It’s been five and a half months since my last Expedition, the ill-fated one that didn’t get me anywhere near Patterdale. Today’s Easter Saturday, the sun is up, the skies are flat blue and I’m awarding myself a day out. This one is to a rather more prosaic destination: I’m going to Nottingham.
Nottingham? Why? The East Midlands is not high on anyone’s list of outings, especially in this sort of weather. Couldn’t I find somewhere better?
Put in those terms, the answer is obviously yes. But I spent two years of my early Twenties living in Nottingham, I’ve written a novel rooted in those experiences, and I’m currently working on the second of two sequels, which includes scenes in Nottingham, so the Expedition is split down the middle between nostalgia and research. I wonder if I could claim the train fare back against my taxes?
The plan is to catch the 9.54am train from Stockport to take advantage of the much-reduced Off-Peak fares. My paranoia about missing trains is under reasonable control these days, but I was on Platform 0 with no mishaps or panics with fifteen minutes to spare. Which is just as well, for what arrives is the Norwich train, which is two coaches only and most of the seats reserved. I quickly found one that wasn’t and stuck to it like glue.
But the train was crowded, and chaotic, and I was on the aisle with no possibility of looking at the green scenery. No room for anything but my mp3 player, my book and the occasional swallow of Diet Coke.
There was a real shock at Sheffield when, having debouched some of the passengers and taken on thankfully fewer, the train backed out the way it had come in. Nobody seemed fussed and the next stop was still Chesterfield, when the crowds thinned out enough to lose the standing passengers. I was grateful of that: I’d already spent more time with a bloke’s arse rubbing up against my upper arm than I’d budgeted for my whole lifetime.
This was only the third time I’d gone to Nottingham by train. The first was for my interviews (two, at different firms, both of which I flunked) of which I can remember nothing but the excellent instructions on getting there from the station. The other was New Year’s Day 1979, when snow and ice had made the roads too dangerous to risk, and I needed two trains, change at Sheffield, and my Principal was stunned to find me there when I was supposed to be because of the travel problems.
Now, there are direct trains, when once it was nothing but changes.
I’d been travelling backwards since Sheffield, and I wish I could say I was doing so mentally or emotionally. It would be neat, appropriate, literary but it would also be untrue, not just a mere exaggeration. But though I used to make regular trips down here, in my car, I haven’t been to Nottingham since the last century, and I have had no contact with anyone here in all that time. Several of them have died, which is understandable: my contemporaries are all in their sixties by now. No, this is not a pilgrimage.
There was not a thing I remembered about Nottingham Station, though it marked the first place that I needed to research. I exited onto Carrington Street and immediately turned left, assuming this road would, at some extension, take me to Trent Bridge, Forest’s ground, the Cricket ground and the road to West Bridgeford. But I was wrong. Proving that irony still runs rampant in my life, this was where I was asked for directions by a pretty young woman in a car and a very short skirt.
My primitive bump of location worked better in the opposite direction, leading me to and through the Broadmarsh Centre and into Lister Gate. I emerged into my memories, knowing where I was, and that forty years hadn’t wrought enough change for me to possible lose myself.
From that point on, I felt as if I was walking an invisible maze, it’s walls defined by recollection. Names that used to be the network of Saturday afternoon shopping trips. Up Low Pavement, into Bridlesmith Gate, where the original Selectadisc used to be, though I couldn’t spot where exactly. The heat, exacerbated by the jacket I’d insisted on wearing because, you know, drove me into Waterstones, a source of temptations. But I had a list of second hand bookshops I wanted to visit, and I was determined only to buy from any of these.
The Market Square was not too far away on my left but ahead was dear old Clumber Street, where our offices were. I gently weaved through the tide of people, but try as I might I couldn’t work out where we’d been, we being Hunt, Dickins & Willatt, Solicitors, which hasn’t existed for a long time.
I moved on, just as I used to at 5.00pm, when I could go home, but I turned left into Upper Parliament Street, circling the Market Square. What used to be merely the Nottingham Building Society – and how many mortgages did my customers take out with them? – was still there, recalling to me their fantastic window displays, one of which was endless Sunday pages devoted to Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland that I would study for ages.
Selectadisc has also gone the way of all things. I passed the front of the Theatre Royal, scene of my third of only three gigs – The Chieftains – in Nottingham in that whole forty-eight months (I saw more in Manchester during that period) and turned down Market Street. I picked up a cheap DVD in Oxfam that’ll soon be appearing in my Film 2019, then visited the legendary Page 45 independent comics shop, where I bought a Lynda Barry hardback, which had my taste applauded. Worryingly, I was one of only three people in there all the time I looked round.
