Sunday 27 December 2009

Queen Victoria

It's Christmas, so there's naturally hundreds of repeats on telly at the moment. I don't mind this because they're usually a better class of repeat. I spent last night chortling to a Morecambe and Wise special from 1973, which is before I was even born, but it was still fantastic. And things like The Good Life Christmas Special ("But this is the Daily Mirror") can never be shown too much as far as I'm concerned.

The BBC have been entering the spirit of things by repeating two great programmes on BBC2 of a morning. First, Wainwright Walks, where party animal Julia Bradbury (did you see her on Come Dine With Me? That girl is wild) hikes all over the Lake District. Lovely relaxing stuff, though for obvious reasons I preferred her Railway Walks series.

Right after it they've been showing the complete series of Great Railway Journeys, which I've series linked. Now I have to be honest: they're not all great. This may be a personal thing, but watching Timmy Mallett take the Paraguayan Express (or whatever) has a limited appeal for me. Yes, it's very pretty, but after a while it just becomes scenery to me. It's hard to relate to the Lake Titicaca Sleeper because it's such an alien experience.

However, on Tuesday morning (the 29th December), they are showing Victoria Wood going from Crewe to Crewe. I've mentioned this before because, quite frankly, it's amazing. HRH Victoria Wood travels around the country in the dying days of British Rail, meeting drunken Scotsmen, heading to Thurso (and turning around again), and going to Woolworths to see if the Pick 'n' Mix is different to the stuff back home. It's funny, it's clever, it's heartfelt, and I strongly urge you all to watch it. It'll ring a bell for anyone who's been stranded at Crewe, or travelled on a crappy diesel out into the wilds, or has waited on a wet platform for a train that never came. Record it. Treasure it. At the very least it should help erase the memory of that awful special she did on Christmas Eve (and how it pains me to say that). At least there are no dodgy jokes about crinoline or fat people dancing for your amusement.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Ho. Ho. And indeed - ho.

The Merseyrail tree at Lime Street, bringing a bit of festive cheer to your commute. Merry Christmas!

Thursday 10 December 2009

Riddle Me This

Actually, Catwoman was always my favourite Bat-villain, but if I'd put "Pussy Me This" I'd have ended up on all sorts of dodgy search results.

Anyway. There's a new website sweeping the nation (and by "nation" I do of course mean "Twitter"), called Formspring. Like much on the net, it seems to be completely pointless. All you do is ask someone a question and they'll answer it. After a while, though, it begins to get addictive, and soon everyone is swapping inane questions and getting smart arse replies.

Never one to miss a bandwagon, I've leapt on board, and you can find my Formspring page here. Feel free to ask me anything you like and I'll do my best to answer it, though I reserve the right to make sarcastic remarks, especially if the questions are a bit dirty. But I'll answer anything; Merseyrail related, train related, my shoe size, pin number, anything at all. Remember the words of the Great Sage:

"I will now take questions from the floor. I don't mind what they are. They can be as serious, intellectual, thought-provoking as you like. Yes you - the lady with the split ends..."

(First person to name the Great Sage gets a gold star).

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Thick Head

I'm currently working my way through a hangover. Last night Robert and I went out for a meal and a couple of drinks, and the couple of drinks turned out to be a couple of bottles of wine. Each. It all ended up a bit messy, anyway.

On the plus side, I finally got a look at the new M to Go in Liverpool Central. It's very impressive; plenty of space inside, light and airy. There's a nice big range of food and drinks though unlike Southport, no bakery.

Nice tree, too. Its glam modernity does look a little bit out of place in the Seventies-o-rama of Central, though. Sort of like R2-D2 in a Jane Austen.

Call me cynical, but I very much doubt all six of those tills will ever be in use. Even in the old Central ticket office, I don't think all the windows were open. And those terminals that let you surf the Merseyrail website are cool as well.

Oh, who am I kidding? I have absolutely no memory of visiting Central. I only realised I'd been there when I saw the pictures on my phone. The M to Go could be staffed entirely by hobbits and smell like an inside out dog and I would have no clue. I'll have to go back when I'm a bit more sane to make sure it isn't actually vile.

So here's your lesson, kids: don't end up looking like this.

You'll only regret it in the morning.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Electric Dreams

Christmas shopping: don't you just love it? Well, no actually. It's expensive, it's difficult, it's time consuming. If you go into town to buy things, you end up being wedged into queue after queue and have to spend most of your time avoiding the urge to smack various people in the face. Then you get home and find that you bought the wrong things anyway, but by that point you no longer care, so Auntie Barbara gets that Girls of the Playboy Mansion skinny t-shirt even if she is 94 because you can't be bothered going out and getting her a replacement. And then you have to wrap the bloody things, which takes about four hours, so that someone can rip the paper off in ten seconds and discard all your hard work in the recycling. Christmas shopping is clearly rubbish.

