Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Huskisson! - The Life Before The Death

What started as a mild amusement with a side salad of historical curiosity, has developed into a fascination. I speak of course of the case of William Huskisson, MP, statesman, and the first man to fall under the wheels of a train. I've visited his memorial at Parkside near Newton-le-Willows; I've paid homage at his tomb in St James' Cemetary; I've even had a poke round the dock named for him.

The story is a classic in the annals of "hows about them apples?"; on the very day that the world's first passenger railway made its debut journey, Huskisson, a strong advocate, managed to inadvertently plummet under Stephenson's Rocket, resulting in his leg being crushed and dying from his wounds later that day. It's become a trivia question, a humorous anecdote, a moment of delicious historical irony, like the White Star Line claiming the Titanic was unsinkable right up until the moment the first class passengers realised all that ice on the deck hadn't fallen out of their martini glasses.

I wanted to learn more about him and his unfortunate demise, so I turned to Simon Garfield's The Last Journey of William Huskisson. I'm not a big fan of biographies, but this is a great read, as thrilling as a novel and giving you not only a portrait of Huskisson himself, but also a record of the travails the Liverpool & Manchester Railway went through before the debut trains ran on the 15th September 1830.

Huskisson emerges as a grand figure, a great man, and one who deserves to be remembered for more than his inability to get off a train track. Born in 1770 to relatively prosperous parents, he was educated in England before travelling to Paris to complete his tutoring under an uncle. While there, he became embroiled in the French Revolution, supporting the end of tyranny and witnessing the Fall of the Bastille at first hand. While he sympathised with the revolutionaries, he didn't go so far as to call for the end of the monarchy; he advocated progression, and a parliament with the will of the people which moved forward rather than dedicate its efforts to maintaining the status quo.

The lessons of France were carried back with him to England where, over the years, he became the member for various different seats before finally becoming the MP for Liverpool in 1823. He was well-liked and respected in the city, as over the years he had become a champion for free trade, and was a long time associate and supporter of another of Liverpool's famous names, George Canning. Between the two of them, they were a dynamic influence within the party, and frequently at odds with the Prime Minister at the time. Canning was the thrusting man of action, Huskisson the considered man of thought behind him - they were the Blair and Brown of their day.

Unfortunately Canning passed away shortly after finally becoming Prime Minister in 1827, leaving Huskisson to muster the movement on his own. He didn't have his friend's charisma though, and had been happier behind him, leading to a quiet collapse in the opposition to the PM, particularly when that role was taken by the Iron Duke himself, Wellington. Huskisson continued to call for reform and change, pressing for the repeal or revision of the Corn Laws (the protectionist rules governing the price of corn which were seemingly the only thing people in the 19th Century ever talked about), but it came to nothing.

The final straw came for him in the matter of Parliamentary reform. Unbelievably, even though the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and cities were growing across the country, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham couldn't muster a single MP between them; the constituencies were based around ancient rights and land areas, meaning that Newton-le-Willows, for example, had two MPs even though it was just a tiny village. (Liverpool, as a historic borough and port, also had two MPs). Huskisson pressed for extending the franchise to these burgeoning population centres, and two particularly corrupt constituencies came within sight, one in Nottinghamshire and one in Cornwall. Huskisson and his supporters pressed for the two constituencies to be abolished and replaced by new ones for Manchester and Birmingham.

The inevitable horse trading then happened, with many fearful that if you started letting these big cities have representation, it would be the thin end of the wedge and soon you'd have people walking their whippets on College Green and using the Mace as a baton for their colliery bands (or something). A compromise was reached: Manchester would get an MP instead of the Nottinghamshire one, and the Cornwall one would just be abolished outright without giving anything to those dreadful Brummies, because their accents would just get on everyone's nerves (I'm guessing here).

The Lords, who could smell the approach of peasants, promptly rejected the compromise. Huskisson threw his dummy out of the cot - he felt that he'd already backed down enough by disenfranchising Birmingham, and he thought he had a deal. He wrote a letter at 2am, and sent it to the Duke of Wellington, saying that he could not serve in the Cabinet under such circumstances.

Wellington, who by all accounts was a better warrior than politician, realised he could dispose of a thorn in his side and accepted his resignation by return of post. Which lead to Huskisson saying, "oh, you misunderstood. I didn't mean it really, I was just joking," but the job was done, and he was sent to the backbenches sharpish.

Poor William. With his relegation to the back of Parliament, he promptly lost a lot of his influence and voice. He did have one thing going for him: a loud and continued support for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway bill, which was progressing at the same time. Huskisson could see the valuable advantage to trade the railway could bring to Liverpool, whisking goods from the Port to Manchester's manufacturers and avoiding the need for lengthy, expensive routes along canals.

And so he became partly responsible for his demise. One of the great features of Garfield's book is that he never lets you forget that a tragedy is building; as he flashes back and forth through time periods, places and people, it is all tinged with the knowledge of where all this is headed. Garfield points out that Huskisson only made it to the ceremony against doctor's orders - he had been suffering from a kidney infection. He persisted because he knew the importance of the event to his city, and because of a justifiable pride in the role he played in its creation.

(Actually, William seems to be have been a particularly clumsy soul. He fractured the same arm twice, in falls; he tripped on a cable and lacerated his foot; and, in an incident that Garfield mentions with admirable understatement, "His horse fell on him just before his marriage", which is bound to end up on an episode of Casualty before long.)

The route between Liverpool and Manchester was the first to have two parallel tracks beside one another, and so the dignitaries decided to make full use of this. The Prime Minister's train would occupy one track on the route to Manchester, while the other seven trains of dignitaries and local luminaries would occupy the other track, running alongside and ahead of the first train. In this way, not only would the passengers get to have a look at the countryside, but also a look at the Duke of Wellington as well.

All went well until Parkside, halfway between the two cities and where the train had to stop to take on more water. Despite being advised not to, many of the men took the opportunity to get out and stretch their legs.

