Sunday, 9 September 2007

Plus One

It's goodbye to intimate shots of my nose hair; yes, for this trip, I have a guest photographer, in the form of The Boyfriend. He's been curious about my little jaunts for a while and now I thought it was safe to let him in on it.

Plus, I needed someone to hold my hand, as today we were venturing into dangerous territory: the North End of Birkenhead. There are some areas that are just more than a little bit intimidating, and the North End is one of them. A council estate clustered around the docks, this is one of the most deprived areas in England, and is certainly not the kind of place that is kind to naive trainspotter types. If I'd been on my own, I'd have been quite intimidated; as it was, I was just apprehensive - after all, we were two unfit homosexuals, so the odds would be against us in a gang fight.

We walked through the estate unmolested, only spotting one tattood thug with a rottweiler, and just the two druggies. Birkenhead North station itself is down a side street, behind a row of burnt out shells of terraced houses - it's clearly going for that hot this season, downtown Basra look. It was at this point that The BF chose to inform me that he had been to this station before, when he was a loyal Liverpool supporter waiting for his train to North Wales, and he had been forced to flee from a baying mob of locals who threw glasses at him. Timing is not his strong suit. We got the pic done in double quick time, and managed to hurl ourselves on the New Brighton bound train.

Today's session was designed to knock off the other northern branch of the Wirral Line: this way everything north of Hamilton Square would be done. As a result the next station was Wallasey Village, which is perched on an embankment. This meant I could get a high level shot which is probably as arty as this site will ever get.

The station name, however, is a complete violation of the Trade Descriptions Act - Wallasey hasn't been a village for decades, and the road away from it was choked with traffic and lined with burger bars and discount shops. Definitely not in picturesque Little England here.

It was barely a ten minute walk to the next station, Wallasey Grove Road, which had a car park and a bus stop and seemed surprisingly busy. It turned out this wasn't because there was a rush of commuters utilising this handy transport hub, but instead it was because there was a cash machine here, and people were turning up in their cars to use it. The station building's vaguely picturesque, but in terms of signposting, the best we could manage was the car park sign; the Merseytravel post you normally see there was way out on the main road, and we needed to dash to catch our train.

Actually, that's slightly misleading; we only needed to dash because of The BF's reticence at passing on information. I was stood on the platform, trying to work out which was the correct one for New Brighton, as a train pulled into the one opposite. It was only then that The BF told me we were on the wrong one - leading to us making a mad dash up the overbridge and hurling ourselves on the train as the doors sidled shut.

So from there it was a reasonably long distance to New Brighton. The view from the train is actually very scenic here - there's a whisk round the corner, and suddenly you can spot the sea, and the beaches. New Brighton is right at the tip of the Wirral, and as the name implies, it was intended to be the North's version of the resorts on the South coast. It was too late to be gentrified, though, and so it headed rapidly downhill, becoming a day trip destination for the workers of Liverpool and Birkenhead.

The station's a pretty impressive terminus, and it was obviously built to handle a large amount of holiday maker traffic. It also featured today's only ALF which, at the request of a Mr JH of Chester, has been framed face on in the pic instead of at my usual jaunty angle:

There were a fair few people disembarking here, as there was some sort of car rally going on on the Parade down by the front; it meant that our wanderings were constantly accompanied by the roar of car engines. This doesn't sound too bad but it's like having a swarm of bees loitering next to your ear. We collected the station though, with The BF doing his best David Bailey impression to try and avoid catching the glare of the sun.

Though it was grey, it was warm, so we walked into the town and down to the front. New Brighton is on its last legs as a resort, and it's a shame. The whole place has the air of having given up being an attraction, and instead is starting to become more and more residential. The main road from the station down to the sea is now lined by small Barratt homes, and a large, impressive looking building on the front has been converted from a nightclub into apartments. The views are still good though, with Liverpool's increasingly impressive skyline in the distance, but everything is tawdry and half-hearted.

Like a lot of people, I have a great fondness for the seaside resort, and I'd like to see them work; but New Brighton doesn't know what to do with itself. While West Kirby, on the other side of the peninsular, has gone the upmarket route, New Brighton's trying to be Blackpool when it just doesn't have the same (dubious) charms. A bowling alley has been built on the front, which is a start, but it's architecturally hideous, and turns its back on the promenade in front.

This aqua amusement arcade has the right idea, showing a bit of glamorous leg, even if its best days were somewhere around the Coronation. If New Brighton had a cinema, perhaps, and a couple of chain restaurants - a Pizza Hut, a Frankie & Benny's - it would get people visiting. No, it wouldn't be classy, but West Kirby does the classy end. I'd rather see this place with a decent history and actual attractions made into a destination again, rather than the depressing retail parks where cinemas and nightclubs are shoved nowadays and which look the same no matter where you are. The latest plans to regenerate the place certainly don't sound promising: constructing a Morrison's supermarket on the front and filling in the Marine Lake to do it. Sorry, did I say unpromising? I meant fucking awful.

Anyway. New Brighton also features Fort Perch Rock, a fortification built to defend the Port of Liverpool from Napoleon, but finished once the Napoleonic Wars were over. It looks pretty good from the outside, and deserves its place on the ALF, but it was two quid to get in and The BF and I are determinedly tight. Plus the sign outside absolutely forbade photography. I think that's just being mean and I have no intention of encouraging that sort of behaviour. I took a picture of the outside though, as a yah-boo-sucks to the killjoys inside, and we moved on.

Back up the hill to the station to go home, going past some pretty villas which obviously once housed terribly rich people but now seem to all be in the process of being chopped up into apartments. There was a single hotel en route, but sadly it seemed to be the kind of place asylum seekers get dumped in rather than a destination.

Instead of going back to Birkenhead North, we continued on to the final station above Hamilton Square: Conway Park. When I first met The BF, many many many years ago, I used to travel every Friday from Ormskirk to Birkenhead Park to see him. On the way, I got to see this station being constructed from the train. It was fascinating to watch it being revealed, a little more each week, peeling away the tunnel around us and forming platforms and circulating areas until finally there was a new, gleaming station waiting for us.

It still does gleam; considering it's now nearly 10 years old, Conway Park still looks pretty clean and tidy. The tunnel roof was opened up when they constructed the station (apparently this is because if the station were underground, the costs of maintaining it would be astronomical) and at its head is a nice, modern looking building. We rode up in the lift to the surface - The BF shamelessly eyeing up a lad in the elevator, the big tart - and then went and stood outside so I could get the name pic. The name, incidentally, is complete rubbish. It was named after the development it's in, even though it's right next to the town centre, and "Birkenhead Market" would not only be far more apt, it would be a lot more attractive. But I expect the developers contributed some money to its construction, and wanted some payback for it. Ho-hum.

So that's another five down, and the whole of the north of the Wirral is wiped out. The map below shows all the stations I still need to do; through use of MS Paint I've wiped out all the ones I've done, like some sort of Nazi commandant (go back into the archive to see what's missing). It still looks like it could be a while before we're complete!

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