Tuesday 30 December 2008

Slow News Day

I'd had a three day trip back home to visit my mum over Christmas, and I was on the final leg.  First Capital Connect, London Underground, Virgin Trains, and now a Merseyrail train was bringing me back from Lime Street.  The train burst out of the tunnel at Birkenhead Park, and my phone purred into life with a text from the Bf:


A large picture taking up the whole of Page 3, fulfilling my lifelong ambition to be Samantha Fox, accompanied by a rather nice article by Kevin Core about me and my obsession.  I feel simultaneously slightly proud and slightly embarrassed.  

I am duty bound to mention the Amazoness  website.  George from that site left the link to the Merseyrail anagram website mentioned in the article, but sadly, when Kevin the reporter phoned me on my mobile at work, I was too flustered and incoherent to remember exactly where the anagrams came from: I've tracked back through the archives and found the link, but sadly it's not working now - not down to me I hope.  Sorry I couldn't plug you directly, George, and also sorry to Sue The Lovely Tubewhore, who despite being mentioned as the inspiration never actually got a plug in the Echo.

The article's not dreadful, I suppose; he's tidied up my rambles and made it look like I know what I'm talking about, rather than just reprinting my burbles.  Not sure I like being called a "buff".  I'd prefer to be referred to as buff (hey, I can dream).  It made me laugh that even when a professional photographer is involved, you still end up with an up-the-nostril shot.  Rudi from Merseyrail was politely bemused in his quote.  And I guess this means I can actually cross Liverpool Lime Street off the list as a properly tarted station: the evidence is there for thousands to see!

(Hello to any newbies by the way...)

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Shame Threshold

Oh dear.  In a world gone mad, tomorrow I am going to have my picture taken for an article in the Liverpool Echo about this very blog* - yes this one, dear reader, the one you hold in your sweaty little hands (if you are using a laptop anyway).  

And I am absolutely bleeding petrified.  Have I mentioned my crippling shyness before, readers? Well, I am now.  I am such a social vacuum, I'm practically a black hole.  I run from people; I hide from social circumstances; I don't even like answering the phone.  So obviously I'm a complete natural for an appearance in a major metropolitan newspaper.  Right now - and even with a bottle of wine inside me - I cannot understand what's going on that has lead me to this.  If I didn't also have an enormous guilt threshold, I would run and run and run.  As it is, be warned; it looks like, sometime over Christmas, you may see my shamefaced grimace in your local paper**...

*assuming that there's not a horrible disaster in Liverpool that is far more important and bumps me.***

**assuming you are reading this in the Liverpool area.

***obviously I don't want there to be a hideous terrorist incident, even if it will mean I don't have to have my photo taken.****

****no really.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

It's That Man Again

Well, it's been a right old posting frenzy this month, hasn't it? I'll try to ignore the fact that for all my random wittering, there's not been too much actual Tarting - ostensibly the reason behind this blog. Somehow it's evolved into me just going on about train stations, and stuff I've seen around. I hope that regular readers will indulge me in this. As this project's moved on, I've just become more and more enmeshed in the Merseyworld, and I just get enthused and want to share it. If I didn't put it down here, I'd end up boring The Wife even more than I already do. Either that or my Facebook status updates would become ridiculously long.

Anyway, to the fulcrum of this post's gist: the continuing works at Lime Street. It's been progressing for a few months now, and I spoke about it back in September. The work area's been fenced off, but plastic windows here and there allow you to have a bit of a nose. I had a poke around before my train to work this morning, trying hard not to look like a super-terrorist. Unfortunately most of my pics didn't come out (I have a new cameraphone, the Sony Ericsson C902, and I'm still getting to grips with it) but a few of them show the extent of what's going on. The main view is pretty impressive.

This shot reminds me of a cathedral somehow - I think it must be the combination of the wood and the arches, receding into the distance. These will form the lounges and shops that are being installed along the length of the platform, and they're impressing so far. It's an interesting change from the usual grey steel, or from the mirrored 80s buildings you find elsewhere in the station.

Further along the platform, and the ribs are rising above the fence, as though the La Machine spider is making a return appearance. From this angle they actually look malevolent, like legs rising up ready to pounce.
And finally, just to show the extent of the work, the rest of the space between platforms 7 and 8 has been turned into a holding area for the machinery and building materials and what look like enormous pieces of polystyrene.

It's all due for completion sometime in the spring. Further updates, as and when I get round to it...

Sunday 14 December 2008

Plaque To The Future

Remember, back in October, I tried to visit Moorfields on the 30th anniversary of MerseyRail, but had my ambitions thwarted by a new toilet block? Well, Robert subsequently commented that the sign was back.

So a final Christmas shopping trip gave me the opportunity to have a shufti and see if I could find it. Since the cosmic significance of the 30th birthday trip was now lost, there wasn't much point, but it was nice to find it for completion's sake. If I can sound like an 80s American sitcom for a moment, I gained closure.

And there it is: Gawd bless you ma'am, and all that. Well done on your consumate unveiling skills.

Next to the plaque was a large copy of Centre of the Universe, Merseyrail's answer to The Great Bear (and which I still haven't got round to buying). It wittily associates notable Merseysiders with relevant stations, and my 007-head couldn't avoid pointing out that Chester's been appropriately renamed:

Please also note that Bache is replaced by Hugo Drax, which seems a bit odd at first, since Hugo Drax is in Moonraker and that was Roger Moore. However, it should be pointed out that in the novel, Sir Hugo Drax is originally from Liverpool, so this is a clever use of 007-Liverpool referencing (even if it's been placed in Cheshire). Strict Bond-geekery however makes me point out that Drax is in fact, not a Scouser at all, but is in fact the Graf Hugo von der Drache, a former Nazi hell bent on dropping a nuclear bomb on London. Even the most militant Liverpudlian hasn't advocated the atomic destruction of the Capital (well, maybe Derek Hatton).

From the station we plunged head first into the shopping carnival of Liverpool 1. I love shopping here now; it's amazing what a transformation it's made to the city, not just in terms of the range of shops, but also the shopping experience. There's something so pleasant about the whole city centre now, and the shops are well stocked and beautifully laid out. It certainly beats the hermetically sealed, faux-Classical hell of the Trafford Centre.

In the grand tradition of Christmas shopping, I bought a present for the person I care most about in the whole world i.e. me. Inside the wonderful new Waterstone's I found myself drawn towards this book, and I thought, what the heck. It's a great collection of before and after shots, showing historic Merseyside stations in the past, compared with today. It's highly recommended if you're like me and have any interest in the Liverpool and Wirral's railway stations. Some things have changed beyond recognition, some things aren't even there any more (Riverside station?) but a lot is pretty much unchanged: a positive comment on the health of the system, I feel...

Thursday 11 December 2008

Calling Eric Sykes

As seen on the train this evening: a man, a train, and a nine foot length of wood. Cue much "hilarious" shifting of passengers as they try to avoid being brained by said length...

Thursday 4 December 2008

Watching The Detectives

So I was coming home from work tonight, and Merseyrail was having one of its infrequent ticketing blitzes at Birkenhead Park.  Usually this consists of half a dozen ticket inspectors loitering round the bottom of the rank.  Half a dozen, because while two do the inspecting, the other four have to do the important job of standing around and discussing what they're having for tea.

Tonight was different, though, because there was only one ticket inspector.  Accompanying him on the platform, though, were two policemen, who barked, "Tickets ready PLEASE!" like Captain Mainwaring.  The commuters were filed past the harassed inspector, his uniform cap parked on the back of his head.  He was too busy fending off a man who insisted that his Shotton to Chester ticket entitled him to alight at Birkenhead Park, with ever increasing volume.

As I climbed the ramp/steps to the exit, I realised something odd was going on in the ticket hall.  My usual exit door was closed shut, and a uniformed policeman stood at the top of the ramp.  In fact there were half a dozen of them.  The ticket hall was filled with police men and women, all of a garish glow in the dark yellow and anti stab vests, proudly standing around their latest toy: a metal detector.

