The nightmare journey of a what seems like a thousand miles begins with me saying “why don’t we go and see Thomas the Tank Engine at the Nene Valley Railway?” I blame Jen. My record for organising things isn’t good; I once booked a seaside holiday in what I was told was a “lovely chalet”, which turned out to be a damp shed at the bottom of someone’s garden. She should know better than to agree to one of my ideas, especially when I’m organising it too. There was a lot riding on this trip – Thomas is a very firm favourite of Wibs so failure was not an option.
The plan was simple. Take the train to Peterborough, walk to Railworld and Nene Valley Railway station, see Thomas, have a quick ride, a bite to eat, a look around and head back home. What could possibly go wrong? Jen, Wibs, a buggied-up Jimbo and I set off confidently.
“Can I see Thomas yet?” asked Wibs. No, not yet. Just a short walk, a train ride, another walk and then you can see him.
Once we were aboard the train to Peterborough and the buggy was safely wedged in the doorway, the kids’ excitement of riding on a train lasted almost up to the point when it started moving. Wibs and Jimbo amused themselves by kicking the seats of the poor bastards in front of us, banging on the seats of the poor bastards in front of us and ignoring our orders to stop kicking and banging the seats of the poor bastards in front of us.
Peterborough. Here we are! Shit! Why is the only way off this platform up a huge flight of stairs to a bridge? Young Jimbo was violently bounced around in his buggy as a kindly stranger and I sweated and aarghed it up the stairs. I could hear my vertebrae screaming as we carried him down the other side, but Jimbo seemed to be enjoying the ride.
“What do the directions say about getting to Railworld?” asked Jen as we reached the exit. Now, only a complete fool would forget to print out the directions to Railworld and the Nene Valley railway station. “Don’t worry, there will be signs to it” I guessed optimistically, and just this once, I was correct.
“Can I see Thomas yet?” asked Wibs. No, not yet. Just a short walk and then you can see him.
We followed the signs. The looming towers of car parks provided an interesting counterpoint to the scary dinginess of the subways and underpasses but, as we doggedly trudged on, they were replaced by the hustle and bustle of a busy dual carriageway, the concrete splendour of the Asda car park and then a bridge with fine views of tramps in their natural habitat; the special wasteland you only get next to bridges, shouting and throwing bottles at each other. The path now went alongside a river and we walked past someone apparently fishing for turds.
“Can I see… yuck, what is that horrible smell?” asked Wibs as we walked under a urine-soaked railway bridge. “It’s Thomas piss” I replied. Well, I would have, had I not just been stunned into silence by the huge swan from the depths of hell which blocked our path, stretching out its 12 foot wingspan and baring its huge razor-sharp teeth. OK, it didn’t have teeth but it wasn’t any less scary for lacking them. “I think we should take a different path” whispered Jen, as I left her standing and ran past the swan, courageously using Jimbo and the buggy as a shield between my delicate body and hissing, feathered death. “Thanks for waiting” sarcasmed Jen, as she and Wibs joined us from the longer but safer path. Our tempers were back in the Asda car park somewhere.
“Can I see Thomas yet?” asked Wibs. Soon. We are almost there.
We arrived at Derelict Rusting Portakabin World, which turned out to be Railworld. The decaying boxes had all the charm of a vandalised toilet but weren’t as pretty. A spherical bloke informed us it was £10 each to see whatever foulness lurked within the quite scary-looking Portakabins. We were lucky it was still there, he told us sadly, it’s all going to be knocked down in a couple of weeks. “Well, a pile of rubble will be an improvement” I just about managed to stop myself saying. We declined and asked directions to Thomas. “He’s not here” laughed spherical bloke, “he’s at the other end of the line. You’ll have to get the train.” Of course.
“Can I see Thomas yet?” asked Wibs. Sorry Wibs, it’s just another train journey and then you can see Thomas. “You’ve just missed the train” said spherical bloke cheerfully, “it’s an hour until the next one”. Sorry Wibs, it’s an hour’s wait, a train journey and then you can see Thomas.
