Sunday, 26 July 2015

1923 and All That

Another station, another Cheshire Lines design straight out of their big box of generic plans.  It's actually an idea that the railways have returned to in recent years; Network Rail now have a bunch of pieces that mean they can simply assemble a new station in kit form, as at Buckshaw Parkway for example.  It's a good way to save design costs and speed up the construction process, but goodness it's dull.  I'd like the stations to look different from one another, so I feel like I've actually traveled somewhere.

Another way of saving money is to not put up a decent station sign.  Glazebrook's got a distinctly rubbish looking way of marking its territory.

From there it was a brief walk until I reached the local village.  It's the fringes of Manchester, so while it had a village green and a parish council, it wouldn't be suitable for a Miss Marple location shoot.  It was a bit grimy and base.

The community notice board was absolutely full of anti-HS2 posters; the connection to the "traditional" lines for trains to Scotland will branch off and pass by Warrington on its way to Wigan.  I sighed.  I know I wouldn't want a giant piece of railway infrastructure built through my back yard, but that's progress I'm afraid.  The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  After a certain point you just have to accept that these things are going to happen and invest in triple glazing for your windows.

Incidentally, I apologise that my photography is not up to my usual high standards (LOL).  Somewhere between Birchwood and Padgate my camera stopped responding; it refused to recognise that the lens was open.  I was left with the camera on my phone, which is how this blog started before I got ideas above my station so it was pleasingly retro, if a bit inconvenient.  It added a frisson of tension too: would I get to Irlam station before the iPhone's finicky battery decided all this "use" was just too inconvenient and gave up?

A turn off the bypass and I was walking through Irlam.  The lamp posts were still wrapped in Christmas tinsel, which is an admirable way of saving time and money for next year but isn't it bad luck?  (Though I once left our Christmas tree up until spring because I couldn't be bothered and I didn't end up with a horrible run of misfortune.  Well, no greater than usual anyway).  There were a couple of factories, and then I was approaching rows of small shops and pubs that had been converted into office blocks.

Irlam's retail offerings seemed to be, let's say, "quirky".  In addition to the above pun-based cafe, there was one called "Bready 2 Go", a woodwind instrument shop, and a letting company with an inappropriately glamorous looking sign called "Property Showcase".  There was also a shop that didn't have a sign board, but which I can only assume was set up to supply all your anti-social behaviour needs.  Its neon window signs advertised sale prices on air pistols and ammo, BB guns, darts, bikes and scooters.  It was a one-stop shop for the local drug pushers.

The first railway viaduct carries a goods line, so I passed under it and down the hill to the second route.  Irlam station was tucked somewhere behind a new business park, so I followed the inadequate signs to the subway.

For decades, Irlam station was empty.  The building had been abandoned, with no ticket facilities, and vandalism and arson took their toll.  Its boarded up face groaned at passengers as they passed.

Finally, last year, the local council, heritage groups and private investors got together and spent some money on the station building.  And it's a triumph.

It's been carefully, lovingly restored, with all the features repainted and repointed.  Even the water fountain has been scrubbed clean.  I did a circuit and then went inside.

Irlam station is now home to 1923, a cafe/bar, and it's been charmingly done.  Yes, it's full of railway memorabilia, as is legally required, but it's also fixed with contemporary furnishings and lighting.  I ordered a couple of pastries and a pint of beer and went looking for a seat.  The place was incredibly popular, particularly with nice ladies of a certain age, but I found perhaps the best seat in the house.

The booths have been done out as railway compartments, with plush seating and luggage racks.  I slid in place opposite period-appropriate repro posters.

It was utterly delightful.  I chomped on my pork pie and sausage roll with a grin on my face.  I should have ordered something a bit classier, a bit more Orient Express, but I didn't have the time.  Instead I just filled my face with pastry and washed it down with beer and smirked.

Even the toilets are period appropriate, though surely this sign can't be real..?

Making sure I wouldn't be liable for a sixpence fine I made my way across to the Liverpool platform for my train home.  It was inevitably a disappointment after the riches on the Manchester side.

There was an intriguing sign, however.  On both sides of the station, towards the end of the platform, the Irlam sign was replaced by a curious set of hieroglyphs.  It looks like something from the far east, but I couldn't work out what it was for.  Is there a large Chinese community in Irlam?  I hadn't seen one.  It just seemed odd.

It's the best sign at the station though, because God knows the main one is dull as heck.  Still, when you have a station cafe as gorgeous as 1923, who needs a decent totem?

