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...


Roy McNeil said...


I actually did what you are doing last year - but my aim was to also visit the nearest pub and have a pint. I am a sailor in the Merchant Navy, so have huge swaths of leave with not alot to do so thought this would be fun. Being only 28 this involved much drukedness and only very vague recollections of some of the stations, but I did it - and even the ones outside the Merseytravel Area!

Good luck! If you see a rather young looking 28 year old, drunk taking foto's of himself at stations you know who I am!


Scott Willison said...

Beer! That's what this blog is missing! If only I'd thought of that before. Though I don't think I'd have been too comfy knocking back a pint round Kirkdale or Kirkby (coward!).

I'll keep an eye out for you when I'm next out and about...

Roy McNeil said...

Kirkby and Kirkdale were tame compared to Birkehead Park / North / Rock Ferry. I haven't drank a pint that quick in my life.

My mates thought I was crazy!

Scott Willison said...

You didn't go to The Dock, that rough as heck pub by Birkenhead North? It's at the foot of a block of flats, and surrounded by waste land, and I don't think they let you in unless you have at least one facial tattoo and a pitbull...

Roy McNeil said...

I might be foolish - but I am no fool! I ventured onto what you would call there High Street. And looking at some of the clientelle I think there were most definitely high.

Scott Willison said...

I can believe that - since the smoking ban I've seen the clientele of those pubs stood on the pavement, tugging at their tabs, and I can't say they look genial and welcoming...

Roy McNeil said...

I am tempted to do it all again this leave! Presently sailing to the Seychelles so haven't seen much British weather recently but don't expect it to be very warm when I get home in the New Year. And I don't expect there to be many hunky men at West Kirby station, just fresh from the beach like there was last time (particular highlight!).

Scott Willison said...

Last time I went to West Kirby there was a distinct lack of hunky men; it was mainly old dears with their stockings halfway round their ankles. I'm sure there will be a few half-naked beach dwellers in the Seychelles. Not that I'm jealous or anything.

Roy McNeil said...

You obviously went to West Kirby at the wrong time of year!

The only thing with the Seychelles is that everyone has just been married and is on a honeymoon so the chances of me pulling some hot thing are remote. You never know though...