Saturday, 22 November 2014

Map! Rant (Temporary Version)

Hamilton Square's been back in the news this week.  The works there have exposed some of the fine Victorian tile work - which will sadly be covered up again with new cladding - and also a load of old posters.  Many of these seem to be from the 50s and 60s.  (It would be remiss of me not to point out the one that says New Brighton is "gay").  You can view an excellent gallery of the rediscovered posters at the Echo website - here.  Or, if you'd prefer, here's a badly filmed video of the station done by me through a train window yesterday.


Please send my Oscar to the usual address.

The continuing closure of the station has resulted in a new, temporary version of the Merseyrail map.  My heart sinks just typing those words.  Merseytravel produce some fine display materials and some excellent posters, but for some reason, when it comes to the network map, they always fail.  It's as though they assign the work experience boy to those jobs, even though the map is one of the most important pieces of artwork they produce.

The closure of Hamilton Square is more inconvenient to passengers than the closure of one of the Liverpool underground stations.  Hamilton Square is at the heart of its own district, separate to the rest of Birkenhead.  There are Council offices, the Wirral's Magistrates Court, a police station.  A significant legal centre has grown up in the area.  There's a college nearby, not to mention the bus and ferry termini at Woodside.  In addition, Hamilton Square is the point where the Wirral Line splits north to the New Brighton and West Kirby lines and south to the Chester and Ellesmere Port lines.

Merseytravel have provided a bus service which travels between Conway Park (on the West Kirby line), Birkenhead Central (on the Chester line) and the Hamilton Square district to enable as many journeys as possible to continue uninterrupted.  The Merseyrail map needed to be adjusted to show both the closure of Hamilton Square and the alternative bus service.  This is how they did it.

That's not right.  In fact, that's so wrong, it actually hurts.

Here's a few basic rules of railway map design.  A solid line indicates a regular service.  A broken line shows an irregular or interrupted service.  A circle indicates an interchange between train services.  These are rules that have been established, at least since Harry Beck's Tube diagram in 1931, and probably before.

This map violates those rules.  The broken lines seem to say that Wirral Line services terminate at one of the three stations in Birkenhead town centre: Hamilton Square, Conway Park, or Birkenhead Central.  The broken lines hint at their former paths, but, for some reason, they can't go that way.  Your journey will be inconvenienced in some way.  The new map implies that there was a direct Conway Park-Birkenhead Central service, which there wasn't.  And Hamilton Square has exactly the same symbol as the open interchange stations.

Yes, there's a big green box at the bottom of the map saying Hamilton Square is closed.  But it's at the bottom of the map.  It's near Chester, in the spot that used to tell you about the bus service into Chester city centre.  It's not near Hamilton Square.  There's not even an asterisk on Hamilton Square to show that there might be something unusual going on.

Contrast with a similar situation in London.  At the moment, Embankment station on the Underground is undergoing escalator maintenance.  The escalators there are the only way to reach the deep level Bakerloo and Northern platforms, so the works mean those lines are no longer accessible.  Here's how TfL handled the change on their map:

It's abundantly clear what's happened there.  The brown Bakerloo and black Northern lines continue uninterrupted to Waterloo from Charing Cross.  The District and Circle lines at Embankment (which remain open) are still on the map.  And a dagger next to the Embankment station name shows you that there is something unusual about that station, and so you should refer to the box at the bottom for further information.  It's simple.  In fact, Merseytravel had it even simpler, because they didn't have the complication of only half the station being open.  Yet they managed to hash it up quite royally.

Here's what I would have done.  Now bear in mind: all I have to work with is MS Paint and my own clunky fists.  I don't have access to Photoshop and years of training and artistic skill.  So this is the best I could come up with, but it shows the principle.

The Wirral Line remains unmolested, so you can still take a train straight into Liverpool city centre.  Hamilton Square's circle is removed from the line completely, and an asterisk guides you to a key at the bottom of the map.  And the purple line shows the bus services, including the stop at Hamilton Square.  It's not perfect, of course - I had to get rid of the large BIRKENHEAD caption, and the purple line shouldn't go through the station name - but I repeat: I am not a trained graphic designer.  That revision shows there's something odd going on but most of your train journeys will be unaffected, and there's a bus route for those you who are affected.  (You could possibly add the ferry in as well, given that it effectively replicates the James Street-Hamilton Square portion of the line, but that would probably be over egging the pudding).