Sunday, 19 July 2015

New Town Blues

We've got workmen in at the moment.  Our house is shrouded in scaffolding and a parade of middle aged men with tool belts and impenetrable Scouse accents are clambering all over it.  Pointing, painting, roof fixing, rendering - it's all getting done in a relentless mass of hammers and power tools.  I can't take a step out the front door without hearing two gap-toothed plasterers sharing an off-colour joke while Radio City belts out its latest piece of dense techno.

Fortunately I have the BF to deal with them.  He's very good with workmen.  Years of being a boss have given him a friendly yet authoritative manner, while his natural Merseyside charm allows him to chat away without sounding patronising or rude.  Within about three minutes of the BF dealing with any builder, he'll have knocked down his quote, found out his marital status, and established whether he is a Red or a Blue.

I clam up.  I get wide eyed with terror.  I don't know what to say or how to say it.  I either turn into Margo Leadbetter and froth at the mouth at the insouciance of the lower orders, or I cower in a corner and let the workman walk all over me.  I get stressed just at the tea making protocols.

The BF had to go out on Friday, which left me at home with them all day.  (This isn't about to turn into a Penthouse confessional, don't worry).  I did what any grown, mature man would do: I fled.  I ran to the railway station and headed out into Cheshire to collect a few stations so I wouldn't have to make coffee for filthy handed workies.

Birchwood had workmen in too.  They're building a new footbridge with lift access, so much of the station is hidden behind metal hoardings and badly written posters ("we hope you'll like it when were finished").  The station opened in 1981 to serve the eastern suburbs of Warrington, and it's a station very much of its time.

The glass in the footbridge is tinted brown, and the brickwork is bright red.  It's all very Sheena Easton and the Falklands War.  The plus side is it's large and open and full of facilities.  There are seats, a ticket office, waiting areas, a vending machine, even toilets.  There are much larger towns whose stations can't compete with that.

I crossed the car park - recently relaid in line with the station improvements - and found the totem sign.  I took the usual picture, not realising it would be the last decent station sign I'd see all day.

Across the way was the Birchwood shopping centre, accessed through another car park and past a red brick office building that housed an NHS drop in centre and Labour's north west office.  Inside the shopping centre was a surprisingly classy home to a less-than-classy parade of shops.

The pale lighting and white marble floors couldn't distract you from the pound stores, the Home and Bargains, the Greggs.  It was trying to be Liverpool One with a client base of Belle Vale.  At the end was a colossal Asda, probably the main reason most people came here in the first place.  I left the centre and found myself in another car park, with no footpath that I could see.  I headed for the newly-built pub, as I could see a footpath there, but it only ran for the length of the garden and ended behind a substation.  I was forced to walk on a grass verge, ducking down the slope then darting across the road to pick up the pavement again.

I knew where I had to go: over there.  I knew it wouldn't be that easy; there was a relentless drum of noise coming from the M6, which sliced between Warrington proper and Birchwood, but I'd checked on the map and there was a large dual carriageway that crossed it.

I took a wrong turn.  No, that's not quite right; I went the right way, it was just there was no access.  A series of extravagant boulevards carried cars into the parking lots around large office buildings.  Each island was separated from the next by tarmac, a gated entry, and wire fencing.  It wasn't possible to simply walk from one building to the next.  You were diverted every time.

I realised, with some frustration, that even though I could see the road I needed, there was no actual way of reaching it.  I turned back and instead followed what looked like a path through some woodland but turned out to be the main pedestrian route.

The path took me away from the main road, round the back of the office buildings.  A green, algae filled channel carried the Birchwood Brook in a regimented fashion.  I got odd looks from a couple of workers, smoking at the back of their building, separated from them by a high metal fence with spiked tips.  I didn't see any other walkers.

This is the sadness of New Towns.  People without cars are not just unimportant; they're ignored.  They're pitied.  If you want to get from A to B, then take your car.  If you haven't got a car, then take a bus.  If you want to walk, the planners treat you like you're insane.  Why would you want to do that?  Why would you use a method that takes longer and involves effort?  Why aren't you driving?

Because they don't understand pedestrians, New Town planners patronise them.  Well, they think, if you want to walk, it must be because you have all the time in the world.  You must want to promenade.  So we'll build you a nice pedestrian network, away from the cars.

This sounds good in theory - a space just for walkers - but in reality it's ghettoisation.  The drivers get long straight roads that take the shortest route between two points.  The pedestrians get meanders, curling paths with unnecessary bends and twists that double the time it takes to get anywhere.  Trees are planted, creating green tunnels that are dark and badly lit.  It's hard to get your bearings about where you are, because you are shuttled off to the side.  If a building is visible from the path, it's the backside of it, the service area and the smoker's hut, because the important view is from the roadside for cars to whizz by at thirty miles an hour.

