Sunday 31 January 2010

You Just Can't Buy Class

Prepare yourself for some snobbishness of galactic proportions. You may have noticed before that I really enjoyed the First Class experience on my way down to London - you'd have had to read between the lines, it was so subtle, but it was there. Well, I'm now on the train home, and it's a Sunday, so there are people on here taking advantage of the £15 upgrade to the posh seats.

Let's just say there are first class passengers, and there are people who travel in first class. And the four across the aisle from me are very much in the latter category. In fact, the way they're talking (loudly, thickly, incessantly) I'm not sure they're familiar with trains. They seem to think we're all sitting still and the scenery's moving. ("And we saw a tranny on Oxford Street! A real one! We couldn't stop staring!" It's like the Algonquin Round Table, but with more profanity.)

Ah well. I suppose no weekend is perfect. This would appear to be the unpleasant cap on a thoroughly pleasant weekend - the screw top on the bottle of Dom Perignon. I had lots of good food, drink, and decent theatre. We saw Oliver!, where I admired the set a lot - draw from that what you will - and also The Little Dog Laughed, which not only featured Gemma Arterton (Strawberry Fields in Quantum of Solace), but also a guest appearance from Harry Lloyd's arse. (For the record: a bit white and pasty, but very nice curves).

And, of course, I got to put my Oyster card to use on the Tube. I didn't actually get to do that much riding of the rails, for various reasons - one of which was a fear that the lovely Tubewhore would object to me muscling in on her territory - but I still nipped around and captured a couple of the Underground stations for posterity. I'll save the rest for when I win the lottery and can romp around London to my heart's content.

Queensway was our local station for the trip, and a nicely preserved example of a Central Line tube station. White tiles, lifts to the platform level, a general Victorian air. There was a cafe just across from the station which featured various Turkish men smoking hookahs on the pavement, which I found fascinating; I managed to stop myself from asking for a drag. Queensway is famously about fifty yards away from Bayswater station, no matter what the Tube map may tell you; you can stand outside one station and see the roundel for the other one in the distance.

(The extremely common people across the aisle have just registered their disgust that there's no free booze on offer at the weekends, and they'll have to lump it with a bottle of water and a packet of crisps. And then the woman opened her cheese and onion with her teeth. Between the four of them, it sounds like a shoal of piranhas working their way through a roll of asbestos).

Transport for London decided to take advantage of my visit as an opportunity to close most of the Tube for maintenance, so I wasn't able to ride the new-look "Teacup" Circle line, or go and have a ride on the Jubilee Line, my favourite. Instead I did a lot of walking around, and eventually ended up at Oxford Circus, ogling some of the beautiful oxblood tiles. Most of the entrances to this station are through subways but the original has been preserved for exit only.

What's impressive about the network, just from my last visit about eighteen months ago, is how much the stations have been tidied and cleaned. The tiles gleam in the passageways and platforms, white and shining, reflecting back the new lighting and almost iridescent. There are now LCD screens on the escalators, flashing moving video adverts at you, and projectors at Oxford Circus beamed full commercials onto the wall across from the platform. And of course, there's electronic information signs, and ticket machines, and gates at every station. It shows the cash that has been pumped into the network since Ken took over (I consider Boris to be just continuing with Livingstone's legacy). I can't wait until the new trains start arriving, and Crossrail finally comes to fruition...

(They've been to the shop and have two cans of Heineken each - quelle surprise - while the woman talks loudly on her phone and everyone else chips in).

Final stop on my whistle-stop Underground tour was Euston. I did go to Holborn (nice murals of the British Museum, freshly scrubbed) and Embankment (as dowdy as it always has been, sadly) but I forgot to take snaps there. So instead you'll have to see my chirpy smirk on the concourse at Euston. It's that rarest of buildings: a railway terminus which is completely devoid of any charm or class. It's an Arndale Centre and, like those misguided shopping hellholes, it's a period of architecture which everyone wishes had never happened. Even though it's barely forty years old, there are already plans for it to be replaced within the next decade - plans which will probably make it even more soulless than before, and turn it into a mall with pretensions. That it exists down the road from the awe inspiring St Pancras and the grubby but fun King's Cross just rubs salt into the wound.

Fortunately the First Class lounge at Euston is resolutely 21st Century, and is like the Lime Street one, only x100. There's less Swedish sauna pine, admittedly, but plenty of leather banquettes and plasma screens showing the BBC News channel (though one screen was tuned to Songs of Praise, for some reason). There's even a charging station, which lets you plug in your mobile and get it powered up while you enjoy the facilities.

All really marvellous, but completely ruined for me by the miserable cows who work on reception. I left my backpack in the lounge - not clever, I know - but I realised on the platform and rushed straight back. In total, I must have been gone for all of three minutes. However, the hatchet faced harridans on the front desk subjected me to the kind of interrogation not seen outside of Iraqi prison cells before they handed my bag over, with a snotty "You're lucky we didn't call the police."

