Saturday 24 April 2010

Map!: Now Available With Black Splodges

It's a bright Saturday in spring. The sun's shining, there's a fresh breeze, there's buds on the trees. Naturally this means that I am tucked up inside with the blinds drawn and a laptop. I don't do "outdoors" very well. There's no wi-fi, television, or access to cakes outside. Not without paying for it. Also, there are "other people" outside, and that's just uncalled for.

I've been using my time usefully to update the Merseytart Map. Merseyrail have finally put the full version of the map online, with the Mouldsworth line and the FUCKING SQUARE and everything, so I've been forced to wrestle with Preview to get a decent state of play map. And here it is.

(Clickie for biggie).

As you can see, it doesn't look like there's much to do. The remaining stations are very much peripheral. Half a dozen on the West Coast Main Line, the length of the Delamere branch, and a fair few on the Southport-Wigan route. Plus - gulp - Blackpool, and all that entails. There's also, frustratingly, Bryn which has managed to be missed. Not forgetting those last few remaining blips on Merseyrail itself - Birkdale & Southport on the Northern Line, and Bromborough Rake, Bromborough and Eastham to close off the Wirral Line.

Then it's just the final sweep of the Loop, so I can properly collect James Street, Moorfields, Lime Street and Central, and it's all done.

Funny. When I look at it that way - well, there's not much left to do, is there? Shame...

Sunday 18 April 2010


"So. When are we going to visit Stanlow & Thornton?"

That's not an invitation you get every day. And frankly, how could I resist it? Robert Hampton, the man who has, against all logic, graduated from "reader of this blog" to "bloke I will happily have a number of pints with", was keen to go out on another tart with me. He suggested Stanlow and Thornton for a couple of reasons - it was obscure, it was difficult to get to - it was different.

Stanlow and Thornton - and its brother station, Ince and Elton - were always going to be difficult to get to. They're stuck on a branch line between Helsby, one of those strange spurs which hangs on purely because it's more bother than it's worth to get rid of it. If you want to close a train line, you have to get an Act of Parliament to approve it: as a result, it's cheaper and easier to just run a couple of barely used shuttles along it as a token effort. Stanlow & Thornton and Ince & Elton were serviced by four trains a day in each direction - two in the morning, two in the afternoon - and that was it.

So the idea of an extra pair of hands, so to speak, was most welcome. It also meant that if I got stranded in the middle of Stanlow Oil Refinery, I'd at least have someone to talk to.

We had to get there first, of course. I'd planned our day, a simple matter of changing trains here and there. But things got off to a bad start when my train from Lime Street failed to work. I'm not sure what was wrong with it. All I can say is that various members of staff flattened themselves against the floor, reached under the train, and pushed a button. Then they stood up, scratched their head, and went and stood in a group to discuss the button, while all the passengers sat embarrassed on the platform. There was a general feeling that we should be getting on the train, but since no-one else was doing it, no-one wanted to be the first: we all just pretended to be looking at our newspaper, or our iPod, or we feigned disinterest. Even as the train's scheduled departure time ticked past, we carried on waiting, our essential Britishness preventing us from doing anything that might be construed as "causing a fuss".

Finally the railwaymen admitted defeat, and we were herded to platform one to take a different train entirely. The net result was that we left Lime Street fifteen minutes late, which wouldn't bother me normally, but we had a tight connection at Warrington: we had to cross the town centre to get from Central to Bank Quay, and every moment of lateness raised the ugly spectre of having to run. Watching me run is not a pleasant experience, and as I am so unfit, I can usually do about fifty feet before I have to stop and suck on an oxygen tank.

We burst out of the tunnel into the sunlight at Edge Hill. It was a gorgeous day. Cornflower blue skies everywhere you looked, without a single cloud; I had to raise my hand to shield my eye from the naked sun. After West Allerton, I looked across the tracks, and saw a young boy raised on his dad's shoulders, waving frantically at the trains over the fence. He was only about three or four, but he was gleeful, unbridled joy. What is it about boys and trains? Why do they intrigue us so much?