People find a way.  The footpath took an unnecessary curve around a mound, and the pedestrians had formed their own path up and over it so they wouldn't have to go to far out of their way.  At the top was grass leading to that road, that road I wanted to get to, but which didn't have anywhere for me to walk.  There was also a large hunk of rock there.  I'm not sure why.  There were no markings on it, apart from graffiti, and there wasn't any sort of plaque or sign to tell me anything about it.

I headed back down the slope and into the gully between the road embankment and the security fencing.  I get that, on paper, this is what pedestrians should want.  A quiet path away from the traffic.  It doesn't work like that.  These New Town footpaths isolate and frighten.  I wouldn't want to be a young woman walking home from work on a dark night; I wouldn't want my kids walking to school through underpasses.  I wouldn't want to walk round the corner of one of those meanders to encounter a gang of bored teenagers wanting to get their hands on a new iPhone.  There was no way to escape the footpath.  Nowhere to run to.

Finally it rose upwards to that fabled dual carriageway, and I realised it was doing so at exactly the wrong time.  The one time you do, actually, want to be segregated away from traffic is when there's a lot of it moving very fast.  Instead, Warrington's planners send their walkers onto a narrow route with an urban clearway on one side and one of the busiest roads in the country beneath you.

It was dizzying, and vertigo inducing, and I had to stare down at the pavement to try and keep a level head.  Fortunately it was soon over, and I was lowered down to the side of an elaborate avenue.  There was no way to cross it, other than being routed along almost its entire length to where a pedestrian crossing had been installed (and fairly recently, too, as there were still NEW TRAFFIC SIGNALS signs at the side of the road).

Still, at least there were houses here; I'd managed to finally reach a space where there were human beings.  I didn't actually see any, but I knew they were there.  I could see the backs of the houses.  I could look down the side roads into the mesh of cul-de-sacs (Freshfields Drive: Leading to Saffron Close, Lovage Close).  Estate agent boards congregated at the head of the roads, because if you put them outside the houses, who would see them?

It was astonishingly dull.  I found myself wondering why anyone would move here.  It was the magnolia of estates.  I couldn't even get the effort to hate it.  It was just a featureless roll call of bland design.

I wondered why you would voluntarily live here.  I decided that you would only want to move to this kind of place if you were coming from something much, much worse.  The most grievous inner cities, the very deepest sink estates.  If you grew up in a two-up, two-down, this must be paradise.  It's quiet and green.  You've got your Ford Mondeo if you want to go somewhere interesting.  This is the place to sleep, and bring the kids up, and have a barbecue on a sunny Saturday.

As I detoured down yet another pedestrian back route, I wondered what the local teenagers did with their time.  It was the kind of place they would run to get away from.  I should imagine that Birchwood station is absolutely rammed every Saturday morning as the youths hunt out the thrills of Manchester and Liverpool.  Anything to get away from this middle-class, middle-England, middle of nowhere.

There was, briefly, some excitement.  The pub for the estate - built in the centre of a car park, because of course it was - was long closed, and some travellers had colonised the concrete.  Suddenly there were people talking and laughing.  Suddenly there were children playing.  There was litter, and too-loud radios, yes, but at least there was life.  I expect they've already been moved on.

I finally reached Padgate village.  There had been a settlement here for centuries, and there was a church and a C of E primary school, and suddenly it felt a bit lively.  It wasn't exactly Trafalgar Square, but I felt like I was in a community, not a dormitory.

The houses faced the road here; a tiny architectural detail, but one that makes a huge difference. People are facing people; you can see and be seen.  You can't hide away.  You have to be with your neighbours.  It's no coincidence that for the first time since I'd arrived in Warrington I was sharing the pavement with young mums, couples, old people.

Padgate station is, architecturally, the brother of many other stations along the line.  It came straight from the Cheshire Lines design book, alongside others at Widnes and Hough Green, though this one was in rather worse condition.  Padgate only gets a train every hour, so much of the building has been converted to commercial premises.  Sadly, it looked like Greenfingers was no more, but the Plaice Station chippy was still thriving, belting out the smell of fried food and making my stomach rumble.

I wandered around to the platform side.  Bizarrely, you can't get to the chip shop from there.  Although that was a good thing because I had twenty minutes until my train arrived and I probably would have caved and got myself a fishcake if it was simple to get to.

