Sunday 19 December 2010

Snowed Under


Apologies for the lack of updates lately; I haven't been feeling too jolly and I've been spending most of my days comatose at home, only emerging for the odd pint. I'm hoping to get in at least one more post before 2011, but we shall see.

Anyway, if you don't hear from me till then - Merry Christmas!

Friday 3 December 2010


As seen last night in Hamilton Square station: the police rounding up someone in the passageway underground. I'm not sure what was going on, but they had a guy spreadeagled against the wall getting patted down.

It's curious how sometimes an increased police presence makes you feel more secure, and sometimes it scares the heck out of you. Approaching them from the Chester platform I felt incredibly paranoid and nervous, and I'd done nothing wrong. Of course, that might be down to the half a dozen pints of bitter I'd had that afternoon...

Friday 26 November 2010

Round Up

***beep beep, beep beep, beep beep, beep beepity beep***

That was me doing an exciting news theme. It still needs a little work.

There's been a few exciting Merseyrail related news stories floating around the last few days, so I thought I'd do a quick rundown, interspersed with my usual ill-informed comment. Just for your delectation.

1) Four Trains an Hour to Chester

It's been a long time coming but yes, from December 13th, there will be a train between Chester and Liverpool every quarter of an hour. That is of course a doubling of the service, and means there's a whopping six trains an hour between Hooton and Birkenhead once you add in Ellesmere Port.

To squeeze in the extra services, they've had to cut something - and that poor victim is Capenhurst. The little station with the big nuclear plant will still have half hourly services, with the trains running through it on the other services. Bache was also rumoured to be skipped at one point, but fortunately for students of the Mandy Richardson University of Chester, that hasn't happened. Good news all round!

Of course I'd have been a lot happier if they'd brought these extra services in eight years ago when I worked in Chester, but apparently Merseyrail don't do their timetables just for my convenience.

Even more excitingly, you can win a weekend break to celebrate it. Whoo-hooo indeed.

2) No More Christmas Crackers

They giveth, and they taketh away. This year there won't be a Christmas Cracker promotion - the £1 fare on Thursday nights and Sundays. The reason, according to Bart Schmeink, is that the promotion was introduced to encourage people to use the network. Now apparently, everyone's using the network, so the £1 fare just causes overcrowding and a lot of hassle.

I can see their point. There was many a time when I forgot the promotion was on and ended up with my head rammed in someone's armpit on my way into town (and not in a good way). Liverpool's changed, as well; Liverpool ONE's given us late night shopping every night, not just Thursdays.

But I bet there's an awful lot of people who won't use Merseyrail, and will instead drive into the dozens of new parking spaces in the city to do their shopping instead. Shame.

3) Central Station

This isn't strictly news, because it's been planned for yonks, but a video has surfaced on the net for the new Central Village development. This is the plan for new shops and leisure facilities to be built on what was the railway lands behind the old Central Station, rendered defunct with the opening of the Link and Loop in the Seventies.

I can't quite get my head around the fact that there's a whole load of prime real estate sitting behind Bold Street that's untouched, but there you are: it exists, and it's slowly coming to life with a multi-storey car park under construction at the top of the development even as we speak.

The next part to be built will take in the old Lewis' building and will incorporate Central itself, with escalators up to the development. It's right at the start of the video:

Exciting, innit? And I like that the new M to Go building has taken into account the positioning of the escalators, to hopefully minimise inconvenience and stop the whole thing from having to be reconstructed again (though there's bound to be some hassle).

Apparently funding is in place so construction could start very soon. Fingers crossed.

4) Electricity

This has been covered elsewhere by railway writers far cleverer than me, so I'll just say: electrification, yay! Quicker services to Manchester, Preston and, er, Blackpool, yay! Higher train fares, ya- oh shit. Still at least we'll get lots of new trains for our services. Hmmm.

THAT WAS THE NEWS. I should do this full time. I'd teach Bill Turnbull a few tricks.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Night Train

I'd been to see my friend Jennie, which doesn't happen often enough. She works at Edge Hill University, my old alma mater in Ormskirk, so visiting her is doubly pleasurable: I get to see her, and what condition her pregnant belly is in at the moment, and I also get to do a nostalgia trip round the campus. Not that there's much left from my day (fifteen years - erk). I used to have Writing Fiction classes in a white hut that was probably leftover from the war; that's been replaced by a huge silver building that looks like a stormtrooper's helmet. Everywhere you look there are steel and glass monoliths that dwarf the old landmarks I used to love.

So anyway, Jennie and I met up and went into Ormskirk for a meal. After walking out of Echelon because the staff couldn't seem to be bothered serving people, we headed for the Left Bank Brasserie. A very good decision, as it turned out, as the food and service were light years ahead of anything Echelon had to offer: highly recommended.

Jennie dropped me off at the station around nine o'clock. The train at that time on a Friday night is a funny thing. The serious clubbers have already headed into town, to get tanked up before they start. The last minute dashes into town won't happen until the pubs close around eleven, and drunks head for the final train to chance their luck.

I sat in the still-gleaming station building to wait the twenty minutes for my train. There was only one other person in there, a man in his fifties who shifted from seat to seat uncomfortably, as though he was sizing them all up. I wanted to interrupt and tell him that they were all equally unpleasant.

Behind the counter, the bored station master was staring at his smartphone. I'm not sure what he had on there - judging by the levels of scrutiny he was giving it, I'm guessing he'll be going blind soon - but it entirely captured his attention while I sat there. Who can blame him? Nobody came through wanting a ticket.

There were a few people on the platform who'd forgone the warm waiting room - probably because of the man playing musical chairs - and when the train came we spread ourselves along its length.

