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...


Mister Roy said...

Magnificent post, as befits a cardinal point of the system. I've never warmed to Preston myself, but maybe I'll give it another chance.

Anonymous said...

Scott, I really love your blog. I've just discovered it and am now keenly exploring the rest of your writings. Well written, funny, qwerky, and just bloody good! Also, I have a fondness for Merseyrail and exploring strange places (like Preston) too!

Can you tell me how long the bus station has left? I must visit it once more with my camera.

Thanks for the blog; keep it up! (- so to speak.)

Scott Willison said...

Ah, thanks guys. It's always great to have some feedback! I'll write up the rest of the trip when I get a minute.

I'm not sure how long the station has left: there is planning permission for it to be demolished, but obviously, in the current climate, that doesn't mean it's going to happen. I believe it's been delayed but I'd say get there while you can!

Doktorb said...

I'm sure you know that Preston Bus Station is now a Grade II listed building, saved from demolition.

Great blog, loving your journeys...