How not to run a railway


(Tweeted image of the interior of the Good Friday Paddington to Penzance train)

Last August we had a very enjoyable holiday in Bavaria. On our final day, we turned up at Fussen station for the train to Munich airport and found there had been a mechanical problem and it was cancelled.

What happened next was revealing. Within half an hour, a coach had arrived to take us to an intervening station. Despite our limited German, we were kept well informed of the situation. The coach was admittedly a little crowded but everyone was good humoured, particularly the guys enjoying a few beers on the back seat.

On our replacement train, there was air conditioning, which we appreciated as it was 37C outside. There were plenty of seats and the staff were pleasant, even telling us that an alternative coach would be cooler and more comfortable. We caught our flight in plenty of time.

By contrast, last Friday (the first day of a four-day bank holiday Easter weekend), the inappropriately named Great Western Railway saw fit to put a two-coach train to Penzance on the 10.00am run from Paddington, London. People who had reserved seats – exactly what they had been advised to do – were physically unable to reach and claim them because the train was so overcrowded that people were standing, or even lying, on every square inch of floor space. A pregnant woman was unable to get to the toilet. The staff were apparently nowhere to be seen, although I do remember reading a few months ago that GWR staff were threatening strike action to protest against trains being run without guards and ticket inspectors. Looks as if they lost that argument.

For those unfamiliar with British geography, this is a journey that takes five and a half hours. By the time the train reached Plymouth, somebody had figured out that it might be a good idea to lay on a bigger alternative train. Unfortunately, they hadn’t told the passengers. The station platforms became dangerously overcrowded and the British Transport Police had to be called to escort people off the train, where they waited an hour for a replacement.

Just as well there aren’t any international airports in Cornwall. If you were planning to fly from Newquay to the Isles of Scilly for Easter, tough luck.

The worst thing about this story is that it’s not at all surprising. My hubby and I are walking the South West Peninsula Coast Path, all 630 miles of it, as a ten-year project. We have always made the journey down from Manchester and back by public transport. (Cornwall, by the way, doesn’t have a single mile of motorway, and many of its coastal beauty spots are down single track roads, for those smugly asking why these people didn’t just drive there).

We’ve never had an experience quite as unpleasant as that experienced by the unfortunate travellers on Good Friday, but it always seems to baffle GWR that people going to one of the most remote and beautiful parts of England for a holiday might have small children and luggage. Provisions for either consist of squatting in the disabled space and hoping nobody with a wheelchair tries to get on (good luck with that), or sitting on your suitcase in the corridor for hours, or putting a dangerously large piece of luggage on an overhead rack and praying nobody gets killed if it falls off. We have also learned to travel with ample food and water because if there is a refreshment trolley, it will probably be confined to a single carriage and you’ll only be able to reach it by getting off at a station and sprinting to wherever that happens to be.

Neo-liberals would say that if so many people want to go from London to Cornwall on a Bank Holiday weekend, it makes sense just to charge a lot for it. Well, for the journey described above you’ll pay around £125.00 minimum return per person. That’s hardly cheap. You’ll be charged extra to reserve a seat, and if someone is sitting in it when you board the train there will be nobody around to tell them to move, so expect some dirty looks or guilt tripping if they already have two toddlers on their lap.

If train companies really can’t increase capacity on popular routes, then for heavens’ sake, can’t they behave more like airlines? By all means charge people a lot of money, but for that, at the very least, they deserve a guaranteed seat, somewhere to put their luggage, and access to refreshments and a toilet on a lengthy journey.

I’m addicted to Cornwall and I work in a school so I probably have a few more crowded journeys ahead of me. (By the way, parents in England can be prosecuted and fined £60 a day per child if they take them out of school to go on holiday). But I can see why people might go for Germany instead.

As for the Germans, and anyone else from overseas, one look at this picture and we probably won’t need to have a Euro-referendum in June. They’ll be happy to leave us well alone. Particularly if you reflect on the possibility of a terrorist managing to leave a bag in such a situation.



