Saturday 24 October 2009

Borderlines. Seems like I'm going to lose my mind.

Parkgate is ridiculously pretty. It really is. It was the port on the Wirral in the 18th century, and the buildings around the quay dates from that era. The Dee silted up, and it seems that when the waters abandoned the town, so did everyone else; double yellow lines aside, it feels like a perfect little 18th century quayside. You keep expecting Meryl Streep as the French Lieutenant's Woman to come sweeping up in a big cloak.

The marsh that was left behind is now a nature reserve, because of the huge quantities of rare birds and so on that have made their home here. Twice a year, when the high tides come in, the residents of the grasses all flee to the land. It sounds scenic, but I bet it involves an awful lot of rodents swarming up over the sea wall.

I followed the quayside along, wondering if I should risk one of the pubs for some food. It was lunchtime, and I was in that borderline state between being hungry and just wanting to eat because I suspected by the time I was hungry I'd be miles from anywhere. I wasn't tempted to try Parkgate's most famous export, its home-made ice-cream; there are many things I will do to add local colour to this blog but guzzling a ninety-nine in October isn't one of them. There were quite a few tourists around, even at this time, or so I thought; closer inspection revealed that they were in fact birdwatchers. The difference between a tourist and a birdwatcher is that a tourist has a little digicam dangling on a rope on their neck. A birdwatcher has the kind of industrial-sized surveillance equipment you can only buy from decommissioned army bases in the former Warsaw Pact. They skulked over their enormous lenses, protecting them from the spotty rain with hunched shoulders and the back of their jackets, while their buttocks slowly became moist on the camping stool they'd brought with them.

Even though the pubs looked reasonable enough, they all had signs outside like "toilets are for patrons ONLY" and "food ONLY served between 12 and 2" and "children are welcome in the REAR" which summoned up images of harsh Hattie Jacques-like landladies leaning over a plate of egg and chips with a look of disdain. I decided I wasn't that hungry, really, and pressed on until I got to the opposite end, feeding on the view of Wales in the distance instead.

At the end of the quayside, the road twists to the right, and heads back towards the main Chester road. I'd planned on using this to get back on schedule and to head towards Heswall, but by the side of the Boat House pub I saw a green pedestrain sign for the not at all amusingly named Gayton. In the spirit of adventure, and because, let's face it, I didn't have anything else to do with my time, I took this path instead.

I should pause a moment to explain that I hadn't really planned on doing so much walking. Well, not so much off-road walking. I'd used Google Maps to look at the route and it had seemed like pavements all the way so, foolishly, I'd slipped on a pair of canvas trainers instead of a nice pair of stout Doctor Martens. This had been okay on the pavement of Neston, less good, but still acceptable on the gravelly path of the Wirral Way, but was now a bit of a major mistake on the way to Gayton. Their thin soles meant that I could feel every contour of the stone beneath my feet, and they had little to no purchase on the slippy surface.

Tottering slightly, I carried on along the stones. It was incredibly peaceful. Even the birds seemed to be on their lunch break. All there was was a little breeze coming across the grass, and the rustle of the trees around me.

My reverie was broken by a braying laughter. The trees to my right had thinned and opened out into a grassy field. No, not a field; a golf course. Oh dear. Golf courses are a pet hatred of mine. Not only because they take up huge swathes of land and seal it off to the public, not only because people who join a golf club are usually wankers, but also because it really is the most pointless sport. Knocking a ball around with a stick, then having to walk half a mile before doing it all over again. Yawn. The only good game of golf ever was between James Bond and Goldfinger, and even then the supervillain had to cheat to make it a bit interesting.

These three seemed to definitely be from the "wanker" school of golfers, noisily laughing and clattering around. I shouldn't be so unfair; they were out enjoying themselves, why shouldn't they make a racket? I just resented them for intruding on my afternoon.

I was halfway down the path when I realised it wasn't actually a path; it was a wall. I was actually walking the old sea wall, the line of where the Dee had once gone before it had made its long and undistinguished retreat into the distance. I'm embarrassed by how long it took me to twig this.

Finally the path/wall turned to the right and, just avoiding a man and his two dogs who looked pretty surprised to see someone else round here, I was down some steps and onto a proper roadway again. Looking back I could see that this must have been a slipway, a couple of hundred years ago; I felt a bit like Tony Robinson uncovering historical secrets.

Now it was just an uphill slog through the only funny if you're puerile village of Gayton. Gayton is one of those incredibly wealthy pockets of the Wirral; it's where footballers come to rest with their BMWs and their wags. It oozes wealth and affluence from every tree lined driveway to every clock towered garage to every intercom guarded entrance gate - though of course, some gates are still more impressive than others:

The plan had been to go into Heswall proper to have a coffee, but I was too tired and sweaty by now. Besides, Heswall was the location of my worst ever job interview, ten years ago, an interview so bad I had actually left it and gone and vomited in the public toilets because I was so overcome with embarrassment and horror at what had gone on. It's therefore got negative connotations, so instead I skirted the edge of the town and nipped into the Devon Doorway pub for a pint and something to eat.