Huskisson was on a high. The train journey was a triumph; the passengers were a-twitter with the brilliance of the journey, the thrill of the new technology. His role in marshalling the railway into life gave him a great deal of kudos. It was suggested to him that it would be the ideal moment to reconcile with the Duke of Wellington, and to go over and shake his hand. How could the Duke refuse him?

Huskisson strode over and reached up to take the Prime Minister's hand. Barely had he done so than the cry went up - a train was coming! Huskisson, along with several other men, found himself in the middle, between the two rails. Most managed to clamber aboard, but Huskisson became flustered; he panicked, and finally managed to get one leg over the side of the Duke's coach (the steps were at the rear, away from where he stood). But he wriggled, and writhed, and dislodged the door, so that it swung open and deposited him directly into the path of the oncoming Rocket - a train which had no brakes, only a reverse gear to slow it down.

Disappointingly, it seems the legend that he cried "Huskisson!" as he fell under the wheels is just that, a legend; Garfield makes no mention of it. He does go into graphic detail about the wound, and sensitive readers may wish to look away:

...the wheels had passed slantingly over the calf of the leg and the middle of the thigh, crushing and tearing the muscles but leaving the knee itself uninjured - a triangular wound unfamiliar even to medical men. The upper part of the leg had a multiple fracture, and the muscles were exposed in one wet and weeping flap... The arteries had not been severed, but lay flattened and pulsing in the sinewy turmoil.

Which is, you know, lovely.

Understandably, at this point, the party pretty much went to pieces. There was a dissolve into screams and panic; Mrs Huskisson came running forward, wailing and distraught; and the doctors on board did what they could. The best thing, it was decided, was to rush him as far as Eccles, and to get the surgeons from Manchester to meet them there. The flatbed wagon containing a brass band was unloaded (the band itself were forgotten about, and ended up walking home) and Huskisson was laid out on it.

The surgeons did their best, but even after they ministered to him, all was lost. Huskisson died that evening.

His funeral was held on the 24th September, and the whole of Liverpool, it seemed, turned out to pay homage. Mrs Huskisson hadn't wanted any pomp - in fact, she hadn't even wanted to bury him in Liverpool, preferring the church near their home - but the sheer weight of public grief persuaded her otherwise. His popularity with the citizens, together with the tragic circumstances of his death on what should have been a great day, captured the imaginations of everyone. Colour coded tickets had to be issued for his burial, so that spectators could get a proper view; people lined up on rooftops, and shops and businesses were closed.

In death, Huskisson became an even greater statesman than in life; the obituaries fell over themselves to praise him. Garfield's book is careful to debunk some of the more extreme claims made by those who wrote about him after he died, but he still manages to portray a great, intelligent, principled man. He was certainly a loss to the British parliament, and to the city of Liverpool, and deserves all the various tributes that exist for him. He deserves to be more than a sniggering joke.

I really enjoyed The Last Journey of William Huskisson, and not just because I'm a railway fan. It's superbly written, loaded with tension and speed, and kept me thoroughly entertained throughout. Highly recommended for anyone who likes trains, Liverpool, or just a damn good read.

Buy it from Amazon here.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Donations Gratefully Received

I'm very happy when people comment on here - it makes me feel like people are actually reading, and I'm not just talking to myself. I especially like it when readers pop up with interesting facts, or quirky items (so long as they're not smartarses, obviously).

I was pleased as Punch, therefore, when Jamie contacted me with some relics of Merseyrail past he keeps in his attic. Jamie writes the On The Ration blog, where he's trying to live within World War 2 rations for a month: while I admire his bravery, and I'm in awe of his cookery skills, there seems to be a bit too much reheated cabbage for my taste.

Anyway, following my post about the new in-car line diagrams - a high point for English literature, I'm sure you'll agree - Jamie sent me a couple of pics of Merseyrail's previous efforts in this field. The first, with its groovy red backdrop and general air of flared trousered excitement, is a Wirral Railway diagram from 1967. Dig that font, man. It's a healthy reminder of how limited the network was at that point, and how the next decade's developments opened up a barrage of new journeys and links.

Better still is this map from 1978. First, let's deal with the head scratching strangeness of it - why on earth have they aligned it to go east-west? The Northern Line - a ramrod straight route on the present map, acting as a clean visual cue down the centre of the diagram - is forced to meander all over the place. That route to Kirkby is horrible, and look at the two oddly-placed kinks between Central and Garston. And the Wirral line is splayed in positively undignified fashion, with the river miles away from New Brighton, and West Kirby is about five miles south, somewhere around Shotton.

There are a few basic assumptions about map design, and one of them is that North is up. It's sort of okay for the Northern Line, if over complicated, but Wirral residents are very definitely short changed with their strange representation. I can't work out why they did it this way - it even creates problems for them, as can be seen at Lime Street, which has to be represented with a double circle so that the City Lines can clumsily emerge from them (compare and contrast with the simple interchange on today's map). It just looks weird.

It's still a fascinating insight into the Merseyrail that existed at the opening of the Link and Loop. The old station names (Preston Road for Rice Lane, Upton by Chester instead of Bache, "St Helens Shaw Street"). The interchange at Rock Ferry for trains south - it seems inconceivable now that you couldn't get the train from Chester to Liverpool via Birkenhead, and yet this is a very recent development. Bromborough, on its own, without its Rakish brothers either side, not to mention the absence of Conway Park, Brunswick, South Parkway and Wavertree Technology Park. (Poor Ditton, destined to vanish altogether).

And of course, the ambitions implied in colouring the lines and the future extensions - the Kirkby-Wigan line is blue all the way, because of course, it's only a matter of time. Helsby? Of course there will be Wirral Line trains heading there one day! Curiously though, one extension that did actually happen - Garston to Hunt's Cross (note the apostrophe!) - isn't so much as hinted at, though the alignment of the line seems to be pointing that way.

