Wednesday 19 December 2007

Map! The Third

And here's where we are right now - not doing badly, really. But doing the City Line means suddenly I have a massive wad of uncollected stations! Damn!

Northern Lights

Another day, another trip out. Fact is that the Bf was going to be firmly stuck in front of the tv all Sunday watching Liverpool vs Manchester United and Arsenal vs Chelsea, and frankly I had better things to do than listen to him swear at Sky Sports. Besides, I wanted one more tart before the end of 2007 - a nice way to finish the year, I reckon.

I'd originally planned on hitting the City Line for the first time. Yes, faithful viewer, I'm breaking that rule I had about just doing the Northern & Wirral Lines. It was just too tempting. They sat on the map, calling to me - and since I can use the City Line to visit a number of friends en route, there didn't really seem to be a reason not to do it.

Sadly, Sunday services on the City Line are at best infrequent. I was looking at one train an hour from most stations, and since I had to be in Manchester by 7 to have dinner with a friend and it was lunchtime, I needed something a bit better than that. The bottom end of the Wirral Line was a potential, but I wanted to go somewhere a bit more unfamiliar, so I headed for the middle of the Southport branch, to a load of stations I had never visited before, and knew little about.

Of course, this meant passing through what was left of Sandhills. As it only closed a month ago, I wasn't expecting revolutionary change, but I was shocked to see there was nothing left. I snapped a blurry pic through the window, but it was basically wholesale destruction going on. I don't think I'll come back this way for a month or so - I'd be interested to see the next step change in the development.

So: to Blundellsands and Crosby. That's just one station - in fact I think it should be ampersanded. Blundellsands & Crosby was strangely disassociated from its surroundings. There was a scrappy car park between the platform and the road outside, and it was overlooked by one of those "retirement communities" - four floors of old people; a pensioner stack that turned its back on the pavement and had a gated entrance.

I snapped a pic and ventured down the nicely-named Serpentine. (The soundtrack for this portion of the trip, before my iPod died, was Sir William Young and his Keep On album). This long curved road snaked between B&C and my next stop, Hall Road. With it being Sunday, there was only one train every half hour, so I had a fair amount of time to take in the large mansions and elegant driveways. Crosby is posh, you see. In my head, I always associate it with David "Bing" Crosby, from the late lamented Brookside, and from what I understand, he sums it up quite well - slightly up tight, slightly down to earth, all in one package. The Serpentine seemed to embody this. One house had a shrine to the Virgin Mary in its garden; I hope this was some sort of priest house, and not Ruth Kelly's summerhouse. (I can't stand that woman).

The road carries itself in a gentle arc until it slips up against the beach, and Liverpool Bay, and here was the northern extremities of one of my favourite pieces of art: Anthony Gormley's Another Place, the dozens of metal men studded along the length of Crosby Beach. I have been to see it twice already, and it's such an affecting piece of art. Each figure seems so individual, and lonely, and gathered together they just carry a great poignancy to me. It's almost like they're suicidals, all getting ready to walk into the sea to die, and none of them noticing the others around them who could help. If they were able to turn their head, they'd be able to live and move together, but they can't, so they just wait for the sea to wash over them and wipe them away again.

The tide was in, so only a few figures were visible; plus the sea wind was bitterly cold on my face, and I didn't know how long it would take me to get to Hall Road, so I tore myself away and promised to revisit them again.

As it turned out, I reached Hall Road with time to spare, and I got my first ALF. I have no idea about sport whatsoever, so I don't know if Waterloo Rugby Club are really famous and I've just never heard of them, or if the ALF is giving them ideas above their station; I will say that it would be nice to see a face on an ALF that didn't look like it belonged to a burns victim.

Hall Road was strangely desolate, and I began to feel quite melancholy. For the first time in my solo travels round MerseyRail, I felt lonely. I'm quite happy with my own company, and I like the fact that this project is all down to me and me alone, but I was looking up the rails where I was headed and all I could see was a meagre winter landscape, cold and bitter and unwelcoming. It didn't help that Hall Road was run down, and deserted. There was a rotting maintenance depot besides the platform, and the ticket office on the opposite side was screened off in such a way that there was no light showing from it. I shuddered in the wind, and leapt aboard the next train gladly.

No time to sit down, though, because I was off again at the next stop, Hightown. It gets a lot jollier from now on, I promise! The train seemed to revive me - it certainly restored heat to my freezing ears! - and so when I got off at Hightown I was happy and enthused again.

