Hello again to one and all and the beginning of yet another trip which I was hoping would be less eventful than the last one which had only finished the night before. If you have been reading my posts sequentially then you will know that I had arrived back from a somewhat extended visit to Thanet which had deposited me at home just before midnight the previous evening after about two and a half months in Thanet which itself had come after a quick turnaround from a jaunt back to Northern Ireland. I had virtually forgotten what my own flat (apartment) looked like and, if you are interested, it was still as untidy as I remembered it and with the customary heap of mail piled up behind the door.
I was up and about good and early and disposed of the mail which I had walked over the night before. That took about five minutes as a good proportion of it was junk and the rest merely bank statements and the like which were duly filed i.e. thrown on the precariously high pile on my coffee table. I swear that if it ever topples and hits the floor it is liable to register on the Richter scale. I really must get round to sorting it one of these years (I am not joking about that) but not just yet.
With the office work out of the way it was time to pack for my little expedition which consisted of removing the bag of dirty laundry and replacing it with a few clean T-shirts, socks and underwear all of which took another two minutes. I can honestly say that my little rollalong suitcase has not been fully unpacked since the day I bought and first packed it a couple of years ago which probably says something about my lifestyle. A quick shower and I was back out the door a little under 12 hours since I had walked through it. At least I know my home had not burned down, been burgled or flooded which are my major concerns when I am away.
I wandered to the Tube and wrestled my way onto it. Unless I am flying I use a soft guitar case with straps that you wear like a rucksack which is very convenient but I am 6’5″ and it sits well above my head so I have to do a passable Quasimodo impersonation to get on and off a Tube because of the low doors. It must look quite comical. I arrived at Kings Cross in good time for a change as I usually end up rushing like mad and got my pre-booked seat on a lunchtime departure to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The reserved seat is free and is even required on certain services especially round the mas period but I suppose that is the least they can do at the obscene prices the franchises are allowed to charge on the British rail network although this franchise is unusual as I shall explain below.
An off peak return booked in advance cost me £118 and in the interest of research I have just looked up what an off peak fare for this afternoon. £165 single. Yes, you read that correctly, it is appalling and to make it even more ridiculous the fare to Edinburgh, a further 120 miles is £166. I will never understand the ticketing policy on British railways.
The East Coast service is now operated by the London and Northeastern Railway (LNER) operation which is unusual in that it is Government controlled with all other routes having been franchised out to mostly foreign owned companies with the end of nationalised railways in 1996. It was operated by several different operators, latterly Virgin Trains East Coast who, despite the name, were 90% owned by the Stagecoach group but they handed it back in 2018 amidst huge financial losses. I have to say that it is very unusual for anything bearing Richard Branson’s name not to profit and with the sharp business practices of Stagecoach I was surprised they could not make a go of it.
I would not count myself as a trainspotter nor an “anorak” and you certainly will not find me on a windswept platform somewhere dutifully noting down loco numbers but I do love trains and train travel and take every opportunity to use that mode of transport. I never fly home to Northern Ireland now or to destinations in the nearer parts of continental Europe as I much prefer the vastly more civilised train / ferry options available which I discovered through the fantastic Man in Seat 61 website which I recommend thoroughly for anyone planning rail travel anywhere in the world. I often browse it just for fun when I should really be keeping this blog up to date!
The new franchise has “borrowed” the LNER name from the company that operated the line in the heyday of rail travel from 1923 virtue of the Railways Act 1921 until nationalisation in 1948 and even the name conjures up evocative images of the great days of steam. Just about everyone has heard of the Flying Scotsman which fairly flew between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh but it was the Mallard which also ran the route that has the distinction of holding the world record for the fastest steam powered speed at an incredible 126 mph. I wonder what Robert Stephenson would have made of that.
Today the rolling stock is electric and pretty comfortable and I spent the majority of the journey just looking out the window eventhough I had taken the usual precaution of bringing a book. For good portion of the start of the journey the track follows the route of the canal system which the rilways eventually killed off and which is another great love of mine. I love canals and narrowboats and have crewed for friends who own their own as well as having had several excellent leisure trips, one of which XXXX you can see here if you would like a flavour of life “on the Cut”. It is actually quite logical that the two networks run parallel as both dislike gradients and will take the line of least resistance through the topography.
Three hours later I alighted at the lovely Newcastle station having crossed the River Tyne on one of the several bridges that are going to feature heavily in the imagery in this section of posts and for which I make no apology. At the risk of sounding like some old spaced out hippy, bridges are another thing I love, along with trains, canals, military history, places of worship and places of liquid refreshment and they shall all feature heavily on this trip. I love a lot of things really.