Lovely stuff. I'm very grateful to Jamie for this little step back in time, and if anyone else has any relics of the past, feel free to get in touch.

EDIT, 4th April: Jamie has sent me much clearer pics of the originals, so I've altered them. Now it's possible to read the Wirral Railway map - including the legend, Hamilton Square for Woodside Station. Marvellous.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Lunchtime Vignette

The train smells of beer. Cheap, nasty booze, filling the carriage. People avoid them. A man takes his son to a different seat so they're not close by.

He slumps against the window, slurring, stammering, whispering to the woman across from him. His words are thick with alcohol. He struggles to keep his head level. Sips Tizer from a can.

She cuts into him. "I've heard it all before, Dad."

He looks out the window into the tunnel, then back at her. "I do love you, you know." But his words taste of lager. She doesn't respond.

His granddaughter looks away as he slips into unconsciousness.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Map!: The Undiscovered Country

A couple of people have got in touch with me via Twitter to alert me to a brand new permutation of the Merseyrail map: a line diagram above the windows in the trains. For years now, the trains have featured poster sized representations of the network on the wall. I'm guessing that someone at Rail House twigged that if you got rid of them, you'd have a few extra spots for advertising, and the line diagram was born.

It should, of course, be noted that the line diagram is nothing new or innovative. London Transport - and indeed most metros across the world - have been doing them for years. They're at their best when you have a line like the Jubilee or Victoria, one straight line without any branches. Once you start getting variation, it gets complex, and indeed the Tube completely cops out of trying to show the whole of the District Line on one diagram, and splits the Wimbleware branch off onto a diagram of its own.

Merseyrail has an additional problem, in that the trains used are not exclusively favouring one line or the other. They may tend towards the Northern or the Wirral, but there tends to be a lot of interworking, so a line diagram will by necessity have to show both of them.

As is usual with this sort of thing, my apologies for only being able to offer you photos snapped in the flesh. Just click the smaller version for a bigger one and then squint a bit.

At first glance, they've done an excellent job in just fitting the whole thing in. Given the wide geographic spread of the network - think of the difference between Southport in the north and Chester in the south, or West Kirby in the east to Hunts Cross in the west - the fact that they managed to squeeze it into a horizontal stripe should be applauded. Though it feels counter-intuitive to have Chester and West Kirby lined up at the edge beside one another, it somehow works. And the use of the Mersey in the centre as a dividing line is a great visual marker.

But of course, I have to criticise. I'm sorry. My biggest bugbear is the incorporation of the City Line. As the key itself notes, only selected stations are shown. The question must therefore be asked - what's the point? The City Line makes an uncomfortable fit on the map, with a really unnecessary curve between Lime Street and Edge Hill so that it can slot in next to the Northern Line, and a very nasty split at South Parkway. A simple red marker indicating that interchange with the City Line was available would have been better. The choice of stations seems off, too - the points where the lines split, fair enough, and St Helens Central earns its place as a major destination, but Garswood? Hough Green over, say, Widnes? And Warrington and Wigan are both represented by one station, which isn't true.

That odd little curve after Meols Cop annoys me too.

Crossing to the Wirral side, and things are a bit better. I really like the way that Chester has been lined up with Shotton and the Borderlands Line - that's a nifty bit of design. My main gripe here is that the Wirral itself isn't shown. If you follow this map, you have no idea that West Kirby or New Brighton are by the sea. Personally I'd have sent the West Kirby up towards the sea at the end, like New Brighton, and placed a blue border top and bottom so that the Wirral Peninsula was marked out clearly. It would just be a pleasing visual (though admittedly there's no indication that Southport's near the coast, either). And why are all the stations on the Borderlands Line shown, when some (Hawarden Bridge) are barely served, and others (Upton, Heswall) are request stops? This wouldn't be an issue if, say, the Kirkby-Wigan line wasn't shown as having only one station, or the zero intermediate stops between Preston and Ormskirk. Is this a way of conditioning us to see the Borderlands as a branch of the Wirral Line?

General notes: they still haven't found a way to show the Merseytravel/TrioPlus area properly. It still has a raggedy, rough area, and the colour difference between the Ormskirk/Chester/Ellesmere Port branches and the rest is too stark for me. It's still a FUCKING SQUARE in the city centre, and I will go to my grave cursing that.

The biggest change is of course the addition of tourist attractions, shopping centres and transport interchanges in Birkenhead and Liverpool. I have to admit I'm a purist when it comes to this sort of thing. I hate the New York subway's purely geographic map, and I think that the Madrid Metro map, while a thing of beauty in the way it lays out the different lines, would be a lot better if they didn't show the different parks. Imagine if the London Underground map suddenly featured the various Royal Parks - squeezing Regent's Park, at least, into the map would result in a horrible distortion.

The Merseyrail diagrams haven't gone that far (they've resisted the urge to mark Birkenhead or Sefton Parks) but there are blobs in the Liverpool city centre. My issue with these is the somewhat haphazard placing: for example, positioning the Met Quarter and Cavern Walks closer to Central than Moorfields, or Chinatown closer to Lime Street. I'd have preferred a boxout, telling you to where to alight for each attraction, perhaps in the same way that the Underground line diagrams show airport and National Rail connections. It would also help with crowd management - the drivers on Wirral Line trains already suggest alighting at James Street for Liverpool ONE, but its positioning within the "Loop" on the diagram means that it looks miles away. Removing its "physical" position on the map, and simply showing it as accessible from James Street would make people use that station a lot more than Central.

Bus stations and ferry termini are a good, logical addition, though I'd question just marking the Beatles Story at the Pier Head and not the frigging Liver Building. I mean, come on. I'd have marked the triangular ferry route in the river (which would have sneakily enabled you to shove Wallasey and Spaceport in there, too). The Soccerbus at Sandhills is marked, but not at Birkenhead Central (poor Tranmere). And it's great marking the MtoGos, but how about keeping it up to date - Liverpool Central's has been open since November, and Hooton's just got one, but neither is marked on the diagram.

