Monday 22 February 2021

The Day After

Here's another story of train collecting from 2016.  Content warning: contains bitterness.

It was a terrible night, full of thunderstorms and astonishingly heavy rain.  It crashed off the walls of the hotel and poured down into the car park at its centre, turning it into a pond within minutes.  I was in a Travelodge on the edge of Norwich city centre and the weather had interfered with the TV signal.  The only channel I'd been able to get with any clarity was Mustard TV, Norwich's ultra-local television channel.  Luckily I'd brought a book.  

I was on a high.  Firstly, I was in a different city, and that's always exciting.  Secondly, I had a couple of days of railway station collecting ahead of me, immediately followed by a week's boating holiday on the Norfolk Broads with the BF.  And thirdly, as I'd crossed the road outside the station to head for the hotel, a man had looked at my M.Y. Disco Volante t-shirt (as seen in Thunderball) and exclaimed "James Bond!".  "Yes!" I replied excitedly, and gave him a thumbs up, a deeply uncharacteristic move that I only break out in times of extreme joy.  Things were going well.

Then I woke up.

It was the morning after the Brexit referendum, and I was discovering that 52% of the country had voted Leave.  I sat on the edge of the bed watching BBC Breakfast and trying to cope with my churning stomach and rapidly crashing mood.  It was horrible, horrible news, and I felt sick and confused and angry.  Things were going to get so much worse, and the gurning face of Nigel Farage at that time of the morning didn't help.

I was here in Norwich to collect the Wherry Lines, the railway that threads through the Norfolk Broads out to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.  It's a network of tiny country stations tucked in amongst fields and waterways and it seemed interesting and different to my usual tramp around the back streets of inner cities.  I headed to Norwich's central station, a wonderfully grand and ornate building that's more European than British.  It's the curved roof, the red brick; it could fit in a small European city.

Inside, I'll be honest, it's a little disappointing.  The passenger part of the station is entirely within that central tower, and there's no grand glass roof to take your breath away.  You go from capital to provincial as you walk through the doors.

The train was clunky and old-fashioned and I squeezed into a low seat.  I already felt tired and it was barely 8:30.  I wanted to be at home, lying in bed and feeling sorry for myself.  We pulled away from Norwich, passing through suburbs and over rivers, until I dragged myself off at Brundall.

Immediately it was clear that I was in a different world.  There were boatyards and marine engineers around the station.  Trees and bushes pushed their way into every view.  There was peace.  Something had changed on that train journey, a calm had descended.  I felt a little of the stress fall away from my back.

The walk from the station to the village itself was a dark green corridor.  Heavy foliage cast shadows over the road and the path.  I caught glimpses of large houses tucked away behind the greenery.  Then I was in the village itself, a main road with low homes strung along it, a place of retirement money and subtle wealth.  There were thatched cottages and shops here and there, but mostly it was quiet, confident, middle-class affluence.  

A board outside the newsagents' shouted the Eastern Daily Press's headline: NORWICH IN BUT ANGLIA IS OUT.  Even here in peaceful Norfolk the referendum had gone city vs town, the countryside voters carrying the Leave vote.  As I passed the villagers I wondered how they voted, looking askance at them, narrowing my eyes especially at the older people who, it seemed, had voted in far greater numbers for Brexit.  

Brundall Gardens had once been a major tourist attraction.  Originally a private collection, it was a mass of formal gardens filled with rare plants, plus collections of rare birds and animals.  After the First World War it was purchased by a cinema magnate, Frederick Holmes-Cooper, who made it even more of a draw.  He built a hotel and tearooms, a huge house for him and his family, and ran steamship trips from Norwich out to the specially constructed landing stage.  Naturally, the railways wanted to get in on this tourist money, and Brundall Gardens station was opened in 1924, a whole eighty years after its similarly-named neighbour.

As it turned out, that was as popular as the gardens would ever get.  The doors closed fifteen years later and the land was sold off for housing.  The hall burned down in 1969, while the hotel was struck by lightning in 1993 and destroyed.  

And yet the station remains, because it's incredibly difficult to close a railway station, meaning that this little village of 4000 people has a halt at either end.  The storms of the night before had scrubbed the slate clean and left bright blue skies, but outside the station there was still a huge puddle.  Actually it was more like a small flood.  I picked my way through it to the quiet platform beyond.  It said a lot about the station's importance to the network that the help point was still labelled with One, a railway brand that had disappeared in 2008.

I wiped the water off the bench and took a seat.  Brundall had been even smaller than I'd anticipated, and with only one train an hour, I had a bit of a wait.  It was ok.  I sat in the warming Friday sunshine and let myself relax.

Beyond Brundall the line split and I was taking the northern route, on to Lingwood.  It had a proper station building with red bricks and a wooden canopy shielding the platform.  This station was cared for, and a small notice on the board begged for assistance in keeping it that way.  "As you can see our station has come second, yet again! In 1992, almost 25 years ago, our lovely station won the top award as the best kept small station nationally... I would love our pretty little station to win again... but I need some help!  If you would like to give me a hand, in particular restoring the flower beds towards the crossing, please call at the Station House and have a chat."

