(james benedict brown) on the road

Sunbathing at Ely station

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 12 May, 2008

The inverse law of blogging content is in effect again. The more that happens, the less that I write. I’m just a few weeks away from finishing my taught postgraduate degree, so although my eyes, ears and mind are processing more than usual, I’m just not able to spend the time ruminating on it here.

A few weeks ago I headed home to Norfolk for one last weekend before the final push. A certain octogenarian was celebrating a birthday, so much eating, drinking and celebrating took priority over technical reports and design submissions.

This will probably have been my last trip home from Sheffield to Norfolk. On and off for the last seven years, I’ve traveled between the city and the countryside: two beautiful parts of England that I have grown to call home in different senses. The tranquil countryside of East Anglia, a low-lying rural landscape of fields and forests, and the confused modern city of Sheffield, an industrial powerhouse turned into an uneasy regenerated metropolis.

I traveled between my two ‘homes’ in a number of ways. I’ve driven a selection of cars (my crumbly Saab, two Nissans, a handful of Fords and the odd Vauxhall panel van) and I’ve even taken the god-awful National Express (six and a half hours, including fourty-five minutes in Peterborough and an hour in Leicester). By car the journey takes about two and a half hours, dropping south a few miles on the M1, before crossing east to the A1M and then south again, before another turn east and across the fens. By bus it’s decidedly less direct, and infinitely less comfortable. But my most frequent steed on this cross-country journey has been the ambling shed known as the Liverpool – Norwich train.

If you forgive me for blogging just one last time about this hideous service, I promise not to complain ever again. For seven years I have endured this shameful service. As a child traveling by train through Ely station (approximately halfway between by childhood homes of Cambridge and west Norfolk) I might have glimpsed a shabby but generous rake of first and second class carriages being hauled by a full size locomotive. Intercity passenger service between East Anglia and Scotland and the north-west of England was provided by old but reliable full service passenger trains. Then in the eighties came the Sprinter – the apparent “saviour” of cross-country passenger transport. The Sprinter was a family of self-propelled diesel rail cars, normally operating as single or two carriage trains. No need for a big old locomotive up front; just sling a couple of smaller engines under the coaches and off you go. No first class. No real luggage space to speak of. No buffet. Nowhere to park a bicycle.

I started traveling between Sheffield and Brandon in 2001. The train I took was the Liverpool – Norwich service, an hourly connection between the west and the east, calling at Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and several other major towns along the way. It’s a five hour slog from one side of Britain to the other, three hours for my trip. It could easily feel like double, since the minuscule trains were always dirty and always overcrowded. Intercity passengers carry luggage with them, and with precious little space it’s usually in the aisles or blocking the doors. Impoverish commuters who use shorter segments of the route for their daily travels usually ended up standing.

The first post-privatisation franchisee Central Trains were canned in 2007. I did not shed a tear for them, fans as they were of truncating my routes with unannounced cancellations and even unannounced diversions. On one occasion my Sheffield – Norwich train magically transformed into a Sheffield – Birmingham train at Nottingham station. No announcement was given. I was well on my way in the opposite direction to Leicester before the guard told me.

The problems with Central Trains were considered to be so fundamental that the franchise was dissolved into other neighbouring operators. The Liverpool-Norwich service went – bizarrely – to a new company called East Midlands Trains (EMT). The bad fit of this route with this franchise is only emphasised by the fact that the train is only in the East Midlands for about an hour of its five hour journey. And while I don’t miss Central Trains, the franchise split has not benefited my journey. EMT are chronically short of suitable trains to operate this franchise, and have to borrow a few from a sister company to operate this service. Hence some confusion went a train bearing the name South West Trains pulls into Sheffield station.

But it is a three hour journey that has become so familiar, it is now almost subconsciously lodged in my memory. The first hour from Sheffield to Nottingham is through the last rolling hills and dry stone walls of Derbyshire and into the industrial cities of Nottinghamshire. The second hour from Nottingham to Peterborough takes us across the wide open fields of Licolnshire and down the relatively fast east coast mainline. The last hour from Peterborough to Thetford is the most dramatic; upon leaving Peterborough the chatter of passengers in the train begins to recede. Within minutes of leaving one great cathedral city we are following a near-dead straight track for the next – a rapid run across the magnificent Cambridgeshire fens, where the sky suddenly opens up into an arc above us, consistently the deepest blue (whatever the weather) above the blackest soil I’ve seen.

