Wednesday 19 December 2007

Northern Lights

Another day, another trip out. Fact is that the Bf was going to be firmly stuck in front of the tv all Sunday watching Liverpool vs Manchester United and Arsenal vs Chelsea, and frankly I had better things to do than listen to him swear at Sky Sports. Besides, I wanted one more tart before the end of 2007 - a nice way to finish the year, I reckon.

I'd originally planned on hitting the City Line for the first time. Yes, faithful viewer, I'm breaking that rule I had about just doing the Northern & Wirral Lines. It was just too tempting. They sat on the map, calling to me - and since I can use the City Line to visit a number of friends en route, there didn't really seem to be a reason not to do it.

Sadly, Sunday services on the City Line are at best infrequent. I was looking at one train an hour from most stations, and since I had to be in Manchester by 7 to have dinner with a friend and it was lunchtime, I needed something a bit better than that. The bottom end of the Wirral Line was a potential, but I wanted to go somewhere a bit more unfamiliar, so I headed for the middle of the Southport branch, to a load of stations I had never visited before, and knew little about.

Of course, this meant passing through what was left of Sandhills. As it only closed a month ago, I wasn't expecting revolutionary change, but I was shocked to see there was nothing left. I snapped a blurry pic through the window, but it was basically wholesale destruction going on. I don't think I'll come back this way for a month or so - I'd be interested to see the next step change in the development.

So: to Blundellsands and Crosby. That's just one station - in fact I think it should be ampersanded. Blundellsands & Crosby was strangely disassociated from its surroundings. There was a scrappy car park between the platform and the road outside, and it was overlooked by one of those "retirement communities" - four floors of old people; a pensioner stack that turned its back on the pavement and had a gated entrance.

I snapped a pic and ventured down the nicely-named Serpentine. (The soundtrack for this portion of the trip, before my iPod died, was Sir William Young and his Keep On album). This long curved road snaked between B&C and my next stop, Hall Road. With it being Sunday, there was only one train every half hour, so I had a fair amount of time to take in the large mansions and elegant driveways. Crosby is posh, you see. In my head, I always associate it with David "Bing" Crosby, from the late lamented Brookside, and from what I understand, he sums it up quite well - slightly up tight, slightly down to earth, all in one package. The Serpentine seemed to embody this. One house had a shrine to the Virgin Mary in its garden; I hope this was some sort of priest house, and not Ruth Kelly's summerhouse. (I can't stand that woman).

The road carries itself in a gentle arc until it slips up against the beach, and Liverpool Bay, and here was the northern extremities of one of my favourite pieces of art: Anthony Gormley's Another Place, the dozens of metal men studded along the length of Crosby Beach. I have been to see it twice already, and it's such an affecting piece of art. Each figure seems so individual, and lonely, and gathered together they just carry a great poignancy to me. It's almost like they're suicidals, all getting ready to walk into the sea to die, and none of them noticing the others around them who could help. If they were able to turn their head, they'd be able to live and move together, but they can't, so they just wait for the sea to wash over them and wipe them away again.

The tide was in, so only a few figures were visible; plus the sea wind was bitterly cold on my face, and I didn't know how long it would take me to get to Hall Road, so I tore myself away and promised to revisit them again.

As it turned out, I reached Hall Road with time to spare, and I got my first ALF. I have no idea about sport whatsoever, so I don't know if Waterloo Rugby Club are really famous and I've just never heard of them, or if the ALF is giving them ideas above their station; I will say that it would be nice to see a face on an ALF that didn't look like it belonged to a burns victim.

Hall Road was strangely desolate, and I began to feel quite melancholy. For the first time in my solo travels round MerseyRail, I felt lonely. I'm quite happy with my own company, and I like the fact that this project is all down to me and me alone, but I was looking up the rails where I was headed and all I could see was a meagre winter landscape, cold and bitter and unwelcoming. It didn't help that Hall Road was run down, and deserted. There was a rotting maintenance depot besides the platform, and the ticket office on the opposite side was screened off in such a way that there was no light showing from it. I shuddered in the wind, and leapt aboard the next train gladly.

No time to sit down, though, because I was off again at the next stop, Hightown. It gets a lot jollier from now on, I promise! The train seemed to revive me - it certainly restored heat to my freezing ears! - and so when I got off at Hightown I was happy and enthused again.

I was travelling without A-Z for the first time, this week, because my Liverpool A-Z only went as far as Hall Road - everything north of that belonged to a different map. A look at Google Maps had shown me one thing though: Hightown was an island. On three sides was green belt, and on the fourth was the estuary of the River Alt - there was no chance of me walking to the next station. I was stuck in Hightown for half an hour. Still, it meant I had plenty of time to get a high-level shot of me and the sign, halfway up the pedestrian bridge.