So, like many sensible people, I turned to the wonders of the internet to do my shopping. Marvellous; sat in bed in my pants buying things without a care in the world, sipping on a cup of tea and noshing on digestives. Infinitely preferable.

Until it comes to receiving the hundreds of packages, at which point the system rather falls down. So this morning, little red card in hand, I had to drag myself out in the wind and rain to make my way to Prenton sorting office to pick up my Godson's Christmas present. Since I now have the stirrings of a cold, I hope the little darling is suitably appreciative.

It did give me a chance to take a few photos of Merseyrail's possible future, however. Back when I finished the Borderlands Line, in October, I didn't really go into the electrification plans for it. It doesn't take a genius to work out that this line running from Wrexham to Bidston would be a whole lot more useful - and profitable - if the trains could carry on through Birkenhead and into Liverpool city centre. Unfortunately, since the line is diesel only - and diesel trains are prevented from running on the Loop - that's never going to happen.

Bringing the line into the Merseyrail network is a priority for Merseytravel and the other stakeholders along its length. There have been various studies into it which have concluded that yes, it would be a fantastic idea, but have you seen how much it will cost? The estimates in the last study were a lot more than anyone expected, and so everyone looked a bit embarrassed and shuffled off.

The basic plan would see the line continue as it is, just with Merseyrail trains instead of Arriva ones, calling at the existing stations. However, one new station will almost certainly be built with electrification, and that's the one at Woodchurch. This is the station site down the road from the sorting office; hence why I had all that pre-amble about Christmas, and hence why I had a look at the proposed site this morning.

The reason Woodchurch is such a priority for the new line can be summed up in one word: interchange. It has the potential to be a real boon, and possibly one of the busiest stations on the Wirral, once it's completed.

At the moment, admittedly, it doesn't look like much.

A scraggy bit of field next to the railway line, currently used by various amateur football clubs for Sunday league football. Not too promising.

However, look to the left, and you see this:

That's junction three of the M53, the motorway connecting Liverpool, Chester, and all the towns in between just about visible in the dip.

Look to the right, and you see this:

That's the A552, or the Woodchurch Road, pretty much the main east-west road on the Wirral. It runs from Birkenhead town centre, through Prenton (with Tranmere Rovers and the local shopping centre), past the Woodchurch estate before ending up at Arrowe Park Hospital. It's one of the main bus corridors on the whole peninsular, and is always busy. Apart from when I take a picture obviously.

In short, stick a nice park and ride here, and you could get traffic off the motorway, traffic off the local streets, and a new bus interchange into the bargain. You'd also bring Merseyrail services to Prenton, one of the very few areas this side of the Mersey that doesn't have a handy rail service into Liverpool. Everyone's a winner baby, that's no lie.

The potential station is such a no-brainer, and such an asset, that Merseytravel have even considered just electrifying the couple of miles to reach here, terminating the Wrexham trains even further away from Liverpool. Understandably, the councils in Wales are less keen on that idea, and are working with the PTE to try and get the whole line done at once.

Given the huge costs involved, it won't happen for a few years at least. There's a debate about whether third rail electrification (like the rest of Merseyrail) is what's needed, or whether it would be better to have overhead electrification with new rolling stock capable of going on both types. Merseytravel have even floated the idea of the diesel trains terminating on the currently unused platform at James Street, and therefore not having to go through the Loop at all, as an "on the cheap" way of doing it. Whichever way it happens, it would be good to see the network expand, especially with a nice gleaming station just down the road from me...

(By the way, to get these photos, I had to walk across this footbridge:

Given that I suffer from vertigo, I hope you realise the sacrifice I made for you, gentle readers. It was also blowing a gale which whipped at my coat and made me think I was about to be hurled onto the motorway. It was utterly terrifying. You see what I do for you people?)

Thursday 19 November 2009

Ten Things I Hate About You

There are ten rubbish train stations in Britain, according to the inappropriately named Lord Adonis. "Just ten?" the nation cries, and then moves into the standard whinge about British Rail sandwiches and Virgin Rail lateness. As it turns out, a lot of the worst stations in Britain are on my beat, and where they're not part of the Merseytart project, they actually turn out to be places I know. Some of them.

Manchester Victoria (1st) - the worst station in Britain, apparently, though personally I'd dispute that. The problem with Victoria is that it has the massive bulk of the MEN Arena squatting over it, taking away all the light. In addition, downgrading some of the platforms to tram stops has robbed it of a bit of its purpose. It still has a load of fantastic, Victorian features though, as I saw when I visited. It's just a shame it will never be a gleaming beacon of sunshine and light, and that Piccadilly up the road shows it up something rotten.

