Thursday, 7 September 2023

DART to the Past


When the Borough of Luton decided to build an airport in the 1930s, they had the perfect spot for it.  To the south east of the town was a large, flat plateau, raised above the Lea valley, which would be ideal for a runway.  They opened an airport there in 1938, and for seventy-odd years London Luton Airport has operated out of this spot.

The problem with this location is: it's a large flat plateau raised above the Lea valley.  Road and railway engineers choose the path of least resistance when building transport links and so they'd sent their connections through the valley.  It meant that even though a busy railway line with fast connections to the capital passed less than a kilometre from the terminal building, getting it onto the airport estate would've meant huge amounts of tunnelling and bridges to overcome that massive height difference.

A station was built in the 1990s, Luton Airport Parkway, but that was still a mile away from the airport proper, and so shuttle buses had to be laid on.  Until, finally, they built a dedicated people mover: the Luton DART.  

The airport station is, weirdly, entirely separate from the terminal.  I'd have thought the logical thing would be to integrate the two - have an exit directly into arrivals - but instead you leave the terminal building and walk through the outdoors to the station.  It's not, technically, an underground station; although there is an overarching roof, it's open to the elements at the sides, meaning it looks more like a pavilion.  

I'd bought my ticket before I'd even arrived, using one of my many railway apps.  This is where I need to inform you that a ticket from Luton Airport to Luton Airport Parkway station costs four pounds and ninety pence.  This is on top of any railway ticket you'll buy to go onto another destination and is for a trip that will take less than four minutes.  It is, of course, an outrage and a con.  An all areas Day Saver on Merseyrail is £5.95 and lets you run amok across the whole network for a day.  Also, the ticket gates absolutely refused to recognise the QR code on my e-ticket at either end of the trip, so it's not only expensive, it doesn't work properly.

Still, you can't help feeling impressed as you descend into the station hall.  A huge wide concourse, platform edge doors, rotating LED screens.  It's what you'd want from an airport station - easy to use and efficient.  The station only opened in March this year and it still had a glow of newness about it.  Mind, this was in July, before it started getting a proper hammering over the summer holidays; it's probably a little worse for wear now.  

These aren't trains, technically.  The DART is a cable railway, with two separate cars and systems; there's no way to move one to the other side.  Since all they're doing is going back and forth between two points this makes sense.  (There is passive provision for an intermediate station, serving the car parks, plus the potential to extend to a future terminal two).  

As I waited for my train, two workers came out of a locked door and onto the platform.  A small elderly lady pounced on them and asked in a heavily accented voice, "which side is the train to London?"

The two men sighed.  Clearly this wasn't the first time they'd been asked this.  They explained this was the shuttle to the station, and that was where you'd get the train from.

On board they explained to her that this confusion happened all the time, and another man joined in with the discussion.  The confusion comes from the information in the airport.  According to one of the men, it tells you the times of trains to London, Bedford and so on, from Parkway station, and fails to mention the little shuttle you have to take to get there.  "They need to sort it out!" he concluded, exasperated.

On board it's what you'd expect - longitudinal seating, grab rails, plenty of room for luggage.  The doors closed and we slid out of the station, through tunnels at first, then crossing the Airport Way on one of those bridges that I 100% guarantee you was referred to as both "iconic" and a "gateway" in the PR blurb.  

The DART station at the far end is an extension to the existing station and on something called "Bartlett Square".  This is where I was firmly reminded that it's been a long time since I came back to Luton.  That side of the station had once been Vauxhall Motors.  Now it was "Napier Park", an entirely new district of apartment blocks built for people who were priced out of the capital.  Although a two bedroom flat in "Chevette Court" is £333,000, so you still need a fair amount of cash for it.

Through the ticket gates is a large concourse and a new footbridge down to the railway.  It's all efficient and gleaming and works brilliantly, but still: four pound ninety.

I was heading north, into Luton, for a small nostalgia trip.  The BF's plane from Berlin wasn't due for another couple of hours, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to wallow in my past.  I no longer have any close family in the town, so I've no reason to go back any more, and even when I did visit I rarely ventured into the centre.  It was an opportunity to see what had changed.

One thing that hadn't changed was the overwhelming crappiness of Luton station.  They seemed to have fixed the roof that was leaking last time I visited, in 2011, but the travel centre had vanished, and it was still dark and miserable and badly laid out.  They had at least removed the piss-scented footbridge that carried you into the town centre, though the reason they'd managed this was they'd torn up a working railway line.  There used to be a freight route between Luton and Dunstable that stopped having trains on it, but was still in perfect working order; the local transport geniuses tore this up and replaced it with a guided busway between the two towns, meaning the exterior of the station is now a bus exchange.  It's not great.

