With the odd exception, I always enjoy a long train journey. In the past month, I’ve done trips from Berlin and London to Amsterdam and got a lot more work done than I would ever have managed with flights. Every now and then I get a chance to make a journey that carries with it many memories. I’ve blogged on a few over the years including this extended trip through mid-Wales and back to Swindon back in 2009. They are popular with some readers but less so with others so you have been warned! On this occasion, I had taken the night sleeper to Aberdeen on Monday night (much improved over my last use of it) to work on a fascinating series of Health Sector issues in Elgin (never been before, really liked) over two days ably supported by Daughter who is one of our main research/practitioners in that domain. I had to give a keynote first thing Thursday in Manchester and another early afternoon in Cardiff on the same day before returning home. That meant a flight from Inverness to Manchester in the early evening in time for a meal with some old friends and collapse into bed in a city centre IBIS.
Up early I made the conference venue in time to do my normal 15 minutes preparation of a set of slides that will be available for use during the keynote. After about five minutes you can tine into the audience and then select what you are going to say and how you will say it. All went well from my reading of the audience and the subsequent buzz on social media leaving me twenty-five minutes to make the 1030 train which I managed with five minutes to spare thanks to a timely tram. I got a table seat, set up the laptop and prepared to keep notes of the journey (which I am now writing up and adding elaborations) between clearing emails and dealing with the odd social media troll: from the Great Glen to Glen’s World in 24 hours! I didn’t do much for the first twenty minutes other than relax and reflect.
Manchester has many associations. My father came from Heywood just north of Manchester and I have a lot of childhood memories of being driven over there for obligatory visits watching Wrestling on television with Mick McManus and others. That after listening to Al Read on the radio over lunch. My Aunt Alice was a seamstress and the flat they had was littered with manikins. Tension with my grandfather, a former farmer from a line of farmers, was palpable. But he took me to cricket matches including my first ever test match and there he was knowledgeable and friendly. But otherwise, he was a nasty piece of work and the only reason my father was a Veterinary Surgeon was a bill that my Grandfather didn’t want to pay. He marched down to the school and asked which of his children was bright enough to go to Veterinary College and as a result father was shortly after removed from his apprenticeship as a carpenter and sent to Glasgow University and thence to the RAVC in Pakistan in WWII. He was always a frustrated carpenter and we spent a lot of time building boats together in the garage. I inherited a lot of that – most of the bookshelves, including an elegant fitted cabinet with arches in our current house, are my work and I owe what skill I have to my father. It was only in later life that I discovered the level of abuse my Grandfather had dolled out to his children. But when you are young a visit to relatives is just another novelty and it was then a long drive to strange territory. In my teenage years, we went there for the opera and then in later life I spent many days up there working on the decision support systems for Tootal Group and one of my favourite clients Stan who was a senior figure in the accounts department.
After Manchester, the train goes through Stockport (only memorable for a rugby match Cardiff threw away in the Heineken Cub) and then reaches Wilmslow. For several years of my life I spent two days a week here developing the Genus Programme that turned DataSciences around. We’d had a new General Manager appointed who I had to assist and it was a roller coaster ride for a year before I got pulled into a mainline strategy roll and he was pushed out. I’ve never met an ego like that before and as I say there were ups and downs. I made good friends there over the years such as Andrew who was Sales Manager and a fellow sufferer. And I also stayed in too many inns with too many temptations when I got back frustrated late at night. Wilmslow is also next door to Alderley Edge which is Weirdstone of Brisingamen territory. Alan Garner’s books were a key part of my childhood, and also of my children. The magical picture of different legends with a tale of ordinary childhood all too familiar to someone born in the 50’s were irresistible. The book and its sequel along with The Owl Service deserve more attention than they have had over the years. The escape of the Colin and Susan through the caves to Golden Stone was probably responsible for my life long Claustrophobia; a truly terrifying piece of storytelling. My sister and I named our Fireball Weirdstone in honour of the book.
After you leave Wilmslow the rich agricultural lands of the Cheshire Plains are the landscape. To the west I can see the mountains of Wales, to the east the Pennines and that brings back some really bad memories of a holiday in Edale which started with too much trauma but then became better. I walked a part of the Pennine Way with two young children who decided to act as reporters seeing a documentary as we navigated through peat hags. I still remember their faces when they thought they were going to be dragged around a stately home and instead found themselves at Alton Park. They were also occupied with the Tamagotchi craze at the time and sibling rivalry spilled over into who managed to avoid neglect of the cyber-pet for the longest. All railways in England lead to Crew and this was no exception. The transit station for so many routes. I’ve been at the station many times, often going back to University where the trains went via Crew or Warrington. Changing in Warrington meant enduring the smell of the soap works so Crew was more frequent. Then in my SCM days it was the transition to the Holyhead train and the mailboat to Dublin. Many many memories of that station including sleeping on a bench there two nights but no memories of the town. Crew is somewhere you pass through rather than visit.