It's not difficult.  It just requires a little bit of thought from the designers at Mann Island.  They need to put themselves in the mind of an infrequent traveller, a foreign tourist who wants to get from Liverpool to Chester to visit the Walls and wants to know the quickest, easiest way of doing it.  I'd be put off travelling on the Wirral Line by that dotted section if I didn't know better.  It hints at hassle that doesn't exist.

Please, Merseytravel.  Try harder.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Fat Malaise

As I write this, I'm not in Yorkshire.  I should be in Yorkshire.  I had tickets booked and everything.  But I'm not in Yorkshire.

I woke up with my alarm at 5:30 this morning - my train from Lime Street was at 7:12 - and I just couldn't face it.  I couldn't face travelling across the country to loiter by a station just outside Barnsley.  Even if it was the hilariously named Penistone.  I felt miserable and unhappy, and I still do.

Part of this might be simple tiredness; I went to Ikea yesterday, and walking round Ikea is roughly equivalent to walking a 10,000 metres.  Only with a bag full of tea lights and wine glasses slung over your shoulder.

Part of it, however, is a more general disaffection with the whole project.  My last few trips have not been very inspiring.  Bits of Manchester.  Suburban Hull.  OK, I was in the Lake District a couple of weeks ago, but that's not even on the proper Northern map.  I've felt a bit like I'm going through the motions, and that worries me for two reasons.

The first is, at its best, visiting stations is tremendous fun for me.  I like going to places I've never been to before, and there's a tremendous sense of satisfaction from crossing them off the map.  I don't want to get bored of it.  I don't want my writing to get boring either, which is something I've also been afraid of lately - I feel a bit like I'm repeating myself.  I don't want this to become a chore.

The second is a deeper reason.  When I was at my lowest, most depressed point, I didn't enjoy anything.  I was just existing, not truly living.  I'm a bit concerned that I may be slipping back that way.  There have been days lately when I've just wished it away, counting down until lunch, counting down until dinner, counting down until bed.  Little markers that tell me another day is almost over.  I had a bit of a breakdown in Sainsbury's car park last week as well; I got some very funny looks from the Afghan refugees who do the hand washes.  I don't want to feel that way again.

This is probably just a blip.  This is probably something to do with the turn of the weather, the darkening evenings, the rapid approach of Christmas.  I'll probably be clawing at the walls by Friday, desperate to get on a train and go anywhere.  It's just not happening today.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Only Happy When It Rains

There are 533 stations on the Northern Rail map, as you'll know if you read my Percentiles post a few days ago.  That's not actually 533 stations that are served by Northern Rail services, though.  Seven stations are served exclusively by other rail companies.  One is Liverpool Central, an important station that's close enough to Lime Street to be counted as practically an interchange.  Dalegarth and Pickering are on heritage railways that for some reason they've chosen to include on the map.  The remaining four are all in Cumbria, in the middle of that huge gap between the Cumbrian Coast Line and the Settle & Carlisle.

They're exclusively grey lines; Northern doesn't go anywhere near them, so the only way to reach these stations is by Virgin or First TransPennine Express.  (Incidentally, when I mentioned them to Robert, he suggested that as they're not Northern stations I didn't need to bother with them, even though they're on the map.  This has made me re-evaluate our five years of friendship as he clearly doesn't know me at all).

I got off the Glasgow train at Oxenholme alongside a gaggle of fearsome Latinas.  Big of hair and tight trousered, they babbled in Spanish at one another, strutting along the platform exuding confidence and attitude.  They seemed quite alien amongst the shuffling English people.  Their huge suitcases hinted at a week's holiday in the Lake District; I wondered if the charming guest house they'd no doubt booked themselves into knew what was about to hit it.

Oxenholme itself is just a tiny village that happened to have the good fortune to get the West Coast Main Line driven by it.  It means it gets a better service to Scotland and London than Liverpool does, with fast Pendolinos stopping regularly.  Its importance is as a junction.  A single track railway breaks off here to head into the heart of the Lake District - my destination for the rest of the day.