I was travelling without A-Z for the first time, this week, because my Liverpool A-Z only went as far as Hall Road - everything north of that belonged to a different map. A look at Google Maps had shown me one thing though: Hightown was an island. On three sides was green belt, and on the fourth was the estuary of the River Alt - there was no chance of me walking to the next station. I was stuck in Hightown for half an hour. Still, it meant I had plenty of time to get a high-level shot of me and the sign, halfway up the pedestrian bridge.

I'd imagined that Hightown would be a little village, and I was disappointed to find that it was determinedly suburban, in architecture and style. The newsagent on the village green had a sign sponsored by the Daily Mail, for goodness' sake. There was a man scrubbing the tyres of his 4x4 (the type that never offroads) with hot soapy water. I headed from the station through a couple of streets of semis to what I believed would be the sea, and I got a shock.

Suddenly it turned beautiful. This shot was taken literally three minutes from the train station. That is not something you expect to see in a place with an L postcode - it reminded me of holidays on the Norfolk Broads, and the weak winter sun just added to its wispy attractiveness. It was tranquil.

Apart from the gunshots. Yes, it seemed that the other side of the river, there was a shooting range, and my whole wander round the estuary was against a backdrop of cracks and bangs. It definitely impeded on the whole peaceful nature image. So I headed back to the station for the next train.

I've noticed a pattern starting to form through this blog: the penultimate station on my travels will be a gem. Last time it was Bank Hall, and not long ago, Hoylake got me squeeing like crazy. So it was on this trip, with Formby. For starters - ALF! The buckets and spades are a bit downmarket, though - Formby is definitely not a rival to Blackpool, and its sand dunes are of the windswept and elegant sort rather than the Kiss Me Kwik type. The whole Sefton Coast is a very delicately maintained series of sand dunes, carefully maintained as a coastal wilderness.

However, because I am a bit sad, the majesty of nature is nothing in comparism with a nice station - and Formby was a nice station. A plaque in the ticket hall said that it was restored in 2005, and they did a great job; just look at that wooden ticket booth, and the beams. But the best part was outside.

A tiled sign! A genuine, lovely, tiled station name sign. How fantastic! I may have to kill the local transport planners who decided that it was a great idea to put that traffic light in front of the FOR - if I find out who it was I may have to dump him in the shooting range at Hightown in a luminous coat. I was also disappointed to find that my picture of the mosaic tiled LYR (Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway) logos that had been restored on the sign didn't work for some reason. I am seriously tempted to go back and get them, because they were amazing.

My light was fading, and I had only twenty minutes to get to Freshfield, the day's final station. If Crosby is posh, then Formby is really posh - it's sort of like the difference between Victoria Beckham and Victoria Harvey. This is where the Liverpool & Everton footballers move to once they hit the hundred grand a week mark, and it was a constant stream of security gated residences all the way to the next station. If I win the lottery, this is where I'll probably end up - either here or cavorting with celebrities and drinking champagne, I haven't decided yet.

I reached Freshfield with only a minute or two before the train arrived to take me back to Liverpool, and I suddenly found myself trapped in a horrific Sophie's Choice. Freshfield had only one station sign, on the northbound platform - on the other side of the closed level crossing, in other words. It also had an ALF.

I was torn. I didn't have time to get right the way to the end of the platform, where the ALF was located, then back down and over the footbridge, to get myself in front of the station sign. The clock was ticking, and I had to decide which sign I needed more.

Snap decision: get the ALF, then a picture of yourself in front of a platform sign (rather than the entrance sign). I ran to the end, grabbed a shot of the rather mangy looking red squirrel (no wonder they're endangered) and then managed to crouch in front of a platform sign as the Liverpool train appeared on the horizon. Job done.

Except... Except it didn't feel right. It felt like cheating. It felt like laziness. I'd got a platform shot once before, at Birkenhead Park way back at the start, but I was just an amateur MerseyTarter then. Now I'm a pro. And yes, dammit; the obsessive compulsive part of me was saying, "Will you ever be happy knowing that you missed one? That you didn't get it right?"

And that, reader, is the case for the defence for this picture.

I didn't get the train. Instead I spent half an hour arsing around on the platform, on the street, and on the footbridge, trying to get a not bad shot, and this one is the one I like the best. My head looks bigger than the Face of Boe, but stuff it; it's me at Freshfield, and it tidies away a nice little section of the line.