Get over it, you rancid witch; you're in a First Class area at Euston, not the Concorde lounge at Heathrow. You can drop the attitude.

As I said, a downer of an end to an otherwise fun weekend. I must go back again soon; you can never get enough Tube.

(Oh God: she's picking crisps out of her bottom dentures with her fingernail. Why don't trains have sick bags?).

Friday 29 January 2010

Because I'm Worth It

This is the future, folks. As I write this, I am in fact whizzing my way down the West Coast Main Line. I'm actually blogging from a train:


I'm on a Virgin Pendolino, headed for London for a weekend of fun and frolics, and because this is 2010 and the world is very whizzy, there's wi-fi - free, since I'm in First Class. I can thoroughly recommend it. Though unfortunately a woman with a toddler just got on at Runcorn, so I'm hoping I won't have to listen to some mewling brat for the next two hours.

I can also thoroughly recommend the new First Class lounge, which I visited prior to the trip. In fact I went to Lime Street three quarters of an hour before departure time, specifically so I could visit the lounge and take advantage of all that top class hospitality. The shops on the cab road are still vacant, sadly, though there is a licensing application for a cafe/bar in the next one along. It's for another "H bar" as seen in the Ferry Terminal, and famously owned by ex-Atomic Kitten Natasha Hamilton. No, not the one who won Masterchef. No, not the one who flogged prawn rings for drug money (alledgedly). No, not the one who represented the UK at Eurovision as part of Precious. The other one. Hopefully it'll bring a bit of life to this area of the station and encourage other retailers to move in.

The Virgin lounge is actually accessed by ringing a bell and then holding your tickets in front of a video camera: it feels very James Bond, waving your passes at an unseen eye like Klaus Hergescheimer. Then the doors open and allow you into the sumptuous interior of the lounge.

It's been very much designed to have the same feel as the First Class area of an airport: peaceful interior, comfortable leather seats, artwork on the walls. In fact, the painting on the wall depicts the very first trip on the Manchester-Liverpool railway, and was presented to the lounge by Merseytravel.

We're just passing through Crewe now which, thanks to me finishing my job, I will never ever have to visit again in my entire life. Gosh, it feels good to write that. The woman with the small child has moved to a different part of the train, thankfully, as she was just breaking out the crayons.

With all that pine and exposed beams, the lounge is a bit like being in a sauna, though admittedly one without naked people in towels (thank goodness, given the distinctly over 50 demographic of my fellow passengers). It has a very Swedish, calming effect on you. There's also a little bar that you can sit at to watch the trains coming in and going out again, for those executive class trainspotters.

Of course, the best part of all this is the freebies. Free food and drinks! Well, when I say "drinks", I mean tea and coffee and soft drinks, and when I say "food", I mean shortbread, tiny packets of crisps and pieces of Madeira cake that would be just big enough for Tiny Tears. And when I say "free", it's included in the £57 I paid for my ticket, but thinking like that just spoils the fun. I gorged myself on bite size cakes and cups of adequate coffee from a machine. There was free wi-fi in there, too, so I nipped on my iPod Touch to see who the nearest homosexual was on Grindr (there was a shirtless twenty year old 1.4km away, apparently).

The drinks trolley just went past. I declined the Virgin cola - if you've ever tasted it, you'd understand why - but then I saw further down the carriage, she was doling out beers. I didn't notice there was booze on it. I feel robbed.

Anyway, I was finally able to wrestle myself away from the Orange Marmalade Biscuits to head for the train itself. The one thing I would complain about in the whole experience was that I had to queue up for the train with the plebs Standard Class passengers. I was hoping for an exclusive walkway, made out of gold, perhaps with one of those little trolleys with the flashing lights on the top to get me there. I bet Joan Collins doesn't have to ram her way through the gap with all the other no-marks to make it to the train. Then again, I bet the last time Joan Collins was on a train they had to stop at Rugby to take on more coal.

We've just stopped at Stafford, our last halt before the final mad dash to Euston. I have to say I'm giving Virgin top marks so far. The lap of luxury at Lime Street, the on-board wi-fi, the comfy seats, the general lack of irritating students taking up three seats with their backpack. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a Somerset Brie and Cranberry & Orange Confit roll to eat...

Sunday 24 January 2010

The Hunting of the Tart

"I am old, Father William," the young man said
"And I find it so hard to start;
"And yet I am up and out of my bed
"Does this mean it is time for a Tart?"

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a.k.a Lewis Carroll, is wrapped up in a place - Oxford. It's almost impossible to visualise the Reverend without thinking of him punting on the Cherwell, reading in the Bodleian, striding across the Quad at Christ Church, trying to persuade little girls to do handstands on the meadows. He is tied up in the academia and mythology of the city.

