Monday, 31 October 2016

Pining for the truant catcher

The rural local authorities of Cheshire, in an act of collective madness, decided that this week would be their school half term. A week after everyone else’s. Which was no doubt good news for those teachers and parents looking to secure cut-price tickets to jet off to somewhere slightly warmer than the UK. But it was decidedly bad news for those of us who had elected to stay here, given that pretty much all the preserved railways, castles, country houses, petting farms and other child-friendly tourist attractions that had been enthusiastically touting for business all last week put up their shutters and closed for the winter at dusk on Sunday.

This left us with two main options to keep our little darlings entertained during our holiday break in Northumberland: pub lunches and healthy walks. A key objective of the latter being to tire them out in the hope that they might sleep slightly later than their traditional 6am BST (or, as it became yesterday, 5am GMT).

Today we went to an establishment in Newton-by-the-Sea that bills itself as a “gastropub”, something I have always found more than a little off-putting. Many years ago I observed from the top deck of my bus to and from school the opening of a modest little shop by the Cradlewell in Jesmond that billed itself as a “high class tailor”. Even as a schoolboy, I harboured grave doubts about that business. Would an establishment that really was “high class” need to proclaim the fact on its fascia? I was very surprised when, years later, a friend from a more prosperous family than mine told me that his father had all his suits made there, and it was actually pretty good.

The “gastropub” had its pretensions quite effectively deflated by my friend The Secret Diner (food critic of The Journal in Newcastle) more than a year ago.  At the time I thought he was being frightfully unfair as I only ever ordered the fish and chips or seafood chowder, both of which were ace. I also appreciated the reliably prompt and efficient service, which becomes of critical importance when one is in charge of two small human beings who will become “hangry” if their needs are not satisfied at high speed.

Considerable disappointment thus ensued when the pub proved to have seriously downgraded both its signature dishes, and I ended up paying £16.95 for an absurd (and dangerously hot) “bin lid” thinly smeared with a “chowder” in which the main ingredients appeared to be flour and undercooked, sliced potatoes.

Perhaps it wise, in the circumstances, that the staff had also developed new skills in the avoidance of eye contact.

Still, no one has yet managed to spoil the beach at Low Newton and we spent a pleasant and surprisingly clement afternoon watching the children running around and getting as much of the North Sea as possible inside their wellies.

Though it was a little disappointing that we did not receive a visit from the uniformed individual who featured with such regularity in the comics of my childhood: the Truant Catcher. I could, of course, have patiently explained that my children were enjoying a legitimate holiday, in much the same way as I explain nearly every day that I am not, in fact, their grandfather. On the other hand if he had come all that way with a big net and a van with barred windows, it might have been cruel to deprive them of an educational experience of unjustified incarceration.

Tonight, for the first time in my life, I carved a pumpkin lantern. It took about ten minutes, compared with the couple of evenings I used to spend attacking a turnip (as we call swedes on Tyneside) with a blunt kitchen knife 50-odd years ago. We lit the candle and awaited callers, having armed ourselves with a couple of bags of fun-size chocolate bars from Iceland in Alnwick.

Unsurprisingly, in the middle of nowhere in rural Northumberland, absolutely no one came.

Monday, 17 October 2016

In training

I can’t explain how I acquired my love of trains. It certainly wasn’t nurtured by my parents, who most definitely preferred cars. Understandably enough, as my mother’s father had been a champion cyclist whose Alnwick cycle shop gradually developed into a small chain of north Northumberland garages; and who, as a pioneer motorist, could proudly claim to have driven the first car to reach a number of valleys in the Cheviots (I forget exactly which).

Ford's Garage in Alnwick; grandfather in straw boater
My father, meanwhile, had earnestly saved the earnings from his first job until the glad day when he was able to walk into a garage on Northumberland Road in Newcastle city centre, and drive back to Philip Street in the West End in his first car. No driving lessons or test in those days. Just hand over the cash and get on with it. I don’t know exactly when that was, but I can remember him telling me that the price of gallon of petrol at the time was 1s (5p), and that the nation came close to rioting when it shot up to an eye-watering 1s 1½d (5.6p).

We simply never travelled by train. My first ever journey by rail was with my father on a third rail electric train from Newcastle to the coast when I was eight or so, secured after much nagging by me. For a main line trip I had to wait for my mother to take me on a day trip from Newcastle to York. From the fact that I can distinctly remember one of British Railway’s very last steam locomotives pottering around the station while we were waiting for our return train home, I guess that was in the summer of 1967 when I was 13.

