Monday 27 July 2009

More Money Than Sense

I've pretty much stayed away from eBay, for one very good reason: sometimes lust for an object drives me into a buying frenzy, I get a red mist, and then a month later I get a credit card bill that gives me night sweats. I'd bought one item, total, from there: a CD of Shirley Bassey Sings Bond, where The Bass has a crack at the Bond themes they didn't let her sing the first time round. If I tell you that it features a reggae version of We Have All The Time In The World, with Dame Shirley belting out the lyrics over a Bontempi organ backing track, you may understand why it took me five years before I went back into that dark world of online auctions.

An idle afternoon at home though saw me tapping "Merseyrail" into the search box. Most of the results were either photos of various stations, or tickets for different destinations. None of these ticked my personal box. Two things did though - which is why I am now the proud owner of a badge saying "I get around by Merseyrail Underground". Yes, a badge: it's 1982 where I am. I don't know what I'm going to do with it. Perhaps I could wear it out on my next tarting trip? After all, I've never been to casualty with a broken nose.

What's worse is I paid nearly four quid for it - about five minutes from the end some twat turned up and bumped the bid up. I ended up dripping with sweat, pumping away at the refresh button like a loon and almost hyperventilating. Again: I don't eBay very often.

The second item is rather more interesting (and actually ended up being cheaper than the bloody badge). The Story of Merseyrail, a booklet printed to promote the opening of the Loop and Link in 1978. The booklet covers the history of the railways on Merseyside, from the original Liverpool and Manchester Railway back in 1830 up until nationalisation and then, in the sixties, the plan hatched between British Railways and the Liverpool Corporation to create the system we know and love today.

It's a great little booklet, with some fascinating photos of the tunneling works in progress, and some curious little anachronisms. The map on the inside cover, for example, showing the various different lines, with the Northern Line ending at Garston and the Wirral Line ending at Rock Ferry. It was another fifteen years before the system reached its present size. It trumpets the reconstruction of Sandhills, just as another reconstruction of Sandhills is coming to an end thirty years later.

Here's a picture of Her Maj unveiling the plaque at Moorfields before being presented "with a commemorative ticket to Kirkby". Body language experts will be able to tell that she's thinking, "Oh, gee. Thanks."

It's also a little bit depressing, if I'm honest. The last couple of pages are entitled "Services", and this is where the PR comes in, telling you, the reader and future passenger, just what a difference the new Merseyrail is going to make to your life.

The essential advantage of a railway system for short-distance urban journeys is that it is not affected by the congestion to which road transport is liable, and it is for this reason that many major cities throughout the world have chosen railways as the answer to their transport problems...If the railway is underground the advantages are even more evident...they enjoy faster journey times, and their trains are less affected by bad weather conditions...

And then you get the really heartbreaking bit:

Present financial stringency has dictated a slowing down in the pace of development of local rail services but the changes that came to fruition in 1977 are intended as the basis for further enhancement of the system.

In the thirty years since this has been published, the pace of development hasn't so much slowed down as stopped. The whoops of joy that I and others I know let out when Lord Adonis announced that a piddly bit of the Liverpool-Manchester line would be electrified shows how low our expectations have fallen. Don't get me wrong, Lord Adonis has been deified in this house for his announcement, and he's welcome to come round for a cup of "thank you" tea any time. But back in the 70s, they were talking about electrifying the St Helens line and sending it underground, into the city, with new stations for the University and at Catherine Street. It was going to be a metro system, whizzing people into the powerful, rich city of Liverpool, because public transport was the future. At one point in the booklet, it talks of Moorfields, "which may well become the busiest passenger station in Great Britain outside London". In 2009, it's not even the busiest station in Liverpool.

That Bloody Woman became PM, and all of a sudden the wonderful, glowing Merseyrail system became an irritation, a place where the unemployed and the lower classes - and worse, Liverpudlians - congregated. Public transport was where you went if you were a failure, and Liverpool was the biggest "failure" of all.. Merseyrail became starved and was reduced to a husk.