So it came as a surprise to me to learn that Dodgson originally came from oop North - to be specific, from the village of Daresbury in Cheshire. I learnt of this from Graeme Currie's Centre of the Universe, which I've got in my toilet. This might seem a bit disrespectful, but it's quite the opposite; it's my belief you should always have something interesting to capture your attention while you pee, and the map does the job admirably.

Anyway, the poster replaces the names on the Merseyrail map with famous people, and I was surprised to see Lewis Carroll on there where Runcorn East should be:

I've been a big Lewis Carroll fan for years, ever since my Aunt Rosina bought me his complete works when I was a child. His mathematical knots cause mental contortions that would vanquish a supercomputer; Sylvie and Bruno is a quite insane novel about a couple of fairies in Victorian England, which confuses and delights in equal turns; and The Hunting of the Snark is just genius nonsense.

But of course, my heart belongs to Alice. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are dazzling, demented novels which ensnare you no matter how old you are. I reread them every couple of years, and each time I find some new nuance, some strange little kink, some tiny detail which I had missed from before. Finding out that such a brilliant writer was born so close by meant just one thing: I would have to visit.

I came prepared with my copy of The Annotated Alice, edited by Martin Gardner. This is a brilliant edition of the Alice books, with footnotes explaining references, what songs are being parodied in the novel's verses, who inspired the characters and so on. It's a bit po-faced and humourless at times, and you do start to wonder if Lewis Carroll ever used his imagination or if, according to this, everything was a parody, caricature or satirical comment. I look forward to there one day being The Annotated Harry Potter, where Hogwarts is outed as a symbol of Britain's political decline, with Voldemort as Tony Blair. (Actually that's rather good. Copyright! Copyright!).

"Just the place for a Tart!" the Merseytart cried,
As he dismounted the Pacer with care
The journey had been such a troublesome ride
Almost missed his train by a hair.

"Just the place for a Tart! I have said it twice;
That alone should encourage who reads.
Just the place for a Tart! I have said it thrice;
I'll find somewhere to stand in these weeds."

The place was called Runcorn, but a different beast;
Surrounded by grass and brick faced homes
This station was Christened as Runcorn East
And the Merseytart felt quite alone.

There were only two of us getting off the train from Warrington Bank Quay; me, and a woman with a pushchair, who took no time at all in lighting her fag the minute her feet hit the platform. I didn't have high hopes for Runcorn East even before I arrived. I knew that it was a relatively recent station, built in the 1980s, and as such I was fully prepared for the red brick ticket office waiting for me. I say ticket office: "hut" might be more accurate.

It immediately presented me with a problem. The whole point of this blog is to snap a photo of me in front of the station sign but, as far as I could tell, Runcorn East hasn't even got one. I wandered out to the roads on both sides of the tracks, and there was nothing beyond a sign on the busway to show there was even a railway station here. In the end I gave in and got a picture of me in front of the car park sign. Disappointing.

Doubly disappointing was my lack of a top hat. In anticipation of this trip, I'd gone hunting for a top hat, so that I could give in to the Carrollian theme by dressing as the Mad Hatter. Could I find one? Could I buffalo. In retrospect, it may have been a bit of a relief, as I always look an arse fannying around in front of the signs anyway; a hat as well might have resulted in police action.

Photo taken, I headed out of town in search of Daresbury. Runcorn East is sited in a deeply suburban district, all Brookside houses and cul-de-sacs. Furthermore, it's ruled by the car, so the pavement promptly disappeared for the few hundred metres it took for me to get out of the town itself and into the countryside.

There was a little hump back bridge, and then Metroland fell away and I was dropped into peaceful countryside. Wide fields, grazing cows, copses of trees. I was walking along the side of an utterly deserted lane; it felt like I was miles away from town, rather than a few yards. The only hint of the modern world was the occasional parp from a passing train.

I'd planned my route on the map, and I knew that I needed to make a turn just after crossing the railway. I kept my eyes out for a bridge, or an underpass, so I was pretty surprised to see this:

A gate. A gate which I was expected to manually operate, doing my Green Cross Code as I crossed busy train tracks.

I am such a wuss. I immediately had a small panic. Yes, there was a green light, but what if it changed when I was halfway across? What if it was faulty? I could be splatted across the front of a Virgin Voyager and no-one would know where I was. I hadn't even told The Bf where I was going today. And with such a quiet access road my entrails could lay there for months, being picked at by starlings, before anyone found them.

I took a deep breath and made it across the railway. I took a cheeky snap of the line, then let myself through the gate on the other side to safety. Actually, now I've written this, I don't remember closing that first gate behind me. I'm sure I must have done, but still... if your journey was disrupted because some tit left a gate open and a sheep fell under the wheels of your train, I'm deeply sorry.