I should have realised that when a pub describes its offerings as a "dining experience" it's not going to give you a couple of prawn baps with some cheese and onion crisps on the side. Inside, the pub was all polished copper and curved wood and "Moet Chandon by the glass". I ordered a pint of John Smiths and hid in a quiet corner while the waitresses dashed around serving meals of elegantly proportioned Modern British cuisine. I was a mess, physically drained and covered with sweat, and there was no way I was in the mood for three courses of scallops and lamb. I just wanted something cheap and simple, but even the crisps were the handcooked types that boast about how healthy they are on the front and taste like a piece of bark inside.

I drank my beer, made a few notes in my journal, then walked out and up the hill towards Heswall station. When there were two lines running through the town, it was known as Heswall Hills, and a milepost still referred to it by this name. They opportunistically changed it when the other Heswall station closed, but Heswall Hills would actually be a better name, since the station is about as far out of the town as it's possible to get.

We're back in Merseyside now, though, so there was the familiar yellow and grey of a box sign to greet me at the top of the hill:

I popped into a little One Stop supermarket by the station and bought myself a pack of chicken sandwiches and a Private Eye, and I sat on the wooden platform and polished them off. Heswall was recently given a face lift by Arriva Trains Wales, though what this means in practical terms is they put down a new layer of tarmac on the platform and made sure all the signs had the turquoise stripe. It's not exactly scenic, which is strange for a town which prides itself on being a cut above.

Down on the street, however, there's a little remnant of what used to be; the old ticket office, bricked up and abandoned and graffiti'd. There's no human presence at Heswall at all now - you have to buy your ticket on the train - and it seemed a shame that this little house for the ticket seller was forlornly squatting by the road.

Eventually the train turned up. They're only one an hour on this line, less on a Sunday, and once again I gave thanks for the wonders of Merseyrail and it's minimum of 15 minute frequencies. It was barely worth me sitting down though, because I was off again at Upton, and nearly home. I got the station sign and really, that should have been it. There's no station building at all at Upton - it was all demolished when the M53 was built through here and the road system was improved, and a Somerfield now sits on the old goods yard. All there is is a dual carriageway and the steps down to the platform.

There is a little bit of railway history around here, however, though it's of a much more recent vintage. The road signs round here pointing to the station all include the old green "Merseyrail" symbol, the one introduced in the seventies when the Loop line was built. It used to be everywhere, on the trains, the stations, the timetables; but it's been overtaken by the yellow M pretty much everywhere, and the old sign has disappeared. For some reason though, here in Upton, it still hangs on. Perhaps it's because Upton isn't a proper Merseyrail station, it's somehow missed the attentions of the Colour Tsars. Still, it's a great little bit of Merseyrail history to see. Perhaps they'll leave it as a tribute to the old days. Or perhaps, even as I type, there are a load of little men on their way out there with some yellow paint.

Collecting Upton station meant that I'd got the whole of the Borderlands Line; another grey route to cross off the map. Someday, possibly, this might be part of Merseyrail proper, and you'll be able to get a train from Wrexham through to Liverpool city centre. It's still a dream at the moment, but I sort of like that; I like its outcast status. It does mean that there are only three stations left on the entire peninsular for me to get now - Bromborough Rake, Bromborough and Eastham Rake. I'll leave them for a while longer, though. I'm not quite ready to say goodbye to the Wirral.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Two Station Roads* (*actual stations not included)

Looking back over the last couple of months it's become clear that while I have whittered on just as much as before - even more in fact - I've done less and less actual tarting. I'm sorry about this deviation from the blog's remit, and I'm going to try and get things back on course. That's not to say I won't still wander down some random avenue now and then, but hopefully I'll be able to slot in a few more trips than I have been doing.

I was keen to go out this week, while the weather is still passable and while the kids are still in school. A couple of plans to go out to far flung corners of the City Line fell through, for one reason or another, so I finally settled on finishing off the Borderlands Line, the artist formerly known as the Mid-Wirral Line, which stretches from Bidston to Wrexham. Luckily most of the line isn't on the Merseyrail map, so I wouldn't have to end up in the Welsh hinterlands at lonely halts on the side of mountains, and I'd completed the bottom couple of stations months ago. This would constitute the last of the English stations on the line - Neston, Heswall and Upton.

