Sunday 14 October 2007

Horses for Courses

The Wirral Line, so far, is pretty much sewn up. Two branches complete and a couple of random ones polished off along the way. But I felt I was neglecting the poor old Northern Line. So early Saturday morning, I board the train and head out for the Ormskirk line to polish off a few more.

This line is very familiar to me. I was a student in Ormskirk, at Edge Hill College of Higher Education/University College/University (delete as applicable). I used this line with alarming regularity. Ormskirk is a very pretty little town, but when you're 19, you crave the big lights, big shops and especially, big pubs of the city, so I'd be on the train into Liverpool the first opportunity I got. But that was of course over a decade ago now, so it's all a bit stranger, a bit more alien.

Travelling along the line I was struck by how things had developed. As you rise up out of the tunnel onto the viaduct, the train gets a magnificent view of the dockside estate. What had changed in the intervening years was that the crumbling warehouses were being replaced by office buildings, new industrial units and, in some cases, luxury apartments. Yes, it's a slow transformation, and there's still an awful lot to do. The massive hulk of Stanley Dock still rots in the distance - the world's largest brick building, and no-one quite knows what to do with it. There was a family of tourists on the train, and the dad got quite excited by the huge warehouses. Bless him; he tried to interest his small daughters in the industrial architecture ("Look! A bonded tea warehouse!"). They couldn't give a toss; quite reasonably for six year old girls, I think.

I carried on going, past Sandhills, Kirkdale and Walton, heading for Orrell Park. Walton, I've already done; Sandhills, I'm leaving until it's redeveloped, which should be soon; and Kirkdale is somehow tied into the Kirkby line for me, mentally, so that can wait. In my head the priority was Orrell Park, Aintree and Old Roan, because - OCD alert! - I always liked the O-A-O symmetry of their names.
I knew nothing about Orrell Park whatsoever. I didn't even know where it was. But it was quite a sweet little station, tucked away on a side road, with a man actually cleaning the platform of litter as I arrived. Yes, reader; someone clearing up litter.

It actually turned out that Orrell Park was just moments away from Walton shopping centre, a long messy conglomeration of shops threaded along a busy main road. I like this sort of thing. I come from a town where, if you want to shop, you go into the town centre; that's it. I sort of like these neighbourhood shopping areas, that have a tiny branch of Boots and a little Woolworths next to green grocers and butchers. It's interesting, and it's just another "big city" thing for me.

I walked from here to the next station, Aintree. Perhaps I'm educationally subnormal, but until I moved up here, I had no idea the Grand National was held in Liverpool. I don't know where I thought Aintree was, I just didn't think it was round here. The racecourse has taken idiots like me on board and has helpfully signposted their main attraction:

Merseyrail have also embraced the whole equestrian theme to a quite ludicrous degree, viz:

The horses! The horses! They're everywhere, and I think they went to my head a little, so I went a bit daft when I decided to collect this sign. There was just something about the whole positioning, that made me decide to go for the railway-alien-antenna look. I probably did it just to distract myself from the colossal shitness of that station building. Seriously people, if you're going to spend all that money building a brand new station, how about building one which doesn't look like a public toilet?

Still, I thought, Aintree: home of one of the most famous racecourses in the world - at least I'll get a decent ALF out of it. I was shocked - no, disgusted - to find there was not a single ALF on the platform. In fact, this was to be an entirely ALF free excursion. This is the best I got:

"Aintree Station: Alight here for Aintree". Really? Do you think so? Consider me outraged. My stern letter to Merseytravel about the quality of their ALF boards just got even sterner. It's one thing to not have a board at all. It's quite another to be patronised by the signage.

Grumbling, I boarded the train for what I intended to be my final destination, Old Roan. This is another station which has had a load of money thrown at it. Sorry, it's not a station: as the sign shows, this is the Old Roan Bus Rail Interchange (well, it would if my fat head wasn't in the way). What this means is a train station with a load of bus stops outside, but still, I admire the commitment to integrated transport.

I nipped out of the station in search of a little bit of history: the infamous Paradox. When I was a student, they used to organise bus trips to this legendary nightclub, a huge edifice towering over the railway line. The reason it was legendary was because it was cheap, it was scuzzy, and you were virtually guaranteed to come away from there with at least one filthy sex act under your belt. I never went because, as a sensitive young homo, they didn't quite cater for the filthy sex acts I wanted to commit (I had to go to the Curzon in Liverpool for those) but I would sit enraptured as my friends came back with tales of bacchanalian debauchery. That may be a slight exaggeration; usually they just got a few gropes and perhaps a happy finish, but still.

A friend had said he would be in Aintree, at the vast sprawling retail park that stretches between the station and Old Roan. But he hadn't texted me to say he was there so, on a whim, I went back and caught the train to Maghull instead.

Maghull was always going to be difficult to reach, because it's impossible to walk to. This is because of Switch Island, the charming sounding but actually nightmarish road junction which is to the south of the town. At this point, the M57, M58 and A59 all collide in a huge level junction, above a canal and below a railway line, in the kind of half-finished mess that transport projects sadly seem to descend to. Originally the M57 was meant to carry on to the coast, and the M58 would have integrated into it, and it would have been impressive; instead they just sort of gave up (see here for the full story: It's just a roaring confusion of lanes upon lanes which make no sense. I felt quite smug whizzing past it on my train.

Maghull is an unattractive name for a not terribly attractive place. Try saying out loud; it's like you're clearing your throat. The townspeople seem quite proud of it - I was so desperate for an ALF I took a photo of the sign - but really, it's a not very nice town. It's the proud possessor of the ugliest town hall I have ever seen in my life, out on the dual carriageway (in another signifier of what a rubbish town this is, the station is miles away from the middle of it, so I couldn't go and see it; do a Google Image search, if you can bear it). And its station has a level crossing which, as I've indicated previously, I think are just awful. No wonder I don't look happy.

Full disclosure: I'm prejudiced against Maghull because, when I was at Edge Hill, there was a group known as "the Maghull lads". These were a bunch of lads who seemed to be rotated between all the women of Edge Hill, breaking hearts everywhere they went. Anyway, they were quite unpleasant to my friend Jennie, who to this day pronounces Maghull as if it were a gum disease, so perhaps I shouldn't be so blinkered. I'm sorry Maghull. I'm sure you have many charming hidden features. Somewhere.

Maghull also had a little bus station attached, which contained one of the early signs of the death of civilization:

There are about 15 different things about that poster which depress me inutterably. Fortunately, my mate arrived at this point to stop me from throwing myself under the next train. He whisked me away in his car so he could buy a new fish from a local garden centre. He picked an unattractive brown lumpy thing, which he then promised to name after me; surprisingly, I continued talking to him after this, and after a bit of lunch he dropped me off in town for the train home.

I got off at Hamilton Square. I was going to leave this one for later, but I was there, and I was keen to finish off my day of tarting, so I snapped a couple of shots. Hamilton Square is where the original electric train between Liverpool and Birkenhead ran to, and its very attractive station building still bears the signs. "Frequent electric trains" - how marvellous is that? The huge tower was a water tower, constructed to run the hydraulic lifts which took Victorians down to the subterranean depths. It had a twin in Liverpool, at James Street, which like so much in the city was bombed in the war.

(Actually, I should admit to something. Though I was pleased to cross another station off the list, and architecturally it's the best of today's buildings, the best thing about Hamilton Square for me was the poster below.

How fucking gay am I? I can't help it. I just think the name "Lucky Santangelo" is simultaneously the worst and best name in Christendom. God bless you Jackie Collins and your limited command of the English language).

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