I headed to the exit for my first sign pic of the day, which is suddenly a lot easier.  I'd finally reached boiling point with my camera.  It had decided that it would only operate when it was in the right mood, leading to numerous occasions when I'd stood on a street corner turning it on and off again.  Frustrated, I went on the net and ordered a replacement.  My new camera is another Samsung, but this one actually seems to be decent; it's the NX-Mini and it features a "selfie screen".  I know, I know.  By buying this camera I am actually perpetuating the horror of the selfie.  But I've been doing this for seven years, and the NX-Mini's flip up screen means I can actually see what I'm taking a photo of while I do it.  This is a refreshing change after years of vaguely lining myself up and hoping for the best.

All the technology in the world can't stop me looking like a twat, though.

I started the descent down into Kendal.  Below me, the town spread out over the valley, its houses the colour of mint cake, white dots spread across the green hillsides.  They were built up as high as possible above the road to try and get a commanding view every time.  Three police vans whizzed past me, blue lights blaring, with an ITV news van following in its wake; the van still had the old network logo on it, making me think that Cumbria wasn't top of ITN's list of priorities.

The river Kent, which gives the town its name, curved along the valley floor, and I followed its course into town.  I passed behind the K Village, an awful faux-heritage outlet mall; its buildings had been designed to look like Georgian townhouses, only built out of breeze blocks and with an underground car park.  Twee nonsense, but at least there was a pleasing riverside walk behind the vacant store fronts.

The town itself doesn't need fake scenery to pep up its attractiveness.  This is the real deal, an ancient market town that retains all of its old school charm.  Tiny yards lead away from the main street like veins from an artery, while at one point the Blindbeck, a narrow stream, cascaded down between two houses and under the roadway like this was the most normal thing in the world.

Kendal's current wealth is based on its beauty and its closeness to the Lake District, and it embraces it wholeheartedly.  There were cafes and tearooms everywhere you looked, vast outdoor shops flogging brightly coloured GoreTex, tiny gift shops selling things that you would only buy when you went on holiday.  No-one has ever bought an ethical, eco-friendly woollen hat while on a regular shopping trip, only when they've got spending money sloshing around in their pocket and they feel guilty for poking around a shop without buying anything.

It meant that the town had a breezy, comfortable feel about it.  It wasn't as classy as perhaps it thought it was - for all its eating options, the only place with a queue out the door was Kentucky Fried Chicken - but I had a good wander round its pedestrianised streets.  I was particularly intrigued by ABC Lloyds, whose sign advertised "Ladies & Gents Hairstylists - Fountain Pens & Accessories", one of the more random retail combinations I've seen.  ("I'm just going into town to get my hair done and to buy some India Ink.  What a hassle that will be.  If only there was a shop that did both!") I finally ended up back down by the river, crossing the Stramongate Bridge and taking a seat by the weir to eat my sandwiches.  I looked at the salmon ladder, hopefully - the sign said that you could see salmon going upstream in November and December - but the only sign of life was a flock of seagulls arcing under the bridge.

It was a lovely, quiet spot; even when the silence was broken, it was by a school trip.  Forty tiny children in hi-vis jackets trotted by me, holding hands so they wouldn't get lost, chattering enthusiastically.  It seemed like a wonderful place to live.

I turned back to head for the station.  The arrival of the railways was a source of great controversy; it was not long after visiting the Lake District had become fashionable, so people were annoyed that the undisturbed landscape they had just discovered was now going to get a train line driven through it.  The fact that it would enable a lot of working class day trippers to visit the previously upper class preserve probably didn't help.  Wordsworth himself protested against the building of the line, though once it was finished, he changed his mind and bought shares in the company, a delightful piece of hypocrisy I fully expect to be repeated by lots of Chiltern stockbrokers once HS2 is built.

I was pleased to see the station had an impressive gable roofed building high above the road.  It's always good to see a proud town station.  It was accessed by a long driveway, so I paused for the obligatory photo then trekked upwards.

There was something odd about the station though; as I got closer, I spotted a Lloyds Pharmacy on the ground floor.  I'd never seen that in a station before - a WH Smith, a sandwich shop, even the odd delicatessen, but never a pharmacy.  I realised that the huge station building wasn't a station any more.  It was a doctor's surgery, with a chemist's for the patients.

It was even more disappointing at platform level.  A single track - the other was removed in the Seventies - and a couple of undistinguished shelters.  A next train indicator squeaked slightly in the wind.

Not even a ticket machine.  It was a "secure station", because of all the CCTV cameras, but beyond that it was just another deserted hilltop halt.  Its saving grace was the view, out over the top of the old goods yard and to the hills beyond.