The funny thing about these five stations is for the first time I felt I had travelled somewhere. All the stations I had been to before had been urban, either in their location or their architecture or both. The stations here - Hightown and Freshfield, certainly - felt like little country halts that just happened to have been swallowed up by the Liverpool metropolis. I felt like I had progressed somewhere. Even when the trip back into town took about half an hour, it seemed as though I had had a nice day out in the countryside somewhere. And I hadn't even got to the end of the line!

(Actually, I don't think there's any defence for that last picture...)

Wednesday 21 November 2007

Thin Blue Lines

This is how obsessed I am now; I took a day off work so I could Tart Sandhills. Surely there's something wrong with me somewhere? Without thinking, without even consulting anyone, I took the Monday off so that I could get to Sandhills before it closed. Please remember - this is a train station. It's a train station that will be open again one day, albeit in a different form. I was treating it like Doctor Beeching was going to turn up with a napalm gun unless I attended. OBSESSED.

But sod it; I enjoyed myself. The closure of Sandhills gave me the opportunity to polish off certain aspects of the Northern Line. For these jaunts I was venturing into territory which was known of by reputation. I had been to Kirkby once before, for a job interview, and so I knew the gauntlet of death that stretched from Kirkby station to the town centre. Yes, this is a hopelessly patronising middle class reaction to being inserted into a working class world of high unemployment and low expectations, but damn, I don't care; I was scared. Kirkby was a scary town. It was built as a new town for Liverpool, and by "new town" what I mean is "dumping ground". The BF has family from Kirkby, and he talks of it like it's one of the rings of hell; to a poncy southern poof, it's really rather frightening.

But it's on the map, so I had to collect it. I took the train from Moorfields and poured myself out there. The thing is, Kirkby is a dead end in every sense of the word. Not only is it the end of the branch of the Northern Line - to change for a Wigan train, you have to walk down the platform and board a different train - but it's also miles from anywhere. Kirkby is cut off completely from the rest of Liverpool by the M57, so there was no chance of me wandering down the line to the next station. Kirkby therefore became a hop on, hop off kind of place.

I hopped off and took a pic of myself in front of the naff 80s box of a ticket office. One day, this might change, and the line will be extended to somewhere called Headbolt Lane; I like to imagine this is where Frankenstein's Monster lives (arf!). I had wracked my brain, trying to think what I could do in Kirkby for fifteen minutes until the next train came along. Fortunately, it turns out that the train has a massive dwell time before it departs again, so I was able to nip back on it a moment later and ride out to the next station.

Can I say that I love Fazakerley? Firstly, it sounds like something Worzel Gummidge would say. It's got too many consonants; if only you could use proper nouns in Scrabble - it would be worth a bomb. And secondly it has an ALF, and it's ages since I had one of those - I missed them.

Ok, it's a crap ALF. Don't use a road sign on a train platform - it's just wrong. Perhaps a broken limb or two, or maybe some MRSA bugs; something with a little joi de vivre. It's better than nothing though, so I happily snapped it and moved on.

Longmoor Lane runs from Fazakerley to Walton, and it's another of those wide roads that Liverpool seems to be blessed with. Sadly it's a little more run down than most. There were quite a few "no win no fee" solicitors in the shopping parades en route, but I was strong and managed to resist the temptation to chuck a brick through the windows. No win no fee is a blight upon society, and I reserve the right to be extremely indignant about this until the day when I suffer terrible whiplash in a car accident.

As I hit Walton I actually passed a little Goth/Emo couple who had been snogging on the steps at Kirkby station. I'm afraid, being hopelessly aged and out of date, that I'm not sure whether kids of today find being called a Goth insulting. Personally, I have never met a Goth I didn't like; they're tremendously lovely people, and I sadly fell out of touch with a particularly nice specimen a few years ago (Eve, if you're out there, I'm sorry! Get in touch!). Emos seem to be the 21st century version of Goths; they like the make-up, and the morbid fascinations, but their music is particularly rubbish, and they seem to want to combine a mortal depression with owning a Wii and getting a good job in the City. Doesn't seem right somehow.

Anyway, the point is, this little pair of teenage EmoGoths (why weren't they in school? Anyway.) obviously recognised me from Kirkby station, and a look of befuddlement crossed their face; they clearly couldn't understand why I was walking along a street in Walton when they'd plainly seen me get off the train in Fazakerley. I'm afraid to say I grinned at them as I passed; though I didn't look back, I like to think they rolled their eyes in a dismissive teenage way. (In a moment of lovely local colour, they were listening to the same iPod, one ear bud each; I like to imagine it was some Robert Smith or Siouxie Sioux, but I have this horrible dread feeling it was Nickleback).

