On Friday morning I left the house at just before eight o’clock, took some cash out at Trecynon Post Office, and walked into Aberdare to catch the 0821 train. I don’t know what happened on the way, but I didn’t even have time to buy my ticket on the platform. I had to dive on board just as the doors were closing. I’ve no idea why it took me an extra five minutes to walk to the station, but it did. I Tweeted the first of many sitreps after I’d stashed my overnight bag, as I’d promised to keep my Facebook friends posted as I travelled north.
0823 Made train by seconds! Good start! #publictransportfail
Anyway, I was on my way. I hadn’t chanced catching the next train out for obvious reasons. I settled down and had a quick look at the Guardian Genius crossword during the familiar part of the journey. I got off the train at Queen Street and went for a stroll around Cardiff to kill time. As I left the station, my friend Marc texted me. He’d read my Tweet and wanted to wish me good luck for the evening. I sent a reply and slipped my phone back into my pocket. At that moment it rang. It was Isobel from RSVP (see Living in the Past), calling to see why I’d been a no-show on Wednesday. I told her I’d had a stomach upset, so I didn’t fancy the train journey that day. She told me that only one person from her planned intake had turned up after all, so she was going to reschedule the Digital Champion training and let me know the new arrangements. I’m obviously not going to get out of it that easily!
I called into Waterstone’s to look for Jeff. He’s not on Facebook, so he didn’t know about my adventure. I thought I’d let him know in person, as he’s a good mate and he’d be excited for me. There was no sign of him. In fact, I didn’t know anyone. I thought I might pick up a Manchester street map while I was in the shop. (I’ve got an A-Z Street Atlas of the region, which I bought when the old gang used to rope me in as Navigator on random days out in the car. However, it dates from 1988, before the IRA bombed the original Arndale Centre, never mind the massive redevelopment which came in its wake.)
I had no chance. I could have bought a guide to Winchester, or the Colleges of Oxford University, or one of a few dozen guides to London, but they had nothing covering Manchester. That must be one of the benefits of Central Purchasing. ‘Never mind,’ I thought, ‘I’ll probably get one at the station.’ I was wrong. WH Smith had a hundred guides to Cardiff and a load for London, but nowhere else. Maybe the people of Cardiff don’t realise that trains go to more than one city. I don’t know.
I bought a paper and made my way to Platform 2. My train was already in, so I made my away along the coaches, trying to find a forward-facing window seat reserved for the whole journey.
1001 Booking rail tickets online doesn’t allocate you a seat, apparently #bloodynonsense
Eventually I found a forward-facing window seat which wasn’t reserved and settled down to enjoy the journey north. Or so I thought…
1016 Feel sorry for woman behind me, she’s been captured by man in love with his own voice #strangersonatrain
The woman in question wasn’t even sitting directly behind me. She was about six rows of seats away, and had ended up inadvertently sharing a table with a self-obsessed academic, broadcaster and public speaker whose name I shan’t reveal here. (I do know it, mind you! He repeated it several times during his monologue, which was loud enough for everyone in the coach to hear.) By the time we got to Newport, I was sick of the sound of his voice. I was starting to worry that he was there for the duration as well.
1026 He’s a broadcaster regaling his victim (et al!) with Tales of Heroic Public Speaking #noquietcoach
Beyond Newport I thought I’d entertain my Facebook friends with a silly station-by-station commentary. It would also me to retrace my progress in real time once I came to write this entry. So that’s just what I did:
1031 ‘Alight here for Cwmbran Shopping’ – no thanks
By now I was engrossed in the crossword again, but I was still conscious of the pompous droning of the man halfway down the coach.
1042 Good Goddess, what a boring man! No wonder passengers brought mp3 players with them! #stfu
1044 Abergavenny Station’s nothing like it was in my weird dream a few weeks ago. Good…
That dream had involved (in no particular order) a Masonic temple, a huge ornate station called Abergavenny, trains coming from all directions, and a pub crawl with my old work buddy Rob C. Abergavenny Station’s real-world equivalent isn’t much bigger than Aberdare’s. An analytical psychologist would have a whale of a time trying to make sense of my dreams.
1056 Oops! Fare dodging girl just got fixed penalty. G. Osborne is such a bad example to young people
A couple of weeks before, none other than George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had been rumbled for riding first class with a standard class ticket. I wondered if the conductor on that train had gained the same sadistic pleasure from busting him as the one on ours obviously did.