No more shilly-shallying. I made my way down to the Market Square and turned to the narrow end of it. Needless to say, the ABC is gone, a great old-fashioned massive screen cinema where I took my ‘special friend’ to see the first Christopher Reeve Superman, and where I first saw 2001 – A Space Odyssey as it really should be seen.
The main part of the Square was home to a big tent advertising performances by the Lady Boys of Bangkok: yes, well. Instead, I turned up Friar Gate (which has a memory all of it’s own that has my right knee throbbing in sympathy as I write this), into Spaniel Row to St Nicholas Street, where stands my favourite pub, Ye Olde Salutation Inn, est. 1240 AD. Mind you, it was crowded, and full of Heavy Metal music, so the cool atmosphere of the ages had a bit of trouble getting through.
A pint, a burger and a half hour studying the streetmap I’d bought in W.H.Smith’s and I was ready for another go.
I found one of the bookshops I’d marked out the night before, whose address I’d written out then left behind, but it was small, cramped and didn’t have anyting I wanted. I re-emerged on Upper Parliament Street and walked down to the Victoria Centre, which used to be my favourite Shopping Centre for its high ceilings and wide interior, a sense of space that, yes, you’ve guessed it, no longer exists. The Indoor Market’s gone, as has the space it used to occupy. Do I have any tangible memories left?
At least the exit onto Mansfield Road hasn’t been bricked up or anything like that. That was my way home, but I wasn’t going to go up to Woodborough Road or Alexandra Court: that’s a nostalgia that needs no refreshing. Instead, I wandered back to Clumber Street where, after consulting the streetmap, I worked out where the firm used to be.
I also found the second of the bookshops, down a long, quiet alley, but again nothing.
For a while I sat in the sun in the Market Square. There was a Revolutionary Communist haranguing the crowd, starting off on Climate Change but transitioning to a denouncement of Capitalism (and Imperialism, don’t forget Imperialism) with a rapidity that didn’t betoken much real enthusiasm for Climate Change, and then a long and hagiographic spiel holding up Cuba as the world’s ideal. Frankly, he bored the arse off me, and he wasn’t convincing anyone else, so I moved on.
But I’d seen what I’d come to see, more or less. My next attempt at an extended sit down, with a triple replenishment of my liquid supplies, was disturbed by another Saturday afternoon ranter, this one a God-botherer. Then he was replaced by a blues singer/guitarist busker. Sigh.
When I lived here, they used to say, and may still do, that Nottingham girls were the prettiest in all England. And whilst I am and always will be a chauvinist for my home city, on today’s evidence, the 2019 crop aren’t letting their forerunners down in any respect.
It was all over by now. I’d had the refreshers I wanted, but on top of that I’d demonstrated that there is no continuity to this slice of my past. Nottingham was a city in which I lived for two years, two vital, engaging, educational and essential years, but only the City remains and that’s the lesser part. Simon, Heather, Liz, Richard, Sharon, Jeremy, Alison, Roger, Anne, Gary, Jill, Graham, Rose, Ken, Jane, Murray, Sandy: we will never be in each other’s company again and without the people, Nottingham is only lines in brick.
So I headed back down Lister Gate, and through the Broadmarsh. There was time enough to hunt for London Road and the way to Trent Bridge, to see what Steve and Lottie see when they walk along there, but it had been hot too long and my feet were starting to ache so, like the route round the Boulevards that Steve navigated for Lucy and Pam, it’ll have to come from the streetmap, and the memories that are closer to what I need than the streets now.
I was on the 15.47 Liverpool Lime Street train with time and space to spare, a table seat, facing the way I’m going. Except that for the second time today, we set off backwards. At least, it seemed backwards to me, but the ticket-inspector assured me we were going the only way the train through Stockport goes, but I still can’t work out how I got 180 degree arse about face.
Never mind, I just switched to the other side of the table, then again when we re-reversed out of Sheffield. This latter cost me sight of two attractive young woman (whose collective age was still much too young for me) but enabled me to enjoy the hills as we motor through Edale (which has four separate memories of four separate women). They haven’t distinctive shapes, nor nearly enough rock, but they form a skyline, and they rouse the hunger to walk it. One ridge has two arcs of para-gliders above it.
I was back at Stockport for 5.30pm, straight onto a 203 home when I got down to the Bus Station, and in for six o’clock. It’s not like going to the Lakes, and that’s going to be the next expedition, before too much longer, but a day out is a day out and this was a good enough one.