Tuesday 28 March 2023

Taking In The Air


That strip of Transport for Wales stations down the left hand side of the map was always going to be tricky.  A series of small country stations that got a service ranging from "infrequent" to "very infrequent" and which were a fair distance apart.  Normally I'd like to wipe them out in one go, a whole swathe of grey stations collected in one day.  Instead I decided to chop it into manageable chunks: the top first, the bottom at a later date.  Whitchurch, Wrenbury and Nantwich in one day - that'll do.

Whitchurch smelt of fire, which is always a good start.  I don't want to sound like a pyromaniac but I love the thick smell of fireplace smoke hanging over a town.  It's nostalgia, of course: my nan had a coal fire in her house in Hertford, and when we'd get out the car on arrival the scent of the neighbourhood's grates would wash over me.  I'd position myself in front of the fireplace and feel the heat on my face, enjoying the smell, listening to the crackle.  My brother and I would snap up bits of rubbish and detritus to throw on it - a bit of old cotton, a crisp packet - and gleefully watch it burn.  Actually maybe I am a pyromaniac.  The point is I immediately felt welcomed to Whitchurch, even if the station is a little lacking.

Two platforms, two shelters, a footbridge and that's your lot.  In the northbound shelter, a homeless man was wrapped in a sleeping bag, completely cocooned.  Even his face was hidden within the hood of the bag.  I imagine this is his overnight spot.  Homelessness is no longer a "big city" issue; it's everywhere.  

I left the station via the car park behind a man in his fifties who was wearing tight lycra leggings with bell bottoms.  From the waist up, he was a perfectly normal older gentleman in a padded jacket; below the waist, Liza Minelli circa 1972.  I wondered if he'd accidentally put on his wife's trousers that morning, and had decided to style it out, or if perhaps he was some sort of aging dance captain and was off to the local theatre to choreograph an am dram Cats.  Ahead of him were three teenagers who immediately dashed across the road and piled into a telephone box.  Teenagers using a phone box?  In 2023?  Clearly they were drug dealers.

I need to get an apology in now.  Though I hadn't realised it at the time, there was a smear on the lens of my camera.  I didn't realise until I got home and uploaded the pics to my PC.  As a consequence, some of the photos that follow will have a slight blur at the edge.  It couldn't be helped, and I'm not going back to Whitchurch to take the photos again, so if you don't like it you can simply go away.  (No, please don't, I love you really).

I stomped into town in my new boots, past a cul-de-sac next to the station called The Sidings.  Can we stop with this?  Have a bit of imagination.  "Ooh, it's a road built on old railway land, let's call it The Sidings, that's never been done before!"  Call it The Goods Yard or Pacer Close or Thank You For This Gift Of Valuable Real Estate Doctor Beeching Avenue.  Be original.  Be as original and unique as the man further along the road who had painted his Transit van in the colours of the A-Team van for some reason - black with a red diagonal strike.  He stood on his driveway, vaping and barking into his mobile, but he didn't resemble any of the team.  Maybe BA Baracus, if BA Baracus was white.

You'll know Whitchurch by name at least if you've ever been to Lime Street station: you'll have seen it in enormous letters staring down at you.  The clock on the concourse at the station - like a lot of railway clocks - was made by J B Joyce & Co, a company who operated out of Whitchurch for nearly two centuries.  Joyce's also did the Eastgate Clock, in Chester, and the clock in the University of Birmingham's tower which I visited only the other week.  They started in the High Street, making intricate timepieces, and as their business grew they moved to new premises on Station Road.  

Regular readers will know that station clocks are a small obsession of mine.  As far as I'm concerned, every station should have one, and, more to the point, it should be working.  This last part seems to be the most difficult one for train companies to manage and I'm not sure why.  My mantlepiece clock has been running for about twenty years and all I have to do is change the battery now and then and move the hands for British Summer Time and back.  Most station clocks are electrically powered so I'd have thought all they'd need was the occasional once over and maybe a wipe down with a damp cloth.  And yet, time and again (ahem), I turn up at a station and find a fine ticker jammed on 1:27.  It's disappointing, it's disconcerting, and it's plain sad.  It says that the rail company doesn't care, like a broken window or an overstuffed bin.  It makes it lesser.