Beyond, there was the turn for the canal, on an aqueduct across the road. I scrambled up a dirt track, muddying the bottom of my jeans, only to reach the top and spot a nicely gravelled flight of steps further along. Whoops. Still, I was high above the fields now, with the Bridgewater Canal to follow towards the village.

"Will you walk a little faster?" said the Tart unto himself,
"There's a bracing wind about you which does wonders for your health."
See how eagerly the bullocks and the ducks all do advance!
They are waiting on the canal side - will you come and join the dance?
Will you, wo'n't you, will you, wo'n't you, will you join the dance?
Will you, wo'n't you, will you, wo'n't you, wo'n't you join the dance?

In spring last year, I walked the canal between Croston and Rufford stations. Then, it was a blue sky day, bright and gleaming. There were daffodils in the villages, there were birds singing, there were lambs in the field. I even got a tan.

This canal trip was almost exactly the opposite.

It was cold, and miserable. The fields around were muddy messes - the recent snow had clearly played havoc with them, and now they were churned up pits. There was a very vague smell of manure in the air. And all around there was that January, low feeling, grey and dark and miserable. I didn't feel like I was having a bracing walk in the country. It was a trudge. I saw only one person on the canal path, a man walking his dog, and he looked at the ground and avoided eye contact with me, while his scrappy mongrel peed on the grass.

The English countryside is beautiful, and truly uplifting at its best. In the midst of winter it can feel desolated though. As I walked the path I could only see negatives, the bare trees, the collapsed banks with "do not moor" signs, the warnings about high voltage lines above me. It just felt so drab. Even one bright spot - a lonely piece of wildlife, a bullock on the opposite bank - took a down turn when the daft creature tried to charge me, before realising I was on the other side of the water. Seems even the cattle were looking for a distraction.

And in the distance, incongruous, alien, was the Daresbury Tower, centrepiece of the former Nuclear Physics Laboratory. It poked out of the tree line like a sentinel, watching silently over the fields around it. As I got closer, it looked no less odd; the thick concrete, the circular form, the lack of windows - it wasn't designed for men, but instead for science.

I'd originally planned on cutting across to Daresbury through a woodland, but it was so grim and wet, I abandoned that idea and instead headed in through the Technology Park itself. The buildings by the canal looked utilitarian and 1960s Ministry of Works designed; only on the other side of the road were their 21st Century counterparts allowed to have a bit of glass and steel and shine to them.

Across a busy bypass, and I was finally in the village itself. I'd begun to flag, if I'm honest, with the long dispiriting walk, but the village sign gave me a quick pep, especially when I spotted the church immediately. Dodgson's father was the reverend here, and the writer was born in the vicarage (sadly the building has subsequently burnt down). He lived here until he was eleven, when the whole family decamped to Yorkshire to follow his father to another parish.

Thankfully, All Saint's Church was open; I don't know what I would have done if it hadn't been. I was here, not just to see the place where the young Dodgson had worshipped, but also to see the famous Lewis Carroll window there. To celebrate the centenary of his birth, artist Geoffrey Webb designed a stained glass window which not only featured the birth of Christ, but also images of Carroll himself, Alice, and some of the creatures she encountered in Wonderland.

I took a pew, just to have a breather, and watched a sturdily built woman Mr Sheen the tops of the seats. I was the only other person in there, and I was able to stare at the pretty interior of the church. It was light and airy and warm, and clearly well cared for.

You'll have to take my word on all this though. I should have guessed something was up by the Gift Aid envelopes in the spot on the pews where a Bible normally rests:

I know these are hard times for everyone, but that just seemed a bit, well, crass. I slipped some money inside and donated anyway, because I do believe in contributing to maintain buildings like these, even if I don't totally agree with the purpose they're used for. I dropped it in the donation box, then turned back into the church to take a few photos.

The hefty woman was watching me over the top of her tin of polish, and I realised why. Printed using brightly coloured MS Word Art was a sign on the nearest pillar: To take photographs, please pay £2 to the Church Steward.

No wonder she was keeping an eye on me! She didn't want me to whip out my Instamatic without paying. It didn't matter that I'd just dropped a contribution into the donation box; I'd have to pay more for the privilege of taking a shot of the roof. Stuff that, I thought, and headed down one of the side aisles towards a little ante-room. Balanced on the pews to my side were jams, jellies, books; all sorts of carefully arranged goodies, with LOCAL PRODUCE word processed above them.

I'm not really up on Church architecture, so all I can say is that the Alice Window was located inside a windowed chamber with an altar inside, a sort of chapel within the church. I was looking for the door in when I saw another sign: ALICE IN WONDERLAND WINDOW. To take photographs or videos of the window you will need to obtain a personal licence. This will cost £2 and can be obtained from the Church Stewards.

Stuff that, again! I was enraged at being so shamelessly gouged by what was supposedly a place of worship. I gave the woman an indignant purse of my lips and marched out of the church, mentally muttering something about "moneylenders in the temple" and so on.