Never mind, at least we could have some lunch. Squatting next to Rusting Portakabin World was 70’s Yellowing Melamine Nightmare Cafe World. There were staff in it, but it didn’t look very open. A cafe would have to be mad to be closed in the middle of summer at lunchtime, surely? It was closed. Luckily, the Nene Valley Railway ticket office was open to provide the boys with a healthy, nutritious lunch of muffin and crisps. They ate to the howls and screeches of pneumatic paintstripping tools, eminating from the train scrapyard next to Derelict Rusting Portakabin World. This was actually a good thing because the hideous racket obscured the shouty fuckbastarding of the local Community Service yobs painting the station fence.
Jen went back to the ticket office to inquire about tickets to go up the track to see Thomas, and almost fainted when she found out it would cost £21. I took a deep breath and went in to buy them. There was a loud thump as I discovered that she had been told the wrong price and it was actually £35 to travel about 5 poxy miles up the line. But failure was not an option. I thought of Wibs, climbed to my feet and handed over all my money.
“Can I see Thomas yet?” asked Wibs. Soon. The train will be here soon and then it’s just a short ride and then you can see Thomas. And everyone will be happy.
The old rolling stock of the Nene Valley Railway provided enough room for the kids to wander about and annoy everyone in the whole carriage. On modern ones, they can only torment those poor sods in the immediate vicinity, unless I take them for a scream and a shout in a different carriage.
We arrived at the other end of the line. It had taken about four hours from leaving home and I had been wallet raped, but by god we had finally reached the station where Thomas was supposed to be.
“Can I see Thomas yet?” asked Wibs. He should be at this station. Christ. What is that over there? It’s blue and there is steam coming out of the top! It’s Thomas! He’s going to be coming in to the station! On the other platform! That you can only get to by going up the stairs to a bridge! Fuck! Run! Never mind about Jimbo, just get the fucking buggy up the stairs before Thomas pisses off again. Come on! Hurry! Get out of my fucking way kids! Eat buggy, granny! We’re coming through!
“Have you got the camera?” asked Jen. Oh come on – what do you think? “I’ll take some pictures on my phone’s camera” I replied. And I would have done if the battery hadn’t been flat.
“Can I see Thomas yet?” asked Wibs. Yes you can. Look. Here he comes, puffing in to the station in all his glory. Peep peep! The huge beaming smile on Thomas’ cheery face is nothing compared to the wonderful grin on Wibs’. This is the moment that makes it all worthwhile.
But then there was a slight frown.
“Why is he not talking?” asked Wibs.
Yipes. “Errrr… well, he’s saying ‘wheesh’ and ‘peep'”
“But why is Thomas not talking to me?”
“But he is sort of talking by saying wheesh and well, you know he’s very tired from going peep, pulling the trains and” other pathetic excuses that cut no ice with a disappointed four year old. All Wibs knew was that Thomas didn’t want to talk to him.
We had just spent 60 pounds, spent all day travelling on trains, walked miles, seen the seedy underbelly of Peterborough (the fluffy top part isn’t that great), been threatened by the wildlife and driven the kids mad with boredom, all for Wibs to have his dreams ruined by discovering that Thomas is some sort of elitist bastard who won’t talk to him. Yes, that’ll be a day out organised by me then.
I’ll shorten the return journey; buggy back over the bridge, train back to Derelict Rusting Portakabin World station. I swear that if that swan comes near me I’ll break it’s fucking neck. Trudge back to Peterborough station and drag the buggy back over yet another bridge. Kids get very, very loud and screamy on the train to Cambridge while everyone else in the carriage fantasises about chucking us out of the window. Jimbo bites me twice on the shoulder, almost drawing blood. Wibs sulks because Thomas hates him. We arrive at Cambridge, where Wibs accidentally drops his favourite car off the platform. We have to leave it on the tracks and he cries for most of the walk home.
When we finally got back, I promised never to suggest anything again, ever. Jen promised never to listen to me again, ever.