My heart aches for Cornwall and Devon right now

Storm damage at Dawlish, South Devon (BBC photo)
Storm damage at Dawlish, South Devon (BBC photo)

It breaks my heart to see the horrendous storm damage to the South West of England this week. Of all the regions of my native country, it’s the one I love most, and crossing over the Saltash Bridge from Devon into Cornwall gives me a thrill that never abates. The line at Dawlish that has just been swept away holds particularly special memories for me. The first holiday that my husband of 26 years and I took together was a trip to Penwith and the Isles of Scilly in 1984. We took the night train from Manchester to Penzance – an adventure in itself at the time – and I remember waking at 4.00 am to look out of the window and discover, with a thrill of joy and anticipation, that we were literally travelling along the Devon coast. That line, built by Brunel in the 1840s has always been a marvel of engineering, defying the elements, linking the far west of England with London. Now it has gone.

The South West in general, and Cornwall in particular, is a world apart. That is what draws so many people there for relaxation and adventure, but it is also a vulnerability that leaves them economically fragile. I was concerned on our last trip to the region to discover that the Isles of Scilly no longer has a direct air link with Penzance. Beautiful though it is, the tiny population of Scilly is one of the most economically deprived in Britain, and having to travel the 32 miles to a halfway-decent shopping centre via Newquay puts an unfair burden on them. Such cuts in infrastructure are increasing the impoverishment of an isolated region where many local people can already barely find a decent place to live and secure year-round work.

For the last five years DH and I have been walking the entire South West Peninsula Coast Path; a monumental trek of 630 miles, including a combined ascent three times the height of Everest. We are just over halfway through, with our ninth campaign planned for early summer. During that time we have always travelled down from our home in Manchester by train and used local transport to get around. We have stayed in a variety of hotels and B&Bs, most of them delightful and memorable. I wonder if all of them will survive to welcome guests into the 2014 season.

Ultimately our goal has always been to retire to the region. Like many others, no doubt, recent events may cause us to rethink those plans. With ageing and decreasing mobility to consider, finding the right property has been a balance between the delights of living right on the sea coast and the relative safety of an inland home, which in most cases will be up a hill steep enough to isolate an elderly person. Much as I love the high street at Lyme Regis, I shudder to think of the practicalities of getting down it and back on a frosty winter morning without falling and breaking an oseteoporotic bone or two. So the attractions of a coastal home are not simply aesthetic.

About two years ago, on a glorious September evening, we walked into Kingsand, the first village west of Plymouth, and fell hopelessly in love. We made enquiries about the local community and felt that this could be the right place for us, regardless of our earlier decision that Cornwall was too remote and isolated. Now the lovely little village hall with its iconic clock tower is on the verge of collapse. And if we’d been able or willing to find the £750,000 for our dream house, we’d probably now be pumping out the cellar. With the present weather, even your own private smugglers passage direct to the beach is a mixed blessing.

Our Enid Blyton vision may be faced with the cold winds of reality and common sense, but our problems are nothing to those faced by those who live and work in the beautiful South West counties. When we return – hopefully by train – next Whitsuntide, I can only hope that the path, and the hotels we have booked, will still be there to welcome us. I have a Cornish ancestry that stretches back to the early 19th Century. I’m taking this personally. My thoughts are with you all.

Who Will Buy this Wonderful Feeling?

Vault Beach near Gorran Haven The pathway lead...
Vault Beach near Gorran Haven The pathway leading down to Vault Beach, south west of the village of Gorran Haven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I have a desperate need to be alone. I’m an introvert and the last couple of weeks have been enjoyable but challenging. We have climbed Pendle Hill, attended a family funeral, walked 50 miles or so of Cornish coastline, returned a son to college, and celebrated a daughter’s 18th birthday. In addition, I’ve issued hundreds of books in one of my busiest-ever weeks at work.

