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...