As I was walking down to Central Station last Friday, to catch a train for yet another trip to London, it occurred to me that I’ve given overseas train travel a lot more attention on this blog than I have to our home-grown railways.  So I decided there and then to post some kind of record of my journey to the capital - a journey I’ve made countless times over the years and with every inch of which I am affectionately familiar.  Mostly.

I’ve always felt an almost personal sense of disappointment with the recent development work at Central Station.  Although it was a sensational idea to ‘glass-in’ the portico, the resulting space is wasted on a couple of coffee outlets, a florist and some ticket machines.

Newcastle lies at the hub of the birth and development of railways.  So why no public art in the ‘new’ portico to mark its importance?  Why no themed design on its flagstones or artwork on its magnificent glass arches?  And why no fountain on the large wasted space that’s been created immediately east of the portico?


The security gate I jousted with was a much more formidable barrier than was strictly necessary.  As I passed through, its powerful and unforgiving jaws closed on the suitcase I was trundling behind me and refused to release it.  I had to summon a ‘platform customer comfort and safety assistant’ (or whatever title they labour under these days) to set me free.  She told me that this kind of thing happens all the time; ‘we’ve asked for a software update’.

My train was due to leave from platform 3 and, sure enough, there was a train waiting there.   Being a sensible kind of fellow, though, I checked the platform train indicator - just to make sure that, if I boarded it, I wouldn’t end up in Plymouth or Reading or somewhere equally as unsettling.

The indicator, though, told me that the train was in quarantine or something, even though there were clearly people on it.  ‘This Train is Not in Service. Do Not Board This Train’.  So I didn’t - along with several other people milling about on the platform.

Eventually I plucked up the courage to seek enlightenment from a bored-looking man wearing a Virgin Trains East Coast uniform.  ‘Yes’ he said, ‘this is the 1225 to London.‘ 

‘That’s not what the train indicator says.’

‘Just ignore that’ he said.  I asked him if he was absolutely sure and his wordless look - an unhappy mixture of frustration, anger and enforced ‘customer-service’ politeness - convinced me not to pursue the matter further.  I did however venture to suggest that the train indicator might also need a ‘software update’.

Just looking at the trains makes me seethe uncontrollably.  The company has found the money to repaint the entire East Coast train stock in its Virgin livery...

...but hasn’t been able to afford any improvements once you get inside.

No refurbishment here.  Just the same old weirdly uncomfortable, worn out seats from decades ago packed in so tightly that some people don’t even get a window to look out of.

As we pulled away and over the Tyne, the ‘customer catering, refreshment and pleasure manager’ announced that drinks, snacks, sandwiches and (for all I know) casual sex were available in Coach Haitch, thus setting my pedantic teeth on edge by ignoring one of the language’s two most obvious firetraps.  Namely, that H is pronounced without an H.  (The other is that pronunciation is not pronounced pronounciation.)

 The Angel waves goodbye.  See it?

 Durham City.  
I used to think that this was one of the finest views you could get from a British train.  
But I was wrong.  It is THE finest view...

Durham is not a county of noble mediaeval church spires.  Chester-le-Street has a good one but I was too late with my camera.  This is a good one too - it’s St Cuthbert’s, Darlington.

(Lincolnshire, on the other hand, has a splendid collection of ancient spires.  Next time you’re on a southbound train, look out for the graceful, soaring and delicate spire at Newark (on the right) and at Grantham (on the left).  One of England’s most beautiful parish churches - at Claypole - graces the view from the train window just south of Newark.)

Between Darlington and Northallerton, the ‘train cleaning, tidying and rubbish disposal operative’ passed through the carriage.  Emblazoned on the back of his jacket - in big white letters - were the words COMMITTED TO ENHANCE YOUR EXPERIENCE, a phrase with no actual meaning whatsoever. 
These 'Heath Robinson' instructions are a diverting feature of Virgin East Coast train toilets.  Once you're inside, they tell you how to lock the door - in 5 easy steps.
Notice that:  
1 - They don't tell you how to unlock the door
2 - They are helpfully printed in English only; God only knows how many head-scratching tourists have been caught with their pants down (as it were)
3 - 'Continuously' is mis-spelled

The cleaner's job obviously excluded enhancing our experience of the carriage’s toilet, which didn’t work.  It stank.  European trains have aircraft-style toilets which empty by suction rather than gravity.  I guess that Virgin Trains East Coast, having disbursed so much money on repainting the carriage exteriors, had no more money to bring the toilets into the 21st century.  The poor cleaner may be committed to enhancing our experience but the company itself is not.

If you can be bothered to look very, very closely indeed at the low-lying range of grey hills in the distance, you may be able to make out a small shape near the top of one of them - it's just about in the centre of the photo.  This is the Kilburn White Horse, a few miles east of Thirsk.  I’ve seen it several hundred times on my road and rail trips to and from the north-east and this is the first photograph I have EVER taken of it.

By the way, I think that we should all offer up a prayer of thanks to the Cleveland Hills and North York Moors; they hide Teesside safely out of sight.
York Minster is England’s largest ancient cathedral - but Durham’s magnificence dwarfs it.  Much further down the line, the glories of Peterborough Cathedral are completely lost on railway travellers - although it's not far from the line, it’s hidden by modern developments like shopping centres, office blocks and car parks.

Poor Peterborough; it was recently assessed as having the worst public transport in all of western Europe.

And so to London...

I’ve been quite vituperative about King’s Cross in the past.  Now, though, it’s been transformed into a showpiece of modern station design - worth a trip to London in its own right!
The clock in the central tower was taken from the Crystal Palace when it was moved after the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The sculpture is by Henry Moore and is called Clunky Writhing Torso With Hole Number 3.
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1 comment:

Bentonbag said...

The portico at Newcastle was specifically designed for carriages to drop off and pick up their well heeled occupants, and it was excellent for taxi drop offs too. Sheltering passangers, customers and drivers from the wind, rand, snow and whatever the NorthEast weather chooses to throw at us. Now it's all out in the open and much worse for all concerned. For the sake of a couple of ticket machines.
Have you noticed what they've done with the ticket office?
When I first arrived in Newcastle (1975) it was immediately on your right as you walked inside the station. Nice big desk and men with timetable books the size of old bibles. You can see where it's bricked up if you look.
Then they shifted it into that awful anachronistic glass house (which is now shops)with poor souls like bank clerks behind glass and reliant on computer screens.
Now it's right down the far end of the station, almost in Blaydon, which you need a map and a jungle guide to get to. I know they want everyone to book online but some of us have questions and want to speak to a human being.