The amount of times I have taken this journey! Travelling through cold, dark nights headed for assignations in Liverpool. My first boyfriend would pick me up from Moorfields, and I'd travel in to meet him slightly sick with excitement. The trains were always empty and slightly melancholic. Of course, that was in the days before the carriages were refurbished, when there was a musty smell to the seats, and they usually showed the ravages of the Saturday crowds in their roughed up seat cushions and litter. Later, after I met the current Bf, I'd head to his for the weekend, usually with a bag of washing so I could skip having to use the launderette on campus.

I leaned against the glass and watched the dark. The route back from Ormskirk travels through countryside for the first part, then a lot of deep, impenetrable cuttings, so at night all you see is blackness. Then you burst into the hot white glow of a station and one or two people shuffle on board. There was thick fog that night too - as Jennie and I concluded, weather to be raped in - so even the lights of the houses were obscured. I may as well have been underground.

My fellow passengers were the same people I used to travel with when I was a student: the buttoned up young girl, slightly anxious at being alone in the train. A guy in his twenties with earphones rammed deep in his ears. Through the glass of the interlinking doors, I could see two rude boys restlessly wandering the carriage, baseball caps tucked on the back of their head, swinging idly off the poles. I used to be terrified of having to share the car with people like them, waiting for them to get bored and pick on me for some imaginary slight. Never happened.

At Old Roan, noise and excitement came aboard in the form of four drunken women, mid forties, partying hard. Slightly tipsy and talking loudly about what a good time they were going to have, though they weren't going to get too drunk. One turned to her friend and asked about her shoes, "Are they ok, Jackie? Because they really hurted you?". I resisted the urge to lean over and correct her grammar, but only just. They lost some of their fizz as we continued; the Christmas ban on alcohol on Merseyrail meant they didn't have anything to keep them topped up all the way.

I was the only person to get off at Moorfields; I usually am. It's always my preferred station, so much better than the hustle and fuss of Central. I can't deny it was a bit eerie wandering the empty corridors, the only sound being the rhythmic grind of the escalators.

There's something beautiful about a quiet train, something that slices into you and makes you run back over your mind. My journey had been a strange mix of memories and the present, as though I was viewing everything through a filter. Fifteen years since I'd done that journey for the first time, and even though there was a new Ormskirk station, and the trains turned purple, weirdly, I felt eighteen again.

Saturday 13 November 2010

Vibrating Bum-Faced Goats

From this month's Viz:

My local travel firm, Merseyrail, bears the motto 'Merseyrail - more than just a journey'. Well after being mugged on their Wirral line service recently, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank them for their honesty.

S Porter, Merseyside

All publicity is good publicity... I guess?

Friday 29 October 2010

Who You Gonna Call? Ghost Stations!

Quick: head to iPlayer and check out the Radio 4 documentary, The Ghost Trains of Old England. It's a lovely little programme about parliamentary trains, and it's very much worth a listen.

And on a sidetrack, there was mention of the rarely served Denton station in Manchester. I have a mild yen to visit this station, because it's the same name as the town in Shock Treatment, and Shock Treatment is one of my minor obsessions (this is my ringtone right now). Strangely, it seems that Network Rail seem to also realise how dreadful the service to this station is, and recognise that if you want to get there, you may as well be fictional:

Let's take a closer look at that, shall we?

Much as I like a bit of humour in corporate life, that's just taking the piss, isn't it?

Thursday 28 October 2010


Above is the happy smiling face of Gary Briscoe, the newly crowned winner of the Station Staff of the Year award at the RailStaff Awards. The Wirral Line Manager was nominated for the award a couple of months ago, but in a ceremony last Saturday he was given the prize by none other than Pete Waterman. I don't think Gary demeaned himself as I would have done by berating Pete for our lacklustre Eurovision entry, but that's why he's a classy award-winner and I'm not.

A hearty well done to Gary for the award - a real achievement, and on a national scale too. It's great to see great customer service rewarded in this way. I still haven't collected Bromborough Rake station, and I look forward to it now; not only to see all of his achievements in the flesh, but also to get a paparazzi-like photograph with the newly crowned King of Merseyrail!

You can see all the winners here.

Monday 25 October 2010

On Her Majesty's Kirkby Service

Robert e-mailed me this pic, and I had to share it. It's the 25th October 1978, and the Queen is officially opening Merseyrail by riding to Kirkby. (Not that I'm trying to score points or anything, but they could only get Prince Charles to open the Jubilee Line, and that was named in QEII's honour).

First of all, I am loving that hat. HM was quite groovy in the Seventies, wasn't she? It seems to match her scarf too. She also looks like she's having a rollocking good time, more so than that lady-in-waiting next to her, who looks like she's afraid of catching Working Class.

It's interesting to note the grime, mud and general air of misery outside the window, too. One of The Richest Women In The World obviously hasn't.

I'm also pleased to see that even when a train has been buffed, scrubbed and polished in readiness for a Royal visit, they still couldn't get those awful yellow and green seat covers to stay on properly. Look at the ones in front - I bet the Kirkbyites who rode the train back into the city had them off and chucked round the carriage before they reached Fazakerley. The Queen didn't ride back on the train; her limo was waiting for her at Kirkby station. Two standard class rail journeys in one day? Are you mad?

In short: this is ace. Any more photos on this theme would be much appreciated. Perhaps a shot of Liz getting a corgi stuck in the door, or having her ticket checked by an over-enthusiastic inspector. Or a photo of the exact expression that came over her face when she got off the train in Kirkby. I would like to see that one, very much.

Thursday 14 October 2010


Part two of a two part trip: for part one, click here.

I passed a camping and caravan site on my way out of the Delamere Forest. This immediately got me thinking about lunch. I've seen both Carry on Camping AND Carry on Behind: I know about these places. No-one can go more than half an hour without ramming a load of sausages down their throat, washed down with twelve pints of beer. And possibly a pickled egg. Then they all try and get a look at Elke Sommer's Bristols and the tent falls over, with the pole going up Terry Scott's bum.