Clapham Junction (2nd) - I had an ex who lived just to the south of London, in Surrey, and there were a few times when I passed through here as an alternative to Victoria. And dear God, yes, it is a dump. It's just a spread of what seem like a thousand different platforms with a dank, piss scented tunnel running underneath. I'm hoping that the arrival of Overground services in the near future might make them improve but I'm not holding my breath. It is, after all, a junction, just a place where lines cross and cross again, and it's hard to make all that railway land look pretty.

Crewe (3rd) - I know way more about this station than many of the others, thanks to a year working there, and I have to say, yes, it needs a lot of work. Considering it's one of the most famous stations in the country, and one that practically everyone has been through at some point, there's almost nothing in the way of customer facilities. I have a lot of fondness for WH Smith - I used to work for them - but they're the only shop in the entire station, so if you want anything more than a Twix and a People's Friend, you're stuffed. The alternative is to eat in the distinctly below par looking buffet, or have a pint in the bar. Whither Costa? Whither Cafe Nero? And getting into the station is a nightmare - one narrow little access road out front with a busy road bridge to cross. Rubbish, quite frankly.

Warrington Bank Quay (4th) and Wigan North Western (7th) - I haven't been to these ones yet, though they are on the Merseytart list. Actually that's not true - I went to Wigan North Western about seven years ago, for work, and I remember it being a brick box staircase that lead up to platforms, and there was nowhere to sit. However, that was a long time ago, so I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. It might have improved since then. Open mind, people! Open mind!

Preston (6th) - this one baffled me, as I thought Preston station was lovely when I went to visit. Reading the report a bit more it seems that the problem is to do with disabled access and women's toilets, neither of which, I have to admit, are top of my list of priorities. It seems a bit harsh to make it the sixth worst station in Britain though just because the ladies have to queue for a pee.

Luton (8th) - ah, dear, sweet Luton; land of my fathers, place of my birth, the station which I have been through more than any other one on the list thanks to a misspent youth which meant I could hop a train from Leagrave to Luton and not have to pay (I apologise, British Rail). Luton station really is a complete bomb site, and I'm saying this through nostalgia goggles, so you can imagine what someone who's not from the town thinks. It's cold, it's wet, it's built in a trough between High Town and the Town Centre which means there are constantly gale force winds whipping through it. Access is via a footbridge which is only used by people who like being accosted by the homeless or raped. It's also the site of my first experience of petty crime, when two men tried to mug me after I'd been to see Legends of the Fall. While my friend John ran off, I went into indignant Lady Bracknell mode, disgusted that someone should attempt to try and get me to hand over my wallet, and after a brief scuffle they decided it was more trouble than it was worth and buggered off. I count that as a victory, but still, it does show how bad the station is. Since they built Luton Airport Parkway, it's made it look even worse - that's a bright, cheerful station with plenty of seats and glass and a coffee shop. Luton has a WH Smith and one of those terrible on-platform buffets that is always, always empty, probably because no-one likes to squat on formica. I did go in there once to buy a cup of tea, and it was ridiculously expensive, tasted of warm soot, and burnt my tongue.

When I was young, before the Lockerbie and 9/11 tragedies, I used to fantasise about a plane from the airport crashing into the town centre, obliterating everything within the ring road (including the station and the Arndale Centre) so that architects would get a chance to start all over again. That's the only way you can make Luton station better. Obliteration.

Liverpool Central (9th) - this one's another that's a bit unfair. The station, as a whole, isn't that bad. It's not a toilet with some trains attached, it's just very, very busy. Ridiculously busy. Dangerously busy. Have you ever been on the Northern Line platforms on a Saturday? It's terrifying. You're just waiting to be shoved under the wheels of a Kirkby train. Fixing Central will take a lot of money, as it's more than just a cosmetic job; there needs to be at least one more platform, possibly two, because someone's going to end up dying. That'll cost a lot more than whatever share of the £50million the station ends up getting, however.

I haven't been to Barking (5th) or Stockport (10th), though bizarrely, I'm now tempted to do so just to complete the set. In all cases except Luton, they're not terrible; just flawed in one or two ways, in need of a bit of TLC. And cash. They'll be fine then.

Luton, though, is and always will be a hole. Sorry.

Saturday 24 October 2009

Borderlines. Seems like I'm going to lose my mind.

Parkgate is ridiculously pretty. It really is. It was the port on the Wirral in the 18th century, and the buildings around the quay dates from that era. The Dee silted up, and it seems that when the waters abandoned the town, so did everyone else; double yellow lines aside, it feels like a perfect little 18th century quayside. You keep expecting Meryl Streep as the French Lieutenant's Woman to come sweeping up in a big cloak.

