Sunday 27 September 2009

Under Par

I'm in the middle of a drug shift. The 400,000 pills I used to take are being rationalised and cut down to a more manageable quantity, and as a result I've spent much of the past week in a sort of vague haze. My drug cocktail will hopefully be concentrated down to a drug single malt within a few weeks.

It means that this week's tart is a bit... vague. The first half, anyway. I was in what is known to mental health experts as a "flooby" mood, and so I turned up at Ainsdale with only half of my brain active. This was really not giving Ainsdale its due: it had an ALF, for the first time in simply yonks, and it seemed like a nice enough station.

I don't know what was going on, but I just didn't feel Ainsdale as a station. It was like it had all the perfect ingredients, but they hadn't been mixed right. It was a lot like Freshfield, which I visited nearly two years ago, but it was missing that essential je ne sais quoi that made it perfect. Perhaps it was just that, in my random state of mind, I couldn't quite get a decent me + sign photo, and so this is the best I could manage:

I apologise for the facial hair.

Ainsdale itself, though, was very nice. There were a few cafes, suitable for ladies who lunch, a deli, a well patronised Post Office; it was everything you'd expect from one of Merseyside's most middle class centres. This is Golf Country: I'd already passed the Formby Ladies Club on the train, and between the railway line and the coast was the Open-hosting Royal Birkdale Golf Club. In short, if you've ever used the phrase "political correctness gone mad" you'll fit right in.

I was in Ainsdale for more than tarting purposes. In truth, I was here for a meeting of the Friends of the 502.

Before I explain this, I feel I should issue a caveat. I have said it before, but I'm not a train nerd. With the sole exception of the 508 110 train (which WILL be mine someday), I could not give a monkeys what class of train I'm on. The whole Merseytart experience is based around train stations because that's where my architectural interest lies, and I'm really not at all bothered by what kind of train I'm riding and whether it has hydraulic brakes or a double coupling or if it runs on diesel. So long as it gets me there, I'm happy. Also, the word "bogie" turns up far too often for me to take trains completely seriously.

However, there are some causes which attract my attention, and so it is with the 502. This is the last surviving electric train from the pre-Merseyrail days, before the current trains were shipped in, and it's dying. The National Railway Museum own the train but through years of bad storage and neglect, it's become a rotting husk of metal, and the NRM has decided they haven't got the room for it.

A band of enthusiastic volunteers have banded together to form the Friends of the 502, and they've been successful in saving the train from the axe and have found storage for it in Tebay. Now comes the difficult work of restoring the train to something resembling its former glory, with the hoped-for aim of getting it running on the Merseyrail network on special occasions.

It's still early days, but I signed up for membership and offering what little skills I have to the cause (I'm not sure if they have much call for slightly sarcastic writers in the railway construction industry, but I'm right there if I'm needed). The group was holding its AGM at a model railway exhibition in Birkdale to lend my support (for which read: sit quietly at the back and hope I'm not noticed).

I paid my entrance fee (sadly, 502 membership didn't grant free entry, like a Blue Peter badge) and wandered into the exhibition. What is it with men and trains? I found myself wondering this over and over as I wandered around. The age range went from barely out of nappies to just into adult nappies, and all of them were rapt with pleasure at the various different layouts on display. I admit, some of them were beautiful; one of a London Underground station particularly fascinated me. The smell was the musky scent of hobbyists; of men who spent a lot of time in the shed or the attic. Any women present were either sexless converts to the cause or assuming that slightly wide-eyed look of faked interest as little Raymond pointed out another model traction engine.

At 2, a dozen members of the 502 group (including friend of the Merseytart and group treasurer Robert) congregated in the dining hall of the school for the AGM. The smell of dining halls is exactly the same as when I was a boy, incidentally; minced beef and fat. So much for Jamie Oliver cleaning them all up. I couldn't contribute very much to the meeting, partly through shyness, partly through ignorance, partly through not being able to hear half the speakers above the general hubbub of the hall, but it was nice to meet people and it felt positive to be there and support the cause. It would be a terrible shame if the train was allowed to dissolve into iron filings. (Donations gratefully received).

Once the meeting was over, Robert and I wandered off to collect Hillside station and go home. It was the day of the Southport air show, so the walk to the station was accompanied by the drone of World War Two fighter planes circling overhead. One bomber in particular seemed to be taking particular delight in swooping lower and lower until it started to get slightly unnerving.

As the ALF says, this is the closest station to Royal Birkdale. Perversely, there's a Birkdale station as well, which I think was probably just named to confuse the Americans. It had received more attention than other stations to make it gleam in time for the Open last year. This was especially pleasing as the station was one of those 1930s gems, and it had been lovingly restored. I cooed with delight at the enormous stone name plates outside:

I considered that the Tart, but Robert, stickler for tradition that he is, insisted that I should also be photographed under the Box M sign as well:

Inside, the Colour Tsars had been at work, of course, but with pleasing results, and the woodwork was sensitively restored. I especially liked the clear plastic roofing over the top of the steps, and the signs have been given the new corporate livery as well. In fact, I cooed over it so much, I began to feel a little bit guilty for paying so little attention to Ainsdale. I think I might have to make a return visit. Guilt is a terrible thing.


North West Media Man said...

