If you wonder why I’m having a day out in Derby, a place I have never been before, have only ever been through before, and which, except to its inhabitants, is not known as a place to attract tourist attention, then I have to confess it’s self-inflicted.
My previous experiences have all been in transit: a couple of coach journeys, returning from Manchester to Nottingham when the route swung south to pass through Derby first, a diversion on the way back from Belper to Droylsden when one of our players suffered a serious ankle injury when playing and had to be collected from the hospital after the match, and possibly going both ways on the day of my Sunday League visit to see Lancashire play away at Leicestershire. This is all of my relationship with Derby to date.
But I’m off there for at least some part of the day today, through nobody’s fault but my own. Last Sunday, I picked off an Amazon Kindle Fire from eBay for a mere £16.00, crowing to my clever little self, until I read the bit I’d not taken proper cognizance of: Local Collection in Person. ONLY.
Thankfully, Derby isn’t too far to travel, though it’s a damned stupid thing to have done, so I agreed a time to attend on my buyer and collect my item. And in the grand tradition of making lemonade when you find yourself up to your arse in lemons, I’ll treat it as a chance to get away, to see what it’s like there and give myself a Saturday out.
I’m at Stockport Station in my usual ample time, having picked up sandwiches in Mersey Square and a couple of tubes of Hall’s Blackcurrent Soothers for my ravaged throat. There’s half an hour to spare before my train but I can’t initially tell which platform I want, especially with the crowds milling about on the main southbound platform, platform 2. There’s a tall, slim woman with long legs and a short skirt, her long straight hair dyed a particularly appealling shade of dark red who keeps my eye from straying to the blonde who’s paired her equally short-skirt with knee-length boots: you’d think it was 1971 again.
Both disappear onto the Euston train, freeing up enough room to consult the Board and discover I want Platform 1. The 10.28 is the Cleethorpes train, announced two or three times as stopping at Sheffield and lots of points east, that is until two minutes before it arrives, when it’s transformed into Sheffield only, due to an ‘operational incident’ at Grimsby.
This very late change has me recalling a story of queuing for tickets at Old Trafford in the Nineties, when it took them 25 minutes to count no tickets, a feat of mathematical ingenuity. This draws a chirpy remark from a woman in a hooped woolly hat who’s a Blue, but despite that we’re talking as we get into the carriage, sit on opposite sides of the aisle and keep the conversation up all the way to Sheffield. Though she’s Mancunian, she lives in Prague and is here for the weekend, visiting family.
Talking means I miss the best scenery in the best weather, but we talk football, politics, Europe. If she didn’t live in the Czech Republic I’d have asked her for her name and maybe a telephone number. In fact, at Sheffield she thanks me for the conversation: her sister died six weeks ago and her last trip to Sheffield had been for her funeral: I have saved her from weeping all the way.
It’s now a beautiful blue day and the journey’s a mainly flat, rural one, with standing water in practically every low-lying field from here to Derby. We virtually sneak into the Station with almost no signs we’ve even entered a city.
I follow the nearest Way Out signs but find myself out the back in the middle of nowhere. This is actually the Pride Park exit, and the stadium roof is visible five to ten minutes walk away, but it’s no good to me and I have to ask to be allowed back in to get out the front, to the bus stop. There’s an additional parallel to Portsmouth in that I’m catching a no. 1 bus here as well.
Not immediately. The cashpoint at Stockport Station was switched off earlier so I need to find one here. In doing so I miss the first bus, which was actually a 1A, leaving me standing in a ferocious wind.
I have to make my way to Alvaston, which takes about fifteen minutes on a route that pivots around a single Urban Wind Turbine that, in such a useful wind, is not moving. A single bus journey is nothing on which to judge a city, but my instant reaction is that Derby is, well, bland.