It was a tribute to the planners back in the 60s that Merseyrail was conceived, it's a tribute to the workers in the 70s that it was built, and it continues to be a credit to the city in the 21st Century. The Story of Merseyrail is nice to have as a time capsule of optimism and hope. Plus, the back cover has the little swirly "cog" Merseyrail logo on it, and you can't help but love that.

Saturday 25 July 2009

The Power Trip

I passed my driving test - did I mention? It was in April last year. I'd reached 31, and decided it was about time I took driving lessons. I'd started having them when I was 17, for about three months, but then I ran out of money and so the lessons stopped. I restarted them in January 2008, and then passed my test first time, so you can either say it took me 14 years to learn to drive, or six months. I prefer the latter.

Anyway, I have my dream car: a Mini Cooper in British Racing Green. I have coveted this car since I was a child, even before the BMW remake. The Mini is such a fun, exciting little car, so full of charm and personality. And British Racing Green (always British Racing Green, never just "green") is a classy, elegant colour, which also carries with it the subtle understated hint of speed and glamour from decades of Formula One racing. That's Formula One back in the days when it was interesting, and cars that looked like they were made of sex were driven by men with pencil moustaches, just before they sipped champagne over the baccarat table in Monte Carlo.

This is all well and good, but as you may have noticed from the fact that it's taken me fifteen months to get round to mentioning it, I'm not a big fan of driving. I understand its practicality, and the freedom it grants you, but really, I'm a born passenger. How can sitting behind the wheel of a car on the M6, constantly on the alert and perceiving those hazards, possibly compare with the experience of watching the countryside whizz by from a Pendolino? How can you compare arriving in London from the North via the Edgware Road and the nightmare of one way streets - not to mention the horrors of finding a parking space - to stepping onto the platform at Euston and progressing to (be still my beating heart) the magical London Underground? And most important of all, it is utterly impossible for me to read while I'm driving. I get through a novel a week on my commute to Crewe. All that reading time would be lost to me if I drove, my literacy levels would plummet, and I'd end up a gibbering idiot, reading Dan Brown novels. The only time driving wins over a train is when I get a good stretch of empty motorway and I have Girls Aloud playing at maximum on the iPod; London Midland have asked me to stop singing Something Kinda Oooh at full belt on their trains, but I can let rip in the car.

So the poor Mini Cooper gets neglected. In fact, to my shame, I hadn't driven it since Christmas. In that time, the battery had wound its way down to zero, and so today the Bf and I decided we would have to give it a good run out to get it back up to full power. It also placated those terrible guilty feelings I'd had for ignoring it.

The plan was simply to drive around for a while and give it a recharge. We'd both woken up at four a.m. this morning, for some reason, so we were out bright and early; it was seven when we left the house. Which was lucky, because it meant there was no-one about to see me grunt and moan as I pushed the car out the front gates and down the road. Finally it whirred into life, and the dust that had accumulated during its exile in the garage was blown away.

We ended up on the M53, heading south towards Wales, and just cruised along. As I've explained before, the Bf is actually from North Wales, so he had a bit of a history trip through Flint and Queensferry, passing on scurrilous local gossip and rumour from the days when he was a Councillor there. We stuck to the local roads, rather than taking the all-conquering A55, and soon we were passing through the funshine worlds of Prestatyn and Rhyl, places which are somehow managing to continue to exist as holiday destinations in the 21st Century. I felt like winding down the window and shouting at them, "you can get EasyJet flights to Malaga for fifty quid! You don't have to spend your fortnight pressed up against one another in a flatulence filled caravan by a sewage outlet pipe! You can enjoy yourself in the sun!" Through the tunnels at Conwy - I love tunnels; Freudians, please don't write in - and then curving round the coast, accompanied by the North Wales railway line.

After my last post, the love letter to Mike Parker's Map Addict, I'd hunted out his Great Welsh Roads tv series on the net, and I'd enjoyed his exploration of the byways of the principality. In it, he'd derided Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch as not much more than a visitor's centre with a sign to recommend it. I told the Bf this, which lead to a debate about whether Llanfair PG was on the mainland or Anglesey, which lead to us wondering if the satnav would have the name in its index (it only got as far as Llanfairpwllgwyngyll before giving up), which lead to us programming it in, which lead to us turning up outside the visitor's centre at 9:30.

