I’m writing this on the train to Glasgow, where I’m about to attend a conference. It’s a Cross Country train. Though I haven’t had a duff experience on Cross Country trains before, on this occasion I’m finding the service a little less than up to snuff. I’ve got a first class ticket (cheap weekend deal) and have been looking forward to being pampered in the way I have enjoyed so much on GNER / East Coast trains. The last time I travelled first class on one of the latter (cheap weekday deal, unsociable hours), I was regaled with tea, biscuits, vodka and tonic, sparkling water, pasta arrabbiata with salad garnish, a packet of crisps, fruit, some date and walnut cake, a glass of wine and coffee. And a free copy of The Times. All included in the price of the ticket! By the time I staggered off that train, some two hours after I had boarded it, I’d have been happy to phone the Prime Minister and tell him how wonderful the experience was, if any of the crew had asked me to.
The standards on the present train are a little different. When I boarded, First Class was jammed with people, including one occupying my reserved seat. To add insult to injury, he was wearing a purple jumper. I was told that there were no seat reservations operative on the train, ‘as the system is down, but we have some boffins trying to fix it’. I was advised to grab or fight for a seat, on a may-the-best-woman-win type of basis. I decided to keep close watch on a man who hadn’t taken off his coat – a tell-tale sign that he wasn’t planning a long journey (I’m not a crime writer for nothing; I can read clues!). Sure enough, he ‘alighted’ (I’ve no idea why all train guards use this poncy term – perhaps they have a vision of the gossamer-winged traveller, wand in hand, floating like a dandelion seed from train to platform) at the next station, possibly relieved that I didn’t try to follow him, as he might have thought I was a stalker, and I hopped into his seat sharpish before another crowd of people with worthless seat reservations got on.
If I’m sounding like a grumpy old woman so far, that’s probably because by this time I’ve had a glimpse of the at-seat menu. The ‘complimentary’ food available consists of tea, coffee, water, fruit cake, biscuits and crisps. And there are lots of ‘ors’ on the menu, implying that two choices maximum would be seemly. I haven’t got to my age without knowing how to push the envelope, so I have demanded tea, water, fruit cake (which turns out to be one inch square and plastic-wrapped) and crisps in short order, in a very firm, dowager sort of voice. To this I’ve added an egg-and-cress sandwich and a tiny bottle of Pinot Grigio from the ‘paying’ menu (no hot food available – that will be £7.95 to you, Madam). There is not a newspaper in sight, although I have seen that a lady seated nearby is doing the crossword in Woman’s Weekly. I doubt if this has been supplied by Management. (I’ve also seen Management – he hides in the still room, guarding his supply of complaints forms, and twitches if anyone barges through to ask him about seat reservations.)
However, now I have eaten my sandwich and drunk my Pinot Grigio, water and tea and inspected the sell-by dates on the cake and crisps to see if they are fit for human consumption, I have to admit that I am quite enjoying myself. For a start, one of my fellow travellers is a man with two collies – I thought there was only one at first, but another peeped round from the seat behind mine and fixed me with her liquid eyes – and he has demanded not one, two or three, but four bottles of still water to put in their water bowl. And he wants free cake, crisps and coffee as well. So he has busted my temporary record of four free items by a margin of three… but I’ve been able to stroke his two lovely dogs to console myself for the disappointment!
And then there’s the journey itself. Of all the journeys I undertake, this one wins hands-down for interest and enjoyment. Already, from this train today, I have seen the innermost secrets of Victorian Leeds and the architectural wonder of York Station and I’m looking forward to the dour but unique crumbling red brick of the station at Darlington, Newcastle’s panoramic kaleidoscope of aesthetically gob-smacking, state-of the-art bridges, stupendous river, industrial buildings and purposeful roads, Alnmouth’s deceptive sleepiness (it lies between the buzzing commuter town of Alnwick and the lovely village of Alnmouth itself, on the gloriously beautiful Northumberland coast) and, best of all, the sight of the majestic, historic, sandstone bridge at Berwick-on-Tweed with the huge sweep of sea beyond it. And after Dunbar (another favourite place, with its Braveheart-style castle) and venerable, stately Edinburgh, I shall eventually arrive in vibrant Glasgow. Not to mention the fact that I’ve had time to map out the next few chapters of The Crossing (D.I. Yates 4).
So what’s not to like? Well, if Arriva’s UK rail Managing Director Chris Burchell is reading this, I have a message for him. At a push, he might get away with this service on the basis that it’s the weekend and the destination is magical, mystical Scotland, but he should know that I’m very glad that it’s Virgin, and not Arriva, which has won the East Coast franchise, because, on the basis of my experience today, the prospect of an Arriva standard for my regular, working week, London-and-return journey would fill me with despair. Next time I board the train at King’s Cross, I’ll be looking forward to what I’ve missed this time: tea, biscuits, vodka and tonic, sparkling water, pasta arrabbiata with salad garnish (or similar), a packet of crisps, fruit, some date and walnut cake (or similar), a glass of wine and coffee. And a free copy of The Times. All included in the price of the ticket. I understand that Arriva’s Cross-Country franchise has been extended to 2019 from the original 2016; that’s a pity, but perhaps Virgin will win it next time around…
For the past two days, I’ve been attending a conference in York. I used to visit the city regularly when we lived in Leeds. It was a favourite place to take our son when he was young: we’ve been boating on the river there, visited the Jorvik Museum and the Railway Museum and, of course, explored the Minster. We’ve been to the pantomime and plays at the repertory theatre and we’ve always also enjoyed simply walking through the streets. In the summer, York is full of tourists; in the winter, there may be fewer, though still plenty, and there’s often a more local festive atmosphere: we’ve seen jugglers and fire-eaters performing in the shopping precinct in Stonegate, where there are also chestnut sellers when Christmas gets close. Some time ago, relatives of friends of ours lived in one of the houses in Stonegate and kept a shop there. They had to carry out some repair work and discovered that the foundations of their house included beams from an Anglo-Saxon tithe barn.
