One of the longest direct train routes from Lime Street is the service to Norwich. Departing every hour, the train crosses the width of the country, heading from the north west to East Anglia and calling at the likes of Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham on the way. Like all travel that doesn't involve heading towards London in the UK, it's a slow, meandering route that doesn't seem to know if it's an intercity or a local. The trains are diesels, because much of the route isn't electrified, and there's nothing fancy like a shop on board.
Obviously I was going to have to take this train sometime, and I finally did on the 23rd June 2016. If that doesn't ring a bell, first of all, lucky you; secondly, it was the date of the Brexit referendum. I voted in the morning then trotted off to Lime Street, not realising that it was the last day of Britain being a relatively normal country. I was getting the East Midlands Trains (not Railway then) service and I was going to take copious notes. In fact, my notepad is basically a constant stream of observations for the journey, six hours of scribbling, twenty-one pages of tiny writing, which I'm now going to reproduce here. I've tidied it up a bit, removed the spelling mistakes and the odd name, but otherwise, this is what happened to me and what I was thinking for that whole trip.
LIVERPOOL TO NORWICH - 23rd June 2016.
10:45. Primed and ready to pounce at the button. Surrounded by pensioners in bright florals and polka dots eyeing me shiftily. They're worried I'm going to take their seat, I can tell. They've got that hopping anxiety, side-eyes to watch me in case I try to get ahead of them. My relative youth means I win out though, because my eyes are good enough to spot when the button lights up, despite the bright sunlight. I'm in there, pushing ahead of them while they're still gathering up cases.
My seat is a table; I don't normally like tables when I'm travelling alone. I'm always worried I'm going to end up surrounded by teenagers, or worse, chatty people. People who want to make friends. People who think a five hour train journey is a chance to mingle. Sod that. I want to sit in silence with a podcast in my ears. My reserved seat is facing backwards, which is annoying. I unload a packet of crisps and a Coke Zero for the trip, storing the rest of my lunch under the seat.
A tiny Asian woman, barely five feet tall, hesitates by my table. She puts down her big leather handbag, brown, with a jacket poking out the top, then picks it up again and wanders off. Soon she's back. She sits down uncertainly.
"Is this the Norwich train?"
"Yes," I say, and she thanks me and goes back to looking a bit anxious. Now I'm anxious too, worrying that maybe this isn't the Norwich train, and now this poor lady and I are going to end up in Carlisle together.
The diesel engines, which have been running continuously, suddenly cut out. As one the passengers wonder if we've broken down. Then they start again, there's a whistle, and we trundle out of the station, my companion nervously checking the envelope with her tickets as we go.
We're still in the Lime Street tunnels when the guard appears for a ticket check, bald and gruff, scrawling a twist with his biro, and we're just out of Edge Hill when the trolley appears. The voice over the tannoy confirms that we're headed for Norwich so I can breathe easy again. The trolley boy is dark and stubbly, skinny, with a black flower tattoo poling out from his rolled up sleeve.
Estimated time of arrival at Norwich, says the guard, is around 16:10. This is the longest single train service I've taken since the Sleeper; standard class all the way, no extras, just a load of red seats to stare at.
South Parkway. The woman opposite looks vaguely like she wanted a cup of tea, but was too shy to stop the trolley boy. Though it may have been her general nervousness; she sits sideways so that we don't catch each other's eye accidentally. There are black inky fingerprints on the cornflower blue table, a remnant of the previous occupier. Do newspapers still give you inky fingers? I thought they all moved to computer colour printing. Maybe it was the Telegraph, refusing to go with these modern (1980s) technologies.
A quick look at the train app as we reach Widnes and we're already three minutes late. I break open the Coke. At Warrington, she puts her handbag on her lap to free up the seat; it's reserved from Peterborough. When we leave the station and no-one sits down she moves the bag back.
