Saturday 23 February 2008

Getting to the root of the problem

Who can tell? Perhaps six units of alcohol at last night’s bash, to ease the pain of listening to an after-dinner speech that had clearly been written as a sermon, and was delivered like one for good measure; 1,441; Donnie (the place, not the 1970s teenage heartthrob).

I used to hang around in quite a few Godforsaken places during my so-called business life. But if I had to nominate my absolute least favourite, it would be a toss-up between the railway stations at Doncaster and Runcorn. The chauffeur employed by my client in north Wales regularly delivered me to Runcorn just as the tail lights of a London-bound train were disappearing around the corner, allowing me a full 59 minutes to savour the delights of the freezing bus shelter at the southern end of the platform. Though at least one could actually venture in there, unlike the similar shelter intended for first class passengers at Doncaster. This was always packed with trainspotters, emitting a powerful smell of junk food, unwashed clothing, greasy hair and other bodily odours too distressing to spell out. Unlike the North Eastern Railway company, which believed in splurging its shareholders’ money on vast, cathedral-like stations like York and Newcastle, the Great Northern Railway practised economy. There was never anywhere to go on Doncaster station apart from a refreshment room on the platform run by fresh-air fanatics, who propped open the doors to ensure that a year-round howling gale meant that there was never any temptation to linger. There was no station hotel next door. In later years, GNER came up with something called a first class lounge, but in my experience it was always kept locked shut, presumably to keep the trainspotters at bay.

For there can be no doubt that Doncaster is the trainspotting capital of Britain. As our train home pulls in this morning, I am strongly tempted to pull out a notebook and start ticking them off. All the stereotypes are there: obesity, spots, pebble glasses, Thermos flasks and huge Tupperware boxes full of sandwiches; notebooks, Dictaphones, video cameras; anoraks, trackie bottoms, trainers and a distressing lack of attention to personal hygiene. In fact, they look exactly like a tabloid Identikits of typical paedophiles, though one has to hope that the pointless collection of locomotive, carriage and even wagon numbers is sublimating any more sinister desires.

Yes, I think Doncaster has to take the palm, with Runcorn as a close runner-up. I must add a special mention for Most Cruelly Disappointing Station to Stalybridge, where I was also once delivered 30 seconds too late to catch my train home. Along the platform I found a wonderful station buffet, with a coal fire blazing in its grate and a fine set of real ale handpumps on its splendid mahogany bar. I couldn’t believe my luck, until I tried the door and found it was locked, as it remained throughout my 59.5 minutes on the freezing seat outside. After which I spent a couple of hours sitting on a stationary train in the middle of nowhere, because some total bastard had not only decided to commit suicide by chucking themselves in front of the preceding train, but had taken the trouble of walking to the middle of one of the longest tunnels under the Pennines before they did so. This naturally added to the time taken to collect and remove the resulting bits.

As we pull out of Doncaster, I reflect that I used to collect train and even bus numbers myself when I was a child. I’ve still got a collection of railway books and a train set in my loft. Dear God, is it any wonder that I am having so much difficulty in finding a girlfriend?

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