I sat on the bench and put Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast on (Robert Webb: very funny and clever) while I waited.  It was all very pleasant, but I have to say, the very worst thing about Padgate station is its utterly rubbish sign.

Look at that.  In no universe should fish and chips be more prominently advertised than a railway station.  And what the hell is that font?  That is distinctly non-standard.  2/10, Padgate.  Must try harder.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

The History Boy

I hadn't planned on visiting Chesterfield Museum.  I didn't even know it was there.  I was just walking from the station to the town centre when I passed the redbrick museum-cum-theatre building.  I hovered vaguely outside, debating whether to go in or not, when I spotted this in the window:

An exhibition on Chesterfield's railways?  That was me sold.  I nipped in, thinking it would at least be cool.

There was a tiny shop and information desk as I entered and I nodded and smiled at the ladies behind it.  One darted out from behind the counter.  "Welcome to Chesterfield Museum!  Is this your first visit?"

"Yes, it is."

"Wonderful!  Have you been round the town centre yet?  Have you seen our famous spire?"  She pressed a booklet into my hand.  I explained that I'd just come from the station, so I hadn't even had a chance to see the town yet.

"Never mind," she replied, and started her talk.  For ten minutes, the little woman in the sleeveless top with Deirdre Barlow glasses captured me.  She was very keen, and very keen to share her keenness, and I was mortified.  If I'd known I'd get a one-woman lecture tour, I wouldn't have dared come in.

As it was, she explained all about the medieval builder's wheel that took up most of the entrance hall.  It looked like a giant hamster wheel, and operated in much the same way, with a person running around its interior so that it could winch building materials upwards to build the upper reaches of the church tower.  The windlass, as it's called, was then dismantled and hoisted further up.  Normally the windlass is left in the tower, trapped, but the installation of new bells in the 1940s gave them a chance to dismantle it and take it down to ground level.  She was very proud of the wheel, and I made all the appropriate noises, but, you know, it was a wheel.  It might have been eight hundred years old, but its age seemed to be the most exciting thing about it.

She finally let me wander round the museum.  I was the only attendee, and I felt like she was watching me, to make sure I got as much out of my visit as possible.  It was exactly as a provincial museum should be: a bit on the Romans, a bit on the granting of a market, a lot about local industries (Chesterfield was apparently a great centre for pill boxes and cotton wool).  There was a section on the local coal mining industry, and paintings of high days and dignitaries, and a fake shop window.

The museum lady had been very proud of the town's links to George Stephenson, which was naturally of interest to me; I wondered how the architect of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway came to be associated with the town.  It turned out he'd retired here.  I tried very hard not to say "is that it?" to the wall panel devoted to him.

I found the railway exhibition in the back room of the museum, disturbing the young volunteer who was watching over the gallery.  He put down his book while I perused the half a dozen wall panels, prepared and written by local enthusiasts.  Chesterfield had once had three stations, but lack of patronage did for them; one of the lines was now a bypass, while one of the station buildings was buried under an office building.

As I stood in front of the panels, spending a respectable time in front of each in case someone was watching, the museum manager came dashing in with a stack of workbooks.  "We've got a party of Spanish schoolchildren coming in any minute.  How's your Spanish?" he asked the volunteer.

"Tres bien!"

"That's French!" said the manager, exasperated.  I took advantage of the distraction to make my way to the gift shop, where hopefully my tour guide wouldn't see me and I could make a swift exit.  The Spanish exchange students were already out there; long limbed, tanned, looking mildly amused at this tiny little place.  The manager came barreling out and bowed to the party.  "Buenas tardes!" he said, and the kids smiled and repeated it back to him.

He straightened up, smiled, then bellowed, "WELCOME. TO. ENGLAND!"

I made a swift exit before I cringed myself into a corner.

Over the road was Chesterfield's biggest claim to fame, the crooked spire of St Mary and All Saints Church.  I'd seen it from the train, a twisted child's toy poking at the sky.  The museum lady had explained to me that the twist was due to them replacing the roof tiles with lead in the Middle Ages; the sun heated the lead unequally, causing one side to expand more than other, and then contract, gently bending the tower out of shape.  Personally I prefer the local story about it, which is that a virgin got married in the church and the spire was so shocked it turned round to have a look.  The spire will straighten when another virgin marries in the church, something which apparently hasn't happened for five hundred years.

The spire showed up on shop fronts, on the logos of businesses, even on bins with Spire Pride written underneath.  Wouldn't "InSpire Pride" be a better pun?  Ah well.