It's quiet, this train, conversations in hushed murmurs; when a phone rings, the bell is the noisiest part - the rest of the conversation is in strange whispers. As we pass under the M6, the lady moves to the offset seat, and I try not to feel hurt. Would stretching out my legs into her recently vacated space be rude? Yes, it probably would, so I stay hunched up. Although then I glanced to my right and spotted that not only had she stretched out, she'd also taken her shoes off, revealing two slightly grey heels and bronze nail polish. That's not on. I mean, admittedly she was only wearing sandals - there was no unlacing of shoes - but still.
We're approaching Oxford Road. A clatter of branches from an unkempt tree, then the island of tall apartment blocks that fascinate me. A woman on a balcony adjusts her bra through her blouse. We're due to get a third for our quartet at Oxford Road. Obviously the hope is they won't turn up. The back of Home, and a couple of towers.
The platform is packed. Hare Krishnas on the platform at Oxford Road and our seat mate arrives, a woman in her fifties with a mop of brown and grey perm. She stows her suitcase then puts her other two bags on the table, canvas woven in bright colours. She's got a travel mug of a tea and a tiny homemade roll wrapped in clingfilm. Pink leggings and two or three layers. "With the air con on, it's a bit cold," she says to the Asian lady.
"Chilly," she agrees, smiling.
Stockport looks pretty, the Co-op pyramid poking out of the trees like a Mayan ruin. The woman next to me pulls out her glasses, then some crochet work. She's making a jumper or cardigan, picking at threads.
There's a patch of astroturf on Stockport platform. Finally the seats across the way fill up; three men in their 60s with bags that won't fit in the overhead rack. They dump them in the vacant seat. "Put your seatbelt on," one jokes, and they all giggle. They're going to North Norfolk; I think they may possibly be train people. There's certainly no sniff of wives.
"It does get a bit tedious after Sheffield," one warns, the only one with hair; his two companions are bald as eggs. Yep, they're train nerds; they're talking about chords and the LNWR.
My companion rolls a ball of blue wool the same colour as the table top out as my watch ticks over onto 12. The ladies begin to chat, first about where they're going, then the Asian lady compliments her crochet work - "it's beautiful."
"It's just a blanket. It never turns out the way you want it."
An unscheduled stop at Hazel Grove, presumably something to do with the flooding. The train men are talking about routes and which ones they've done as we plunge into the tunnel beyond Manchester, the one you enter in a landscape of suburbs and industry and emerge into green. It's the bit of line that makes me think of Diamond Geezer, and trudging around a hill.
Actually the train nerd with hair is quite hot in a DILF kind of way. Distinguished in a checked shirt and sandy M&S slacks. His mates are not hot.
I started wondering if I should have something to eat. I'm not especially hungry but it would break up the boredom. I'm a bit put off because I can't remember what flavour my crisps are; I suspect they're a bit stinky. I'll leave it.
Train folks are talking about the Woodhead Tunnel. I suddenly realise this is me, Robert and Ian in twenty years time. I hope I am the hot one. "So do we agree that privatisation has been a good thing?" one pronounces and I switch off.
To be honest I'm annoyed they haven't recognised me. I'm a very very minor face in the world of railway blogging! I knew I shouldn't have taken these couple of months off. I'm already forgotten.
Edale is damp and green, lush, thick grass and trees. The Asian woman has pulled out a very dense, very boring looking conference agenda and is looking through it. I can only see a few words and they don't seem to connect into a sentence. Just before Sheffield, the crochet woman drops a needle, and I actually talk to her as she retrieves it.
"Have you dropped something?"
"It's ok, I can see it."
Very proud of myself for not fucking up that interaction.
She shifts from blue to purple wool. At Sheffield, the train goes back the way it came; suddenly I'm facing forwards.
In the row behind the trainspotters there's a middle-aged man and his doddery old mum. She's fallen asleep but he's eating his lunch. A white bread roll that he's putting ready salted crisps into, and a plastic bag with a quartered pork pie.