A long First Transpennine Desiro chugged up to the platform, three comfortable carriages that certainly put the clunky Northern train I'd got to Preston to shame.  I found a seat for my trip to Burneside.

Northern Rail map fetishists - or indeed, anyone who was paying attention to the map at the top of this post - will have noticed that Burneside isn't actually on the map.  It's not a destination so they didn't bother adding it when they crayoned the Lakes Line on.

I couldn't just ignore it, thought.  Partly because I have a very, very bad habit of anthropomorphising inanimate objects and then feeling guilty for not paying them enough attention.  It's why I regularly rotate my way through all my mugs, so no-one feels left out, and why I try to view all my DVDs at least once during the year so they feel loved.  I realise this is insane.

The second reason is - obviously - I can't pass up the opportunity to visit a railway station, especially one so close.  It's like when I visited Berwick Upon Tweed - I didn't have to, but it was there.  Like Everest, only flatter.

So I'd added two more stations to my trip unnecessarily.  What else was I going to do with my time?  Something useful?

The station was getting a lick of paint from a gang of boiler-suited men.  The signs said they were from a private company, but they all looked like they were on community service - a load of bald heads and chunky arms that just shouted "five to ten suspended sentence".  I kept my head down and went out to the road for my sign picture.

Burneside village was a reminder that the Lake District isn't just scenic vistas for us city folk to coo over as we pass through in our Mondeos.  People actually live here - not millionaire retirees, ordinary working class people.

This is a polite way of saying that Burneside wasn't very attractive.  Don't get me wrong, it was a lot more charming than, say, inner city Manchester, but it was a real come down after Kendal.  The village was dominated by the James Cropper paper mill, to the extent that until recently they even owned many of the homes.  It sat in the centre, grumbling, pumping out steam and smoke.

I skirted the factory and took the road out of the village, between low grey houses built to withstand the winter.  The automated voice on the train had pronounced it Burnieside, like "and Schnorbitz", instead of like the policeman from The Bill.  I was wondering if this was strictly accurate, a bit like when the computerised woman trips over the "brough" in "Middlesbrough"; in fact, I was wondering about it so intently I missed my turn and had to double back to find my footpath.

For a while I was following the back of the factory, right up against the fence.  I put a suitable "rambler at work" expression on my face because I was sure that I looked like a cat burglar testing the perimeter for access points.  A couple of times I nearly skidded over in the wet mud.  I imagined the factory workers in the canteen, watching me with their mugs of tea, cheering as I skidded and waiting for me to do an undignified flip.

I'd booked my tickets for this trip at the start of October.  Normally, once the Autumn comes in, I move away from country walks.  Paths become waterlogged, rivers burst their banks, and the weather becomes temperamental.  On this occasion, though, I'd got a certain fantasy in my head of walking in the rain.  I'd romanticised the idea of walking across the Lake District in soft drizzle.  It seemed like the best way to see it.

The weather was being firmly uncooperative.  It was nearly Bonfire Night, and I was in shirtsleeves - rolled up to my elbow at that.  I didn't even have a coat; the weather report said there was no need.  It wasn't the charming autumnal scene I'd pictured.

Obviously it was still beautiful.  Weak sunlight peeked through constantly churning clouds.  I watched a heron perch on top of a weir, pecking at the water, before picking up and circling away with a fish caught in its beak.  Stark leafless trees formed veiny silhouettes on hilltops.

The River Kent was back alongside me, only angrier.  It churned beneath me, the noisy water a constant backdrop to my walk.  More than once I mistook the heavy crashes for a train passing by.  I clambered over a succession of stiles; at some point, my map worked its way free from my pocket, and I spent the rest of the afternoon feeling guilty for accidentally littering.  The fact that I had absolutely no idea where I now was and had to rely on memory to find my way was a secondary consideration.

The tiny village of Bowston interrupted my country jaunt, and I crossed the bridge by a car workshop that would fit right into Emmerdale.  Except in Emmerdale it would probably be run by sexy lesbians, and there'd be a body tied to the air pump.  A sexy body.  Who was also a lesbian.

Bowston was barely a spot on the map, just a main street and a couple of cul-de-sacs, and I was soon back on the Dales Way footpath beside the river.  It was barely three o'clock but it felt like the day had given up and was getting ready to hand over to the evening.  I hoped I'd make it to civilisation before it turned pitch black, not least because the signal on my mobile had finally given up.

