Thursday 21 May 2009

The Past Is A Bucket of Ashes

The third and final leg of the Preston-Ormskirk line; apologies for taking so long to write all this up - nearly a month! Trust me, I have a very good excuse, and as soon as I think of it, I'll let you all know.

Burscough Junction wasn't just another tart for me - it was an exorcism. (Cue wibbly FLASHBACK effects). I'd been here once before, at a very bad, very unhappy point in my life, and now I was coming back to see it again.

It was towards the end of my first year at Edge Hill, and the whole college had wound down. We were in that nothing period before exams, where people were meant to be revising, but in fact they were using the time as a pre-holiday holiday. Certainly my friends were taking advantage. Most of them had gone home for family visits (i.e. to empty Mum's fridge and have their clothes washed), some had gone to stay with boyfriends and girlfriends, and at least one of them went to stay with some bloke she'd talked to on the internet and had never met.

I was 200 miles away from my mum's, so a visit was a bit of an expensive trip, and the grant and the student loan were almost gone. So I was left in my flat at Forest Court, the halls of residence, with my insufferably laddish flatmates who I'd barely spoken to since Christmas because, well, they were insufferably laddish.

On top of that, I was in the middle of a long distance romance with a guy who lived just south of London. Our relationship had gone from the "intense" stage, to the "indifferent" and was currently in the "unavailable" part - well, it was for him, anyway. I was 19 and still not savvy enough to notice that I'd basically been dumped. Instead, I pined, and left messages, and hoped for a call that never came. There was no-one for me to talk to on campus, and so I slipped into one of those dark, lonely times that sometimes creeps up behind you and engulfs you. I felt abandoned and alone. I actually went a couple of days without talking to anyone - not a deliberate silence, just never encountering a person I could talk to. Finally I snapped. And I walked.

I walked right out of town with no idea of where I was going. Looking back, a third of a life away, I can't help thinking, "were you mad? Where the hell were you going?" Actually I think I did have a mad moment then, a time where I wanted to take myself out of the world. So I just marched out of Ormskirk, on a road I'd never been down before, and I kept going. I am sure I was an extremely attractive sight that day, wandering down country roads, locked in a world of self-pity. Especially as I had Hugh Grant-esque floppy hair at the time.

Eventually, some tiny, tiny voice in the back of my head must have told me I couldn't do this all day, and before I wandered to Wigan, I somehow contrived to end up on the platform at Burscough Junction. A rare moment of sanity that day, which was subsequently lost as I sat on the bench on the platform and blubbed for half an hour until the train came. Just sobbed, like a housewife watching Beaches for the first time, thick, wet tears of unhappiness and misery.

And then the train came and I went home. And friends started drifting back, and we started going to the pub again, and hanging out in each other's rooms and listening to Blur and getting drunk. But Burscough Junction retained that echo for me, and stayed as a black mark on my mental Merseyrail map.

Returning here brought everything back, a great big wash of horrible emotions. It really hadn't changed. There was a bit of peppy purple Northern rail corporate identity, instead of the previous British Rail red, but otherwise it was all there. A bare platform, a scrubby car park, an abandoned station building hidden in the trees. It was all staggeringly familiar. The only thing that had changed was my fringe.

Except, now I was in a much better place in my life. Yes, bits of it suck pretty royally, and yes, I do still have problems and dark days. But I have good friends, and a great relationship, and a sense of belonging and contentment I didn't have then. The fact that I was going to now do the same journey in reverse - getting off a train at Burscough Junction, instead of boarding one, and walking into Ormskirk instead of out of it - well, the OCD part of my personality sort of liked the parallel.

Walking to Ormskirk hadn't been in my original plan: I'd collected it months ago. I'd planned on walking to Burscough Bridge, the little town's other station, and heading home via Southport or Wigan. But having come this far, I felt that I had to finish the journey properly. Besides, if I went to Ormskirk, I would achieve a first: I would visit every single station on a line in one trip. (Ok, there's only five of them, but work with me, people).

Out came the Ordnance Survey. Burscough Junction is right at the bottom end of the town, and I left through one of those 1940s council estates - all red brick and grass verges and little gates. I love these types of houses, probably because they remind me of my Nana's house in Luton. Nice wide open streets with grass central reservations some miserable Council has signposted "NO BALL GAMES".