The marsh that was left behind is now a nature reserve, because of the huge quantities of rare birds and so on that have made their home here. Twice a year, when the high tides come in, the residents of the grasses all flee to the land. It sounds scenic, but I bet it involves an awful lot of rodents swarming up over the sea wall.

I followed the quayside along, wondering if I should risk one of the pubs for some food. It was lunchtime, and I was in that borderline state between being hungry and just wanting to eat because I suspected by the time I was hungry I'd be miles from anywhere. I wasn't tempted to try Parkgate's most famous export, its home-made ice-cream; there are many things I will do to add local colour to this blog but guzzling a ninety-nine in October isn't one of them. There were quite a few tourists around, even at this time, or so I thought; closer inspection revealed that they were in fact birdwatchers. The difference between a tourist and a birdwatcher is that a tourist has a little digicam dangling on a rope on their neck. A birdwatcher has the kind of industrial-sized surveillance equipment you can only buy from decommissioned army bases in the former Warsaw Pact. They skulked over their enormous lenses, protecting them from the spotty rain with hunched shoulders and the back of their jackets, while their buttocks slowly became moist on the camping stool they'd brought with them.

Even though the pubs looked reasonable enough, they all had signs outside like "toilets are for patrons ONLY" and "food ONLY served between 12 and 2" and "children are welcome in the REAR" which summoned up images of harsh Hattie Jacques-like landladies leaning over a plate of egg and chips with a look of disdain. I decided I wasn't that hungry, really, and pressed on until I got to the opposite end, feeding on the view of Wales in the distance instead.

At the end of the quayside, the road twists to the right, and heads back towards the main Chester road. I'd planned on using this to get back on schedule and to head towards Heswall, but by the side of the Boat House pub I saw a green pedestrain sign for the not at all amusingly named Gayton. In the spirit of adventure, and because, let's face it, I didn't have anything else to do with my time, I took this path instead.

I should pause a moment to explain that I hadn't really planned on doing so much walking. Well, not so much off-road walking. I'd used Google Maps to look at the route and it had seemed like pavements all the way so, foolishly, I'd slipped on a pair of canvas trainers instead of a nice pair of stout Doctor Martens. This had been okay on the pavement of Neston, less good, but still acceptable on the gravelly path of the Wirral Way, but was now a bit of a major mistake on the way to Gayton. Their thin soles meant that I could feel every contour of the stone beneath my feet, and they had little to no purchase on the slippy surface.

Tottering slightly, I carried on along the stones. It was incredibly peaceful. Even the birds seemed to be on their lunch break. All there was was a little breeze coming across the grass, and the rustle of the trees around me.

My reverie was broken by a braying laughter. The trees to my right had thinned and opened out into a grassy field. No, not a field; a golf course. Oh dear. Golf courses are a pet hatred of mine. Not only because they take up huge swathes of land and seal it off to the public, not only because people who join a golf club are usually wankers, but also because it really is the most pointless sport. Knocking a ball around with a stick, then having to walk half a mile before doing it all over again. Yawn. The only good game of golf ever was between James Bond and Goldfinger, and even then the supervillain had to cheat to make it a bit interesting.

These three seemed to definitely be from the "wanker" school of golfers, noisily laughing and clattering around. I shouldn't be so unfair; they were out enjoying themselves, why shouldn't they make a racket? I just resented them for intruding on my afternoon.

I was halfway down the path when I realised it wasn't actually a path; it was a wall. I was actually walking the old sea wall, the line of where the Dee had once gone before it had made its long and undistinguished retreat into the distance. I'm embarrassed by how long it took me to twig this.

Finally the path/wall turned to the right and, just avoiding a man and his two dogs who looked pretty surprised to see someone else round here, I was down some steps and onto a proper roadway again. Looking back I could see that this must have been a slipway, a couple of hundred years ago; I felt a bit like Tony Robinson uncovering historical secrets.

Now it was just an uphill slog through the only funny if you're puerile village of Gayton. Gayton is one of those incredibly wealthy pockets of the Wirral; it's where footballers come to rest with their BMWs and their wags. It oozes wealth and affluence from every tree lined driveway to every clock towered garage to every intercom guarded entrance gate - though of course, some gates are still more impressive than others:

The plan had been to go into Heswall proper to have a coffee, but I was too tired and sweaty by now. Besides, Heswall was the location of my worst ever job interview, ten years ago, an interview so bad I had actually left it and gone and vomited in the public toilets because I was so overcome with embarrassment and horror at what had gone on. It's therefore got negative connotations, so instead I skirted the edge of the town and nipped into the Devon Doorway pub for a pint and something to eat.