I'd imagined that Hightown would be a little village, and I was disappointed to find that it was determinedly suburban, in architecture and style. The newsagent on the village green had a sign sponsored by the Daily Mail, for goodness' sake. There was a man scrubbing the tyres of his 4x4 (the type that never offroads) with hot soapy water. I headed from the station through a couple of streets of semis to what I believed would be the sea, and I got a shock.

Suddenly it turned beautiful. This shot was taken literally three minutes from the train station. That is not something you expect to see in a place with an L postcode - it reminded me of holidays on the Norfolk Broads, and the weak winter sun just added to its wispy attractiveness. It was tranquil.

Apart from the gunshots. Yes, it seemed that the other side of the river, there was a shooting range, and my whole wander round the estuary was against a backdrop of cracks and bangs. It definitely impeded on the whole peaceful nature image. So I headed back to the station for the next train.

I've noticed a pattern starting to form through this blog: the penultimate station on my travels will be a gem. Last time it was Bank Hall, and not long ago, Hoylake got me squeeing like crazy. So it was on this trip, with Formby. For starters - ALF! The buckets and spades are a bit downmarket, though - Formby is definitely not a rival to Blackpool, and its sand dunes are of the windswept and elegant sort rather than the Kiss Me Kwik type. The whole Sefton Coast is a very delicately maintained series of sand dunes, carefully maintained as a coastal wilderness.

However, because I am a bit sad, the majesty of nature is nothing in comparism with a nice station - and Formby was a nice station. A plaque in the ticket hall said that it was restored in 2005, and they did a great job; just look at that wooden ticket booth, and the beams. But the best part was outside.

A tiled sign! A genuine, lovely, tiled station name sign. How fantastic! I may have to kill the local transport planners who decided that it was a great idea to put that traffic light in front of the FOR - if I find out who it was I may have to dump him in the shooting range at Hightown in a luminous coat. I was also disappointed to find that my picture of the mosaic tiled LYR (Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway) logos that had been restored on the sign didn't work for some reason. I am seriously tempted to go back and get them, because they were amazing.

My light was fading, and I had only twenty minutes to get to Freshfield, the day's final station. If Crosby is posh, then Formby is really posh - it's sort of like the difference between Victoria Beckham and Victoria Harvey. This is where the Liverpool & Everton footballers move to once they hit the hundred grand a week mark, and it was a constant stream of security gated residences all the way to the next station. If I win the lottery, this is where I'll probably end up - either here or cavorting with celebrities and drinking champagne, I haven't decided yet.

I reached Freshfield with only a minute or two before the train arrived to take me back to Liverpool, and I suddenly found myself trapped in a horrific Sophie's Choice. Freshfield had only one station sign, on the northbound platform - on the other side of the closed level crossing, in other words. It also had an ALF.

I was torn. I didn't have time to get right the way to the end of the platform, where the ALF was located, then back down and over the footbridge, to get myself in front of the station sign. The clock was ticking, and I had to decide which sign I needed more.

Snap decision: get the ALF, then a picture of yourself in front of a platform sign (rather than the entrance sign). I ran to the end, grabbed a shot of the rather mangy looking red squirrel (no wonder they're endangered) and then managed to crouch in front of a platform sign as the Liverpool train appeared on the horizon. Job done.

Except... Except it didn't feel right. It felt like cheating. It felt like laziness. I'd got a platform shot once before, at Birkenhead Park way back at the start, but I was just an amateur MerseyTarter then. Now I'm a pro. And yes, dammit; the obsessive compulsive part of me was saying, "Will you ever be happy knowing that you missed one? That you didn't get it right?"

And that, reader, is the case for the defence for this picture.

I didn't get the train. Instead I spent half an hour arsing around on the platform, on the street, and on the footbridge, trying to get a not bad shot, and this one is the one I like the best. My head looks bigger than the Face of Boe, but stuff it; it's me at Freshfield, and it tidies away a nice little section of the line.

The funny thing about these five stations is for the first time I felt I had travelled somewhere. All the stations I had been to before had been urban, either in their location or their architecture or both. The stations here - Hightown and Freshfield, certainly - felt like little country halts that just happened to have been swallowed up by the Liverpool metropolis. I felt like I had progressed somewhere. Even when the trip back into town took about half an hour, it seemed as though I had had a nice day out in the countryside somewhere. And I hadn't even got to the end of the line!

(Actually, I don't think there's any defence for that last picture...)

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