It's first generation stuff, so I'm willing to forgive it. If it were a bit tighter, a bit more consistent, and the tourist/transport features weren't so clumsy, I'd like it a lot more. It's certainly a valuable addition to the family of maps, and, as I said, it frees up all that space for more adverts. Which is of course great.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Only A Northern Soul

This is my Mum on top of the Empire State Building.

Hello Mum.

She has gifted many things to me over the years. Ramrod straight hair (my brother got our Dad's curls). A love of Motown. A habit of sticking my bottom lip out under my top one. And outrageous, all-consuming snobbery.

I am a terrible snob, I admit it. I've already proved it on here. But my Mum takes that snobbishness to new, galactic levels at times.

One of her pet topics is how awful the North is. Every time she comes to visit - which isn't often - she'll marvel at some new element of terribleness that only exists north of the Watford Gap. To her, the North is where people who can't afford to move to the South live.

Example: on her first visit to Liverpool, she was shocked to see a BMW drive by. "How can someone round here afford a BMW?" she mused. "Perhaps he's a drug dealer."

Example: after taking her to the Pier Head, the museums, the Cathedrals, in a tour of the city's magnificence, the one element she chose to give a lengthy monologue on was the now-demolished footbridge over the Strand and how awful it was.

Example: she found Southport "surprisingly alright". "It's like a proper town."

Example: only last week, she watched a film set in Liverpool. "Of course, they tried to make it look nice."

"It is nice," I said. "It's lovely up here."

She snorted. "Someone still got mugged though."

See what I mean? I've lived here for fifteen years now, and she still can't quite understand why. There are some things she likes around here - she once saw Jimmy Corkhill coming out of the FACT - but all in all it's Just. Not. Good. Enough.

For myself, I'm sort of in a limbo between South and North. My accent gives me away every time - talking about "barths" instead of "baths" and "arnties" instead of "a(u)nties", and pronouncing "down" as "dahn". I have an outsider's perspective on some things - for example, I'd love to know how you decide whether to support Liverpool or Everton. I can't work out why people would support the Blues when they don't seem to win anything. But at the same time, I'm passionate about the city, and I'm full of pride about the beauty of the area. Where I live on the Wirral, within an hour's drive, I can be in the Welsh mountains, the throbbing heart of big cities, the Cheshire plains, or on a beach - where else in the country can you say that? I can't think of myself anywhere but here (with the obvious caveat that if Russell Tovey calls me up and invites me to share his flat in London, I'll be on a Virgin Train so fast I'll leave flames on the pavement behind me).

The reason for this lengthy preamble is that I was heading into Wigan, which is about as "Northern" as it's possible to get. I'm not sure how it's acquired this reputation, but if ever there were a town whose name reeked of whippets, flat caps and ee by gum it's Wigan. It's probably Orwell's fault. When he rode a train into the town, he talked about vast piles of slag by the side of the track, mountains of the stuff, and the grim, miserable lives of the put-upon inhabitants.

My ride into Wigan Wallgate, on the other hand, was marked by the view of the back of Currys Superstores and Carpet Warehouses, and by a large wide open expanse of green parkland. I had to stretch my imagination to see this black mountainous hell-hole. To me, it just looked like another little town.

The station was a neat little Victorian relic, nicely preserved, though in possession of one of the grimmest toilets I have ever had the misfortune to pee in. (Blocked urinal, ultraviolent anti-druggie lighting AND mashed up loo paper in the sink? Why Northern Rail, you are really spoiling us). At platform level, it was a bit better, and by the time I got up to the booking hall it was positively charming. I'll forgive anything if there's a porte-cochere. That's proper old-style railway architecture, that is.

I took the usual pic, with another boring GMPTE railway sign, and then headed into the town. The other train station in Wigan, North Western, is only fifty yards away, but I wanted to go into the town to have a wander round this haven of Northernness. To be specific, I wanted to have a pie.

Wiganers are called Pie-Eaters. The theory is that this came about following the General Strike, when the town's residents were the first back to work so they ate "humble pie". Personally, I just like the idea that they eat a lot of pies. Or that they're paying tribute to Dennis the Menace's pal. The town certainly holds a pie-eating championship, to which I say, well done, and I'll be sitting a few yards away feeling nauseous. For today, though, I wanted to go proper Northern, and have some proper pie in a proper Wigan pie eating place.

I thought there'd be hundreds of them. I thought it would be like trying to find a tea room in Devon, or a pasty in Cornwall. I thought there'd be people on the street waving photos of their baked goods at you as you passed, trying to seduce you with their crusty edges. I headed down the main street of the town, and it looked very pretty - there were some gorgeous arcades, real Victorian beauties, coming off the main street, and a thriving shopping centre. There was even a pub called The Moon Under Water, which was very tempting. After all, if there was going to be a place which embodied George Orwell's perfect boozer, wouldn't it be in Wigan? Then I spotted it was a Wetherspoons, and I realised that it was unlikely that it would be the alcoholic nirvana promised in the name. And an advert for free wi-fi didn't help add to that olde-worlde charm - I doubted it sold liver sausage sandwiches, anyway.

There was a couple of Greggs, and a couple of Greenhalghs, and a couple of Galloways, but all of them were takeaways. I didn't want to come all the way to Wigan and bite down on a steak and kidney pie sat on a bench surrounded by pigeons. I wanted a plate and a seat with my pie. Where could I go?

I came across this place and it seemed perfect. I mean, Lancashire Tea Room - & More. It's named after the frigging county, for goodness' sake. Inside, it was clean and modern. I went to the counter and asked for a meat and potato pie and chips.

"Do you want peas and gravy with that?"

Are you kidding? Of course I do! Give me the whole damn experience!

