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?