Now, like all good, law abiding citizens, I immediately start looking guilty whenever a policeman appears in my peripheral vision.  My guilty look became even more panic stricken when I saw the metal detector, as my pockets were absolutely filled with bits of spare change, while my ManBag contained a bottle opener (always handy in beer emergencies) and a stainless steel tube map (a much cherished birthday gift).  In short, when I arrived in the ticket hall, I had a look on my face like a zebra caught on safari, with half a kilo of heroin in his back pocket, and in the middle of shagging the lead hunter's wife.  

But they let me through.  I didn't even have to put my bag through the metal detector.  No-one did.  Everyone walked past the detector, while the police people smiled and eyeballed and watched us pass.  So my question is, what the heck was the point of that?  It was a strangely impotent show of force, a point that was rammed home to me once I emerged from the station building.  

Twenty yards away, outside the 4 in 1 Takeaway over the road, a gang of lads hovered threateningly, dark hoodies pulled up round their ears, a mangy greyhound reaching at the leash.  I felt more threatened by them on the other side of the road than I did by six policemen and a metal detector, yet the policemen were locked away on the inside.  I wondered what would happen if those lads had crossed the street and accosted me, or the pretty girl in the short skirt who got off the same train: would the policemen have rushed out of the station to our aid?  Or would they have remained in patrol round their piece of machinery, letting it do the policing for them?

(And yes, I do like Elvis Costello a lot).

Sunday 16 November 2008

Go Forth And Multiply

As it turned out, Seaforth & Litherland didn't have an ALF at all.

Actually, while we're on the subject, am I the only one who thinks that "Litherland" sounds obscenely gynecological? "I'm sorry, Mrs Carter, but you have an infection in your litherland - it's eight weeks on the antibiotics for you." It's the confluence of the L-th-L sounds; all that tongue and lip action going on.

S&L (yes, I'm too lazy to keep typing that) is up on a viaduct. For some reason, our Victorian forefathers chose to build the station miles away from the road, so the exit is down a long steep passage. It's quite atmospheric: I wish I'd arrived at the station, rather than left it, because I'm sure that pushing up to the platform from there must be a much more interesting experience.

The station entrance is an archway on a busy main road, cowering under the train viaducts. There's not even room on the pavement for one of the new Merseyrail box signs, so the station sign is welded to the side of the wall. I don't mind telling you that the obligatory me and sign shot was a right bugger to line up. The combination of traffic, narrow pavement and pedestrian defending fence meant I ended up pulling a move last done by Beth Tweddle at the Beijing Olympics.

I crossed the road though, because I wanted to get a shot of the entrance. It's a strange one, S&L. It's not a grand entrance by any means, but this isn't a grand area - this is a working man's station. It was built for dockers and so there's no question of making it "pretty". It's blunt, and to the point, and in the process it's charming.

There's a wide, heavily used dual carriageway to the docks separating the station from the residential area, so I was forced to clamber over a vertigo-inducing pedestrian bridge to get there. As I descended the steps on the other side, it was as though the colour had been sucked from the view.

When I told The Bf where I was collecting, he pulled a sort of pained face when I said Seaforth & Litherland. "But you won't actually walk round there, will you? You'll just get back on the next train?" "Yes," I lied. I hate nipping out and nipping back - it's cheating. Now I was here, though, I could see what he meant.

The road was wide, but empty. On one side, an abandoned petrol station had been reopened with a single pump. Hand lettered signs on a piece of cardboard advertised "BIODIESEL: 96p"; the cash office was a garden shed, and a miserable grey haired women eyed me suspiciously as I walked past. On the other side of the road, there was a wreckers yard. There were a couple of other pedestrians, but somehow, I felt very isolated.

Beyond here, there was a row of Victorian shops. I suppose they used to be a row, but somewhere along the line - probably during the war - the terraces on either side had been destroyed, and now the four stores were islands. Outside the "General Store", three kids surrounded a decrepit looking "guy". One boy was stood on the kerb, clearly the leader, marshalling the other two: when the door of the store opened, all three surrounded the shopper, wanting a penny or fifty for the guy. It was the kind of money extraction methods the Mafioso would be proud of.

Dominating everything, however, were three tall tower blocks. I walked on the opposite side of the road to them, trying to stare at the tops, but the weak sunshine was right behind them. They were like monoliths in the centre of a plain. One was called Churchill House, and I wondered exactly how many dreadful behemoths poor old Churchill had his name attached to. He died at exactly the wrong time, just as brutalism was rising, and concrete was the new toy for architects to play with.

I could picture these three tower blocks on the original architects' drawings. There would be sunshine, and trees; the wide expanse of grass at their feet would have children playing on it; the shops at the base of the towers would be bright and clean and modern. They were the future. Why would you want to live in a rancid terrace, surrounded by Blitzed patches of rubble, when you could live in the clouds?

Architects get a lot of abuse for inflicting buildings on people, but I think that's wrong. Architects are, far more than any other artist, optimists. They believe the best of people. Whoever designed Churchill House and its brothers thought that its residents would be good people, people who would take pride in their building, and who would congregate and chat. They didn't know that humans aren't like that. They saw epic views from the fifteenth floor; they didn't imagine broken lifts, or cold corridors. My cousin Tracy lived in a tower block when I was growing up, and me and my brother would play in the echoing corridors outside her flat when we visited. They were dark, and cold with lino, and every door was the same. We were the only kids playing there. Tracy didn't let her kids out there, and there was never a question that she would let her daughter out there or down to the playground at the bottom of the flats. Architects thought about happy children playing - they didn't think about accidents leaving children screaming for mum a dozen floors up, or abductors lurking round the corner, or drug addicts resting on the tyres between hits. It was a sad sight - like much of the area, it depressed me. Like the residents, the buildings were trying to aim high, only to be brought down to earth with a bump.

Feeling a lot more melancholy, I pressed on to my final station. As I did, the scene slowly brought itself to life again. There was a college, and then bedsits, and then traffic started to slowly appear again. As a committed public transport user, and someone with that blandly lefty way of looking at the world, I have a certain amount of disdain for cars: but it's undeniable that they add life and energy to the street scene.

I was off to meet my Waterloo (hey, it could have been worse - it could have been an ABBA pun). It's quite touching that, even though there's a massive, internationally famous terminal station in London called Waterloo, Merseyside has insisted they keep theirs as well, and refused to rename it (actually, this one was first: the London station was called Waterloo Bridge when it first opened). I like to imagine a series of pleading letters from Rail House being rebuffed by the station supervisors over the years ("No, I will not call it Waterloo in Sefton Station. What do you mean, there's already a Waterloo in London? I've never heard of it").

The world had perked up considerably by now: there were shops, and people. And then I saw the station, and I was immensly cheered. It was a proper little small-town station, at the heart of a proper little small-town shopping area - there was even a Woolies next door. It looked well used, and I loved it. It reminded me of underground stations in places on the outer edge of the map, where you emerge somewhere like West Ruislip or Barking and you realise how London is just a whole load of towns rubbing up against one another.

The street was so busy, in fact, that I found it almost impossible to get a decent purchase on sign shot. There were people everywhere. Eventually I wedged myself up against the traffic light and snapped it quick.

Christ, I look knackered.

Down on the platform, I have to admit, Waterloo couldn't quite match to the street-side ambience. There were hanging baskets in the ticket hall, but down below it was a bit cobbled together. One odd feature - I was going to say interesting, but that would be a lie - was the long shelter, which also served as a corridor to the exit.

When the train came, it was packed - half term meant that there was a load of bored teens headed into Liverpool for excitement. I couldn't blame them for wanting to get out of the Bootle and Seaforth hinterlands. All of the stations I'd visited had been a bit depressed, a bit miserable. Even Waterloo's shopping district was dotted with pound shops and "to let" signs. It was all just a bit... down.

But it closed a gap on the map, so that was good. For those of you keeping score, this means there aren't that many left. I've been using MS Paint and a copy of the map to keep track of my progress, erasing stations as I go. Here's the before:

And here's the after:

I keep forgetting about the pair of stations at the end of the Ormskirk branch. It's mainly the City Line that's keeping us afloat, but even then, there's just one branch. Soon it'll just be a sea of yellow...