Robert joined me at Liverpool South Parkway, fresh with excitement at the hi-tech toilets in the station (apparently they talk to you, which I find a bit freaky, personally). I ran through our itinerary: from Bank Quay, a train to Frodsham, then walk to Helsby; train to Ince & Elton, then walk to Stanlow & Thornton. However if, as seemed increasingly likely, we missed the train at Warrington, we'd just skip Frodsham and head straight for Helsby.

We sat in a muted silence, ticking off the minutes as we seemingly crawled on. Widnes was a welcome sight, and when we went straight through Sankey for Penketh without stopping, I almost cheered. I don't think anyone has ever leapt off a train at Warrington Central with as much enthusiasm as us.

Older readers may distantly recall Harold Bishop in Neighbours. When he first came into the soap, and was living with The Legend That Was Mrs Mangel, Harold used to exercise by speed walking up and down Ramsay Street, resulting in him wiggling his arse like Mick Jagger on uppers.

Well, Harold Bishop had nothing on Robert and I; we walked through Warrington at speeds hitherto unseen outside of an athletics stadium, our backsides whooshing from side to side as we tried to make it across town for the Llandudno train. Thanks to our heroic mincing, we made it to Bank Quay with a minute to spare, and we were able to squeeze ourselves onto a packed train headed for Frodsham.

Frodsham's an unmanned station, but it's still very proud of itself.

And who wouldn't be? Clearly magnificent floral displays like these should be rewarded.

Hmm. Okay.

Frodsham itself is a very pretty little market town. I'd never been there before, but I was pleasantly surprised by its wide open main road, dotted with local shops - there were hardly any chain stores, which, in these days of homogenised high streets, is a rarity. In fact I have only two complaints about Frodsham. The first is the lack of a decent railway station sign: just a bit of board on the side of a bridge, which isn't on. The second is that they've gone seriously overboard with the historic blue plaques. Commemorating a famous resident, or a notable event, or a significant landmark, fine. For example, Frodsham is the birthplace of Take That icon and disappointingly Tory Gary Barlow: if there'd been a blue plaque commemorating the composer of Do What U Like, I would have had no complaints. Sticking a historic marker on every other building and basically writing "THIS HOUSE IS OLD" on the side devalues the process. This is England. We've got thousands of old buildings. It's nothing special.

My plan to conceal my beer gut through carefully applied layers of clothing was dealt a fatal blow as we walked out of town on the way to Helsby. Blimey, it was warm. I had to shed my hoodie - another mile's walk and I strongly suspect my t-shirt would have gone the same way. Robert, being of the ginger persuasion, had wisely lathered himself with sun block before we left, but I hadn't, and I could feel my flesh lightly baking.

Helsby Hill loomed large in the distance, giving us something to aim for. As we got closer, we realised there were frankly insane people clambering over the top of it: we kept a good eye out, and my camera at the ready, in case any of them plummeted to their deaths and we could get £500 from You've Been Framed for the footage. Disappointingly, they all kept their footing.

Helsby itself was signalled by Helsby High School, which seems to be bigger than the town itself; it went on for miles, block after block of brick red building. It was even more strange given that Helsby seemed like the kind of place which was more at home for pensioners or, as a particularly hateful sign outside a caravan park put it, "recycled teenagers". I'd thought it would be a twin of Frodsham, so I was disappointed to see that it was more like a suburb with delusions of grandeur.

We'd made extremely good time walking between the two towns - so much so, that we had three quarters of an hour to kill. My normal course of action would be to immediately find a pub. However, we only spotted one open pub in the whole village, the Railway Inn, and it seemed to be a spit 'n' sawdust, hardened drinkers yelling at the footie on telly kind of place, which isn't my thing at all. I was tempted to go there anyway because there was a man sat outside with no shirt on, but Robert reasonably pointed out that if I sat there staring at him, we might get beaten up, so we trudged on. There was nowhere else to go in sight - no coffee shop, nothing. There was a balti place, (as Robert said, "There's always a balti place") which was closed, and a garage, and a One-Stop shop, and that was your lot. So we bought a couple of Cokes and went and sat on the station platform.