The OS map had shown me that it was possible to get to Ormskirk through a variety of public footpaths, and I thought that would be a much more interesting route than just following the roads. I turned off the main street and down a little industrial estate, where a stile was signposted as being the right of way. Fair enough.

At this point I should state I'm not a born rambler. I do admire Janet Street-Porter and all those Right to Roam people: I do. But when I found myself wandering between farmer's fields, with not a single other soul about, I started to get a bit dubious. This felt an awful lot like trespassing. I was following a track, and it looked like it was on the map too, but there was no-one else around. I was waiting for the farmer to turn up and slur "Gerrorf moi land!" (because even in rural Lancashire, farmers speak with a comedy West Country accent).

Things got worse when I hit a copse of trees, and the path I was following branched, and branched again, without a single signpost. It was a miserable nest of a wood, tangled bitter trees and broken twigs. Through sheer luck I found the bridge over the miserable stream at the wood's heart, and I squeezed myself along a narrow path between a brick wall and a ditch. The mud beneath me was rutted and torn by what looked like motorbike tracks. A new worry arose: bikers, tearing along the track towards me, forcing me to leap out of their way and into the rancid ditch. Did I mention I'm a bit neurotic?

Eventually I hit road, which should have been the end of my worries. Except I still couldn't relax, as there was no pavement, and in my head I couldn't quite work out which side of the road I should have been on (into the oncoming traffic? Away from it?). I ended up sort of leaping into the bushes every time a car approached, then poking my head out afterwards to make sure it was gone.

This game of hide and seek with the cars rapidly lost its appeal, and the OS map came out again. Aha. A pretty looking path, clearly marked, clearly signposted, beside a river. That will do.

I'd been walking for what seemed like an age, and I just wanted to go home now. The novelty had worn off. Fields of bare earth rapidly lose their appeal. I trudged along the footpath, and once again hit a copse of trees. No matter: there was a stile, and a green arrow pointing the way. Sorted. I climbed the stile, went through the trees, climbed another one on the other side, and ended up in someone's garden.


As back gardens go, it was very nice: there was a neatly mown lawn, and tennis courts, and a large house at the end of a drive. But the fact of the matter was, it was someone's back garden, and I was quite clearly now in it. I didn't want to turn and go back the way I came, because just the thought of it was disheartening, so I decided to get out of there as quickly as possible. I ran for the driveway, barreled down the gravel, and headed for the gates. The very locked gates.


I was now officially trespassing on locked and barred territory. I clung to my Ordnance Survey map, so I could prove that I was only following orders if challenged, and I wished I had taken photos of the arrows that had pointed me here. I really didn't want to go back now, because that would mean another sprint across the lawn, right in front of the house; but they were very high gates, and I just don't do "clambering". I wasn't one of those boys who climbed the ropes in P.E. I sat on the bench and criticised the techniques of others.

At last: salvation! As the sweat dripped off my chin I spotted it - a low part of the wall next to the gate, just enough for me to scramble over with something like dignity. I was over and out so fast I may have actually broken the sound barrier. Or maybe that boom I heard was just the pounding of the blood in my ears. I moved on a bit to put some distance between me and the tennis courts, then checked the map again. Not the OS one, which was now a beautiful figure of fear to me, but instead the Google Maps on my phone. I was about twenty minutes away from Ormskirk, and, blessedly, the roads here actually had pavements.

The afternoon was dying. The roads turned into commuter tracks, the workmen's vans giving way to school mum 4x4s and saloons. Then, just before I hit the town, a field of colour: poppies, stretching in rainbow bands into the distance. After the unending parade of scrub fields, it felt glorious. I was clearly not the only one to think so - a proper photographer, with a tripod and a non-cameraphone camera was packing up his equipment too. I snapped a surreptitious shot, then ploughed on, down a road that triggered those sense memories again, until finally I began to realise: I was back in Ormskirk.