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Putting The Boot In

Where 007 goes, I follow. I have mentioned my status as a slavering James Bond fan boy before in passing. I can't help it. I just love James Bond - the films, the books, everything. To me, there is no better way to spend two hours than watching an arrogant self-centred man seduce beautiful women, drop sarcastic comments, and perform outrageous acts of deplorable murder for his country. Before blowing up an entire building. You get sex, violence and comedy; what more could you possibly want?

Unless you've just emerged from a comatose state, you'll be aware that the new Bond film, Quantum of Solace, hit the cinemas on October 31st. It's become a tradition that my friend Mike and I attend the first showing of a new Bond, going way back to 1997, when we were just students and so we could afford to waste a morning watching Tomorrow Never Dies (not that watching a Bond film is ever a waste of time). Now we're "grown up", it's become more difficult to organise - we have jobs, and responsibilities, and in Mike's case, even a child to enter the equation. But somehow we still manage to book a day off to go and watch various things explode (and here's my potted review, incidentally: AMAZING. Amazing in a different way to Casino Royale, but amazing nonetheless. Go see it. That wasn't a suggestion.)

I took advantage of this day off to book another one specifically for tarting purposes. My last few posts have been sadly devoid of me actually getting out and about (apart from the Chester Rant, and even that was accidental), so I thought it was about time I got out and filled in a hole on the map.

Out on the Northern Line were four stations which remained uncollected, mainly due to Merseyrail's improvement schemes. They've been rebuilding Bootle Oriel Road for well over a year, and so I left it off the list so I could witness it in its completed state.

But before all that, I had to get to Liverpool, and I went over to the city with The Bf first thing to try and get a Wirral Line station. I've avoided the city centre's four stations, by and large, ever since Mr D in one of the old posts suggested that I finish with all four of them in a grand victory loop. The idea really appealed to me, and I came up with an idle concept of a four way pub crawl (not so much a crawl as a mild skip) - alighting at each station, capturing it for posterity, then having a pint of Liverpool's own Cains beer in a nearby bar. Assuming Cains is still going when I finish. Moorfields, I know, was caught right at the start: but I still haven't done the Old Hall Street entrance, and besides, I can go there again just for the hell of it.

On top of this, James Street has had its main ticket hall rebuilt completely, and so I didn't want to go there until it was done. The early start did mean that I had the chance to capture an alternative entrance however: the one to Water Street, which is housed in the basement of the India Buildings. It's only open at peak times, so this seemed like the best way to get it - much to my asthmatic other half's discomfort. To get to the ticket hall, you have to negotiate this tunnel.
Doesn't look like much, does it? Think again. Cunningly hidden inside the tunnel are vast fans, which suck the oxygen out and leave you a pitiless, airless husk, gasping for breath. Ok, I may have lied about the fans, but there's something about this tunnel which makes it a challenge to even the fittest. It's something to do with the way it's angled - deceptively straight, but in reality a relentless uphill slog to get you to street level. The cunning gentle twist in its passage also disguises its length, so you think it's about to end, but no! There's still another 20 yards to go.

Gasping for breath, and with The Bf sucking in a frankly disturbing way on his Ventolin, we emerged into the ticket hall. Because it's just an auxilliary entrance, Merseyrail have pretty much ignored it - and thank God. There's a bit of 70s unpleasantness with the ticket window (which looked unmanned), and the Colour Tsars have been out again with the yellow and grey, but the rest is pure pleasure.

(Apologies for the blurring). Beautiful tiling, lovely ceiling details - just marvellous. I particularly liked the telephone booths: their symmetry, either side of the exit, was of course a definite pleasure for me, but they also summoned up 30s glamour: flappers calling cabs after nights of scandalous indulgence, monocled businessmen making terribly important international calls, journalists with paper stuck in their bowlers calling in a scoop at the last moment. It's a shame it's been allowed to decay. I know no-one uses telephone booths any longer, but it could be scrubbed up a bit, an old two-part phone could be installed for show, and it could be discreetly lit. A little bit of charm to distract the commuters on their way to the offices - or would it be wasted on the head down scurriers who breezed past me and my camera, oblivious to everything?

Eventually we had to get on with things, so it was out onto the street to tart the entrance - though I was surprised to see there's no actual station sign outside. If you squint below, you can just about see the name on the map by my shoulder:

With the Bf off to work (ha!) I was left to my own devices, off to buy a Saveaway for my trip to Bootle. I considered stopping off at Sandhills, en route: it's been open since July. But one look at the mass of building work and scaffolding on the platform changed my mind. It was clearly a long way from completion, so I stayed on the train and carried on, through Bank Hall (where there were men on the platform looking befuddled at the art - what is it?!?!) and then off at Bootle Oriel Road.

It looked like the work was still carrying on here, too. The only people who got off with me were a load of builders in hard hats, who met up on the platform with other builders in hard hats, to discuss whatever builders in hard hats talk about - cement, or something. Bits of the station were still encircled by that plastic mesh fence that is put out temporarily while the tarmac dries, and it felt bitty, somehow. I crossed over to the other side and got the obligitary "I WOZ ERE" shot outside, then took a look at what £4.25 million buys you in stations these days.

The answer? Not a lot.

Let's be frank here: that's a mess. I feel disloyal for saying this, because I've ranted at length about money not being spent on stations, but that's all over the place. It's steps! It's ramps! It's lifts! I understand there's a Disability Discrimination Act to comply with, but this is ramshackle, and unfocused. There's no "wow!", which is a shame. After the mega "wow!" of James Street, this was retail park "will this do?" architecture. Is it asking to much for the station building to at least look permanent? It was a major disappointment, and genuinely dispiriting. It also made me pessimistic about the prospects for a good design at Sandhills.

Crashing on. Next stop is Bootle New Strand, so I hoiked myself onto the main road and headed north. It's years since I'd been to Bootle. Mike - my Bond sharing friend - once worked for the Inland Revenue here. They're housed in a building with the not at all terrifying name of The Triad. If you want to house a Government department, why not choose a building named after an international criminal gang? I'd come out here to have lunch with him in a Yates' at the Triad's foot (we're all class), and so I'd got a look round the infamous Strand shopping centre while I was at it. It was dispiriting to say the least. Grey, unpleasant shops, low end chain stores, covered vacant fronts: I haunted the artificially lit malls for a while before I burst out onto the street in search of a bit of sun and freedom. I believe it's been refurbished since then, expanded, re-energised, but I didn't fancy poking my head in to find out. The shopping centre turns its back on the road outside, presenting an ugly concrete face to the traffic, with the only colour being a grim looking pub squatting in the corner. It almost seems to resent Bootle, but in fairness, Bootle seems to resent it right back.

I don't want to sound down on Bootle. Before I got to the New Strand, I'd passed the new Health & Safety exec building: modern and vibrant and exciting. Opposite the shopping centre, there's a tall block of apartments under construction, and new shops, so it seems that there is money coming into the area. All I can say is that I was able to travel between the two stations in less than fifteen minutes, and I had no desire to linger.

Anyway, a bit of positive about Bootle New Strand: it was another rebuilt station, but for some reason this one seemed far more charming than the other one. Perhaps it was the clock (though it could do with a clean), or perhaps it was the little newsagent by the entrance. An old lady hobbled up to it ahead of me to buy her Daily Post, which I found sweet. I wondered if she'd been doing that for decades, right back to when the station was called Marsh Lane & Strand Road in the 60s, before they built the shopping centre. There was meant to be a bridge, going directly from the station into the shops, but it was never built, and now you have to cross the busy road to get to the centre and the buses.

Another plus about Bootle New Strand was that it gave me the closest thing to an Attractive Local Feature board all day. OK, it's basically an advert, and it's only half the size of a proper one (a semi-ALF? A quasi-ALF?), and let's face it, it's not very pretty, but I'll take what I can get, quite frankly.

