trains

Words Best Sung by Lee Stuart Evans

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Love, Trains and Rhythm & Blues the cover promises, and if like me that’s enough to hook you, you’ll love this novel. Set in the vicinity of Nottingham (except a few bits set in Skegness and London) in 1963-5 it captures an England on the cusp of change: the sixties are about to swing, skirts are getting shorter, and the trains are going diesel. And the teenaged Alastair Braymoor has just landed his dream job working on the local steam engines.

Like a modern offering from the Angry Young Men, Words Best Sung sits nicely alongside (and gives the occasional nod to) Billy Liar, A Kind of Loving and the like, though perhaps with a lighter overall tone. There’s excitement and romance, there are mods and rockers, friendships and copious amounts of beer. There’s also a good deal of fumbling and farting, but this is mainly a book about teenage boys so it’s only fair. In between silly voices and dangerous driving there are life lessons to be learnt, like the different ways you can love a girl and how reality doesn’t always live up to the dream. It’s got some great lines and I liked Alastair and his friends so I was rooting for them along the way.

My dad’s a steam train enthusiast and a fan of British R&B (being approximately the same vintage as Alastair), and I’ve absorbed a milder form of both those passions, so I happened to appreciate the musical references and the odd train detail but I don’t think it would ruin the experience if you didn’t (a bit like me enjoying This Sporting Life while knowing little and caring less about rugby). I normally have low tolerance for spelt-out accents (largely because of who they’re spelt for) but maybe Nottinghamshire and West Yorkshire are similar enough in their key sounds for me to read it all as expected, because I got used to it pretty quickly.

Lee Stuart Evans has long been a writer for well-known TV and radio comedy programmes but Words Best Sung is his first novel. I first heard about it from his article on No Writer Left Behind, which is worth a read in itself and also shows exactly where this novel sprang from. If ever there was a time to read a novel about good music and youthful foolishness, it’s this unusually hot, lazy summer – do yourself a favour and buy it.

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When winning might cost more than losing

I wrote a post a few months ago about cost being a barrier to pursuing writing beyond a hobby, and since Kit de Waal* tweeted a link to it (let’s just pause for a moment together to let that sink in) there’s been a surge of interest in it this weekend. It seemed like a superb moment to talk about two writing competitions I nearly didn’t enter this week because of the cost of the prize.

Train waiting to take us back to Ravenglass

Any excuse for a photo of a steam train and/or Cumbria

When I say the cost of the prize, I really mean the cost of train travel and accommodation. I’m not naming names because I don’t want to make them feel bad, it is after all my decision to enter and for everyone who lives closer to the area in question it isn’t a problem. However, both the competitions had definite kudos value, it would be quite a thing even to be longlisted, but both had some or all of the main prizes involving going somewhere to do a thing (course fees paid, or free festival tickets).

One was free to enter but shortlisted entrants are expected to ‘make every effort to attend’ the award ceremony, and while the first prize includes cash, second and third are writing courses/retreats which it would cost nearly as much to travel to as to pay for a similar course nearer to home. You will note that I haven’t just gone on a similar course nearer to home, because they cost a lot of money.

The other cost £2 to enter, not a high enough fee to discourage me in itself, but none of the prizes involve cash, first and second prizes are tickets to a festival which it would be great to go to, but train fare would cost a packet and then there’s the B&B as well. You do get plenty of warning though so at least you get a chance to book the cheapest train tickets. Shortlisted authors for this one are invited to a do, but it doesn’t sound like there’s any pressure to attend.

I ended up entering both, hoping for a place on the longlist (to point to with pride) but equally hoping that I didn’t win (or not the non-cash prizes, anyway), which seems ridiculous. It’s worth pointing out that I’m voluntarily in this position (having quit my job at the end of October after squirrelling away enough money in the preceding months to let us manage for a while on that and OneMonkey’s income) and not remotely what I’d call poor, but if I’m thinking twice about entering, how many talented writers are being put off altogether because they can’t afford to be shortlisted?

