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...


Celeste said...

I worked for an engineering firm in Pimbo for about 2 years. It can confirm it was grim, although the butty van outside our company was fantastic. Lorry drivers would come from quite a distance as they sold nice, and even healthy things!

The name Pimbo, and summer time when the grass verges were full of bright yellow dandelions were two of my highlights at that time.

Robert said...

How busy were the trains? I rode the line for the first (and so far only) time in 2006 and was surprised how many people were using it.

You've also highlighted one of the problems with developing the Kirkby-Wigan line: Kirkby and Rainford are Merseytravel stations, Upholland is in Lancashire and the rest of the line is GMPTE - three different authorities and seemingly none of them want to take the lead.

I wouldn't hold my breath over the Skelmersdale extension. When the 507s were delivered in 1978 they were optimistically fitted with destination blinds which included such exotic locations as Skelmersdale, Wigan and Hough Green, and 30 years later we're still waiting. Network Rail have at least recommended the plans be developed further, but at the speed these things move it'll be ten years at least before any tangible sign of movement appears. A shame really, especially as Skelmersdale's bus services are reportedly atrocious, but there you go.

Also, that pedestrian underpass looks spectacularly grim. I think I would have taken my chances on the motorway, to be honest.

Scott Willison said...

I can safely say that the butty van I saw couldn't compare with yours, Celeste. I think their idea of "healthy eating" was a bun without a burger.

The trains were sort of busy - the later ones, as it got closer to lunch, were far more jammed than the earlier ones. Certainly it was no more or less busy than an average Merseyrail service.

Skem's rail service is one of those things everyone agrees should happen, yet can't seem to bring themselves to committing to, and it's a terrible shame. If I had a choice, I'd go with Lancs CC's plan of electric trains via Upholland into the town centre, because that is easily the best route - but I can't see a simple way of sending third rail trains into the middle of the town without huge quantities of building work and fencing. The Network Rail plan of an extension via Ormskirk and Westhead is a lot more feasible since the trackbed is still there, but (a) the plans only call for a Skelmersdale park and ride to the north of the town and (b) it's more services on the Ormskirk line, which doesn't have the same capacity as the Kirkby line. My fear is that while there are two schemes pending, we're going to get into a whole "they both have merits but heck, we just can't decide!" and nothing will happen.

How about a loop, where the Ormskirk services run through a tunnel under the town centre and then back into Liverpool via Kirkby? Anyone? Oh, it's all gone quiet.