At Ely the astonishing cathedral emerges on the horizon, and the train pulls into the third platform of a regional interchange station. One north-south line connects London and Cambridge (south) with King’s Lynn (north); our east-west line connects Peterborough (west) with Norwich (east); and a solitary branch heads south-east towards Bury St. Edmund’s and Ipswich. The trains shudders to a halt, the driver and guard switch ends, and we chunter off back the way we came in to leave Ely by another line. Scrubland and wetlands appear, and then the deep woods of Thetford Forest envelop the train.

Hour by hour, this three hour journey in a tired and unreliable railcar has become – for better or for worse – my cushion between city and countryside. Three segments of an hour each; three hours to unwind, read, think and watch my country roll by.

I left Norfolk on Monday morning to return to Sheffield, and boarded the Liverpool train bound for Sheffield for what could be the last time. I was already in a thoughtful frame of mind as we approached the turn-around in Ely. The significance of one final train ride to Sheffield was not lost on me.

But at Ely something went wrong. Or to use the words of the train manager, “something exploded” under one of the two railcars. A major component in one of the rattly diesel engines had gone pop, and left a bedraggled heap of debris on the track. With only one working engine, the train didn’t have enough power to drag itself onwards. With such a fragmented privatised railway, there were no back-up trains near-by to help us. We were instructed to step off the train and relax for a while – the next train to Liverpool was due in an hour, and it would have to couple up and drag us the rest of the way.

The orange-suited driver paced the trackbed and reached under the train to remove more debris. Passengers for Peterborough and Scotland were directed to another train. Those of us going to Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool remained on the station, sunning ourselves on one of the first noticeably warm days of spring. Under a bright blue sky I remembered all the times I’ve been delayed at this fenland railway station. At least it was warmer than the last time I had a connection here.

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Snapshots: Thetford Station

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 11 April, 2008

How to organise a piss-up in an airport, on a train, etc…

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 28 March, 2008

Sitting in the studio this afternoon, I used my university’s wireless internet service to log on to the website of the BBC, and watched the six o’clock bulletin from my nation’s public broadcaster. Top of the news this afternoon was the unfolding chaos at London Heathrow’s fifth airport terminal. More than a decade in the making, and costing in the region of £3.4 billion, Terminal Five opened this morning to an attentive pack of representatives of the world media. And within six hours, it had demonstrated what makes Britain so great: our complete inability to organise a piss-up in a brewery. Within minutes of the first plane’s arrival at the new terminal (the overnight 747 service from Hong Kong) it was apparent that something was wrong. The baggage handling systems and staff were hopelessly unprepared for the terminal’s first day of operations.

By the end of the day, and the first of the evening’s national television news broadcasts, Heathrow Terminal Five had become a national joke. Years of preparation and months of careful pre-opening publicity had been burnt to ashes by a single day of chaos. The big idea had been so appealing: while not actually increasing Heathrow’s capacity, it would finally group all British Airways services under one roof, and allow for the other terminals to be refurbished and rationalised.

Today started badly, when staff who were reporting for their first day of real duty, reportedly encountered just two open security channels at the staff entrance. The first queues of the day were not at check-in or baggage reclaim, but outside the staff entrance. Then as the day progressed, and as the first flights departed for various European destinations, it became apparent that the complex baggage handling system installed in the hidden levels of the new terminal was playing up. It could have been because of software, it could have been because of the staff getting used to a new system. Who knows. But on national and international news this evening, the world watched a clip of a helpless British Airways employee trying to send a suitcase on its merry way down a conveyor belt. Repeated button pressing did not produce the desired result, and the suitcase would not budge.

In an effort to build some ‘slack’ into the system, British Airways cancelled some three or four dozen flights (mostly, it seems with perfect irony, to the enviously well organised nation of Germany). But it didn’t work. By the time a British Airways manager had hurriedly brought a statement out to the ravenous press at 18h25 (at least an hour too late, when you consider the importance of getting your side of the story to the press before the all important early evening news broadcasts) it had almost all gone to pot. Departing passengers couldn’t check in any baggage. They could mostly check-in and fly, but they couldn’t take any checked luggage, regardless of where they were flying. One television reporter interviewed a passenger en route to a wedding in Hong Kong. She would have to attend the wedding without her carefully chosen dress, and without the gifts for the happy couple.

The day’s events were top of the agenda in the pub this evening. Presented with an opportunity to demonstrate to the world how to build and operate a world class airport, Britain has come up with some very foul smelling egg on its face. Heathrow is the world’s most intensively used international airport, but it is also one of the world’s worst for the safe delivery and transferral of bags. Aware of their poor reputation at a bad airport, British Airways was delighted to present to the world a new terminal and a new promise: check-in to departure lounge in ten minutes.

How badly they have failed. And to think that not only have we another four airport terminals to refurbish at Heathrow, we also have to stage the Olympics in 2012.

