Train-stopping: The long and winding railroad

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The Independent Online
The usual train from London to Manchester takes two-and-a-half hours to cover 184 dull miles. But Simon Calder tracked down a new, wayward addition to the schedules, which adds 150 `free' miles plus eight or so hours, as it meanders around some of the loveliest scenery of England and Wales.

Poetry in motion. The stations chime by as the 3.13pm clatters along: from Clapham to Cwmbran, Warminster to Leominster, Pontypool and Prees to Piccadilly. And only a poet could have conceived so eccentric a ride as the Waterloo to Manchester "express".

In a fit of poetic genius, Wales & West has devised the most wayward train in Britain. Hitherto there have been several ways of getting from the capital to Manchester, but until this winter none of them has involved travelling via Wales, or combined the cathedral cities of Salisbury and Hereford in a single, impetuous journey.

Here's the plan. The train sets off from Waterloo on a south-westerly trajectory, ie away from Manchester. The two meandering carriages pause at Britain's busiest station, Clapham Junction, before setting off for a tour of the Ws: Wimbledon, Woking, Warminster, Westbury. They even manage to pass through two stations called Whitchurch, separated by 150 rail miles.

That's the great thing about the new service: its mere existence means that a blatantly unreasonable route has officially just become "reasonable". And because of a riffle in railway rules, standard ticket holders can take as long as they wish, changing trains at will, and don't even have to catch the 3.13 train once. So you can devise a wonderfully rambling day-trip, like this one.

Oh, and you don't even have to begin at Waterloo. As far as your ticket is concerned, London is an amorphous mass. I could have begun at Charing Cross, Blackfriars or London Bridge, but I chose to begin at Victoria. At 5.32am the train sets off, gathering speed past the brutally illuminated Battersea power station. I am heading due south. To Manchester.

The train, though, says "Brighton", so I abandon the garish Connex SouthCentral yellow as planned at Clapham Junction, and switch to the Basingstoke express.

I'd never thought much of Basingstoke before, but that's because I had never found myself with an hour to spare at the buffet on the platform. A wide spectrum of human life calls in on its way to work: stern-faced commuters, spilling coffee as they dash for the London train, railway workers heading in the opposite direction none too hurriedly, and someone in the corner whose final destination is Manchester.

Choreographing this melee is Peggy, who knows her customers as well as she knows her Brunch Muffin (a delicious compilation of cheese, sausage, bacon, tomato and egg stuffed within a single bap; with coffee and flapjack, a bargain at pounds 2.99). As the 7.15 to Waterloo approaches, the radio scornfully plays the Kinks' 'Waterloo Sunset'.

I am in paradise. Dawn is well into its stride by the time Salisbury drifts into the frame. Should you follow in my tracks, be advised that, in midwinter, 8am is the ideal time to witness the mists around the cathedral softly melting; and be warned that the through train demonstrates a philistine tendency by failing to stop here. Choose one which does. Alight in the half-light, and you can brush against English history, past the remains of the County Gaol and a hopelessly half-timbered Odeon cinema, to the most beautiful Gothic structure in the country, standing proud of the meadows that lap around her fine skirts. Check your progress on the oldest functioning clock in the world, conveniently attached to the north transept.

Despite having ticked more than 500 million times in the past 600 years, it seems to keep rather better time than the average Wales & West train. None was on time; most were delayed by 10 minutes or so, which ordinarily would be neither here nor there. But if you are trying to get here, there and everywhere and still reach Manchester in time for tea, any delay is a nuisance.

You soon cheer up, though. Five minutes out of Salisbury, the train is carving through countryside of broad downs, with kindly churches keeping watch over timid hamlets. The people who've just got on at Westbury don't seem to appreciate this performance, you muse, as the train meets up with the Avon, and floats gently downstream with it.

The ticket inspectors are uniformly a cheery bunch, and unperturbed by someone who appears to be five miles short of a cheap day return (railway parlance for a none-too-bright passenger) by insisting on travelling the long way round to Manchester. "Cor blimey, mate, good luck", was the only comment my ticket provoked.

