At Chester station groups of middle-aged men shuffle towards the exit, Racing Posts beneath arms, Debenhams shirts tucked in jeans, breakfast beers on breath. An elderly man walks down the platform saying good morning to those sat on benches – he even pauses to shake one man’s hand, like minor royalty on the opening of a leisure centre.
The Third Duke of Platform 3A only pauses from his meet and greet as the sleek green Llandudno train pulls into the station behind him. He turns to look at it, mutters “Bloody hell” with genuine shock, and stands there shaking his head, as if he were expecting something else, a bus maybe, possibly even a sweet trolley. Leaving Chester the train skirts the edge of the racecourse, where beer tents and tote stands are under starters’ orders for the day’s meet, and travels on up the industrial Dee to Shotton and Connah’s Quay.
The soundtrack for the journey, provided by a woman on the phone four seats away, is as stale as the landscape. “So the Sat Nav said turn left, so we turned left, you know, as the Sat Nav said and it turns out that wasn’t the right left. It was the wrong left. And he says, but the Sat Nav says it’s this left and I say no it’s the wrong left…”
A small dog is being given an obedience lesson in the seats opposite, offering one paw to its owner, then another, before being despatched to the aisle to retrieve a dropped pen. It just about stops short of helping its owner with the crossword, presuming that is the clue for six across was not ‘Outermost layer of a woody plant (4)’. Outside the window the stolid industry of Deeside towns flicks past the window; factories, treatment works and the hulking ghostly figure of a beached liner in situ, a white elephant rusted brown.
The train swings briefly back inland and the woman on the phone continues to chatter away, relentlessly describing everything and nothing in equal measure; “She’s up in Stoke now, you know how she used to be in Watford, well she’s in Stoke now. I called her and asked her, I said, are you still in Watford, she says, no, she says, I’m in Stoke now, so she’s up in Stoke now.” Caravans and bungalows line the track, a single tier landscape separating the train from the sea.
“So anyway, turns out he knows… hello? …hello? …are you there?” The recipient of phone woman’s bombardment has finally had enough and either keeled over in tedium or hurled their phone into a lake. Rhyl is the seaside equivalent of Jeremy Kyle’s green-room, the station platforms dotted with unruly kids and oversized earrings, and pushchairs laden with oversized sports bags.
After Rhyl the track runs parallel to the Irish Sea; the breeze whipping at the clothes of those walking along the sea wall. It may be August but the sky is dark and brooding. Clouds lurking, rain ready to fall on anyone the moment they dare venture out to make the most of the day.
The obedient dog leaves at Abergele & Pensarn, correcting its owner’s pronunciation of the former as it goes. They are replaced by two women whose chatter suggests they have low expectations in life; “And then she came round with a plate of lambchops! I tell you, it was out of this world”.
Behind conversations of extra-terrestrial mutton a petrol blue sea stretches out towards the wind-farms and tankers that dot the horizon. Sunshine above Llandudno’s Great Orme reflects across the surface of the water towards seagulls perched on windbreak poles and a shore crammed with caravans. Miles upon miles of coastline bereft of a permanent dwelling.
The automated announcement onboard pronounces Colwyn Bay in a tone which suggests they can’t believe we’ve made it this far, as if we’ve been free-wheeling since Prestatyn. The old pier at Colwyn, run down and weathered, sticks out limply into the sea, its best years long gone. On the station platform a man is ploughing through a packed lunch which is at least fifty per cent napkins.
Back inland towards Llandudno Junction where grey pebble-dash homes climb the hillside to merge into a grey sky. All the advertising boards facing the platforms are empty suggesting people here are notoriously hard to sway. Platform signs lift and tilt in an increasingly strong wind. The train moves on, curling away from Conwy castle towards Deganwy, where silhouetted mountains rise out of the water across the estuary. Round a bend and a slow roll into Llandudno, the faded former glory of a seaside resort, a building site with platforms strewn with pensioners waiting for help with luggage.