Sadly I've not been able to find if Lingwood ever did win the award again.  I hope so.  Dedication should be rewarded.

Station Road was a long, straight cut through the village, with a level crossing as it passed over the railway lines.  I followed it past a series of ordinary plain houses, a pub flying England flags, the odd dog walker, until I was leaving the village behind and taking a winding road through farmland.  The verge was littered with homemade signs - one for a farm shop (POTATOES-EGGS-HONEY), which was expected.  The finger post labelled Wedding in a fancy script, less so.  And the series of signs plugging Zumba Gold (the gentler Zumba with all the fun) didn't exactly smack of rural beauty.

I heard the road before I saw it.  The A47, the road from Norwich to Great Yarmouth, a dual carriageway slicing across the mound of East Anglia.  I reached the junction where the quiet country road met it and realised that there were no pedestrian facilities at all.  I wasn't expecting a pelican crossing, don't get me wrong, but there was no way for me to cross safely.  Four lanes of road, plus a central reservation, and not a hint of pavement.  Cars burned by at sixty miles an hour.  I was going to have to make a dash for it.  

I made it to the spit of land between the carriageways and waited for a gap.  And waited.  And waited.  Finally there was enough of a pause for me to make it to the far verge and I began my trudge, simmering with anger at Norwich County Council and their lack of provision for walkers.  I felt the whip of vehicles as they burned by, the tug on my clothes as a truck barrelled along, the smell as more carbon dioxide was belched into my face.  There was plenty of room, fellas, maybe stick in a tiny bit of paving?

It was almost a relief to step into a layby at the side of the road, with another huge puddle and a snack bar belching out the scent of fried onion.  Beyond there was a tiny strip of raised concrete, meaning that I actually had somewhere to walk now, and I followed it until a side gate caught my attention.

There was a patch of green, and a footpath and a dog waste bin.  I was just about to read the informative noticeboard when something caught the corner of my eye.  Down in the undergrowth there was a tiny, hopping rabbit.

I was delighted.  I'd had a pet rabbit as a teenager, Fiver, named after the psychic from Watership Down, and this one looked like a smaller version of him.  I crouched down for a closer look and, wonderfully, he didn't run away.  Instead he hopped closer.  I couldn't believe my luck.  Then I saw why.  One of his eyes was a sickly, dark red, damaged and probably blind.  He probably couldn't see me.

That was it.  That was the final straw.  The miserable, stressful, dark mood that had swilled around me all morning was broken by this tiny lame animal and I burst into tears.  I dropped to the floor and cried for what seemed an age.  I just couldn't any more.

By the time I stopped the rabbit had gone; it might have been blind but it could definitely hear the wheezing screeches of a madman.  I dragged myself up and walked on into Acle, a bit hollow, a bit shocked.

I'd been here before, many years ago.  The BF has been holidaying on the Broads for decades because he loves boats and a few months after we first met he invited me to join him and a few of his friends on a week's holiday.  I was nervous, as I barely knew them, but he assured me they were all great lads and it'd be tremendous fun.

There were five of us on the boat but the interplay of complex human relations and tensions were enough for a thousand people.  It was a fraught, difficult week, as a bunch of explosive people crammed inside a tiny fibreglass boat and drank too much and spat thinly-veiled insults at one another.  There were recent exes, unrequited lusts, sexual frustrations, pure jealousy - all the deadly sins except murder, and that didn't seem far off.  I, being an outsider, was largely exempt from it all, but there were still incidents of frustration that are mentioned even today - it was on this holiday that I discovered the BF's Cluedo technique, which is a technique which I maintain is cheating, and which is why we still can't play Cluedo together 24 years later.

That holiday had started at Acle boatyard so an involuntary shudder went through me as I entered the village.  I'd never been into it properly though, and I found a pretty village green surrounded by shops and pubs.  It was sadly too early for a pint - by which I mean the pubs were closed, not that I didn't fancy one - so I sat on the bench at the centre and had a drink, getting funny looks from the locals as they tried to work out what I was up to.  I headed back out towards the station, pausing only at a tiny supermarket for a sandwich and a pack of fruit and a drink; only when I was hundreds of metres away did I realise I'd not been given a meal deal discount, which rankled with me for at least the next hour.

Acle station was another that was impossibly scenic, with tin "heritage" adverts on the side of the building and a couple of plaques commemorating its Best Kept Station awards.  While I waited, two men walked up and onto the footbridge and stood there, unmoving.  I couldn't work out what they were doing, and started to wonder if they were going to jump, when a slow freight train chugged through the station and they both excitedly retrieved cameras.  Train nerds.  They get everywhere.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like your new headtorch in the first photo! Looking forward to the next installment.