So where to go for the final pint (because rest assured, by that point, I was desperate for one)? The Buck i' th' Vine, winner of the Most Northern Pub Name Competition five years running? The Railway, for thematic reasons? The Plough, my favourite pub when I lived here? In the end I went with Styles, because I figured it would be relatively quiet at this time of day. Plus, I could get nostalgic about that time we stuck a panty pad on the underside of a table, and were delighted to find it was still there on subsequent visits (my grown up, 32 year old self can only shudder at the bar's disturbing lack of cleanliness).

Pint supped, I went back to the station and made sure to get a proper, Merseytart shot of the station sign this time, as I'd only got the platform sign before. I also got a nice surprise. I reported last year about plans to revamp and rebuild Ormskirk station. Well, they're only doing it! I'd assumed that in these Difficult Economic Times the project would have been abandoned, but no: the station building was a wreck, and billboards were proclaiming the plans. Well done, folks. Of course this means I'll have to come back again to see it when it's completed. Sigh.

That was it: the whole Preston to Ormskirk line was folded away, crossed off the map. I'd spent all day out in the April sun, and I'd thoroughly enjoyed it. It had been relaxed at times - in Croston, for example - and fraught at others - legging it across lawns - but it had felt like a real journey. Since I expanded the project to take in the whole of the Merseyrail map, I've realised that I'm going to have to do an awful lot of country walking. This trip seemed like a good omen, a whole line gone in one go, and a sign of positive things to come. And almost as if it had come to say farewell, the Sprinter I'd been on that day was waiting on the platform. I raised a respectful hand of goodbye to the train*.

*I did no such thing, of course. It was a Sprinter, not Thomas the bloody Tank Engine. I just thought it would be a nice way to end.

Saturday 9 May 2009

Red Rose Country

I was on the train from Preston to Croston, and intrigued to find that the ladies across the aisle from me were Americans on a day trip to Ormskirk. Now, this may just be me, but the immediate questions raised in my mind are (a) if you have travelled 7000 miles across an ocean, why go to Preston? Did you take the wrong taxi at Manchester Airport? and (b) Given that you have found yourself in Preston, why did you decide to take a train to Ormskirk, as there are trains to other, more interesting towns from that station?

Naturally I didn't voice any of my questions. Instead I just sat there, earwigging on their interminable semi-flirtatious banter with the guard, and keeping an eye out for ostriches. Yes, ostriches. The only other time I had ridden this line, my friend Jennie and I had glanced out of the train window to see a flock of ostriches running alongside the train. It was the mid 90s; BSE was raging across the nation, and carnivores were turning to any meat they could to satisfy their bloodied desires (not that I am anti-carnivore, as anyone who's seen me consume a bloodied steak will tell you). The sight of a bit of African savannah beside our very British Rail train was a bit too much for Jennie and I, and I'm afraid we dissolved into hysterics and continued to use the term "ostriches!" as an exclamation afterwards. Indeed, when I mentioned my suggested route to her, she said, "Don't forget to look out for ostriches!". That's how HILARIOUS we are.

But there weren't any, which was a bit unsettling. There's always been a part of me that's suspected the ostriches were actually some sort of group hallucination. Given that I spent the years 1995-1998 in an almost permanent state of drunkenness, this is not such an inconceivable concept. I can only hope that the ostrich farmer was driven out of business and is destitute somewhere due to his failed avian dream. That would make me feel a lot better.

I got off at Croston, the first stop on the line between Preston and Ormskirk. There were only two of us who alighted there; me, and an elderly lady who was proudly wielding her tartan zip up shopping trolley, and who was clearly a regular on the route. There's no station building at Croston, just a car park with pretensions. There was a little community board, featuring the usual local events: line dancing, guitar lessons, and pleasingly, a little plug for the local rail user's group. (Here's another one).

Since we're out of Merseyrail's zone of influence, it's goodbye to the yellow and grey M's on the signs; instead we get the red rose of Lancashire. I approve.

When I plan one of my tarting escapades, I'm pretty casual about it. I usually have a backpack with me, into which I stuff the train timetables, an OS map and an A-Z. I also have a mooch round Google Maps and Wikipedia before I leave. But I don't have a strict schedule, just a vague idea of where I'm heading and how to get there.