Standing beside me at the bar this evening, a friendly architecture colleague asked me a poignant question.

“We made fun of the Greeks when they were getting ready for the last Olympics, but they did it in time. Four years to go, and have we even started building any of the Olympic park?”

“Well, I think they’ve demolished a few old factories, but…”

I gave up. I can’t defend my nation. We make some great beer, but we can’t even build an airport terminal that works. Especially one for more than ten people.

On a smaller scale of building works, I turned to look at the pub around me. After it’s ten month closure for refurbishment (the building had, according to some reliable ale-drinking sources, been on the verge of complete collapse) the Brown Bear pub on Norfolk Street in Sheffield has re-opened for business. The Brown Bear sits on the ground floor of a modest three storey, double fronted building on Norfolk Street. Local readers who are still not familiar with this hostelry might be able to place it if I describe it as being on the street between the Crucible Theatre and the naff new hotel by the Peace Gardens, just next to the Old Monk.

I was introduced to the Brown Bear a few years ago by a trusted friend schooled in the architect’s trade. The Brown Bear is the only pub in Sheffield’s city centre managed by the Samuel Smith Brewery. The brewery has a few other outlets in town, although I’ve never had the determination to visit them I have promised myself that I will before I leave the city. Even the most dedicated beer drinker might not have heard of Samuel Smith, but they will certainly have heard of his son. Samuel and John Smith were Tadcaster brewers who, at some point in their successful joint career, chose to part company and develop separate breweries in the same town. John Smith’s brewery passed hands a few times before finally ending up in the hands of Scottish & Newcastle, one of Britain’s largest alcohol producing conglomerates. Sam Smith’s, however, remained independent to the core, and now manage a network of pubs across the country, including a handful in the capital. That is my potted history of the two Smith breweries – forgive me if I’ve mangled it.

The Brown Bear imprinted itself on my social map of Sheffield very rapidly, namely because it was without a doubt the cheapest pub I had ever found in the city. A pint of bitter could be yours for just £1.31. Not £1.30 or £1.35, but £1.31. Handing over the precise change seemed to enforce the notion that every possible cost had been pared to the bone. With the exception of a few salted snacks, Samuel Smith pubs only stock Samuel Smith’s products. Every beer, every soda, every bottled product and every spirit on the optic rack is either produced (or imported) and distributed by the brewery. There are no generic branded lagers here, although if that’s your tipple you should try the superb Alpine Lager that is so popular it has its own summertime London pub crawl named after it.

Despite a lengthy refurbishment, and some notable improvements to the building (flagstones on the floor of the bar, new fixtures and fittings, etc.) the Brown Bear has returned to Sheffield’s night scene with a suitably modest bar menu. After quitting the studios this evening I was delighted to have a pint of the brewery’s finest ale in my hands for just £1.39. It was so smooth and creamy, and the good company was so obliging, that I had to have another. Both rooms of the little pub – which is served by a double fronted bar – were packed. Looking around me I was delighted to rediscover the old crowd that had made this pub such a delightful haunt before the refurbishment. Located so close to the city’s magnificent trio of theatres, there was a perceptible group of people who were dressed as if on their way to an evening’s performance. Meanwhile in certain corners of the bar were a distinct group of older drinkers, the regulars who appeared to have returned en masse, celebrating the exceptionally cheap beer and warm fireside company. Back in great numbers, as well, were the students. Just a stone’s throw from Sheffield Hallam University, and directly on my route from Sheffield University to the railway station, it was no surprise to discover that the Brown Bear’s re-opening had not gone unnoticed.

Although it would have pleased me greatly, I couldn’t stay in the Brown Bear for long. A tight window between leaving the university and getting to the railway station had been calculated, and I had to be on my way to catch the last train of the day for London (currently the 20h39 departure, for those of you who get distracted by the city’s charming hostelries). It’s a five minute walk to the station, and I was safely there in time to collect tickets, buy supplies for the journey and find my platform.

The last train of the day from Sheffield to London is a typical post-privatisation service. A miniaturised four carriage rake of self-propelled diesel railcars, with one coach for first class and three for ‘standard’ class. I, like many others on board, had secured a deeply discounted seat long in advance, paying less than £5 for the two-and-a-half hour journey to the capital (others had paid less than me). On board, with writing to complete and a newspaper to consume, I visited the compact on-board buffet. The recently elected franchisee of this train service (East Midlands Trains) originally proposed to rip out the buffet counters from these trains and replace them with roving trolley services, but apparently underestimated the amount of work involved and the number of complaints that this plan aroused from passengers. I chatted to the buffet’s lone member of staff, who remarked that the management was wisely “having second thoughts” about their plans for these trains.