The Asian lady puts her coat on. "It's chilly."
"It's the air conditioning, I think," says the other lady. I like the fact that they're having the same conversation in reverse.
A new ticket inspector, bluff Sheffield, checks all our tickets again while the trainspotters talk pubs and restaurants. They have a voucher; "it's pasta or pizza only, from the fixed menu." The trolley boy is the same though.
A check of the app and we're four minutes late; we got back on target in Manchester and lost it again at Hazel Grove.
"I used to do that," says the tiny woman, pointing at the blanket.
"I started it in February," her new friend replies. "It's something to do on the train or in front of the telly. Or waiting for the kids to finish their swimming lessons." The Asian lady is returning home to Nottingham after three days in Liverpool on a course. "It'll be nice to get home."
"Well, yes, but I'll have to go back to work." She pulls out a grey silk scarf with black spots, and Crochet Lady coos "that's beautiful", and I think they're definitely repeating themselves now.
It seems to be the toilet shift; the door hisses open and shut as a stream of passengers make their way. I'm trying not to think about it.
Trainspotters move onto model railways - "Hornby have just brought out the Q6" - and have a tupperware with a bun and a couple of sandwiches and a thermos. One of them has, anyway, the taller bald man; he doesn't seem to be sharing. Meanwhile the middle-aged son is playing a fruit machine game on his phone. I know this because I can hear it loudly paying out.
Alfreton. Haphazard details of my visit swim in my head, the heat, the road, a convenience store where I bought water, the general Midlands-ness of it all. Going the wrong way and having to turn back, a mining village, a canal walk, cows. Finally the station, tired and hot, not being able to sit down because the shelter was full of trainspotters with tripods.
The Asian lady begins to redistribute the contents of her handbag into her pockets, getting ready. A moth flies right by my face and crashes into the window before vanishing.
"I wonder how the voting's going," says the Crochet lady, and I brace myself. They chat generally - the polls are open so she can vote when she gets in, the results will be out in the morning, they'll count through the night - but neither asks how they're voting. I'll put Asian lady down as remain but Crochet Lady is harder to read; she could go either way. There could be a Daily Mail stashed in her handbag.
There's actually works at Ilkeston! It's happening!
The Trainspotters have moved onto European railway systems and their failure to implement decent platform heights. "I thought disability standards were all across Europe! I thought we all had to do it!" I tense up again. Maybe I just shouldn't listen to other people's conversations.
Nottingham. Of course the last time I went here I went to Hooters. Still a bit ashamed of that.
"Prague's worth a visit but it's full of schoolkids on trips."
The Asian lady says goodbye to her pal and leaves us. The seat reservation says we'll be getting a new companion. On the platform at Nottingham is an old man with a cane wearing a grey hoodie with a picture of John Wayne on the back. The trolley boy disembarks with a clatter.
Our new companion is an old lady with big dark glasses in a sleeveless top. She leans across and says, "I always wanted to learn to crochet. You could've taught me on the way!" They immediately bond; our new companion knits and sews and patchworks. I feel like joining in with my love for the Sewing Bee and how Rumana was robbed but I keep quiet. I did pipe up when the new lady arrived to point out the Asian woman hadn't been sitting in the right seat; written down it sounds like I was a pedantic bastard but it wasn't like that. Not entirely.
Ooh, the Trainspotters are talking about some gay! "Does his mother know? His brother must know. He's reasonably intelligent." I think DILF might be a gay too.
We leave Nottingham past the rotting hulks of warehouses - finally a bit of unfamiliar track. And only halfway.
Now the smaller bald man has broken out his sandwiches - they smell of meat. Yup, DILF is definitely A Gay, with a German boyfriend. I remember the dark fingerprints; I hope the lady didn't dirty her wool.
New lady pulls out her lunch - "I think my daughter thought I was travelling for a week!" She's been visiting her daughter, looking after her grandkids. Another ticket inspection, this time a smiling man; his aftershave lingers after he leaves.