I was in Walton so I could use Orrell Park station to get me back on track (hoho). Regular readers (hello you!) will remember that I was delighted to find a man cleaning the platform last time I was here. On a crisp - some might say chilly - November morning, I was even more delighted to find that there were actually two men clearing the platform of leaves today. I also noticed for the first time that there are flower boxes on the platform. Orrell Park, I salute you and your hard working staff.

It was doubly nice because the next station was Kirkdale. This is the point where the Kirkby and Ormskirk lines split. Collecting this station made a whole branch of the Northern Line disappear forever, so that was good. Also good was that Kirkdale is another redeveloped station, with that somewhat pedantic Merseyrail habit of listing exactly how many steps there are to the top; there was also a glamorous glass lift that was packed full of lazy train workers from the nearby depot for whom 48 steps is apparently a struggle.

Kirkdale also has a nice new sign, which is different to the flat and boxy ones I'm used to. This is where the good things about Kirkdale end, because, God help us, it's in a really not very nice area. At least Kirkby had trees. I walked from the station along some frighteningly grim streets of terraced houses; broken glass was all over the pavements, and the new housing that had been built in the 60s carried the grim tint of despair. This is where dock workers once lived, and once the docks went, so did the reason for living here; the people who remain are not there through choice. I rushed through here, along Stanley Road, in search of Bank Hall station.

My expectations were low. The area was just the wrong side of horrible. I had read on Wikipedia that Bank Hall is extremely underused, because of its remote location. My friend Barry's ex-boyfriend's brother (are you keeping up?) used to work here, and he said "Bank Hall" like it was the Hellmouth. It just didn't seem like a tantalising prospect.

This just shows why preconceptions are rubbish. Bank Hall was wonderful. I can't describe how pleased I was by it. The ticket office is a perfect little Victorian gem; as you can see from my grin in the pic, I was utterly charmed before I even stepped inside. A flight of steps took me down into a dramatic space, a single island platform between long curving lines under a high brick wall. And it had something better than ALFs. It had art. Proper, decent, platform art.

Spaced along the platform were three concrete posts, each of which was inlaid with metal figures. At first, the sun, then at right angles to it, the moon; at the next, a fish, with a squirrel alongside; and finally, a representation of industry, accompanied by a copper sailing ship. I'll show you these features before I continue.

How wonderful are they?! There were no signs to show what this art project was for; how it came about, or what it represented. I can see the land/sea links, how the area was guided by the common themes and so on; but usually there's a plaque somewhere talking about it. Even better, while I was waiting, more people arrived on the platform, and another traveller took as much of an interest in the art as me. My terminal shyness prevented me from saying anything, but I was unfeasibly pleased to see how it was appreciated; he did the same as me, touching the cold metal, seeking out each image, and half-smiling to find such an unexpected diamond. I love you Bank Hall, and I'm not afraid to admit it; what better way could there be to break my Southport line duck?

After all that, Sandhills couldn't help but be a bit of a let down, even if it did have less than a week to live. It's a breezy station, a couple of platforms perched high on a viaduct in the middle of industrial estates; its principal interest is that you can get a train to any Northern Line destination from here. When it's completed this will be a modern transport interchange, with lifts to the platforms, and finally a decent shelter so you don't freeze your knackers off while you wait - in the meantime, I'll preserve it for eternity in digital form.

Sandhills also provided the opportunity for a lovely bookending ALF trip. In my last post, I recounted my disastrous misadventures on the Wirral Line, which saw me collect Birkenhead Central. In all the shenanigans, I wasn't able to get Central's ALF. To make up for this, I started today's trips at Birkenhead Central, and so I managed to get a great compare and contrast as all Merseyside's professional football teams are encapsulated in the form of ALF boards.

Birkenhead Central's Auton is a bit scary, I have to admit. I also don't like the fact that the town centre is relegated to an afterthought in comparism to a bus to Tranmere, but still. In my OCD fashion, the idea that I'd started and ended my journey with footie-related ALFs was a great way to bookend my trip.

