Today was very much a logistics day. I think every trip has one – it’s that day when you just need to get from a to b (via c, d, e, f and g) to ensure that the rest of your trip works out as planned. I had to cover a fair bit of ground today so got up early to get out of the dead-end that was Blackpool. (I don’t mean that in a disparaging way: Blackpool is a dead-end as far as the rail network’s concerned – you could say there’s two ways in and no way out.)
From Blackpool I headed south through Preston to Chester. I’d thought a fair bit regarding what to do about Wales. You can head into Wales on a number of different railway lines (North Coast, South Coast and out to the mid-Wales Coast) but none of them really offer a circular route. I don’t know why I qualified that with ‘really’, it’s simpler than that: none of them offer a circular route. This is a shame as I know the scenery of rural Wales is some of the best in the UK and this lack of lines certainly wasn’t always the case – we have a man called Dr Beeching to thank for that.
As a compromise I decided to head straight down the centre of the country, from Chester in the north to Cardiff in the south. This route certainly challenged the belief that England is the ‘green and pleasant’ land. You’re presented with mile after mile of rolling hills, sheltered glens, babbling brooks and thousands and thousands of different varieties of sheep. Maybe that poem by Blake – now so cherished by England cricket supporters – was, in the original version: ‘And did those sheep, in ancient times, walk upon Wales’ mountains green’. This would seem to make sense as the next line of the song does make reference to ‘holy lambs’…
I couldn’t spend as much time in Cardiff as I would have liked. The heavens had opened by that point and there’s only so much of the city that you can see in two hours without getting completely drenched. The station had an essence of the old New Street about it and must be an interesting place to try and get through if there’s a Wales home game at the Millennium Stadium.
From Cardiff I headed across to Bristol and then south to Exeter. The train from Bristol to Exeter was operated by Cross-Country and hence fitted in with their usual policy of ‘why have eight carriages when you can have four’. Consequently I spent the journey crammed into a vestibule area with three trainee drivers from First Great Western, who’d just had some kind of final rules test in Bristol. They spent the journey comparing notes on the various questions contained in the exam and getting increasingly worried as they kept receiving calls from their boss which would cut out as soon as they answered them (obviously the use of mobile opines on fast-moving trains wasn’t covered in the exam). Nevertheless, I think I’m now well-versed on all the various reasons as to why it may be acceptable to pass a signal at danger (and the procedures associated with them).
From Exeter I headed north to Umberleigh.
UMBER- oh forget it. It’s south of Barnstaple.
‘Oh that place they make custard?’
Wait what? Yes, I suppose so.
‘So where’s that then?’
Sigh. In the South West.
‘What, like next to Wimbledon?’
‘Or more like Staines?’
Are you from London?
Right. If you head in a straight south-westerly line directly out of London you will find this place called England. You should go there some time.
Anyway…where was I? Ah yes, Umberleigh. It’s a small village in Devon which happens to have a railway station (request only), a hotel (‘The Rising Sun’), a pub (see previous) and one-bar of 3G phone signal (if you stand in the car park by the station facing towards the river). (There is also a restaurant south of Umberleigh that does the best honey-roasted carrots you will find anywhere in the UK – but that’s a different story).
I made my way to the hotel which was brightly decorated with Christmas lights. Entering through the door marked ‘reception’ I was greeted by a small dog. ‘Are you the owner?’ I asked. He tilted his head at me, barked once (which I took to mean yes) and ran off to find one of his employees.