The next station was Seaforth & Litherland. All I know about this area is there was once a Sunday night tv drama on BBC1 called Seaforth: it starred Ken Barlow's son and it was the kind of thing that Grannies like, and I remember there being some sort of vague controversy when it was cancelled after one series because it had got loads of viewers but the BBC1 controller just thought it was shit. Perhaps, to commomorate this gone-before-its-time series, Seaforth & Litherland's ALF would be a picture of Linus Roache crying, or perhaps a pile of burnt TV licences. Or perhaps everyone else in the world has forgotten about this show, and Seaforth & Litherland would have its own charms to capture my attention. Who can say?

Saturday 25 October 2008

It's All Downhill From Here On In

Funny thing, the Cosmos.  You're tripping along, playing patsy to its random whims - having a great time?  Bam!  Have some cancer! or perhaps Lovely girlfriend you have there.  You know what?  Bam!  She's Jaye Davison with a frizzy perm and you've just become a punchline.  Sometimes its arbitrary whims contrive to exalt you, sometimes it wants to bring you to your knees.  And sometimes, just sometimes, it contrives a series of coincidences to make you think "ooh, higher power!" (if you wasn't a committed atheist since an early age).

This week is a case in point.  For some reason I couldn't find a single book in my collection to read on the train; therefore for some reason I picked up my copy of Merseyrail Electrics: The Inside Story by T B Maund.  For some reason, I then continued to read this book, even though I was in a public place and everything.  And so for some reason, on the 22nd October 2008, I read the following sentence:
The climax to this part of the story was achieved on 25th October 1978 when the new lines were officially opened by H M The Queen.  A plaque at Moorfields was unveiled followed by a trip to Kirkby...
Now leaving aside the fantastic mental image of our Sovereign sat on a yellow and green  MerseyRail seat to Kirkby of all places - perhaps nipping off at Rice Lane for a Maccy D's at the outlet by the station - the cosmic coincidence of the dates was staggering.  The following Saturday would be the thirtieth anniversary of MerseyRail's official opening.  

I'd been planning on nipping over to the 'Pool that weekend anyway - the Bf and I hadn't been to Liverpool 1 since they'd opened its second phase, and we wanted to poke around - but suddenly we had a cosmically ordered reason to go.  It almost makes you believe in all that bollocks Noel Edmonds goes on about.

Pedants might be aware that the Queen's official opening was purely a case of right monarch, right time: she was in Liverpool anyway to open the cathedral, so they might as well have got their money out of her.  The Loop and the Link had been in operation since 1977, and Moorfields station itself had been opened completely in May: Her Maj's approval was just a token tap on the head for a job well done.  None the less, they got a plaque out of it, so I figured: why not take a look?  The cosmic significance of MerseyRail's core being thirty one years old, just like me, but pretending it was thirty, like... erm... some people, was also not lost on me.  

I knew exactly where the plaque was too: just inside the doorway at Moorfields, between the kiosk and the escalators.  I'd decided: since MerseyRail itself wasn't going to commemorate this momentous occasion, I'd have to do it for them.  But the plaque isn't there any more.  They've built some toilets in the ticket hall.  Firstly, I was shocked that they'd done this and I had no idea: I'm usually quite good on station improvements.  But secondly, where's the plaque gone?  Please don't say that ER II's best unveiling efforts can now only be seen if you're having a piddle.

A true journalist would have poked his head inside, but there were penny for the guy kids loitering nearby, and I tend to avoid them like the plague.  (This isn't a fear thing: I just object to giving children money because they stuck a Ghostface mask on top of their mam's tights, and therefore enable them to buy gunpowder-based devices.  I'm funny like that).  Also, I suspected that the plaque was in the ladies', and my urge for knowledge only goes too far.

So a disappointment really (though Liverpool 1 was really rather amazing - geographically confusing, economically draining, and emotionally stirring, when I realised that USC was on the site of The Escape, legendary gay club which was indirectly responsible for my cherry popping).  None the less, I will take this opportunity to say: Happy 30th Birthday, Link and Loop - you may be a bit ragged round the edges, but some of us still love you...

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Viva La Deva. Or Don't. See If I Care.

I like London Midland, I really do. I like the nice green trains, the little route diagrams above the doors which go Liverpool-Birmingham/Birmingham-Nottingham/Nottingham-Euston, the smiley smiley ticket inspectors (there is in particular a lovely Asian woman who is an absolute joy first thing in the morning). But when a train is cancelled, they are absolutely rubbish, as I discovered yesterday trying to get to work. All Lime Street's destination board said was "Cancelled"; no please, thankyou, we apologise for the inconvenience, nothing. It just flagged up, in tiny letters, that there was a bus service to Crewe.
Well, sod that; getting up for work at 7am is bad enough, without being crammed on a Green Line full of grumbling commuters in a traffic jam outside Runcorn. So I dashed back down the escalator (and incidentally, fat woman with suitcase: IT SAYS STAND ON THE RIGHT. Thank you for your time) and caught a Wirral Line train to Chester for the Arriva shuttle to Crewe.

Can I be brutal here? Of course I can - it's my blog. I don't like Chester. I just don't. Even before I spent four and a half years slaving there in a thankless capacity, I didn't like it. It's just so... smug. It's an appalling generalisation, but I feel it's a valid one. There's just a sense of self-satisfaction oozing out of its ancient walls, and dripping from the Rows. An implied sense of superiority over you, the visitor; like they're doing you a favour by letting you have a gawp at their stupid clock (am I the only one who doesn't get what's so special about the Eastgate Clock?).
As a city, Chester seems to have built up this impression that because it has a Roman name, this entitles it to a seat at the top table. What it actually means is the last time Chester was important or interesting was two thousand years ago, so stop harking on about it. I especially dislike the snobbery that the city has towards the mighty city of Liverpool to the North. When I worked there, and it was race day, people would suddenly start ranting about "pissed up Scousers". Because apparently only Scousers went to the races to drink; everyone one else was there for the racing. Obviously. I know there's a bit of residual bitterness because the Dee silted up and made the Mersey important, but if the Mersey had silted up as well, Chester would be as important as Oswestry right now, and no manner of black and white faux medieval Rows (because they're Victorian copies, you know) will save you. Chester should be grateful that it's getting some reflected glory, and Chester station should be glad that platform 7b (as seen above) is there to bring interesting, vibrant people into the city every half hour, before the rest of them contract terminal rigor mortis and their lips purse themself into oblivion.

There's a lot of bitterness there - can you tell? I speak as someone who grew up in Luton and now lives in Birkenhead, so clearly I'm harbouring some kind of inferiority complex; but those towns are gritty and unpretentious, while Chester is home to Hollyoaks, where not even the tits or the hair colours are real. And even that's filmed in Liverpool.

Anyway, the gist is: I stayed away from tarting it. Even though I've travelled through Chester more than any other MerseyRail station, I couldn't bring myself to snap it. This was also tied into the aforementioned job, which I loathed with a passion exceeded only by the passion with which I hate my current job. Snapping the station for this blog would mean I'd have to write about it, and pour out my thoughts, and then, when I was done, I'd still have to go there every day. I thought: I'll tart it on my very last day. It will be my last goodbye. As it turned out, on my very last day, I got so drunk I missed the train home and had to get the Bf out of bed to come and pick me up, so it remained uncaptured.

Until today. (Cue DUM-DUM-DURRRRRR!!!! music).
Yes I know I need a haircut.

Once called Chester General, that's the frontage of Chester Station poking up behind me, and more importantly, the "Station Square" that has been contrived in front of it. It's another one that's being redeveloped, and it was ages since I'd visited. Last time I'd been here, about four months ago, the coffee shack had been demolished and they were serving lattes out of a trailer. The toilets were a load of portaloos behind the ticket office - the ticket office which had been opened by Giles Brandreth MP. Anyone who disagrees with my Chester dislike should know this: Chester voted for Giles Brandreth to be their MP. Twice. Case closed, don't you think?
I'm not sure about the blue. This new, funkily shaped pavillion now squats in the brick hall of the station, and it doesn't completely work. As regular readers (hello you!) will know, I am not a heritage buff, and I like my stations modern and gleaming. Amongst the good quality Victorian artistry of Chester General, however, this modern confection jars. I think the turquoise is somehow meant to remind us of the green of a copper patina, the ancient metal corrupted through years of time; instead, it just reminds us that notorious barrel scrapers Arriva are responsible for maintaining this station (the only one on the MerseyRail network not run by Serco, which is why this most ALF-worthy location has no ALF) and so it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. The design is as though someone said "build me something modern" and didn't care how it looked inside the station. I applaud their refusal to comply with the heritage facists of Chester, who forced that Grosvenor Court on the city (it's the building in the roundabout at the end of Foregate Street, which is a modern office block forced to pretend it's a Georgian terrace even though it's surrounded by a dual carriageway). But couldn't the architecture have been... well... better?