The train wheezed and clattered and moaned its way up to speed, finally reaching maximum velocity somewhere around Beechwood. At which point it immediately had to shift down a gear again so that it could stop at Upton. According to the timetables, Upton's a request only stop, but the train stopped anyway despite no-one getting on or off. It makes sense; Upton is still very much in Birkenhead's suburban sprawl, and it is bound to be busier than some of the other request stops like Penn-Y-Ffordd. After the brief pause, we carried on down the Wirral, and I couldn't resist peering down into the back gardens from the embankment as we passed by. I'm a terrible voyeur. There was nothing exciting to spot in the tiny postage stamp spots of green that lay behind the new build houses along the route - a woman having a cheeky fag, strings of moist washing, and an awful lot of trampolines.

The train moved out into the countryside then, and the housewives were replaced by horses, and brick box houses by tin barns. One more stop, at Heswall, and then I was jumping off at Neston. All the stations on the line are the bus stop type - just a shelter on the platform, with no ticket facilities. Neston's been DDA'd to death, and getting down to the street involves a run down a Mouse Trap of ramps to get there.

There was a nice little surprise in the tunnel under the platforms; a mural, obviously designed by local schoolchildren, showing the Liverpool skyline and its landmarks. It was ok, though the Echo Arena looked like a crab, and the Yellow Submarine is so close to the Superlambbanana's backside it looks like a comically shaped turd. I also thought: where's the Wrexham mural on the other wall? Surely there should be one showing all the landmarks at the other end of the line, like... erm... well, I'm sure there's something.

We're not in Merseyside here, but instead in the brief sliver of Cheshire between the Wirral and Wales, so the station sign was just a bog-standard BR one. I was disappointed to see that if I'd come a day later I'd have been able to visit Neston's brand new Aldi, right next to the station. So. Very. Disappointed.

Neston's quite a nice, pretty little market town. There's the obligatory Tesco Metro, of course, and the banks, but apart from that there seemed to be a few local businesses, and at twelve o'clock on a Wednesday, it felt like it was pleasantly bustling. I queued up at the cash machine for some spends behind an ignorant cyclist who was oblivious to the people waiting behind him. Here's a little tip for you, mate; you need your cash card to get access to an ATM. As such, it might be an idea to extract it from deep inside your lycra shorts before you get to the machine, instead of rustling around inside them for five minutes and making all the people waiting behind you gag.

(The Racecourse Ground! Home to Wrexham FC! They could have done a mural of that. There, that's all my Wrexham knowledge exhausted.)

I'd planned on taking one of the main roads out of the town to my next stop, but at the last minute I had a change of heart, and instead I headed through the town centre to Station Road. Satnav users headed for Neston, be warned; the train station is not on Station Road. In fact, there's not much on Station Road at all, except for an old people's home and the entrance to the Wirral Country Park.

(That's probably why they can't be bothered cleaning the sign). Readers with very long memories might remember that I visited the Country Park once before, when I went to the preserved station building at Hadlow Road. This was a stop on the old Hooton-West Kirby line, the line that disappeared in the Beeching cuts and was subsequently resurrected as the Wirral Way, Britain's first Country Park. Neston South station once stood along here, before being demolished and having a load of houses built on top of it in the sixties. Now all that's here is a car park and an elaborate red-painted bridge to take you over the road and onto the path proper.

The walls of the bridge are etched with a couple of verses, apparently as part of the Millennial improvements (the Wirral Way is also part of the National Cycle Network). Heading towards Neston, you have:

Billowing steam floats to the sky
From the steam train passing by

while heading away from the town there's:

Clickerty clop
Crunching leaves
Whisper of breeze
How quiet and calm.

It's a bit "back page of the People's Friend", but it was probably done by local schoolchildren or something. That would explain the incorrect spelling of "clickety" anyway. If it was an Andrew Motion original I'll be very disappointed. I like the past/present theming though, different depending on which way you are going.

I crunched onto the pathway. Because it's part of the cycle route, it's been nicely tarmacced, so it was a pleasant surface to walk on. The path curves away from the town so I was pushed into peace and quiet fairly quickly. Running alongside the cement road was a soft earth bridleway, dotted with Jurassic Park-like hoofprints.

It was strange to think that this had once been a railway line, because it didn't seem to want to go anywhere very quickly. The Borderlands line travels through a lot of countryside en route, but it was saved from Beeching because of its usefulness for freight to the Birkenhead docks. This line had no saving graces though, just a few country halts, and walking it now it was hard to see what kind of service you could possibly have got out of it.

Under a bridge, I saw how wide the trackbed really was. I also encountered someone else on the path for the first time, two women walking dogs. They both carried leads in their left hand and blue baggies filled with faeces in their right. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I will never have a dog. I will do many things for a pet; brush it, feed it, walk it, but I refuse to pick up its freshly laid excrement and carry it around with me like a Cath Kidston handbag. I will get a dog the day I can afford to have someone follow me around to do the poop scooping for me.

