Thursday 10 September 2009

Riding the Rails

Well, if you've been paying attention over the last few months, you'll know that I'm a sick, sick man. I've been off work via a number of doctor's notes since May, due to a complex series of illnesses which basically add up to me being depressed and/or a miserable sod. It's actually not as interesting as it sounds. Basically you just could not give a fuck about anything, ever, anytime, and then you take a whole lot of pills and fall asleep halfway through repeats of Frasier on Comedy Central.

Apathy is really underrated as a depression factor. Not giving a toss about the world means that you can get really excited about something - like, say capturing a couple of railway stations. You really want to do it, and then when it comes down to it you just think, "but if I leave the house I'll miss King of the Hill on FX" and you crawl into bed and fall asleep with your laptop on your knees and half a Mr Kipling Lemon Slice dangling out of the corner of your mouth. This is all theoretical and I promise is not how I spend my days.

Lying in bed all day sounds great, but trust me the novelty wears off really fast. I find my mind wandering, and very often it goes wandering places I'm not comfortable with. I needed a distraction. The Bf was driving into town, so I got him to drop me at Hamilton Square. I got an All Areas Saveaway and jumped onto a Wirral Line train.

I didn't have a plan in mind. I didn't want to go anywhere in particular. I just wanted to enjoy the ride. I used to do it a lot when I lived in Luton; I'd get a One Day Travelcard and skip from station to station on the Underground, just enjoying the sway of the train and the movement of the commuters. Of course, in London half the journey is just changing from line to line; you need to pack a Sherpa and a bar of Kendal Mint Cake before you attempt to transfer between the Victoria and Circle lines at King's Cross St Pancras. Liverpool's a lot more manageable, but the walk from the Wirral to the Northern lines at Moorfields is still a fair way. I decided to board whatever was the next train into the station, and hovered on the landing between the two platforms in anticipation. A southbound train won the battle, and soon I was headed for Hunts Cross.

I did this section of line in a couple of bursts two years ago, so this wasn't about the stations. This time I was here for the journey itself. The train was crammed with pensioners, and I realised that this was probably the first train out of Southport after 9 am; these grey haired commuters weren't headed for work, but instead for shopping and a day out in town. The only people on the train without a walking stick and a pacamac were me and two skinheads. They were only around nineteen, but they simmered with a resentment and flinty anger which aged them. They pushed ahead of the elderly passengers and leapt from the train at Central, laughing and turning the air as blue as the women's rinses.

That left only about half a dozen people in our carriage for the trip further south, and we were surrounded by paper detritus - supplements, pull out sections, and the omnipresent Metro. The guard worked his way down the carriage, picking up all the papers on his way. I thought he was going to bin them, but instead he just shoved them on the luggage rack at the end of the carriage - out of sight, out of mind. It meant I never got to read The Guardian's collectible supplement on the Holocaust, to my eternal regret.

I peered out the window, looking to see if anything was different in the stations as we went past, and looking for the "ghost" stations on the line. I definitely saw the platforms in the cutting at St James, and I think I saw the overgrown remains of Otterspool too. Cressington looked like it had had a repaint, while the ghosts of Garston were still visible: a patch of empty ground and a road with gates at both ends.

My fellow passengers all got off at Liverpool South Parkway, and I was left alone in the carriage. I stood in the aisle and took a photo to commemorate this rare treat, just as the guard appeared behind me, which was embarrassing.

I've always felt a bit sorry for Hunts Cross. It should be important, as the terminus of the Northern Line, but it was always intended as a temporary end, until electrification was continued beyond this point. That never happened. Instead, for a while in the 1980s, passengers from Manchester were forced to get off their train and get on board a Merseyrail one to take them into the city. You can imagine how popular that was, and it was discontinued in 1989. Since then, it's sort of flapped around at the end of the line, and had its thunder as an interchange station (and the interchange circles on the map) stolen by Liverpool South Parkway. It hasn't even got much of a presence on the street, the original Cheshire Lines building having been turned into a pub. The 1980s British Rail "will this do?" replacement is basically somewhere to keep the rain off the ticket seller, nothing more.

I killed time by wandering around the little arcade next to the station, the usual mix of post office, banks, newsagents and hairdressers you'll get in any local shopping centre. A terrifying statue stood outside the butchers and scared a little girl into her mum's skirts as they walked past. I don't blame her. I mean, look at him. He looks like that weird uncle who used to pick you up from school with his hands in his pockets.