This is where having a railway expert with me came in handy. See, I'm a bit thick when it comes to the actual mechanics of railways. I have this naive assumption that Britain's railways are modern, gleaming examples of 21st Century magnificence. Actually, not even that: I just thought they were mechanically operated, and that things like signals and junctions and points were all operated by a computer somewhere in Crewe. I thought there was one huge room, with lots of flashing lights and moving screens and LEDs.

In line with this belief, I thought the signal box on the platform at Helsby was just a historic relic, preserved by a dedicated team of enthusiasts, possibly with some sort of listing. But no. Robert informed me that it was a working, active signal box, complete with a man inside yanking at levers. Presumably a man with a voluminous moustache and a pipe. It was an odd little technical anachronism, like finding out that your aeroplane is being powered by the pilot pedalling really hard.

Our train arrived and settled in for a long wait on the platform. We got on board and waited for it to take off, but it was in no hurry. There was something almost magical about the afternoon. The gorgeous weather, the silent platform, the idling train. The guard and the driver got off and chatted in the sun. The station cat picked its way through the flower beds. Time slowed.

The guard came down to us and checked we were on the right train. It seems that passengers on this route were the exception rather than the norm. We reassured him that, yes, we were headed for Ince & Elton, and then there was a sigh of hydraulics and the train took off.

It was at this point that Robert confessed to being nervous about the trip ahead. Stanlow & Thornton station is buried deep within the Stanlow Oil Refinery, and is accessible only via the private Oil Sites Road; technically, we'd be trespassing. He was just a little bit concerned that we might, you know, get shot in the chin for being a terrorist. The fact that I had a bomb-concealing backpack on didn't help.

Personally, I thought it added a frisson to the day, but I could see why he was concerned. I was more worried that we'd be prevented from getting to the station at all, which would be extremely frustrating. On top of that, our timings were going to be incredibly tight; according to Google Maps, it would take us thirty-eight minutes to walk from one station to the next; it gave us a margin of five minutes error or we'd miss the train and be stranded in the middle of Cheshire with no way out.

We got off at Ince & Elton, meaning that the train continued onwards completely empty, and took the customary photos. First a joint effort, squatting under a platform sign:

Then the more traditional Merseytart pose, under the station sign at the roadside:

Damn, I really need to lose some weight.

Then we were off! Careful studies of the map indicated that there were no footpaths alongside the railway; to get to Oil Sites Road meant we had to make a massive detour into Ince Village itself, then back out again, a frustrating diversion. Luck was with us again though, and we spotted a side path which meant we could slide down an embankment and join a cross road. It carved about fifteen minutes off the trip, and meant we were a lot more relaxed as we sauntered towards the entrance to the oil refinery.

There were massive signs to greet us. "RESTRICTED AREA". "PRIVATE ROAD". "NO PHOTOGRAPHY." "NO STOPPING". It didn't quite say "ACHTUNG!" but it may as well have. The sign also warned us of checkpoints ahead.

"What do you think?" said Robert.

"Ah, we won't get arrested," I replied. "At worse, we'll just get duffed up by a couple of burly men in the security hut."

I don't think he was reassured.

There was a footpath by the side of the road, so we took that and headed in. It was eerily quiet. You expected there to be a load of activity, people in boiler suits and hard hats marching around, men in golf buggies ferrying valuable components from one side of the refinery to the other, but there was no sign of human activity at all. Just the low regular hum of machinery. There were pipes everywhere, passing over and under and through one another in a complex spaghetti of industry.