My tea came. There was a china cup, and a little stainless steel teapot, and it was beautiful. For all my love of beer and wine, there is nothing - nothing - as wonderful as a good cup of tea. If I end up on one of those fictional islands where you get a choice of beverages, I'll go with a teapot over a bottle of champagne any day.

Next came my lunch - or rather, since this is the North, my dinner.

Pie. Chips. Gravy. And the peas were mushy, something I hadn't requested but which came as a singular thrill. I laid in with gay abandon.

Reader: I was disappointed. I'm sorry. This might be my own fault, because, for me, the best thing about a pie is the crust. The crunchy, hard beauty of pastry, infused with the subtle juices of the pie inside, yet retaining its own structure, and a firmness between your teeth. I like to bite down on pastry and feel it crumble in my mouth. This pie, however, was soggy and unpleasant. Part of that was the gravy's fault, but part of it was down to the way it was cooked. It felt like a frozen pie that hadn't been cooked long enough, and was still in the process of defrosting. It was wet. I just couldn't get on board with it, and considering I had come all this way expecting the ne plus ultra of pies, it was a big let down. Still, the chips were lovely, drizzled with salt to give it a tantalising tingle, and the mushy peas slipped down delightfully.

I staggered out of the Lancashire Tea Room, stuffed - I'm not used to guzzling that much food in the middle of the day. I'd thought about going to Wigan Pier, to complete the Orwellian experience, but since George couldn't be bothered going there (he says in the book that it had been demolished, which wasn't true) I didn't see why I should bother. Besides, I'd been once before, about twelve years ago with some friends from Edge Hill. We went bowling, and I embarrassed myself by leaping about like a girl when I got a strike. So I considered Wigan Pier "done".

Which only left me with the seventh worst train station in Britain, Wigan North Western. After Wigan Wallgate's Victorian charms, a 1970s brick hole couldn't hardly compare. There was a very nice new multi-storey, recently built by Virgin, alongside, but the station itself is indeed a dump. What is it with the bricks made in the 1970s? Why do they age so badly? There are Victorian brick buildings that still look majestic, while buildings from the Seventies look like they've been built out of blocks of algae and despair. It's just plain nasty. Inside, it didn't get much better. I'd been here once before, about eight years ago for a training day, and they'd revamped it a bit since then. The main thing they seemed to have done was close the toilets.

I'd been to Euston and Lime Street in the preceding couple of days, so I knew what Virgin were capable of in terms of providing customer services. If this was a suburban station with a couple of trains a day, this was awful. For a station on the West Coast Main Line, with services to Glasgow and London and all points in between, it was dreadful, and completely unjustifiable.

What's worse, they had tried to make it look better by painting it lime green.

Note to any interior designers out there - lime green is not, and never will be, a colour to instil joy in all comers. It just makes you think of the 1970s all over again.

I'd been meaning to have a wander round the station, to fully evaluate its status as a bloody awful station. But I have to be honest, it was too depressing. The idea of waiting twenty minutes for the fast train was just too much to bear. I leapt on the slow train which might have taken a while to get to Lime Street, but at least it left Wigan sooner. Sorry - but my affection for all things Northern has its limits...

Monday, 15 March 2010

Spring Awakening

I was typing in my pin at the MtoGo in Central when the girl at the next till said, "I hope you're going to write nice things about us."

At first, I didn't really process it - I thought she was talking to the customer at her till. Then I realised that she didn't have a customer. She was talking to me! She was talking about the blog! I had been recognised! I said, in a moment of suaveness and wit that 007 would be envious of, "Erm, yeah. Course I will."

"I was only talking about your blog the other day."

"Good things I hope?"

"Of course!"

"Glad to hear it."

And that, ladies and gents, was my first brush with fame. I feel like Nicole Kidman. So yes, Rachael at MtoGo, you and your colleagues were all very good. The service was brisk, the store was clean and tidy (I had a better look round than, ahem, the last time I was there) and the staff all looked lovely in their little grey and yellow ties. Marvellous.

Oh, and Rachael? I do normally buy really cool magazines, like Stuff and Attitude and GQ and things. My purchase of Doctor Who Magazine this morning was a total aberration. Cough.

Blushing furiously, I made my way down to the platforms for the Kirkby train. Yup, it was time for another day's tarting, and it was another attempt to slice a whole line off the map in one go. Now that the weather had been relatively fine for a couple of days, I felt brave enough to plunge into the countryside and have a crack at the Kirkby to Wigan branch line.

The line's another of those "almost, but not quite" Merseyrail stories. Electrification to Kirkby was done pretty quickly, with the obvious intention to send the trains onwards to Wigan. Then - nothing happened. For thirty odd years, passengers wanting to carry on into Lancashire have been forced to get off the train at Kirkby and walk along the platform, past a buffer stop, to catch a different train. It's a daft arrangement, and one that's obviously unsatisfactory for everyone, but until the money's there not much is going to happen.

Merseyrail do have plans to build a station a little further along, at Headbolt Lane in Kirkby, and as my Northern Rail train moved through the town en route to Wigan I could see how there would be demand for it. The suburbs stretched way beyond Kirkby station, and they looked like a new service direct to the city centre would give them a valuable economic boost. Then the houses fell away and we were surrounded by fields and trees.

We were still in Merseyside - just about. The "County" boundary extends out beyond Kirkby to take in the little town of Rainford, our next stop, meaning that the station there is one of those curious outposts like Heswall and Meols Cop - on Merseyside, but not claimed by any of the "coloured" lines and left stranded on a grey one. I can see how it can be overlooked. It's a proper country station, previously called Rainford Junction as there was a long-gone line to St Helens here, with a pub opposite and even a signal box. It certainly didn't feel like your usual Merseytravel station. Perhaps that's why they haven't installed a yellow and grey sign here: they don't want to break the spell.

The soundtrack for this part of the trip, incidentally, was Kylie Minogue's Kylie. At the weekend I was in the studio for the UK's Eurovision selection, and I wanted to remind myself of happier times when Stock Aitken and Waterman produced nothing but pop gold.