Home life has been dominated by seemingly endless piles of laundry as people come and go. We are now on the final push of hands-on parenting, as our younger child prepares for A Levels and hopefully university admission in the autumn, a path our son has already trodden with fulfilment and success. It’s a time to be thankful, and proud of both of them, but also to reflect on how very different life will shortly be. This hit me very powerfully yesterday, a day that began with taking my son to the bus station and ended with Becky’s birthday meal at a flamboyant Teppanyaki restaurant. Tom and I discussed music on our drive into town and I realised how much I’d miss him. He’s matured into a truly worthwhile person – they both have. One thing I never envisaged when they were tiny was a world where we’d use Spotify to keep in touch.

Our few days in Cornwall were our tenth trip down to the South West of England in the last four years as we proceed along the immense (but also immensely rewarding) SW Peninsula Coast Path – all 630 miles of it. Our next trip will take us to the halfway point, somewhere between Coverack and Helford. Every time we go it feels more like home, and once J retires we hope to relocate down there. Each journey takes us further westward and is a slightly bigger commitment – our return from Truro on Monday took over six hours. Sometimes the trains are so crowded with people and luggage that you can’t even buy a cup of coffee without getting off at a station and back on further up – and then you’re stuck away from your home space until the next stop. The inability of British railway companies to invest in adequate rolling stock on their busiest holiday routes is a source of never-ending bafflement to me. Nevertheless, we have stuck to our original commitment to use public transport throughout.

The first day was the hardest of the latest trip – because of the funeral, three days walking were telescoped into one exhausting 14 mile trek including around 3,000 feet of ascent. We arrived in the tiny village of Gorran Haven around eight o’clock and if the kind Lancashire couple at our B&B hadn’t taken pity on us we’d have been reduced to dining on cereal bars in our room, since the local chip shop was changing his cooking oil and the nearest pub, for some unspecified reason, didn’t feel like serving meals. (The next evening, in a settlement of a similar size, we had to wait hours to eat because the local inn was packed). Such things are fairly typical of rural Cornwall, even in the Easter holiday week. There is always an element of unpredictability, but at least we only got soaked on one occasion. Mostly the weather was a great deal better than forecast, and the mornings, dominated by the unforgettable contrast of bright golden broom against deep cobalt sky, were some of the most glorious walking we’d ever experienced.

Coast path walking is deeply addictive. It has always been my personal definition of perfect happiness. It can be very physically demanding, involving constant ascent and descent on rough ground, exposure to terrible weather, exhaustion and occasional hunger – not to mention the desperation of arriving, spent, in a remote hamlet and wandering for ages before you locate your bed for the night. And all this is doing it the easy way, with luggage transfers and hotel accommodation. Many people camp and backpack, which takes a degree of fortitude I feel a bit too elderly to contemplate. Nevertheless, I never seem to suffer from depression or anxiety when I’m out doing it. I have developed coping strategies for everything from blisters to irritable bowel syndrome miles from a loo. In fact, my ability to cope with the exigencies of the path never ceases to amaze me.

By contrast, at home I’ve spent an adult life suffering from chronic depression and anxiety, sometimes severe enough to render me completely helpless. I am presently struggling to get off  Fluoxetine after 20 years. It’s strange, because I’m not actually unhappy. On the contrary, I have an enviable life and I’m deeply thankful for it. Marriage, kids, job, house, garden, are all as I’d want them to be. (Health is another matter and the cat drives me mental, but you can’t have everything).

So it would seem that my mental distress is environmental, which raises the interesting question of whether it would recur if I actually lived in a rural community near the sea. I’m under no illusions – you can’t survive happily in such places without a pretty high degree of interaction with your neighbours. Walking, and sunlight, is known to be therapeutic, and the nearest I can come to an answer is that I think it’s the multiplicity of conflicting demands on my energy that I find so wearing at home. I can reach the point where even a well-meant, friendly e-mail seems like too much of an intrusion at times. But whatever I experience in Cornwall, I wish I could bottle it. As Lionel Bart wrote:

Who will buy this wonderful morning?

Such a sky you never did see!

Who will tie it up with a ribbon, and put it in a box for me?

So I could see it at my leisure,

Whenever things go wrong,

And I would keep it as a treasure,

To last my whole life long….