I had a dream involving me and Russell Tovey and Paul Rudd last night, Inspirational Wall, but I think if I tried to make it happen I'd probably get arrested.

Luton has pedestrianised the roads between the station and the shopping centre too, to try and make it more of a destination and welcoming environment.  It certainly made me smile, though perhaps not for the same reason as people who didn't grow up in the town.

Some old buildings have been demolished to create an open space leading down to the River Lea.  Even though it rises in the town, the Lea has always been hidden away in culverts and under buildings.  They're clearly trying to make a feature of it now with this amphitheatre and then, floating above it on sticks, pink, fibreglass flamingos.  

I actually laughed out loud, utterly delighted.  When the Luton Arndale Centre was first built in the 1970s, its centrepiece was an indoor fountain.  Not just any fountain: a fountain filled with giant, oversized, pink, fibreglass flamingos.  

They were kitsch, they were tacky, they were vulgar.  They were also, it has to be said, home.  The flamingos were there for twenty years until a 90s refurb of the Arndale saw them rudely evicted.  At the time, everyone was glad to see the back of them, but over the years, nostalgia has taken over.  The council even launched a hunt for the statue last year.  Seeing those new flamingos, flying over the river, seemed like the town embracing its identity at last.  Yes, Luton's a bit terrible.  But let's be proud of it!

The Arndale is now technically "The Mall Luton", but I refuse to call it that, and so does any right minded person.  It's been radically rebuilt since I was growing up.  The big brown plastic seating has gone; there are glass panels in the ceiling to let in natural light; the mix of shops is radically different.  Like most town centres Luton has suffered over the last decade but it felt particularly pointed when I was operating with a 1980s filter overlaid over everything.  Debenhams (famously firebombed by animal rights activists) was closed and shuttered; Woolworth's was now a Lidl; there was no Marks and Spencer at all.  There had been two separate HMVs, and now there was none, while other stores had downgraded in size.  Tesco's upstairs, where I used to buy my Lego, was now a Sports Direct.  And WH Smith, my beloved WH Smith, a place where I spent literally hours as a child, was like all their stores these days - thoroughly disappointing, little more than a newsagent with a post office wedged in the back.  .

I had decided I was going to treat myself to an experience long denied to me.  Smith Square has an upper gallery round it, which in my day was how you got to the top floors of Debenhams and Woolworths.  Also on that top floor was a restaurant called Greenfields.  This was, to my mind, quite clearly the most glamorous place one could eat in the Western Hemisphere.  Just the fact that it was upstairs in the Arndale was giddying.  It had stained glass, and cascading ivy, and it seemed to glow on that balcony, calling to me.  And now, finally, I could go.

For the benefit of younger readers, I should explain.  In the old days - and by old, I mean the seventies and eighties - working class people didn't eat out.  We just didn't.  Why would we go to a coffee shop when there was coffee at home?  Why would we spend our own money on food and drink that was more expensive?  Why would we pay to have a sit down?  Around my teens, we started going to a Beefeater on our birthdays (the Warden Tavern, still there folks) but this was very much a special occasion.  There was absolutely no way on earth my mum and dad would spontaneously drop into a restaurant for a meal.  We'd have to dress up a bit.

What was especially delightful about eating in Greenfields in 2023 was it was almost exactly what it must have been like eating in Greenfields in 1983.  I don't think anything had changed in that time.  Perhaps the chairs and tables were a bit more contemporary, but there was still the faux-Tiffany stained glass, the trailing ivy (which turned out to be plastic), the lino.  The manageress who showed me to my table was a fearsome woman who smiled cheerily at me and the other customers then unleashed hell on her tiny teenage waiting staff.  I expect she started out as a tiny teenage waitress herself and was regurgitating her traumas on a new generation.

My full English probably hadn't changed for forty years either.  There were no artisan sausages or hand reared eggs - everything was extremely processed.  It was overdone and a little gristly.  I forgave everything, however, because (a) this was Greenfields and (b) they served it with fried bread, and nobody gives you fried bread any more.  I guzzled it all, trying not to think about my blood pressure, and wondered how much longer it would be here for.  The clientele were all pensioners, and the scary lady boss knew them by name; apart from the waiters, I was the youngest one there.  When they die I expect Greenfields will die too.

