Saturday 11 August 2007

Seascape With Figures

I love flexitime; what a great idea. Work hard and we'll give you a day off. Well, work, anyway; you don't have to work too hard, just be there for a long time.

Where am I going with this? Ah, yes. A flexi-day. And what better way to use my time than to get out there and get tarting.

After last time's sort of aimless meandering, I decided to get a bit of purpose to my next trip. This time, I'll wipe out an entire branch of one of the lines. There were a few dinky little branches that seemed suitable, but I plumped for the West Kirby branch of the Wirral line in the end. It was a nice sunny day, and referring to my A-Z, I reckoned I'd be able to hop on and hop off the train and walk between stations.

From the usual start of Birkenhead Park, I was off to Leasowe, and the first level crossing of my tarting. I have a strange, completely irrational dislike of level crossings, and I wish I could explain to you why; I suspect there's a part of me that thinks they just couldn't be bothered building a bridge, and I resent their laziness. Certainly if I was a local it would drive me up the wall having the barriers close every fifteen minutes.

Leasowe station itself was a bit run down, fabricated out of concrete in a style I was rapidly going to become familiar with. Two little waiting shelters, a booking office, and - yes - an ALF:

I snapped the usual exterior pic then wandered off in search of Moreton, the next stop. Little did I know that I was taking my life into my own hands. What seemed to be a nice 1930s housing estate, with a green and semi detached houses, was in fact a teeming cess pit of hazards and perils. How do I know this? Because the Council have signposted the fact:

Oh, the humanity! I poked my head down the road, but I didn't dare venture too far. Yes, it looked like a normal suburban street from where I stood, but no doubt halfway down there was a minefield, probably manned by man-eating lions. The residents of Danger Lane must be trained stuntpeople, who borrow cups of TNT from one another. With their hair on fire. And possibly on unicycles.

Certainly Danger Lane was the most interesting thing so far. Without wanting to be overly critical, Moreton was a mess. A strip of grim, unpleasant shops, most of which had windows covered with mesh even during the day. I was happy to take my picture and scurry down to the platform.

Moreton further blotted its copybook with its ALF.

Look familiar? Fair enough, it's advertising exactly the same feature, but still; there's more to the Wirral coast than a couple of birds. A little feature board on the platform told me that the Wirral Coastal Park featured Leasowe Lighthouse, one of the first brick lighthouses in the world, dating from the 18th Century; a worthy ALF, surely? Or how about Leasowe Castle, a hotel on the sands which has parts dating back to the 16th Century? My friends Mike and Kirsten were married there last year, so I've got plenty of pics of it, if Merseytravel want to get in touch. (Their replacement of Birkenhead Park's board after my criticism has got me feeling bolshie). Certainly anything would be better than those slightly evil looking birds. Orange eyes? Is that necessary?

A whizz along on another train, and I'm at Meols. This town was the bane of my life when I first moved to the Wirral. I could not remember how to pronounce it, ever. Go on, take a guess; you'll never get it. (The 'o' is silent - it rhymes with Shells). For some reason I could not get this pronunciation stuck in my head, and I would cycle through every possible variation before I got to it. This seems to be a Liverpool area habit, possibly to confuse Southerners like me who move here and to mark us out as strangers. I used to go out with someone from Gateacre, which is pronounced Gattaca; I didn't know this until I told a taxi driver to take me there. And the second K in Kirkby is silent, for no apparent reason.

Anyway: Meols. This is where the Wirral Peninsula starts getting a bit posh - it's certainly a step up from Moreton, anyway - and so I was fully expecting an ALF proclaiming some sort of piece of natural beauty. Nothing. I recovered from my disappointment though when I spotted this -

which isn't an ALF, but is an Attractive Local Feature, if you see what I mean. I was surprised to see any kind of gradient indicator, to be honest, as the land round here's pretty flat, as it ambles down towards the Irish Sea.

A further wander along the busy and only semi-attractive Birkenhead Road took me to Manor Road station. I almost missed it though. Unlike all the other stations, this one wasn't on a major thoroughfare, but was tucked away at the end of a street of Victorian villas. And when I say tucked away, I mean tucked away; the entrance to the station was down a narrow alleyway between the last house and the tracks. Hence the slightly constricted look on my face as I try to take a pic with the sign in it.

However, I had just missed the train, so I was left loitering on the platform like a slightly dodgy pervert or a trainspotter (the two things are, of course, linked. And yes, train station spotters are a COMPLETELY different thing. Ahem.) In an homage to my route today, I was listening to local boys The Coral and their Magic and Medicine album, which kept me interested, and I decided to knock off a long distance shot of the station itself - the Manor Road station sign is just noticeable in the background, for MerseyTart pedants:

You can see the house style for this branch of the line in that shot. Apparently, according to Wikipedia (and if it's on the internet it's true; I am that gullible), the stations were refurbished in 1938 when through services to Liverpool started, and you can see that Agatha Christie, clean look in the finishes. It's just a shame that beside getting the silver and yellow corporate paint job, none of the stations seem to have been maintained to much of an extent.

And a trip to Hoylake showed exactly why. This station was tarted up last year when the Open Golf Championships were held at the Royal Liverpool course down the road, and it is a stunningly beautiful station.

Ignore the dodgy businesses in the shop units, and take in that deco sweep, and the London Underground, Charles Holden-esque drum over the ticket office. The ticket office itself is a lovely rotunda:

Yes, there's one of those annoying level crossings at the end of the station, and quite unbelievably, there's not a single ALF on the platform, but that couldn't dispel my pleasure at finding such a gem of a station. Which is why I look so chuffed in the MerseyTart pic, and why I am even more convinced that when I become an eccentric billionaire, I will spend all my money restoring train stations.

It was a shame to leave it, but I had to get to West Kirby (note the lack of a second K!). The houses here were enormous, astonishingly expensive Victorian and Edwardian mansions, built for rich Liverpool merchants and bankers. The contrast with Leasowe's somewhat rundown Danger Lane and its environs was stark. The many golf courses in the area have kept this area of the Wirral severely moneyed.

Its location has also helped. I finally reached West Kirby town centre, and I decided to take in the beach before I got the train home. It was a bit windswept, and though it was warm, it wasn't actually sunny (though in true British style, there were a number of daytrippers out in shorts determined to make the most of the day whatever the weather), but it was beautiful.

A stirring sky above the Dee estuary, and those are the mountains of Wales in the distance. When you say "Liverpool", or "Merseyside", to people, all they think about is crime, or poverty, or industrial ugliness. They don't realise how scenic it is, how it has all this natural beauty to too, and how lucky people who live here really are. Even the beaches are wide, and clean, and sandy, and rarely crowded. I love it here.

Finally I tore myself away from the salty tasting air and wandered back to the station. As you may be able to spot from the photo, the station's fallen on hard times now. It was built as a terminus, and designed as such, but times change, and now the shop units that once lined the entrance are sadly empty. West Kirby station was once even bigger, with a second station next door for a line to Hooton, but that fell prey to Dr Beeching and now there's a leisure centre built on it. But West Kirby does have a little ALF, and bless it for that.

I sat on the platform, tired from my wanderings, but actually pretty happy. I've crossed off an entire branch now! The state of play map is looking pretty good after only a month or so (see below) - in fact, I'm a bit worried I may finish too soon. I'm enjoying this, and I don't want it to finish too quickly. Perhaps I should reconsider my decision not to do the City Lines...

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