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: 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.