Instead I went round the back of the church, and now I can present to you a picture of the rear of the Alice window, obtained for zero pounds:

In your face, Christianity! (You can see a picture of the front here.)

If every pub in every land
Were closed for half a year,
Do you suppose that I could go
That long without a beer?
"I doubt it," said the Merseytart,
And shed a bitter tear.

Observant readers might have noticed my multiple chins in my photos. Yup, I'm overweight, and so I've trimmed my diet. I now eat less, mainly soup and salad, and I've cut out booze more or less altogether. No more bottles of wine on a Saturday night; no more bottles of wine on a Friday night; no more cheeky pints while I watch Corrie. Just fruit juice and tea for me now. (Exception: special occasions and social circumstances).

This should be fine but, dear reader, I'm weak. So when I walked out of the church and needed fortifying before leaving the village, I was naturally drawn towards the pub, just across the way: the Ring O' Bells. "It's the 21st Century, and that's a pub/restaurant," I lied to myself. "You can just go in and have a coffee, and perhaps a small sandwich to keep you ticking over."


Two pints of bitter and a chicken burger later, I rolled back out of the Ring O' Bells and into the street. I hate going back on myself; I like to always go somewhere different, but there really wasn't a different way to get back to Runcorn East. I'd have to go back the way I came. And, as I've already indicated, it was pretty drab the first time round. A return trip would perhaps have seen me taking a dive into the canal to end it all.

There was only one thing for it. I was going to have to take a bus. A wild and crazy bus ride, where the driver took quite terrifying turns round corners, skipped stops at random, and burnt up the dual carriageways on the way back to Warrington. It was sort of appropriate that I'd gone to pay homage to Lewis Carroll, and ended up on a vehicular version of Alice's run with the Red Queen. We finally swung into the bay at Warrington bus station, and I could dismount, swallowing down the pints of bitter that were trying to make a return trip up my gullet and remembering why I never take buses.

Fortunately, Warrington bus station is a joy. Really. Bright and airy, well maintained and user friendly. Ok, it's clearly brand spanking new - Preston bus station probably looked the same when it first opened - but it was nice to be in a shiny transport interchange with plasma screens and a cafe that didn't look like it'd give you dysentery. If more bus stations looked like this, more people would use their services. (Plus if the bus drivers weren't speed demons it would help).

On the far wall of the station is a memorial to the old Liverpool & Manchester Railway, as well as the local canal; a nice little touch of history in the gleaming 21st Century world of the bus station. I took a photo, then headed off to Warrington Central, ready for a train away from Wonderland and off to boring old reality.

"And hast though caught three stations now?
"Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
"O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

P.S. I felt bad for not having the top hat on at Runcorn East, therefore depriving me of a Lewis Carroll related pic. Then it occurred to me:

It's me, pulling a stupid face, while wearing a Luton Town FC shirt. I am, quite literally, a MAD HATTER.

Oh, please yourselves.

No Kisses Until Wigan

Before I went there, I thought that Warrington's main claim to fame was that it was the first place in Britain to get an Ikea. I'm not being nasty here. I'd call that a pretty good accolade. I love Ikea's ludicrously attitude to naming their furnishings, their Tärka wardrobes and their Lakshmi sofas and their Ülrika CD holders. If I had an Ikea within spitting distance you wouldn't be able to have a cup of tea in this house without drinking it from a Carøla mug with your bum on a Bennybjørnannafridagnetha pouffe.

Still, it's not exactly everything you want from a town. It's not a centre for cultural improvement. And besides, Ikea's on the outskirts, squatting next to the M62 in its primary coloured magnificence like a six year old went wild with his Lego. The actual town centre was an unknown quantity to me. I doubted it would have the same Swedish minimalist elegance.

My first stop was therefore Warrington Central station, on the Liverpool to Manchester route. Actually the train I was on was headed for Scarborough, and I only managed to catch it at the last minute, earning a surly look from the woman collecting the tickets as I hurled myself on board. She also gave my Cheshire Day Ranger ticket a longer than usual once-over, as though she was hoping for a reason to chuck me off at Edge Hill. As it was, we chugged our way through Merseyside and then out to Warrington.

I must apologise for the extreme smugtwattery of my face in that shot. I took three pictures, but one turned out to be blurred, and the second had the Warrington Central sign erupting from the top of my skull like an antenna, so I had to go with the maximum git photo seen here. It does at least show the 80s style ticket office that Central's got. There's a bricked up doorway beneath the railway bridges, and, on the platform itself, what looks suspiciously like an old ticket window, but it looks like at some point a person at Rail House decided to spend some money on the station and the new ticket office was built. Either that or they were losing too much revenue from people going straight up to the Liverpool platform without bothering to cross to the Manchester one and buying a ticket. When I got there, a load of college students were larking around outside, waiting for their bus; I did a quick circuit of the block before coming back to take my photo. I invariably look a complete tit trying to take a picture of myself with the station sign - I didn't fancy an audience of braying teenagers.