No matter; there are still a few little touches around to make you enjoy the station. This sign, for example, which is pleasingly visible from the platform where trains to London and Holyhead depart. It's stunningly "romance of the rails", and I'm glad that it's one of the first things you see as you enter the station. The ceiling's been cleaned up in the refurb, too, and I believe WH Smith are going to move out of that cubby hole by the entrance into a proper shop that won't be 1000 degrees in the shade and melt all the Mars Bars.

There's also a tribute to one of Chester's most famous sons, right behind Russ Abbott. Thomas Brassey was a great engineer, who travelled across the globe building railways, starting out with the Stephensons, and then striking out on his own to take contracts for routes across Europe and the Americas. He's basically a Primark Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I should also point out, in deference to my theme of Chester-bashing, that he grew up in Aldford and didn't achieve any greatness until he moved to Birkenhead, but no matter: when they redeveloped the old goods yard behind the station into a load of anonymous flats, they called it Thomas Brassey Close, so clearly it was all worth it. His plaque on the concourse, however, I will concede is understatedly charming, and I gave a metaphorical tip of my equally metaphorical stovepipe hat to him.

My favourite architectural feature at Chester, though, isn't Victorian might or Noughties glamour: it's beautiful, traditional, evocative British Rail. If you head towards the East Car Park, there's a barely used platform which still retains its old fashioned light features:

Wonderful thing. It smells of steam trains, and tea urns: it shouts drab fashions and powdered eggs. It's British Railways, and I love it, and I love that for all the Chester Renaissance gubbins, someone, somewhere has recognised that these seemingly mundane light fittings are actually part of our heritage.

I did enjoy romping through the station, now that it had been shorn of associations with That Bloody Job; I'm especially pleased that it slices off the foot of the Wirral Line from the MerseyTart map. In fact, there are now only three stations left on the Wirral Line (apart from the Loop, which doesn't count). I almost don't want to go and get them, to be honest, because that will mean the end of a chapter. Everything west of James Street will be finished with, and I don't want it to be: I like it too much. When I started romping round the railways I thought I'd polish it off pretty quickly, but as I'm getting near the end, I'm realising I don't want it to stop. There have been a few times when I've thought, "Ooh, shall I go and collect some stations?" but have put it off because... well... I don't want it to end. Being the MerseyTart has brought me a good deal of pleasure, and I'd like to think there's a lot more tart in me (oooh, cheeky! Etc, etc).

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Can Margaret Drabble peg down a sleeping bag in a blizzard?

I saw this when it first aired, and I adored it. And I just found out that they repeated it on BBC4 last week and I missed it. And they haven't put it on iPlayer. And this person has posted only the first six minutes on YouTube.


You cannot beat a bit of Victoria Wood. Or even a lot of Victoria Wood. "Whenever I take an Intercity, I always end up sat opposite the woman who is eating the individual fruit pie by sucking the filling out through the hole in the middle." That's not in this documentary, it's in As Seen On TV. (That's not a documentary, it's a women's cocktail bar - sorry, once you start quoting Victoria Wood you can't stop).

Monday 29 September 2008

The Once and Future Station

For all my bullishness about the wonders of public transport, it does go wrong sometimes.  So it was a couple of weeks ago, when my Crewe bound train was cancelled and I was left with an hour to kill before the next one.

Never one to waste an opportunity, I went for a wander round the city centre.  Liverpool has completely transformed itself in just the short time I have lived here.  It really is remarkable.  When I moved Oop North thirteen years ago, the biggest redevelopment project in the city was Queen Square, with its attendant bus stands and Nando chicken.  Now huge swathes have been transmogrified into shops, restaurants, apartments.  Rope Walks really is an exciting place to wander round, and the new Liverpool One shopping district is amazing.  Even if they did have to demolish the Escape and Quiggins to build it.  I hope the one-two of 2008 hangover and credit crunch unpleasantness don't send Liverpool back down the slope again; it's achieved so much in so little time.

The effects haven't reached everywhere, of course.  Toxteth - despite a great deal of good, ambitious plans - is still the bad side of town.  Unloved, infamous, the huge mansion rows are still punctuated by burnt out shells, like bad teeth, and it's definitely not a place to go wandering unawares.  I was only at the tip of it, the wrong side of Parliament Street - I was in the shadow of the Anglican Cathedral - but it still smelt of neglect and disdain.  

I was here in search of history and future, a sort of Marty McFly type trip.  There's an abandoned station here.  Closed in 1907, St James station was in the perfect place, logistically speaking - it broke up the long gap between Liverpool Central and Brunswick stations.  Unfortunately, there was no-one around to use it, and it was shut to passengers.

Temptingly, it's still there.  Well, sort of.  So in my quest to visit all the stations, I thought I'd pay it a visit.

I should perhaps clarify.  This post may be of more interest to people who like brick walls.  It's a very nice wall, don't get me wrong; but it's not exactly Euston, you know?  This is the view from across Parliament Street.  Behind this wall, there's a cutting, with two platforms still in existence down below.

It's a very high wall, though.  So as I wandered around it, all I got was a good view of some Victorian mortar work.

There is, however, a door:

which gives access to a stairway, which allows you to get down to the unused, unloved platforms.  Even though they haven't seen a passenger since crinoline was in style, the area is sort of kept in use; it's a handy access point for workmen to the tunnels, and, in the event of some emergency, it could theoretically be used as an escape tunnel.

I wandered around a bit further, hoping for a crack or something to let me see down, but it was no good; not a single hole.  Damn those efficient 19th century workmen.  In the end, I threw self respect to the wind, stood on my toes, and poked my hand over the top of the wall as best as I could.  This is the result:

I am choosing to believe that it is a glimpse of the track, with the overgrown platform to one side.  I could be right.  Oh, fine: if you want a full and frank explanation, with decent photos, go here.

There are sort of tentative plans to reopen St James, one day.  The platforms are there, there's plenty of open ground next to the cutting which would enable a station facility, and perhaps a bus interchange, to be built.  There's no expensive tunneling or engineering needed.  The problem is that it's nowhere.  On one side is the huge Cains brewery, which isn't exactly the great employer it once was.  On the other is an abandoned church.  Even the maisonettes over the road have been boarded up ready for demolition.  And even if it were opened - you're not that far from the city centre.  You can walk to Liverpool Central in about ten or fifteen minutes from here, for free.  Why pay to cut that journey time by a few minutes?

I'd love to see it reopened, obviously, but I won't hold my breath.

Thursday 4 September 2008

The 21st Century Railway Is Coming. Bring Your Wallet.

This blog is about many things. The inadequacy of the Merseyrail map, my desire for immortality in the pages of Modern Railways, a catalogue of my never ending array of disastrous weather-buffeted hairstyles. But essentially, at heart, it's about architecture. I've always been drawn to railway station architecture, its forms and shapes - the Victorian declaration of might, the Art Deco sweep in the Thirties, the shabby second rate British Rail years, the gleaming glass and metal of today. I started this whole project to see stations, not trains or signalling, because that's what I love to see.

I hate to see stations going to ruin. Long-term readers may remember my dismay at Hough Green, which had been allowed to collapse into dereliction and was unloved, and my horror at Little Sutton's boarded up windows. I want to see them shining and used and unshabby again.  I'm an optimist, basically.

