian grocers and barbers, redbrick houses, a slight whiff of drains and litter underfeet.  Where there were building works it was to throw up four storeys of student accommodation.  There were a lot of flyers for club nights, desperate to catch the new influx of 18 year olds with cheap drink promotions. 

The other thing there was a lot of was buses.  I don't know who is in charge of public transport at Nottingham City Council but they deserve a knighthood.  I saw frequent, efficient bus services pass me over and over that morning, calling at clean and well-maintained bus stops with a clear network map to help you.  That's without mentioning the tram network, which recently got a second branch and is one of the most successful in Britain, or the effective smart card network which covers buses, trams, and trains.

OK, yes, it's called the Robin Hood Network and that's a bit overdone, but if you've got an internationally renowned mythological figure tied to your city, why not exploit it?  The cards are available from shops and from on-street vending machines, they can be topped up with pay as you go at the same machines, and there's an app to let you keep track of your balance.  This is all fantastic.  I hate to keep banging on about it, but Merseyside's Walrus still splutters on ineffectively, tied to PayPoints and only hosting a minimal spread of ticket types.  Sort.  It.  Out.

A large complex of halls of residence were accompanied by a shopping plaza that had everything a student could possibly need: Aldi, Domino's Pizza, Greggs, Subway.  Chuck in a Bargain Booze and maybe, because it's 2018, a vape store, and they didn't need to walk more than twenty yards to do their entire shop.  Then it was over the railway line and onto a huge double roundabout at the spot where the Wollaton Road met lengthy green boulevards flanked by sturdy council houses.

It was still early, so the Crown was closed, morning light glinting off the gold, and I walked along a long strip of pre-war semis.  Each one identical, white with a red roof, fake Tudor beams on the front, a tidy wall with trees.  They stretched away into the distance: a welcome parade for suburbia. 

I was getting hungry.  I'd been up since 5am; the train had left at 6:47 and the trolley hadn't turned up until after Sheffield, by which time I was too furious to order anything.  I'd bought a hoisin duck wrap at the station's Co-op for my lunch and now, even though it was barely 11am, I gobbled it up.  It's not a great look, a fat bloke jamming food into his mouth mid-morning, hoisin sauce dripping down his fingers, but I'd walked nearly three miles on a single yoghurt eaten six hours before.  I wiped antibacterial gel all over my Chinese scented fingertips and glugged some water.

By now I was on a quiet side road, paralleling the main carriageway but separated from it by a row of trees.  The traffic was heard but not seen.  It was bin day, and a little old lady was working her way down the street.  I saw her from a distance, dragging her wheelie into her driveway, and felt a pang of guilt; that pang vanished when I realised it wasn't her bin at all.  She was moving from house to house, angrily pulling the wheelie bins off the pavement and dumping them on the driveways, muttering to herself as she did so.  It was a wide, quiet path - there was plenty of room to get round the emptied bins - but she was clearly determined to make a point.

It was all incredibly pleasant and safe; as if to underline its relentlessly middle-class environment, a Waitrose turned up on my right, along with one of those hand car washes that plasters itself in Union flags in a way that seems to be making a Brexit-y point.  You'll get none of those dedicated, working hard for the money Eastern Europeans here, it says; just a load of lazy Brits who are filled with resentment and who'll scratch your Volvo.

At this point I received a visitor: anxiety.  I had a train booked from Nottingham at about three o'clock.  That was four hours away, and I'd already done half the walk to Ilkeston.  I had plenty of time to stroll out there.

But still: anxiety.  That nervous, internal tap-tap-tap on my skull.  The whispered voice in my head. Are you sure?  Are you positive?  What if you're late?  Tap-tap-tap.  I ran through scenarios, involuntarily, a Cassandra forced to see the doomed future.  Missed trains.  Stranded miles from home.  Forced to buy a new ticket at walk up prices.  No seat reservation.  Busy rush hour services.

Over and over they went in my head.  I felt my pace quicken, my breath shorten, as I tried to amp up my walk.  I was grimly aware that I was reaching the very edge of the city.  Beyond here there would be countryside; no chance of getting an emergency taxi, no people to ask directions, maybe not even a phone signal.  I pictured myself sweaty, desperate, lost, my reserved seat sliding out of Nottingham station with me miles away.

The anxiety won.  I couldn't walk any more.  I couldn't.

My walk out of the city had been regularly accompanied by the bright yellow buses of Trentbarton's Two line.  They'd whizzed past every ten minutes, looking impossibly cheery under the stark blue sky, and I finally caved and waited for one.  I fingered a handful of coins, filled with my usual nerves at having to deal with a surly bus driver.

