Bags, suitcases and heavily coated people crowd into a tiny lift at Derby station. ‘I would but I’ve got my hands full,’ says an old guy gesturing at the two cases he’s carrying, as you offer to press the button for him. ‘Time was I might’ve been able to press it with something else, but not now,’ he adds to the guilty laughter of his wife.
You’re travelling on the rolling stock’s Christmas leftovers. A trained fashioned of remaining parts; a solitary carriage with no discernible front or back. Undeterred it sets off into bright sunshine, guiding you between concrete walls and factories that tread a fine line between well-worn and abandoned, and beneath footbridges that disappear off over the empty spaces left by lines long forgotten.
As the scenery changes to a blur of suburban houses, evergreen trees, and panelled fences the guy sitting opposite takes a camera as big as his head from a rucksack and begins snapping away. The houses space out and fade away to leave a wintry expanse where black skeleton trees cast their shadows across fields frosted pale green. The dark side of a cluster of giant cooling towers briefly envelops the train.
A church spire wrapped in scaffold segues the scenery from country to small town. You’re at Tutbury & Hatton, a building society with its own station slipped between corrugated industrial units. A respectably dressed man gets on, buys a day return to Liverpool from the conductor, and promptly cracks open a can of Carling. It’s 10am.
From the gloom of winter trees, the racecourse of Uttoxeter emerges into the hazy sunshine; dew glistening on the white rails – a formidable Christmas’ worth of beer barrels lining the wall behind the grandstand. Uttoxeter is one of those places you’ve heard of, but never known where it is. Even now, sat in the centre of it, you’re still not sure.
The station platform has been covered in so much salt to beat the winter frost it looks like a snowy Christmas display in a department store window. Beyond the station, a wide strip of rubble and earth forms a no-man’s land between the trainline and the town – an abandoned digger the only sign of potential life.
Faint hills lead up to isolated farm houses. The train’s horn sounds like your dad blowing his nose, but it’s enough to send sheep scattering. Grassland. Hedges. A stream. Trees. Pylons. Repeat until the next small town. Beneath a flyover, on the outskirts of Blythe Bridge, a new build home boasts a backyard collection of stone ornaments that would be deemed too grand and too vast even for the most egotistical of emperor’s palaces. For some reason it puts you in mind of Robbie Savage.
At the station a ‘Welcome to Blythe Bridge’ sign is somewhat undermined by the shards of broken glass embedded in the wall behind the platform. A dozen blokes pile aboard the train, enabling you to tick off your football lad spotters guide; stone island jackets, tracksuit tops, baseball caps, carrier bags full of basic lager and cider, thick-set older guy who really out to know better. All boxes ticked as they banter in the luggage space.
A tunnel spews the train out into the dull struggling light of Longton; high above the town’s streets Victorian brick buildings back onto the line and a church is silhouetted against a yellow sky. ‘I aint getting off, I’m waiting for the next one,’ says a fierce looking woman who’s risen to stand by the lads in the luggage space. ‘I’m just up early, so you know I’m here,’ she adds to throw nervous unease into the fug of cheap aftershave and cheaper lager that already hangs heavy overhead.
The train continues up above the streets, glancing between the matt walls of identical new build superstores, as terraces drift away up the hill. In Stoke a handful of people get off, and a hundred football fans wait to replace them; their faces a mix of shock, annoyance and laughter as they contemplate their chances of making it aboard.
Doors somehow closed, the queue on rails mobilises and moves on out the city, each jolt in the track bringing a chorus of laughter and apology. Scrap yards pass the windows, sunshine glinting off twisted metal before a decidedly brown canal gives way to Kidsgrove. The guard is forced to adopt the role of shepherd, standing on the outside of the train, gesturing through the window, trying to corale the crowd down the carriage like a mime depicting a matador. ‘I’m in the dead middle love,’ yells a Stokie back through the window, ‘I’m not sure what else I can do ‘cept dissolve’. Exasperated people on the platform move from end to end, in the desperate hope that a person-sized space will somehow be created by their gravitational pull.
On the move again two women strike up a conversation about the latest celebrity death. ‘Only sad thing about it was his age’, says the elder woman, which seems a touch harsh, ‘that’s no age that’. You begin to wonder exactly how many years might constitute an acceptable age to die, but your train of thought is broken by one of the youngest of the football crowd, turning to his mate; ‘More of an adventure on the train isn’t it’ he says, though you can’t imagine Five Get Pissed on a Morning Train Drinking Supermarket Lager would be one of Enid Blyton’s biggest sellers.
More disappointed people stand on the platform at Alsager; as with their compatriots at Kidsgrove some gallantly try to squeeze into spaces that don’t exist. There’s laughter from the seats behind prompting the guy next to you to interrupt his annoying-phone-video-clip-watchathon and excitedly turn round, like a puppy who’s heard his dog biscuits being opened, desperate to know the joke. Turns out one of his mates has chosen to piss in an empty can. ‘Mate, that’s unreal that,’ he barks between laughing so hard you fear you may need to find him a can of his own. As he recomposes his self you make a mental note of his face, just so it’s there to hand the next time you find yourself asking ‘Who the hell watches Mrs Brown’s Boys, anyway?’
The train crosses empty dual carriageways to crawl beneath the floodlights of goods yards which signal an imminent arrival in Crewe. Engine sheds and endless extra lines trundle past the window, occupied by ancient rolling stock, it’s white livery now a shade of green as it drips with condensation. The light dips beneath the platform canopy and the condensed mass of passengers separates and pours through the open doors. ‘Is there a football match on or something?’ asks the woman behind you as the steady flow of people continues to pass by – she rolls her eyes when you say ‘yes’, though you can’t imagine what alternative she was holding out for.