I've passed the refinery hundreds of times on the M53, and from a distance it has a mechanical magnificence. The belching towers, the gantries, the burning flame on top; it's a Blade Runner city of metal and concrete, and peculiarly beautiful at night when it becomes pinpoints of light and fire. At street level, though, it was banal; blank surfaces, grey walls, insistently aggressive signs.

Stanlow & Thornton station is pretty much ignored by the rest of the site. There were plenty of direction boards pointing to Induction Centres and Entrance 3,4,5, but not one for the station. You can only find it if you know where to look. Luckily we did, and even more luckily, we got there with time to spare. In blatant defiance of the "no photography" sign, we got the tart pic, though if anyone from Shell is reading, it was Robert Hampton that took the picture, so go after him, not me. Ta.

As we walked up the stairs to the station footbridge, a CCTV camera turned and stared straight at us, then followed us as we passed over to the Ellesmere Port platform. Unnerved, we made a pantomime of checking out the train times on the abandoned station building, then stood politely waiting for the train, while the eye of the camera remained focussed on us.

And then, Kevin arrived. Trotting down the steps came Kevin the security man, uniformed, walkie-talkied, early forties and vaguely threatening, for all his patter. He introduced himself and asked what we were up to. It seemed that they had been following us ever since we stepped foot on the refinery, which is either a testament to their effective security procedures or a gross violation of our civil liberties - I can't decide which.

Strange though this website is, it sounds even stranger when you try to explain it to someone else. "Yeah, we're trying to visit every train station... and get a photo in front of the station sign... erm, yeah. That's it." I was seriously hoping he wouldn't ask "why?" because there's no answer to that, is there?

Fortunately Kevin the security guard was very relaxed. He kept saying they were monitoring us for "our" safety, which is a blatant lie, let's be honest, but he soon realised we weren't Al-Qaeda terrorists and were instead just a couple of geeks. I was really worried that he'd ask me to delete the picture of the Stanlow & Thornton sign. What would I do then? I'd have a hole in my map, never to be replaced.

The train arrived, and we said our goodbyes. Kevin whispered something into his radio which I guessed wasn't particularly complimentary, but still, he let us go so who cares? We settled back into our seats on the still empty train and allowed ourselves to breathe again. I then frankly took the piss by taking a snap of the refinery as we made our getaway, but I was feeling cocky.

After that, Ellesmere Port couldn't be anything but a let down. Unstaffed, ugly, populated by various over dressed slappers getting ready for a night on the razz in Liverpool, it was an unpromising end to the day's efforts. We collapsed into our seats, tired from all that walking in the heat, and settled in for the trip home. Inside I was quietly thrilled. The Ellesmere Port-Helsby branch was always going to be difficult to get. It's an unloved, unwanted remnant, a reminder that not everyone values trains and the network they run on. In fact, sometimes they're a pain in the arse for everyone involved. I'm glad it's there though, and I'm glad I can finally cross it off the map. I'm equally glad I never have to go back.

I'll leave you with a picture of Robert on the Merseyrail train home, slipping into a miasma of relief that his afternoon wasn't going to end with him being buggered in a prison cell somewhere.


Friday 16 April 2010

Scally Central

Warning: there be spoilers ahead!

Above: Nicky Bell as Carty. Impenetrable Scouse accent not shown.

Last weekend I got a copy of the Awaydays DVD from Lovefilm, a film I'd been looking forward to seeing. I read the book two or three years ago, and I'd been really impressed. It shouldn't have appealed to me. It follows Carty, a nineteen year old lad trapped in a tedious job at the Inland Revenue who peps up his weekends by through acts of unpleasant hooliganism. The novel is filled with intensely described violence, committed by a character who clearly loves and enjoys the thrill of the battle.