You could subtitle this journey "England and Wales through grimy windows"; rail privatisation has not improved cleanliness. But Bath still looks magnificent through the murk as you arc around the city, and Brunel's Temple Meads station at Bristol is as palatial as Bristol Parkway is brutal.

The Severn Tunnel is here and gone in a flash. Miraculously, a rainbow appears as you emerge into Wales. Another marvel: a refreshment trolley turns up, the first train catering for five hours. A tea costs 95p, but by now you would probably pay a fiver.

Newport begins uglily, as only down-at-heel British towns can. There is no way of getting from the station to the centre without clambering over fierce railings or descending to a tangle of Faustian underpasses. This is car country, or, more specifically, truck territory. When the 40-ton fraternity decides to take over the planet, Newport will be their High Command. But when you clear the hurdles it turns out to be an intriguing town. The museum charts the Chartists, original social democrats whose struggle has interesting present-day parallels. Then down Commercial Road, which becomes progressively less well-named as you proceed south.

The saving grace is the 1906 Transporter Bridge, an enormous steel frame over the Usk river. Cables support a gondola, which carries six cars plus miscellaneous pedestrians and cyclists across the muddy watercourse every seven-and-a-half minutes - a piece of industrial archaeology that really does serve a modern-day purpose.

At last, you catch a train which is aiming broadly towards Manchester. As it hurtles north, the climate changes every mile through the spine- tingling landscapes of Chatwin's On The Black Hill.

In Abergavenny, a huge bruiser of a cloud muscles over the horizon; by Hereford, the sun bestows a benevolent midwinter sparkle upon the city. But you have to prioritise; no time to stop here, because my guidebook (a 1936 AA Road Book that I carry for its economical eloquence) promises that down the line lies "One of the most attractive English towns".

Understatement, indeed. After a couple of hours in Ludlow, I would fight its corner against Siena, Aix-en-Provence and Heidelberg. Wondrously preserved Elizabethan houses tumble down the hillside from a castle softened by the centuries to a perfect state of dereliction. The Wales & West scheduler was cruelly overlooked in the New Year's Honours; he or she deserves a CBE for introducing the British to their own country. People of Clapham Junction and Church Stretton, drinkers from Craven Arms and New Inn: you can board a train from your home and alight at what is genuinely one of the finest towns in Europe.

Winter is the ideal time to thread through the Borders. Denuded trees add a poignant fragility to the scene, heightened by forgotten, roofless relics lying abandoned in empty fields. "Little Switzerland" comes and goes on the left, the Long Mynd Hotel celebrating Victorian exuberance.

The sky, meanwhile, tries hard to snow.

Soon Shrewsbury Abbey pops up on the right, triggering trepidation; what could follow the triumph of Ludlow? Not, I wagered, something called the Shrewsbury Quest, with its resonances of touristic tackiness. But it embraces the Abbey grounds sublimely, while tracing the place and its people persuasively. On a quiet afternoon like this, the man in charge of calligraphy has time to indulge the visitor by describing the extent of medieval monastery and the vandalism of Thomas Telford - then Shropshire's Surveyor - in driving the A5 straight through the middle. A lone pulpit stands solemnly between the road and the goods yard. Its stiff verticality is mimicked on the far side by a fine Victorian postbox, a ruddy hexagon topped off with splendidly unnecessary plumes.

By now it is (a) getting dark, (b) hammering down with a malevolent mix of hail and rain, (c) approaching Crewe ("A great town with a park, splendid public buildings and enormous engineering works", urges the guidebook). Oh, Mr Porter, what shall I do? Stay on board. Finally the little Wales & West wanderer sidles into Piccadilly alongside the Virgin express from Euston. Big train, short trip. I had been going for 11 hours. Short train, big trip, great deal.

Next week: great little train trips. Part one of a series on Britain's unexpected railway journeys.