This means that sometimes I can get distracted, sent off course, or occasionally, just plain lost. Croston was going to be a distraction. I knew, to stay en route, that I had a right turn somewhere; but as I wandered down into the heart of the village, I became increasingly impressed by the place. Nice, tidy workmen's cottages; some centuries-old farmhouses, sensitively restored; the odd, pleasingly in keeping new development. At a junction, I basically missed the correct turn, and carried on.

This should have destroyed my plans, but it was worth it. Croston's lovely. What's not to like? It was a crisp, spring day, and I was walking past a well-preserved village green with two pubs. There was a dinky post office, and a generally pleasing air of Middle England niceness. I rounded a corner and found a splashing river below a pretty church.


I carried on walking, through the centre and out the other side. The houses spoke of subtle affluence - entry gates, video intercoms, the occasional Range Rover. Well-preserved money all around. The people of Croston clearly like their village and take some pride in it. Some people like it a little too much - a jeep pulled up in front of one of the farm houses, and it had the registration plate "CR08TON". I. Kid. You. Not.

Eventually I ran out of village, and I was on a country lane. It finally dawned on me that I should have encountered a canal bridge at some point, and that I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. I turned round to retrace my steps, and stopped at a bench to consult my Ordnance Survey map.

[Swoon Interlude] How bloody amazing are Ordnance Survey maps, incidentally? They are one of those things that makes you proud to be British, somewhere between Helen Mirren and spelling "colour" with a "u". The detail, the design, the symbols (only the Ordnance Survey would differential between wind pumps and wind turbines) - they're beyond maps, into art, and I could stare at them for hours. [End of Swoon Interlude]

With a combination of the OS map and Google Maps on my phone - a 21st century procedure which I suspect would cause my Scout Patrol leader to revoke the Orienteering badge I earned aged 13 - I worked out where I should have turned, and plodded back the way I came. Until I was distracted again.

Come on. You can't expect me to walk past a pub twice and not partake, can you? My name's Scott and I'm an alcoholic. Besides, there's a definite pleasure to sitting outside, sipping a pint by a village green. It was the day after St George's Day, and there couldn't have been a more English experience.

The pint of Copper Dragon's Golden Pippin safely tucked away, I returned to my route. I have to say, if I'd stuck to it in the first place, I might not have been so entranced by Croston. The Westhead Road was all post-war overflow housing, and determinedly working class. There was even a working men's club, which I'm guessing didn't feature a guest ale from a small Yorkshire brewery like the Wheatsheaf.

The village faded away again, and I finally found the footpath I needed. To get to Rufford from Croston, you follow the A581 out to the main A59 Liverpool Road, turn south, and you should get there in plenty of time. But where's the fun in that? Instead, I stepped off the main carraiageway and onto the towpath of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal's Rufford Branch.

I have to say that up until this point, I've been a bit, well, gushy. I liked Preston, and I liked Croston, and so my usual patented sneery cynicism has been pretty much muted. Readers who have missed it will be happy to hear I'm about to unleash it again, because I was seriously disappointed by my canal walk. Seriously. I'd seen it on the maps, and my head was filled with visions of ruddy faced bargemen on painted barges, gentle undulating countryside, and the calm lapping of the water beside me.

None of that happened. I didn't see a single boat until I reached the marina at Rufford. The water didn't really lap unless a duck landed heavily. And as for the countryside... well, as you can see, it doesn't undulate at all. I hadn't realised that the canal was surrounded by reclaimed land, and was therefore flat and tedious. In addition, I found out halfway along that British Waterways had recently been doing embankment maintenance, so the grass was scrubby and thin from the works. Basically it was a big old let down.

Accentuate the positive, though! I wasn't in work, for starters. It was pleasingly warm, and though there was a grey film of clouds above me, I did realise when I got home that I'd acquired a very light dusting of suntan (anyone wanting to see my tan lines will have to visit my other, subscriber only website). I was far enough from the roads to experience a stillness of sound, where the only things I could hear were my breathing, my footsteps, and the birdsong.

