In unseasonably bright spring sunshine, Leeds sparkles like the ‘after’ shot in a cleaning product commercial. Sunlight flickers off the glass and metal of regeneration, accentuating the darkness of the Victorian viaducts that prop up the busy station. On the platform, you find yourself caught in the 18-30s rush for a Manchester-bound service; a moving mass of sunglasses and shorts, hair gel and cheap aftershave, incessant chatter and unnecessary cleavage.
Your own train is already baking in the heat before it pulls away, arcing above the city centre then descending into a stone gulley from which the tops of trackside trees and soot-covered brickwork are all that’s visible. Elsewhere in the carriage, a man steadfastly perseveres with a stuttering, repetitive conversation on a poor phone line and somewhere behind you a child starts to cry each time the train ceases moving.
Out beyond the metropole, where daffodils grow on a village verge, a woman jogs down a lane, her fluorescent pink jacket tied round her waist, flapping in her wake like a cape. Stone houses of different vintages congregate around churches; blossoms in a back garden, washing on a line. ‘A train… no, a train… no, no, a train… train’ says the man on the phone.
After struggling up a hill as if on the first run of a New Year’s resolution, the train crosses a river and glides through a field that appears to host a burgeoning crop of caravans. The sound of crying tells of your arrival at Wakefield Kirkgate. On an opposite platform, a group of four people point at your train before sprinting for the underpass – you want them to fail to make it, but can’t be sure why. Thirty seconds later they emerge panting from the underpass, only to find this isn’t their train after all, and three gesticulate at one.
Wakefield’s cathedral spire headlines the city landscape, poking above Lego-brick apartments and dreary office blocks advertising space to let. Terraced houses give way to a graveyard; its stones at all angles like a Tudor’s teeth. Past a golf course, dotted with men possessing big bags and few worries. Pylons criss-cross a landscape that contains huge expanses of green without ever threatening to be considered countryside.
In a conversation over your shoulder a middle-aged man is sensing a conspiracy; ‘My dad died on the Tuesday, then on Thursday the washing machine went, and then on Saturday the fridge freezer had it. You know, it was too much in one week for it to be just a coincidence.’ Rather than contemplate the hitherto unexplored concomitance of death and poor-wiring you gaze through the glass and catch the commencement of a football match; a goalkeeper in a bright orange jersey pulling on his gloves before a set of goalposts wrapped in thirteen seasons of tape.
On towards Barnsley, where the top of the Metrodome sticks up above the town like a minaret, calling the population to aquarobics. The billboards that back onto the rails are pleasingly devoid of glamour or aspiration – ‘Quality Fruit and Veg’, ‘Ron Daley MOTs’, ‘Barnsley Markets Open for Business’. Matter of fact announcements from a matter of fact town.
The train shudders to a stop in front of a row of lads waiting for the Leeds train in the uniform of the day-time drinker – short-sleeve shirts, jeans and shoes. The child starts crying again. The side of the Interchange, more optimistic than the town’s hoardings, is decorated with community artwork along a theme of travel destinations; a skier, a palm-tree, a beach – all of which are likely to give false sense of exoticism to anyone here to board the 226 to Thurnscoe.
With Barnsley behind you the landscape opens out once more; hills and dales, church spires serving as map markers above the roofs of Wombwell, Elescarr and Wentworth. An older couple walk hand-in-hand down a lane, whilst four stationary wind turbines do the YMCA on the horizon. Ghost signs on gable ends guide the train into Chapeltown, the Royal British Legion advertises Stones Bitter, a man on a zimmer-frame in a big beige coat struggles through a cemetery.
At Meadowhall Interchange a row of carrier bags wait for the Huddersfield train. A child cries again. A woman in a hijab asks if this is Sheffield. ‘No love, that’s the next stop’ offers an old fella by the door. She gets off anyway, leaving him to mull over his tone and wonder if he really had unwittingly plucked for sarcasm when he was looking for helpfulness.
Cranes move crane parts around a crane yard. The gold roof of a mosque glints above the remaining walls of long demolished and disused Don Valley factories, now coated in graffiti. Car showrooms, corrugated roofs and canals give way to steep-sided stone walls, roots growing between the bricks, as the railway burrows into Sheffield. Daylight returns in a burst; flickering off the glass and steel of Ponds Forge. The train stops. A child starts crying