I should have realised that when a pub describes its offerings as a "dining experience" it's not going to give you a couple of prawn baps with some cheese and onion crisps on the side. Inside, the pub was all polished copper and curved wood and "Moet Chandon by the glass". I ordered a pint of John Smiths and hid in a quiet corner while the waitresses dashed around serving meals of elegantly proportioned Modern British cuisine. I was a mess, physically drained and covered with sweat, and there was no way I was in the mood for three courses of scallops and lamb. I just wanted something cheap and simple, but even the crisps were the handcooked types that boast about how healthy they are on the front and taste like a piece of bark inside.

I drank my beer, made a few notes in my journal, then walked out and up the hill towards Heswall station. When there were two lines running through the town, it was known as Heswall Hills, and a milepost still referred to it by this name. They opportunistically changed it when the other Heswall station closed, but Heswall Hills would actually be a better name, since the station is about as far out of the town as it's possible to get.

We're back in Merseyside now, though, so there was the familiar yellow and grey of a box sign to greet me at the top of the hill:

I popped into a little One Stop supermarket by the station and bought myself a pack of chicken sandwiches and a Private Eye, and I sat on the wooden platform and polished them off. Heswall was recently given a face lift by Arriva Trains Wales, though what this means in practical terms is they put down a new layer of tarmac on the platform and made sure all the signs had the turquoise stripe. It's not exactly scenic, which is strange for a town which prides itself on being a cut above.

Down on the street, however, there's a little remnant of what used to be; the old ticket office, bricked up and abandoned and graffiti'd. There's no human presence at Heswall at all now - you have to buy your ticket on the train - and it seemed a shame that this little house for the ticket seller was forlornly squatting by the road.

Eventually the train turned up. They're only one an hour on this line, less on a Sunday, and once again I gave thanks for the wonders of Merseyrail and it's minimum of 15 minute frequencies. It was barely worth me sitting down though, because I was off again at Upton, and nearly home. I got the station sign and really, that should have been it. There's no station building at all at Upton - it was all demolished when the M53 was built through here and the road system was improved, and a Somerfield now sits on the old goods yard. All there is is a dual carriageway and the steps down to the platform.

There is a little bit of railway history around here, however, though it's of a much more recent vintage. The road signs round here pointing to the station all include the old green "Merseyrail" symbol, the one introduced in the seventies when the Loop line was built. It used to be everywhere, on the trains, the stations, the timetables; but it's been overtaken by the yellow M pretty much everywhere, and the old sign has disappeared. For some reason though, here in Upton, it still hangs on. Perhaps it's because Upton isn't a proper Merseyrail station, it's somehow missed the attentions of the Colour Tsars. Still, it's a great little bit of Merseyrail history to see. Perhaps they'll leave it as a tribute to the old days. Or perhaps, even as I type, there are a load of little men on their way out there with some yellow paint.

Collecting Upton station meant that I'd got the whole of the Borderlands Line; another grey route to cross off the map. Someday, possibly, this might be part of Merseyrail proper, and you'll be able to get a train from Wrexham through to Liverpool city centre. It's still a dream at the moment, but I sort of like that; I like its outcast status. It does mean that there are only three stations left on the entire peninsular for me to get now - Bromborough Rake, Bromborough and Eastham Rake. I'll leave them for a while longer, though. I'm not quite ready to say goodbye to the Wirral.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Two Station Roads* (*actual stations not included)

Looking back over the last couple of months it's become clear that while I have whittered on just as much as before - even more in fact - I've done less and less actual tarting. I'm sorry about this deviation from the blog's remit, and I'm going to try and get things back on course. That's not to say I won't still wander down some random avenue now and then, but hopefully I'll be able to slot in a few more trips than I have been doing.

I was keen to go out this week, while the weather is still passable and while the kids are still in school. A couple of plans to go out to far flung corners of the City Line fell through, for one reason or another, so I finally settled on finishing off the Borderlands Line, the artist formerly known as the Mid-Wirral Line, which stretches from Bidston to Wrexham. Luckily most of the line isn't on the Merseyrail map, so I wouldn't have to end up in the Welsh hinterlands at lonely halts on the side of mountains, and I'd completed the bottom couple of stations months ago. This would constitute the last of the English stations on the line - Neston, Heswall and Upton.

The train wheezed and clattered and moaned its way up to speed, finally reaching maximum velocity somewhere around Beechwood. At which point it immediately had to shift down a gear again so that it could stop at Upton. According to the timetables, Upton's a request only stop, but the train stopped anyway despite no-one getting on or off. It makes sense; Upton is still very much in Birkenhead's suburban sprawl, and it is bound to be busier than some of the other request stops like Penn-Y-Ffordd. After the brief pause, we carried on down the Wirral, and I couldn't resist peering down into the back gardens from the embankment as we passed by. I'm a terrible voyeur. There was nothing exciting to spot in the tiny postage stamp spots of green that lay behind the new build houses along the route - a woman having a cheeky fag, strings of moist washing, and an awful lot of trampolines.

