Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Tuesday 14th February 2017

IT’S a series of mathematical torments that I reckon even Pythagoras, Isaac Newton, Descartes and Leonhard Euclid himself, rated the greatest man of figures to have walked this planet, would have given up on. Thankfully they didn’t have railway timetables to agonise over in their day.

Herald readers, being a thoroughly intelligent lot, will no doubt hear my latest miserable failure to navigate the mysteries of our British railway system and think to themselves “silly old fool, five minutes on Google and we managed perfectly well”.

But even leading travel broadcaster Simon Calder admits that, having survived the wrong kind of snow and the wrong kind of leaves on the line, many of us are struggling unsuccessfully with “the wrong kind of fares”.

I went on the Internet recently, trying to work out how much a cross-country rail trip would cost me. About a month’s pension money as it happens. In the end, confused and dejected, I made the journey in the car. Exactly calculated to drive environmentalists mad.

It’s crazy. You probably read the story about the Newcastle football fan who, in order to get the cheapest deal on an away day to Oxford, acquired no fewer than 54 tickets. And what about the businessman who was virtually criminalised because he got on a train at Lancaster, paying £92 for a seat, rather than Preston, 25 miles closer to London, where the ticket system charged a baffling £356.

They didn’t believe him and, when he refused to fork out the excess, he was met at Euston by police officers who took him away for questioning. Only when they saw CCTV was he in the clear.

Virgin Trains apologised and offered him a half-price ticket on his next trip. He was remarkably sanguine about it all. Me? I’d have demanded that Sir Richard Branson come personally to my residence and prostrate himself before me in an act of contrition.

It’s a total shambles in which passengers can save up to £200 by knowing their way round the system and breaking down journeys into a series of tickets. Advance purchase tickets are all very well if you know your exact movements months ahead, but the reality is we have a convoluted system that is, at best confusing and, at worst, a rip off.

Train operators play around with what constitutes peak time and, says Simon Calder, the regulated fare arrangement is no longer fit for purpose. It’s a game of railway chess. Two singles beat one return. Split tickets. Ultra-advance fares, Buy on-line. There are dozens of tricks travellers can employ to save money, if you’ve nothing better to do than spend hours — I wasted two hours getting nowhere on-line — and you have the sort of brain that can negotiate the mental minefield.

Anyway, it should be honest and fair, not a game where the computer savvy can scoop up the best deals while the rest stump up ludicrously high fares.

The rail industry promises the most radical overhaul of train fares for more than 30 years to remove some of the pricing absurdities. The Rail Delivery Group admits we have 16 million different train fares, but regulations built up by successive governments make it difficult to give passengers the right, simple options.

It just seems so obvious. A single fare should be half the price of a return. Short notice booking should be welcomed, not penalised. And if they are hiding their cheap fares, the companies should have their franchises taken away.

Calder calls the whole thing “a travesty”. As for my experience of attempting to book a rail trip, all I can add is “what a way to run a railway”.


THE playwright Alan Bennett, writing in his diary for 21st February, 2007, was airily dismissive of claims that W. H. Auden, a dominant personality among poets of the inter-war years, could be called “a poet of Cumbria”.

On the 100th anniversary of Auden’s’birth, Bennett said “a lot of tosh” was being talked about the subject. “Auden couldn’t have inhabited his ideal landscape, however nurturing he found the idea of it,” he wrote. “Everything about him was urban. He wanted opera, libraries, restaurants, rent boys — all the appurtenances of civilisation. You don’t find them in Penrith.”

Of all the places to discover a reopening of the Auden debate, the least expected, surely, would be a football-orientated blog. Yet that is where it surfaced this week, courtesy of Penrith Football Club secretary Ian White, who has been reading Bennett’s latest tome and, unlike me, got rather deeper into the formidable book, and Mike Amos, former Northern League supremo, who pens the unfailingly fascinating “Grass Routes” blog.

I don’t know about the fleshpots of Penrith, but I recall speaking to the late Bunty Airey, Threlkeld publican and hunting aficionado, who told me he remembered seeing Auden strolling through the village on several occasions, while staying at the property at Far Wescoe which was acquired by his father, Dr. Auden, in the late 1920s.

Indeed Auden’s parents’ ashes were scattered at Mungrisdale churchyard and further conversations I once had with local historian the late George Bott led me to believe that, while W. H. Auden could not be termed a Lakes poet in the Wordsworthian sense, he most certainly had a deep affection for Alston Moor and its industrial past, along with villages along the East Fellside.

George felt that Auden’s acquaintance with the moorlands on Cumbria’s back doorstep had been insufficiently recognised. Auden’s library reflected his interest in Alston Moor and he once bought a copy of Postlethwaite’s classic Mines and Mining in the Lake District from a bookshop in Keswick, a volume apparently from Hugh Walpole’s library. That book certainly reposed in Keswick library until a few years ago. Is it still there?

Even when abroad, Auden seems to have had Cumberland in mind. He wrote wistfully from America: “I wish I stood now on a platform at Penrith.” Of course the railways were easier to negotiate in those days. He described Dufton as “one of the quietest and loveliest villages” and High Cup Nick as “one of the holy places of the Earth”.

I received at Christmas a copy of Allan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On, the latest volume of his diaries from 2005 to 2015. Unlike Ian White, I have yet to travel beyond page 32. There are 721 pages in total. Intriguing though the book undoubtedly is, I fear it is one I may never finish.

However, I cannot help thinking that, for all that Bennett drily condemns Auden’s Cumbrian connection as tosh, the poet held a certain fascination for him. Auden appears no fewer than 21 times in the index at the back of the book.

I doubt I have the patience to look up all 21 items. Perhaps Mr. White will keep me up to speed. As for Amos’s blog, I am certain that W. H. Auden has never, whatever his local links, been joined in the same article with a dissertation on Cranstons’ meat and potato pies.


“FANCY going for a Sunday morning jog with Ron Hill?” For an aspiring runner, my mate’s invitation was too good to turn down, even if it meant getting up at 7am.

Hill was in his pomp at the time. An Olympian, he held the British and Commonwealth marathon titles. He used to come up regularly to the Lake District for training weekends and he’d just agreed to become president of our newly-formed fell running club.

He was about as big a star of the athletics world as you could get in the 1960s and when word got around that he was training locally a lot of people turned out just to see him and get his autograph.

What my pal didn’t tell me was that, for Ron Hill, a Sunday morning “jog” was 21 miles plus and we’d be heading off round Bassenthwaite Lake. The first five miles weren’t too bad, but then Ron announced apologetically, would we mind if he went on ahead a bit. By the time I staggered into the pub, three hours later, he was already on his fourth pint.

Ron’s remarkable record of having run at least a mile every day for 52 years and 39 days came to a halt last week when the 78-year-old felt severe chest pains on his daily jog and decided to seek medical help. He was due to undergo an angiogram earlier this week and, depending on the outcome, have a stent fitted. Hill reckons that, given a favourable hospital report, he will be hitting the roads again quite soon. But when it comes to Ron’s Sunday runs, I’m permanently unavailable.