It stands to reason that if there's a caravan site, then there will be a pub close by. Probably a flea-bitten, jaded place, where the dart board is surrounded by a constellation of holes and the suede effect seating has fag holes in it. The kind of place that features brands of beer you've never heard of, or lagers you thought had gone years ago ("pint of Double Diamond, please!"). All served by a barmaid who's the wrong side of sixty, but no-one told her wardrobe. In short, a joy.

I was practically rubbing my hands together at the thought of the ramshackle establishment, and knocking back a pint of warm beer. It'd be great material for the blog.

First I'd have to establish where the station was because it's another of those ones that's hidden away. It's buried under a road bridge - a road bridge with pavement only on one side, the opposite side to the station. There's no station sign.

I headed down the steps, in the hope of finding a decent sign for when I came back, and possibly that dodgy pub. Instead I found something much better.

The Station House. Some genius had taken the old station and converted it into a snug little cafe, tucked away alongside the footpaths into the forest and overlooking the station itself. It didn't look like I'd get that pint, but I didn't mind. (No, really).

There was a couple sat outside already, supping tea from china cups. I went inside. It had been decorated in bright sunny colours, with very traditional furniture: none of your stainless steel and granite here, just pine and formica, but clean and decent. I will admit they've gone a bit overboard on the period signage: yup, this is another of those places full of tin-plate Bovril ads and pictures of a baby plugging Pear's soap. I wonder if cafes in the future will have the Smash aliens on the wall, underneath Alexsandr Orlov and that monkey on the Dairy Milk commercial?

The lady - buxom but friendly, in a smart black t-shirt and pants - took my order, a bacon, chicken and mango chutney panini. She called out to her friend in the back: "Have we got all the stuff for a panini?"

"Hang on, I'll check."

"We had a rush over the weekend," said the woman behind the counter. The word came from the back - yes, she had all the bits. £6.75 lighter - and smarting a little at the price - I was carrying my tea back outside to sit in the sun. The retro theme carried on out here - a preserved red phone box, and various agricultural implements of mysterious provenance.

I had twenty minutes until my train, so I hoped lunch wouldn't be too late. At least, I didn't at first. Then the sun began to get to me, weak but gently warming, and the opportunity to have a seat was so nice after two hours of trudging through woodland. My panini came, and I immediately felt guilty for quibbling about the price.

It was ridiculously overstuffed with meat, and accompanied by a massive quantity of salad (at one point I moved the panini to make some space, and found a pile of potato salad I hadn't even realised was there). Add to that the two and a half cups of good strong tea I got out of the pot, and I more than got my money's worth.

There was no way I was going to be able to polish all that off in twenty minutes: I may be carrying a few extra pounds, but that's down to my drinking habits, not my eating. It takes me ages to work my way through a plate of food. I took an executive decision - I'd get the next train. Besides, it was such a great spot. I heard the train pass behind me, all whirring of wheels and hissing of brakes, while I worked my way through the panini. I hadn't been sure about the mango chutney but it was a wonderful tangy edge next to the bacon and chicken. Finally I pushed my plate away, still laden with lettuce and tomato (I just couldn't do it), and leaned back to read my book.

Time rolled on. I felt my limbs become heavy. James Bond got his finger broken by Tee-Hee in Harlem. I watched more people arrive - a threesome of serious looking men waving an OS map about. A couple with a lively collie. James Bond risked his mission by absconding with the lovely Solitaire. Two old ladies debated whether to use the toilet in the cafe since they weren't buying anything. They disappeared inside, then re-emerged with a guilt-ridden tray of tea. A midget and his mother turned up and sat at the table next to me, eating bacon baps.

The Station House Cafe's up for sale, incidentally, if you've got a million or so quid free. I hope whoever buys it doesn't change it too much.

I drained the last of my tea, eking out the last drop from the teapot before wandering round to the Manchester platform. As I said, there wasn't a British Rail sign anywhere on the road, so I had to settle for a platform sign:

It's not the same.

The train arrived, and my heart sank: it was a Pacer, those bloody awful tin machines that somehow, somehow, have managed to persist into the 21st Century. It's always a surprise when one turns up: you always think it's something that's been eliminated from polite society, like bear baiting.

On board though, there was a strangely familiar air to things.

It was smarter than the usual bus-seat Pacers, with a nifty dot-matrix display and comfy chairs. But look at the colours... and the interior... it's all a bit, well, familiar, isn't it? And what about the seat covers...

As always when it comes to train related queries, I turned to Robert for guidance, and fired off a text. The reply came back almost immediately. Yup: it was a former Merseytravel Pacer, one of the yellow trains that used to do the City Line. It seems that Northern Rail repainted the outside, but didn't bother with the inside. It was quite nice: a little piece of home. And the Colour Tsars will be pleased about their influence extending into Cheshire and Manchester.

Cuddington next: a village that sounds like it was named after that stuff cows regurgitate. Charming. On the plus side, they know how to do railway station signs there:

Apart from that - what's going on, Cuddington? Why do you want to hide your light under a bushel? I figured that, as a rural Cheshire village, it would have a scenic centre - cottages, village shops, a tea room with doilies. Instead I wandered in one direction, then another, then another before I finally stumbled upon its throbbing hub. And by "throbbing hub" I mean "drab parade of shops that look like they've escaped from a pre-war council estate".

It looks like a well to do, pleasant village, so why was it so colossally boring and suburban? Plus there was no sign of that tea room. A Premier mini-market, a Chatwins, a dry cleaners and four - count them! - four hairdressers. The people of Cuddington may have nowhere to chat over a petit four, but they do have nice hair.

I'll forgive them though, for two reasons. The first was the dry cleaner's window, which featured this epicmazing poster:

I got some funny looks from the dry cleaner for taking that shot, but it had to be done. They just don't do ads like that any more.