Yet Kevin Sampson, as a writer, takes you inside Carty's head and helps you to understand who he is, and where he is going. The novel's partly based on his own experiences, and the realities and truths of nearing the end of your teens in the late seventies and falling in with a world of anger and pain and friendship really rang true. It helped that the novel is so specifically set on the Wirral, giving an extra frisson; it's one thing to read about a character living in a boho flat, it's another for it to be named as Reedville, a few hundred yards from my front door.

Awaydays the film sadly can't match up to the novel's visceral power, even though Sampson wrote the screenplay. It falls into the trap of depicting a violent, grubby world, but making it exciting and something you want to be a part of. This isn't a judgement on my part; on the contrary, the novel also makes the world of The Pack (as the hooligans are known) seem as thrilling as an army battalion. However, in the novel we can understand Carty and where he's going, and what he's getting out of the experience; in the film he fails as an interesting leading man, and becomes a blank. We're not seeing it through his eyes, so it becomes less involving. He's totally overshadowed by his mate Elvis, who admittedly was more interesting in the book too, but here dominates the screen in a great performance by Liam Boyle.

There's still the local interest though, as the film was made on the Wirral. It lead to a great deal of exclamations in our house, as we tried to work out where they were: "It's Hamilton Square!" "It's the Cavern!" "It's the front at New Brighton!".

The one time they step off the peninsular is to use the East Lancs Railway, for the very good reason that they could supply genuine old trains for the production. We get many a beauty pass of the old diesel pulling away from the platform, if you like that sort of thing. In the novel, this is meant to be Birkenhead North, and is symbolic of the difference between Carty and the other members of the pack. For them, Birkenhead North is "their" station, the one nearest their homes in the depressed North End of Birkenhead. For Carty however, it's very different; it's the station he uses to get home to Parkgate. The class differences are barely touched on in the film, but in the novel they're explored much more deeply, as Carty is a character who conceals his privileged home from his new mates.

Ironically, Birkenhead North then turns up for real, later in the film, except it's meant to be somewhere else. I say somewhere else because the film is, by necessity, extremely vague about who the football teams involved are. At no point does the word "Tranmere" pass anyone's lips, and the odd football scarf on show is blandly generic (red and white stripes, that kind of thing).

Birkenhead North therefore becomes Town X, and is given period specific posters to seal the deal. The station's architecture fits in with the bleak, end-of-days feel that pervades the film: it's a brutal, functional brick station, with high metal fences, and surrounded by waste land. It's the scene for a bloody confrontation between The Pack and the locals, and Carty gets beaten in the street outside before he fights back with a Stanley knife.

We don't get much of a look at other stations on the network; we're back at Bury Bolton Street for any further train scenes, but that's a lovely looking booking hall. It also provides an intriguing moment for me: in one scene, Carty dashes down to the platform and passes a bunch of vintage posters which have been used to give it that Merseyside ambience. Prominent, centre of the screen, is one for the Liverpool Overground.

Overground? First I've heard of it - unless this was a fake knocked up by the art department specially.

Naturally, the film can't end well, and it's another point where the book and film diverge. In the book, Carty begins to become tired of the Pack; we feel like he's maturing and growing out of the hooligan scene. In the film, it seems as though the Pack deserts him, rather than the other way round. The leader is killed, and replaced by a lad who has disliked Carty from the start. The Pack defeat another bunch of supporters, and then the lad turns on Carty and does this:

which, you know, doesn't go down well. I didn't get the same feeling of his journey as I did in the book, and I came away disappointed.

The Bf, on the other hand, really enjoyed it, so perhaps it's one of those times when you miss what's been left out from the book when you see the film. There's a lot of good things about it - it's very well directed by Pat Holden, and there are a number of good performances in smaller roles.

Or perhaps I just soured to it because of this:

That's the last moments of the film, when the poignancy and regret of the scene was ruined for me by TWO yellow and grey Merseyrail trains going past. 1979? My arse.

Friday 9 April 2010

A Golden Day

The recent foray into the old maps of Merseyside's railways got me thinking about the history of the network and, more particularly, what's been lost. Liverpool and the Wirral have always been blessed with train routes; it's one of the reasons we still have a good network today. It hasn't stopped the closure of some lines however.