This blog's also about hope: about the future.  My glee at seeing St Helens Central's new, glamorous glass building wasn't affected; I want to see money invested in the network and its facilities.

I'm happy to report a whole load of investment is being pumped into Lime Street station right now. The money's going in two places, both of them badly needed. Out front, a whole load of cash has been found to demolish the ugly public toilet-esque row of shops that block the front of the station from the road, as well as the mangy looking office block (Concourse House) beside it.  This has been controversial for a while after two selfish bastards - whoops, sorry, I mean caring shopkeepers, forced a High Court decision on the compulsory purchase of their premises.  The delay meant that a tower earmarked to replace Concourse House has now been credit crunched, so all they're going to put out front is a lot of posh paving.  But this will mean all the difference, as you'll be able to see the grand sweep of Lime Street's frontage again, and from the inside, you'll be able to see out onto St George's Plateau and that huge tv screen thing that keeps flashing twenty foot high images of the Joker at me in a thoroughly unnerving fashion.

Inside, they're upgrading the passenger facilities.  Lime Street has always been divided in two (leaving aside the underground station).  On the one side, behind the North Western Hotel, are the "suburban" trains on platforms 1-6, for Wigan, Manchester, and the like.  Around them are the ticket office, the bars, the WH Smiths, the Burger King, and all the other big terminus retail outlets.  Plus the toilets.  The long London bound Pendolinos depart from the other side, which is severely underdeveloped.  Platforms 7 to 9 have nothing in the way of facilities, not even a ticket barrier to call their own (crowd control barriers have been strung across the way for the last few years).  In the centre is a long cab road, which once provided access for mail vans and taxis, but hasn't been used for years.

The plan is now to build customer facilities in this cab road, and work has actually started on it.  Of course, they've released a highly glamorous CGI image to publicise it.  I'm always disappointed they don't take the piss a bit more often in these things, and fully exploit the potential of CGI, and put a brontosaurus in the background, or a T-1000 morphing into the 16:32 to Birmingham New Street.  I'm sure people would be far more excited about redevelopments if they thought that they'd be able to ride the Starship Enterprise to Euston.*  But I digress.  In a blatant contravention of copyright law, I've ripped the picture out of Network Rail's press release and I feature it here for your pleasure:

I like the way the artists at Rail House in London have stuck a trackie-wearing scally right at the front, so we know it's Liverpool.  They missed a trick by blacking his face and pulling his hood up - how are we meant to see his moustache and curly perm now?  Anyway.  Since I pass through Lime Street every day (platform 8, every night, stalkers) I've started snapping away to try and catalogue the works as they go on - these pics are taken from last Friday (hey, it's been a busy week).  Here's the "before" - as it looked Friday morning: 

Like I say, it's just dead space there.  The new passenger facilities will include a first class lounge for Virgin customers.  Something which is desperately needed.  In fact, it's amazing that they've gone so long without one, given that Virgin are so obsessed with first class passengers.  It'll also include an information point, replacing this:

...so you'll be able to complain about Beardy Branson's rubbish service in far more salubrious surroundings.  In addition, there will be four new retail outlets.  Having passed through Manchester Piccadilly a couple of months ago, and been confused to find that someone had let some trains barge through the centre of the shopping mall, I'm unsurprised at Network Rail's desire to improve our shopping experience.  No word yet on which retailers will be taking spce there.  I'm hoping for a Starbucks so I don't have to use that Costa any longer, with its burnt tasting coffee and its young offender staff.  I'm guessing it won't be a new branch of Harvey Nicks, anyway.

It also looks like there will be a proper passenger ticket barrier of some sort.  I'm a bit concerned about the effect that it will have on platform space.  By Friday night, they'd started putting up a load of support poles:

Apologies for the blurring.  These have the effect of cordoning off the platform from the new retail area - but the platform is now only about six feet wide.  I came off the train tonight, and things have progressed a bit more, to the extent that the whole centre area has been blocked off - but it makes the space for passengers to alight really narrow.  As all the bodies moved down towards the exit it was slightly claustrophobic (and bloody annoying when the dopey tart in front of you decides to just stop in the middle to attend to her wailing brat, thereby blocking everyone from getting away).  They'll have to hold the passengers in a waiting area, because there was no space at all for people to get on and get off at the same time.  The plus side is that as Lime Street's a terminal station there's usually a bit of a breather before the train moves off again anyway.

The anticipated end date for all of this is early 2010, but I think that includes the shop demolition and the landscaping outside, which will take a lot longer.  I can't imagine it'll take that long to throw up a few shops.  I shall keep you posted, as and when I can be arsed...

*In fact this is the kind of thing I'm talking about, only this is actually real:

It's a giant mechanical spider crawling down the side of Concourse House.  BRILLIANT.

More info on that (hurry, this weekend only!) can be found here.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Is this what Kerry Katona feels like?

I bought this month's Modern Railways magazine for one reason, and one reason only.  No, it wasn't the 40 page supplement on Derby's railway heritage, shocking though that may seem.  I bought it just to revel in my moment of fame.  I had been faithfully promised that the list of winners to their compo would be printed in the September issue, and where was I?


I scoured that bloody magazine, looking for my name.  In fact it took me a whole half hour of scouring before I realised what a shameless fame obsessed ego centric media whore I had become.  I felt ashamed.

Actually, that last bit's a lie.  I didn't feel ashamed.  I should have done, but I didn't.

Vanity, where is thy sting?

Saturday 16 August 2008

Watch Out!

As spotted on the timetables at Lime Street:

...which seems fair enough; we've all seen the tourists staring at the boards and leaving their rucksacks cluttering the concourse. This one, however, grabbed my attention:

This raises a few issues for me:

1) Are French and German children not worth bothering with?

2) It should never be two ! or ? marks. Either (!) or (!!!), and the latter should be used only in times of extreme duress or panic e.g. "Zut Alors! Leetle Pierre 'as fallen onto ze railway tracks!!!" Someone send Lynne Truss to Rail House.

3) Do they mean "who's watching your children and stopping them from running amok and injuring themself while you are gawping at this timetable?", or do they mean "watch out, watch out, there's a paedo about?". Sadly, a part of me rather suspects it's the latter, and that this sign had been planted on the timetables by a News of the World reading Network Rail employee. I fully expect the next edition to feature "Watch out!! An asylum seeker is spending your tax money on booze and fags!!" and a picture of Jordan's tits.

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Geeks Shall Inherit

It's a widely known fact that I'm a loser.

I have strong, empirical evidence for this. I just don't win things. Nothing that matters, anyway. I am fiercely, violently competitive - Cluedo is a non-game in our house after my now legendary explosion of rage in 2005 - and I absolutely play to win at all times. At anything where I can fight to win, I'm in first place.

In games of chance, I'm hopeless. I've never won anything on the lottery, not even a tenner. I've had a premium bond since I was Christened in 1977, and it has yet to make me even enough money to buy a pint. I've entered various sweepstakes, on subjects from the Grand National to Strictly Come Dancing, and the most common outcome is that my horse has to be taken round the back and shot after the first fence, or my celebrity develops rickets after one paso doble and has to drop out.

But I am happy to report, I've won something. Actually, really, won a competition. Last month's Modern Railways magazine had a large feature on Merseyrail, so naturally I bought it - I am nothing if not obsessed. (I bought it in Lime Street too, just to compound the geek factor). There was a competition to win a copy of Lost Lines: Liverpool and Mersey, by Nigel Welbourn: a book tracing the paths of railway lines th
at had disappeared from Merseyside's map over the years, with dozens of photos. I answered the question - I can't remember what it was now, but the answer was Chat Moss; it was something along the lines of "What was the name of the bog the Liverpool to Manchester railway was built over the top of?" and e-mailed my answer. And when I came home this evening, there was a nice padded envelope with my book inside.

I'm extremely excited. Not just because it looks like a good book (I've had a flick, and all I can say is: be glad I got it after the last blog entry, because if you thought I was boring then, I'd have been even more dull after reading all the factoids in that) but because I've actually won something. A nationally held competition, in a magazine read by literally hundreds of people (possibly even thousands - I don't know) and I won!