*Kit de Waal has spent time and money raising awareness and helping writers from disadvantaged backgrounds get a leg up. I had heard about the Birkbeck scholarship, but hadn’t read until yesterday this New Statesman article from last April. She also wrote for the Bridport Prize blog this week about the importance of entering writing competitions, acknowledging that it can get pretty expensive.

Budget airline luggage charges are nothing new

Researching something else entirely in local newspapers online, I was distracted by a legal case from August 1858. In the County Court at Keighley a Mr Busfeild was attempting to claw back his unfair fee from the Midland Railway after it had decreed that his child’s pram did not constitute ordinary luggage and therefore they had no obligation to carry it without charging him. The railway company did not dispute that the pram was within the size and weight limits they set out for luggage.

Busfeild v. The Midland Railway Company. Are Perambulators Luggage?

The judge retired to think about it, and his verdict was delivered the following day and reported under the headline above in The Leeds Mercury. He went around the houses a bit, and eventually decided that since luggage was ‘clothing and such articles as a traveller usually carries with him for his present convenience’, a pram was not luggage. The judge did not think that a family trip to the seaside ‘usually’ involved a pram and therefore the railway company were within their rights to charge an extra fee for carrying it. The general manager of the Midland Railway, a Mr Newcombe, claimed that if you started allowing prams as luggage, next thing people would be wanting small basket pony carriages on trains! With a slight updating of the specific items in question I can imagine spokesmen for budget airlines coming out with similar justifications today. Interesting to think they’re part of such a long tradition.

Northern Rail Odyssey part 3: East and North Yorkshire

Having a rover ticket instead of the usual brace of singles at fixed times was remarkably liberating (more so than I’d expected). There was one journey where I planned a fixed itinerary because the services are infrequent and we had particular places we needed to get to, but on the final day we weren’t even entirely sure where to go until we set off. It’s wonderful to be able to admit after half an hour that you’ve run out of things to do in this town, or it’s not to your taste, and march back up to the station just in time for a train to somewhere else. No putting a brave face on it, no tramping round getting colder and wetter as the clock ticks extra-slowly through the five hours to the train you’re booked on. Timetables permitting, you can follow a hunch, visit one landmark you’ve always been curious about, or just see where the line goes. If you find yourself chugging through a post-industrial wasteland, you can always read a book (when did every station acquire a neighbouring Tesco? Seamer has a Morrisons instead, which at least serves as a landmark. Hull and Workington, and no doubt various other places I’ve forgotten, present industrial estates to the inbound traveller for a couple of minutes prior to the station, which is hardly an enticement to disembark).

Thanks to the sunshine we plumped for a circuitous route to the East coast. OneMonkey misses the coast, and while nowhere else is quite like the North Tyneside of his youth, sometimes any stretch of sea will suffice to reinvigorate his soul. Rather than the usual Leeds to Scarborough and change, we opted for Leeds to Hull. We almost (almost) walked out of Hull station into the city itself, but the old ‘from Hell, Hull and Halifax may the Good Lord deliver us’ trumped the more recent winning of the UK city of culture bid, and we settled for changing trains and heading to Beverley (sorry Hull, maybe someday. Probably in 2017).

Beverley, which neither of us had visited before, is tiny (like a compressed York) and yet has 2 branches of Caffe Nero, which I found shocking (having said that, Leeds city centre has at least 3 in a similar sized patch). It also, rather marvellously, has a WHSmith bookshop (separate from the general WHSmith further down the street) next to its Oxfam bookshop, as though the people of Beverley are insatiable book-buyers, and the usual-sized book sections of newsagents or charity shops simply can’t cater for their needs.

vaulted ceiling, Beverley Minster

Beverley Minster

Beverley Minster was a revelation, I can’t believe we’ve never visited before (for a pair of unbelievers we spend a lot of our holidays visiting churches…) – light and airy, full of medieval carvings, and with the most welcoming bunch of guides (vicars? At least one was wearing a gown like an old-fashioned headmaster) who were happy to chat to us about the building and its history. Hexham Abbey (which was advertised here as another must-see destination on a church-lover’s tour of Saxon Northumbria) faded from my memory instantly as I stepped outside, but Beverley Minster will stay with me for a while I think, just as Wells cathedral has for over ten years.