As we left Crew black sounds were massing to the west but we were still in bright sunshine which makes you want to pull the communication cord and get off the train to take pictures! Halfway to Shrewsbury a fine gentle rain swept in to make the greens of the fields more verdant and the shifts of sunlight more inspiring. Arriving in Shrewsbury you start to encounter the Devonian Sandstone which dominates architecture from here through and past Hereford as you pass through the Welsh Marches. For many years this was the de facto capital of Wales. All routes from north, south and mid wales end up in Shrewsbury passing over the appropriately named Welsh Bridge. Unlike Crew it is a town to linger over if you have time. It is the scene of the Cadfael novels which regrettably most people will know from the television series that stared Derick Jacobi as the main character. Brilliant as he is as an actor he failed to convince as a welsh speaking former crusader turned monk. The Radio series stared Philip Madoc who was far more convincing – and could also speak Welsh. The novels were written by Edith Pargeter under the pen name of Ellis Peters. Under her real name, she wrote historical novels of which The Brothers Gwynedd Quartet is one of the best introductions to the key period when Wales finally lost its independence to the English under Edward I. There are other key historical links here – Owen Glyndwr failed to commit his troops to support the Percy family in their rebellion against Henry IV, the single best opportunity since the 13th Century loss to Edward to regain independence. I’ve been to the battle site and mourned that lost opportunity. Shrewsbury is now bypassed and the A5 route to Snowdonia is one I take frequently but I must take the time to visit or stay in the town itself on a future visit.
After Shrewsbury, we leave the plan and start to enter the true borderlands with some wonderful hills and associated walks. As you come into Church Stretton you are entering the Shropshire Hills Area of Natural Beauty with Care Caradoc overlong the town. I’ve spent many a happy day waling the Carding Mill Valley and adjacent hills and it was known as Little Switzerland in Victorian times with a flourishing Hydro as the town was popular as a spa. South of the town, the train passes through Craven Arms at speed and we this miss Stokesay Castle (which is always visible from the A49 if you are driving) which is simply the nest preserved fortified medieval manor house and in the UK and worth seeking out. It was a regular stopover diving the children to see my parents in North Wales. But the train is intent on its next destination Ludlow which was the capital of the Welsh Marches. The castle is truly impressive as is the town and Ludlow is the food capital of the area both for restaurants and produce with an annual festival. Arthur. Prince of Wales died there and we got Henry VII in consequence, one of the worst tyrants in European history and the ultimate Breixiter, playing with the fate of the nation for the sake of private gain. Read up on the Pilgrimage of Grace if you want a 17th Century equivalent of Trump or Boris. I have many many memories of Ludlow as a stopping off place for some memorable meals and excursions. But mainly for the week, I spent there on a YHA Fossil hunting holiday. The Ludlow Bone bed was exposed by the Youth Hostel and we spent the week happily going to river beds and cliffs with fossil hammers. I think I was 14 at the time and I remember the truly terrible walk from the Youth Hostel to the station up a steep hill laden with a rucksack and two bags containing rocks. I could walk maybe 50 yards before I had to test but I made it. I also carry a little shame from that trip – two years ago I had been the youngest in a YHA group walking through mid Wales and was bullied by the older boys. This time I was one of the oldest and I repeated the same behaviour.
Leaving Ludlow marks the beginning of the end of the journey. We move through Leominster which for me has no memories and then arrives in Hereford. It is a major centre, to my shame the Cathedral car park was the only time I ever slapped one of my children (it didn’t work), en route to see the Mappa Mundi. I’ve visited many times including using it as a key staging point on my walk up the Wye Valley. it is also the public transport gateway to Hay on Wye and the location of buying a new bike on my journey back to health. North you have the headquarters of the SAS and the city has a long military history as do most of the towns of the Marches. The River Wye is now a serious proposition and is now in a state of flood. The hill just to the south is where driving down to Cardiff for an Easter break with family I broke out in mumps to the ruination of the following week – it’s funny what you remember but I can recall the exact moment in the car when we realised it.
After Hereford we leave the Marches and enter Wales proper. Abergavenny is next with one of the worst ear worms of all times associated with its name. It is a base for walking in the Beacons and I’ve stayed there on many occasions. Once picking up Gary Klein and his wife for a walk around the Pen-y-fan circuit. More recently with Paul, Brenda, and Iwan I celebrated recovering from the brain bleed with a memorable circuit around Pen All-mawr. Good food and beer abound in the town and the adjacent areas such as Crickhowell with its outstanding coffee shop and a last resort climbing shop for anything you have forgotten. We are now in South Wales and this is Cardiff Blues catchment territory. From now until Newport the train is running through narrow valleys with small fields, sheep and woodland with multiple streams in flood and the sun sparkling on all. The steep hills contain small stone settlements and the delightfully compact churches that characterise Wales. But then the scene starts to change as we enter the industrialised parts of South Wales through Cwmbran and Newport and along the coastal route to Cardiff. I’ve spoken of those before and anyway by now note-taking was difficult as I started to compose material for a NHS presentation and packed up cables and MacBook ready for a hasty exit at Cardiff Central and a taxi to Ninian Park for another just in time arrival.
Photo by Irina Iriser from Pexels