There were the occasional distractions. A big pile of wood acquired landmark status in the flat fields. It was just a bonfire, but in my stimulus starved state, I began to conjecture if it was just a bonfire, or if it was in fact A FUNERAL PYRE FOR A PAGAN SACRIFICE. Told you I was a bit bored. Sometimes there was a swan or two. It occurred to me that if one of Her Majesty's swans did decide to go nuts and break my arm, I was miles from the road and no-one knew exactly where I was, so I'd probably lie by the side of the canal until it turned gangrenous. I checked my mobile reception so I could contact the authorities in case of bird-related trauma.

Finally I reached the halfway point, the Great Hanging Bridge. Google searches have failed to turn up the reason why it was called the Great Hanging Bridge, but I don't think you'd have to be Tony Robinson to guess.

Excitingly, I crossed from one side of the canal to the other, and continued on. To be fair, things got a little more interesting. The landscape became a bit more varied, with trees and fields, and the grass was thicker and more pleasant to walk on. Sheep started to appear, first in pens beside the embankment, then actually wandering across the path in front of me. Every single one went through the following procedure:

1) Stop eating grass and stare at the man coming towards them.
2) Stare at the man, hoping that their intense gaze will intimidate him into stopping, and they can go back to their grass.
3) Panic and leg it into the nearest copse.

Maximum amusement was derived from the sheep who were trapped between the canal and the embankment as I approached: they all did a sort of half-hearted panicky jog around before giving up and just looking away from me. There was a part of me that hoped they'd actually jump in the canal to get away.

Then I got bored again, and began to lose myself in an intense, loving fantasy (not involving sheep, I hasten to add). No, I was fantasising about the pint I was going to have at Rufford. If there's one thing that can be said about canal boatmen, it's that they like their ale, and I harboured intense visions of a frothy pint of heady brown beer.

Rufford is where the canal and railway meet, and as I passed under the bridge, the purple Sprinter went by, on its way to Preston. This signalled that I had about half an hour to find a pub and knock back the blessed pint.

And you know what? There wasn't a pub to be seen. Quite unbelievably, Rufford manages to have two canal marinas and can't scrape up a single pub between them. That's illegal, surely? I looked around, but all I could find were two tea rooms. I really, really love a nice cup of tea, but I was hot and sweaty and I'd been walking for several hours, so what I need was something cold and full of hops. I briefly considered giving in and having a Coke or something, until I saw how they'd spelt "holidays" on the sandwich board. My mild disinclination to visit the tea room instantly became a boycott on behalf of the English language, and I turned tail and left.

(I Twittered my frustration while I waited at the station, and Nat very helpfully tweeted a recommendation on Liverpool Road, away from the marinas. Unfortunately, I didn't see her reply for another couple of hours, but thanks anyway!).

Rufford station is the only spot on the line that has two platforms. The whole branch used to be twin tracked, until the inevitable cut backs saw half the tracks removed. Rufford was left as a passing place, so that if they decided to run trains more than once every blue moon they'd have room to manoeuvre. It has a level crossing at one end - always an annoyance for me - and a portakabin signal box. I installed myself in a little shelter and surfed the internet on my phone for a bit, letting my tired feet have a few moments of relaxation. What I'd seen of Rufford couldn't compare with Croston. While that had been a genuine destination, Rufford just seemed to be somewhere to stop. Even the marinas were a let down. I've done some pleasure boating in my time, on the Norfolk Broads, and the marinas have a sort of jocular charm. These two seemed more like car parks for boats, with all the glamour and romance that implies.

Ah well: the capturing of Rufford meant that nearly the whole branch was in my grasp. I just had one more untarted station to go...

Thursday 7 May 2009

Crazy Horses (Wah! Wah!)

I was on the train home this evening, when the BF called to tell me he was working late. So why diidn't I hang around in town for a bit and meet him for a pint?

Well, I could have done that, but I wasn't in the mood. Instead, to kill the time, I jumped off the train at Liverpool South Parkway so I could have a look at the horse picture I talked about before. It really is ridiculously huge. I mean, just silly. Not just because of the size, but because it bears absolutely no relation to its surroundings.

But I'll let it off, because it is pretty cool.

Sunday 3 May 2009

All's Fine on the Preston Front

I apologise if I seem a bit rough around the edges. This is my first post using Blogo, on my Mac laptop; my PC, which has long had the constitution of a consumptive Victorian orphan, has decided to take to its bed for the Last Rites. So this is an emergency port to the Mac, and away from the familiar world of LiveWriter to something new. Any spelling, grammar or layout mistakes are entirely the fault of Blogo, and nothing to do with me. Honest.