With Je Ne Said Pas, Pourquois's tinny synth in my ears, I crossed the railway bridge and headed down a side track onto a public footpath. I was using my crumpled Ordnance Survey map to guide me between stations, mashing it into shape so that I could easily get to the bit I needed, and the path tracked the railway line for a while before heading off into the fields.

It was coming up to ten o'clock, and there was a stillness in the air, the feel that spring was gathering itself ready for an onslaught. The fields around me were freshly turned, the earth rich and brown in deep valleys, and the trees seemed to be ready to burst into life. By the end of the day I would see my first crocuses, but here it was just a promise; a deep sigh of relief that the snow and ice were finished with.

The path was straight, and uncomplicated, following the edges of the fields. Normally I'd begin to get bored of it, but there was just something about it that kept me feeling up. Perhaps it was the warm sunshine, or perhaps I was just happy to be out and about, Tarting. Strange though it might seem, I do miss it sometimes.

With a detour around what I can only describe as a massive heap of shit, I soon began to see the end of the countryside looming up ahead. The pretty fields ended abruptly in walls of corrugated steel and fences, as I arrived in the comically named district of Pimbo. Let's be honest: that's not a geographic location, it's a character from In The Night Garden. And strangely for such a cuddly-fuzzily named place, it's utterly charmless. Pimbo is a huge industrial estate, just to the south of Skelmersdale, and so it's just a load of shapeless warehouse blocks and HGVs and wide ugly roads. In an effort to make it a bit more human, the Council had ambitiously laid out pedestrian footpaths - but these were broken up, and full of weeds. I guessed that no-one used them to commute to work.

Pimbo was ugly, just functional, without any human elements to blunt the edges. I suppose it's an industrial estate next to a motorway, not the Lost Gardens of Heligan, but still, it just felt unpleasant and boring. I got out of the pedestrian network so I could stay close to the railway line, to keep my bearings, and found that I'd have to trudge along grass verges without pathways while the factories showed me their faceless rears. There was a burger van, tethered behind a Ford Escort in a layby and doling out a slab of grease; I shuddered at the thought of working out here in this no-man's land, spending eight hours a day miles from anywhere.

A pathway took me away from the road and to Upholland station, clinging to the side of a railway bridge. I was pleased to see that I was back in the land of the Red Rose railway signs for Lancashire County Council, though there was no station building of course, just a couple of bus shelters either side of the line. I was the only person to get on or off at Upholland, and I almost felt embarrassed for making the train stop in such a quiet backwater.

Again, there are plans on the table for Upholland to take on a greater prominence - someday. Skelmersdale, just to the north of here, is a large town with no rail link at all, and the County Council has suggested that Upholland would be the spot to send a branch line into the town centre. However, there's a rival scheme, from Network Rail itself, which would see services extended from Ormskirk down an old branch line and coming at the town from the north. Both plans are full of ideas for park and ride and so on, but frankly, I'll believe it when I see it. In the meantime, I jumped on the train and took it through the Tontine Tunnel (another children's TV character, surely?) and onto Orrell.

Steel yourselves, folks: take a deep breath. In fact, fetch yourself something boozy. Because getting off at Orrell meant I was taking my first Round The Merseyrail We Go excursion into Greater Manchester. Previous trips into the city itself had been whims, and valueless; Orrell was on the map, though, so it had to be collected, despite it belonging to Merseytravel's mortal enemy - the GMPTE. In fact I have to applaud Merseytravel's restraint on the map - you'd have thought they'd have stuck a "Here be dragons" or "Enter at your own risk!". The hatred between Manchester and Liverpool is one of those ancient rivalries that will never be resolved. Liverpool hates Manchester because it's bigger and richer and more brash nowadays, while Manchester hates Liverpool because it's classier and more beautiful and more famous. Manchester has dark Satanic Mills; Liverpool has the Three Graces. Case closed. (As you can tell, I'm not entirely unbiased).

And even though I am biased, I have to say that Merseyrail treat their stations a lot better. The building was boarded up, access was round the side, down an alleyway, and there was a large sign on the platform warning that there was No Loitering Allowed. In addition, the station sign was just rubbish. It was basically a bus stop sign on a twenty foot pole, far above the head of any normal person and barely discernible. Ok, in its favour, GMPTE uses a lovely font, but that can hardly compare with the Merseytravel box signs, can it? Of course not.

The path onward was another off-road affair, but I made a minor detour. It was on the route anyway, but I took a chance and loitered outside the gates of the Co-operative Community Stadium, home to the Wigan Warriors' Rugby team's training ground. Well, you never know, do you? There may have been a slight chance that there would have been dozens of burly men there, working out. Or possibly they were all in the showers, when an unexpected fire alarm forced them to all run out into the car park, naked and soapy... Sorry. Distracted myself with Dieux du Stade type fantasies there. Sadly, there was no sign of the Warriors, so I disappointedly trudged away down the footpath.

After a while walking alongside the railway tracks, the path took an upward turn, heading into a little copse and then into a field punctuated by a winding stream. For the first time in this relatively flat landscape I found myself climbing a hill, up and up, while ahead of me the distant roar grew louder until I could see it: the M6.

It's strange standing by the side of a massive, fantastically busy motorway, with just a few planks of wood separating you from the carriageway. I walked right up to the fence and watched the traffic speed by. The field was at the spot where the M58 diverges from the main route, and there were all sorts of manoeuvres and interweaving of traffic. I stood there for a while, then realised that my presence might be a distraction for the drivers - they might have thought I was contemplating topping myself under the wheels of a Tesco lorry, or something - so I backtracked. Besides which, I had to find a way to cross the thing.