I was back on the road again before long.  I sauntered along, minding my own business, when a BMW roared out of nowhere.  The driver took an elaborate diversion around me then burned away.  There was a gate further on; he paused at the outside, pushed a button on the console, and let himself into a compound.

It was a compound.  A bit of Docklands had somehow become detached and drifted into Cumbria.  Tall white apartment blocks with steel and glass balconies, plus a token bit of limestone cladding to make it "blend in".  A seven foot wall blocked access to passers by and stopped snooping eyes from catching sight of the residents.

Cowan Head was built on the site of an old paper mill, and replaced the industry with a leisure centre, Sky TV and a private nine hole golf course.  I hated it.  It was inappropriate and ugly.  The mill, I'm sure, hadn't been pretty - the one in Burneside certainly wasn't - but at least it was useful.  It provided employment and a livelihood.  This was a place for London-types to spend their weekends.  It wasn't for the locals - unless you count the "cleaning services and interior window cleaning" the website mentions.  I found it hideous and profoundly depressing.

Fortunately it was soon left behind.  I was approaching the centre of the National Park now, and the landscape became harsher and less well-groomed.  The grass under my feet was thinner; I could feel hard rock with each step.  Lonely barns were pockmarked with weather damage.  Across the way, a stream emptied into the river, an endless torrent adding to the flow.

I felt lonely now, the good lonely, the lonely where you don't want anyone around.  If I'd spotted another hiker at that point I'd have been disappointed.  I was enjoying the isolation.

There was the occasional moment when I wondered if this was perhaps a good idea.  When I skidded on a waterlogged path and came dangerously close to the river's edge.  When I clambered over large lumps of stone, managing to avoid the mud but putting myself at a much greater risk of slipping.  When I stumbled slightly and felt my ankle give way underneath me.  I wondered what I would do if I ended up stranded on the path: no coat, no phone signal, no-one really knowing exactly where I was, no map to show me the way to go.  I clung to the knowledge that the railway line was somewhere over there; maybe over the top of that hill, maybe a bit further on, but the point is there was a route to civilisation within a fairly accessible distance.  Assuming I didn't break my leg or something.

I scrambled up and over the wall and into a woodland.  The path was obscured by thick leaves.  I wondered when someone last walked this way; they looked bedded in.  On the other side, I scoured my memory of GCSE Geography (A grade, just saying) to try and remember what the word was for rocks left in odd places by retreating glaciers.  I wasn't a fan of physical geography - not more about oxbow lakes - so I'd purged it from my mind the minute I didn't need it any more.  A Google search just now reveals they're called "erratics" but I was thinking of the much more pleasing sounding "drumlins", so apparently all that fuss about educational standards plummeting isn't a recent thing.

It was when I began talking to the sheep - not just talking, but talking to them in a Russian* accent, because I thought that make it more interesting for them - that I realised I should perhaps get to civilisation quite soon.  Fortunately I was approaching Staveley.  I passed some farm buildings that had been converted to private residences - along with a snotty sign on the gatepost: Footpath diverted Aug 1993 now 250m >, because heaven forbid that walkers should be allowed to violate their driveway - and I found myself in the village.

Staveley was a community.  You could feel the village breathe in and out, its residents flowing through its lungs and making it live.  There was a butcher, a chemist, a couple of pubs, a cottage that still had Martins Bank Limited etched over its front window.  The River Gowan burbled through the centre, and all around were those epic, brown and green hills.  I followed the lead of a lady in an impressive knitted cap and took a look at the notice board.  I learnt that the local MP is Tim Farron, the most Northern man who has ever lived, and that dog fouling is an issue "yet again" ("six or seven dollops of the stuff had recently to be removed from the football pitch before the junior footballers could start their practice").  Further on, mothers and fathers were starting to mill outside the village school, ready to pick up their kids.

I'd stopped outside the public toilets, because I was amused by a sign saying that it was run by "Staveley Stop 'n' Go"; I was wondering if that was a deliberate pun or if they were blissfully unaware of how it sounded.  There was another noticeboard, and I was just about to read the What's On in Staveley calendar when a woman appeared at my elbow and barked, "Are you looking at our noticeboard?"

"Erm... yes."