Anyway: Preston. Cards on the table- I came here to mock. It had always struck me as one of those "meh" cities. Like Northampton, or Middlesborough - one of those places you've heard of, but you can't really say why. It hasn't got any famous landmarks, or alumni (though I did read that as a tribute to Nick Park, the creator of Wallace and Gromit and former resident, the city council is considering building a statue to the plasticine characters. Which makes me die inside a little). It's sort of in the back of your head as somewhere up North that's big and in some way important.

But it turned out I was seduced. (Oh - I've given away the ending now). I'd taken the Northern Rail train from Lime Street, over the West Coast main line, and I have to say that Preston station's a joy. A good, decent sized Victorian trainshed, with a load of impressive sounding destinations (London, Glasgow, er, Colne). Some money had been spent cleaning it up, so the steam train soot had been washed away, and the ticket facilities and shops were resolutely 21st century. It was smooth, well proportioned, and nicely busy, even though it was a Friday morning.

Outside, there was a good entrance, at the end of an impressive taxi road off the main street. I should point out it was a right bugger to arrange myself with the station behind, and it took me a good half a dozen shots, much to the amusement of the taxi drivers.

From there it was into the city centre itself. I'd been to Preston a grand total of twice before. The first time, with my friend (and Preston resident) Jennie about 12 years ago. We came on a Saturday, poked around Waterstone's, went into Woolworths and made cruel jokes about the similarity between a Hallowe'en mask and someone of our acquaintance, and went home. It was a good day, but mainly for the company; the town itself didn't register.

The second time I went to Preston, about five years ago, it was a longer trip. My employers had paid for me to take a professional qualification, and after a year's study, I had three days of exams at UCLan. Actually, when I say I did a year's study, it was in fact a couple of weekends and a lot of cramming. So those three days basically found me locked in a sweaty, non-airconditioned Holiday Inn room, desperately scanning every inch of my course books in the hope that some of it might possibly sink in. When each exam finished, I staggered back to the hotel room and collapsed on the bed, before getting out my note cards and starting all over again. (In a big two fingers to the entire education system, I actually passed and received letters after my name).

This was my first proper look round, and I really enjoyed it. I had a couple of hours before my train out, and I just wandered around. From the main Fishergate, I headed into Winckley Square. It came as a great shock to me. I'd seen it on the map, and I thought it was a typical Georgian square - four sides, bit of garden in the middle, you know the thing. It turned out to be a proper park, a real oasis right in the centre of the city. I wandered into the centre of the green space and it was like I'd walked into the countryside; the traffic noise melted away, and the birdsong replaced it. Then I was through, and out the other side, and back into the square proper. Sadly, a lot of the houses around its perimeter had been replaced over the years with less than stellar architecture, so it had lost some of its unity. There were a few little gems. As seems to be the case in all public squares, the buildings were occupied by a combination of solicitors, accountants and the Inland Revenue. In the corner was a single residential development, but the rest was office space. Which seems like a waste of a perfectly good square, if you ask me.

From there I advanced to another of Preston's gems - its market halls. I'm not talking about the inside market, the fish-scented home to dodgy Outspan floggers. I'm talking about its iron and steel market canopies, outside where you can breathe. I had a poke around the book stalls, of course.

What's the correct term for a gathering of Agatha Christies? A Marple? A Murder? A Massacre?

There were plenty of books to tempt me, but there always are; that's why my house has a permanent smell of yellowing paperback. I almost bought one just because of this notice. My head was conjuring up an epic tale of stallholder rivalry, of other booksellers resenting this man's success with the second-hand Grisham, and concocting tales to Trading Standards. Mills and Boons at dawn, angry marketeers throwing heavy Stephen Kings at one another; like the Sopranos, but with more Barbara Cartland. In the end, I decided not to, because I had a long day's walking ahead of me, and half a dozen Will Selfs in my backpack might be a hindrance.