Technically - technically - this is completely out of the remit of this blog. It breaks all the rules. We arrived and left by car, without personally touching the railway (I walked onto the platform, and a service to Birmingham New Street arrived while we were there, so there was a bit of train action). It's not on the Merseyrail map. It's not even in England.

But it's also one of the most famous train stations in the world, a village contrived around a railway halt with a big old fake name. If you didn't know already, the name was invented in the 19th Century as a publicity stunt; the locals wisely realised it probably wasn't going to get famous based purely on its scenic beauty alone, because you can get that pretty much anywhere in Wales. They went for the outrageous boast instead, and the longest place name in Britain was born. Translated into English, it means "St Mary's church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the rapid whirlpool and the church of St Tysilio of the red cave", and as a precocious child pronouncing the word correctly was one of my party tricks (the others were being able to spell supercalifragilistic-
expialidocious and twisting my elbow through almost 360 degrees). I've long since forgotten how to pronounce it, and instead I just do the same thing all English people do - go "Llanfairpwyllgwyn-mumblemumble
mumble-gogogoch". Everyone loves the gogogoch. Rather wonderfully, the station sign actually has a pronunciation guide there on the platform for you. I must lobby Merseyrail to include one of those at Meols.

So here it is: me at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndro-
bwllllantysiliogogogoch, under the station sign. Please ignore my hairy legs - if I'd have known I was going to be photographed, I'd have dressed appropriately.

After that, we had a wander round the featureless visitor's centre, a sort of shopping mall of twee (the station building itself was of no interest whatsoever). If I tell you that it had a Julian Graves and a Ponden Mill, you'll get some idea of the middle of the road target market. There was a little Hornby shop, and I stroked £185-worth of Eurostar train. The Bf and I once again debated whether we should use our cellar to create a model railway layout, before once again realising that we weren't much interested in playing with the trains. I wanted to build the stations, and he wanted to dabble with the electrics, so we stepped away from the shop quickly before credit cards started appearing.

After Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, we went back onto the A5 to Holyhead, so that we could say we'd been all the way to the end. Is this the only place in Britain where the single digit road (A5) is the local route, while the primary one (the A55) has double digits? I'll have to have a scout round CBRD sometime to find out. Holyhead had ground to a halt for some sort of festival, seemingly in honour of Abba, because it was lead by a van playing a CD of session singers doing the choruses to all their hits. Behind them was a slow moving parade which consisted of little girls in pink dresses sitting in estate cars with the boot open, Sea Cadets, and, somewhat improbably, a group of boys dressed as 18th century soldiers, looking like they were getting ready to board the boat to Ireland to take it back for King George.

After that, the rest of the town couldn't help but look a bit drab, so we turned around and headed for home. The Mini practically purred all the way from its day of attention, and as an added bonus, Any Questions on Radio 4 featured Peters Tatchell and Hitchens, both of whom were predictably entertaining (though for entirely different reasons). I hope the car enjoyed it, and won't feel too bad when I almost inevitably ignore it again for another seven months...

Saturday 18 July 2009

Maps and Legends

When I was 12, my mum and dad went to a parent’s evening at school. In between being told how amazing I was, they discussed my home life with my teacher, and especially my habit of sitting and reading maps like they were books. This caused them a great deal of bemusement and laughter.

The next day, Mrs Gan, my form tutor, asked me to stay behind in the break. She sat me down and told me never, ever to lose that love of maps; that I should basically ignore my parents and continue to pore over atlases and Ordnance Survey as much as I like, because it gives you a love for travel, and adventure, and exploration. Thank you, Mrs Gan.

mapaddictI was reminded of all this by a fantastic book I discovered in Waterstones – Map Addict, by Mike Parker. In it, Parker recounts his own lifetime of map love, and how it’s shaped him as a person. He also goes into the history of maps themselves, in a brilliant, thoroughly readable way. I bought the book to read on holiday, and put it this way: I’d finished it before the plane landed in Preveza. It was funny, interesting and just really rather wonderful. The chapter on the shenanigans around the Greenwich Meridian are worth the price of admission alone.