1107 Hereford. Mr Knowitall’s victim is making a break for freedom! You go, girl, good luck!
Hereford Cathedral is the home of the world-famous Mappa Mundi, of course. No doubt his helpless captive was aware of that, but he told her (and everybody else) all the same. I felt a bit jealous as she bolted for the door. I had about two hours left to travel. The Bore hadn’t moved. Deprived of company, he went back to whatever he was doing. But the peace and quiet didn’t last long.
1113 He’s picking on someone else now! FFS! Can’t sit through his life story again!
The train sped on through the English countryside, passing farms, fields, little copses, church towers marking ancient village centres, and occasional flashes of silver where streams and rivers cut through the landscape. It was great to be able to look out of the window and see the subtle changes in the soil and the vernacular architecture, without having to keep one eye on maps and road signs. That’s why I prefer travelling by train. You don’t have the flexibility of a car, but you don’t have the hassle of navigating or finding a parking space either.
I was still sketching out ideas for the crossword when disaster struck. An all-too familiar voice came from right beside me:
‘I always do crosswords on odd bits of paper like that.’ It was none other than the Bore himself!
1114 He’s just walked past and told me he likes crosswords too! Dear Goddess please spare me from him!
He was making his way to the toilet, and had spotted me. Fortunately, I spotted him as well. He was on crutches, and had one leg in plaster. That meant that he’d have to occupy a table seat, and I’d be safe from his scintillating company when he returned. In my original booking, I’d requested a table seat if possible. Now, in spite of my previous Tweet, I was really glad that the online reservation system had let me down.
1122 Leominster. Named after Leofric, Lady Godiva’s husband. Too cold for naked horseriding
We were making good time – much better time than Pam, Gaz and I managed on our impromptu tour of the Marches by cars years ago.
1132 Ludlow. Be nice to have a look around there some time. Interesting place.
Rowland had a mini-break in Ludlow a couple of years and sang its praises when we met afterwards. It would be a bit beyond my budget, mind – it’s got more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere in the UK except London.
As we headed into Shropshire, the landscape changed from fairly smooth rolling fields to quite rugged geology. I’ve only been to Shrewsbury once, years ago, and I can’t have really noticed the view from the window. This time, I was paying more attention:
1142 Black clouds look full of rain. No surprise there #itsgrimupnorth
1152 Lots of disused stations en route. Shropshire much hillier than I remembered.
Just before noon we arrived at Shrewsbury. The train was running exactly on time. In terms of ‘Baker’ this station represents my previous personal best, so I had to take a photo to mark the occasion.
From this point on, I was in unknown territory – as far as I was concerned, the maps bore the legend HERE BE DRAGONS.
We headed onwards in a roughly northerly direction, zooming through minor stations and without ceremony into Cheshire. After twenty minutes or so I knew that we were still on course:
1227 Crewe. Historic rail hub, ‘the Swindon of the North.’ Sorry, Crewe, no offence meant!
I can’t guarantee the accuracy of this statement, but I’ve heard and/or read at least three times that there are only two countries in Europe without a single mile of electrified railway: Albania, and Wales. I obviously wasn’t in either of them.
Crewe has a reputation for being a large station, but it didn’t seem especially big when I was passing through. Admittedly it works on a couple of levels, so it must be quite complex as a whole. Needless to say, Mr Know-it-All was entertaining his reluctant audience with a host of facts and figures about the place. The thought occurred to me that he might be a fellow contestant on Brain of Britain. I sent a silent prayer up to the Goddess of Chaos (cc’d to the rest of the Pantheon) to get her skates on and break his other leg! There’s a lot to see at Crewe from a rail enthusiast’s point of view. I wouldn’t mind exploring it another time. There’s even a railway museum on site. I’ve pencilled it in…
I was still chipping slowly away at the crossword when something caught my eye over to the right. If it was a satellite dish, it was a hell of a big one. Then it dawned on me – we were on the Cheshire Plain. It wasn’t a satellite dish, but it still picks up signals from the sky…
Halfway through Shropshire I’d noticed a fantastic Tudor manor house which is in the care of English Heritage. I’d wondered what it was as we’d passed it. Now the sight of the radio telescope made me regret leaving my Ordnance Survey maps covering the journey at home. I’d probably missed a lot of interesting sights on the way up without even thinking twice about them.
