I was out bright and early. It was a Friday flex day and I was raring to go. I was heading for the City Line, taking full advantage of the more regular weekday services, so I got on a train and headed out, out, out to the very edge of the Merseyrail area: Garswood.
I was following my City Line principle of going to the end and coming back on myself, so I had to get a slow train, which was infuriating. There were five stations planned for today's jaunt: I was going to get off at Garswood, then back on the next train once the station was collected. Off at St Helens, on at Thatto Heath, off at Eccleston Park, and then on again at Prescot and home. It'd take me the best part of the day, train timings permitting, but it would mean I could wipe out that whole branch.
What was particularly annoying was seeing every station go past. It was like a preview of coming attractions, and it was spoiling the surprise. I tried to mentally erase each station and, when that didn't work, I looked out for features I might want to come back to and study in more detail.
I had no idea what to expect at Garswood; I wasn't even sure where it was. I'd looked on the map, and it seemed to be way too far out to be Merseyside. The little bit of the town that I saw, around the station, didn't feel Merseyside-ish either. It felt like Lancashire, proper Lancashire, with cobbles and gruff blustery men and everything. There was a row of neat little houses, and a small corner shop, where a bought a bottle of water from the most pleasant woman. Seriously; she positively beamed at me, great dazzling white teeth, and she said goodbye with a spring in her voice.
There were two station buildings, one on each platform - an old one on the Liverpool platform, and a new gleaming one on the Wigan one. But that was it; there wasn't much to write home about. So it was back on the train and on to St Helens.
This was going to be the highlight for me, and it was what I had been looking forward to. I was aware that the somewhat manky old St Helens Central station had received a makeover, with a new building and so on, but I hadn't expected it to be this good. For a start it had 2 ALFs, with different attractions on each:
(Do you think someone should tell him he's sucking the wrong end of that lollipop?) The station had been completely rebuilt in gleaming glass and steel, and dripped modernity and 21st century chic - I loved it. It fulfilled my usual rants about investing in public transport. My only surprise was how small St Helens Central actually was. There were only two platforms, which surprised me; I assumed it was a bit of an major interchange. It looks like it was, once, but the other platforms are now covered in grass and weeds.
Outside, the massive glass wings of the station couldn't fail to impress. There was a waiting area on one side, and on the other, there was the ticket office and - shockingly - a toilet. Public toilets? In this day and age?!?! I romped happily for a bit, snapping away, before heading into town.
And this is where things went a bit awry. As I got off the train at St Helens Central, I got a text from my mate Mike, who lives and works in the town. It was 11:30, so naturally thoughts turned to lunch... and suddenly tarting was on the back burner.
I'm sorry for deserting my duty. But Thatto Heath became a lot less of an interesting prospect once Mike and I had gorged on food and lager. It was one of the best steaks I've had in my life: Le Frog - tell them I sent you, and they will just nod in a bemused fashion. We caught up on various bits and bobs - mostly his love life, which is a world of endless variety - and then he showed me St Helens one and only gay bar. It's like the Phoenix Club, only with pictures of gay icons on the walls. Being a metropolitan gay who grew up near London and now lives in another big city, I'd forgotten how desperately provincial and depressing small gay clubs could be. No wonder young gays are always running away to the Big Smoke.
I had a wander round the town, and I have to say - good show, St Helens; I was very impressed. It was a nice, pleasing little town centre, with a great open square in front of the church, and jammed full of shops and shoppers. It was a great mix of Victorian bombast and Sixties planning and 21st century regeneration.
Lunch done, and feeling fat and happy, I whacked Elvis Costello on the iPod and headed back to the station. So the rest of the branch will have to wait for another day. I'm pleased that I knocked off the extremities, and very pleased indeed that I finally got to see the new building. It doubles my anticipation of what they have done to Bootle Oriel Road and Sandhills - now I can't wait to visit them.