(Read this already? Er, I sent an unfinished version of this live by accident in the early hours of Tuesday…)
Just as the Online Journalism Blog asks around for local blogs, this local-ish blog is forgetting its roots for the next few weeks. I’m in Edinburgh this week to revel in the Fringe, and next week I embark on a big, big adventure which I’m really excited about. And last week, I marked the start of the new football season by using two Charlton away games to bookend a trip around Great Britain by train, seeing bands and mates. It was only on the way back, lolloping around the Durham coast on a train from Hartlepool to London, that I realised how much of the experience was actually about the journeys I’d undertaken.
Not counting the trips within London, I’d taken nine train journeys in four days, none of which could be described as a short hop. Earlier this year, the transport secretary, Lord Adonis, did a five-day tour to find out what people thought of the railways, journalist Matthew Engel did something similar. Both did it on a little-known ticket called an all-line rover – shortly after Adonis’s trip was publicised, the train companies hiked the cost, the seven-day ticket going up by nearly 15% to £430. Bored? Got a week off? You can buy one at your local station tomorrow, and get almost every UK train free for a week. My trip was a jumble of discount tickets (with reservations – seat by the window, please) and ordinary tickets, and cost a whole lot less. And while the journeys were, on the whole, fun, it was also a reminder of what a long way we have to go in this country to catch up with the standards of service I’ve found across Europe earlier this year.
11 August: 1545 Paddington to Newport, First Great Western. Not much to report here, apart from discovering that the packed train was full of berks jabbering into their mobile phones. Sweat broke out at Bristol Parkway as I thought I’d forgotten to bring my iPod headphones – while I could listen to my neighbour’s lilting Welsh tones for ages, I wasn’t so interested in her sales conference, nor the woman two seats ahead deciding to continue a row with someone despite her signal failing several times. A Network Rail sign at the end of the Severn Tunnel welcomed us to Wales, and Newport came as a relief. At least I got a seat by the window.
11 August: 1734 Newport to Hereford, Arriva Trains Wales. The ride up from Newport shows off wonderful scenery as you head through the valleys leading into the Forest of Dean. Two hours out of Paddington and London feels light years away. This is real border country here – Herefordshire on one side, looking towards the Midlands; Gloucestershire on the other, looking towards Bristol and the south west. And Wales, a looming presence over them both. Later, I was able to wander around Hereford listening to accents – no two sounded the same, even though many of the locals are all from the same part of the world. I was sat by the window, surrounded by friendly middle-aged women, and had my ticket checked by an enormous, but jolly man.
From here, it was delicious beer in Hereford, followed by watching Charlton slip meekly out of the League Cup. Then post-match scrumpy at a mate’s place in the Forest of Dean. If it wasn’t the small hours hush of the village of Lydbrook, or the sight of the stars up above, it was his baby daughter’s infectious smile later that reminded me that there might just be something in this “clear off out of London and enjoy the good life” business.
On Wednesday morning, my trek began with smiles. My host had kindly consulted the timetables, his wife and daughter made sure I got to the bus stop on time. Stagecoach Wye Valley bus 35 to Ross-on-Wye? That’s the one. And for half-past-nine in the morning, it’s a pleasure to travel – not the fastest route to Ross, but a leisurely trawl through valleys and villages, negotiating switchbacks as it fills with shoppers chatting and laughing. In Ruardean, we stopped to allow a farmer take his hay down the road, while half the bus waved and cooed at toddlers in a nearby window. Dogs in a yard came out to bark at us. And the oddest sight- a pub, the Malt Shovel, packed with London Underground memorabilia.
Ross came too soon, and it was only a brief stopover in the market town. The local Rotary Club had arranged for Daily Mail misery Quentin Letts to speak there next month. Perhaps I’ll return with some old fruit. Next up was a queue (yes) for the 38 to Hereford, but the impression of civility on board the double-decker was shattered by some half-wits blasting out children’s R&B on their cruddy phones as it cantered up the A49 to Hereford. Back to reality.