Of course, about five minutes after I'd opened the parcel and bounced happily around the room, I was filled with self-doubt and dodgy self-esteem as I wondered if I'd only won because no-one else had entered. I should also point out that there was more than one winner. But I will be buying the next edition of the magazine, to see if my name has been printed in the winners. I'm easily pleased.

And yes, this definitely proves that I am a complete Merseyrail geek. The fact that I'm going to put it on the shelf next to my copy of Merseyrail Electrics: The Inside Story doubly proves it. Even when I'm a winner I am, in effect, a loser. I don't care. I'm bloody chuffed, and if that makes me a geek, an anorak, a nerd, a gricer, or any one of a thousand other insults... so what? I'm pleased!

Wednesday 30 July 2008

A Man, A Plan, A Superlamb

As featured at James Street Station:

MerseyRail's contribution to the SuperLambBanana festival, and fabulous it is too. (And map aficionados please note: that's not a FUCKING SQUARE on there!). If anyone out there feels like buying me this one in the SuperLambBanana auction, please feel free: I will be eternally grateful.

(See: http://www.gosuperlambananas.co.uk/ for the whole story).

Not Waving, But Drowning

It's been a while, hasn't it? A couple of months in fact. I can only apologise and say that I have been very, very busy. Basically, I've changed jobs, and so there's been a whole lot of upheaval and all that, and it means I've had to say goodbye to my Railpass. Sob! Like Mr D in the comment section of my last post, I was extremely upset to have to let go of the old girl. In fact, I even did a little calculation to see if there was any way I could justify £85 a month to keep it (I couldn't).

I've gone from working in Chester to working in Crewe, somewhat ironically. The MerseyTart is now esconced in the cradle of railways. And I am getting that thrill from arriving and departing from a major hub.

But it's not the same. I miss my little yellow and grey trains. I still get a little bit of Merseyrail action, from Birkenhead Park to Lime Street every morning, but it's not as much fun.

So I was lucky enough to be able to get a day off for MerseyTart antics. I say a day off - I was on strike. Yes brothers, as a local government minion, I was joining in the national action for pay. Comrades! Rise up and be counted! Well, actually, when I say "joining in" I actually mean "relishing the prospect of a day when I didn't have to go to work". I would have been rubbish in the Winter of Discontent.
The whole network was opened up to me, and I decided that I would get some more City Line stations. After last time's disaster (well, apart from the good food and beer) I would be determined and conscientious about capturing the stations on this route. Instead of my trusty Railpass, I bought a Saveaway, Liverpool's version of the One-Day Travelcard.

The branch I chose was out on the far end of the map, between Whiston and Newton-Le-Willows. This is, ladies and gentlemen, no ordinary railway line; this is the world's first intercity line, the original Liverpool to Manchester route. I was travelling on a route that had been laid out by George Stephenson and opened in 1830. Millions of travellers all over the world can trace their daily commute back to this single piece of railway track.

As is usual on the City Line, I went out to come back, and I alighted at Newton-le-Willows. My first surprise about Newton-le-Willows was that it was even in Merseyside in the first place. I had in my head that it was very, very posh; prime WAG territory. Perhaps it's the "le" that did it for me. Towns with a "le" always sound like they have ideas above their station. What's wrong with "in the Willows", eh? Anyway.

The station was being refurbished when I arrived; half the staircase was blocked with scaffolding, and the workmen had to down tools and step aside to let the alighting passengers through. It looked like a nice 19th century station, but with all the builders covering it, you couldn't really stop and appreciate it. I headed outside in search of a station sign, and I was disappointed to see that the only one on show was a platform sign transplanted to the roadside. Perhaps that's how posh it is round Newton; they refuse to have a Merseyrail box sign outside, lowering the tone. The sign was quite low down on the pavement too, resulting in me having to practially squat by the side of the busy main road to get the whole name in; an undignified start to proceedings, really.

Normally, I'd now proceed at haste to the next station, but instead I went in the opposite direction to seek out a bit of history. It was a terrible day to be out, raining constantly, a mist of fine drizzle that clung to me as I trekked out of town. The large suburban houses gave way to a garden centre, then I was walking under the M6 and I was out in the countryside. I was looking for a memorial to the world's first railway casualty.

The Liverpool & Manchester Railway was opened by the Duke of Wellington, then the Prime Minister, with all the attendant pomp and circumstance. The Duke himself then rode a train, with carriages of flunkeys and MPs in tow, from the Liverpool end in the direction of Manchester. It had been decided that halfway along the line, the Duke's train would stop so that a train coming in the opposite direction could process by.

You or I would think this was a great opportunity to relax in our seats and do our best regal waves as the other train went past. This is why you and I are not politicians. Instead, the MP for Liverpool, William Huskisson, decided to take the opportunity to walk down the train to talk to the Prime Minister (history has not recorded why he wanted to talk to him; I'm guessing toadying came into it somewhere). Unfortunately, Huskisson had completely forgotten that he was in fact walking on a railway line, and so was taken by surprise when a train turned up. So surprised he fell underneath it, and his leg was crushed. One report says that as the train went over him, he called out his own surname, which I think is rather wonderful, and I intend adopting "Huskisson!" as an exclamation of pain and surprise from now on.

Huskisson was rushed to hospital on the train to Eccles, but he couldn't be saved, and he died; sad for him, good for pub quiz question masters. (Incidentally, the Duke of Wellington carried on, despite the loss of one of his MPs; he was promptly pelted with stones in Manchester by citizens still incensed by the Peterloo massacre. You couldn't really call it the most auspicious of launch days). He was buried in a large monument in St James' cemetary in Liverpool (now in the shadow of the Anglican cathedral), but a year later, a memorial was built on the site where his unfortunate accident occurred. And that's where I was headed.

There are no signs to guide you to the Huskisson memorial; you have to know where to look. And even when you get there, it's pretty difficult to see. Notwithstanding that it was a grey, miserable day, it was pretty difficult to get a decent look at it. Large trees and bushes were planted on the embankment directly opposite it, so I couldn't go there, and behind it, there was an iron fence blocking the way. Basically, the only way to get a decent, full on appreciation of Huskisson's memorial would be to stand in the middle of the railway tracks. I believe that's a textbook example of "irony".

Much as I would have loved to sacrifice myself in front of the 10:32 to Manchester Piccadilly as a way of truly memorializing William Huskisson, I thought it was better to settle for a peek from the nearby road bridge. I wondered how many people even noticed the memorial from their train window as they passed, and, if they did spot it, if they knew what it was. Probably best not to know, really; you don't want to be reminded of railway fatalities as your high powered train is burning through the countryside. Sort of like reading "Alive!" on an aeroplane.

Memorial snapped, I returned to Newton-le-Willows, along its pretty high street, in search of Earlestown. I was getting really wet now, so drenched that I had to take my glasses off; the refractions through the water on the lenses made me feel like The Fly, so I considered it safer to just squint through the drizzle instead. The social scale took a definite slide as I walked. Newton's street of hair salons became Earlestown's road of Bargain Booze. It culminated in this glorious wreck of a cinema, opposite the station; somehow, I like it more as a shattered husk. There's something so evocative about it. I'd rather it stayed like that than be turned into an evangelical church or a bingo hall; I like that it's a reminder of the past, and an era that's gone forever. (Of course, I may be in the minority in this).

Earlestown station building was unimpressive from the street. In fact, possibly the most impressive thing about the shot that follows is my hair. The non-stop precipitation had turned me into Gareth Gates.

The platform buildings were much more interesting, which was fortunate, as I had to wait there twenty minutes for the next train. Earlestown holds a significant "first"; this was the first railway junction in the world, formed when the line to Warrington crept up to meet the Liverpool line, and it's now a large triangle with platforms on each side. (For a time it was even shown on the Merseyrail map as three seperate interchange circles). The platform building, meanwhile, is one of the oldest railway buildings still at an open station in the world. It's long been bricked up - leaving us passengers to loiter in the rain for our connection, as there were no waiting facilities on platform 3 - but the station's operators have at least put a brave face on this, decorating the closed building with heritage-type decorations:

The station also featured a good old, traditional drunk; huge of beard, many of carrier bag, sipping from a can of lager. I salute you, gentleman of the road. And rather more scenically, there was our first ALF of the day:

"For Town Centre and Market"? Yawn. Nice to see anyway.

