Wednesday, 25 November 2015

People Watching

You know people?  People in general?  Annoying, aren't they?  Their foibles, their prejudices, their way of stinking and moaning and complaining and just ruining things for everyone?  People are just so annoying.

I was reminded of this when I was in Maghull yesterday to see an exhibition about a proposed railway station.

Here's the situation: on the fringes of Maghull, right at the limits of Merseyside, is Ashworth Hospital, the high security institution.  It used to spread over two sites, but a few years ago the southern site was closed and demolished.  First it was earmarked for a prison, but then the government changed its mind and decided to build hundreds of new homes there.  Merseytravel nipped in quick, pointed out that it was right next to the Ormskirk branch of the Northern Line, and suggested a new train station might be a good idea.  Sorted!

The exhibition at Maghull town hall was to show the plans to the locals and allow them to express their feelings about them.  And goodness, they were keen to express them.  I stepped into a small room full of pictures and maps and some incredibly furious people.  They were haranguing the three or four members of the Merseytravel staff.  I heard complaints about the car park layout and the lack of acoustic fencing and the sheer inconvenience to them this new station will cause.

And here's the thing: I don't understand a single one of their objections.

I'd been out at the site of Maghull North that morning, in the middle of a relentless, unpleasant rain storm.  It was miserable and wet, with cars whizzing by and splashing the pavement from puddles in the gutter.  I found the roundabout that will lead into the new housing estate, and the fenced off entry to the development site.

A bit further down the road was the bridge over the tracks.  According to the Merseytravel website, by 2017, this site will look like this:

In 2015, it looks like this:

And this is why I didn't get the objections.  Remember, on the right hand side of the tracks, there is a secure hospital for the criminally insane and a prison and a motorway junction.  This is not bucolic, fragrant, England's green and pleasant land.  When Ian Brady is one of your neighbours, it's pretty hard to lower the tone.

A new railway station will improve life for everyone.  A fast, frequent service to Liverpool and Ormskirk.  A manned station building to discourage anti-social behaviour.  A park and ride facility, close to the M58.  Full access for the less able.  Relief for Maghull and Ormskirk stations, both of which are in the top ten busiest stations on Merseyrail.

I'm biased, I know.  I just can't see the downside.  There are studies that show living within walking distance of a railway station can add 10% to the value of your home.  It'll help alleviate the pressure on the local roads from those hundreds of new houses.  I mean, the railway line's already there: there are already electric trains whizzing by eight times an hour, nineteen hours a day.

I heard a woman at the public exhibition describe the plans as a "disgrace".  Perhaps she was an architecture critic; the station building is a bit perfunctory.  More likely she was just "people".  People are annoying.

You can comment on the plans for Maghull North here.  Please say something nice.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Shadows and Fog

There are times when I have ambitious, country hopping plans for this blog.  When I cross off five, six, seven stations in one go.

This is not one of those times.

I got off the train at Sandal & Agbrigg, full of a bacon roll, fresh from using the wifi on the Northern train, with a slow day planned.  Just two stations.  This one - obviously - and another one further down the line.  That was it.

Actually, to be completely honest, I did have a vague idea that I might have time to cross off two more of West Yorkshire's stations before my train home.  But it was only a maybe, not a proper plan.  I'd see how it went first.

Sandall & Agbrigg is on the edge of Wakefield, and at first just seemed like another English industrial suburb.  Stout redbrick homes and a pub and a park.  As I moved on, it began to be infused with a slightly more exotic taste.  There were still hairdressers and shops and chip shops, but the names above the door were "Zaika" and "Kaashi".  There was a takeaway called Raavi Currys and Sweets; I assume "sweets" was being used as another way of saying "puddings", and they didn't offer you a packet of Rolos with your jalfrezi.  The true confirmation that I was in an area with a high immigrant population were the rows of fruit and vegetables proudly displayed outside the shops.  English people don't eat that much fresh produce.  If it's not wrapped in plastic, we don't trust it.

There was also a mosque and, I'm sorry British Muslims, but we're going to have to have words.  A mosque is a place for you to sing the praises of Allah and come together as a community.  It should be inspiring and beautiful.  Yet 90% of the time, mosques in England are drab boxes that someone's dropped the occasional dome on.  Look at those blank walls, and the PVC windows, and the gate that belongs on a suburban semi.  It's not at all interesting.  I reckon there's a Muslim architect somewhere who's cornered the market in mosque design, and does it for very reasonable rates, never once confessing that his training is all in kitchen extensions and he doesn't really know how to design a proper building.

