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.


Mister Roy said...

'Insufferably laddish'? At Edge Hill? Surely not...

Mister Roy said...

Great post - worth waiting for - love the way you've woven your story into the journey and created an epic.

Keith Lumley said...

You won't have top wait long to plan your return to the new Ormskirk station.

Lancs County Council (who are in the lead on behalf of everyone involved) have invited Lord Adonis to officially open the new station some time during week commencing 27 July.


Keith Lumley
Network Rail Media Relations Manager

Scott Willison said...

They were "insufferably laddish" back in the College days. Now it's a Uni, I'm sure it's all changed...

And thank you, I shall keep an eye out for the reopening now, so I can go and worship the Adonis. I'll see if I can wangle some free champers!