The train moved out into the countryside then, and the housewives were replaced by horses, and brick box houses by tin barns. One more stop, at Heswall, and then I was jumping off at Neston. All the stations on the line are the bus stop type - just a shelter on the platform, with no ticket facilities. Neston's been DDA'd to death, and getting down to the street involves a run down a Mouse Trap of ramps to get there.

There was a nice little surprise in the tunnel under the platforms; a mural, obviously designed by local schoolchildren, showing the Liverpool skyline and its landmarks. It was ok, though the Echo Arena looked like a crab, and the Yellow Submarine is so close to the Superlambbanana's backside it looks like a comically shaped turd. I also thought: where's the Wrexham mural on the other wall? Surely there should be one showing all the landmarks at the other end of the line, like... erm... well, I'm sure there's something.

We're not in Merseyside here, but instead in the brief sliver of Cheshire between the Wirral and Wales, so the station sign was just a bog-standard BR one. I was disappointed to see that if I'd come a day later I'd have been able to visit Neston's brand new Aldi, right next to the station. So. Very. Disappointed.

Neston's quite a nice, pretty little market town. There's the obligatory Tesco Metro, of course, and the banks, but apart from that there seemed to be a few local businesses, and at twelve o'clock on a Wednesday, it felt like it was pleasantly bustling. I queued up at the cash machine for some spends behind an ignorant cyclist who was oblivious to the people waiting behind him. Here's a little tip for you, mate; you need your cash card to get access to an ATM. As such, it might be an idea to extract it from deep inside your lycra shorts before you get to the machine, instead of rustling around inside them for five minutes and making all the people waiting behind you gag.

(The Racecourse Ground! Home to Wrexham FC! They could have done a mural of that. There, that's all my Wrexham knowledge exhausted.)

I'd planned on taking one of the main roads out of the town to my next stop, but at the last minute I had a change of heart, and instead I headed through the town centre to Station Road. Satnav users headed for Neston, be warned; the train station is not on Station Road. In fact, there's not much on Station Road at all, except for an old people's home and the entrance to the Wirral Country Park.

(That's probably why they can't be bothered cleaning the sign). Readers with very long memories might remember that I visited the Country Park once before, when I went to the preserved station building at Hadlow Road. This was a stop on the old Hooton-West Kirby line, the line that disappeared in the Beeching cuts and was subsequently resurrected as the Wirral Way, Britain's first Country Park. Neston South station once stood along here, before being demolished and having a load of houses built on top of it in the sixties. Now all that's here is a car park and an elaborate red-painted bridge to take you over the road and onto the path proper.

The walls of the bridge are etched with a couple of verses, apparently as part of the Millennial improvements (the Wirral Way is also part of the National Cycle Network). Heading towards Neston, you have:

Billowing steam floats to the sky
From the steam train passing by

while heading away from the town there's:

Clickerty clop
Crunching leaves
Whisper of breeze
How quiet and calm.

It's a bit "back page of the People's Friend", but it was probably done by local schoolchildren or something. That would explain the incorrect spelling of "clickety" anyway. If it was an Andrew Motion original I'll be very disappointed. I like the past/present theming though, different depending on which way you are going.

I crunched onto the pathway. Because it's part of the cycle route, it's been nicely tarmacced, so it was a pleasant surface to walk on. The path curves away from the town so I was pushed into peace and quiet fairly quickly. Running alongside the cement road was a soft earth bridleway, dotted with Jurassic Park-like hoofprints.

It was strange to think that this had once been a railway line, because it didn't seem to want to go anywhere very quickly. The Borderlands line travels through a lot of countryside en route, but it was saved from Beeching because of its usefulness for freight to the Birkenhead docks. This line had no saving graces though, just a few country halts, and walking it now it was hard to see what kind of service you could possibly have got out of it.

Under a bridge, I saw how wide the trackbed really was. I also encountered someone else on the path for the first time, two women walking dogs. They both carried leads in their left hand and blue baggies filled with faeces in their right. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I will never have a dog. I will do many things for a pet; brush it, feed it, walk it, but I refuse to pick up its freshly laid excrement and carry it around with me like a Cath Kidston handbag. I will get a dog the day I can afford to have someone follow me around to do the poop scooping for me.

On I trotted, taking in the day. It's been weeks since I walked quite so much, and my body was quite unused to it; my calves were already starting to strain, and a dark stain of sweat was spreading across the front of my hoodie. Despite it being mid-October, and the skies churning darkly above me, there was still enough warmth for me to do without a coat. I leapt out of the way of two old dears on bikes, gossiping loudly in lieu of having a bell, and clearly far too busy to do anything resembling a Cycling Proficiency Test, and then the Wirral Way broke for another Station Road, this time in Parkgate.