Principal among these was the West Kirby to Hooton line. Opened in 1886, this line curved up along the west of the peninsula, taking in the likes of Parkgate and Heswall on its way to the terminus at West Kirby. Unlike its brother line on the east coast, this meant it passed through a lot of rural communities, small places without much of a commuter base; it also failed to reach any major destinations, and almost inevitably it closed completely in 1962. Almost nothing remains of the line; it's been turned into the Wirral Way, though a station has been preserved at Hadlow Road, which I visited years ago.

I was curious to see what remained of the terminus. At West Kirby, the Hooton branch had its own station, just a single platform off to one side of the electrified lines, with a goods yard separating the two. I thought, as it was a nice April day, I'd take a trip out there to have a poke around.

West Kirby was one of the first stations I did, three years ago, and I was curious to see how it was getting on. I'm pleased to say that it's a very pretty little station, with a nice glass atrium area at its centre. The last time I was here the shop units were vacant; now there's a toy shop, and a stripped pine and frappucino coffee shop with outdoor seating spilling over into the station area. Pleasingly, the cafe is accessible from the street and the station itself, giving the building a little dose of activity and life. Out on the pavement the Victorian building looked good, just as a small town terminus should, though I'm forced to ask - exactly how difficult is it to fix a clock? A good station clock in such a prominent place should be maintained and loved. Surely these days it's not too difficult to do? We can put a man on the moon, etc.
Stopped clock or not, it's still a lot better than its neighbour. After the station closed, and the goods yard went too, the council took over the unused land and built a civic centre there. A council office, a library, a health centre, a leisure centre and a fire station were all put onsite. To tie these disparate buildings together, they decided to stick with one architectural style. That style was "breathtakingly awful public convenience".
It's a marvel, isn't it? It's like someone saw the Royal Festival Hall and decided to copy it on a local authority budget. Then ran out of cash halfway through. West Kirby is a very pretty town, and the stained white tiles of the Concourse building are incredibly jarring. I have a kind of grudging admiration for their brutality and ugliness, but the idea that they may soon be replaced and rebuilt doesn't fill me with sadness.

I skirted the building, heading south along Orrysdale Road, which was created when the old railway went. I was heading for the railway bridge at the throat of the line, which used to host a junction which enabled traffic to move between the two branches (but was in reality barely used). From there I could get an idea of just what a huge site had once been devoted to the railways.
Everything left of the current station was given over to trains. Walking round the quiet town now, it's amazing to think that such a vast quarter of it had once been busy with steam engines, timber yards and industry. It's like Stratford Upon Avon used to have a nuclear power plant at its centre; it doesn't seem feasible.

I headed back into town through a green space which had once been a trackbed. There's very little remaining of the old station, a few walls, some contours in the ground. The trees planted here with the redevelopment have matured and were just starting to bud alongside a bank of daffodils. I paused; perhaps the Concourse would look better when viewed through nature in this way?
Yeah, maybe not.

The West Kirby to Hooton line came at the site from the opposite direction to the Birkenhead trains, so I crossed the road and headed for the Wirral Way. A nice signpost and information board pointed the way into this little oasis of green. I stepped onto the path and it almost immediately fell silent; so strange how sometimes you can move away from the town with just the slightest movement. The houses along here would once have been buffeted by noise and chaos from the trains - now they had trees, and greenery out their back windows. I bet there were a fair few householders who saw a sharp rise in their investment when they sold on.
It being a spring day in the Easter holidays, I wasn't alone on the footpath. There were families out strolling, dog walkers, cyclists - even a couple of horse riders at one point. I was being stalked by a woman on a bike, which was a bit disconcerting because she clearly could have overtaken me if she wanted, but for some reason she refused to. Perhaps she just liked staring at my arse.