The second reason for glee was the village hall, which had a bulletin from the local police posted outside. Having grown up in Luton, and now dwelling on Merseyside, I have a pretty jaded view of crime and its effects. Frankly, you could disembowel a hooker on my doorstep, and I'd only take an interest in how much blood was getting on my brick paving. Murder, rape, burglary, vandalism - these are bread and butter to me and my cynical mindset.

It's not the same in Cheshire, as a bulletin from the Constabulary made clear. Some choice elements:

  • "We had an incident reported to us in Newton where a farmer found that 3 of his chickens had been beheaded. This is very unusual."
  • "Officers swooped on a drink driver this week in Tarporley. On Saturday night local people reported a man driving erratically."
  • "Sightings please for a Red Audi A3 index number P141PLL. This vehicle's occupants stole a Hoover from a shop in Frodsham and made off."

I know I shouldn't laugh, but can you imagine the ecstasy in Birkenhead if the worst they had to deal with was a few decapitated chickens? The police would have a street parade.

I was charmed, and decided to give Cuddington a passing grade. But that had taken twenty minutes, total: what the hell was I going to do now?

I'll have you know, this was under sufferance. The only pub I could find was - urgh - a Hungry Horse, and during the course of my visit, they managed to play Robbie Williams AND Ronan Keating. There was also tinsel on the walls, and two customers asked when they'd start serving the Christmas menu. It was a sunny, cheery October, and people were already considering when they could stuff their face with turkey. Enjoy today! Stop rushing ahead!

It did give me time to think about the countryside. The walk in the Delamere Forest had reminded me why so many people dream of moving to the sticks; the peace, the beauty, the awesomeness of nature. It was very seductive. Cuddington had reminded me why I could never do it myself. I'd miss the hustle of town, the accessibility, the choice; I didn't want to live somewhere with one pub. No coffee shops, no decent stores - I would feel isolated and marooned. I'm a city boy; what can I say?

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Get Out Of Cities (Return To The Trees)

It's a bacon bap, a coffee and a James Bond novel. Yup, I'm off on another day out tarting! This particular fuel stop was at Carriages, the new cafe-bar in Chester station. I thoroughly recommend it. The above only cost me £2.50, and the cafe restores the look of the old Victorian station beautifully, with 1930s posters on the wall. It was peaceful and elegant - certainly a welcome difference from the overpriced Costa on the platform.

I'd decided to go out for the day to head into the countryside. I'd meant to do this stretch of line during the summer, as it was going to be dependent on good weather, but (a) there wasn't much good weather around and (b) when it did come, I had my foot in plaster and couldn't leave the house. Fortunately, the last week has been gorgeous, and quite un-Autumny, so I took advantage of the unseasonal warmth and hopped on a train.

I was on my own. The last few tarts have been accompanied, but I was back to Billy No-Mates for this trip. Confession - I was secretly pleased. Don't get me wrong; I love sharing my trips with other people, and I've had great fun with everyone, and I hope to do it again, many times, but sometimes I just want to be the Merseytart, just me. It's my little project and it's nice to hug it to my chest sometimes.

Of course, you know what that means. Yes! It's the return of the dodgy up the nostril shot!

That was the fourteenth attempt. I've lost practice, you see? Plus Mouldsworth's station sign's at a funny height - I was squatting uncomfortably on the pavement at this point. Thank God it was early in the morning - I'd have ended up drawing a crowd otherwise.

Mouldsworth station is no longer staffed, of course (it is in Cheshire, after all) but at least it's not a boarded-up mess, as seen elsewhere. Instead, the building's been divvied up - there's a hairdresser's in one part, and a board was advertising offices to rent. I'm guessing there's also a house in part of it, as there was a washing line too. Either that, or Northern Rail have a very laissez faire attitude when it comes to staff using the facilities for drying their knickers.

Directly opposite the station is the Goshawk pub and restaurant, and I cast a long, loving look in its direction. The food there is gorgeous, absolutely wonderful, and it's a favourite of The Bf and I. It wasn't open at this time of the morning which was probably a good thing, otherwise I would probably have gorged myself and tottered straight back to the station to go home, fat and contented.

Instead I pressed on. It was a truly beautiful day. Autumn sometimes creeps up on you and springs a surprise. This year it's decided to be kind, and there was a glow over the landscape. I wasn't wearing a coat, just a shirt and t-shirt, and the sun was beating down on me. It was different to the harsh summer sun though, warming and comforting, and combined with the dew still clinging to the grass and the nettles, it meant that there was a freshness in the air.

It's easy to forget just how beautiful England is, to take its greenery and elegance for granted. I walked along the road, and each corner seemed to surprise me with its well-composed picture of loveliness. You could close your eyes, spin round, and open them on a picturesque view straight out of a watercolour. A pond here, sheep grazing there, sudden flashes of colour from wild flowers. This is the time when nature should be winding down but it felt just as lively and vivacious as ever. I looked through one open gateway and spotted a bird of prey, perched on top of an empty stable: it lifted into the air at the sight of me and swirled over the field, a majestic, twisting genius of form, light bouncing off its feathers as it vanished into the horizon.

The only annoyance was having to occasionally hurl myself into the hedgerow to avoid an oncoming car, but this was rare; the road was as quiet and peaceful as the undulating landscape. The ground rose and fell beneath my feet like a waltz. Soon, I had looped round on myself, and I was heading towards the railway line I'd just left.

Passing under the bridge was like entering Narnia. The sunshine and warmth disappeared, and I was plunged into the cool woodland beyond. This was the Delamere Forest; two and a half thousand acres of trees in the centre of Cheshire, and the cue for me to go off road.

I hadn't really thought through my outfit for the day. Here I was, trekking through the woods, and I was wearing a shirt and jeans. I looked like a call centre worker who'd got lost on the way to work. Two cyclists passed me, cagouled up to the hilt, and I'm sure they must have thought that I'd wandered out of the Tardis or something.

