Monday 30 March 2009

Take that, Colour Tsars!

I have referred to the Colour Tsars many times in my posts. These are the men at Merseytravel who have issued a diktat that everything on the network must be grey and yellow. Benches, signs, staircases; all in the corporate colours, whether it's appropriate or not.

So I was amused to spot that someone at the Highways Department hasn't had the memo, and has put up a very wrong sign right on Moorfield's doorstep. You're getting a black and yellow M, and to hell with your Corporate Identity! Ha!

Sunday 22 March 2009

Thameslink loses a leg

Nothing to do with Merseyrail whatsoever; but as a former Lutonian, and regular user of Thameslink, I can't let the last Moorgate service pass without comment. I remember boarding a Thameslink train for the first time, and being shocked by how clean and modern it was, with its posh toilets and its outline diagrams of St Paul's on the wall. It became an intrinsic part of my life when I used to go up to London of a Friday afternoon to go to Old Compton Street. Sorry, did I say Old Compton Street? I meant the West End cinemas to watch frightfully intelligent films. With subtitles.

Anyway, the gist is: goodbye Moorgate and Barbican, and even though I'll miss you on the Thameslink map, I'm glad you're being sacrificed for a better world.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Being Boring

International Supertart! Well, sort of. Today's trip not only took me and the Bf out of our Merseyside comfort zone, but actually out of England: over the border into Wales. Well, I say, "our" comfort zone. In fact, the Bf was returning to his roots. We were headed for Deeside, where he grew up, and so this was a Tart for me, and a nostalgia trip for him.

To get there, we naturally had to take a train, so it was off to Bidston for a non-Merseyrail train. In fact, this is the first trip where I never once set foot on one of Merseyrail's finest - we drove to the station (lazy, but after last time we didn't want to risk it) and proceeded from there onto an Arriva train. It was eight thirty on a Saturday morning, ridiculously early for a weekend, but sadly necessary, as our first stop is only rarely served. Hawarden Bridge only gets four trains on Monday to Saturday, two in the morning and two in the evening, and none on a Sunday. In fact, it's so rarely served, you have to specifically ask for the train to stop. I've never been on a "request only" train before. It's a bit of an unusual experience, and, because I'm utterly neurotic, made me tense up. I was afraid the guard would forget, and we'd miss it altogether.

Fortunately he didn't. The Bf and I were the only people to alight at Hawarden Bridge, and when the train disappeared off over the river, we were left on the deserted platform. It was like we'd been given a train station to play with. We crossed the tracks, by literally walking over them - another first for me, and a bit unnerving. When I was at school we used to get the British Transport Police visiting what seemed like every other week to lecture us on the hazards of wandering on railway lines, and particularly the dangerous third rail. It's drilled into my head that if you go anywhere near a railway line 200,000 volts are likely to arc straight through the air, right up your trouser leg, and convert you into a charcoal briquette. Here, they were positively encouraging you to dance across the tracks. It enabled me to stand in the middle of the tracks and take a pic of the bridge itself. It was once a swing bridge, with the first, larger arch pivoting to allow ships past, but this is a feature which has long since fallen out of use.

Arriva Train Wales run an "Adopt a Station" scheme, encouraging local groups to join in with their community by caring for their local stations. Or alternatively, saving themselves a few bob by getting local pensioners and teenagers to do all the tidying up for them. Anyway, Frank Buxton is the Angelina Jolie of Hawarden Bridge station, and I'm mentioning this here because all I can say is, well done sir, and a mention in a barely-frequented blog in the corner of the internet is your reward.

Hawarden Bridge needs all the help it can get. Its purpose is to serve the massive Shotton steelworks, which spread all along the bank of the river here, but as you may have guessed from the somewhat erratic service patterns, there just isn't the demand anymore. At one point in the Sixties, 13,000 people worked in the steelworks; now it's less than a thousand. Obscure fact which bears only the slightest relation to the word "interesting": the Anderson Air Raid shelter was made here.