As my seller indicated, the stop is literally outside his door, which is plastered with sheets warning off unwanted callers, with specific reference to UKIP, Brexit and racists. One of them gets particularly sarcastic. Needless to say, I approve. I sign a receipt, cross the road to the return bus stop, which is about ten yards away, far enough for a bus to come shooting past before I can signal. I have fifteen minutes to wait for the next.
This is on time (this is so not a 203 route) and we unwind ourselves out of the narrow, twisty lanes of this estate, onto the main road. There are far more stops inbound than outbound and we’re very slow returning but I’m still at the Station only 65 minutes after I got off the train.
Time for a gentle explore, but first a swift half in the Merry Widows, mainly as an excuse for the Gents. There’s lunchtime football on that I’d happily watch a bit longer if it weren’t for the racist conversation: I haven’t heard ‘P*ki’ used so frequently since about 1974.
The rather lovely barmaid, with near waist-length straight blonde hair, confirms it’s only about ten minutes walk to the City Centre on a straight road outside the side door. This leads to the back of a massive shopping complex called Intu Derby, which is sprawling and crawling inside. I look for bookshops – always a very important factor about a new place – but the best is a decent-sized W.H.Smith: no brownie points there.
Outside, I wander along a series of pedestrianised streets, mentally mapping every step for my return journey. I stroll amiably, mildly uphill, passing variously a steel sculpture of interlocking rings in an almost square, the Assembly Rooms (which I used to joke, when I lived in Nottingham, was one of ‘our’ local concert venues), and ultimately to the Cathedral.
This is impressive, architecturally if not necessarily religiously, and would make a great photo for this post had I thought to bring my new digital camera along. As it is, you’ll have to make do with a stock shot of it.
By now, I’m looking for food. I ate my sandwiches on the train from Sheffield to Derby. Once again, I’ve set my mind on Pizza Hut, or at a pinch Kentucky Fried Chicken but, just like Portsmouth, the homogenisation of our High Streets has been exaggerated. Apart from Mac(hack, plew!)Donalds and Nandos, the sit-in hot food places are either too expensive or too crowded, or both, so I settle for the nearest Greggs.
On the long walk to it, I can see a young couple staring intently at the baguettes and not moving, as if they’re trying to ingest the nutrition visually. My hot sausage roll is still in the oven and is too hot to eat directly from it, so I sit down outside. The wind is still scything along, continually blowng the chairs over, and these are metal, not plastic ones.
As soon as I move, the wind switches round 180 degrees to behind me. Derby has, sadly, lived down to my initial impression of it as flat, both geologically and in terms of interest.
There’s no rush about getting back yet. There are three Stockport trains every hour between 28 minutes past and 15 minutes too, each changing at a different Station: Sheffield, Stoke, Chesterfield. Of course I’m back at the Station when the forty minute gap starts, so I pop in a fast food takeaway and takeaway a double burger and onions. I eat this in the covered bus stop in peace, until an old tramp wanders in, talking or singing to himself (the difference is imperceptible). For a moment, I think he’s going to sit down next to me, unnecessarily and I’m ready to get up and leave. Instead, he drops down three seats away, lights a fag end and says, out loud, “That’s sweet, that is, it’s fucking sweet”. A few last, fast munches, and I’m gone.
The train leaves from Platform 5. I don’t bother hurryng, so I end up arriving just as a Sheffield-bound 09 minutes train has locked its doors. Says it all, really. There’s not much else to say. Our only stop before Sheffield is Chesterfield, where I see the twisted spire: the last time I went out for the day with my old girlfriend Mary was to Chesterfield and we visited the Church with the Spire.
From Sheffield to Stockport is an express. The light’s gone in the Hope Valley and besides I’m getting tired and a bit achey. There is, wonder of wonders, a 203 in the Bus Station: in fact, there’s two. No last wait and I’m in in time to watch United tea-time game.
So Derby, I’ve been and seen you now, and I can rest on my elongated loyalties to Nottingham and say, honestly, that you’re dull. I shall stick to going through in future. But thank you for creating the chance to share a journey with the Prague Lady, who I hope has a safe flight home.