I paid up (£9.45; the prices have definitely not remained in the Thatcher years) and went out onto George Street, Luton's main thoroughfare.  This was always a little sadder than the Arndale, a bit more down at heel.  The Arndale demolished half a dozen streets when it was built and now blocks off the entire town.  It also created a situation where if you weren't in the Arndale, you may as well not exist.  The only big shop outside of it was the British Home Stores and, well, we all know how that turned out.  The Cannon cinema where I saw many a film growing up - reeling, horrified, out of Superman IV; queuing up George Street West for Batman; going to see Problem Child with a gang for my mate Sanjay's 14th birthday and feeling incredibly mature eating in Pizza Hut afterwards without a single adult chaperone - was still empty, a beautiful listed building rendered obsolete by a multiplex down the road, searching for a purpose in the 21st century.

At the end of the street is Luton's Town Hall, which is actually the second on the site.  The first town hall was burnt down by an angry mob of unemployed ex-soldiers on, and this is not a joke, Peace Day 1919.  I'm perversely proud of the fact that Luton managed to turn a commemoration of peace into a riot.  Yup, those are my people: trash.

St George's Square has also had a makeover; they've made it more of an open gathering space, removing the low bedding, putting in new lights.  They've also got rid of the staircase up to the Arndale where the druggies used to hang out, the staircase that had John Carlisle Is A Cunt graffitied on it, one of those political protest messages that for some reason the council workers never felt the need to scrub off.  (Going to John Carlisle's Wikipedia page for that link informed me that the rampant homophobe, supporter of apartheid, and and advocate for both the gun and tobacco lobbies, has been dead for four years, and I must say by way of tribute: good).  

I was headed for the library.  Most people, on returning to their home town, will look up old pubs and nightspots; I headed for the place where I spent most of my youth.  I would spend hours in Luton Central Library, reading entire books while sat there.  My mum would take me into town and leave me in there while she shopped, safe in the knowledge that I wouldn't cause any mischief and would still be there when she got back.  

Luton Central Library was a gleaming piece of modernism, opened in 1962, and when I was visiting as a boy it still had a distinctive Festival of Britain afterglow.  Its entrance hall was cool marble, and dark floors, with a small waterfall in the corner by the stairs.  The main library hall - just past the record library - was gleaming glass and polished tiles, with heavy wooden desks arranged around a balcony.  Above that was the reference section, separated from the rest of the room by a glass wall, its microfiche machines humming and its card catalogues begging to be fingered.  

The library has, I'm afraid to say, been modernised.  Carpet covers that slippy marble floor.  The furniture is simpler and off the peg.  The waterfall has gone.  It's also lost an awful lot of its books.  Where there used to be walls of them, bay after bay - I could still remember what section was where: film and television there, foreign language there - now there was at most half the volume, with desks and computers everywhere else.  The reference section was mainly computers now.  The microfiches were probably in a skip.

I found the local history section and thumbed a few choice books.  A history of Luton's pubs had a few I'd visited; the book dated from the early 90s, and noted that a Yates' Wine House was a recent stylish addition to the town.  (When I moved to the north I discovered that only in Luton was Yatesies anything approaching "stylish").  I found a copy of The Story of Luton, written by my dad's old history teacher, and which I would read every few months.  (I should really get round to buying my own copy some day).  I also found a reminder that Luton's more recent history is a lot less pleasant.

Tommy Robinson, head of the English Defence League and massive, massive arsehole, is from Luton - in fact, he grew up in Farley Hill, like my dad's side of the family.  Other Lutonians include sex trafficker Andrew Tate, hideous transphobe and homosexual embarrassment Dennis Noel Kavanagh, and "Britain's most notorious prisoner" Charles Bronson; on the plus side, there's national treasure Nadiya Hussein, Strictly winner Stacey Dooley and me, so we're not all bad.  It is a little bit embarrassing that the town only ever seems to turn up on the news when another extremist or racist claims it as their home.  Mind you, I haven't lived there full-time since 1995 so I'm fast approaching calling myself an Honorary (Plastic) Scouser.

After a while I needed a drink and a wee so I crossed Bridge Street to the Galaxy Centre.  When I was very young, this was the Co-op Department Store; my nana worked there, and we'd go to the grotto at Christmas.  It was knocked down in the 1980s and then the site sat vacant for twenty years while everyone tried to work out what to do with it.  After a while, they got desperate for someone, anyone to build on it, which is presumably the only reason they gave permission for the Galaxy Centre.

Incorporating a cinema, bowling alley, gym and various chain restaurants, the Galaxy is utterly without merit, the architectural equivalent of a Tesco carrier bag, bland and covered in ads and somehow worse than a big patch of empty ground.  It is astonishingly hideous and badly designed - its main entrance faces away from the town, towards the back of a car park that has since been demolished.  It somehow makes the Arndale look subtle and characterful.