Tucked away to one side was a series of grim, graffiti-soaked concrete steps, which took you down below the roadway. At the foot of the steps was a melted rubber tyre, and a couple of smashed beer bottles, and then you were plunged into complete darkness for the tunnel. With metal bars either side of me, and the constant thud of the traffic overhead, it was a bit like being stuck in a particularly cruel game on the Crystal Maze. I was waiting for Richard O'Brien to pop up alongside me with a harmonica. If I'd have been in an inner-city somewhere, I would no doubt have been fretting about what was at the other end - smackheads, or muggers, or worried that I might tread on a needle. But I was miles from anywhere. The graffiti artists probably had to make a special trip.

With the tunnel safely conquered I could continue towards the edge of Wigan and the beginnings of the town again. For the first time, I shared the path with someone else, a middle aged woman who shamed me for my lack of exercise by jogging past at speed, and the fields began to close up with trees. I was accompanied by a stone wall for a while, and a broken down part led temptingly into the woods, except there was a giant Strictly No Trespassing sign posted at eye level that I couldn't in all conscience ignore. So instead I carried on, acquiring a couple of dog walkers on the way, until I climbed a slope and entered Pemberton, once a town in its own right but now just another district of Wigan.

I was in true suburbia now. The houses and the curved streets were exactly the same as the estate I'd grown up in, two hundred miles south. Little cul-de-sacs named after birds (it was hills where I grew up), neat paintwork, gardens that had been tastefully block-paved or concreted to accommodate a second car. A man was up a ladder, fixing a Sky minidish (down the side of the house, not at the front, naturally) while the postman trotted back from front path to front path. It was so familiar, and so boring. I remembered growing up in the suburbs and how quiet and safe it was, and how I'd just accepted it as being the norm. It was only when I started to venture out on my own, on trips to London and so on, and I realised how much more was out there than a three bedroomed house with integral garage. That was all very nice, but I wanted something else.

Having said that, Pemberton grew more interesting as I headed towards the station, and encountered a pretty church and a couple of old pubs. The weather had turned a bit grey though, and I think it soured me to the place - I just wanted to get away.

Pemberton's station sign was better than Orrell's, I'll give the GMPTE that. It was still just another station sign though, and I refuse to get excited about it. Poor Pemberton. It had the feeling of having once been loved, but then got chucked for someone more interesting. There was a sad little bit of concrete art, with Pemberton picked out in pink, but which had been allowed to fade. Aw.

I suppose, with their gleaming tram network (grrr) Manchester's transport peeps have more important things on their mind than a few boring old train stations. Which is a shame. On the plus side though, it means Merseytravel win on points...

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades

Dear Man At Lime Street

a) It's an underground station. There's no sunshine.

b) It's March in the UK. There's definitely no sunshine.

c) Take the shades off. You look like an idiot.

Many thanks.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Fabulous, Sweetie

In the first of what will no doubt be a very occasional series, we bring you Celebrities on Merseyrail. Yes, it does happen, now and then. Today's special guest celeb is Agyness Deyn, fashion model, fashion muse, and general all round fashion person, who for some reason is in Liverpool. This may have something to do with her on/off relationship with Miles Kane from the Last Shadow Puppets, but I haven't bought Heat in years so I don't feel qualified to comment on that. What I can comment on is La Dean's Twitter feed, which threw up the following yesterday:

Liverpool has an underground!!! It's the friendly brother of the London underground but on dreamy hallucinogens.

to which I say: eh? "Dreamy hallucinogens"? I've never ridden the Tube while smacked out of my head, so I'll have to take Aggy's word for that. Admittedly all that brown melanine in the station can make your eyes go squiggy after a while. Still, I have to agree about it being the Underground's friendly brother.

She then went on to say:

Merseyrail moto... 'It's fine because it's fair'.

Isn't it though? Well done Aggy. And well done Merseyrail for getting a free ad for your penalty fares scheme from a supermodel with 22,000 followers. Admittedly, out of context it doesn't make sense, and she's spelt "motto" wrong, but we all get the gist. Unless she'd just got caught without a ticket at Conway Park, and was being ironic? Perhaps Agyness was tweeting from the back of a meat wagon on its way to Birkenhead police station. We need to be told.

It's nice to see that she was positive about her Merseyrail experience, though, and as a result she has gone up in my estimation. I'm even going to forgive her for spelling Agnes wrong now, which I'm sure she'll be pleased about. I hope that this is a regular occurrence, now, and we get a swarm of supermodels all over the network. Naomi Campbell assaulting a ticket inspector at Blundellsands and Crosby. Kate Moss snorting "substances" on a six-car train to Chester. Tyra Banks and her Fierce Weave scaring the schoolkids at Aigburth. The possibilities are endless. Do let me know if you spot Cindy Crawford, or indeed, anyone famous on a Merseyrail train. Then we can all bask in the knowledge that they're just like us.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Sign O' The Times

Last year Merseyrail wheeled out a whole load of new signs at the Underground stations. Grey and yellow, instead of the bog standard white ones, at first I thought these were cool. There were spider diagrams to show you where your train was going. There were clearer exit signs, showing escalators and lifts. They even marked out which platform you were on.

Then things started getting silly. Diagrams of the stations themselves started appearing, because apparently "Way Out" signs weren't enough. Oh, no. You need to know where you are, and where the escalators are, and where the train tracks are now. No matter that the diagram's ridiculously over complicated for what you need, and no matter that, to my knowledge, no-one has accidentally wandered into the railway tunnel at Liverpool Central thinking it was an escalator. (Incidentally, in my experience, the diagram at James Street succeeded in confusing more people than it helped. Once underground, James Street can be a confusing warren of defunct corridors and new platforms, and suddenly pointing these out to people just lead to them trying to board trains on platforms that hadn't seen regular service since 1978). And then they started sticking signs up in corridors on the way out, so you can pick the right exit at Moorfields or Lime Street and don't get horribly confused and have to, you know, use your brain. In short, someone gave them a load of money to put up some signs, and they went crazy.