I turned onto a busy main road, which I had to dash across wildly after the pavement vanished under a railway bridge, and then out of the town.  The fields were churned up and destroyed as part of the "Wakefield Eastern Relief Road", The traffic didn't seem that bad - in fact, the existing road seemed over engineered for the number of vehicles using it - but as with most things in Britain these days, it wasn't just about getting cars somewhere, it was also about "creating prosperity".

A cross back over the road again, and I was on a small lane that drifted southwards.  Bright ferns, a mix of greens and yellows and browns, lined the pathway.  A heavy fog had fallen during the night and it was absolutely refusing to lift.  It dulled the skies and veiled the view; each corner carried with it a tantalising air of mystery.

It was also quite lonely.  I've been cutting back on my fluoxetine lately, the drug that stops me from going full gaga, because I've been on it for years and I really am a lot better.  But my brain likes that extra dose of chemicals in there.  My moods have shifted, lurching from happy to sad; I've become more short tempered and grumpy, and the occasional moment of darkness has come back.  The day before I'd had a really bad meltdown, and I'd woken up at 4 am still suffering the after effects.  It had been touch and go whether I'd even go out, but I had booked tickets, and I'm cheap.  None the less, I could feel the depression now, as I walked, the hint of misery at the edge of my thoughts.

On the edge of Walton I left the main road and followed a side path into woodlands.  This was yet another branch of the Trans-Pennine Trail, the long distance path that's dogged my Northern Rail trips right from the start.  In some ways, it might have been quicker for me to just walk the TPT instead of all this mucking about with railway stations.  I'd have gone to more or less the same places.

This part of the country is threaded with railway lines, both current and abandoned.  They were built to service the huge collieries that once dotted the landscape, to whisk the coal away as quickly as possible.  My Ordnance Survey map was laced with black lines and the ghosts of dismantled railways.  The colliery here was called Sharlston West originally, then Walton Colliery, but it closed in 1979 and the site has been handed back to nature.

If it wasn't for a number of helpful sign boards, you'd have no idea about the country park's origins.  It looked like it had been here forever, another quiet forgotten corner of England unmolested by developers.  It was difficult to conceive that this had been ugly industrial works within my own lifetime.

I was following a bridleway round the edge of the park, rather than pushing into the interior.  It was almost entirely silent, the only noise being the occasional train going by behind the trees.  I paused for a minute by the lake, scaring the seagulls into taking flight.  The geese were made of sterner stuff and refused to move.

The bridleway deposited me at a small car park; a woman in lurid colours was just pushing her headphones in her ears, ready for her morning jog.  I left it behind, crossing under the railway line for what seemed like the eighteenth time that day and finally entering Walton village.

The homes - like the residents - were sturdy mining stock.  Built by the local authority to accommodate the colliery workers only to outlive it.  The villagers hurried about, unpausing, heads low.  The Sports and Social Club was tucked into the hillside, its board outside previewing a soul act called Knights of Harlem and a ladies night: "two male strippers and a comedy drag queen".

I ducked down a side alley that took me round the backs of the houses.  The land sloped away from it, giving me a good look into their gardens.  The furniture was still out, the excessively mild October meaning that people could just about manage to sit out for a bit longer, but the November fog had made them damp.  Barbecues had been sadly shrouded in plastic.  Ambitious sheds pressed up against the fences.

As I left the village, the path pushed through woodland, shedding leaves all over my route.  I was at the back of Walton Hall, once the home of the local gentry and now a hotel and golf course.  There was a tiny metal gate built into the wall, intriguing me: I always love hidden gateways and concealed entrances.  It's all very Secret Garden, only not quite so tedious.

Also intriguing was an unexpected stone lock by the side of the path.  The Barnsley Canal once came up through here, the earlier way to get to the collieries, but had been abandoned in the 1950s.  Further down the hill there was still water in the canal but here, without locks to hold it in place, it had trickled away.

There is a charity, the Barnsley, Dove and Dearn Trust, trying to restore this waterway as a connection between the Calder and Barnby.  This section of the canal won't be restored though, as development has overtaken much of it, plus the locks are beyond restoration.  Instead a new, diversionary canal will be built around the village.