She was a tiny woman, buttoned up in a padded jacket that looked like it had been made out of a duvet.  Pegged into her lapel was a large and elaborate poppy, the type that is there to let you know that she cares about the departed just that bit more than you.  "I work on this noticeboard," she continued, "with those ladies over there."  Two women, one sharp and angular, one small and bookish, were wandering towards us from the village.  "We come here every night to check on it.  And to lock up the toilets.  Check it's all up to scratch."

I felt a tiny prickling at the back of my neck.  What was she trying to say?  "I was just curious," I stammered, and began to walk away.

"Nothing wrong with just being curious," she said to my departing back, while I wondered if I'd been bagged as some kind of sexual deviant and a photofit of me was going to appear on the noticeboard next week.

I headed for safer ground: the station.  A building nearby still had Railway Hotel painted on its upper wall, but it had long ago been turned into a private home.  The station did boast something I'd not seen outside the big stations: an LED screen, showing a rotation of information posters, timetables and adverts.  It seemed like a good idea until I had to sit in the shelter alongside it and listen to it hum noisily.  You don't get that with a noticeboard.

The station was up on an embankment, and as with Kendal, the best that could be said about it was it had a great view.

My heart sank when the train came in.  It was a school train.  All over the country, rural trains around 3:30 become filled with hyperactive, over loud children, who temporarily take over the length of the carriage and turn it into a small Grange Hill.  I climbed aboard and pushed my way through the yammering kids, some of whom were in seats, some of whom were wedged into the luggage space, and I dropped myself into a seat with what I hoped was just enough casualness that they wouldn't pay me any attention.  I miscalculated my landing though, and whacked my backside into the arm rest, leaving a five inch bruise on my left buttock that is still angrily purple.  (Pictures available on request).

It was getting properly dark as I reached Windermere, with purple lacing through the skies.  The schoolkids all clambered over one another to get off the train, turning the car park into a circus, with cars and parents weaving in and out of one another.  Windermere had a small wooden station building, which would have been perfectly nice if it wasn't next to the old Windermere station building.

That is - let's be honest - a shed.  A very posh shed, but just a shed.  Next to it is a stone building, with a porte-cochere and a pitched roof, but that's been turned into a branch of Booths.  For the benefit of readers from outside the North West, Booths is what Waitrose would be if it stopped being so downmarket.  Booths have olive bars and juice bars and art galleries with artisan breads and cheeses.  Booths makes Sainsburys look like a food bank.

They've not done a great job with the Windermere store, it has to be said; it faces the car park, on the other side of the building, so the railway side feels like an afterthought, and the porte-cochere is dark and unlit.

I headed into town.  I hoped that I'd be able to see the lake before the sun set.  It seemed odd to come all this way and not reach the largest lake in England.  I passed through a pretty town centre, devoted to healthy outdoor pursuits and the extraction of tourist pounds.  An open topped bus wound its way through the streets - you'll be unsurprised to hear the top deck was empty - and hardy looking pensioners stared in shop windows at stuff like I'd seen in Kendal, only more so.

I passed the library, which was advertising an exhibit called "From Auschwitz to Ambleside" - a title that had the inadvertent result of making a small Cumbrian town sound as bad as a concentration camp - and I was walking happily down the hill when I saw this sign:

One and a quarter miles?  I realised I'd never make it to the waterside before the sun set.  I made a mental note to write to Windermere Town Council, demanding that they change their name because it's flagrant false advertising, and instead headed back up the hill for a place I knew would be warm and comforting and satisfying.  

Windermere is home to Lakeland, and houses the chain's headquarters and flagship store.  I love Lakeland, even if I'm convinced they pipe mind altering drugs into the air conditioning system.  At first, you're wandering around giggling at the products on display, wondering who has the room in their home for a banana guard or a tomato corer.  But after a while it starts to overtake your mind, and you begin thinking, "why don't I have a silicon spoon guard for the edge of my saucepans?  Does everyone else have one?  Is this solving a problem I didn't know I had?" and then next thing you know you're at the checkout with an armful of Teatools because the idea of using a spoon to take the tea bag out of your mug seems positively repellent.  Well played, Lakeland.  Well played.

*bad imitation of Boris Grishenko from GoldenEye.

Monday, 27 October 2014


For reasons far too dull to go into here, I found myself in Manchester with a couple of hours to kill.  I decided to visit some stations, because what the hell else are you meant to do in Manchester?  They haven't even opened the Airport tram line yet.