Once they indulged me by obtaining a brochure to satisfy my rail obsession by spending a summer holiday in a camping coach on a rural branch line, but the plan collapsed when my father grasped that they were only made available to those who reached them by train.

Still, they did buy me train sets (first Hornby O-gauge, then second-hand three-rail Hornby Dublo) and take me for walks. From the start, my favourite outings were always to the East Coast Main Line, a mile or so from our house. Particularly to the sidings at Little Benton, where there were usually steam engines to be observed chuntering up and down sort coal waggons and hoppers as the expresses between London and Edinburgh thundered past. My mother was fond of trying to convince me that the clangs of shunting were rumbles of distant thunder, requiring us to head for home without delay.

I loved the sound and smell of steam locomotives from my first encounter with them. As I grew a little older, I also came to appreciate the living history they represented, with a fair part of the motive power in the Northumberland coalfield having been designed and built before the First World War, yet still gamely plodding on into the 1960s.

Against that background, it is easy enough to understand how my seven-year-old son comes to be something of a rail enthusiast. Though perhaps not a particularly well-informed one. Over-exposure to Thomas the Tank Engine led to a certain amount of devastation when he finally grasped, just over a year ago, that regular main line express trains are not still customarily powered by steam.

The seeds do not always take root, either. My four-year-old has been subjected to exactly the same drip of pro-train propaganda, but still prefers cars. Particularly racing cars.

Even so, having two die-hard rail enthusiasts in a family of four certainly constitutes a quorum, and permits me to indulge my own fancies while pretending that I am doing something nice to please the children.

Two weekends ago we spent a most agreeable day in the National Railway Museum in York, which I can heartily recommend to any parent. Unlike the national museums in London it is not what Jeremy Corbyn would doubtless call ram-packed. Even though entry is – rather bizarrely to my mind – completely free.

The exhibits and attractions kept the boys’ boredom at bay for several hours, which is frankly one hell of an achievement, and the cafeteria does a very decent pork and black pudding sausage roll. What’s not to like? They were also very nice about retrieving my younger son’s souvenir sticker book from the roof of a carriage when he dropped it there from a footbridge, remarking as they did so that it was a remarkable achievement to have got it to lodge where he did. Minutes after the man with the grab on the end of a long pole had gone away, another child managed precisely the same feat.

The next day, after a comfortable night in a friendly pub in Kirbymoorside, we took steam trains from Pickering to Whitby and back on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, spending long enough at the seaside to enjoy fish and chips in the Magpie Café and take a bracing walk on the beach.

I have been a member of the NYMR preservation society since 1973, when the best it could offer was a diesel multiple unit ride from Grosmont to a little way beyond Goathland, but I had not visited the line for well over a decade. It was a most enjoyable experience, particularly on the outward journey. Because my sons have the compressed attention span of the internet generation and their view of return journeys tends to be “been there, seen that”. Or, as the elder wearily put when I tried to encourage him to take another look out of the window somewhere in Newtondale, “Trees, bracken, bracken, trees, trees, trees.”

An image from the outward journey
A latter-day camping coach on the NYMR. Next summer's holiday sorted?
Perhaps the single most annoying thing about the elder boy is that he is even more observant than I am, and virtually impossible to catch out. Because even the things I feel sure he cannot possibly have seen because he has been, at best, half paying attention, have all been clocked, absorbed and stored away in his capacious memory banks. “I told you so” is fast becoming one of his favourite phrases or sayings.

We had one bit of unfinished business at the end of that weekend in Yorkshire. Although we had duly seen and admired the fastest steam engine of all time, Mallard, we had not encountered what has become the most famous locomotive of them all.

So it was lucky that I had also managed to secure perhaps the last four tickets on the final train of Flying Scotsman’s weekend stint on the East Lancashire Railway late yesterday afternoon.

It would be fair to say that even the child who prefers racing cars was highly excited.

We counted the minutes on the platform at Bury Bolton Street station until the legend drifted into view, and we were the first to take our booked seats on its train, the best part of half an hour before it departed.

The boys admired the scenery of the Irwell Valley – both industrial and rustic – all the way to Rawtenstall, where they wisely did not join me and the rest of the passengers in disembarking to try to take identical photographs of the locomotive.

On the way back, as ever, ennui set in, alleviated a little by an iPad. But then Mummy went to stand by an open window at the end of the carriage, where the boys joined her. And as the shadows lengthened, the elder boy was heard to say, “Mummy we’re on the actual Flying Scotsman and it's getting dark, could this day get any better?” On the strength of which, I feel entitled to mark the day down as a success.