Carving in Beverley Minster

Carving in Beverley Minster

From Beverley we headed north-east to Bridlington, a first for OneMonkey who wanted to visit simply because we were passing and it’s on the coast. I had it filed away in hazy childhood memories as a place of donkey rides and amusement arcades, in other words just another seaside town that probably looks a bit shabby on a Monday when the kids are still at school. It did look a bit shabby, and it smelt strongly of fish and seaweed, seemingly more so than any other coastal town I’ve visited. The strong breeze was blowing sand along the beach in interesting patterns, and there were clusters of gulls gathered here and there, but Bridlington was largely devoid of interest.

Bridlington beach

Bridlington

Filey was a good one to end on. Stuck firmly in some halcyon past that may not have existed outside this small North Yorkshire town, Filey should be prescribed to the stressed. It probably was, in the 1930s. It was surprisingly busy (more so than Brid), but the beach is big and flat enough for no-one to be within striking distance (and no-one’s dog to be a nuisance). There were fossils, rock pools, dangerous-looking cliffs, gentler sand-eddies than at Brid (and next to no gulls), and the constant roar and shush of the sea. Tired and happy at tea-time (though still a few hours from tea) we stood in the shed that purports to be Filey station, and started planning the next bout of rail-roving.

Northern Rail Odyssey part 2: the North East

We start the day with a look at the rail map and the weather forecast. Though it’s not bad with us, there are claims of heavy rain along the Tyne during the morning and we briefly wonder whether to change our plan. That would be a shame, I say – I quite fancied walking in the footsteps of OneMonkey’s Haltwhistle ancestors who moved to Hexham for a while before ending up in North Shields 150 years ago. He points to another circle on the rail map. You’ve got another strand of ancestors there, I say, so that’ll do. Or we could go there, he says, tracing his finger over the glossy paper. That’s ok, you have ancestors from there too. Exasperated, he asks where else we could go that some dead relative of his has already settled in, and I point to Windermere, Kendal, Whitby, Northallerton, Darlington, Sunderland, Newcastle. Oh yes, and Hull. Unlike me and my smallish swathe of Yorkshire, you don’t have to go far back in OneMonkey’s family tree to get pins in a map all over the North. He looks at the map for a moment. We stick with our original journey.

By the time we arrive in Hexham the worst of the rain is over, though evidence of its earlier ferocity is abundant. This is particularly true in the park, where some kind of Spring fair is underway. We join hosts of other determined souls in wellies and walking boots, wax jackets, cagoules and parkas, and trudge round dripping stalls selling candles and stained glass, jewellery, local cheese. There are human traffic jams on the paths as despite the boots, no-one quite wants to squelch onto the churned-up grass to get by. Small children plod up and down a fifty-yard stretch, perched on placid ponies. I feel mildly guilty for not buying anything as the stallholders are clearly cold and wet, but I tell myself we could come back after we’ve been round the abbey (we don’t).

Door at Hexham Abbey

Hexham abbey

Hexham is the sort of small town that’s dotted with art galleries, and before we even reach the town proper from the station we’re lured into a couple. One is the sort that’s nice to look at but is all original canvases for hundreds or thousands of pounds. Unfortunately, though there’s no indication from outside it turns out to be the artist’s house, and we spend a strained ten minutes making smalltalk (something neither of us is good at. Remember, we both have physics degrees) before sneaking out as soon as he leaves the room to attend to his jazz CD. The second is a mixture of originals, prints, cards, sculptures, glass paperweights. This one contains an artist too, but he doesn’t seem to have invited us into his house (though he may live upstairs for all I know) and not everything on show is his own work. I feel I can mutter criticism to OneMonkey about the odd modern canvas. There are paintings of the ghosts of shipyard workers streaming through the streets of Wallsend (another OneMonkey family connection) which I particularly like, and we dive back in an hour later so I can buy a card of one on the way to not quite missing the train.