So: another five down. For the first time, I had travelled on all three branches of the Northern Line, and I've knocked another branch of the list. The only stations remaining on the Ormskirk line are the three Lancashire ones, but I have the whole of the Southport line glittering before me...

Sunday 11 November 2007

Just try and ignore the hair.

Fact: Merseyrail is the best performing railway franchise in Britain. This is a bit of a cheat, to be honest, as all its rails are separated from the rest of the network, but still, it's a fact, and certainly a change from when it used to be nicknamed "Miseryrail".

However, the Gods demand karmic retribution for this, and so when things go wrong on the system, they tend to go horribly wrong. As I found out last Tuesday on my way to work. My usual train leaves Birkenhead Central at twenty-five to eight, and gets to Chester at ten past. On Tuesday, though, it stopped suddenly in the tunnel outside Green Lane station. After a few minutes of terse silence - during which every passenger carefully avoided catching the eye of anyone else, in case an unbidden conversation started - the announcement came that there was a defect on the train and our journey would end at Rock Ferry. Another service to Chester would follow twenty minutes later.

We were disgorged at Rock Ferry, and I was presented with a conundrum: do I stand here on a platform of disgruntled people, listening to them all moaning about "typical British Rail" even though British Rail hasn't been in existence for about fifteen years? Or do I do something useful with my time?

Here's a hint: I hadn't collected Rock Ferry yet.

I had a more practical reason for zipping out of the station. I knew from previous experience that Green Lane, the preceeding station, was only a ten minute walk away; I could therefore double back on myself and get the next Chester train before it hit all those people at Rock Ferry - meaning I probably wouldn't have to fight for a seat in the process. Pleased with my little plan, I hied myself out of the station and captured it for posterity.

Rock Ferry was once a large, important interchange. It used to have six tracks going through it, and was the terminus for the electric trains to Liverpool; this was in the days when there were through services from Birkenhead's Woodside ferry terminal to London. Then some of the tracks were ripped up, and the electrification of the line was extended south, and Rock Ferry became just another station on the Wirral Line. Its large station building was demolished, and now there's a pathetic ticket office which, as you can see, barely qualifies for the name. In addition, to cut down on maintenance costs, the waiting room on the platform was bricked up, forming a large red box that is of no use whatsoever. It's a sad shadow of its former self.

I walked back through the fag-end streets of Rock Ferry, past boarded up pubs and scary looking houses that turned their back on the street. It was the morning after Bonfire Night; though I hadn't realised it at the time, I'd walked past a murder scene on my way to Birkenhead Central - a man had been killed and put on a bonfire as a gruesome real-life Guy Fawkes. Here, the signs were less macabre, but still hinted at violence - fences were raggedly burnt, and remnants of fireworks lay on the pavement with beer cans and smashed glass. I didn't linger, but scurried on to Green Lane.

It was ten minutes since I'd left Rock Ferry, so I figured I was in plenty of time for the train; but as I poked my head round the door and squinted at the departure board, I saw that the replacement Chester train had also been cancelled. There was no way I was going to loiter on the platform for three quarters of an hour, so I turned round and walked off - heading for my start station, Birkenhead Central.

The electric trains under the Mersey were operated by the Mersey Railway before nationalisation, and Birkenhead Central was the headquarters of the company. It was built with more impressive features as a result, and an office block adjoined it, but like Rock Ferry its glory days are behind it. Not only did the change to British Rail mean that it was relegated to just a staff headquarters, with the offices shifted elsewhere, but also the rebuilding of the Mersey Tunnel entrance in the sixties meant that a massive flyover was constructed right in front of it. Now the "Central" station is cut off from the town itself by dual carriageways, and it cowers under the road.

Unlike at Rock Ferry, though, there are still remnants of the glory days. This gigantic advertisement on the gable end, for example, still shouts at passers by. In fact, as you speed out of the tunnel, onto the flyover, it's practically the first thing you see on the Wirral; no longer accurate, perhaps, but still somehow defiant in the face of the drivers. It looks like Merseyrail repaint this sign, as well, which makes me think they take a perverse pleasure in it - its certainly in better condition than this one, on the front of the station. I'm pleased to note that I've collected all these stations (except for Chester, which I am gaining a perverse pleasure from ignoring for the time being).

This is where I sort of, slightly, broke the MerseyTart rules, but only if you are being pedantic about their application. It occurred to me that having embarked at Birkenhead Central, and then got off at Rock Ferry, I'd actually visited the stations either side of Green Lane; it seemed perverse not to get Green Lane as well. I had to get the train from there to fully comply with the rules. So I took my picture outside Birkenhead Central, even though I didn't then get a train from that station, but since I'd got one from there about half an hour earlier, I figured it still counted. If you don't agree, tough. It's my website.