“If you had to sell from a trolley you’d spend half your time battling through luggage at that end of the train…” she said, with a wave of her arm towards coach A, ‘the designated quiet coach’.

It being the last train of the day, all sandwiches were half price and all Danish pastries were reduced to eighty pence. But in need only of refreshment for the journey, I bought a beer, and returned to my seat to work and eat the sandwich I’d brought with me from home. Since the buffet only stocked the most recognised brands of snacks and beverages, I sat down with a can of John Smith’s “Extra Smooth”.

As I popped open the can, and listened to the patented ‘widget’ bounce around the can to ensure a smoothly poured beer, I considered what the Smith family might have thought to this modern day tale. Two hundred and fifty years after the foundation of what is now Samuel Smith’s Brewery (the oldest in Yorkshire), Samuel and John Smith’s breweries had been the exclusive suppliers of my evening’s beverages. One’s brewery had remained true to its honest roots, supplying only a small network of locally managed small scale pubs. The other had entrusted his empire to a succession that finally sold out, and whose frankly forgettable produce was now procurable on cramped diesel railcars, shuttling between Yorkshire and London. As I tapped away at my laptop (plugged into an admittedly convenient passenger power outlet) I tried to imagine whether this would be the environment in which to savour a pint of Sam Smith’s traditional ale, or a can of his brother’s globally exported and famously recognised branded beer. I may not approve of the globalising tactics of modern day corporations, but at least their activities and products make me appreciate the real thing even more. I drank my can of John Smith’s contentedly, and looked forward to my return to Sheffield the following night. After a visit to our hectic, chaotic and overpriced capital, a few glasses of Samuel Smith’s exceptionally smooth and exceptionally well priced ale will be in order.

Rule #1 of indy podcasting: don’t waste time asking

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 3 March, 2008

What’s it like inside the mind and email inbox of an amateur podcaster? Here are some e-mails sent and received in preparation of the production and recording of ontheroad podcast episode 07. Proof, if I ever really needed it, that there’s no point asking when you know that the answer is likely to be no.

From: James Brown
To: Debbie M_____, East Midlands Trains
Date: Wednesday, 13 February, 2008 11:13:11 AM
Re: Podcast recording at Sheffield Station

Dear Ms Mather,

I’ve been passed your contact details by the EMT customer relations team.

I am a postgraduate student at the University of Sheffield, and an independent podcaster. I produce about six podcasts a year, which record the places and people I meet on my travels. The podcast currently has a very small audience (three figures max) who access the podcast through my website and iTunes.

For Valentines Day, I want to produce a short episode of the podcast that speaks to the people waiting for their loved ones at Sheffield station. Every year I see countless people waiting with large bouquets of flowers, and each one will have a story that I am interested to hear.

I am therefore seeking your permission to spend a couple of hours towards the end of Valentines Day at Sheffield station, asking those who are obviously waiting for loved ones who they are waiting for, how they met etc. I will only record these conversations with their permission, and will not seek to disrupt the smooth running of the station. No commercial gain will be made from this activity, and East Midlands Trains will naturally be credited in the podcast.

For more details about the ephemeral nature of the show, please see:

https://jamesbrownontheroad.wordpress.com/the-ontheroad-podcast/

You can reach me by email or on 07790 XXXXXX.

Many thanks,

James Brown

A few hours later, I got a reply. Unfortunately…

From: Debbie M_____, East Midlands Trains
To: James Brown
Date: Wednesday, 13 February, 2008 4:02:08 PM
Re: Debbie Mather is out of the office…

I will be out of the office starting 13/02/2008 and will not return until 20/02/2008.

I’ll respond to your message on my return.

This email and any files transmitted with it are confidential and intended solely for the use of the individual or entity to whom they are addresses. If you have received this email in error please notify the East Midlands Trains IT Department on 44 (0) 1332 XXXXXX.

So, in the quandry of a tight deadline and no official permission to record, I did what any self respecting podcaster would do. I went ahead and made the show anyway. Good thing that I did, because a week later…

From: Debbie M_____, East Midlands Trains
To:James Brown
Date: Wednesday, 20 February, 2008 8:15:27 AM
Re: Podcast recording at Sheffield Station

Hello James

As I am sure you can imagine we receive quite a number of requests to use our premises as a filming or recording location. For commercial filming we charge upwards for £250 per hour and we simply do not have the resource to make arrangements free of charge, as each request requires certain administrative work and supervision on the day.

I am afraid we cannot give permission to you and I apologise for any disappointment this may cause.

Regards

Debbie M_____
Communications Executive
East Midlands Trains

So, retrospective permission for the podcast that was recorded, edited and published a week earlier could not be given. Should I be expecting a bill?