I headed to Brinnington, on the edge of Stockport.  It's on a line that forms part of a triangle of railways in the east of Manchester, with the Guide Bridge line forming the top and the Hyde section forming the side.  I'd already briefly touched this part with a visit to Bredbury, so this way I could visit the last four stations and cross off a big section of map.

Brinnington was built in the same style as Bredbury, with a warm-coloured ticket hall in brick and wood.  Unlike Bredbury, however, there was no car park and station inn.  Instead the roof was lined with sharp spikes to prevent climbing.

This was a far more down at heel area.  The houses were in corporation brick, and there was a chippy and a general store in a squat building that looked reinforced with steel.  Shutters covered half the windows.  Soon the houses were replaced by open patches of concrete with tower blocks at their centre.

My eye was caught by a motorhome with one of those strips over the windscreen - the type that says "Tracy and Brian".  This one said Free n Ezy.  Leaving aside the criminal spelling, I wondered if the owner realised he was calling whoever was in the passenger seat "easy"?  Unless that was part of the appeal.  Perhaps the motor home was a kind of mobile whore house.  On the opposite side of the road, beneath one of the towers, a man hovered in a way that looked suspicious despite his best efforts.

It used to be that you could tell who'd bought their Council house because they had a different coloured front door.  Your first action on getting a mortgage was to chuck out the corporation sanctioned door and get something with a bit of glass and style.  Now you can tell who owns their own home on an estate because they're the ones without solar panels.  I like to imagine the tenants "accidentally" wafting their new lower heating bills under the noses of the homeowners, then going inside and running all the hot taps at once just because they could.

I descended down a side road into a mass of trees.  There was a van there, with some council workers sat in the cabin eating their sandwiches.  I assumed my best "I am just out for a perambulation, my good man" air, so they wouldn't think I was cruising the woods for illicit purposes; this was fatally undermined when a few moments later I had to turn round and walk past them again because I'd taken a wrong turn.

I was entering the Reddish Vale Country Park, a long strip of green either side of the River Tame.  A nature reserve, fishing ponds and grazing space have been allowed to flourish around the water.  Horses grazed in fields while birds whirled overhead; it was hard to believe that only a few moments before I'd been on a rough estate.

I love spaces like this.  Unexpected swathes of green that slip unnoticed between houses and cars.  They're often there for the most unromantic of reasons - to provide a buffer for a motorway, as reclaimed landfill, or they're the site of old mine workings - but they're always a joy.  The cities burst with noise and panic around them and then you take a few steps and it all falls silent again.

It's also under threat.  As a way of "regenerating" Brinnington, Stockport Council has suggested selling off some of the country park for new housing.  Their logic escapes me.  Firstly, how will more houses improve people's lives?  Secondly, when has building on a country park ever been a good idea?  I'd been thinking how lucky the residents of Brinnington were.  Despite their slightly grim environs, they had all this greenery within walking distance.  How would taking away the - no doubts magnificent - views from those tower blocks and replacing them with 200 identikit roofs improve the minds of the residents?  How would it make them feel, other than even more isolated and unwanted?

I crossed over the river, past a sign from the Environment Agency warning of a chemical spill in the river making it hazardous for dogs to go in.  The city wasn't as far away as I'd thought.  I walked between low ponds with wooden jetties for fishermen, through a cluster of ducks being fed by excitable toddlers.

In the distance were the brick arches of the Hope Valley line, carrying the railway over the Tame.  I made a slight detour out of my way so that I could have a look at the underside.  It's a fantastic piece of railway architecture and completely uncelebrated; its position on a commuter line in Manchester means we take it for granted.  It's easy to forget what an impressive piece of engineering it is.

It's certainly more impressive than the low bridge that carries the Stockport to Stalybridge line through Reddish.  Robert and I visited this sad, unloved little branch a few years ago; it's baffling that a piece of perfectly adequate railway in one of the largest cities in Britain is so ignored.

I came out of the country park into the Stockport you'd expect.  Red streets of terraces at right angles to one another.  A cat eyed me from the grass outside a closed primary school.  There was a row of pound shops, and a garage, and then I saw Reddish North station, half hidden by trees on a side road.

It's retained its original station building and, more impressively, it's still in use.  Northern have refurbished it so there's a decent little ticket office and waiting area inside.