Next to Hereford United’s ground is a sight, sound and smell that every idiot Londoner like me should visit – the cattle market. Some of the sheep looked a bit too hemmed in for comfort, but the auctioneer was a compelling sight, striding across the pens, banging his crook to end the sales above a sea of flat caps and farmhands. Just in front of me, a little girl played in one of the pens. Next door, another salesman took charge of a broader crowd to sell poultry. Some of those roosters looked none too pleased.
12 August: 1255 Hereford to Manchester Piccadilly, Arriva Trains Wales. Then the real travelling began- through the Marches up to Shrewsbury, up to Crewe, across to Manchester Piccadilly, and the first in a run of crap luck with the seat reservations system – plonked by the aisle, on the edge of a 50-something couple who seemed none too pleased to have company. I ended changing seats three times, finding at the end of the ride that the best seats were the ones which went unreserved. Fact learned on board the train: the Welsh for Manchester is “Manceinion”. At the end of the ride, a bizarre stealth ticket check at Piccadilly – staff milling around 10 feet up the platform, no obvious signs they wanted to see your ticket until they spoke to you.
12 August: 1527 Manchester Piccadilly to Leeds, First Transpennine Express. Across the Pennines, again given an aisle seat instead of a window seat. Wherever I sat, there was no escaping a toddler wailing in my ear. He waved me goodbye as I got off at Leeds. Only one toilet on the train was working (either that, or someone was hiding in there) – so I had to do battle with the drinks trolley to have a wee.
One thing that struck me after more than about a day of travelling around the British railway system is just how bleedin’ bossy it is. Dire warnings about bags being blown up by “the security services”- what, MI5? Insincere recorded apologies for delays, warnings about buying exactly the right ticket to prop up their rotten monopolies. That female recorded announcer who is everywhere across the network. And the same old scripts from train staff from different companies. The colours of the trains may change, the names of the operators may be different. But they all share a lack of warmth and friendliness.
I’d only been to Leeds twice before – once for football, once for a night out with a mate that was actually spent in a nearby village. So this was still uncharted territory for me – staying in a hotel in the freshly-scrubbed Brewery Wharf, a hop over a fence from where Tetley beer comes from. I went to see The Bluetones, touring the UK and performing their 1996 Expecting To Fly album at the Brudenell Social Club, one of the best venues I’ve ever been to – a members’ club in the down-to-earth Hyde Park district which serves Kronenbourg with a smile at £2.35/pint. A men-only club until 1978, it now combines its work as a social club with being one of the city’s most vibrant venues. Why go to Yorkshire to see a band from Hounslow? Heaven knows. I never got around to seeing them live at their peak. But The Bluetones were great – a mixture of self-deprecating humour and timeless tunes. A terrific gig I’ll remember for a long time. I thought about having a drink in the hotel bar after the show – but with Richard Marx’s Right Here Waiting oozing out of the Jurys Inn speakers, I took myself off to bed.
13 August: 0947 Leeds to Carlisle, Northern Rail. If you were booking a train from Leeds to Glasgow, you’d book a ticket on the line specially built for that journey, wouldn’t you? You can’t. You can only buy a ticket via Edinburgh or via Preston. But the route designed for the trip is the famous Settle-Carlisle line. Going that way makes the trip into a four-hour schlep – but what a schlep. The train from Leeds to Carlisle costs a stonking £23.60 for a single, with no early-booking cheap seats.
By Settle, the two-coach train was full and uncomfortably hot (until someone managed to open the windows, flooding the carriages with the scent of “animal smells”.) The views, however, are stunning, through the Yorkshire Dales and the Ribble Valley. At Settle, packs of walkers were setting out for the day, while all along the line sheep scattered as the train approached. The Settle-Carlisle Partnership provides the trolley service, a volunteer sold line guides and told us facts about the line. The trip to Carlisle from Leeds was two-and-a-half hours, but the time flew by. One to come back to and explore again.