From there, I turned left and headed into the town itself, not really having much of an idea where I was going. I actually got a pleasant surprise. I'd had impression that Warrington was a New Town, and so I'd lumped it in with other soulless holes like Skelmersdale and Milton (spit) Keynes. I'd seen the red brick estates around the Ikea. I figured the town centre would be a load of brutalist 1970s concrete buildings, a behemoth of a shopping centre, and hundreds of roundabouts.

A quick wander round soon showed me that while Warrington may have been designated a New Town in 1968, this was actually done with the aim of expanding a town which was already there, and had been for centuries. Consequently, the town centre had a pleasing mix of old and new, with Victorian buildings adapted for new shops, like the one above. Yes, it is an unfortunate name, isn't it? I wonder if anyone's ever explained to them that their fluffy pink gift shop is named after a harrowing Meryl Streep film about the Holocaust. Maybe they do know, and just don't care. Perhaps they're just big Meryl fans. At least they didn't call it Death Becomes Her.

There is still a large shopping centre, called Golden Square, which has clearly had some money spent on it in recent years to make it a bit more 21st Century. There's light pouring in from above, and while it doesn't quite stop it feeling like a shopping precinct, it's still not bad to wander round. It certainly made a change from the bitterly cold January wind and rain outside, which was making my ears glow. I had a look round, staring in shop windows, and finally exited into the town's old Market Square, complete with a wrought iron canopy and surrounded by coffee shops and old-fashioned pubs. Warrington seems to have quite a few shopping centres, in addition to Golden Square; I saw signs for The Courtyard and the amusingly named Cockhedge Shopping Centre.

At any rate, I'd spent long enough eyeing up the displays in Waterstones, so I headed away from the pedestrianised zone for the town's other station, Warrington Bank Quay. The route was through the town's "Cultural Quarter", and was heralded by a very impressive looking stately home. Very nice, I thought; very impressive, right in the middle of town. I wondered if it had once been the home of some Duke of Warrington or something. When I looked closer, though, I realised that the imposing building behind the golden gates was actually the Town Hall.

Now I worked in Local Government for six years, and at no point did I ever work in a building that looked like that. When I worked in Chester, my office overlooked McDonald's loading bay, and about four o'clock I used to have to bellow down the phone to be heard over the McLorry backing into place to make a delivery; in Crewe, I was stuck in a 1970s tower block which had all the charm of chewing gum on your shoe. Not once did I get to work in a place that had its own driveway. I feel cheated.

I went further into the Cultural Quarter, the rather grand name for the Victorian streets that stretch between the Town Hall and the station. At its centre is Palmyra Square, a pleasing enough patch of green, which just reminds me of Largo's home (also called Palmyra) in Thunderball. I should probably get some kind of Bond aversion therapy, something to stop all these little triggers going off in my head and stopping me from perceiving the world through normal eyes.

It was just gone ten a.m, and the town museum was still closed, sadly, meaning I missed out on Warrington's recreation of a local street scene; but the library was open, so I went in to finger the spines (and, incidentally, dry off a bit from the rain). I had to push my way in past a gaggle of scallies, one of whom was boasting that he had managed to avoid his knife being discovered by the police through the method of wearing two pairs of trackie bottoms. I was horrified. He wasn't just admitting to owning two shell suits, he was also saying he wore them. Truly nightmarish.

I had another terrible moment as I passed Parr Hall, the town's chief performance venue. You know that repressed memory therapy, where people lie back on a couch and discover that they were beaten black and blue as a child but just blocked it out? I experienced something similar then. I had been to the town centre before, about six or seven years ago, to hear a band at the Parr Hall. The whole evening was so dreadful I'd actually erased it from my memory until now.

You see, I was there to see Steeleye Span, Britain's premier "folk/rock" band, and if you've never heard of them, lucky you (I urge you to check out that YouTube link so you can fully appreciate their awfulness). I must make clear, I wasn't seeing them voluntarily. They are The Bf's favourite band, ever; he has all their albums, on vinyl and CD, and countless videos and DVDs of them in action. He dragged me along to their performance through a canny mix of blackmail, guilt and promises that it wouldn't be that bad.

It was. Imagine your Auntie Gloria, pissed on the sherry at your cousin's wedding, turning to the karaoke machine and playing a load of 15th century folk songs while your Uncle Roger does Guitar Hero in the background. That is Steeleye Span. And the crowd were worse: middle aged buffoons who cheered at every swish of the lead singer's skirts as she danced another reel around the stage, while a man with a moustache fiddled behind her (with a violin, thankfully). They burst into Gaudete - a song which summons up the truly glorious sound of a monastery choir on a wet Thursday during the Black Death - and the man next to me closed his eyes, nodded his head and whispered, "Yes," in a reverential tone. I couldn't wait to be away from these repellent humanoids, and let me tell you, the Bf suffered afterwards for forcing me to sit through it. I took him home and made him watch Casino Royale - not the 2006 classic, but the insane 1967 version of the first Bond novel which should only be seen through a haze of marijuana and LSD. That showed him.