There were actually two stations at Parkgate. The first was the original terminus for the line from Hooton, then a bridge was built across the road and a new station was built on the north side. Nothing remains of the stations now, or the bridge. There is, however, a memorial to the old railway, built at the entrance to a new cul-de-sac. It's the wrong gauge (and God, how things have progressed that I even spotted that!) but it's nice to see none the less.

I could, at that point, have continued on the Wirral Way all the way to Heswall; after all, that was the next stop on the old railway line. However, I was bored with taking the back routes, and I wanted a change of scenery, so I turned and headed down into Parkgate proper. I knew I was moving up in the world, just from the state of the road sign. This one was clean...

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Shop Till You Drop

A little visit to Liverpool yesterday gave me the opportunity to poke my nose in at Central again, to see what's happening with the works there. Things have certainly moved on, and it looks like they're approaching completion. In fact, there's only a few weeks before it gets finished.

It's pleasing to note that the hoardings are listing a Travel Centre and an M to Go are being built. The Travel Centres at the Queen Square and Liverpool 1 bus stations are very good examples of passenger information facilities, and it would be good to see this carried over to the Merseyrail stations for a change.

The building's nearly completed and it looks good, slotted into the ticket hall. Grey and yellow are fully in evidence of course. It's also good to notice that the plans incorporate three ticket machines, which should cut down on the queues.

I was at Central waiting for a friend, and it gave me a chance to see just how busy the station gets. Even on a Tuesday lunchtime, there were loads of passengers streaming through in both directions. Annoyingly, very few people were using the ticket gates. Even the ones with paper tickets were wafting them in the direction of the inspectors. That never fails to wind me up.

I was a bit bored of waiting, so I wandered down the passageway to Lewis' department store. It's pretty impressive that they managed to get this direct link to their store built into the booking hall - even Selfridges couldn't get London Underground to do that at Bond Street. I'd never been down the link before, and I was disappointed at how tawdry it was. I know Lewis' has gone through a lot of problems over the years, but still; this valuable pedestrian link leads into the back end of the bedding department, through ugly fire doors, and it feels like you've ended up in the store's abandoned bowels. I half expected Autons to lurch out of the walls at me. On the plus side, there are advanced plans for the whole Lewis' building to be refurbished into a new development, similar to the Printworks in Manchester, and I should imagine the direct link will be extremely valuable.

The saving grace was the blue painted passageway itself, which incorporated a nice gold relief image of the Liver Bird. There's probably an interesting blog to be written, finding all the hidden Liver Birds throughout the city centre; there must be hundreds tucked away all over the place. Someone else'll have to write that one though. I've got my hands full already.

Sunday 11 October 2009

Best Laid Plans

I've done something rather silly. In a moment of what I can only describe as Merseyrail related insanity, I've paid good money for a station sign.

You might remember I spotted Sandhills' abandoned "M" sign by the bins at the station last time I was there. Because I have too much time on my hands, I put in an e-mail to Merseytravel, asking what they were going to do with it and, if it was alright, could I have it? I clicked send and, to be honest, I forgot about it.

Two weeks ago, I got a bemused phone call from a man in Rail Services at Merseytravel. He first established that I wasn't, well, taking the piss; then asked me to make him an offer. It seems they don't get many people offering to buy their cast offs so after a bit of half-hearted haggling, I agreed to make a donation to the Claire House Hospice, and it was mine.

The Bf and I went to the station yesterday to pick up my booty in our car. I never knew it was possible to drive through clenched teeth, but he managed it. He was all for me getting the sign when he didn't think it was going to happen, but now he's realised he's going to have to share his home with a big lump of steel, it's not gone down well. I've only managed to subdue him by promising that I'll stick it in my study in the cellar so he won't have to look at it.

I went to the ticket office, and, slightly embarrassedly, explained why I was there. The man behind the counter took it in his stride, and took the opportunity to light up a massive stogie as he walked me down to the bin store so I could get it.

You know in Father Ted, when Ted explains perspective to Dougal?

It seems I needed a lesson of my own. The sign, in my head, was only about a metre high. In reality... was as tall as me, and twice as wide. And suddenly fitting it into our Honda Accord looked impossible, even once the seats were folded down. It was just too wide. I had to put the sign back, and shamefacedly inform the station supervisor that we'd have to come back another day. My Sunday is now going to be spent looking at our van hire options.

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time...

Sunday 27 September 2009

Under Par

I'm in the middle of a drug shift. The 400,000 pills I used to take are being rationalised and cut down to a more manageable quantity, and as a result I've spent much of the past week in a sort of vague haze. My drug cocktail will hopefully be concentrated down to a drug single malt within a few weeks.

It means that this week's tart is a bit... vague. The first half, anyway. I was in what is known to mental health experts as a "flooby" mood, and so I turned up at Ainsdale with only half of my brain active. This was really not giving Ainsdale its due: it had an ALF, for the first time in simply yonks, and it seemed like a nice enough station.

