Monday 18 December 2023

And Yuletide Felicitations To You


I'm not festive.  At the best of times I'm not exactly Kris Kringle, but this year in particular, I've been a misery guts.  It took me ages to put up the tree, the presents remain in their Amazon boxes by the back door, and it took an enormous amount of grumbling from the BF before I finally knuckled down and did the Christmas cards.  Something about Xmas 2023 isn't working for me.

I decided to try and get in the mood with a trip out on the trains.  What could be more Christmassy than a small town celebrating the season?  I pictured snow covered rooftops, a church with happy parishioners, a children's choir singing carols as I passed by.  A busy, jostling high street, but not the cut throat horror of a city centre.  I headed for Wem.

A market town in Shropshire, not far from the borders, with a tiny rural community?  What could be more Christmassy than that?  It also meant I could fill a gap on that pesky Transport for Wales line running down the left hand side of the map by collecting it, plus its neighbours, Prees and Yorton.

But first I had to get there.  Poring over the timetables, I worked out the most efficient way to get to the two village stations would be to go to Wem first, then change to another train going back out.  Prees and Yorton are both request stops so I accosted the guard.  He was a chirpy Welshman with an RMT badge on his uniform who seemed pleased to have an excuse to stop - the new trains, he told me, were too fast, and they ended up hanging around at stations to even out the timetable if they didn't stop at the request stations.  As we approached, he gave me a long spiel about watching myself as I disembarked - the platform was quite a distance from the doors, you see - and then we pulled into Prees.  

Normally, arriving at the station is just the beginning.  Regular readers (hello you!) will know that it's usually the start of a lengthy meander through some winter-blasted landscape to get to the next stop.  The problem was, Prees station was in the middle of nowhere.  The village that gave it its name was a mile away.  There were no footpaths south.  I could walk along the A road to Wem, but who really wants to trek down a highway?  So I waited.  In an hour's time the train south would come and I could go to Yorton.

Prees is particularly remote.  There's the old station house alongside, of course, quiet on a weekday morning.  A level crossing after a nasty bend in the road.  But nothing much else to see.

At least it had shelters on the platforms, allowing me to hide away from the winds that whipped across the fields.  I installed myself in the southbound one and waited for the train.

Time passed slowly.  My podcast wasn't grabbing me.  My fingers froze in the cold and I jammed them into my pockets - effective, but ruling out me reading a book.  I watched the occasional truck or car spin past, turning across the level crossing.  Now and then it would close for a freight train or an express, penning in the one vehicle behind the gate.

I learned every inch of the shelter.  The pile of mush in the corner where gritting salt had congealed.  The black panel that would've once held a public phone but was long gone.  The occasional scratched graffiti.  Eventually I got up and paced the platform, back and forth, up and down.  I put on some banging beats to liven up my brain and body, jiggling a little as a particularly good one came on, embarrassing myself for the CCTV cameras.  Then the train came in.

It was the exact same train I'd arrived on, with the exact same guard.  I asked him to stop at Yorton, a little shame faced, and he gave me a look which clearly implied "are you taking the piss?" As we pulled into the station, he began his usual spiel about the high step, then realised he was wasting his time.  I gave him a polite thumbs up as I got off the train but I don't think he was amused.

Yorton was slightly less isolated than Prees.  A cul-de-sac of homes had been built on what probably used to be the goods yard, while the station house was now a private residence, as several signs reminded you - though slightly confusingly, it announced this on a sign with the British Rail double arrow logo.  

Beyond the station was the Railway Inn which I assumed was closed and converted into a house.  They must've left the sign up for whimsy, because it didn't look like a country pub - there wasn't eight miles of car park, and an adventure playground, and a sign outside telling me what football matches I could see.  There wasn't even a mention of their menu.  I was surprised to get home and discover that it's very much a going concern, although it doesn't open until 5pm on weekdays.  It's clearly a proper, old fashioned boozer, and I was very sad I didn't get a chance to visit.  

I'd originally planned on getting the train back north again, to Wem, and risking the shame of having that conductor for a third time.  However, a sign near the entrance to the station told me there'd be a bus coming along in about eight minutes.  This would, at least, make a change, so I dashed up the steps to the platform because - for some unknown reason - they'd mounted the totem sign up on the embankment rather than down at road level.  You know, where it might be useful.

The bus left from a stop called, delightfully, Jubilee Tree Houses, a few yards away from the station.  A triangle of roads surrounded a single tree with a split running down its trunk.  There was a bench around it and a noticeboard advising me that I was needed to "help shape the housing future" of the villages.  I loitered by the bus stop; the grass around the tree was too wet for me to use the bench, and anyway, I didn't want to miss the bus.

One big problem I have with buses is their lack of information.  If I'm at a railway station and the train is delayed, there's an announcement, and maybe a countdown clock too if you're lucky.  At a bus stop there's nothing.  If it came early, you don't know; if it's late, you don't know.  You stand there, hoping, staring at the horizon, waiting for it to swing round the corner.  Eventually the 511 arrived, a few minutes late, and I could stop feeling anxious.  The driver was a bearded bloke in dark glasses who took my £1.60 (by card, of course, this is the cashless society) and politely waited for me to sit down before he started tearing through the country lanes.