13 August: 1247 Carlisle to Glasgow Central, Virgin Trains. I’d never come to Scotland this way before – but the Borders countryside was worth looking at on this quiet train.
I’d read a bit about The Maple Leaves via blogs, liked the sound of them, and decided that was the excuse I needed to spend a night in Glasgow. Thanks to Twitter, I had a bit of company in the brother of a mate of mine, so we pitched up at Oran Mor, a beautiful former church by the Botanic Gardens, for their free show. The price for this free show? Only one beer on sale at The Mill – bottles of Miller. Served in a plastic glass with “Miller” on the front. Just when we were considering escaping for a proper drink, along came support band Panda Su, whose singer could sing me the Yellow Pages and I’d still be listening. Meanwhile, The Maple Leaves will be your next favourite indie pop band – without a doubt. Flat and rubbish beer aside, it was a wonderful gig and we retired to a place in Ashton Lane to drink Belgian beer and talk Scottish politics. On the way back, I popped into famous late night bar Nice n’ Sleazy’s, and didn’t want to leave. On Friday morning, the heavens opened, and I took my hungover self to Corporate Coffee to watch Glaswegians scurry around in the rain.
14 August, 1345 Glasgow Central to Newcastle, National Express. “Oh, but it was stupid of them to place a couple travelling together in diagonal seats,” whined some thin-lipped old tutter who was sat IN MY SEAT. In bloody first class as well. I took a seat in front of them, hoping I hadn’t completely ruined the train’s seating arrangement and that I could ignore this grim couple moaning about reserved seats. Despite a huge crowd boarding at Edinburgh Waverley, I got away with it. Phew.
I managed to swing a cheap bed in Newcastle’s luxurious Grey Street Hotel, and had a mate of mine and her boyfriend to take me on a brilliant bar crawl of the city, where I met a former boyfriend of Cheryl Cole and heard talesof a man living in the studio where iconic music show The Tube was made (the former Tyne Tees studio, now being used by artists).
15 August, 1330 Newcastle to Hartlepool, Northern Rail. Uh-oh – having to take one of those ubiquituous bus/train hybrids that the north of England is lumbered with. Once we’d shook, rattled and rolled past Sunderland, though, the rugged Durham coast opened up to our left as the skies began to clear.
My final stop-off – to see Charlton beat Hartlepool 2-0. We had a genuinely friendly welcome at Victoria Park, but the bonhomie wasn’t to continue….
15 August, 1755 Hartlepool to King’s Cross, Grand Central. A big old High Speed Train pulled into Hartlepool’s dilapated station for the final journey. Imaginatively done out inside, with board games on the tables, and reliable free wi-fi, this looked to be a decent ride home – despite the presence of plenty of boozed-up football fans. All went well until about three miles outside King’s Cross, when I started to move down the train to make a quick getaway (and to distance myself in case the police made themselves felt – an occupational hazard if you travel away to football matches.) I took two steps inside the end, first class compartment to gather my thoughts, only to get a filthy look from the attendant. Apparently I wasn’t even to set foot inside the entrance to first class. “You can use that exit there,” this patronising, marshmallow-faced jobsworth announced, ushering me back a few steps and closing a door for the three remaining minutes of the journey. Grand Central‘s a different sort of company- it doesn’t exist on government handouts and funds its train services itself. Private companies providing a better service? Oh no…
And therein lies the nub of this – travelling by train is still by far and away the best way to get around Great Britain. But the inconsistencies between private companies, the barely-disguised contempt for passengers, and a refusal to do much above the bare minimum can sully the experience. Unless someone bangs heads together, it isn’t going to improve any time soon.
A little postscript to this – when I published this post by accident early on Tuesday, I hoped to be able to use the free wi-fi on the train to Edinburgh to finish this off. Guess what? It was broken… good old National Express.