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!