What lets it down is the sign.  GMPTE have sprung for a sign at the roadside, but it's just a generic one, with the BR logo and their symbol on it.  The actual station name is stuck on the side of the building; an afterthought.

Sidebar: that Northern Rail poster is a classic example of marketing speak doing nothing apart from pissing off the customers.  If you can't read it, the poster says:

You're saying...
"I want better value."

We're listening...
"We are installing more ticket machines at busy stations across our network.  We know your time is precious, so want to reduce your queueing time as much as possible."

Cue a hundred thousand commuters saying, "that's not actually what I meant by 'better value'."  It's someone taking a poll result and desperately manhandling it to try and get a positive.  I'm sure the people who said "I want better value" actually meant "I'd like my rather expensive train ticket to buy me more than standing space on a rickety pacer as it chugs between Liverpool and Manchester at four miles an hour."  

Speaking of rickety pacers, one soon appeared on the platform to take me to Belle Vue.  We were back to the two platforms and a bus shelter model of railway station here.

I didn't mind that so much, because I assumed Belle Vue was built for crowds.  For a century this was the home of a large entertainment complex, intended to amuse and delight the city's middle classes.  Belle Vue had a zoo, pleasure gardens, amusement arcades, lakes and ballrooms.  There were firework displays, circuses, boxing matches and exhibitions; hotels and tea rooms catered for the crowds of visitors.  It was a sort of inner-city Alton Towers.

I knew there wouldn't be much to see now.  The park's admittances declined with each passing decade.  Growing public discomfort over zoos meant that Chester, with its large open spaces, became the way forward, and Belle Vue couldn't compete.  The amusement park rides were offered for sale, one by one, and when there weren't any takers, they were demolished.  The Speedway stadium was sold to a car auction firm.  Houses were built over the sports ground.  All that remains of its pleasure ground past is a multiplex, built on the site of the main entrance, a snooker hall, and the greyhound racing track.

I knew the greyhound stadium wouldn't rival Wembley, but I was shocked to see it across the road from the station.

Concrete walls and rickety sheds; it wasn't exactly saying "a fun night out for all".  Greyhound racing outside London always seems odd anyway. It's a sport that needs an audience of bulky Cockneys with sheepskin jackets and photochromic glasses.  Mike Reid, yes; Liam Gallagher, no.  It reflected how quickly the whole Belle Vue site fell from grace.  By the time it finally closed in the early Eighties it was unmourned by most of the city, regarded as a dated blot that needed to be dealt with.

I turned left from the station, crossing the site of the former Midland Hotel (now demolished and replaced with advertising hoardings; one, incongruously, was advertising Heathrow expansion - a vital issue to this area, of course).  There was a certain amount of irony in the name Belle Vue, an irony compounded by streets named after royal palaces - Sandringham, Windsor, Balmoral.  This was a poor, underprivileged area.  It was struggling.

It was little things.  The litter on the street.  The occasional boarded up, burnt out home.  The shops selling brands you'd never heard of.  The adults strolling down the road at 2 in the afternoon, jobless. Tiny signs that added up to an area that needed help.

I turned into a tight street of social housing.  When they'd been built, cars hadn't been a consideration, and so the roadways were hopelessly narrow, with cul-de-sacs only big enough for a single vehicle to drive down at a time.  Road humps and chicanes had been introduced to try and stop joy riders.  It deterred two lads on a dirt bike, who swung into a side road at the last possible moment to try and avoid the barrier.

I passed the Estate Office - a lovely hangover from its Council days - and turned left by a row of shops; an off licence, a Chinese takeaway, and a chip shop called, somewhat bizarrely, "Fantasy".  Who has fantasies about chips?  No, wait, I know; Rule 34.  Best not to ask.

I'd reached my final station, Ryder Brow.

The GMPTE signage lingers on out here.  Transport for Greater Manchester's been in existence for three years but they can't be bothered updating the corporate look where no-one important can see it; in fact, there was a poster on the platform heralding TfGM's arrival.  The plastic case had been smashed.

Also on the platform was this slightly patronising sign.  Some trains skip the odd station along the line, and so there was a warning for drivers.  I can't help thinking it could have been phrased better.

And that was that.  Another bit of Greater Manchester tucked away.  There's still loads to go, of course, because Manchester has more railway stations than it knows what to do with.  The rest will have to wait for the next time I'm in the city with nothing to do.