We crossed over the bridge, and wandered round in the grasses. There was a pillbox, which I immediately clambered onto. I have this compulsion that whenever I see a pillbox I have to stand on the roof - it's a sickness. I'd have been useless in the war. It formed a podium beneath me, and so naturally my thoughts turned to the massive statue of me which will be built once I have conquered the planet. I posed to allow the Bf to get the model right, ready to give to the thousands of slave workers to carve out of solid onyx; unfortunately, while in my head I was Lenin bringing the joys of socialism to the huddled masses, in reality I looked like Wayne Sleep calling for a taxi. I decided to postpone my reign of terror for a little bit longer until I could get the arms right.

I've always wondered whether pillboxes would be much use anyway. If a fleet of German battlecruisers were floating down the Dee, intent on capturing Saltney Ferry, would a bloke in a concrete bunker fragging them from a distance have been anything more than an irritation?

The pathways were surprisingly busy, considering it was silly o'clock on a Saturday morning. Dog walkers, cyclists, walking couples. But no fat people, because the local council wants to restrict their access to the footbridge - causing the peasants to revolt:

I have this terribly cruel, but terribly amusing image of a Billy Bunteresque schoolboy, sobbing as he scrawls his fevered protest, the bag of chips dripping vinegar down his sleeve and causing him to forget to put the "R" in government. Perhaps this is the first assault from a new outsized radical group? Like Fathers 4 Justice, only less likely to climb on a rooftop, for obvious reasons.

Back over the bridge again (the north bank is a more interesting walk than the south) and we passed the run down former HQ of John Summers & Son - the company that ran the steelworks before they were nationalised (and then privatised again). It was a fine example of Victorian braggardry, ornately tiled, with a beautiful entrance - and of course it was completely barred and unused. I imagine the admin offices for the steelworks are now in a bland cabin somewhere amongst the mills. They certainly don't swagger on the riverbank, the landmark clock tower reminding the locals that the steelworks even set the time round here. All gone. All that industry, just vanished. What have we replaced it with? A whole load of businesses that are intangible and barely there, things like shopping and finance, stuff that, as we are finding out, are only worth anything in the good times. Once it gets tough, you need skills and resources, and suddenly we don't seem to have any. (Insert "Bloody Thatcher" reference here).

Anyway, that's an extremely woolly unfocused lefty political point, which isn't really what I should be talking about. It's just the kind of thing that comes into your head when you see great things reduced to a shadow of their former selves.

The path along the river is on an embankment, high above the waterline, because we were on reclaimed land now. Back in the 18th Century, the Dee was silting up hopelessly, and the panic stricken men of the Port of Chester shipped in some Dutch engineers to try and sort it out. They carved a long, straight canal from the estuary into the city (with just a little kink round the rocks at Handbridge) to make the Dee navigable again. Behind it, they reclaimed the area now known as Sealand (clue's in the name).

It didn't do them any good. The river carried on silting up, and the port facilities progressed further and further up the Wirral coast until they ended up at West Kirby and realised there wasn't anywhere left to go. The shipping traffic transferred to the other side of the peninsula - over to Liverpool.

The legacy, though, was the tidal phenomenon of the Dee Bore. The Bf has been banging on about this for years - he was a Dee Bore about the Dee Bore, to be honest - and so I'd finally relented and suggested we see it on this trip. If I'm completely honest it was a sweetener to get him to come out with me in the first place, as I knew a 9 am weekend visit to Hawarden Bridge would be a hard sell.

The Dee Bore is the effect the waters take when the tide turns. This happens all the time, all around the world of course, but usually it's almost imperceptible. Where the volume turning is channelled into a small space, very quickly, then a bore is formed: a strong ridge of water that sweeps down the river. It's a pretty rare phenomenon, with perhaps the most famous one being the Severn Bore. Those Dutch engineers, in narrowing the river for their canal, created an environment where a bore could appear and flourish.