The cyclists were the first and last people I saw for a long time. I took the smaller, less well-trodden paths, pushing through the undergrowth. I love wandering through woods. When I was growing up, we had woods and fields very close by, and my friends and I would go up there and just wander round, talking, coming up with schemes, building "bases". It's a strange mix of the familiar and the dangerous - so easy to get lost in the depths and vanish from sight.

I'd been wearing my iPod when I passed under the bridge, but I stopped it as I got deeper and deeper into the Forest. Michel Legrand's Never Say Never Again soundtrack is a load of brassy nonsense at the best of times, but in the middle of all that green and shadows it seemed positively offensive. When I pulled the earbuds out I was shocked by how silent everything was. There wasn't even birdsong, just thick, cold air around me. I felt weirdly, strangely, thrillingly alone; it felt like the woods were mine somehow. Sometimes I'd spot a squirrel, or the odd bird, but other than that it was just me, my thoughts and acres of greenery.

Even though it hadn't rained for a week, bits of the path were still thick mud, particularly at the base of small rises. I did my best Nureyev impression where I could, leaping over the bogs as best I could (and being even more glad that there was no-one there to see me), and clambering through the bushes to avoid the worst of them. Finally, my luck ran out, and my left foot sank into a thick mass of brown gloop, disgorging a disgusting smell and a wet fart as it did so. I yanked it free, quick as I could, but the water had already flooded inside my trainer and soaked my sock.

(Yes, I know I should have been wearing boots, not trainers; but the lace on my DMs snapped that morning as I was putting them on, so I had to settle for the trainers. Lesson learned).

I squelched off, and found a picnic area in a clearing where I could pause and wring out my wet parts. I also took the opportunity to check out the Ordnance Survey map, and I was astonished to find I had barely penetrated the forest; there was a massive lake to the south which I hadn't even seen yet.

Soon I'd stumbled upon a car park, and my illusion of my own private forest was lost. Round there, it was like Oxford Circus - there were people swarming all over the place. They could be roughly divided into three categories:

1) Cyclists bouncing over the rutted earth with little regard for the state of their buttocks;
2) Families with small children, picnicking;
3) Retired couples desperately trying to find something to fill their time with.

The last category were the most unnerving; they walked in pairs, completely silent, not talking to one another or anyone else. They were like haunted ghost couples, floating through the woods. All of them were plastered with the ramblers uniforms, thick socks, anoraks, rucksacks; they'd spent their pensions on all the gear and they were going to get their money's worth, dammit.

I was still trying to take the road less travelled, but it was harder now - all the paths were well worn, and signposted to buggery. I picked one, more or less at random, and saw that the trees were thinning out; it seemed I was headed towards the lake, Blakemere Moss.

I wish I was a better writer, or photographer, and I could convey to you just how wonderful it was to step out of the trees, and down to the edge of the lake. Sparkling light everywhere, with the gentle slap of the waves against the shore; birds massed in the distance. There was a cool breeze drifting across the surface, enough to muss my hair like an affectionate uncle. I had no idea it was so huge, so blue, so tranquil. I sat down beside it and just watched the ripples for a while.

Even more bizarrely, Blakemere Moss is younger than me. It was here for hundreds of years, before being drained in the 19th century and planted with trees. It never really thrived, however, and the area was flooded again in 1998 to form a new wetland. Sitting there, I had no inkling that it was so recent; it felt so much a part of the landscape.

Eventually I had to move on. I still had train stations to collect, never mind fannying around by a bit of water. I knocked back a couple of Softmints and walked back into the forest. It got busier and busier - the odd cyclist became a group of six, the picnicking families became whole school parties, and the retirees came in bunches, like wizened grapes. One gang of pensioners were tucking pine cones into carrier bags, and looked at me with undisguised suspicion, as if I was going to steal their precious booty.

The final straw came when a woman in an invalid car belted round the corner, dragging a poodle in her wake, and nearly knocking me sideways. I'm all for increased access to our natural landscape, but I don't think a court in the land would have minded if I'd pushed her and her electric battering ram into the lake.

Nope, my idyllic morning of lonely walking had been well and truly finished. Time for me to break cover and head for the next station: the imaginatively titled Delamere...

Friday 8 October 2010


I've just had some very bad news. My friend Jim Horsford has sadly died.

Jim had been ill for some time, but he passed away last night after a fall. The Bf and I had only seen him on Wednesday, where he had been full of anger at David Cameron's speech and making plans for holidays. He'd seemed upbeat and cheery, unleashing his fearsome tongue on the Tory conference and updating us with the gossip.

Jim was a real railway fan; I was in awe of his knowledge and his passion. His home was crammed with models, books and magazines. His specialities were the Czech railway system, and the railways of the Caribbean - to the extent that he wrote a couple of books on St Kitts and Barbados. He'd just received the proofs for a third book, this time on the Jamaican railway, and was going to be checking them through. He was also a gifted artist, and had begun to sell his paintings; only a couple of weeks ago he put some on display in Northgate Street in Chester. He typically painted railway scenes, great plumes of smoke billowing out over landscapes, beneath Victorian arches, steam and fire and iron.

He was also a fan of this blog, and I think secretly pleased to find another railway geek in his circle (though goodness knows he already knew hundreds - he was nothing if not gregarious). Jim had a massive collection of photographic slides, amassed over the decades, that he was working to transfer to his PC. Among these were a number of shots of Merseyrail stations over the years, and he'd promised to send them to me for the blog when he scanned them in.

I'm writing this not long after finding out about his death, so I'm still a little stunned. The Bf, who had known him for the best part of thirty years, is even more upset. It'll be even harder for his partner Norman, and all my thoughts are with him today. I'll remember Jim for his humour, for his sense of fun, for his wicked, wicked way of talking, When the Bf and I signed our Civil Partnership earlier this year, we did it very quietly, with no guests; but Jim was one of the witnesses, and I was proud to have him there. He was one of a kind.

Above: Jim (centre), with his partner Norman on the right and our other witness, John, at our Civil Partnership in June.