Everyone is eating now. The carriage is thick with the smell of room temperature bread. I wonder whether to eat my sarnies, feeling inadequate next to these two ladies with their home made snack boxes - I bought mine at M&S. The new trolley boy looks like a young Kevin Eldon. I decide to go for it with my ham and mustard while Crochet asks the age of Old Lady's grandchildren - "Seven and five. A lovely age."
"But hard work."
I'm amazed by their skilful small talk. I just can't manage it. My mind goes blank and I'm lost. I answer the questions yes or no then scour my brain for follow up questions that never come.
Nottinghamshire is hazy, swathed in grey. The guard singsongs over the tannoy: "ladies aaaaaaaand gentlemen."
Grantham's home of the Woodland Trust, apparently. Growing up I thought that Margaret Thatcher was Northern, because I thought Grantham was in the north; it sort of is, and sort of isn't. The Trainspotters get excited by a freight train waiting across the way, and there's the click of an iPhone camera as they preserve it for posterity.
I've got pen on my arm. I've been on this train for three and a half hours. I'm not entirely convinced I'll actually be able to walk if I get out of my seat. Middle-aged Son stands and stretches as we hover at Grantham, engine running, waiting for a train to pass on the main line. Finally an HST burns by and we chug out of the platform.
We'd been warned that the refreshment trolley is leaving at Peterborough and Small Bald has had a bit of a panic. He walks down the carriage, first asking the guard, then nipping into the next car. He finally reappears. "He's coming down in a minute." The ladies pull out purses for a final tea. I've come out without any cash and I'm not going to pay for a cuppa with a card so I'll stick to the bottle of water in my bag. (The Coke Zero was finished off somewhere around Alfreton).
The trolley boy is a bit sweet, chucking out his pre-prepared lines as the older lady orders a latte with sugar - "white or brown, my love?" That's another thing I can't do, the friendly little affectations, the chummy finishes. I can. on a good day, manage a "mate", but it's usually attached to something a bit aggressive. It's not parrotted the way some people manage - mate mate mate mate. The guard returns through the carriage, hunched over, looking a bit like a cartoon character.
Big Bald is getting a footplate experience at the start of July, a birthday present.
"I thought it was a driving experience?"
"That was about two hundred pounds more."
I'm thinking about having a pee. I'd have to interrupt Crochet Lady's crocheting but it's probably about time. Maybe. There's a queue so I can last. I actually want a little sleep, but I can't doze on trains, I can't. I'm convinced someone will steal my things. The only time I dozed was after waking up too early on the Caledonian Sleeper and nodding off on the train back to Glasgow. Fortunately that train was so packed no-one would've been able to run off with my bag.
Old Lady is reading Val McDermid while the Trainspotters lecture Small Bald about his tea making techniques - "the fat in the milk blocks the holes in the tea bag." The Old Lady's two-sugared latte smells tooth destroyingly sweet. I have a bottle of fizzy water.
Peterborough is signalled by a pretty waterworks building, and then the backs of retail parks. The dome and tower of a mosque. Some extremely noisy people board, but they're in the wrong carriage. There doesn't seem to be any sign of the woman who should be sitting in the old lady's seat, lucky for her; she's all settled in. There's no sign of whoever should be sitting the Trainspotters' luggage seat either.
Middle-aged Son's fruit machine app pays out again. Crochet Lady dumps her stuff on the seat and goes to the loo; clearly it's a sign that I need to go while she's out of her seat. Finally burst through to the toilet. Just a square with a scratched toilet seat on a metal cone. I pee and hurry back to my seat, pleased my legs still work after all that time in one spot.
Flat fenlands out the window, infinite and featureless, trees as landscapes. Very much had enough now.
"Good book?" asks Crochet.
"Yes. Very gruesome."