It was slightly disconcerting to walk along a towpath with no canal.  Water still puddled in the centre in places, but for the most part it was just mud and leaves.  Meanwhile, road bridges still crossed over the canal as though it was in full flow.

I diverted off the path to skirt the bottom end of the Walton Hall estate.  It was marked by a wonderfully fragile looking wall.

The bricks had been eaten away, perhaps attacked by polluted rain fed by the coal fields, leaving hollowed out caves amongst the mortar.  It looked like a huge wasp's nest, or some alien hatchery, each indentation the broken egg sac of a long departed xenomorph.  I touched it, carefully; it looked so delicate I worried it would fall over.  The stone felt solid enough.

I thought it was incredibly beautiful.  Some day, I expect, a part of it will collapse and the hotel estate will knock it all down in favour of a sturdy, tedious brick wall.  Until then, it felt like another secret delight.  I followed it round, trying to put the drone of the lawnmowers tending to the greens on the other side of the wall out of my head.  They were seemingly at a frequency designed to penetrate the darkest recesses of my brain, a bit like that drill Bond is tortured with in Spectre (I would say "spoilers", but the way it's been tearing up the box office you've probably already seen it).  (And if you haven't seen it, why not?).  I was glad to leave the open fields behind and disappear into the silence of Haw Park Wood.

Perhaps too silent.  It wasn't long before the demons began swirling around me again.  I felt incredibly isolated and lonely.  The fog had kept people indoors; I'd seen about a dozen other human beings in the last two hours.  I could feel the tension in my head, in my muscles, the signs that my emotions were trying to surge up and get to me again.  I swallowed them down.  There was no choice, after all: I was alone in a wood.  I'd have to deal with it.

Not for much longer.  As though I'd summoned them up myself to curb my loneliness, suddenly the wood became a hive of activity.  A tweedy couple, dressed as if they were out on a shoot, appeared from a side path with a Jack Russell, while ahead, a group of cyclists blustered their way in.  There were three men and a woman, dressed in all the most modern gear.  Skinny legs were captured in lycra.  There was suddenly an apologetic cry, and one of the men swirled off to the side: "I'm so sorry, I've got a flat."  The other cyclists turned and gathered round him to help as I left them behind.

The path carried on through fields of... something.  I really should do some kind of country skills course.  I have no idea about nature; I can lump them into "trees", "flowers" and "bushes", and that's about it.  Crops, I only recognise if they're in full bloom, and then it's pretty much "wheat" or "rape".

It was gone twelve now and the fog had refused to be burnt off; it was going to stay with me all day.  I was in another colliery turned country park, this one called "Anglers", and I crunched across a car park to the visitor's centre.  I hadn't expected there to be much, but the cafe was open, so I went in for a warming cup of tea.

The cafe advertised itself as a tea room, but the fluorescent lights and steel kitchen didn't scream country elegance.  It was filled with sprightly pensioners taking a break from country walks.  I felt a little ashamed that station collecting was all the exercise I ever took, while people old enough to be my parents were happily chatting about how many miles they'd done that day.  They then went into a discussion about mobile phones - one of them was looking for an upgrade - and that lead naturally onto iPads and tablets.  It was a conversation you would never have thought the elderly would have, but then again, the old aren't as old any more; my mum has just taken her pension, but she's still incredibly active and lively.

I headed out of the country park after that.  It's wonderful that there are these newly christened spaces for wildlife and leisure, but a part of me thinks, where are the jobs?  This used to be an open cast mine and no doubt supported the lives of hundreds of families.  Now the only employment I could see was the woman behind the counter in the cafe.  Were people just meant to start commuting?  Were they meant to move?  And now that industrial land has been turned back into countryside, it won't be built on again; planning laws and protest groups will stop any further development.  I thought back to that new relief road and wondered what kind of prosperity it was planning to bring.

There was a caravan park, still done out in "spooky" Hallowe'en decorations (this was November the third), and then I entered the village of Wintersett.  I'd deliberately come this way because I'm reading Game of Thrones at the moment (NO SPOILERS PLEASE) and Wintersett sounded like it could have come straight off the page.

It turned out to be a barely-there hamlet, a few houses and a pub and not much else.  I was through it before I realised, turning onto a side road by a huge, ugly new build.  Across the road, the driveway was being laid out for its no doubt equally ugly brother, a wide over-ambitious entrance that wouldn't have looked out of place at Southfork.