Thursday 7 October 2010

Green Shoots

As Jeff Goldblum kept saying in Jurassic Park, nature finds a way. We're metres underground, in the artificially lit, hostile environment of Liverpool Central. Trains are whizzing past every five minutes on electrified tracks. There's hardly any fresh air. But somehow, these plants have managed to find a little dirt, a little water, and have started to grow out of the drainage holes by the track. It's almost inspiring, even if it does raise troubling questions about the maintenance regime.

(Also, has the Doctor dropped his sonic screwdriver under the tracks, or what?)

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Very Smart Cards

The future just isn't exciting any more. We live in a world of wi-fi, widescreen, HD technology, carrying mobile phones in our pocket with more computing power than Apollo 11, wandering into air-conditioned offices to work on laptops and desktops. We listen to thousands of songs in boxes the size of cigarette packets. We can solve our problems with a touch of a screen. It's all become so... ordinary. Remember the thrill you got the first time you used an automatic door, how it was like being on board the Enterprise? Now you use them so often you're forgetting how door handles work. The future is now, and we're not bothered.

Here's a tip: go to London. Every time I swoosh an Oyster card, I feel a little thrill of excitement at the genius technology of it. A wave of a piece of plastic, and the gates spring open for me; the correct fare is deducted, and the computer keeps track of how much I've spent to make sure I don't pay too much. If there's not enough money on the card, it contacts my bank and transfers some funds across. In split second, lightning fast time. It's so efficient, seamless and, well, futuristic, I've been desperate for it to be rolled out across the rest of the country.

It seems it's now on its way to Merseyside. Starting Monday, Merseytravel began rolling out contactless smart card use. At first, it's just for concessionary pass holders (i.e. pensioners) and it's only on a handful of bus routes. However, the technology is being implemented further and further over the coming months, with the aim of making it available right across the county by 2012.

Buses will be the first to benefit, but, according to the FAQs, the technology will start hitting the rail system next year. Marvellous. The paper tickets are increasingly archaic, and as for those big floppy Trios? Urgh. It's ridiculous that in 2010, you still have to wave a bit of paper that's bigger than your wallet, that gets creased and damaged and folded over. It's daft that you have to queue up every week so a new sticker can be applied to your card and get written in a book and stamped. It's like something from the Dark Ages. The sooner we have a microchipped smartcard we can renew online while we watch EastEnders the better.

I do have a couple of caveats about it, though. The Underground benefits from ticket gates at almost all its stations, so access to the platforms is restricted. I've whined before about how great I think these gates are: they make stations and trains more secure, and they cut down on the amount of ticketless travel dramatically. These are a natural fit for the Oyster-style smartcard, a place for scanners to be located and a way to make sure people use them.

Merseyrail doesn't have these gates, except in a handful of locations (the Loop stations, Hamilton Square, Conway Park and Southport, plus Arriva Trains Wales has them installed at Chester). Rolling them out across the whole network would be expensive. Not to mention the fact that not all stations are suitable for the works. Green Lane, for example, has a single booking hall with stairs leading to the platform: it'd be simple to block off the entrance with ticket gates.

But how about Bebington, which has its tiny ticket office below the Liverpool platform? The ticket office is to one side, and the way to the trains is up a narrow slope in the open air - not the best location for ticket gates. Even worse, there's a car park on the Hooton platform, with direct access, so you'd either need a second set of gates there, or make people walk all the way round and under the bridge to get to the ticket office. Sadly, the brand new Sandhills also comes under this category - the ticket office is up on the platforms. Lack of forward thinking there, I feel.

The solution will probably be the one used on the Docklands Light Railway, and at some Overground stations: no gates, but stand alone readers which must be touched in and touched out to register a trip. It's a bit more complicated, and doesn't have the security or ticket fraud advantages gating does, but it's a cheaper option and easier to implement. I'd personally like to see a mix of the two, with gating wherever possible (stations like Birkenhead Central and Port Sunlight leap to mind) and particularly in areas with high ticket fraud. Somewhere quiet like Capenhurst on the other hand just needs the odd reader.

(And on a related note, let's hope the IT guys are better at updating things than they are now - I tried using a Saveaway on the Moorfields ticket barriers about a month ago, and they're still not recognised).

The security issue leads me to a second downside of the smartcards: staffing. The Oyster card's been so successful in London, ticket sales at the stations have plummeted. This has lead to plans to reduce the staffing levels across the network too - in some cases, so much so that there will only be open ticket offices during the morning peak. The newest Underground station, at Wood Lane on the Hammersmith & City Line, was built without a ticket office: all sales there are through machines. Could Merseyrail go this way too?

Permanently staffed stations are one of the best features of Merseyside's rail network, and are no doubt a large part of the Secure Stations accolades. I really don't want to see them end up like the miserable stations on the Ellesmere Port branch, boarded up and desolate.

The MtoGo scheme could be rolled out, I suppose, to maintain the staffing levels and give them something to do, but that would be expensive and some places just aren't suitable for them. Back at Bebington, the ticket office is tiny (the queue regularly pokes out the door) - how would you fit in the range of MtoGo facilities? And could it compete with the parade of shops over the road?

But I'm seeing the half-empty glass as usual. Kudos to Merseytravel for really pushing this idea forward, and I look forward to brandishing my own Oyster card with pride in the very near future. It'll need a Merseyside specific name though. The M Card? Liver Card? I'll have a think and get back to you on that...

Friday 24 September 2010

Some Hope. Not much Glory.

Part two of a two part trip: for part one, click here.

Pedants will observe that Wrexham is not on the Merseyrail map. Well, not physically, anyway: it's mentioned in a box at the bottom. Furthermore, a quick scan down the page will reveal that this post is all about stations on the Borderlands Line which are also not on the Merseyrail map. These pedants will therefore be frothing at their mouths, demanding a justification for this heinous act.