Joyce was sold to another clock company in the Sixties and the building is now an auction house.  Pleasingly, the current owners are proud of their history and have an entire page on their website devoted to the building, but I was still disappointed I couldn't nip in and ask them to sort out the clock at West Kirby station.  It's been broken for years.

A cut across the inner ring road and I was walking down Green End towards the High Street.  There's been a market town here for centuries but it reached its true prosperity in the 18th century, and the buildings reflect that.  The streets are lined with impressive Georgian town houses and brick shops with elegant fronts.  I bet the whole town closes for six weeks every other year so they can film the newest incarnation of Persuasion or Middlemarch.  You're trying to get to Home and Bargain but unfortunately they've chucked a load of muck all over the main street and are letting chickens wander around for that period atmosphere.

Although actually Home and Bargain is a bit downmarket for Whitchurch.  It's a respectable, moneyed country town, and so the shopping centre was filled with kitchen shops and boutiques and coffee places.  There was a place that offered pilates and journaling classes, and the flowerbeds were supported by the Rotary Club.  I'd describe it as solidly Tory, except it's got a LibDem MP at the moment, thanks to the resignation of one of those dodgy Conservatives who got caught breaking the rules, Owen Patterson; I think it says a lot about the current calamitous state of the Government that I can't really remember who he was or what he did.  After a while they all blur into one another.

There were also two restaurants that proudly displayed signs boasting of their listing in the Michelin Guide.  As is usual for restaurants with this high level of quality, they don't seem very keen on you eating there.  Neither one had a menu outside, or a price list, and when I looked at their websites they only offered "sample menus".  These are the kind of restaurants that have Tasting Menus, where you turn up and the chef feeds you whatever he feels like whether you like it or not.  Don't like shellfish?  Have a gluten intolerance?  Tough: course three is crab bread and if you don't want it you're scum.  At some point all the top restaurants started employing Lenny Henry in Chef! in their kitchens.  If I go out for a meal I want to know what I'm getting - in fact I want to be able to look at the menu before I even walk through the door - and I want to enjoy it.  I don't want to live in fear that the next round of plates will bring me an aniseed cockroach on a bed of curried ox tongue.  Perhaps I am denying myself a classic culinary experience, but I'm willing to accept that.  I was instead drawn to Percy's, a bar that advertised musical appearances from "Psydoll" and "Papa Shango"; that sounds much more fun.

At the top of the High Street I had to make a decision.  The BBC Weather app had predicted rain all morning, and indeed the streets seemed to have received a light soaking.  However, it was long gone now, and there were blue skies.  If I walked to Wrenbury, my next station, it was eight miles across country; if it started to rain while I was out there I'd get wet and muddy very quickly.  On the other hand, if I simply went back to Whitchurch station and got the train to Wrenbury and the good weather held, I'd be forever disappointed.

I looked up at the clouds.  They seemed pale enough - maybe the odd hint of grey in the distance.  I decided to risk it.  I bundled my coat into my backpack and strode out of town.

The pavement soon disappeared, but there was an edge of tarmac marked out with a white line.  I'd never seen this kind of arrangement for a footpath but it made sense as a cheaper way to give pedestrians space to walk without having to put in actual slabs and gutters and drains.  I thought it was a great idea, until I reached the end of it and discovered I'd been walking in a cycle lane.  It made me furious.  Cycles can and do go on the road.  Yes, they are much safer in their own lanes, and I support that.  But put in provision for walkers first.  Give us somewhere to walk where we're not going to get blindsided by a JCB or rammed by a Raleigh.  Give pedestrians the space to walk first before you start sticking in cycle lanes.

Simmering gently, I turned off the main road and onto a driveway leading to a pleasing country house.  I was following the South Cheshire Way, a long distance footpath that was clearly outlined on OS Maps and signposted, but I still felt anxious as I got closer and closer to the house.  It was a relief when I spotted a tiny yellow arrow taking me away from it and across a field, a relief somewhat undermined by the big yellow Beware of Bull sign.

