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.