1247 Wilmslow. Not a lot I can say about Wilmslow. Sounds like a made-up sitcom town #reggieperrin
We’d shot through Alderley Edge on the way here. That’s apparently where the top Manchester soccer players and their WAGs hang out. I might have been occupying the same train as somebody famous. I’d have been none the wiser if Colleen Rooney had sat next to me – although I daresay she takes the Porsche into town these days.
I took advantage of the long run between Wilmslow and Stockport to relieve myself. Considering that I’d been travelling for nearly five hours, it was the first time Nature had called. In the toilet of the train, I found a rather bizarre sign. In Logorrhoea I listed a few conventional signs which you might find at railway stations, but this was a new one on me:
When I returned to my seat the trees and fields were giving way to suburbs, and the skyline was punctuated by occasional tower blocks. It still didn’t look like the industrial heartland I’d been expecting, though.
At some point near Craven Arms my internal compass must have experienced a pole shift. I knew (from the timetable) that we were still heading north, but for some reason I assumed Stockport was to the south-west of the city centre. I found out afterwards that it’s actually to the south-east. There was Major Confusion Ahead!
The train slowed and my fellow passengers started to gather their belongings together. I glanced out of the window and sent a Tweet before disembarking:
1310 Manchester! We’ve arrived – and to prove it we’re here! And it’s raining…
I had my confirmation letter from Brain of Britain‘s producer Paul Bajoria a few days after Lizzie’s email. That somehow made the whole thing real. Over the next fortnight or so, Lizzie and I emailed each other and spoke on the phone a couple of times, finalising the date and time and arranging my accommodation. As the recording would take place on a Friday evening, I’d have to stay overnight.
Regent Television had made similar provision when I was on Fifteen to One, and the BBC had put James up in Glasgow, so I knew I’d have a bed for the night. Once the date was confirmed, I was able to go ahead and book my travel tickets, as I related in A Farey Tale. Then I read up a little bit about Manchester and Salford. I’d already guessed that I wouldn’t have much free time to explore, so rather than mapping out an impossible itinerary, I decided to make it up as I went along.
On October 11, Lizzie emailed me again to confirm that I’d be staying overnight. If I’d known anyone in the Manchester area I could have probably stayed with them. If I’d been working, I could have booked a couple of nights in a B&B and made a nice long weekend out of it. As things were, I emailed back, saying that I’d leave it up to them to find me somewhere nice for the night. I needn’t have worried. A couple of hours later she sent me a copy of my hotel booking – a single-occupancy room at the Holiday Inn in Salford Quays. As one of the four men from across the Pennines might have said, looxooreh!
On Thursday, I decided that I’d try and get hold of the latest edition of Stuart Baker’s Rail Atlas of Great Britain and Ireland at some point over the weekend. As I told you in A Capital Day Out, I managed to miss out on the 11th edition when it was published. I’d seen the 12th edition in the Ian Allan Bookshop when I was there with the Dippy Bint, but I held back from buying it. I had about £3.50 saved on my Waterstone’s Card (almost a quarter of the cover price), so I decided to get a copy in Manchester when I was there. I looked on the Ian Allan website, and was shocked to find that there’s yet another edition due in the spring. I guessed that it was going to be a hard book to track down this late in its life cycle.
I did a quick search online, rang Waterstone’s in Manchester’s Deansgate, and asked them if they had a copy on hand. The chap I spoke to said that they were out of stock, and that the replacement copies had been on order for the last month. I knew only too well what that meant. He suggested ringing their branch in the Arndale Centre, as the computer was showing a single copy in stock there (and I knew only too well what that usually meant, as well!) He gave me the number of the Arndale branch and my call was answered by another cheery lass named Ashleigh. She went off to look for the book, drew a blank, and then took my number so that I didn’t have to hold on the phone while she had a good search for it. A few minutes later she rang me back. Needless to say, the book had been hiding in plain sight on the shelf. I asked her to reserve it for me, then we chatted for a couple of minutes about the reason for my first visit to the city. It was my second taste of the northern warmth, friendliness and helpfulness which I was to encounter over the next two days.
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.