(By the way, yes, I do know my hair looks awful. Only on downloading these pics did I realise how dreadful I looked. In fairness, it was a very windy day, but still. The last person to have hair like that was Grace Jones circa 1984, and I do not want to be known as a white, male Grace Jones impersonator.)

It was a case of back up the hill then to Green Lane. I have been here many times, and I have to say, I love it. It's a very odd little station. Firstly, it's half underground. What do I mean by that? Well, the southbound platform is covered by a brick vaulted ceiling; the northbound platform, on the other hand, is open to the elements. It's just strange. Did they run out of money halfway? Was there a bomb strike during the Second World War?

It's actually handy, because without the open platform, the station would be unbelievably dark and oppressive. It's a genuine Victorian-built station, and it screams 19th Century; the walls are dank, and wet, the lighting is barely there, the overbridge is wood and metal. The ticket office has some lovely tiling around what must have once been a huge ticket window.

The next reason it's odd, is it is advertised as "Green Lane for Lairdside" on the signs. Cammell Laird shipbuilders is a couple of hundred yards away, so this is theoretically accurate, but I don't understand why it's being advertised. Port Sunlight didn't say "Port Sunlight for Unilever". And there's no such place as "Lairdside" - it's not a tourist attraction. Perhaps they wanted to give Green Lane an ALF, then realised there were no Attractive Local Features, so they compromised.

My last reason for loving strange little Green Lane is it's almost always deserted. Since Birkenhead Central and Rock Ferry are so close, people tend to head there, so it's only shipworkers (of which, sadly, there are fewer and fewer) and the very few locals who use it. I had the whole station to myself while I waited for the Chester train, and I got a sudden power rush. ALL YOUR STATIONS ARE BELONG TO ME! BWAHAHAHA!

A train finally turned up, but even then, I was infected; the MerseyTart bug had bitten me again. I debated it in my mind, but finally gave in - I needed one more station! Off I leapt at the next uncollected station.

This was Spital, winner of the competition for Worst Station Name Ever for the past hundred years. Yes, it is pronounced "Spittle". Who in their right mind moves to somewhere called Spital? Was Phlegm too hard to spell? Despite its horrific name, Spital is actually a charming little station; it feels countryfied, even though it's smack bang in the middle of suburban Wirral. The station building looks like a little cottage. I nipped out, took my pic, and then went back down so that I could turn up to work. I could have quite happily have carried on whizzing round for the rest of the day, but I have to pay for my rail ticket somehow...

Monday 5 November 2007

We Announce An Unscheduled Alteration To Your Travel Plans

While in work today, I thought I'd plan my next MerseyTart trip (this is how devoted I am to my job). So I nipped to the Merseytravel website to find this disturbing news:

Temporary Closure of Sandhills Station 17 November 2007 to March 2008

From Saturday 17 November 2007 through to March 2008, Sandhills station on the Merseyrail Northern Line will be closed for refurbishment.

During this time it will not be possible to get on or off a train at Sandhills station.Rail replacement buses will be running between Sandhills and Bank Hall stations, and between Sandhills and Kirkdale stations for the benefit of passengers wishing to travel to and from Sandhills. Please note, there will be no change to Northern Line train times.

The refurbishment works at Sandhills includes:A new ticket office and booking hall; platform improvements including a new canopy and enclosed waiting rooms; a lift to platform level; a passenger ramp; a fully-accessible passenger toilet; new lighting and CCTV for improved passenger security and new customer information displays and help point.

Merseytravel and Merseyrail are sorry for any inconvenience this closure will cause.

I knew that Sandhills was due to be revamped, but I didn't know it was going to be closed; I'm now presented with the panicky situation that I have only one weekend to get out there and tart it in its present form. In my head, it was lumped together with the Bootle stations; but one of those is also being revamped, and so I was saving it for when it was in its full glory. Damn you Merseytravel! You've cocked up my plans now. This weekend is going to have to be the plunge out there, but the question is: where do I go after that? I could finish off the Kirkby line, but I don't know. Oh, the decisions!