I can actually date the last time I was in Newcastle Station although I have passed through it more times than I can count. It was in 1977 when my parents still harboured notions of me going to University and, along with Queen’s in my home city of Belfast, I had applied to Newcastle and Sheffield and went to both cities to be shown round by students already there. In truth, I already knew there was no way I was going to pass my A levels but it seemed like a good excuse for a jaunt and I recall leaving there on a tortuous train journey to Liverpool to get the boat back to Northern Ireland whilst nursing the hangover from Hell which had been caused by the very sociable nature of my student hosts. I have never drunk Vaux beer since!
As promised, Paul met me at the gate and insisted on taking my case which wasn’t really necessary as I had managed this far but much appreciated. He is a lovely bloke, very considerate and a great friend but he really did seem to be taking rather a lot of care of me and it was only later in the trip that he admitted he thought I was still quite ill and that he was surprised how well I was looking. Again I was a bit surprised at the way people were reacting to me as I felt great. A little weak perhaps but that was all.
We went down into the adjacent Metro system and Paul gave me a quick rundown on the intricacies of the ticket machine which was simple enough. We were to spend a lot of time on the Metro which is handy but seems to be prone to about as many delays as the London Underground as shall be described in future posts. The image above was taken later as you can see by the fact it is dark, but it will serve to liven up the page as I have very few images for this day.
Paul lives in the lovely (and pretty posh) suburb of Jesmond about which I was to lean much during my stay and he is about equidistant from Jesmond and West Jesmond stations. We alighted at the latter and on exiting I was greatly heartened to see the Lonsdale Hotel bang opposite the station not that pubs were of the same use to me as they had been three months previously but I still have a habit of noting them. We made it to his house in good order and I got settled in which took about two minutes. Guitar case left in the hallway for imminent use, suitcase in the bedroom and I was sorted.
Paul’s wife Sue is a great cook and I should point out here that I do not pick my friends solely on their culinary abilities as I have friends that cannot boil an egg but many of my friends are excellent in the kitchen and so we had a lovely meal and then it was back on the road, well the Metro, and off to Hebburn where we had a gig that night with his band Shamrock Street. I should explain that I have been promising for literally years to come up to visit and play a few sessions or whatever and for various reasons it had never happened. Paul’s regular guitarist was away on holidays and he had asked me if I could come up and sit in for a few engagements. No problem, it would be another few venues and a new city to add to my CV.
The venue in question was the Hebburn Iona Social Club which is typical of Northern “working men’s clubs”. It is huge, very comfortable and the drink is cheap! I really do wonder how pubs compete and, indeed, this may be one of the reasons so many pubs are closing in these days when every penny counts. Again, the images were taken later as I didn’t stop to take one then.
I had not bothered to ask what sort of gig it was but one look at the large function room where we were to play made it obvious that it wasn’t going to be a sit in the corner and play acoustic session. Paul had told me to make sure I brought a lead for my guitar, which I always carry anyway and there was a decent sized PA in the process of being set up by Ged the fiddle and whistle player / vocalist and Martin the logistics guy / percussionist. A quick introduction where I was made most welcome and a quick pint procured, it was time to get set up. In my case the pint was that awful “ciderwater” which is half and half cider and soda water and was necessitated by my continuing medication. Remember that I had never played with these guys but I have done that many times before and it is no problem. By the time it came to starting time we had been joined by a couple of accordianists and so we were a decent sized outfit.
It had been explained to me that it was effectively a singers night and that I would have to be on my toes finding keys as people just took off in whatever key they fancied or, worse still, announced they would be singing in one key and then sang in a completely different one. No problem. As I always say, have capo, will travel! I am not being unkind but I felt like a youngster in there and I am most certainly not a spring chicken any more. Without exaggeration I would suggest the average age of the audience was about 70. I was sitting extreme stage right and was quickly engaged in a wonderful conversation by a trio of “golden age” Geordies who could not have been friendlier and seemed quite amazed that I had travelled all the way from London to play here. With me being the way I am I was flirting outrageously with the two old dears and joking with the man, all of which seemed to cause general hilarity.
Ged had very kindly introduced me as their “special guest” so no pressure then. It turned out to be a great night with an excellent standard of singers and certainly plenty of them, most of whom I even found the keys for eventually. Maybe it is a Northeastern thing but the key of F seemed very popular and the capo stood me in good stead. I really enjoyed myself and it seemed like only minutes until it was time to finish and for Paul and I to get the Metro home. Ged and Martin live nearby and were walking.
A quick coffee and I was off to bed, more than ready for it. I had really hit the ground running and I knew I had a lot more playing to do not to mention a bit of sightseeing no matter what the weather was going to throw at me. In the next post I do some local exploration, eat haggis and play an impromptu gig with a bona fide pop star in the audience. To find out who it was, and as always, stay tuned and spread the word.