Once I'd read the local graffiti (the pleasingly nihilistic "Adults By Accident") and done the tour of the Cross I'd exhausted all the area's sights, so I headed back down to the platform. I'd not noticed before that there was a shop in the waiting room, so I bought a Coke and had a sit down and listened to the conversation of the two women across the way. I do love a good eavesdrop, and this one was a Victoria Wood sketch in the making - "I was there talking to me Dad and I fell asleep. Right there in the graveyard. Right there on the grave. Woke up an hour later in the middle of the cemetery."

The train came in, and soon filled with new passengers. There was something different about them though, a different mood, and I worked it out somewhere around Aigburth. They were day-trippers, optimistic folks who'd woken up to the blue skies and decided to treat themselves with a run out to Southport or Formby or Ainsdale.

Their mood was in contrast to mine. I'd slipped into a low, a trough of despair, and I sat on the train thinking dark thoughts, letting myself get drawn into the steady beat of the wheels on the tracks. The 1-2-3-4 noise that repeats and repeats. I pulled out my journal and scribbled in it, my writing scrawled over the page as the movement of the train shook me. I can see why John Betjeman was such a fan of the railways; he must have drawn inspiration from the steady metre beneath his feet.

We went into the tunnel after Brunswick station, and the heavy undernote became a whine, an electric scream which still thrills me. To quote the legends that are Girls Aloud, it's the Sound of the Underground, it's the noise of family day trips to the capital and happy wanderings with friends and the whole world of the Tube. Then the tunnel opened up into the murky yellow light of Liverpool Central. Does no-one at Merseyrail own a 100 watt bulb? The contrast is even more stark when you get to Moorfields, where the white tunnel reflects the light back and makes it bright and airy.

I didn't want to go all the way to Southport, as I'm going to Birkdale in a couple of weeks time anyway, so I decided to use my time productively and explore the new, gleaming Sandhills station. The last time I came here was in the old station's final days, and I wanted to see what had happened to it since. It's been very nicely done by Merseytravel, Network Rail and the DfT. Speaking as someone who occasionally froze my knackers off waiting for a train at the old Sandhills I was pleased to see not one but two waiting rooms, plus a third waiting area by the ticket office. The ticket office, incidentally, has been moved from down on the ground to platform level.

The station is fully DDA compliant, with ramps from the street and a lift to the platform; a canopy covers almost the whole station, so you're shielded from the worst of the elements; and it all looks very shiny and pretty. In fact, there was a man cleaning the windows on the waiting rooms while I was there. It's even got a big swoopy fin roof thing over the stairs. In short, it's got everything you could want from a station... except they've taken away the ALF! There used to be an Attractive Local Feature board here, advising football fans to alight for the Soccerbus to Goodison and Anfield. They've taken it away, but haven't replaced it. I'm disgusted and outraged. I suspect I will be writing a strongly worded e-mail once I've finished blogging.

Down on the street level, there's a big patch of bare ground that will one day be a bus exchange, though there was no work going on when I visited. I think it may have been credit crunched. I decided that as this was an all-new, glamorous Sandhills, I'd best tart it again. Besides, it had one of the new box sign boards, rather than the old flat ones.

I wondered what they did with the old station signs. Here's the answer; they dump them behind a portakabin and leave them to rust. I spotted the discarded sign, and immediately knew I wanted it. I'm sure I could find somewhere to put it in my flat. Perhaps my "strongly worded" e-mail to Merseytravel will be turned into a "pretty please" e-mail.

So now here I was, in the heart of Liverpool's beautiful* docklands (*actual beauty not guaranteed), with time to kill. I thought I'd go and take a look at a building which had always fascinated me, and which was close by. The Tate & Lyle sugar silo was built in the 1950s, and is a huge arc of concrete on the Dock Road. It's got a brutal charm to it, and its sheer bulk is astonishing.

It's a ridiculous building, and I mean that in the very best way. It should be for building Apollo rockets or housing settlers on the moon instead of sugar. If, indeed it still does; the building is Grade II listed, but is on English Heritage's "at risk" register due to being underused. It's a shame if it is no longer in use, and even worse if it were allowed to crumble and die. Like the nearby Stanley Dock warehouse, it's a colossal piece of industrial heritage, and it should be preserved.

No doubt it was purely suggestion, but I was sure I could taste sweet, sticky toffee on my lips as I took the photographs. Perhaps the air around the warehouse has become thickened with the sugar over the decades.