Strung out between Newcastle and Carlisle, this train line is like stepping through a door to the countryside. A sudden hop from the Metro Centre surrounded by Primark bags and young couples, to being sandwiched between the river and a stretch of fields, and the further along the valley we travel the more remote from city life it feels. As we venture slowly through some remote cutting I look at the violets and primroses dotting the embankment. Elsewhere there are great walls of orangey-yellow gorse, but due to the non-opening windows on this train I have to imagine the soft coconut smell that this weak sunshine might be coaxing forth. I also imagine (though of course don’t see) kingfishers diving in this stretch of South Tyne, and drink in the colours of the woodland, spot the half-hidden waterfalls. It makes me wonder why OneMonkey’s ancestors would want to leave.

Haltwhistle is closed when we get there. Possibly everyone has decamped to Hexham for the Spring fair. A walk to Hadrian’s Wall is suggested and dismissed, as we don’t want the possibility of missing the train – we’re more than a couple of miles away from the wall at this point. That leaves a visit to OneMonkey’s ancestors, in a churchyard that seems to grow as we walk through it, and then we race back down to the deserted station. I thought Haltwhistle was supposed to be the centre of Britain, I say as the train putters into view. You’d think they’d have a plaque or something. OneMonkey looks at me – you were stood on it, he says, remember when we looked at the map to see where the church was? Oh, I say. Maybe I should have taken a photo.

Haltwhistle Holy Cross church

Haltwhistle Holy Cross church

Northern Rail Odyssey part 1: The West Cumbrian Coast

Most of the way from Carnforth to Maryport, the train line is never far from water. At the southern end, around Arnside and Grange-over-sands it’s all flat fractured fields, land and sea tangled together with grassy spits, and muddy fingers of water encroaching in each other’s element. Further up, there are wild rocks, crashing waves, and rows of regimented black seabirds that I’m fairly sure are cormorants. There are pebbled beaches, harbours and marinas, working coast, leisure coast, deserted coast. I could spend days travelling up and down that line in rain, sun and mist to see how different it looks. I may, someday.

Coast between Carnforth and Ravenglass

Between Carnforth and Ravenglass

This time, however, we stopped off at Ravenglass, where 3 rivers drain into the sea and the MOD does artillery tests (don’t go on the beach when the red flag’s flying…). It’s famous for its narrow-gauge railway, which used to carry ore to the sea and now carries walkers, rail enthusiasts and excited children the seven miles between Ravenglass and Boot. OneMonkey was bemused by my eagerness to venture on a small steam train with proportionate carriages, but while I wouldn’t say he was converted by the time we’d been to the other end of the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway, he did concede that it was a nice way to see the countryside. You clatter through woodland, past sheep, cows and pheasants, and unfold yourself from the miniature carriage into one of the most peaceful and picturesque valleys I’ve ever seen. Being hemmed in by the towering fells, then returning to the wide, flat estuary at Ravenglass is quite a contrast. We couldn’t spend long in Eskdale, however, as the nature of a whistlestop tour is that you don’t have long anywhere, just enough to form an impression, soak up some vibes, and leg it back to a station.

Walking towards Boot from Dalegarth station

Walking towards Boot from Dalegarth station

Steam train in woodland

Ravenglass and Eskdale railway

One thing I hadn’t come across in a while, which featured on both the steam railway and the main line, was request stops. Because our tickets didn’t specify a destination, every time we boarded a train on the coast line and showed our tickets, the conductor asked where we were heading, and as it happened we only used the scheduled stations. It made me wonder how request stops work the other way (when you’re on the platform and want the train to pick you up). Do you stick your hand out as though it was a bus (how long does it take a train to brake to a halt)? Or is there some more sophisticated system involving the signalman’s phone? I never asked, in case of mundanity – I prefer to picture walkers on remote platforms hopping up and down waving scarves like demented football fans, desperate not to be left for the night.