That’s the magic of York: it’s steeped in history. The people of York have handled their historical past magnificently, too. Old buildings have been repaired but not ‘restored’: there are several roofless ruins that have been tidied up but not renovated with the dubious help of ‘artist’s impressions’ of what they might have looked like in the past.
I don’t think that until Wednesday I’d visited York for the best part of ten years (apart from an ill-fated train journey home from London one Friday evening, when a signals problem meant that all trains North were diverted to York and I was dumped there in the middle of a very cold February evening, reliant on my husband’s driving more than thirty miles to pick me up – which it has to be said he did with a very bad grace, as if I’d personally invented a way of spoiling Friday night. A venial crime on his part, perhaps!). I didn’t have much spare time, but I was determined to spend at least an hour revisiting old haunts.
Reassuringly little has changed. I saw the obligatory crowd of American tourists – mainly ladies of a certain age (and size!) – who were listening avidly to their guide. I listened to her as well for a few minutes, as she told them about the Plantagenet royal family and its strong association with York. What she said was only approximately correct, but I suppose that wasn’t the point! She captured the mystery and glamour right enough. The Minster was swathed in scaffolding, as ever, as was the Dean Court Hotel that stands opposite it. I’ve stayed in that hotel and spoken there at past conferences. It’s a picturesque place, but its fabric seems to suffer from perennial crises! I walked as far as Bootham Bar and took a picture of a plaque that I’d not noticed before, dedicated to a Civil War Royalist, and another, in Monkgate, of the ornate entrance of St. Wilfrid’s, the Roman Catholic church.
And so back to my hotel for more sessions about libraries (yesterday’s covered cataloguing, which is not the most exciting topic in the world, especially on the last perfect sunny day before the rain set in). The Royal Hotel stands adjacent to the station, so is very convenient for conferences. It is also right next to the only major innovation that I spotted during my short walk: a giant Ferris wheel, apparently named the ‘York Eye’ (I immediately thought, ‘pork pie’!). I scrutinised this from several angles, and decided that I wasn’t all that keen on it. Since the London Eye was erected to celebrate the Millennium, these wheels have become popular. I’m sure that they help the tourist industry, but I can’t help hoping that, like the Manchester Eye and the Birmingham Eye before it, this one will be a temporary installation. To me it was incongruous to see this monster looming over such an ancient city. There doesn’t seem to be much practical point to it, either. The argument for building these structures in other cities has been that they provide sightseers with a panoramic view: but in York this can be achieved simply by taking a turn on the wonderfully-preserved city walls.
My family and I visited Robin Hood’s Bay and Whitby today – both favourite haunts of long standing – to celebrate my son’s birthday. While we were having lunch in The Dolphin, an ancient fishermen’s pub in Robin Hood’s Bay, the array of real beer bottles decorating the bar triggered reminiscences of staff trips to the East Coast when I first started bookselling. (There was also an association here with Beryl Bainbridge’s Booker-shortlisted, Guardian Fiction Prize-winning novel, The Bottle Factory Outing.)
I was bemused when I first learnt of the annual ritual of the staff trip. It seemed to me to belong to the period of charabancs and bathing huts – and to be about as outdated. Every year, our small library supply company would close for one day in June or early July, and the whole staff, of about thirty-five people, would climb on to a specially-hired coach.
My first staff trip was to Scarborough; later ones focused on walled cities – Chester, Lincoln, York, Durham – and the last of all, some fourteen years after the first, was to the Beamish Museum. Scarborough was the most popular destination; we went there at least four times. The company paid for the coach, a stop for coffee en route and a slap-up lunch in a hotel. Everyone was then free to spend the afternoon as she or he chose before piling back on to the coach in the early evening. The venues for coffee and lunch were chosen by the boss, a redoubtable connoisseur of hostelries across the country. He didn’t travel on the coach with the rest of us, but followed close behind in his latest Jaguar (except for the year that he was persuaded to leave the car behind, when somehow we managed to abandon him at a motorway service station; he was not amused!). Each trip brought its own adventure. That first far-off time in Scarborough featured the stock clerk, lying prone, very much the worse for wear, on the floor of the lunch hotel, while the boss prodded him with his umbrella and shouted, Captain Mainwaring-style: ‘Get up, you stupid boy!’
To be honest, I thought that these staff trips were paternalistic and more than a little condescending. When eventually I became managing director, I abolished them and gave everyone an extra day’s holiday instead. I was surprised and somewhat humbled when the following year I received a small delegation of fellow employees imploring me to reinstate the annual expedition. I did as they asked, but I didn’t claw back the additional day’s holiday, allowing them to keep it as well. I shall never know whether the outing satisfied some primeval need for a bonding ritual or whether this outcome was just an instance of canny Yorkshire folk managing to have their cake and eat it.