I had a Pepsi Max in the (huge, ugly) Wetherspoons, used their toilet, then exited onto Manchester Street.  I had one last nostalgia trip to make, what we'll call the Rainbow Tour of Luton.  The realisation that I was gay was a slow, drawn out process, marked by denial, then assuming it was a phase, then waiting for the phase to end, then realising oh shit I'm stuck with this.  In my late teens, there were some small, incremental spots in the town that will always be markers on my route to fabulousness.

This newsagent, for example, which was the first place I ever bought a homosexual publication - Gay Times.  I decided that this newsagent was sufficiently out of the way so that I wouldn't be recognised, and then I never had to go back there either.  The small Asian lady behind the counter put it in a brown paper bag to hide my shameful purchase and I stuffed it in my backpack to read furtively in the park.  Round the corner, there was Shirley's Temple, Luton's only gay bar, notable for being the place that made me realise, yep, I was gay, and I liked it.  I'd been on my one and only date with a girl - whose name I can't remember, embarrassingly - and we'd been to see Casper.  (SEXY).  Afterwards we were walking round town in the hot summer air and we passed Shirley's.  The door was open, because it was so warm, and I could see inside where men were laughing and dancing and chatting.  And I remember very distinctly thinking, I wish I was in there instead of out here.  That poor girl.

Shirley's is now, like a lot of old pubs in Luton, a block of flats.  The Coliseum on Gordon Street, where I celebrated my 17th birthday, is apartments; so is the Inkerman Arms, a couple of streets away, which also tried to be a gay bar.  I went there during the holidays after I'd officially come out as A Homo and was au fait with this kind of establishment; I copped off with a bloke there, and he introduced me to his mate, and a week later I copped off with that same mate in Shirley's.  Common.

The BF was back now, and he picked me up for the drive back up to Birkenhead.  Before that though, he wanted to see a landmark.  Luton Town FC had just been promoted to the Premier League, and he'd been agog when I'd told him about Kenilworth Road, their tiny ground tucked down the back streets of Bury Park.  He wanted to see it for himself.

It was a hive of activity that day as the workmen tried to bring it up to a decent standard before the start of the new season.  Luton have been trying to leave Kenilworth Road for about forty years, but have never had the money for a new ground; there was the infamous Kohlerdome proposal by the motorway, and suggestions of moving to Milton Keynes until they bought Wimbledon, and now there was a plan for a new ground on what used to be Power Court by the parish church, but nothing has ever actually happened.  Suffice to say, the BF was astonished to see the tiny little ground, with its tin roofs and its access via narrow alleyways behind terraced houses.  We went round to Oak Road so he could see the most famous part, the access to the Away end via an entrance that's actually under people's houses.  

When Luton hosted its first Premier League match last week, I noticed that this is now called the Dominos Oak Stand.  I would also like to register my objection to the commentator constantly calling the ground "the Kenny"; that's not a thing, nobody calls it that, it's Kenilworth Road.  It looks like Luton won't be around in the top flight for long, judging by their early performance, but I hope they make an awful lot of money over the course of the season.  Maybe they'll finally be able to move out and the people of Bury Park will get a bit of peace of a Saturday afternoon.

We drove out of town, to the motorway, and I realised that this was probably the last time I'd ever go to Luton.  I couldn't see another reason to visit.  It's not what it was.  It's kind of a dump.  But it'll always be home.

Sunday, 3 September 2023

From Amstelveenseweg To Zuid

The entire Amsterdam trip, linked for your ease of use:

Amsterdammmm - How we got here, aka In Luton Airport No-One Can Hear You Scream. 

Day One: the M50/51/52 (and a little more)

North and South - Noord, Noorderpark

Ik Denk Over Je Na, Amsterdam - Rokin, Vijzelgracht, De Pijp, Europaplein

The Future's Bright, The Future's Orange - Zuid

Places - Amstelveenseweg, Henk Sneevlietweg, Heemstedestraat, Lelylaan, Postjesweg

Sunshine and Rainbows - Jan van Galenstraat, De Vlugtlaan, Sloterdijk, Isolatorweg

Heart - Amsterdam Centraal

The Interesting Englishman - Muiderpoort 

Day Two: the M53/54 (plus a couple of others)

The Saga Continues - Gaasperplas, Kraaiennest, Ganzenhoef, Verrijn Stuartweg

Another Day In Paradise - Diemen Zuid, Venserpolder, Van der Madeweg, Spaklerweg, Amstel

Happy Places - Wibautstraat, Weesperplein, Waterlooplein

Battleground - Nieuwmarkt

A Bitch That Needs To Be Tamed - Gein, Reigersbos, Holendrecht, Bullewijk

De Finishlijn - Bijlmer ArenA, Strandvilet, Duivendrecht, Overamstel, RAI

Thoughts Over A Beer - a random rant about how Britain has gone to the dogs.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my Amsterdam trip.  The stats don't seem to say people were hammering on the door of the blog but it doesn't matter; I certainly enjoyed writing about it.  I'll be back to bits of the UK soon enough... though there is one epilogue to the trip still to come.