I’m still being guided by maps; this whole blog’s about adding flesh to the Merseyrail map – filling in the gaps between the ticks. No tart is complete without me first planning my route through A-Z and Ordnance Survey. It was great to read a book by someone who shared that love of mile posts, lines of gradient, and coppices. Go get it.

While we're in the mood to talk about maps, here’s the latest state of the map update – to whit:

Merseytart Map

The majority of the untarted stations are now lying outside Merseyside itself, so they’ll need a bit of work to get at – no Saveaways for me. I’m also still ill, unfortunately, and part of the symptoms is that I nod off if I have to walk more than, ooh, about three yards. So I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get out there again – this is an extremely annoying state of affairs, trust me. I am determined to do some more tarting soon though, so watch this space…

Saturday 4 July 2009

Heat and Brick Dust

Crikey blimey O'Reilly, it's been hot lately hasn't it? The constant humidity is causing me to sweat in a most ungentlemanly fashion; in fact, I've lately been taking to my bed to perspire, like a fading Southern belle in a Tennessee Williams play.

Life goes on however, and to stop me from turning into Blanche duBois, the Bf insisted we go over to Liverpool to hunt for garden furniture. We're in the middle of a landscaping project that would turn Charlie Dimmock white with fear, and so we'd like to get some decent chairs in the hope that at some point we'll be able to sit outside before the summer disappears.

While we were over there, I insisted we take a gander at the ongoing works at Liverpool Central. This was not a tart, as we had driven to the city and so I never actually used the station's facilities, but it did give me an idea of what's going on.

In the main, the ticket office has been torn out and there's a wall of metal sheeting taking up half of the booking hall. Behind this a new ticket office is taking shape. Tickets are now being sold within the mall itself, from the old Stationery Box, and as a matter of fact just that is an improvement on the old one. Bit of a shame for the poor old sod who used to flog papers and Mars bars from the kiosk, but it's all in the name of progress.

I've never been keen on Liverpool Central, always choosing Moorfields instead. Partly this is sentiment - in the days when I used to go out drinking of an evening, Moorfields was convenient for the bars of Cavern Walks. On top of that, Central is always, always too crowded (Merseyrail's busiest station, Central gets more passengers a year than even Lime Street). It's something that Network Rail has finally noticed, and in their Merseyside Route Utilisation Strategy, they've said that the situation can't continue as it is. The Northern Line pours all of its passengers onto a single island platform that was built in the 19th Century, and is becoming ludicrously - and dangerously - overcrowded. In the short term, they're going to be altering platform furniture and escalator access to try and improve the situation, but going forward they're going to need either a second platform (as at Moorfields) or even a brand new station, constructed beneath Church Street. The ticket hall refurbishment ties in with all this. One part that I'm aware of is that there'll be more ticket gates for a quicker throughput of passengers - hurray! The gates will also be capable of being fitted with Oyster card type readers for that magical, mythical day when Liverpool's commuters can chuck away their laminated Trio passes and enter the 21st Century.

I've scoured the net for a bit more info, but sadly I can't find definite plans. What I have found is this render, taken from an architecture forum, which purportedly shows the future of the station. It's very much a long term proposal, as it also shows the links from the station to the new Central Village development on the former railway lands behind (which is why there are all those escalators). Cynical types will, however, also note that the render contains not only M-to-Go and Merseytravel branding, but also a sign for Four Land Ends - a station on the Tyne & Wear Metro. So the render's a bit of a hodge podge, in other words, and should probably be taken with a cellar of salt.

Looking on the bright side though, it's a bit marvelous, and I thoroughly approve. More news as and when it arrives.

And in a final, heart warming gesture, at the entrance to the station is a letter from my mate Bart Schmeink, apologising personally for the recent derailment and flooding which made the Northern Line into a bit of a nightmare. Bless his little Dutch cotton socks.