The path passed through Ashton Park, and I walked underneath what once would have been the only connection between the two sides of the railway line. The tennis courts on one side and the lake on the other were separated by the railway; with its closure, they had been allowed to grow together again, and the trees and bushes had smeared the division between them. The bridge had been made redundant as the park's users formed their own muddy footpaths as they crossed from one side to the other. It did provide one key service now: somewhere for the local teenagers to hang out, looking sullen and pretending they were bored. Why do teenagers always have to hang out somewhere? I mean, they never just pick a random wall in the middle of an avenue - they always cling to a landmark, like a bridge, or a tree, or a corner. I used to loiter round a green BT junction box when I was growing up. Teenagers are like the human equivalent of pigeons.

I had no intention of walking the length of the Wirral Way. I had things to do, for starters, and besides which, it goes for miles. Instead I came off at the next bridge, which had once been home to Kirby Park station. Kirby Park was about as simple a station as you can get; a platform with a ramp going up to the street, and a coal siding. There was only one track here, though they optimistically built the road bridge big enough for two. Fat chance. Again, there's practically nothing to see, apart from the gap in the fence at the road level which was once the route to the platform.
I had a meander back into town ahead of me now, but I didn't mind. It was a lovely day, really bright and fresh, and I was glad I'd left my coat at home (I wasn't so glad when I got back that evening and realised my door keys were in my coat pocket, meaning I had to sit in the garage for an hour and a half waiting for the Bf to return). I did at one point consider going back to conscript a couple of those teenagers though:
Come ON, youth of West Kirby - a simple application of magic marker and you can make that "Maddona [sic] Drive". Where's your drive to commit acts of petty vandalism? Why aren't you altering road signs to commemorate pop legends? I suppose you're all studying for GCSEs and having part time jobs and being productive members of society. Kids today, tch.

Growing up in the Home Counties, I never really saw the sea; it was something reserved for special days out to Brighton (we couldn't afford holidays, either). It still comes as a surprise to me to realise how close I am to water. The Dee estuary grew larger as I followed Sandy Lane to the parade and the Marine Lake, and there was the diamond glint of the water in the sun, and the rugged peaks of Wales across the other side of the bay. The low tide created a vista of golden sand pockmarked with pools. I love my home, and I wouldn't move for the world, but looking out at that view I became envious of the householders who woke up to that every morning.
I relaxed my walk, taking "promenade" literally, and strolling alongside the lake towards the town proper. Again, there were families crowding round me, little girls wearing heelies scooting ahead, toddlers trying out their bikes with stabilisers. Pensioners had installed themselves on the benches and in the shelters, sitting beside one another and not needing to speak as they watched the light dance on the surface of the lake. There were a couple of windsurfers, but there wasn't much of a wind, so they moved idly around, seemingly as lazy and quiet as the rest of us. I gained a strange pleasure from watching people just enjoying their surroundings - they weren't here to go to the arcades or the funfair or any of the other cheap amusements you get at the "seaside". An ice lolly on a bench is about as exciting as West Kirby gets. It's a coastal town where the coast itself is the prize, and I love it.

Back into town though, past a cafe called Lattetude (I can't decide if that's awful or genius); past the famous branch of Boots where Glenda Jackson used to work (can you imagine trying to return an item without a receipt and finding her behind the counter? One Elizabeth I glare and you'd be scuttling back behind the Lemsips). I had a scout round Linghams bookshop, but to be honest I'd been put off by the display on the environment in the window which featured a book called Global Warming and Other Bollocks. Plus, it failed the Fleming Test, where I go in and check how many James Bond books they have instore; all they had was Devil May Care, the terrible Sebastian Faulks novel, so I turned on my heel and left without bothering with their local book section. I continued on to the Dee Hotel, a Wetherspoons pub which I can safely declare is one of the finest drinking establishments in the UK. Not only is it clean and tidy, not only do they have leather sofas, not only do they have free wi-fi, but most importantly, the barmaid asked me if I was over 18. When you reach your thirties, you'll take what you can get.

