Exactly a year ago I set myself a challenge. The plan was to visit every town on my NRM Railway posters Calendar. Those who know me won't be that surprised that I failed. By the 30th of December I had visited exactly none of the places. So with one day to go, I made a dash for Chester.
The trip involved 35 quid and 2 changes of train but at least I'd have achieved one goal. That and I've been off work between Christmas and New Year so I needed to get out and about a bit to ease the effects of close proximity to chocolate. Even the weather seemed to be on my side.
First stop was Birmingham which is easy enough. A quick walk from Moor Street to New Street and on the departure board leaving in under 5 minutes was a train to Crewe, my next stop. This left me with a dilemma, I could make progress or catch the next train while purchasing my preferred travelling fare, vis a muffin from the Millie Cookies beside the ticket barrier and some soft drink. (Note: Other muffin outlets are available but for some strange reason they just don't seem to taste as good). Abstemiousness won and a few minutes later, after a search for the mysterious hidden platform 4C, I was on an electric train that made noises last heard emanating from the BBC Radiographic workshop in the 1960's.
Fear not dear reader, I did not starve. On the train I was able to fill up on a chocolate orange muffin notable for it's unworldly colour. To be honest if you sat in front of it for long enough you'd get a suntan. I own an orange colour car and even that isn't this orange. It probably doesn't taste as nice as this did either.
The trolley operator was surprised when I purchased my food. She'd obviously spent the day dragging the thing up and down a quiet train and from the look of the stock my travelling companions weren't hungry. Mind you, the only other people in the coach were a couple who seemed to be studying closely the Daily Mail which was proclaiming that dissatisfaction with rubbish collections was resulting in 3 attacks on bin men every day. Presumably the writers of the paper though this was a good thing as they sat in a warm office in front of a computer having arrived at their desk some time after 9am. Later the couple turned to the Telegraph and the husband took great delight in reading items from the letters page agreeing with the Chinese Governments deployment of the death penalty.
Crewe is a station with a small town attached. Until 1831 it was a village with only 70 residents, then the Grand Junction Railway decided that it would be a nice spot for an engine works and station. Even today the station is impressive in a ramshackle kind of way. The low winter sun made for some spectacular photographic possibilities and I think I took what is possibly my best railway photo ever.
Of course Crewe station is home to the much maligned train spotter. Even on a cold New Years Eve there will still a dozen of so men in their late middle age and hearty outdoor clothing hanging around the platform ends watching trains. I feel a bit sorry for them - not only does the general population and mass media stigmatise their hobby as being worse than terrorism and mass murder, the railway have let them down. Once upon a time trains were made up of coaches with a locomotive at the front. Nowadays the coaches have engines and all look the same. On this one day though, with the sun shining, the trainspotters got a gift - into platform 10 (I think, Crewe is a bit of a maze) came 3 engines, being moved around for something technical to happen. 3 in one train ! You could see the faces light up.
More photos of Crewe.
I seemed to be one of the few heading to Chester. The train was quiet again although at one end of the coach there was a lady with one of those wheely suitcases who insisted on standing up with it in the aisle rather than availing herself of the many comfy seats available. From the way she clung on grimly to her luggage I assume that she was moving the crown jewels...
Chester starts with a huge railway station. The frontage is enormous - it's far too wide for my camera and even a decent panoramic outfit would struggle. The signposts point two ways into the city centre and I took the one that lead over the canal and past the slightly over restored Steam Mill. Once this will have made something useful but now it's a multipurpose nightclub and small business venue with what appears to be a greenhouse placed very tastefully on to. It's a very handsome building and rather more industrial than I'd expected to find in a historic Roman town.
Once into the city centre there was another surprise. It shouldn't have been of course as even the most cursory research (or looking things up on Wikipedia) would have forewarned me about the Rows. Chester's shops are a curious and unique design with two floors of frontage. The top row is set slightly back from the front and has a walkway along it. Therefore to see any street properly you need to make 4 passes, 2 at ground level and 2 at the first floor. On a rainy day I can see the upper levels doing good business as people shelter from the weather. Even those buildings that have been re-built maintain the design. Most of the structures are black and white wooden but there are a few that date from the 1960's and later yet have been incorporated into the frontage sympathetically.
Another rarity are the city walls. For the casual visitor a quick nip along them allows you to loop from one area of town to another without retracing your steps. They afford excellent views of the cathedral and surrounding area. Some bookshops have even taken up residence along side them. In fact one of the joys is wandering as there are so many side streets and little alleyways to explore. Knowing I was tight for time I didn't had to pass many of these by but a weekend would be more appropriate to do the place justice. A complete circumnavigation by walking the walls ought to take a couple of hours, although this isn't possible at present due to a collapse earlier this year. At present repairs are being made but the archaeologists are taking the opportunity to find out more about the construction while access is available. Things should be back to normal by summer 2010 though.
Chester doesn't stand still though. A major re-working of the town cetre is planned, in fact the tower cranes are already looming. One casualty would appear to be the indoor market. Always a fan of these, this isn't one of the best but it has atmosphere, a lot of variety and a Christmas display that left the song "Rudolph the Red Nose Raindeer" rattling around my head for the next couple of hours...
My train home left in a different direction from the way I'd arrived which was exciting as that means a trip through Wales via Wrexham, Ruabon and Gobowen. This last stop is somewhere I've been before. For the leisure train traveller it represents the furthest west you can go on a West Midlands ranger ticket - any further and the network is Welsh (Gobowen is in Shropshire) and you'll need a different ticket sir. Sadly although the station is intact, the enormous coal conveyer and sorting system that delighted those of a mechanical bent is long gone and replaced by an icy puddle of a car park.
On the train, half the passengers were Arriva trains staff who told "war stories" to each other. One recent tale involved a passenger who was unhappy that people kept checking her ticket. She refused to show it to the guard on the grounds that he'd seen it several times already. As told the man said, "The more she protested, the more determined I was to see this ticket" and his comrades nodded in ageement, doubtless all with simialr stores to tell. Not all end quite the same way though. Eventually the woman reaslised that she hadn't show this guard her ticket after all because, "The last person I showed it to was a female." and promtly produced said item.
The trip through Wales was beautiful, or at least world have been if Arriva ever cleaned thier trains. If you are going to paint the coaches silver, get a system to wash them as they look terrible when covered in muck. Worse, from the effect from inside of a glorious sunset over snow topped hills was slightly lessened by all the mud on the windows.
More Chester Photos.
So I made one destination and thoroughly enjoyed it. Let's hope 2010 works better !