Once again, Nottingham came up trumps.  The driver greeted me with a cheery "hello mate!".  He took my payment without complaint (Merseyside's drivers frequently roll their eyes when you ask for a ticket rather than wave a pass, because it means they have to do some work).  He waited until I sat down before starting the bus.  He was great.  He was like that with everyone who boarded.  The pensioners, the young mums, the - let's say eccentric middle-aged men.  Across the way, two men getting the most out of their bus pass were doing a little travel challenge of their own.  There was an A-Z open on their lap, and one man fingered the route as we traveled.

And the bus itself was great: clean, leatherette seats, an automated voice announcing the next stop so you could keep track of where you were headed.  The driver was fast but not crazy as we went through country lines, over the county line into Derbyshire, and into Ilkeston itself.  I disembarked at the bus exchange thoroughly impressed and feeling a lot jollier than if I'd walked, which is exactly the feeling you should have whenever you ride public transport.  Well done, Trentbarton.  Though I refuse to call you trentbarton as your website tries to make me; proper nouns have capital letters round here, thank you very much.

It also meant I got to spend more time in Ilkeston, which turned out to be a delightful little town.  It was certainly rough round the edges.  Much of its previous wealth had been industry based, with coal works and steelworks nearby, and they were of course gone.  You could feel the undercurrent of deprivation in the pound shops and the bargain stores, the slight edge of poverty in the clothes of the passers by, the whisper that this was a town that struggled.  But it still carried itself proudly.  There was a wonderful market square beneath the church, some pretty buildings, a tiny cinema that had probably started showing Laurel and Hardy films and hadn't stopped.

It also had one of the highest concentrations of Goths I've seen outside Whitby on Hallowe'en.  I'm not sure why this innocuous East Midlands town had such a large population of servants of the dead, but they seemed to be everywhere, hunkering through the streets in ones and twos.  Black clad, pale, their shoulders rounded, their hair whistling around them in the autumn breezes.  They didn't attract attention at all.  I like Goths; I've known a few in my time, and they have been without exception some of the sweetest, gentlest people I have ever met.  I would rather be on a night bus full of Robert Smiths and Siouxsie Siouxs than a load of laughing, happy "normal" teenagers.  Ilkeston's were no exception.  There was something weirdly charming about a teenage lad in a torn rock t-shirt, black skinny jeans and pierced face happily chatting to an old man smoking a ciggie outside the pub.

I had a bit of a wander round, then headed north for the station.  At one point Ilkeston had three railway stations: a junction station on the Midland Main Line, with a small branch heading into a town terminus, plus a third station to the north on the now mothballed Derby-Nottingham line.  One by one they closed, until that man Beeching finally put paid to Ilkeston Junction in 1967.  It left the town of more than thirty thousand people without a rail connection to the nearby prosperous city, and was obviously a ridiculous state of affairs.

Still, it took fifty years for a new station to open on the edge of town.  Construction was delayed by financial concerns, by reports of flooding, and by the discovery of a load of rare newts, but it finally opened in April 2017 on more or less the same site as the old Junction station.

I decided not to follow the obvious route along Station Road and instead walked up Bath Street.  This was where Ilkeston Town railway station had once been.  It's now been completely obliterated by a by-pass, with only a wagon on the roundabout giving any hint that there used to be a railway here. 

I called into the Tesco superstore that now occupied the majority of the station site, partly to pay homage to the history, but mainly to have a wee, then walked out of town.  As was to be expected, what had once been railway lands had been filled in the last few decades by undistinguished developments: Halfords, KFC, a 24 hour McDonalds.  There was a brief recreation ground, then I was following Millership Way, a clunkily-named road laid on the route of the branch line.

Cross a canal, and there it was, a long time coming for the town and for me: Ilkeston railway station.

It's nothing special.  Just a couple of platforms with a car park.  There's no ticket office - there are machines - and as usual the most dominant architectural features are the wheelchair ramps.  But it's there.  Fifty years after it vanished, it's back, and it's helping the town get that little bit of connectivity and investment.

It was popular too.  Not just with passengers, though there were plenty of those; about half a dozen people boarded the train alongside me, which isn't bad for a Tuesday afternoon.  It was also popular with train nerds.  There was me, of course, larking about with my camera like an idiot.  On the overbridge there was a man with a long lens pointed down the track, ready to snap a photo of the freight services that skirt the station on a passing line.  And on the opposite platform was a man taking lots of shots of the station.  He even had a stool to sit on.  It amused me to think that we're both station nerds, and we've both got photos with each other in it, and we'll never know who the other one is.  Trains that pass in the night.

(Incidentally, I got back to Nottingham station with over an hour to spare, and had to spend all that time loitering on the platform.  Thanks anxiety!)


Rincew1nd said...

We've not pestered you about Ilkeston because, whilst on the map, it doesn't °feel° Northern. This is the land of East Midlands Trains, sleek long distance things that scurry towards the capital. Not pacers nodding along above the terraced rooftops of Accrington and Burnley, or sprinters soaring magestically across the dales of Yorkshire.

It's the Midlands, they talk funny down there!

Kody L said...

Great reading your blog poost