But that wasn't the sweetest part of my visit. What does that sign say?

Huskisson! Huskisson Dock Number 3! I was indescribably pleased to see old Willy immortalised again. Also, I just like saying Huskisson! It's actually more fun if you sing it to the "Scorpio!" theme from the Simpsons. Huskisson! (You'll have that in your head for the rest of the day. Trust me.)

With Huskisson! captured, I figured I should probably get back to the station. It was the middle of the day, but the docks still had a vaguely threatening air to them, as though I could press-ganged at any moment. The rough road surface and cracked pavements didn't exactly instil much confidence either. There were railway tracks all over the place, a reminder that this whole area was once criss-crossed with freight lines, with the Overhead Railway above them. All gone now.

I'd say my main complaint about the all new Sandhills is that the lift tower is crying out for a big yellow box on top, like the light box on top of the tower at Tate Modern, with the Merseytravel "M" proudly emblazoned on it and visible for miles around. I hope they do get round to building the bus area, and a car park too, because it could be quite a handy park and ride facility. You come within a mile of the city centre but stop before you actually hit the snarled up streets, and then clean efficient underground trains whisk you to the shops. Lovely.

The walk back to the station had tired me out completely. Since I started taking anti-depressants I've become weak as a kitten, and the slightest bit of exercise leaves me exhausted. I collapsed onto a chair on the platform, and made some notes in my journal. I realised that I didn't quite look like the cool intellectual writer when I was making notes on a station platform; I looked like a trainspotter. I was too hot and sweaty to care by that point though. I needed sanctuary and rest, somewhere I could go and recharge my body, mind and spirit. Where could I go?

I'm currently coveting a new laptop, so I went in and stroked the MacBooks until a security man asked me to leave. I sat in the gardens of the Bluecoat, one of those gorgeous city spaces you wish no-one else knew about, and caught some sun until one o'clock, when I went off to meet Robert for a pint in his lunch hour. Even though I complained right at the start about having to sit around the house doing nothing, I have to admit a certain amount of schadenfreude when he turned up, roasting hot in a collar and tie.

The day out worked. I'm not sure if it was the sunny weather, the bright shiny stations, the Huskisson! moment (admit it, you can't stop hearing that tune now, can you?) but I went home feeling a lot jollier than I'd left it. Actually, maybe it was the beer. Yup. It was probably the beer.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff. Is there much (anything) of the Overhead Railway left now? I'm vaguely aware that bits of Dingle station live on, but I don't know about the rest.

Scott Willison said...

The Overhead Railway's tunnel mouth at Dingle is still there, and apparently the platform space is now used by a firm of mechanics as a car storage area. Beyond that the only things left are the occasional support column on the Dock wall. Since the whole thing was sold for scrap in the 50s, they pretty much tore it to pieces and took every nut and bolt away with them.

However, Liverpool Museums have one of the railway cars in their collection, and it's going to be showcased at the new Museum of Liverpool at the Pier Head when that opens.

Robert said...

There's also a LOR car in the care of the Suburban Electric Railway Association down in Coventry, although it's in a fairly abject condition.

The most exciting thing about this post is that I've realised I am now a tag! I am honoured.

Scott Willison said...

Other fame whores may wish to note: two appearances and you get a tag. Them's the rules.

Natwel said...

Why are you taking anti depressants, have you had some recent major trauma in your life?

Scott Willison said...

The short story is I have a chemical imbalance in my brain which is causing emotional disturbances - it's misfiring and causing mood swings.

The long story is far too complicated to go into without a glass of wine or two ;-)

andrewrtw said...

Seeing those pics with all that blue sky has got me depressed!

10th September was my 30th B’day and I wished I was back in Liverpool to celebrate it as it was awful weather here in Australia with rain and gails!

Perth Is supposed to be one of the sunniest cities in the world but we have seen very little of it the past few weeks, in fact some boffins reckons it will be the wettest, cloudiest September in Perth for 500 years, now how they have managed to work that out when the city wasn’t even formed until 1829 I just don’t know!

Scott Willison said...

I would feel a great deal of sympathy for you if (a) it wasn't grey and cold here right now and (b) you are building up to a hot Australian summer, while we are on a steady descent into winter...

Welcome to the world of Thirtysomethings, by the way!

Anonymous said...

I hope you pinched that sign!! Haha! They clearly didn't need it!