He dropped me off by that church I'd been hankering for.  No, there wasn't any snow, but the church of St Peter and St Paul was exactly what I wanted: stone tower, bit of graveyard, walls and a gate.  

The only thing I knew about Wem prior to arriving was that it was the home of the Taskmaster himself, Greg Davies; Dave Gorman once bought him a load of Wem-related memorabilia to try and win a task.  One of the items was a book about the history of Wem and Greg was baffled that they found enough to fill it.  

I can sort of see his point.  Wem was a nice little town but it was very average.  It wasn't charming enough to attract tourists, but it wasn't ugly enough to be amusing.  It was, in short, a small country town with no pretentions.

Yes, that place is called The Warbling Tit.  It's a bird, get your mind out of the gutter.

I strolled down the main street, rows of tightly packed historic buildings - a smattering of Georgian, a Victorian manse, a half-timbered cottage.  The decorations were very much on the minimalist side - a single lit banner across the road, and a lot of small trees poking out of the sides of shops.  I wanted baubles and glitz and shininess.  Wem wasn't giving me that festive boost I needed.

I did a circuit of the centre, ducking down alleyways and passing equestrian supply shops and a town hall that claimed Wem stood for Where Everyone Matters.  The Wem Business Park was marked with a sign over the entrance that was like a grim Disneyworld attraction, a forgotten corner of the park that provided only moderate excitement.

Of course, there's one sure fire way of cheering me up.

I picked the Castle Inn for a pint at random, and it was a good pub, warm and welcoming and busy.  I'd mulled getting some food while I was there, but the couple ahead of me at the bar were turned away from the restaurant part because a party was expected.  I took my seat in the corner as they arrived, a barrage of bright old ladies who chattered and giggled.  They were dressed to enjoy themselves.  One woman, in her seventies at least, wore a white minidress under a leopardskin coat.  Her feet were in red sparkly shoes with candy-striped high heels.  She was, of course, fabulous.  I was once again reminded that the pensioners of today were the ravers of the sixties; they weren't grimly keeping the British end up during the war, they were on the Pill and doing the frug and wearing hot pants and thigh high boots.  Stop trying to get them to sing along to Vera Lynn and break out the Hendrix.

Wem has a long history of game old birds; a plaque behind my seat reminded me of the time during the Civil War when the womenfolk dressed as Parliamentarians to foil an attack from the Cavaliers.  As I read up on it on my phone, another older lady came in and proceeded to chat away with the barmaid, full of energy despite her walking frame.  I considered staying longer, missing my train and getting the next one, but a man came in and sat at the next table and he gave off a strong negative energy.  The waitress greeted him with a menu and said they could do him a Christmas dinner, if he wanted; he sharply replied, "I don't believe in turkey.  I think it's cruelty, the way they slaughter them.  If I had my way, I'd shoot them all.  Not the birds, the people."  The waitress backed away.  Typical: a man shows up and ruins the vibe.

I left the pub after that, briefly nuzzling the resident cat on the way out, and headed to the Co-op for a sandwich.  There was a group of excited primary school children there, setting up for a Christmas carol performance, and I'm afraid my day out in the countryside hadn't given me a Scrooge-like conversion to the season, because I legged it in case I had to hear Away In A Manger.  Instead I headed to the station.

It's a plain, ordinary affair, perfectly decent, with shelters and a level crossing.  It's safe to say it's a little neglected; there was an informative map of the local country stations which bore the logos of both British Rail Provincial (the forerunner to Regional Railways, which itself disappeared with privatisation) and the Countryside Commission (abolished in 1999).  At what point does a sign start being a historic relic and in need of restoration?

Wem also has the tiniest totem sign I've ever seen.  Not the sign itself, which is normal, but the little strip along the bottom announcing the station name.

Did someone forget to add it on, and there was a last minute addition?  Did they think because Wem is only three letters, they could get away with the smallest possible name badge?  It could do with a scrub either way.  Wem deserves better.

Anyway, Merry Christmas!

Nope.  Still not feeling it.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant as always! Would love to know your thoughts on Gobowen!

Stuart R said...

Bah humbug! The railway type of course. Here's to more entertaining and informative content in 2024.

Scott Willison said...

Ah, Gobowen manages to not be on either the West Midlands Railways or the Northern map so it slips through the cracks as unvisited!

Jon said... is your friend.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, you need to think about whether it's going to be the same guard when you plan these rural lines where the train turns around and goes straight back.

I try to make up a story about what to say if he asks me why I've spent 3 hours travelling to a tiny hamlet only to spend 20 minutes there then another 3 hours going back, but it always seems to sound very suspicious.

David B said...

Wem must be the shortest name on the BR network?
We bought a Siamese cat in Wem once. It (Wem, not the cat) used to have a fine independent brewery which closed in 1988.

Neil said...

My Googling would seem to suggest the Railway Inn is in fact closed. There was supposedly an attempt to buy it out as a community pub but not enough money was raised. Sad.

When it was open it did still look like a house though!