My justification actually comes in four parts:

1) Doing only part of the Borderlands Line never felt right. Since it's such a simple, single route, with trains shuttling back and forth, it feels like a self-contained route, so stopping at Shotton and saying "well, that's that done" seemed like I was short changing it.

2) One day, someday, maybe, it will be part of the Merseyrail family as an extension to the Wirral Line. Possibly.

3) In the comments to this piece, an "Anonymous" commenter suggested I should do every place that's mentioned on the Merseyrail map - in other words, include the little arrows on the edge as well. I kind of like that idea, though of course, it's a tentative thing. It's easy for me to "do" North Wales. Glasgow, less so. I'm mulling it over.

4) It's my blog and if you don't like it, tough.

Sorry for the truly dreadful map. You should see the whole thing: it's an abomination.

With Wrexham under our belts, Roy, Robert and I headed out of town on the Arriva train to Gwersyllt, a station on its way out of the borough. We were - after much agonies - using a North Wales Rover ticket. To be honest, I didn't have any agony buying it at all, but poor Roy spent forty minutes at Waterloo station trying to convince the staff there that it existed, and that he could buy it from them. They finally concluded that they couldn't sell him any Rover tickets, and sent him away with a flea in his ear.

Roy next went to Lime Street Mainline, who'd also never heard of it. They at least called Chester to enquire about it, but they hadn't heard of it either, so in the end Roy just jumped on a train to Bidston to meet Robert and me. Surely the staff at Bidston could sell it to us? Erm, no. Apparently not.

What to do? The North Wales Rover covered two zones, Flintshire and Wrexham, giving us unlimited train journeys and even bus trips if we got tired. But no-one seemed to want to sell it to us. Robert came up with a plan: accost the conductor on the train and see if we could buy it off him.

"Can we have three North Wales Rover tickets please?"

"Yup." A couple of taps on his touchscreen, and three paper tickets slid out into our palms. Chalk one up to Arriva Trains Wales.

We got off at Gwersyllt which, like the rest of the line, is unstaffed and undistinguished. The station's over the road from a Lidl, and will never win any prizes for beauty or elegance. As we got off, a long-lost member of the Goldie Looking Chain decided to get off too, with his best swagger in his trackies.

Gwersyllt does at least have a big prominent sign. This would be an increasingly rare sight as the day went on.

From there it was a wander down a dual carriageway to get to our next stop. Summer was having one last gasp for air; it was officially the first day of autumn, but it was the closest thing to August we'd had in weeks. There were still berries on the trees and flowers in the gardens, and a gang of road workers were cutting the grass in the central reservation, filling the air with that just mown scent.

(Incidentally, a quick tip for Wrexham CBC: you could save a bomb on your road maintenance costs if you sent out just a couple of men to mow the verge, instead of the seven we saw. And if you gave them decent lawnmowers, instead of strimmers).

The road narrowed to a bridge and we crossed over into Flintshire or, as it is in Welsh, Sir y Fflint. We were headed for Cefn-y-bedd, which lead to a discussion amongst us three Englishmen as to (a) how you pronounced it and (b) what it means. Since our debate was getting us nowhere, I gave in and called the Bf, who grew up in North Wales and so knew this kind of thing. According to his linguistic prowess, Cefn-y-bedd translates as "Rear The Grave". And he pretends he's a Scouser.

Rear The Grave turned out to be a pretty little village, with a large pub about five minutes walk from the station. Roy - whose drinking habits make me look like a teetotal nun - advocated we go there for another pint, but as there was only fifteen minutes till the next train, we settled into the shelter on the platform instead.

Caergwrle used to be called Caergwrle Castle & Wells, until sanity prevailed sometime in the mid Seventies. The pretty little shelter on the platform still had this name painted over a very deep blue that was certainly not Arriva Trains colours: I predict a truck with a couple of gallons of emulsion is on its way even as we speak.

The station also provided another mystery: what is "Chester on Tour"?

These stickers had been applied to a few of the stations along the way - I'm guessing it's something to do with the football team, but I'd be happy to be proved otherwise.

Sign snapped, we continued to Hope, along a route that was far more scenic than our previous one. The trees were thick and overhanging here, and the traffic was light. The houses were also a charming mix of nineteenth century and older cottages, threaded along green streets. The road took us over a pretty weir, and we all stopped to admire it.

It was lovely, but I wondered how long I'd be able to live here before I cracked and went insane with a pitchfork? I see the countryside as something to be viewed from a distance, on a day trip. Once you start getting immersed in it, and are living in it, you realise the reason that it's all so pretty is there's nothing there. I'd be driven mad if I had to get in a car every time I wanted to buy a magazine or something non-essential. And what do you do when your home is attacked by armed thugs, who break in and hold you hostage? You can't call for help, because no-one will hear you. (Of course, in the city, they'll hear your cries and ignore them because it's none of their business, but that's not the point). I don't want my last few moments to be spent trussed up on a folding chair while thieves ransack my home willy-nilly, free to romp as long as they like because there's not even a street light outside.

This discussion took us into Hope, which, besides having a lovely name, also does well as a village. Tiny chip shop, tiny dressmaker, tiny garage, a church and two pubs - compared to Cefn-y-Bedd, this was a throbbing metropolis. We had loads of time before our train so we picked the Red Lion at random and went in.

I'd now like to apologise to the landlady of the Red Lion. The three of us relentlessly leered, lusted after and perved at your barman son, who was incredibly fit and wearing shorts. We made a number of comments that would have made Samantha from Sex and the City blush, mostly involving him being stripped naked and spreadeagled over a bar stool. It was a thoroughly shameful display of objectification and we should have been more discreet and polite.

On the other hand, it cost £9.50 for a pint of John Smiths, two pints of Stella and a packet of Quavers, so I think we can safely say you've had adequate compensation.