I'm keeping my eye out for Ely cathedral. I've never seen it, but of course I know of its reputation for being huge. I'm probably on the wrong side of the train.
A howl of the horn. I wonder how many train drivers we've had. Travelling this far is unacceptable for drivers but fine for passengers. The guard comes over the speakers to tell us "we're approaching... Ely... for services to... Cambridge." He's astonishingly laid back.
Ely cathedral is hugely impressive and hugely out of place. It floats over the rooftops, completely out of proportion to the town below.
"There are loads of people getting on at Ely," DILF warns. "Best move your things." They stow them behind the seat backs and a teenager slips in their place. He moves off though, and a terribly posh girl whips out her laptop and takes his place. Surprisingly we then reverse, and I'm going backwards again. Old Lady's phone burrs and tinkles but she doesn't notice; when she does she holds it with the delicacy of a woman afraid it may explode.
Posh girl is now chatting animatedly to Small Bald about Steeleye bloody Span and Quadrangle. There is no escape for me. They went to see them at the Royal Exchange. DILF is disinterested, confirming his status as the Best One.
In the sky, a fighter jet, flying so flat, so fast, not doing that thing where planes seem to go slow in the distance. This is fast. It banks and curves away.
Now Posh Girl is chatting to the guard about the flooding. Everyone can just make chat.
Lakenheath! Octopussy! Ridiculously thrilled. Explains the fighter jet anyway. Posh Girl and Small Bald are really deep in conversation now. Meanwhile Crochet and Old Lady discuss knitting. "Do you knit for your grandchildren?"
"No. They're allergic to wool, for a start."
Thetford station, advertising the Dad's Army museum. Penultimate but still three quarters of an hour to go. There's nothing. Nothing in between. It's different to the north where there's landscape and scenery and life. Houses in the middle of nowhere. Here it's just emptiness. Fields and trees. Little life.
Middle-aged Son has pulled on a bomber jacket; he's ready to leave. His mum has woken up too, and stares out the window.
I've had enough. Also Small Bald's voice is starting to go through me. I feel awkward for the girl. When the men were talking it was fine but now it's weird. They explain their story to Meryl (that's her name) - that they went to grammar school together and now they meet up once a year to do something train related. They're embarrassed, and Meryl picks up on it, but Small Bald doesn't, and tries to get them to whip out their old pictures. They refuse, so he describes the picture instead; black and white, four of them, at Carlisle station trainspotting. They're meeting three friends so I wonder who was left out.
The ladies have packed up their reading and their hobbycraft; we're all ready for the end. Finally I give in and put on a podcast again, RHLSTP, because I can't take any more. I adjust my seat and realise the ladies are dozing. All this way and right at the death they decide to sleep. Anxieties again; do I wake them at Norwich? Although I have to because I'm trapped. I keep catching Middle-aged Son's eye, or is he catching mine? He doesn't seem happy either. Have I missed something? Have I done something? Unless he snuck a look at my notebook while I was in the loo. Could be possible. Now I feel a bit guilty. Sod it; I'm never meeting these people again.
The endless skies are darkening now as we approach Norwich - hopefully not a sign. My phone power is low. I glanced over at the Old Lady and she opened her eyes at that exact moment, which was awkward. Farms, a load of chicken coops. Small Bald goes to the toilet and the conversation dies. Big Bald is forced to lean in and take over the chat. Horses gathered under a bridge. Big Bald appears to be explaining the etymology of the word "tramp"; I missed how this came up and now I'm desperately trying to work it out. A gravel plant as we come into Norwich, crossing the river and passing the depot. Time to wake up and go.
You should write more often* about train journeys in forensic anecdotal depth. I felt like I was with you on that one, right down to the smell of room temperature bread.
* when possible
The journey sounds ghastly. Horrible memories of being trapped in a carriage with 2 screeching hen parties all the way from Cleethorpes to Manchester.
I regret to inform you that I will be the hot one.
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