Darting on and off the road - there was no pavement any more - I headed towards two disused railways.  Once, they had crossed just north of here, but now they existed only as long straight chains of trees and muddy paths.  A brick bridge still crossed one of the lines.  I wonder how long the highways teams will support these unnecessary bridges, fixing them and propping them up?  This one already had plants growing out of the brickwork, rising up to take the traffic over a muddy track.

I stepped off the road just before the next bend, vanishing into the woods on a dismantled railway track.  It wasn't signposted as a path - I'd relied entirely on my OS map - and the mud and dense leaf cover made me think it wasn't well used.

The tea had raised my spirits, so I didn't feel quite as lonely wandering this way.  Astonishing how a mug of brown liquid can make everything right.  It's not even alcoholic.

The path deposited me in Havercroft, another former pit village.  I was greeted by the noisiest women on earth having a loud and boisterous conversation about their hospital visits; if I'd stuck around a little longer I'd have got the full information on their gynaecological status and possibly a view of their fallopian tubes so I fled to the main road.

Havercroft was one of those places where the Christmas decorations are on the lamp posts and you can't work out if they're early for this year or just couldn't be bothered taking them down.  It was rough round the edges, unloved; the closure of the mines had left it flinty and hard.

The road rose upwards, through a set of housing association bungalows, then I passed a funeral home and I was in the countryside again.  The road twisted around, passing the odd farmhouse, then the railway reappeared with a red Virgin train streaking its way to Leeds over the top.

Fitzwilliam threaded along the main road, clogged with lorries and cars.  There were houses with paved over gardens, then a small row of shops.  The modern sign on the grooming parlour said Posh Paws, but it still carried ghost signs plugging tobacco companies; Three Castles Cigarettes, a plug for Capstan Navy Cut all over the end.

While Havercroft had felt like it was still stranded on the bottom, Fitzwilliam felt like it had bounced and was on its way up.  The station probably helped, giving them a link to Leeds and Wakefield and turning tiny railway cottages into bijou homes.  It seemed like a livelier community.  People stood on the street chatting, and a large board plugged the Christmas events at the Miners' Social Club (a family day on the 25th, "Vegas" and disco on Boxing Day, "5th Avenue" and disco on New Year's Eve, the panto - "Toy Story" - on the 2nd).

The houses on the way to the station had toys and bikes in the front yard; not one of them was chained up.  One house was guarded by figures of the Hulk and Captain America in the front window; a couple were still welcoming trick or treaters with decorations.  The only shade in the family sunshine were the repeated, neatly typed on MS Word signs politely asking commuters to not park outside.  The signs were all ignored.

I was lucky with the train.  There had been a signal failure outside Leeds, delaying all the trains by nearly an hour, but I'd arrived just as they were getting back to normal.  I had only a short wait before mine arrived.

The train was made up of two coaches, though the back one was full and the front was sparsely populated, which was odd.  I went in the front and discovered why.  A disabled man was singing along to the music on his headphones tunelessly.  It should have annoyed me, but he did it so joyously, so happily, so unselfconsciously, that it made me smile.  Sometimes you get a boost from the strangest places.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Thoughts In A TPE

Leeds makes me anxious. Leeds stresses me out.

There are so many people there, waiting, crowding around. Their heads finely attuned to the slightest noise of the tannoy. Eyes fixed on LCD screens. They shift as a wave, swaying through the station, merging and splitting. 

I'm on platform 16a. The last platform. The busy platform. Always, always busy. The trains to Manchester leave from here, and the trains to Huddersfield, and the train to Liverpool, and people crowd along the platform edge, watching. The 17:44 to Manchester passes through and whisks a load of them up, squeezing them on board, pushing them up against one another, but there are always more. 

I'm on the 18:09. By six o'clock the platform is full. Eyes peering into the distance hopefully. I've taken a punt, moved to the far end of the platform in the hope that my reserved seat will be there. I hope there's no one in it. I hope it will be relaxed. 

More people. There was an "incident" earlier in the day, something involving the emergency services, something that delayed trains all afternoon. The network is trying to recover. The people are bunched in tight groups instead of spread neatly. They're short tempered and tired. They're unhappy. They want to go home. 

18:02. A bunch of Virgin Trains employees appear behind me, in red, chirpy, over excitable. Day finished and now heading home. I take it as a good sign, that they know which end first class will be at - I reserved a first class seat in the hope that would be less stressful. 