Oh, and here's a bonus: when I arrived in Amsterdam I obviously had to get from the airport to the city, and the best way to do that is by train.  So here I am at Schiphol station, about to ride a Dutch train for the first time.  I couldn't find a way to wedge it into the blog so it's here.  It's a compulsion, ok?

Thoughts Over A Beer


This was, unbelievably, the very first beer I had the whole time I was in Amsterdam.  There simply wasn't time for me to stop.  And when I did stop, I had an early start the next day, so I didn't want to do it hungover.  Now it was the final few hours of my time there so I went to the hotel bar and treated myself to a pint and some peanuts.

So what have we learned?  Well, firstly we've learned I'm very easily amused.  I'm glad I don't have to go into the office after a trip away and go through all those tedious "what I did on my holiday" chats.

"Did you have a good time?"

"Yeah, it was brilliant."

"Amsterdam, eh?  All that sex and drugs and partying?"

"Nah, I just hung around a load of railway stations in the suburbs."


Hey, it's a relatively cheap trip.  Discounting my flights and the hotel, of course.  But I bought a GVB four day travel pass through the app on my phone.  One QR code, 96 hours of travel on train, bus and tram, and it cost me... €26.50.  About twenty three quid.  That feels obscenely cheap.  The all zones price cap in London is £14.70 a day.  Admittedly, London is much larger, but that's still more than twice the cost for the same period of time.  It was so easy to use, too; wafting an app at the various readers was a doddle.

It was yet another example of how to do a transport network right.  Make it efficient and clean.  Put it everywhere.  Make it cheap.  You'll get people using it all the time.  Wandering around Amsterdam has turned me from a public transport advocate into a militant.  Take cycle lanes, for example.  Since I came back to the UK I've become absolutely obsessed with the size of our roads.  The acres of wasted space.  The way you could quite easily slot in segregated, clearly marked cycle routes along the majority of main roads.  Not these useless shared spaces with pedestrians, not a painted line on the road; a kerb, a cycle lane, and another kerb next to the pavement.  Fully separate and safe.  I'm going down the Upton Bypass, for instance, and looking at all the pointless grass verge, acres of lawn that has to be maintained and cut, and which could be sliced into for a decent bike lane.  You'd still have plenty of grass and trees behind it but there would be room for you to cycle unthreatened, with your family.

Or the trams.  One of the reasons it took Amsterdam so long to built its Metro was because it already had a fantastic tram network.  It had steel rails running all over the city, centred on a central railway terminus.  You know who else had a brilliant tram network?  Liverpool.  And Manchester.  And Birmingham.  And a load of other UK towns and cities that still have wide roads that were built to handle trams.  Why aren't we putting them back?  Why aren't we investing in our towns?

I came away from Amsterdam profoundly depressed about my own country.  We're a nation that's accepted we're not going to get much better.  Keep calm and carry on, Blitz spirit, make do and mend.  Which is fine when there's actual bombs falling on cities but it's 2023.  The only thing stopping us is ambition and resolve.  Instead of taking taxes and investing the money in our cities, we get a small amount of cash thrown out every once in a while to make it look like something is happening.  London can finally get Crossrail, seventy years after it was first suggested, but there's no chance of it getting Crossrail 2.  Birmingham can only extend its tram line through the city centre one or two stops at a time, and it can get a second line so long as it's mainly on old railway lines and doesn't get in the way of the cars.  Manchester's had all the Metrolink extensions it's going to get now; that little gap between East Didsbury and Stockport town centre will never be filled, no matter how much it makes sense.  And as for the other smaller cities?  No chance.  I don't even mean second tier cities like Portsmouth or Hull or Norwich; I mean somewhere like Leeds, which has one big station in the middle of half a million people and after that it's a lot of buses.  

We've no ambition.  Amsterdam's first metro was a single tunnel in the city centre then going above ground in the suburbs - every large city in Britain should have that at the bare minimum.  There should be a Merseyrail-style link and loop under Manchester and Birmingham and Leeds and Bradford and Bristol and all the others, to get people across town, to free up platform space in the big termini, to make the routes faster and more efficient.  Yes, it'll be expensive, but that's what taxation is for, and you can make it back by building more densely around those stations.  People will pay more for a home or an office that's close to a station with a train every five minutes, that's near a tram stop with connections across town.  A bus stop can be taken away, a bus route can be cancelled, but if you put in infrastructure?  That's sticking around, and so people are confident they can rely on it.  They can lay down roots.  You can build higher and thicker and make neighbourhoods.