I don't know what was going on, but I just didn't feel Ainsdale as a station. It was like it had all the perfect ingredients, but they hadn't been mixed right. It was a lot like Freshfield, which I visited nearly two years ago, but it was missing that essential je ne sais quoi that made it perfect. Perhaps it was just that, in my random state of mind, I couldn't quite get a decent me + sign photo, and so this is the best I could manage:

I apologise for the facial hair.

Ainsdale itself, though, was very nice. There were a few cafes, suitable for ladies who lunch, a deli, a well patronised Post Office; it was everything you'd expect from one of Merseyside's most middle class centres. This is Golf Country: I'd already passed the Formby Ladies Club on the train, and between the railway line and the coast was the Open-hosting Royal Birkdale Golf Club. In short, if you've ever used the phrase "political correctness gone mad" you'll fit right in.

I was in Ainsdale for more than tarting purposes. In truth, I was here for a meeting of the Friends of the 502.

Before I explain this, I feel I should issue a caveat. I have said it before, but I'm not a train nerd. With the sole exception of the 508 110 train (which WILL be mine someday), I could not give a monkeys what class of train I'm on. The whole Merseytart experience is based around train stations because that's where my architectural interest lies, and I'm really not at all bothered by what kind of train I'm riding and whether it has hydraulic brakes or a double coupling or if it runs on diesel. So long as it gets me there, I'm happy. Also, the word "bogie" turns up far too often for me to take trains completely seriously.

However, there are some causes which attract my attention, and so it is with the 502. This is the last surviving electric train from the pre-Merseyrail days, before the current trains were shipped in, and it's dying. The National Railway Museum own the train but through years of bad storage and neglect, it's become a rotting husk of metal, and the NRM has decided they haven't got the room for it.

A band of enthusiastic volunteers have banded together to form the Friends of the 502, and they've been successful in saving the train from the axe and have found storage for it in Tebay. Now comes the difficult work of restoring the train to something resembling its former glory, with the hoped-for aim of getting it running on the Merseyrail network on special occasions.

It's still early days, but I signed up for membership and offering what little skills I have to the cause (I'm not sure if they have much call for slightly sarcastic writers in the railway construction industry, but I'm right there if I'm needed). The group was holding its AGM at a model railway exhibition in Birkdale to lend my support (for which read: sit quietly at the back and hope I'm not noticed).

I paid my entrance fee (sadly, 502 membership didn't grant free entry, like a Blue Peter badge) and wandered into the exhibition. What is it with men and trains? I found myself wondering this over and over as I wandered around. The age range went from barely out of nappies to just into adult nappies, and all of them were rapt with pleasure at the various different layouts on display. I admit, some of them were beautiful; one of a London Underground station particularly fascinated me. The smell was the musky scent of hobbyists; of men who spent a lot of time in the shed or the attic. Any women present were either sexless converts to the cause or assuming that slightly wide-eyed look of faked interest as little Raymond pointed out another model traction engine.

At 2, a dozen members of the 502 group (including friend of the Merseytart and group treasurer Robert) congregated in the dining hall of the school for the AGM. The smell of dining halls is exactly the same as when I was a boy, incidentally; minced beef and fat. So much for Jamie Oliver cleaning them all up. I couldn't contribute very much to the meeting, partly through shyness, partly through ignorance, partly through not being able to hear half the speakers above the general hubbub of the hall, but it was nice to meet people and it felt positive to be there and support the cause. It would be a terrible shame if the train was allowed to dissolve into iron filings. (Donations gratefully received).

Once the meeting was over, Robert and I wandered off to collect Hillside station and go home. It was the day of the Southport air show, so the walk to the station was accompanied by the drone of World War Two fighter planes circling overhead. One bomber in particular seemed to be taking particular delight in swooping lower and lower until it started to get slightly unnerving.

As the ALF says, this is the closest station to Royal Birkdale. Perversely, there's a Birkdale station as well, which I think was probably just named to confuse the Americans. It had received more attention than other stations to make it gleam in time for the Open last year. This was especially pleasing as the station was one of those 1930s gems, and it had been lovingly restored. I cooed with delight at the enormous stone name plates outside:

I considered that the Tart, but Robert, stickler for tradition that he is, insisted that I should also be photographed under the Box M sign as well:

Inside, the Colour Tsars had been at work, of course, but with pleasing results, and the woodwork was sensitively restored. I especially liked the clear plastic roofing over the top of the steps, and the signs have been given the new corporate livery as well. In fact, I cooed over it so much, I began to feel a little bit guilty for paying so little attention to Ainsdale. I think I might have to make a return visit. Guilt is a terrible thing.