They're wrong. 18:04 and the train appears. It's full. It's already full and now it's passing through the platform and I have to run down to first class. No point I getting on board any earlier; it's too full for me to push my way through. I squeeze on with everyone else, people with standard tickets who've just found a space to stand in the doorway, and I push through them. "Excuse me... Excuse me. Sorry." Heading for that first class compartment. As I get closer to the button I feel their hatred towards me grow. 

Even first class is full. Even in here, the compartment where all you get for your extra tenner is an antimacassar and a coffee, even here people are standing. 
One person in particular is sitting. She's sitting in my seat. She clutches a square box from M&S to her. 

Should I ask her to move? I mean, she is a woman. I'm supposed to give up my seat to her. But I'm going all the way to Liverpool, and I've walked twelve miles today, and I reserved that damn seat. 

"Excuse me," I say. "That's actually my seat. Sorry."

She gets up without protest. No verbal protest, anyway. She takes up position next to me, still clutching her box, and pulls out a copy of I Am Malala to ensure I know she's actually a really nice person and I'm a selfish twat. 

I don't need the extra stress. I slide into my seat full of guilt and shame. Leeds. Leeds is always stressful. 

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Riding Through The Glen

How do you wash the taste of sexism and grease out of your mouth?  RAIL RELATED ANTICS OF COURSE!

Nottingham really shouldn't have trams.  I mean, Liverpool hasn't got them.  Nor has Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast, Newcastle.  Even London's only got a few, squirreled away in Croydon.  There are bigger, more important cities that should be higher on the list.

It has a network thanks to two reasons.  Firstly, good timing: it managed to have its plans ready to go for that very brief period of time when the Labour government loved trams, in the late nineties.  Secondly, it had a council who was absolutely committed to the scheme and willing to push it through.  Nottingham's city and county councils were totally on board with the tram concept, unlike say, in Liverpool, where boroughs who wouldn't benefit from Merseytram were able to vote down the idea.  (Damn you, Wirral).

The result was an instantly successful network, the Nottingham Express Transit or NET.  It was so successful, plans for extensions were quickly approved, and two new routes to the south of the city opened this year.

Everything about the system oozes class and style.  You buy a ticket before boarding - no Supertram-style conductors here - then board a swift, silent tram that glides through the city centre.

I rode out to David Lane, to the north of the city centre, where it splits into two branches, then turned round and went back into the city again.

And I haven't even mentioned the new tram vehicles, which are sexy as hell.  There are older ones, slightly boxy like the trams in Manchester, but the new Nottingham trams look like science fiction vehicles.  Pointed fronts with a centrally positioned driver, like a lost Thunderbird.  Even that deep green colour is damnably attractive.

I returned to the city centre and found, perhaps, the ideal English town.  It was big, but not overwhelming.  Busy but not a crush.  There were extravagant moments of civic pride, like the Old Market Square, a European-style open plaza surrounded by shops with the elaborate Council House at one end.

The streets around it mixed new build with heritage, plus the occasional moment of local colour, like the statue of Brian Clough.

It was what you wanted from a town centre.  There were restaurant quarters and high-class districts, a big ugly mall (the Victoria Centre - she would not be amused), a beautiful theatre.

And, of course, there's Robin Hood.  Anyone who thinks that Liverpool harps on about the Beatles too much should travel to Nottingham and see their obsession; even a local utilities company, handing out flyers in the Old Market Square, was called Robin Hood Energy.  At least John, Paul, George and Ringo were real.

I crossed over Maid Marian Way - an unlovely dual carriageway that slices through the city centre; they make the typical English mistakes as well - and walked up to the Castle.

Regular readers will know I am extremely cheap, and so there was no way I was going to pay to take a look round the Castle, not least because it was nearly five o'clock.  They also appeared to be setting up for some kind of event; I strongly suspect that was Robin Hood related as well.

I crossed back by some wonderfully 1960s buildings, passing a cat cafe - yes, the type that lets you pet a kitten while you have a coffee, and no, I didn't go in; I'm a dog person - and did another circuit.

Nottingham didn't cause palpitations like Newcastle or Sheffield do; it was rather more small scale.  I felt like I'd seen most of its charms.   This is not to denigrate it in any way; what I saw mostly lovely.  I decided to have a pint and a sit down, and settled on the Lord Roberts, a theatre themed gay pub.  Posters of West End productions adorned its walls.

It was charming, quiet, interesting.  It was Nottingham.