On any jaunt that doesn’t qualify as a city-break there is the perennial problem of where does a vegetarian eat in this small town/even smaller village. There are three home-made varieties of Cumberland sausage, lamb this, beef that. All very traditional and fitting to the surroundings, but the death of a pet lamb thirty years ago (marauding badger) turned me off the idea of eating sheep, and gradually I relinquished as food all the remaining animals I ate but was fond of(by which I mean pigs and cows, in that order. Chickens, vile, vicious pecking creatures, I still ate occasionally for a further ten years). I would always prefer to eat in a country pub or independent cafe (I was genuinely disappointed to notice Wetherspoons, Costa, Subway in Whitehaven) but they don’t always want to encourage me. It was a delightful surprise to find the Ratty Arms at Ravenglass (right on the railway platform, though no trains went past while we were eating) had an actual selection of vegetarian meals. Cue crippling indecision, naturally, but when I did make up my mind I had a most enjoyable dinner (shame about the beer – where’s a Jennings pub when you want one?).

Boats at Ravenglass

On the beach at Ravenglass

Old building on Whitehaven harbour

Whitehaven harbour

As a complete contrast to the tiny laid-back estuary-nestling village of Ravenglass, the following morning we chugged up the coast to Whitehaven. OneMonkey was looking through the opposite window, and missed the blot on the landscape that is Sellafield – if you do that, simply turn your back on it, you can remain immersed in coastal beauty and you need never know it’s there. There’s a definite inkling as you push north on the coastal line that this is Cumbria, not the Lake District – a little less loved, a little less visited (though clearly we were visiting, and I have loved these places since childhood). Whitehaven, from one angle, is a colourful Georgian port with a busy harbour and bustling shops. From another, it’s one more northern town that got left behind, faded grandeur fronted with bingo halls, and a boarded-up art deco bus station. I hadn’t been to Whitehaven for at least eighteen years and I was disappointed not to recognise anything much, whereas every time I go to Carlisle (not very often, and it’s a place I’ve visited much less than Whitehaven) there’s a certain corner I turn and get hit with overlayed locational memories of a whole stack of years at once. Then we walked near the multi-storey car park just as a gull screeched nearby, and I could feel the smooth bricks on the car park stairwell and my dad’s huge hand around mine, and I was peppered with childhood memories. Thinking about it, I do associate the sound of the seabirds with Whitehaven, more than anywhere else – having visited a few other coastal towns and villages on this trip, they do all sound (and smell) different.

Finally, a quick stop in Maryport, where the rain that was a nuisance in Whitehaven became a stinging impenetrable curtain, and we abandoned all plans. If Whitehaven got left behind, what can you say about Maryport? It has the longest row of independent shops I’ve seen in years, and has barely changed since my last visit (again, at least eighteen years ago) but I’m not sure everyone would see that as a good thing. It mostly felt empty, though that could just have been the rain, the only signs of life a huddled figure leaping from the chip shop to a waiting car.

Northern English Journey

My recent whistlestop tour of Northern England by train put me in mind of the wonderful English Journey by JB Priestley. Modesty (and indeed accuracy) forbids me from making a direct comparison between that book and any humble scribblings of my own, though I’m sure I’m equally liable to offend some residents (never intentionally).

Platform one sign, Carnforth station

What have I learnt? Not much, probably. Don’t rely on dry weather to the west of the Pennines (but really I knew that already). Not all staffed stations have toilets, so even if you find the swaying and jolting of the train off-putting, you might not have much alternative – go easy on the flask of tea.

What have I seen? Loads, and I’ll try and share a bit of it with you over the next week or so.

Starting in West Yorkshire, over the course of a week or so I visited Lancashire, Cumbria, Northumbria, East and North Yorkshire, and passed through Tyne and Wear and County Durham. I revisited childhood haunts and went to places I’d never been before. I stood at the East and West coasts in a variety of weather and mused on the difference of beaches. I watched from train windows as we skirted rivers, estuaries and the sea, seeming to hang over the water – there’s a couple of places I wouldn’t fancy travelling on a windy winter day.

If there’s going to be a Northern Powerhouse (which I picture at the moment as a sort of Heath Robinson generator contraption in a tumbledown stone barn on a moor) and it’s going to be based in Manchester (which I’m sure in Westminster minds is as solidly Northern as you can get, but dismissed as ‘the Midlands at best’ by Geordie OneMonkey, and even I see it as borderline North) then the rail rules will have to change: Northern Rail’s North Country Rover ticket doesn’t allow travel to Manchester. Too far south.