Finally the train arrived, and I was able to leap on board. This isn't an exaggeration. Because of the curve of the railway, the gap between the train and the platform was about a foot; I had to grab hold of the rail and drag myself across. Having risked life and limb, I was able to settle down and dry out a bit before I hit St Helens Junction.

St Helens Junction, incidentally, is a dump. I can usually find a bit of beauty in all railway stations, but this was a dull, uninspired building surrounded by industrial estates. In addition, I almost cracked an ankle slipping on the steps down to the pavement; I was therefore not in the best of moods when I snapped the station shot. I didn't care that you could barely see the sign, I just wanted to get on to somewhere more interesting.

The road to Lea Green, my next stop, was theoretically through countryside. There were fields clearly visible on one side of the road, but the lumbering roar of the juggernauts put paid to that St Mary Mead atmosphere. And then the rain got even heavier, long, hard, driving raindrops that weasled down the back of my neck and slicked my jacket against me. "July" was just a theoretical; outside St Helens, I was in Autumn.

Worse still, there was a hill to climb to Lea Green, and my sense of direction deserted me halfway up it. I remembered from my map that it was a long, straight road from one station to the other, yet I was sure I'd made a right turn. And shouldn't I have encountered the station by now? It wasn't that far. With the rain pissing on me, I pulled out the map and tried to get my bearings, but I couldn't see any of the local roads on the map. Swearing like a member of the aristocracy who's just caught his knackers as he dismounts his horse, I did a volte face, thinking I must have missed a turn. But after a hundred yards, I was filled with doubt again, so the map came back out, and I found where I was. Yep; I'd been going the right way all along, and all my doubt had done was start my road map on the route to papier mache and ensured that I would miss the next train.

Angry with myself, I continued trudging up the hill until the yellow and grey shed that was Lea Green appeared on the horizon. Though the watchword for today's trips was "history", here I was bang up to date; the station dates only from 2000. I arrived at the railway bridge in time to hear the train rev up and leave the platform without me. It was therefore a somewhat grumpy MerseyTart who found himself posing under a nondescript park and ride sign.

Did I mention it was raining?

I slopped down to the platform, my trainers having let half of Lake Titicaca in over the course of the day (two blisters would be my souvenirs from the trip), and into the thankfully covered shelter to wait the half an hour for the next onward train. I felt bushed. I leaned against the plexiglass of the shelter and let out a deep sigh. I love travelling round the network for this blog, but the rain and the wind and the miserable surroundings had all conspired to make me feel frustrated and bitter. It was making me dwell on other things, other times where I'd felt down, other frustrations in my life. Thinking that maybe this wonderful new job isn't quite as wonderful as I'd hoped it would be, and might in fact be just as shitty as the old one, but in Crewe.

If this were a novel, then this is where a chirpy station attendant would appear and raise my spirits with a happy tale, and perhaps an invite into his warm station building for a cup of tea. This is not a novel. No-one else turned up on the platform until about two minutes before the train departed, when suddenly it was swamped.

What cheered me was a combination of three things:

1) The rain stopped. Okay, now I was under cover, so it didn't make any difference (besides, I couldn't actually get any wetter, short of chucking myself in the Mersey) but it was a pleasure none the less;

2) Lea Green has an ALF. I don't know where Sherdley Park is, but I'm glad it is commemorated in this way. Can I point out that the paint hasn't flaked off that duck? The white spots are part of the artist's interpretation. I checked out a couple of other signs to be sure. It's another boring bird, but it's better than Earlestown's market stall by a long chalk.

3) I got to watch a game of human MouseTrap. Being a new station, Lea Green is fully Disability Discrimination Act compliant, and the route up from the platforms (which are in a cutting) to the street is marked by a long series of ramps, rising upwards slowly. A train pulled in as I was photographing that scabby duck, and all the passengers began their steady climb up the ramps; back and forth, back and forth, like they were on a roller coaster building up to a big drop. It actually got funnier and funnier as they rose - it seemed so laborious, and silly. Sadly, I was too busy smirking as people passed one another again to take a picture of their steady ascent (or even better some video), but hopefully you get the idea. I should also point out there was a flight of stairs which no-one seemed to notice.

The half hour wait meant that I was a lot drier now (though not my shoes; they still squelched), and by the time I got off the train at Rainhill, I actually looked like a human being again. And the Attractive Local Feature board provided me with a handy one-two; not just another ALF for the collection, but also a handy reminder of this historic spot.

(Look how wet it is!). Rainhill was the home of the Rainhill trials which, as the sign points out, took place in October 1829. With the railway nearing completion, someone actually had the bright idea of scrounging up some locomotives to run on it, and a competition was organised to find the right engine for the job. Rainhill, with its long straight stretch of level track, was chosen for the job, and the entries lined up to complete the course. The idea was that the locomotives would complete ten trips over the mile long course, and the one that performed the best would win £500 and be the locomotive for the railway.

There were ten entries, but only five actually made it to the course. Four were called the Cycloped, the Perseverance, the Sans Pareil and the Novelty. If I tell you that the fifth one was called Rocket and was designed by George and Robert Stephenson, have you guessed the winner? Though really the names should have been a bit of a giveaway. The thrusting, white hot future of technology could hardly be represented by the Sans Pareil, could it? Rocket was the only one to finish the trial, and so the contract for the engines for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was given to the Stephensons.

I had all this in my head when I got to Rainhill, so I was even more excited to see that there was an exhibition on the trials. A noticeboard on the station informed me that it was housed in the local library, so off I went, keen to get that bit of local colour.

I was hoisted on my own petard. The reason I had been able to gallavant all over Merseyside was because I was a local government worker on strike. And what are librarians? Local government workers. Oh dear. A closed and barred Rainhill library stopped me from furthering my knowledge of Novelty and friends. I will have to make a return visit sometime.

Instead, I trudged back through the village (which is very pretty, incidentally) and I was away. I crossed the railway bridge (interesting fact: this was the first railway bridge in the world to be built at an angle across the tracks. Ok, I'll stop with the factoids now) and walked towards Whiston.

Just one more station to go, but I needed to make another diversion first. Not historical this time; quite the opposite in fact. My good friends Mike and Kirsten have recently had a baby, and as they live in Whiston, I needed no further excuse to pop in and coo over little Ella. Also, I wanted a free cup of tea.

Fortunately Kirsten was more than accomodating, and allowed me to sit and stare at her absolutely adorable child for an hour. Really, she is a lovely baby. Look:

Sweet! Bless her and her little smiley face.

Recharged with Typhoo, I was reluctantly dragged away from the baby and sent on my way to Whiston station. This is another new one, built in 1990, and tucked away inside a council estate. I apologise for the badness of this pic (as opposed to the badness of all the rest, of course); but the train was literally just coming down the tracks as I arrived, so it was a make-do picture, snapped in a hurry before I headed for the train.

So what have we learned from this jaunt? Firstly, we've learnt that just because your feet are covered, doesn't mean they're watertight.

Second, we've learnt that Ella is one of the loveliest babies in Christendom, and that despite my gruff, cynical exterior, I can melt at the sight of a smiling child just like a 94 year old woman.

Third, we've learnt that Merseyrail isn't just a commuter network; it's the ur-network, the one that started it all. The map shows this line going from Liverpool, and a tiny arrowed box indicates that it heads to Manchester, but really that box should say London, Paris, Delhi, Vladivostock, and all points beyond. This is where railways began, where they started to change the planet and the way we behave and act and live. The railways drove the world forward, and this line made Liverpool (and Manchester) right at the front, riding Stephenson's Rocket into the future. And as a passenger in the future, in a world where railways are taken for granted at best and rubbished at worst, it's nice to be able to ride the same rails and pay homage to the people who built it, and to try and stop people from forgetting just how fantastic a train ride can be.