Medieval streets with names like Knifesmithgate and Saltergate spiralled out from the church, running through to the impressive market square.  Rows of permanent stalls gave you every opportunity to buy One Direction floor rugs and ex-catalogue shoes.

I had a fair amount of time to kill.  My original plan had been to walk out to Dronfield, my last station of the day, but the light-headedness at Langley Mill had put me off the idea.  I didn't fancy keeling over into someone's front garden somewhere off the B6050.  Instead, I decided to experience the joys of Chesterfield and then get a train to Dronfield.

I'd sort of run out of joys now, though.  I decided to have a wander out to Holy Trinity Church, George Stephenson's place of burial.  A little homage to the man who brought us the railways.  There was apparently a simple tomb there, and a window dedicated to him, paid for by Robert Stephenson.

Unfortunately the church was locked up tight.  The only sign of life was a drunk in the graveyard.  I wandered all the way round, hoping I could perhaps see the windows for myself, but even those were obscured by security grilles.  I ended up leaving, frustrated, and wandering back into town, past a theatre school whose patron was Bernie Clifton.  I imagined him giving classes in falling over while wearing false legs.

Chesterfield station features a rarity: a three sided station sign.  I've seen cubes, I've seen two sided flat ones, but triangular ones are scarce.  Fascinating, eh?

They could probably do with washing the bird poo off, though.

Chesterfield station got a new building around the turn of the millennium, and it still gleams with civic pride.  From the outside, it's nothing special, a little bit engineering firm regional HQ, but they'd splashed out on a statue of George Stephenson outside.

No, he's not giving you the finger; that's a tiny model of the Rocket resting on the palm of his hand.

Inside the station building is far more successful; bright and airy, with plenty of places to sit and not too much corporate intrusion.

The platforms, meanwhile, were relics of the original station, so they featured wooden canopies and fancy ironwork.  Unsurprisingly, that was a far nicer place to sit.

Chesterfield also featured an amenity I have never seen before: a milk vending machine.

Is there really that much of a demand for milk in Chesterfield?  Are there hundreds of people passing through and slapping their forehead in frustration because they won't be able to get to a shop for their evening cuppa?  What's the shelf life of milk - a week?  It's not like a Twix or a bottle of Coke, that can sit in the machine for months without any hassle at all.  No-one wants to put their money in the machine and get a bottle of yoghurt instead of semi-skimmed.

Befuddled, I boarded my Northern Rail train for the trip to Dronfield.

There should have been a fifth station on this stretch of line for me to visit.  Back in 2013 the Government approved plans for a new station at Ilkeston, between Langley Mill and Nottingham.  When they started clearing the site for construction, however, they realised that they'd need better flood defences than the ones they'd planned.  On top of that, they found colonies of great crested newts, a protected species, so the whole project was put back even further.  Now a station that had been planned to open in 2014 won't be there until 2016 at best.

Interestingly, the station seems to have been added to the timetables of the local trains, because my train times app showed this:

So all I had to do now was kill an hour in Dronfield.  (I haven't collected Nottingham yet either, but it has a TRAM, and so it deserves far more attention than a quick run around at the end of the day).

Fortunately Dronfield was a very nice little village.  Squeezed in between high ridges, the main street curved round past flower shops and a post office, plus, a little more surprisingly, a tattoo parlour.  There used to be a time when tattoo parlours were only found on the grimiest back streets of our cities; now that getting inked is as commonplace as getting a new hairdo they've sprung up all over the place.

I followed the road round, yellow stoned cottages huddling for space over the road.

I quickly realised that I'd more or less seen all the village had to offer, so I found somewhere to settle.

When I'd gone into the pub, the flat screen tv on the wall was tuned to a Friends repeat on Comedy Central, so I picked a table for a bit of light comedy.  Yes, I've seen them all a million times, but it was "The One With The Yeti" which (a) is a good one and (b) has that boy from Adventures in Babysitting in it.  Unfortunately, the barmaid must have sized me up as a big pop music fan, and she changed the channel to VH-1.  It was in the middle of 90s summer hits, and to be honest, I had enough of Peter Andre's "Mysterious Girl" and "Tease Me" by Chaka Demus and Pliers the first time round.  I drank up and headed back to the station.

Dronfield station has an active user group.  They'd provided hanging baskets and benches, plus a pretty pit tub on rails outside to commemorate the village's mining heritage.

You know what they didn't have?  A proper station sign.  Not one.  I ended up squatting on the platform like an idiot.

Bad show, Dronfield.  Bad show.