We took up our positions on the bank, under the Queensferry Bridge, and waited. Nothing was happening. The tide was still merrily going out, towards the sea. This wasn't meant to happen. We'd checked with the Proudman Laboratories website before setting out for the time the bore should have shown up, and it was late. I was unhappy with nature at this. It was cold, and grey, and I was stood on muddy grass; the least they could do was arrange for this natural phenomenon to arrive on time. Plus, the two of us looked like perverts. We looked like we'd clambered under the bridge with the express intent of committing some act of frottage, and the cyclists on the footpath kept giving us funny looks. I ensured there was a respectable distance between us.

Down in the river, a feather had stopped flowing with the tide, and was instead staying more or less still. The waters were shifting.

"There it is!" The Bf was suddenly pointing into the distance. I followed his finger, and saw what looked like a few waves bouncing off the base of the old swing bridge. Except, the waves formed a line, across the width of the river. On the bank, the waves turned into a white rolling mass, that scared a flock of seagulls into the air.

Full disclosure: I was initially disappointed. In my head, the bore had built up and up and up, until it resembled that tidal wave in The Day After Tomorrow that swamps the Statue of Liberty. I was expecting a full on, roaring beast of a tsunami, and this was just a wave with pretensions.

As it got closer, it impressed more and more. There was the noise, for one thing: a low, heavy grumble, like the ocean was reclaiming its territory and conquering the river. As it swept towards us, I began to feel a primitive instinct in me wanting to turn and run. I can only imagine what people made of the bore before they fully understood the tides; it must have seemed supernatural. It just kept coming, scaring the birds as it came.

In a Merseytart first, we have video!

It was on a cameraphone, alright? I have never been mistaken for Steven Spielberg (thankfully; having seen Temple of Doom, I don't think I could spend much time with Kate Capshaw without belting her in the jaw). It gives you an idea of what it looked like though, and I have to say, it's better in the flesh. You get that tingle of anticipation as it approaches, and this childish glee as it flows past you. The Bf told me that when he was growing up they would sit beside the river, waiting for it to come, and I can see why. The Famous Five would have done the same (in between patronising the working classes, foiling smugglers and telling people they were "jolly decent").

Finally the bore passed us, leaving whitewashed foam in its wake, crashing under the bridge and moving on. It finally dies at the weir in Chester, at the point where the freshwater meets the seawater. A cleverer man than me would find some symbolism in that.

All bored out, we scrambled back up the bank in a frankly undignified fashion, and walked into Queensferry. On the way I was able to get a quick snap of the entrance to the former Queensferry station, the victim of Beeching cuts in 1966. Just a couple of bricked up doorways, but it was good to mentally tick it off the list.

The road between Queensferry and Shotton was absolutely choked with traffic; we were actually walking faster than the cars. We passed the Bf's old high school, then Deeside Comp, now John Summers High School after the steelworks owner, and a massive B & Q. Shotton station was in the town centre. This is the point where the Borderlands Line between Wrexham and Bidston crosses the mainline between Chester and North Wales. It's a prime interchange point. Which is why the Beeching cuts took away the low level Chester line platforms and got rid of any interchange potential. Sometimes you wonder what was going through people's heads when they planned the cuts. Eventually after lobbying from the Council they were able to restore the lower level station, but because British Rail had physically demolished the platforms, they had to spend another shedload of money building it all again.

Shotton station is never going to win any beauty contests. The Borderlands platforms are up on the viaduct, and the ticket office is built in a building that looks like a down at heel public toilet. Once again it was underlined how much better off Merseyrail is, with its integrated transport system and long term franchise. Even the station signs looked like they'd been printed on MS Word and stuck on the side of a lamp post.

Still, it's got a nice big sign, which is handy for Merseytart purposes.

That's the Welsh leg of the Merseytart journey done, and I can't say I'll be breaking my neck to go back: neither station exactly wowed me with its inspiring architecture.

I know spending your morning staring at a river probably isn't most people's idea of fun. I doubt it would make it to many people's "things to do before you die" lists. I'm striking a blow against that perception though. Ok, I wouldn't advocate going wildly out of your way to see it, but the Dee Bore was fascinating to watch, and certainly better than Saturday morning tv. Try it. You might like it.