Amsterdam was a city that was alive, a city that was driven by its public transport network.  The city was crafted around a concept of getting as many people moved as quickly as possible at all times, and then, as a secondary consideration, cars were permitted as well.  They were undoing the mistakes of the past by driving motorways underground and minimising highways.  They're removing 1500 on-street parking spaces a year.

They can do all this because they've made alternatives to cars desirable.  If you build it, they will come.  Our politicians talk about making our cities better for non-drivers, but they don't follow through on it.  If you punish the driver while cutting buses and trains, you've failed both constituents.  You can't, for example, get rid of ticket offices without there being an effective and easy to use alternative ticketing system in place.  Amsterdam's Metro stations are all unstaffed, but they're also all fully accessible, have ticket machines in them, and feature help points and information boards.  They can afford to do without the ticket office because they've put the investment in.  

I've spent over a month writing about my Amsterdam trip, which means I've spent over a month reflecting on what's good and what's bad about it.  On pretty much every metric it beats the UK.  It has advantages, of course - when you literally make your own land out of the sea, you can lay it out however you like, and there are considerably fewer hills than, say, Sheffield, so cycling is a lot more attractive.  It just felt like a place where you could exist and thrive without a car.  Where in Britain can you say that?

This is all very depressing.  I'm back here, getting pathetically excited that Merseyrail is finally letting its new trains onto the Wirral; I've not actually seen one yet, but I believe they're around.  Yay!  Our fifty year old trains are finally being replaced!  How amazing!  I can't wait to buy a relatively expensive paper ticket to access them.  

Ah well.  What do you reckon for next time?  Copenhagen?  Rotterdam?  Lisbon?  I joke of course.  This time next year we'll all be so much worse off than today, because this is a nation in decline and nobody wants to arrest it.  It'll be like Children of Men, but not quite so upbeat and jolly.  It's hard to be optimistic when you've seen another world.

Wednesday, 30 August 2023

De Finishlijn


I was, in truth, getting tired of the Amsterdam Metro.  (Reader's voice: YOU'RE TIRED?)  Not tired of the stations, not tired of the city, but just tired of the relentlessness.  This was, don't forget, meant to be a leisurely three day quest, and instead it was crammed into two.  Add in the general stress of it all and my brain was getting a little fritzed.  On top of that, my feet ached.  I'd not worn my big sturdy walking boots because I wanted to get through airport security without any problems; the trouble is, now I was learning that Vans aren't really built for pounding the pavement, and they're certainly not very good when it comes to cobbles.

I uncurled myself from the seat on the train and stiffly walked towards the escalators at Amsterdam Bijlmer ArenA station.  (Yes, that final A is a capital as well, work with it).  At least it was an impressive station.  Comprehensively rebuilt in 2007, there's an intriguing mix of colours and textures that really impress.

There's something quite sci-fi about it, quite Star Wars-y; those shooting roof pieces feel like they could be the roof of an X-Wing hangar.  Deep voids lead down to the passenger concourse. 

All this space is, of course, to accommodate the thousands of people who pass through on their way to the complex of entertainment spaces just outside.  Amsterdam put in a bid for the 1992 Olympics, the ones that went to Barcelona, and the centrepiece was a brand new stadium here in Bijlmer.  Though that failed - Amsterdam went out in the first round, before Birmingham - the spot was still suitable for a new football ground for Ajax.

Even I've heard of Ajax.  They're one of those European teams you can name off the top of your head, like Spartak Moscow or Real Madrid or Borussia Mönchengladbach.  Ajax have won the European Cup/Champions League four times, and that is the beginning and end of the football chat here, because even looking at the Wikipedia page for them bored me senseless.  All I wanted to know was if they were any good and suddenly I'm being bombarded with tedious stats and factoids.  (Also, the last time I tried talking about football, Queen of Women's Soccer Carrie Dunn swept in and corrected all my points about Manchester City Women, so I'm not doing that again).  

The plaza outside the station is very Wembley; a series of alluring traps to get people to spend money on their way to and from an event.  The night before I visited, Coldplay had played; I believe they're a very popular beat combo.  I mean, I know who Coldplay are, I've just never heard one of their songs and had it permeate into my brain to the extent that I recognise it as a Coldplay song.  Actually, that's not quite true - there was an advert for BMW that played before No Time To Die and on about the sixth viewing of it I found myself pulling out my phone and Shazaming to find out who was doing the music.  It turned out it was Coldplay's Higher Power, but I wouldn't take that as a win for Chris Martin, because I also became enamoured with the music they used for the Matrix Resurrections and House of Gucci trailers; I'm in a very vulnerable state when there's a new Bond film about to play.  