Yet the strangest thing about all this is, they didn't actually put up any signs that might be of use to your average Merseyrail traveller. Fortunately, help is at hand. As with so many things, the Americans are way ahead of us in this regard. The lovely Emily, a.k.a Cat Girl, writes a great, fascinating and beautifully designed blog about the New York transit network, I Ride The Harlem Line. She spotted the gap in the market for warning signs and created some for the Metro-North network over there, and, with her permission, I'm posting some of her signs here as suggestions for Merseyrail to consider in future. You're welcome.

"Mind The Gap" just doesn't cut it sometimes. It's polite, but have you ever tried boarding a train at Hamilton Square? That's not a gap - it's the Grand Canyon. You need a cable car to get across it. This sign would make it abundantly clear that you need to have your wits about you, so don't frigging complain when you drop your handbag.

Anyone who's been through Green Lane will have seen the giant red signs shouting "DO NOT ALIGHT HERE" in the tunnel. And yet, every time, there are imbeciles on six car trains who queue up to get off and end up staring at a brick wall. Next time, they should just open the doors, then, when they fall on the track, they can look up and see this sign staring back at them.

God, this one is desperately needed. Dear everyone on the Wirral Line: there are two platforms. One heads away from the city centre, one heads towards it. When you get on the train, the automated voice tells you where the train is headed. There is therefore no need for you to get exasperated, swear, and leap off the train at the next station when you realise you're headed for Chester. That's you being thick, and it's not Merseyrail's fault. If you wasn't listening to Nickelback at maximum volume you might not have brain damage.

Yes. Public drunkenness is a fine British tradition, dating back to the Middle Ages. It's part of our national heritage, like plates with Princess Diana's face on them and chicken tikka masala and Dame Judi Dench. Unfortunately, when you're sober on an underground train at eleven on a Saturday night, you might forget this. You might want to just get home. This sign efficiently reminds you that you're the minority, a freak, and really you'd have been better off downing a bottle of Lambrini before you clambered aboard. Otherwise, the pissed up fourteen year olds holding the doors open in the stations, clambering all over the seats like monkeys at a safari park, and filling the carriage with their own distinctive scent (Eau de Vomite) might start to get you down. This sign should be erected at weekends, public holidays, and throughout the month of December, right next to a stand handing out vodka shots.

Hopefully these signs will soon go into production, and I look forward to seeing them all over our local trains. Remember: if there isn't a sign, how will people know what to think?

(Many thanks to Emily)

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Like Playaway, but with less Brian Cant.

Bad news for anyone too young to buy a scratchcard. From today, you won't be able to get the same empty thrill of rubbing off a bit of foil for very little gain from a Saveaway any more. They're on their way out.

Actually, that's not entirely true. You can still get one of the traditional Saveaway tickets, valid on all of Merseyside's public transport, if you go to a bus station or newsagent. If you choose to buy it from a Merseyrail station though, from March 7th, you'll be given something that looks remarkably like a train ticket - a special version of the one-day rangers available for other railway routes. Good luck to the first couple of people explaining it to the bus drivers. ("Yes, I know it's a train ticket, but it's valid on this bus. Yes, it is. It is. Oh look, is that the pavement zooming up towards my face? Yes, it is.")

Presumably this is a much overdue attempt to bring the Saveaway ticket into the 21st Century. It's always been a brilliantly anachronistic, and charming, little item. You have to scratch off the day, month and year you're going to use it, so they can be stored months in advance, and then fold a piece of sticky backed plastic down over the card to seal it.

No matter how hard you try, no matter how long you spend on it, no matter if you are using a robot in an air-tight vacuum, you will always get a big crease in the plastic. They're specially designed that way. Thousands of tiny microfibres, invisible to the eye, are inlayed into the plastic like velcro, and they magically draw together as soon as they detect oxygen. It cost Merseytravel billions of Council Taxpayer's money to come up with this innovative polymer, but they agreed it was worth it because the look of frustration and anger on people's face as they fold it over is frigging hilarious. CCTV footage of people trying to not get a crease in their Saveaway is usually the highlight of the Christmas party at Merseytravel Towers. Usually this crease will go over the date, so the ticket inspectors will have to give it an extra squint, to enhance the comedy humiliation.

The Saveaway's a brilliant idea, and an absolute bargain. If you're planning a day trip to, say, Southport, or New Brighton, it's worth getting a Saveaway just for the freedom it affords you to leap on and off trains and buses. It's also worth bearing in mind that it's valid on the ferries, though they keep that quiet at the terminal to try and get you to pay again.

The move to a train-ticket-style Saveaway means that it can be used in the ticketing gates at seven of the stations, freeing up a bit of capacity, and leading to more thorough checks. And since it's computer printed with the date, it'll also mean an end to those chancers we've all seen on the trains, saying "Oh, I just forgot to scratch the box off" to the inspector, while wielding an untouched Saveaway that's clearly been kept in their back pocket for a couple of months.

While the bus technology remains behind its train equivalents, we won't be seeing a complete end to the scratch-and-stick Saveaway; it'll probably be around until Merseyside gets its own version of the Oyster card. Which by the looks of it, probably won't be until the dawn of the next millennium.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

A Whole New World

With the Spring sunshine beaming down on me, I started feeling all summery. All excited about the new glow of the year. It feels like we're coming out of the drab Winter and into a new shiny world.

My thoughts turned to the blog. I was going to go out today but, for various reasons I won't bore you with, it didn't happen. I did think about the look of it though. One thing that's bothered me about the blog over the years is how tedious it looked - it's very corporate Blogger, very off the shelf, and more than a little dull.

So, with the help of the good people at Artisteer, we've had a makeover. The blue and orange has given way to a summery yellow and black - partly because it's brighter, and cheerier, and partly because it's an homage to the distinctive colours of Merseyrail itself. The font has also changed from boring Arial to my favourite font, Gill Sans.

There may be a few teething problems, I warn you, and I hope to continue tweaking the look over the next few weeks until I'm completely satisfied. However, for the time being, it feels a lot better to me, a great improvement. Hope you agree!