Trepidatiously I followed the footpath.  I couldn't actually see any bulls, or any livestock of any kind, but I still kept an eye out as I hugged the fence.  I wondered what I would do if a bull did actually come charging across at me.  I decided the only thing would be to tuck and roll under the barbed wire, pressing myself into the hedge behind and hoping those thin strands of metal spikes would be enough to put off a thousand kilos of marauding beef.  I wondered if perhaps I should stand my ground, and express dominance; then I remembered that bloke in On Her Majesty's Secret Service trying to do exactly that and ending up bent double over an enormous horn.

Fortunately the only sign of wildlife I saw was a series of rabbit holes dug into the soft sandy earth beneath a tree, and I was soon through a gate on the other side and onto a road.  I was back in Cheshire now, and I walked through the hamlet of Wirswall before turning off again up a private drive towards Wicksted Old Hall.  Sheep stared at me idly as I walked up the long straight drive towards the house, eventually turning off through the farmyard itself (a brief whiff of cow shed took me straight back to the farm owned by my Uncles Ted and Charlie) and then through a gate.

Soon I was striding across wide expanses of fields, the sun on my back, a gentle breeze whistling past me.  The way was firm, a little moist, but mainly grassland, and I walked confidently from stile to stile.  Some were muddier than others, as you'd expect, but in the main it was a happy stroll through the English countryside.

At that moment I realised how alone I was.  This isn't the same as lonely.  You can be lonely anywhere, missing the simplicity of human contact.  This was me being alone, the nearest other human a mile away, the only moving figure in a landscape of stillness.  I was delighted.  I felt a sense of relaxation and contentment I'd not felt for a while; a sense that if I carried on walking like this, carried on these isolated paths and away from people, I'd be utterly happy.  I even began to sing to myself, belting out kd lang's Surrender at the trees and the hills, even having a crack at that impossible final note.  

The landscape rode upwards in hills, where the grass and soil were thinner.  Here, the path had been dug into the side, a horizontal forced on the gentle curve.  I slipped a little, just slightly, but enough to get me to temper my speed.  I rounded the hill and saw, in the distance, a farmer on an ATV, bouncing his way down the slopes and skidding in the mud.  It rasped out a monotonous tone but I followed his tracks down into the valley.  

The footpath swept down alongside a copse, merging with a bridleway, and I confidently strode on.  This was a mistake.  If you'd been paying attention earlier, you'd have noticed that I mentioned my "new walking boots".  The Rules of Comedy dictate that if someone mentions new boots early on, those boots will be a mess by the end of the story.  

It turned out that the grass I'd stepped onto, cocksure and joyful, was a lie.  It was a carpet of nothingness, floating on top of a thick ugly bog, and I sank into it.  Right into it.  The thick waters swelled over my feet and ankles and splashed up the back of my jeans.  I extricated myself and stood on a rare patch of dry ground, swearing so loudly I could probably be heard all over the valley.  On the plus side, these boots were sold as being waterproof, and they'd not lied: my socks remained unsullied.  I didn't need to squelch at all.

Which isn't to say that it was easy going.  From here on, the path was a mess of mud, puddles and general swampiness.  I found myself springing from dry patch to dry patch, testing out ground, sometimes messing up and sinking some more.  It was not the casual stroll I'd been enjoying half an hour earlier.  It was relentless.

I was passing round the edge of the Big Mere, an unimaginatively titled lake that accounted for the sudden sogginess of the land around it, and while it was very pretty and everything, it was hard to take it in.  The footpath entered the trees on the shore and it became even darker and wetter.  At one point I skidded, and, in the move to stop myself from toppling right over, I wrenched my shoulder; I let out a colossal "fuuuuck!" that actually caused some ducks to fly into the air in fright, like in a movie.