Here's my attitude towards buses: I don't like 'em. In my opinion, buses are to be used only in the following circumstances:

a) rail replacement service;
b) open topped city tours;
c) sheer, bloody desperation.

I don't subscribe to Mrs Thatcher's "anyone over the age of 30 on a bus is a failure", but I would rather crawl on all fours than climb aboard a double decker. I find them miserable, oppressive vehicles; perhaps it's the preponderance of pensioners and teenagers, neither of which I'm particularly comfortable with. When I was growing up, we didn't have a car (start your violins now), so we had to go everywhere on the bus; a trip to see my nan in Hertford involved three different buses. Perhaps those experiences ruined it for me. Certainly, once I was old enough to go into town on my own, I would always walk twenty minutes to Leagrave train station for the hop into Luton, rather than take a bus from the end of my road.

I do have an unhealthy interest in bus stations though. Again, I can't explain it; it's that transport architecture gene in me coming to the fore again. Merseytravel does some great glass and steel bus stations. Luton's, before it was demolished, was a hell of quite epic proportions. But Preston bus station is a marvel, a thing of beauty, and it's soon to be demolished. So I had to go and say goodbye.

Ok, I admit: my concept of "a thing of beauty" may differ slightly from the norm. And even I will accept that it's not really up there with the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids or Russell Tovey. But look at it! The graceful upward sweep of the car park above the wide concourse. The brutal concrete made curved and gentle. It's built as an island, with the station surrounded by bus-only roads; travellers access it through a network of subways. Which is, of course, not great. I've spoken before about the sad gap between architectural aspirations and human nature. While to the architects, it seemed like an ideal solution to the problem of getting people into a bus station without them being run over, the rest of the world took one look at the subways and thought "Yay! What a great place to get raped!"

Inside, it's a wide open space, which to me seemed more like an airport terminal - it had that same feel of movement, and progression. There's plenty of circulation space, and light streams in through the double-decker high glass walls. Look at it closely though, and you see that it's been abandoned. The finishes are scuffed and broken, the shops are empty, the clock doesn't work; even the cafe has plastic moulded seats and should more technically be termed a "caff". In short, it makes a bus user feel second class by being miserable, and grim.

Somewhat inevitably, it's marked for demolition, even though it's only forty years old. Within a generation it's gone from being the gleaming young hero of public transport to the unwashed dirty uncle in the corner, smoking a fag and muttering about the good times. The developer is Grosvenor, and it will be replaced by a whole multitude of shops, as well as a new terminus; while I'm very grateful to Grosvenor for Liverpool One, I'm also glad that the credit crunch has come along and put the redevelopment on hold. I think a few more years and we'll start to reappraise the bus station, and come to enjoy it - architectural fashions are cyclical, and just as Centre Point and the National Theatre have gone on to be, if not loved, then at least valued by the public, I think the bus station can have its time too. I'm not suggesting a huge amount of investment. I'm being realistic. A decent restoration, a few plasma screens, a Costa coffee and - ok, I'll let you have this one - a way into the station that doesn't involve underground travel, and it'll be great again.

Back into the city itself, and I headed for the Harris Museum, which, sadly, is not named after the legend that is Anita Harris. It's a particularly fine example of a local museum, and should be held up as an example to other cities. It has a beautiful building, centrally located; the exhibits are interesting and informative; there is a commitment to touring exhibitions; and there's a nice coffee shop. I admit, it suffers from the usual over-excitement about Paleolithic pottery, and in keeping with the law regarding provincial museums, there's a bad dummy in Victorian dress in a recreated street scene, but if you're like me and killing half an hour before your train comes, I recommend it.

At the station, I spent about thirty eight pounds on a sandwich and a bottle of water (the woman behind the counter was very cheery; I assume she's on commission) and ate them on the platform. I have to admit, I was immensely cheered by my morning. Preston had surprised me with its compact pleasantness. It was a town centre done right; good transport, a nice mix of shops, open spaces to breathe in. I sort of wished I had more time to look round; in the museum, there was a feature on Fishergate's shops, which showed the kind of fantasy bookstore all bibliophiles wish they owned (second hand novels piled as high as you can see) but I couldn't hunt it down in time. I had a train to catch - off into the wilds of Lancashire...