The Rail Holiday Maker
Transpennine Excess #2
So, we've lolloped around in an erstwhile Ladies First Class Lounge in Lancashire, supping a swift stout no doubt. Now it's time for this lad to make his meandering way home. Deliberately taking the slow stopping train from Stalybridge across the Pennines towards Huddersfield gives plenty of time to see the hills and vales of the England’s backbone. At the Lancashire village of Diggle, where the station is long gone, the train enters Standedge Tunnel, re-emerging near Marsden in Yorkshire. Before the train slouches towards Huddersfield we alight at Marsden itself for an extra treat.
Marsden is an unassuming Pennine town that spawned the current Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. In fact, these green and grey hills of West Yorkshire have a knack for producing poets, with Ted Hughes originating from the Calderdale village of Mytholmroyd, just across the M62. Whilst there’s a station pub here and also a brewpub, we’ll by-pass them and take the short walk along the towpath of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, which brings us back to Standedge itself. If you don’t fancy the walk and are lucky, there is a very occasional water taxi from Marsden Station to Standedge, operated by Huddersfield Canal Society volunteers.
Standedge (pronounced 'Stannidge') Tunnel and its visitor centre are maintained by the Canal & River Trust, commemorating the history and construction of Britain’s longest, deepest and highest canal tunnel. What you are met with isn’t one tunnel though, as there are four parallel tunnels hewn into the Pennine rock between here and Diggle. The canal tunnel came first, opening in 1811, followed by a single track rail tunnel in 1848 and another single track rail tunnel in 1871. These tunnels weren’t sufficient to ease the bottleneck of transpennine rail traffic back then, and so a double track rail tunnel was built too, opening in 1894. Only the canal tunnel and the 1894 rail tunnel are in use today, although the two closed rail tunnels have been maintained and it has been suggested that they could reopen. If you have time you can take a narrowboat trip into the tunnel. Otherwise, after a quick look at the Visitor Centre’s excellent display, the canalside café serves excellent food and local bottled beer.
From Marsden our train descends to Huddersfield via the excellently Yorkshirely named Slawit, or Slaithwaite to non-locals. Huddersfield is a rare treat for the thirsty traveller not wishing to venture far from the station, with two pubs accessible from platform 1. You see the once distinguished woollen town’s rather grand classical station façade is bookended by what were the symmetrically built ticket halls of two rival railway companies, now both converted into pubs. It is worth venturing out onto St George Square first though to admire the building, the statue of Huddersfield lad made good, Harold Wilson, and to take a peek at the George Hotel, now controversially closed for what seems like an eternal refurb, but the birthplace of Rugby League in 1895. Looking back at the station frontage, the Head of Steam is in the left hand former ticket hall behind the classical columns. The Kings Head is in the right hand ticket hall and gets my vote for its ornate tiled floor and selection of ales.
Moving on. On to Dewsbury, where there isn’t such a tricky choice but where you can also access a great pub directly from the platform. The West Riding is probably the best pub in town for real ale, hearty bar food, railwayana and a cosy atmosphere. After docking in Dewsbury for a Doppelbock, it's time to brace yourselves for the excitement of Leeds.
I first moved to Leeds as a student in 1989 when it seemed like a dark post-industrial city, unwelcoming to bookish long-haired drips. I enjoyed my student years there, but slipped home to South Yorkshire regularly for the comfort blanket of belonging. Leeds didn’t feel like home. I left four years later, but moved back in 2001 to live with my now wife, a Leodensian. Leeds has since been transformed into a cosmopolitan city, but with architecture unscathed by war like no other major northern industrial centre. They say you should always look up when walking round Leeds and it is really worth cricking your neck.
Leeds did eventually feel like home. It took long enough, but it chipped away and eventually won a place in my heart. And Leeds Station is the gateway for me, the sigh of relief after any arduous journey, from its leaky days back in my youth to the smart station of today. But don’t just stay at Leeds Station. Explore a little. The Corn Exchange, the wonderful Victorian Kirkgate Market, the arcades and the ornate buildings that were spared Nazi bombs. For refreshment, from the pedestrianised Briggate shopping street you will find little alleyways, called “ginnels” in Leeds, each with their own hostelry. The best is Whitelocks, with its cosy bar and outdoor seats along the ginnel. It’s the oldest pub in the city, dating from 1715.
The next stop on our route of transpennine excess would be York, a great railway city and home of the best railway museum in the world. Add to this the Minster, the city walls, the museums, the galleries and the bridges across the Ouse and you have a perfect tourist city. Hell, it’s got dozens of great pubs too, plus its own brewery within the city wall, although the York Tap at the station is the perfect place to sit waiting for a delayed train. And, boy, I’ve had that experience more than a few times! But I’m not going as far as York. My last station is Garforth. Home is where your loved ones live. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey. Where shall we go next?