Saturday 8 December 2007

The romance of the railway (and the replacement bus)

I’m off to Norfolk for a week’s holiday. Great, said the only avowed reader of this stuff, you’ll be able to provide a daily postcard on your blog. Well I would, I said, but what would happen if my readers turned out to include, say, a notorious Tyneside housebreaker?

Good point, my friend conceded. He’d watched a chat show once where a comic asked a rather pompous actor where he lived. “Weybridge,” said the actor. “Oh yes,” said the comedian, “I know it well. In fact, my brother’s working there tonight. [Pause for maximum comic impact.] He’s a burglar!” The actor apparently blanched. But then he might just have been acting.

Note to notorious Tyneside housebreakers: non-appearances of this blog are highly unlikely to be the result of my absence from home, which frankly hardly ever happens. In fact, they’re almost certainly because I am lying face-down on the sofa feeling vaguely sorry for myself in the short intervals between sharpening my huge collection of offensive weapons.

I went to Norfolk on the train from King’s Cross to King’s Lynn, which had a nice symmetry to it from the viewpoint of a diehard royalist. The train had two lavatories. These could be distinguished by the fact that one had an “Out of Order” notice slapped on the door, while the other was just permanently locked. I was sitting with my legs crossed, calculating whether I could hold out for the remaining 20 minutes of the journey, when the driver announced that owing to “a fatality on the line”, the train would be “terminating” at Downham Market, wherever that is. Bloody marvellous. The Harrow & Wealdstone train crash of 8 October 1952 involved three trains and killed 112 people, yet they had two of the four lines through the station open again for the following morning’s rush hour. Now it would be cordoned off as a “crime scene” for at least a month. No, make that three months.

Luckily, as I am the last off the train because I’d paid extra to go first class, I am able to stand around in the pissing rain in the car park for long enough to strike up a conversation with the station staff, and establish that there is in fact a gents on the platform, though there is no sign drawing attention to its presence, presumably as a safeguard against vandals. I get back from it just in time to limp aboard the bus that is going to travel to King’s Lynn via the intermediate station of Watlington. This will, I am warned, add rather considerably to my journey time.

But lucky old me. I’d wanted to visit Watlington since 1994, when I read Lisa St Aubin de Teran’s “Off the Rails”. She lived in a castle nearby, and made Watlington sound like one of the world’s most romantic stations (admittedly helped by the fact that it then traded under the rather more unusual and appealing name of Magdalen Road).

After a prolonged mystery tour through the bleak, wet flatlands of the Norfolk Fens, all I can say is that Ms St Aubin de Teran is a much more brilliant writer than I had previously appreciated.

My aunt and Border terrier pick me up when I finally get to King’s Lynn, and take me to the north Norfolk hotel where we are having a family Christmas meal to take account of the fact that half the family will be spending their actual Christmas in New Zealand. The meal has been rescheduled from lunchtime to the evening for the convenience of two children who disappear halfway through their starters and are never seen again. (Until the next morning, that is. It’s not one of those Murder Mystery Weekends.)

I bravely munch my way through my second roast turkey with all the trimmings in two days, and it’s entirely my own fault as there were two alternatives for each course. I feel even sicker than I did last night, which is saying something.

By going to bed reasonably early, I miss an interesting sociological experiment designed to find out what would happen if you leave a Geordie in a bar with the ability to charge anything he fancies to his room account. The answer is: exactly what you would expect. But to look on the bright side, at least the hotel finally sold some of the £70-a-shot Louis Treize brandy they had been keeping behind the bar as a talking point for the last few years.

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