I know just what you mean about enthusiasts. All in the course of duty, I got up at 5 o'clock on Saturday morning to catch the 6.36am train from Stafford (change at Crewe) - I sound like a geek myself - to go to Carlisle and spend the day in the waiting room on Platform 4. The purpose of this extremely long and somewhat tedious day, was to man a stand at the Community Rail Festival.

This was the first time it had been held 'in my patch' so I was duty bound to go. The entire day was spent in the company of small boys and old men, who were drooling over numerous stands on the platform selling all sorts of railway bits and pieces.

Those that did venture into the waiting room soon left when they realised that the two stands that Network Rail were staffing were about the real railway and not some dewy-eyed vision of times gone by.

On the subject of the 502, I agree entirely with you. When you have seen one Class Whatever, you have seen them all. I only know those that I travel on because I have been commuting from Stafford to Manchester for the last 20+ years.

However, I do have to confess to being a sad old git because I can remember the current Merseyrail trains when they were first introduced into service. They started life on the London Waterloo to Hampton Court services before being transfered to Merseyside when the system was electrified. At the time I worked for British Rail in London and lived in Surbiton, catching them to work every day.

Sad or what?

Scott Willison said...

"Pick your fights" is my mantra; the thing about the 502 is it really is the last of its type, and it's a type often overlooked by railway enthusiasts because they're caught up in the nostalgia for the steam trains. Don't get me wrong, they were beautiful engines, but they were also dirty, slow and inefficient. The 502s purred their way over the Merseyrail network with few major glitches for forty years; indeed, they would probably still be running today if the Link and Loop hadn't proved so hazardous to them. Preservation seems justified to me.

Beyond that, so long as the train gets me there in time with the minimum fuss I'm not bothered what it looks like or what numbers are embossed on its front. Though I do like them to look clean and glamorous - I am a bit shallow.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that probably a disproportionate number of rail enthusiasts are gay - some discussion about this at Aside from pitiful innuendo type explanations, which I take exception to as a gay man myself, I'm not sure why.

Scott Willison said...

It's an interesting point, about gay railway enthusiasts. I've pondered this a few times over the years, especially since I started this blog and came into contact with more and more gay railway fans. I've sometimes wondered if there are people out there typing in "gay Merseyrail" and getting me as the top result as it does seem, as you say, that there is a disproportionate number of homo railway fans. The Bf, who isn't a railway fan (just an indulgent observer), does still number among his closest gay friends a man who has written books about railways abroad, a man who has an excessive fondness for diesel railways, and two friends who held the reception for their civil partnership aboard a steam train. Plus me, obviously.

I have two personal theories as to why this is. The first is that as outsiders to society, which a gay guy is growing up, we're drawn to hobbies and interests which are solitary. It's not just trains, it's also writing, listening to music, sci-fi, the arts; basically anything which is individual rather than team in nature. If you're alone on a station platform with your thoughts and a notebook, you're free from judgement, persecution, homophobia and pressure to conform - unlike, say, in a sports team.

The second part of it is a bit sexist, but something I hinted at in my blogpost - gay men live in a masculine world and so there aren't any women around to tut and disapprove. I'd say there'd be thousands more trainspotters if women found it sexy, or if heterosexual men thought they could pick up girls at Crewe station. Girls don't like trains though, and us men, the slavering hormonal beasts that we are, adapt our behaviours in the hope of copping a feel. Take the girls out of the equation, though, and there's no-one standing around rolling their eyes, no-one disapproving, no-one wanting to watch The X Factor instead of Great Railway Journeys. Add in the fact that gay men don't have kids, either, and so are financially free to indulge their hobbies long after their straight friends have given up, and you've got a petri dish of circumstances that encourage the homo trainspotter.

Those are my own personal theories, anyway. Alternatively, it might just be all those thrusting pistons and tunnels giving us the Freudian horn...

Anonymous said...

That was quick! You are of course first result in a Google search for 'Gay Merseyrail' (but now only second and third for 'Merseyrail flip flops').

My first stirrings of trainspottery - my coming out, as it were - revolved around a fascination with the clapped out Class 115s and 116s which were still chugging around the West Midlands suburban network in the late 80s. And it's hard to spend time anywhere less glam than New Street station... So I'm not sure about the Freudian explanation.

From a personal point of view, I find the solitary hobbies explanation compelling. I think I've heard similar reasons for a disproportionate number of gay cyclists. From my observation there's quite a few of us working in nature conservation and the wider environmental sector too, which tends to be quite solitary.

I like the 'harvesting' explanation in the second paragraph too, although presumably the effects of this would not really be apparent until men were older than their mid twenties and a significant number were married.

Scott Willison said...

And it's hard to spend time anywhere less glam than New Street station... So I'm not sure about the Freudian explanation.

You mean that station that's surrounded by tunnels, so every trip in or out of it involves bursting out of the blackness? Nope, nothing Freudian there...

dreadedvacuumflaskmonster said...

I personally couldn't care less whether enthusiasts are straight/gay/bi/up/down/green/pink/yellow/etc. as long their hearts are in the right place as regards the last of the 502 class. A worthy restoration project if ever there was one!

Robert said...

the last of the 502 class. A worthy restoration project if ever there was one!


Sorry, meant to lead up to that more gently. But seriously...

Scott Willison said...

He's the Treasurer, you have to excuse his directness. He's forgotten how to be polite about it. You're lucky he's not knocking on your door with a bucket.