On I trotted, taking in the day. It's been weeks since I walked quite so much, and my body was quite unused to it; my calves were already starting to strain, and a dark stain of sweat was spreading across the front of my hoodie. Despite it being mid-October, and the skies churning darkly above me, there was still enough warmth for me to do without a coat. I leapt out of the way of two old dears on bikes, gossiping loudly in lieu of having a bell, and clearly far too busy to do anything resembling a Cycling Proficiency Test, and then the Wirral Way broke for another Station Road, this time in Parkgate.

There were actually two stations at Parkgate. The first was the original terminus for the line from Hooton, then a bridge was built across the road and a new station was built on the north side. Nothing remains of the stations now, or the bridge. There is, however, a memorial to the old railway, built at the entrance to a new cul-de-sac. It's the wrong gauge (and God, how things have progressed that I even spotted that!) but it's nice to see none the less.

I could, at that point, have continued on the Wirral Way all the way to Heswall; after all, that was the next stop on the old railway line. However, I was bored with taking the back routes, and I wanted a change of scenery, so I turned and headed down into Parkgate proper. I knew I was moving up in the world, just from the state of the road sign. This one was clean...

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Shop Till You Drop

A little visit to Liverpool yesterday gave me the opportunity to poke my nose in at Central again, to see what's happening with the works there. Things have certainly moved on, and it looks like they're approaching completion. In fact, there's only a few weeks before it gets finished.

It's pleasing to note that the hoardings are listing a Travel Centre and an M to Go are being built. The Travel Centres at the Queen Square and Liverpool 1 bus stations are very good examples of passenger information facilities, and it would be good to see this carried over to the Merseyrail stations for a change.

The building's nearly completed and it looks good, slotted into the ticket hall. Grey and yellow are fully in evidence of course. It's also good to notice that the plans incorporate three ticket machines, which should cut down on the queues.

I was at Central waiting for a friend, and it gave me a chance to see just how busy the station gets. Even on a Tuesday lunchtime, there were loads of passengers streaming through in both directions. Annoyingly, very few people were using the ticket gates. Even the ones with paper tickets were wafting them in the direction of the inspectors. That never fails to wind me up.

I was a bit bored of waiting, so I wandered down the passageway to Lewis' department store. It's pretty impressive that they managed to get this direct link to their store built into the booking hall - even Selfridges couldn't get London Underground to do that at Bond Street. I'd never been down the link before, and I was disappointed at how tawdry it was. I know Lewis' has gone through a lot of problems over the years, but still; this valuable pedestrian link leads into the back end of the bedding department, through ugly fire doors, and it feels like you've ended up in the store's abandoned bowels. I half expected Autons to lurch out of the walls at me. On the plus side, there are advanced plans for the whole Lewis' building to be refurbished into a new development, similar to the Printworks in Manchester, and I should imagine the direct link will be extremely valuable.

The saving grace was the blue painted passageway itself, which incorporated a nice gold relief image of the Liver Bird. There's probably an interesting blog to be written, finding all the hidden Liver Birds throughout the city centre; there must be hundreds tucked away all over the place. Someone else'll have to write that one though. I've got my hands full already.

Sunday 11 October 2009

Best Laid Plans

I've done something rather silly. In a moment of what I can only describe as Merseyrail related insanity, I've paid good money for a station sign.

You might remember I spotted Sandhills' abandoned "M" sign by the bins at the station last time I was there. Because I have too much time on my hands, I put in an e-mail to Merseytravel, asking what they were going to do with it and, if it was alright, could I have it? I clicked send and, to be honest, I forgot about it.

Two weeks ago, I got a bemused phone call from a man in Rail Services at Merseytravel. He first established that I wasn't, well, taking the piss; then asked me to make him an offer. It seems they don't get many people offering to buy their cast offs so after a bit of half-hearted haggling, I agreed to make a donation to the Claire House Hospice, and it was mine.

The Bf and I went to the station yesterday to pick up my booty in our car. I never knew it was possible to drive through clenched teeth, but he managed it. He was all for me getting the sign when he didn't think it was going to happen, but now he's realised he's going to have to share his home with a big lump of steel, it's not gone down well. I've only managed to subdue him by promising that I'll stick it in my study in the cellar so he won't have to look at it.

I went to the ticket office, and, slightly embarrassedly, explained why I was there. The man behind the counter took it in his stride, and took the opportunity to light up a massive stogie as he walked me down to the bin store so I could get it.

You know in Father Ted, when Ted explains perspective to Dougal?

It seems I needed a lesson of my own. The sign, in my head, was only about a metre high. In reality... was as tall as me, and twice as wide. And suddenly fitting it into our Honda Accord looked impossible, even once the seats were folded down. It was just too wide. I had to put the sign back, and shamefacedly inform the station supervisor that we'd have to come back another day. My Sunday is now going to be spent looking at our van hire options.

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time...