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:
"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.
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.
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.