When the land rose up away from the lake it became dryer.  I paused at the edge of a sheep field to stamp my feet and try and shake off some of the worst of the muck.  The sheep and their lambs watched me, slightly judgementally.  Then I continued up the hill and into St Michael and All Angels' churchyard.  The gate had two feathers jammed, quite deliberately, into the release mechanism; it felt like the aftermath of a pagan ritual and by passing through it I'd now cursed myself.

Marbury's villagers knew they had a great view here, and had provided a series of benches to enable you to take it in.  I found one provided In Memory of Barbara Dandy, gave her a silent thanks, and sat down for a drink of water and a moment of calm.

One bottle of Buxton Sparkling later - yes, I prefer sparkling to still water, sue me - I set off to explore Marbury.  Not that there was much to explore.  A pub, a church, a small green.  There were some obvious former council houses threaded along one street, and an old school converted into homes with a cul-de-sac built on the playground.  (The cul-de-sac was called "School Close"; please see my earlier rant about The Sidings and multiply it by a thousand).  One field had a sign in it calling it "The Outlook" with a link to cheshireweddingfield.co.uk, a site that sadly no longer works; my favourite part of that name is the singular of field, implying it was the only one in Cheshire.  Meanwhile, the village hall's noticeboard still had an A4 up for "Paddy's Night" the previous Friday, though the bracketed (Adults Event) carried with it a strong whiff of car keys in a bowl.

School Lane rose slightly to cross the canal, with a lock and a lock keeper's cottage.  Water poured through the sluice gate alongside, and two stout women in wellington boots marched across my path to hit the fields.  They looked incredibly practical ladies, the kind of women who would find an injured bird on their driveway and throttle it to put it out of its misery without a second thought.  I expected them to have some ferocious terriers accompanying them.

This was the Llangollen Canal, which branches off the Shropshire Union Canal to head into Denbighshire via the legendary Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.  That's an exciting, ambitious part of the canal, soaring high above the landscape and designated a World Heritage Site.  This part is... less exciting.

It was my own fault for having that break in the churchyard.  The walk had snapped into two separate parts, and instead of it being a single epic journey it became a before and after.  Striding across the hillsides?  Good.  Trekking along a straight towpath?  Bad.  The South Cheshire Way does, in fact, link Marbury with Wrenbury, so I could've happily continued on it, but I thought the towpath would be an interesting change.  By the time I realised it wasn't it was too late to turn back.

On the plus side, I had the towpath entirely to myself; there wasn't a single other walker the whole route.  A barge passed me at one point, driven by an elderly woman with her husband stood right behind her to make sure she did it right.  I'm never sure if you're meant to say hello in these circumstances.  The canal boat is travelling so slowly and so close to the bank it's possible but, at the same time, why would you?  This is part of my eternal struggle of being a Southerner in the North and discovering that being sullen and ignorant is not the way.  I didn't say hello, of course, but determinedly looked down at my feet as I walked so I didn't make eye contact.

Sometimes there were ducks.  Sometimes there was the gentle burr of farm machinery in the distance.  I passed a "glamping" site (translation: four sheds and an outdoor hot tub) and some men digging for a new fence.  A lifting bridge was left open, seemingly only there to give access to the fields on the other side: the part that worried me about it was the big red STOP sign on the side.  Was the lowered bridge not a signal enough that the canal was blocked?

Wrenbury appeared to my right, mainly new build homes from this angle.  I began to dream of the pint.  I'd spotted, on the Ordnance Survey map, that there was a pub right next to the canal.  Canalside pubs are always good, and I fancied maybe getting myself some lunch there too.  A boatyard on the horizon signalled that the village was approaching.

The pub was closed.  

Apparently, in this part of the world, pubs don't open until three pm, like it's the war or something.  How dare they.  The other pub, further into the village, also didn't open until three.  I'm sorry, was this not England in 2023?  Don't they realise this is a capitalist society and I should be able to buy whatever I want whenever I want?

I mentally wrote off Wrenbury at that moment.  I would get my pint in Nantwich instead.  I pulled out my phone to find when the next train was due and discovered it was - yikes - twelve minutes away.  As I walked, I tapped my destination into Google Maps and it came back with a walking time.