The music venue next to the stadium had posters showing people who'd previously played there and - hang on, who's that next to Sting?

I felt strangely proud seeing Trixie & Katya there with the greats.  Those weird little Season 7 Drag Race queens - who didn't even win - were now featured artistes.  This must be what it feels like to buy a band's first album and then see them explode a few years later.  I know gay culture permeating mainstream Dutch society is hardly a revolutionary concept - even I was starting to get bored of the rainbow flags everywhere - but it was a nice reminder that not everywhere in the world has lost its mind over drag queens.  They're entertainers, Barbara, and they're not here to groom your kids.

I walked down a side road, past a restaurant called Burger Bitch because we can no longer have nice things.  A cafe had put out a board: "Why have abs when you can have Kurio's kebabs?" and here, have a link Kurio, because that sort of marketing must be supported.  There were also public urinals, cross shaped plastic depositories for those attending the events to use, because men are disgusting.

Round the front of the arena was a statue to the most famous Dutch player of all, Johan Cruijff, the man the stadium was named after.  There'd been calls to dedicate the stadium to him from the start, but the City of Amsterdam has - in my opinion, very sensible - rules against naming items after living people.  You can't risk the person turning out to be a later in life arsehole - imagine if there was a JK Rowling Bridge or a Right Said Fred Park or an Elon Musk Penitentiary (actually I would support that one).  After Cruijff died, however, the family gave permission for it to be renamed in his honour (and please note that I'm using the correct Dutch spelling of his surname, not the internationally used version of Cruyff).  

I have to be honest - the stadium's not a looker.  While the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium is a classic design, one that was highly influential throughout the world, the Johann Cruijff ArenA is a hulk, a big heavy lump.  A retractable roof means it has strong braces arcing over the top and much of its exterior was covered with commercial advertising.  It has none of the charm or elegance of, say, Anfield, though I will say the experience of arriving and departing and the immediate environs are infinitely better.  I'm looking forward to all those Eurogays who fell for Liverpool during Eurovision heading to the city again for Taylor Swift and then having to deal with the Sheil Road Circular and the somewhat "earthy" pubs outside.

It was while I was stood there among happy families who'd just paid twenty three Euros for a pair of socks in the club shop that I realised I'd not taken a picture in front of the station sign.  It's no exaggeration to say my stomach lurched in horror.  That's how tired I was - I was forgetting the essentials of my trip.  I'd been so keen to take a picture of the stadium when I left the station I'd completely forgotten about it.  I dashed back, walking twice as fast, a slight sense of panic inside being quashed by the reassurance that I would soon sort it.  Imagine I had got home to England, downloaded all the photos... and realised one sign was missing.  It would have been a tragedy.


Now I had to trek back the way I came, past those same smiling families, only a bit sweatier and more panic ridden than I was before.  On the way I passed the ArenA's other station, tucked round the back and simply called Halte Amsterdam ArenA.  This is a single platform, only accessible from the direction of Diemen Zuid, which exists purely to separate, shall we say, contentious fans from one another.  If there's a game between Ajax and one of its fiercer rivals, the other station can be brought into use, allowing the away fans into the stadium via a purpose built bridge that keeps them well apart from the home fans.  

I hate that we have effectively normalised this behaviour.  That we have, as a society, simply accepted that if you get a load of football fans together they might fight and attack one another, and what we should do is build physical barriers and architectural get outs to mitigate the damage.  I bet Trixie and Katya's fans didn't have to be corralled and guarded in case a tranche of manic Violet Chachki supporters came running over the hill, ready to pulverise them with sharpened stiletto heels.

A walk past more football pitches brought me to Strandvliet station, ArenA's little brother and a handier station to use if you don't want to go anywhere near the commercial quarter.  Much like Sandhills will soon be to the new Everton stadium, Strandvliet was a quiet station that got a massive tourist attraction dropped on its doorstep.  They hastily rebuilt it to accommodate the crowds, with a special entrance for match days - something I sadly don't think is going to happen at Sandhills.  No, that's not fair; apparently it's going to get a special Fan Queuing Area.  So that's alright then.

One thing I forgot to mention about the refurb of the Oostlijn stations was the coloured glass entrance.  Above the open front, a high window was put in with abstract glass colours.  It let more light into the ticket hall and also gave each station its own identity.  At Strandvliet there were rainbow colours, which extended to the windows over the escalator as you ascended to the track.