I let out a strained scream of terror at this reawakened nightmare, then turned and fled the scene, rushing towards the steaming towers of the quite spectacularly ugly Unilever factory. Warrington became a major centre for textiles and chemicals thanks to its 1-2 punch of the Mersey and the railways, and that legacy is still clear from the vast blue buildings of the works, looming over Warrington Bank Quay station.

Warrington Bank Quay itself has had some money chucked at it in recent years by Virgin, who manage the station. Their efforts have meant there's a coffee shop in the ticket hall and the girls behind the counter have bright red uniforms, like Happy Shopper versions of the stewardesses in that Virgin Airways commercial. The money hasn't, however, extended to paying for a station sign anywhere, so I had to stand in the middle of the road to get a pic with the station building itself behind me.

At that point, incidentally, I was listening to Britney Spears singing Outrageous. I had my iPod on shuffle! Don't judge me!

One sign that Virgin had invested in was this one:

God, I hate corporate tweeness. I hate any soulless institution that likes to go all giggly and funny and try and nudge you into smiling as it sticks its hand in your wallet. The worst offenders are Innocent smoothies - every inch of their packaging is trying to be cute; they're about two minutes away from putting a smiley face in the "o". I'd happily thrust whoever designed that packaging into a thresher. The same for this sign - it was created as a publicity stunt, with daft pictorial images of people kissing, just to hype the refurbishment of the station, and it certainly got it in the papers. But that was a year ago. What's so special about Warrington, anyway? Does this mean I can go for the full Frenchie at Wigan North Western, and perhaps a hand shandy in the layby outside Lime Street, because they've not got signs telling me I can't? Can we have a sensible "no waiting" sign installed now, please Mr Branson? Thank you.

So that was Warrington: a surprisingly nice town, even if they do frown on hot liplock action. It could be completely cowed, sitting, as it does, halfway between Liverpool and Manchester, but to me it felt like it was holding its own, a decent community and worth a visit on its own. Just don't mention the Span or I might have to scream.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Exchange & Tart

I dropped off my Mini for its MOT at the Williams garage on Pall Mall Friday morning. Can I just say that Pall Mall is one of those Liverpool streets whose name writes a cheque the reality can't cash? (See also The Strand and Hatton Gardens). It sounds classy and upmarket, but actually it's just a load of factories and industrial premises and potholes.

One of the reasons for this, of course, is the railway. This whole area was blitzed when the railways were forced through, and pretty soon it became a haven for goods traffic, engine houses, and all the other paraphenalia you get with a major city centre station.

That station was Exchange, the mighty terminus of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and Liverpool's gateway to the North. Once, you could get trains to Manchester, the Lake District and even Glasgow from here; now there are just two tracks running alongside Pall Mall, high on the viaduct, and the furthest you can get is Southport.

That's not to say that it's all gone, however. As I walked into town from the garage I snapped some photos of Exchange's remains. The most obvious parts are as you cross Leeds Street and enter the southern part of Pall Mall. To your right are the distinctive railway arches that used to hold up the approaches to the station, now mostly bricked up and covered with moss and weeds. It completely closes off one side of the road, and reminds you of how oppressive railways can be in city centres, the way they can divide communities and districts. The railway approaches for Exchange Station effectively split that area of the city centre down the middle.

There was one link though, a pedestrian subway which ran under the tracks and continued the path of Prussia Street. The entrance is still there, though it's long since been closed off. When it was built it was one of the longest subway tunnels in the country. Now it's just another hole in the wall.

Above it is the real shame. Sending the tracks underground in the 1970s for the Link project meant that acres of land were suddenly opened up, right in the heart of the city. Unfortunately, it did so at a time economic crisis and rampant unemployment in the city, so the value of the land just vanished. So what do we have there now? A car park.

Not even a very nice car park - just a load of gravel and concrete, like a waste ground with ideas above its station. I'm not denying that car parks are very useful, but it's not exactly inspiring, is it?

To be fair, Liverpool Vision have produced a "masterplan" for the area, trying to encourage development and a more commercial use for all those acres of land. Ironically, part of the problem is the same railway tunnels that created the opportunity in the first place. Anyone who's travelled on the Northern Line knows that at Sandhills you're high above the streets on a viaduct, but by the time you hit Moorfields, you're metres underground. That calls for a pretty steep bit of tunnelling, plunging under the streets, complicated by the fact that you've also got the Queensway Tunnel and the Wirral Line round there to contend with. As a result the tunnels for the Northern Line are pretty close to the surface - so you can't build on them. Whoops.