Seventeen minutes.

I was going to have to move fast.

A five minute gap between the estimated time and the time I needed to be there seems insurmountable.  However, what you fail to take into account is I am a homosexual, and I walk (some might call it mince) at a homosexual pace, while Google Maps seems to be predicated on you being an asthmatic pensioner with a dicky walking stick.  However however, I was coming off an eight mile walk across field and vale; I was, to use a technical term, a bit knackered.  It was going to be tight.

I burned through Wrenbury.  My Fitbit would later record the sudden upswing in my heart rate - not quite "alert an ambulance" levels, but certainly "are you really sure you should be doing this?".  I sped through the heart of the village, occasionally breaking into a trot: I can't run at the best of times.  The village green and the village shop and the village school and the village park all rolled by as I counted down in my head the time.  I could make it.  I could make it.

A swing into Station Road, a single track heading south with a narrow pathway.  A corner, and I could see the lights at the level crossing flashing: the barrier was down.  The train was coming.  It wasn't there yet though.  Another trot.  And another.  I could make it.

The train went by.

I saw it go from right to left, between the flashing level crossing lights in the distance, still too far away for me to reach.  Even if I ran - even if I burned it at maximum speed - there was a bend in the road to negotiate, and then the run up the platform.  I'd missed the train.

By the time I reached the shelter the station was silent again. The crossing gates were up and the train was long gone.  It was a two hour wait until the next train to Nantwich.  I was disappointed and also a bit furious with myself.  That pause in the churchyard - that had doubly done for me now.  If I'd pressed on I'd have made the train but no, I had to sit there and admire the view.

As we have already established, the pubs of Wrenbury didn't want my trade, but it seemed there was another one in the next village along, Aston.  I frantically googled it and discovered two things.  Firstly, it didn't even open on a Monday or a Tuesday, so I had absolutely no chance of drowning my sorrows.  Secondly, the pub had the unlikely name of The Bhurtpore Inn.  A History section on the website informed me that it was named after a siege commanded by the local lord of the manor, Lord Combermere where they took control of the Fort of Bhurtpore in 1826.  Apparently this action "finally assured relative peace in the subcontinent for many years" and I would very much like to hear the Indian perspective on this siege that was apparently a trigger for eternal love and happiness.  

But what is Wrenbury the home of?  Answers on a postcard.  The best one wins nothing except my resentment that you came up with a better joke.

I did have a way out.  There was a southbound train a short while afterwards.  It could get me back to Whitchurch which was at least a little more interesting than a remote country station.  I crossed over to the other platform - taking in the clock laid into the wall of the former station building which didn't work - and got ready to wave my arm about.  I'd not realised Wrenbury was a request stop when I'd come here, which was lucky, because that was a whole new level of anxiety.  (And probably meant I would've absolutely missed the train, because without anyone on the platform, it wouldn't have stopped).

And so, to Whitchurch once again, for that elusive pint.  The first pub I went into was entirely empty, with not even a member of staff behind the bar, so after a minute of embarrassed loitering I went up the street to the Old Town Hall Vaults.  This was a great decision.  It turned out to be a proper old boozer, almost empty, but a place where I could hide in the back and decompress.  (Annoyingly, I didn't realise they sold home made pork pies until I was on my way out for the train and I heard another patron order one).  Thank you, by the way, to the anonymous Ko-fi donators who paid for both this pint of beer and the train to Whitchurch; I'm always incredibly grateful and feel very humbled when I check the page and find one of you has made a donation.  You're astonishingly kind.

I don't know if it was the beer or the tiredness, but I decided not to bother with Nantwich.  I could go there any time - it was one stop down from Crewe, after all.  Instead I slid into the seat and felt utterly content.


diamond geezer said...

I might have turned round and gone home about thirty paragraphs before you did, so much respect for battling on to an entirely unsatisfactory end.

Best check the map for request stops before you head out again...

Anonymous said...

You must have been tired at the end because you didn't even note that the name of the village is actually Wrenbury-cum-Frith...

Scott Willison said...

WHAT a missed opportunity.