Duivendrecht came into existence because of its location.  There wasn't anything here until 1993; the trains went on to Van de Madeweg, which was known as Duivendrech Centraal because, well, it was in the middle of Duivendrecht.  However, the Ringspoorbaan - a rail line from Schiphol across the south of the city - was constructed in the early 90s, and at the point where it met the metro line, they built an interchange.

It very much feels like a station that was constructed because they thought they should, rather than there being a specific need for it.  It's big and airy and full of glass and steel, but it doesn't feel like a hub.  I got off the train with one other person, who went down and through the gates alongside me and waited outside to be picked up by a friend.  He looked at me a little askew, as though he was surprised to see anyone else there.

There's space for buses outside, and a park and ride, but both were unpopular with the public.  Eurolines operate coaches from here, but that's about it.  I walked outside and took my picture under the ostentatious sign.

The road out of the station complex is long and straight and really quite dull.  I think it says a lot about the amount of pedestrian usage it gets that a tree had fallen across the footpath and nobody had thought to move it.  It had been there long enough for most of its green leaves to turn brown.  The highlight was a heron, which stood on the path and watched me approach with a certain amount of arrogance.  It didn't seem inclined to move, as though I encroaching on his territory, and I was within a metre or two and wondering if it was possible or even wise to pet a heron when he lifted his wings and lazily flew off and into the trees.  

I was deposited on a huge junction with a massive depot for the postal service, but I turned right, past small units and car dealerships.  The grinding engines of the city.  I crossed another street, and then swore, quite loudly.

I'd been here before.  A few hours ago, in fact.  I'd thought I was simply in another industrial estate but no, there was that cash and carry again, and there were the pictures of food again, and then I was passing under the motorway with the lollipops painted on the supports and the big silver sewage machine was up ahead.  

I felt terribly disheartened.  I was tired and sweaty and grumbly, and now here I was on the same grimy strip of traffic blasted tarmac.  It was my own fault of course; if I'd turned left out of Van der Madeweg station this morning, I would've gone a far more interesting route.  I could've gone through a housing estate where all the streets were named after space - Lunaweg and Meteoor and Astronautenweg - and maybe gone to the Duivendrecht precinct on Telstarweg.  Then the metro junction and the pumping station would've been a nice surprise in the afternoon.  I'd planned badly.

I crossed the road, going between gaps in the traffic rather than pushing the button, because I was knackered and dejected.  The road shadowed the metro line, and I passed a group of enthusiastic looking young people in hi-vis jackets and helmets being marshalled by a man from the GVB; I wondered if they were engineering students, or apprentices with the transport network.  They were far too pretty to be fellow train nerds.

Two men stopped their conversation as I passed, leaning on their parked BMWs and watching me suspiciously, pausing in whatever illicit trade they were engaged in.  I feigned disinterest, while secretly wanting to know everything about what they were up to, and walked up to the station at the end of the road.

Overamstel was added to the network in the 90s, when the Amstelveen tram-train line came into existence, and now it's a handy spot to change between the green 50 and the orange 51.  We'd moved off the Oostlijn now, onto the newer line I'd mainly collected the day before, and so it didn't get the same refurb.  This meant, sadly, no tiled station name.  Instead I had to put up with a shiny one under the viaduct.

I promise you that says Overamstel up there.  I didn't know the sunshine was exactly on it when I took the photo.  Look, I've fiddled with the colours, and you can clearly see a stel.

Once again, if you want me to go back and get a proper photo of the sign, feel free to send cash to my Ko-fi.

This was it.  One more train journey and I'd have done it.  Every station on the Amsterdam Metro, collected, visited, photographed.  Two days and a lot of walking.  I was tired but exhilarated.  This was genuinely one of the best things I have done in my life (Reader's Voice: Jesus Christ) and I enjoyed every second of it.  In some ways, I didn't want it to end.  In others, I was glad it was over.

Towers and glass told me I was back in the business district of the city.  This was Amsterdam Rai, the station for the conference complex I'd been to a million years ago when I did the Nord-Zuidlijn.  The 52 passes right underneath Rai station but they didn't build an interchange, instead putting Europaplein station directly outside the convention centre and removing the lengthy walk passengers on the 50 and 51 needed to take.  

It was another rail/metro hub, though rather better used than Duivendrecht.  I followed the crowds down, thinking of how I'd shared a lift with two of the delegates for the dementia conference at the RAI in the hotel that morning, and they had studiously avoided making eye contact, even though they were both wearing lanyards showing they were going the same place.  I walked out into the road outside the station, raised my camera, and took my last Amsterdam station selfie.