Liverpool Vision's idea is that there will be parkland directly over the top of the tunnels and buildings around it. Hopefully it will be a lot cheerier than the current bit of parkland with its signs declaring that it's not a public right of way and you're basically only permitted onto its grassy lawns through the benevolent dispensation of the Gods of Mercury House.

Mercury House is the name of the office building constructed on the site of the station building, and as you can see above, it's so 1980s it's painful. It's the Wake Me Up Before You Go Go of offices. Really, it should have a giant FRANKIE SAYS t-shirt draped across it. Inside isn't much better - I thought it would still retain some of the mystique and aura of a great railway terminal, but instead it looks like Alexis Colby's idea of English classiness, all wrought iron and lighting globes, combined with spiky stainless steel fountains.

The only glory of Mercury House is once you get outside, and you get to take in the old facade which the redevelopers wisely retained.

Glorious stuff; majestic, dignified, exciting. There's a beautiful symmetry to it, with two wings stretching out from the twin arches of the entrance, and that massive station clock in front. It certainly shows up the disco styling on Moorfields station, just down the road. I like Moorfields, trust me, and it's modern and functional and clean, but Exchange is just... better. It's like comparing a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost with a Nissan Micra. The Micra might be faster, smarter, more technologically advanced and more comfortable - but the Silver Ghost is just class, and you can't buy that.

Pride of place in the centre of the arches, watching the passengers arrive, is a monument to John Pearson, chairman of the L&YR and former mayor of Liverpool. I wonder if he approves of what was done to his station. Perhaps they blindfolded his statue while they demolished the building behind.

Progress is double edged. The Link is undoubtably far better for the city, far more useful, far more efficient. But I miss the grandeur of the Exchange, and the way it's been artlessly turned into a bog-standard office block behind its beautiful face. It seems like a cruel way to treat such a grand dame.

Friday 15 January 2010

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Oh. I was right the first time.

As I write this, the Penguins are taking flight from Liverpool. Well, I say taking flight; they're not actually flying, because they're penguins. And they're made of fibreglass.

The Go Penguins! project was basically the Superlambanana trail for 2009, and it again saw a load of local companies and dignitaries designing giant comedy animals to dot around the city centre. Last year Merseytravel did one that was designed to look like the Merseyrail map, so that was obviously made of win as far as I was concerned.

This year Merseyrail went with Supenguin, a flightless bird who can fly faster than a speeding bullet. At first, it seems there is no link between a super powered penguin and a local transport provider. Fortunately, Supenguin's creator, Paul McKay, provided us with the explanation in a comic strip I first spotted at Hamilton Square station just before Christmas.

Yes! It's a Merseyrail comic strip! In this thrill packed tale, a Merseyrail train is whisked off to the Endimension by a mysterious figure (well, actually just a face), only for Supenguin to sweep to the rescue and, with the help of loyal train driver Bobby Tickets, they save the day. I contacted Paul to get the background info on where he came up with the idea. "I submitted my entries for the Go Penguin event," he e-mailed back, "Two of the entries were Supenguin & Batguin, and as the theme of the event was the Environment, I knocked up a short comic featuring the two characters saving penguins in the Antarctic."

Merseyrail approved the idea, though they nixed Paul's plans for Supenguin to look a bit more like a certain Kryptonian. "It was decided that DC Comics would not allow me to continue, so a rethink was needed. As I had lots of yellow and Merseyrail's colours were yellow, I changed the design to suit. I think it worked out, as now the character is particular to Liverpool, whereas if I'd continued with the original Superman design, it would just be a copy of something else."

With the Supenguin now clad in the corporate colours (which I approve of: Scouse pride!), Merseyrail asked Paul to put together a comic strip featuring Supenguin that was a bit more, well, exciting than eco-warrioring, because as he points out, "Environment issues can get a little boring! They gave me full control over what content was in it." And so the story of one penguin's valiant battle against giant weird eye creatures in an alternate dimension was born. Am I alone in wishing that my Merseyrail train was occasionally sucked into another universe? It certainly beats being stuck on the tracks outside Formby due to a line side equipment fault.

Is this the end of Supenguin, I asked? "I deliberately left the story open as Merseyrail have said they would like to keep things going," Paul replied. "I have enough material for at least 5 more episodes, before I have to start thinking of new stories. Ultimately though, it's up to Merseyrail to commission more stories. I really hope they do, as I think the characters have a really long shelf life and it would be a pity to forget about them." Indeed; I smell merchandising. Supenguin toys, Supenguin pyjamas, Supenguin lunch boxes. TV shows, music CDs, perhaps even a film - after all, if the Tube can get its own kiddie show in the form of Underground Ernie, why not Merseyrail? We could even get Ringo back to do the voiceovers. At the very least, it'd give them some interesting souvenirs for the M to Go shops...

Many thanks to Paul McKay for the additional info.