Thursday 25 October 2007

What I Did On My Holiday, by Scott, Aged 30

Ah, Madrid. A city I had never previously been to, and one I knew very little about, other than it was probably going to be warmer than the Wirral in October. So the BF and I boarded our EasyJet plane and made our carbon footprint even larger so we could get a little short break action.

And, as it turned out, some International Supertarting. I couldn't help myself. Mark Ovenden's fantastic Metro Maps of the World book ( had said that the Madrilenos were obsessed with their Metro, and it's true. My travel guide was only a year old, but the map of the system was out of date already - about a dozen new stations had been added to it.

So I had to collect the stations. It's a disease. To try and minimise the inconvenience to the beseiged other half, I only collected them when we were forced by connections or missed trains to loiter on a platform, which didn't happen that often over the course of the five days; it is a very good system. I'm forced to apologise, therefore, for the lack of Opera, Atocha Renfe, and Goya, despite all of them being graced with my presence; sorry stations, but you had your chance. Goya was actually particularly disappointing. Baker Street, on the London Underground, is tiled with images of Sherlock Holmes; while on Merseyrail, as we saw, Aintree's one big Horse of the Year show. I expected a long mural of Goya's works along the platform (perhaps not his Black Paintings; descending underground and having Satan Devouring His Son welcoming you there could perhaps induce a few more one-unders than intended). Instead it had a tiny little portrait as you hit the platform - impossible to read as it was at the foot of a flight of stairs, and commuters harrassed you constantly - and that was it. You could say, yes, but look at their huge expansion projects and excellent transport links, but I don't care; I want portraits of befuddled royals while I wait for my train!

Santo Domingo: location of our rather lovely hotel, and also the location of a less lovely red light district a few hundred yards away. Being naive homos, it took the searching glances from a good few scantily dressed whores before we realised we were in that kind of area (go for a night out in Birkenhead and you will see girls wearing a lot less and not even charging for it). We beat a hasty retreat, finding refuge in a decent looking restaurant to escape the prostitutes. I have nothing against sex workers; I'd just rather not see it, ta.

We seemed to spend half our life going through Banco de Espana. Partly this was because we fell for the massive Parque del Retiro, and wandered through its leafy environs on a couple of different occasions. Also, it's convenient for the Prado, which we visited one day, but were seriously disappointed by. They had run out of English-language guides, which unfortunately meant that we had no idea what we were looking at; as a result it sort of descended into a melange of stern looking 15th century aristocrats and various pictures of Christ and the Holy Family. It all became a bit wearing, frankly, and we ended up rushing off. There wasn't even a decent shop.

(Insert hilarious bowel related reference here). Colon is ugly, I'm sorry. It's one of those 70s developments where everyone was tremendously excited that they had invented concrete, and so used it all over the shop i.e. it was now used as a vast skateboard park.

O frabjous day! Callao! Callay! (You really cannot have too much Lewis Carroll). Callao was the location for our local El Corte Ingles department store, a Spanish national treasure. Actually, one of our local El Corte Ingles, because at the other end of the street was another one. I had a cup of hot chocolate in the cafe here, and when I say hot chocolate, that is literally a description of what it was. Pure, melted chocolate in a cup. Why not just inject it into my waistline? It was also the location for a number of large cinemas - sort of like the Leicester Square of Madrid.

The big gay station of Chueca, hub of Madrid's big gay scene. I'd love to say that this district was superior to Canal Street, or Old Compton, but it was just a bit... well... tawdry. Of course, all homo districts are - the huge sex shops tend to lower the tone - but we'd actually walked through Plaza de Chueca and dismissed it, thinking that nowhere that downmarket would be the centre of the city's queer zone. On the plus side, the station literally empties out into the Plaza; Old Compton Street is yet to get its own stop on the Picadilly line, so one up for the Spanish I feel.

Lawyers have advised me not to mention anything involving certain illicit substances here, so I won't. We were only changing trains anyway, so I have no idea what entirely legitimate practices were going on above my head.

...And so, we head back. Lovely modern station, and huge too. By this point I just wanted to be home, as you may be able to tell from my thousand yard stare. Madrid was very nice, and it's certainly a great plus to wander around in a t-shirt in mid-October; but it just didn't do it for me, not in the same way London and Paris and Amsterdam and Berlin did. It just felt a little bit... small. The capital of one of Europe's great nations should have been more than it was. It didn't feel impressive enough. But its Metro is lovely, and they should be given every round of applause under the sun for realising that a good, efficient, clean underground system is worth every penny you can throw at it.