Recently, I decided I was going to go for it. Quite simply, if I wanted to go some places and see some shit, I was going to do it, because, as the kids say, you only live once (or twice, as I heard the other day).
With my wonderful friend and colleague, Katherine Conlon, a historian with a degree in the subject from York and an MA from Bristol, we set up the website www.traveldarkly.com. This gave me a new sense of purpose – a new theme. I would explore the UK, Europe and beyond looking for freaky shit.
To start this ‘going for it’ business, I got two massive maps of the UK from Stanfords travel bookshop alongside a Lonely Planet Great Britain . I carefully and painstakingly underlined all the places in the UK that related to death, disaster and the macabre throughout history, as well as all the best railway journeys in the UK, and linked the two together. Following the advice of my great friend Kashyap, the Budget Traveller, I also acquired a copy of the Rough Guide to the Best Places to Stay in Britain on a Budget.
The latter was invaluable when, at 6pm on a Sunday, I arrived at King’s Lynn station hoping to hop on the Coast Hopper Bus – only to realise that on a Sunday the last one leaves at 4pm, and that I needed to give a very nice taxi driver the postcode of Deepdale Farm where I was going to be staying, so he could put it into his GPS wotsit-magig and take me there.
On 10th January, I left home with a suitcase filled with clothes and borrowed ski wear. The plan was a bit of the UK, followed by a ski train trip to the Jungfrau region, followed by more of the UK.
And this is when a revelation hit me. I wanted to see quite a few places, by train, in the UK that related to dark tourism. I had maps and descriptions. I knew how to split train tickets by booking different legs of a journey separately, and I knew that UK train rules from up high dictate that passengers are allowed to break their journey at any given station on any given route they are travelling, provided they do so on the day of travel.
I was headed to Deepdale Farm in Norfolk for a week, because I wanted to do some writing, I’m not wealthy enough right now to be able to afford an Arvon Foundation retreat, and the smell of woodsmoke is my favourite smell in the whole wide world. And it’s really cheap.
I had a train ticket from London to King’s Lynn. There was a replacement rail service from Ely. I had never been to Ely. There was a Cathedral in Ely that not only has a painted ceiling to rival the Sistine Chapel’s but also an architect who fell off the roof of to his death, and Oliver Cromwell’s House, which is ‘haunted,’ and the museum, which is housed in a very old gaol. Perfect. I tweeted the train operator for this route, First Capital Connect, and asked if it was possible to break the journey at Ely. It was, so I did.
On the way back from King’s Lynn, a week later, I noted that Cambridge was on the line to London. Lovely, can’t beat a stop in Cambridge. I got to King’s Lynn station and asked how much a train to London was. £33.50. This seemed awfully expensive, when it should have been £22.50 or something.
‘That’s at weekends,’ the man in the ticket office said.
‘What. A. Load. Of. Crap,’ I thought.
So I asked if I could just purchase King’s Lynn to Cambridge for £9.50. I did. I went. I saw. And then when I got to Cambridge station (taking the park and ride into town and back, which is a bitch to walk to with a suitcase otherwise) I checked for the cheapest of the two trains available – one goes to King’s Cross, one goes to Liverpool Street – I saw that the slow one to Liverpool Street, which was the area I wanted to be in anyway, was £15.90. This meant the total fare for that day, on the day, King’s Lynn to Liverpool Street with a long pause in Cambridge, was £25.40.
I don’t think the man in the ticket office was altogether impressed when I exclaimed, ‘I WIN!’
Empowered by this cheap train ticket win, I happily opened my Lonely Planet Great Britain and looked for the next trip which would follow after the train to Switzerland and back. Bristol, my hometown, then back to London.
And what’s this? What is on the line to London from Bristol? Well lot’s of places, including Swindon, where the STEAM museum is, but I’ve been to the STEAM museum, and Swindon is boring (sorry Swindon), so the answer is actually Didcot Parkway. And not because I’m looking to hang out in Didcot Parkway, but because Didcot Parkway is the gateway to Oxford.
Here’s how it will work. Following a wonderful excursion to the Jungfrau region by Eurostar, TGV Lyria, SBB and Jungfraubahn, I treated myself to a walk-up open return to Bristol, where I am sitting right here, right now, just like the Fatboy Slim song says.
On the return to London, where I will be taking afternoon tea with the wonderful Laura Porter of about.com fame, I can break my journey at Didcot Parkway, where, get this, a return to Oxford is a mere £6. £6! For all the joys of the Pitt River’s Museum and its shrunken heads, and Oxford Castle and its grizzly history, and all the pubs for gnomes…
Well I don’t mind if I do.
For more information about saving money when booking train tickets by split ticketing, journey breaks or using rail cards, see my post; How to Book Trains in the UK and Save Money