Once we'd drunk our drinks, and adjusted our underwear, we headed for the station. Sort of. What's going on, Hope? Why don't you want to put up signs for your train station? Are you ashamed of it?

I lead the way, brandishing an Ordnance Survey map and mentally tying my compass to it. Roy and Robert were less convinced as we headed down into a cul-de-sac, with plain semi-detatched houses on either side. In fact, they began to openly pour scorn on my directions. I suspect they secretly hoped I was wrong, so we could miss our train and go back to the pub for another session of Fantasy Barman, but I knew I was right. I just knew it. There wasn't a doubt in my mind. Ok, maybe a little one.

That's why I look a bit smug in that photo.

To be fair, the station was really hidden away: if you didn't know it was there, you would never find it. And as I've said, Hope was a pretty large village - there are loads of potential passengers there.

Back on the train, and thankfully the ticket inspector wasn't the same one who'd sold us ours that morning. It was starting to get embarrassing, running into him over and over.

Off at the delightfully named and consonant heavy Pen-y-ffordd station. It looked a bit prettier than some of the other Borderlands stations, and we found out why: it's been adopted.

Kudos to you, Richard Spray, and your horticultural efforts.

The route from Pen-y-ffordd to our next stop, Buckley, was colossally dull. We were all starting to flag a bit by this point, with the beers and the walking taking their tolls on us. My foot, which is well on its way to being fully healed, was also starting to make its presence felt in my trainer, throbbing slightly. It wasn't in the mood to trudge alongside a bypass, on soft grass because there was no pavement, with nothing to look at. Not a thing. There was the occasional horse in a field, but that was it. Beyond that it was just one long slog. The weather was turning on us, too, and the skies were greying over.

We talked on the way about the Borderlands Line, and its future. Before we travelled on it, we'd all been quite gung-ho. Bring it into Merseyrail! Get it on the map! Having almost completed it, we found ourselves asking - why? Because what struck us was how different the Borderlands Line was to Merseyrail. Unstaffed, deserted stations in tiny villages. Barrow crossings. No kind of customer services. How different it was to the very urban stations we were used to.

Getting Merseyrail to Wrexham - yes, absolutely, I can see that is a valid target. Especially as Wrexham General becomes more and more important. But when they electrified all the way to Chester, it meant they also got the urban sprawl of the Wirral in on the act too, places like Bromborough and Spital, dense urban environments. How many people would use a frequent service in Cefn-y-bedd? How many passengers would get on at Hope for the hour long journey to Liverpool?

The more we travelled on it, the more it seemed like the Borderlands Line would be a bad fit with Merseyrail. I can absolutely get on board with an extension to Woodchurch; possibly even as far as Neston or Shotton. But beyond there, it's a lot of rural halts that would just get in the way. It seems less like a business plan, and more like someone colouring in the lines on the map.

As for Buckley station - well, it's a liar. It's nowhere near Buckley, which is another minus point for electrification. It should be called Little Mountain, because that's where it is, and besides, that's a much better name.

The train was late at Buckley, by twenty minutes. Robert was able to bring up the National Rail update on his phone while we huddled in the shelter from the newly arrived rain. We were accompanied in the shelter by two teenagers, who were both listening to their iPods way too loudly, causing a competing mash-up of discordant sounds. I couldn't work out what they were listening to: from this distance it sounded like half a dozen keyboards being thrown into a grinder. I'm getting old. What's wrong with a bit of Blur, eh, kids?

They gave us some very odd looks as we took our photos too. They didn't say anything though. If they were in Merseyside they'd have been all over us, demanding to know what we were up to, but in rural Wales they've been brought up better.

Only one station remained to be tarted on the Borderlands Line, and that was Hawarden. We'd debated whether to walk from Hawarden to Shotton to finish with, but decided that it'd be better to stay there and get a pint and a pub meal. We'd been walking for hours, and the soulless trip to Buckley had taken out our last bit of enthusiasm.

This is not to denigrate Hawarden station in any way. It was lovely. Lots of planters, freshly painted, murals in the shelters - all very nice. It even had a footbridge over the tracks, instead of making you cross the line itself. Once again, we have someone to thank: Mr John Wannop.

Since it was the last station of the day, we went for a group shot, which unfortunately blocks out the English translation for us foreign types:

But here's me and the translation, just for completion's sake:

Incidentally, how do you pronounce Hawarden? All three of us pronounced it "Hard-on", leading to many base jokes and schoolboy sniggers. But the announcer at Wrexham pronounced the middle syllable - "Ha-warden" - and quite spoiling our fun. That doesn't sound even slightly smutty. Maybe it's part of a concerted effort by the locals to remove the innuendo, like when everyone started pronouncing "Uranus" differently.

You've probably heard of Hawarden; it's quite a notable town in North Wales, and it's worth visiting. It's famous for being the home of Michael Owen, who bought up an entire close for his family after he hit the big time. He himself lives in a manor outside the village. We considered nipping in for a hello, but there wasn't really time. Plus we thought we'd get shot.

Instead we hit the pub for that pint and meal. You'd have to be on a footballer's wages round here to afford the beer: £9.10 for a pint of John Smiths and two Stellas? The Red Lion was forty pence more, and that included a pack of Quavers. Plus, it turned out that they didn't serve food until 5:30, despite there being a sandwich board outside and menus on the table. And if that wasn't bad enough, there were no fit barmen, only two young girls in low-cut tops. Who wants to see that? (Oh you do, do you?). We got up and left. Hang your head in shame, Fox & Grapes.

There were other pubs, but to be honest, we were all exhausted, and running out of money (there are no cash machines in Hawarden! What do they do, barter?). Stuff it we thought: we'll go home.

We'd earned it, after all. Six hours of trekking through North Wales, following the Borderlands over the border and back. It was finally time to say goodbye to this strange little anachronistic line, this commuter route that isn't, this country train that goes to the city. I've crossed it off the map now, and I can feel a sense of completion.