For once, I wasn't drinking alone. As payback for supplying me with all those signs, I'd offered to give Jamie and Chris a respite from the powdered eggs to buy them a drink. Not only are the two of them rail enthusiasts - making me look like a rank amateur, to be frank - but Chris actually works for Merseyrail. Indeed, Chris is the voice of recorded system messages in the stations: if a bomb goes off in Hamilton Square, it'll be Chris' honeyed tones that guide you to the exits (assuming you still have any legs). He's worked on the railway for over thirty years, and was able to regale me with tales of Merseyrail past and present. They suggested that I could cut a load of time off the Merseytart project by wandering up the stairs in their house, which apparently is covered in station signs, and Chris spoke of his ambition to have a signal in his back garden (Jamie's face at this point strongly indicated that this will happen at roughly the same time our robot overlords put us to work in the spice mines). Most important of all, they have met my hero, Bart Schmeink, and confirmed that not only is he very Dutch and very nice, but he's also roughly eight feet tall. Fantastic.

It was a great afternoon, and the conversation took in a lot more than just Merseystuff, some of which isn't suitable for publication on a family blog. Finally it was time to go home, and they presented me with a gift:
My very own Merseyrail mug! I was ridiculously excited, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Now I can finally have Merseytea. On the back there's a handy rundown of Merseyfacts, which I presume was put there as an aide memoire for staff every time some wanker turned up to complain about "Miseryrail". Even I was cynical about some of the facts but Chris assured me, yes, they're all true (or at least they were when the mug was fired).
So in short, I had a look at some old train stations, walked down a country path, paraded along the coast, and topped it off with a few pints in good company, culminating in my own souvenir of the network. Life can be awful sometimes, and the world can be a horrible place, but it's not all bad. There are plenty of nice bits left.

Saturday 3 April 2010

The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries

A couple of weeks ago, I waxed lyrical over a couple of old Merseyrail signs pointed at me by Jamie. Well, he's taken time out from his busy schedule of sipping champagne in the first class compartment of the Eurostar to send me a few more. How this Dom Perignon-fuelled lifestyle fits in with his ongoing rationing project, I couldn't say; perhaps he's pretending he's Princess Margaret for a few days.

The true thanks for these pics should probably go to Jamie's partner, Chris, who's the one who, ahem, acquired them over the years. They give a little insight, not only into the changing look of Merseyrail, but into the evolving standards of graphic design. We have good reason to thank Adobe Illustrator for all their efforts.

We'll start with a couple of signs that aren't even Merseyrail - at least not in the sense that we know it now. The Liverpool Overhead Railway was built in the late 19th Century, and shadowed the docks all the way from Dingle to Seaforth & Litherland in the North. The first elevated railway in the world, the LOR carried dock workers to work throughout its history, as well as a thousands of tourists who used it to sight see (it gave a great view of the docked ocean liners) but it couldn't last after the war. A combination of extensive bomb damage - never forget, Liverpool was second only to London in the amount of bombs that fell during the Blitz - and lack of maintenance led to the whole system being desperately in need of extensive repair. The company simply couldn't afford the works, and so in 1956 it was closed and demolished.

There's practically nothing left of the railway. A few metal posts on the dock walls where struts once stood; the areas of wide pavement behind the "Three Graces", which once hosted the Pier Head station; and a car storage area for a garage in Dingle which was once the underground terminus. The Museum of Liverpool will exhibit the last remaining car from the railway when it opens next year.

I'm kind of torn about the railway's loss. Any railway closure is of course a sad thing, and it would no doubt be a tourist attraction if it were open today - but would it be a practical, valid railway? I mean, look at the in-car diagram; the stations are barely a couple of hundred metres apart, and without all that dock traffic, who would be using it? Perhaps the residents of the developments around the southern docks would use it to get to the city centre, but beyond Prince's Dock, you're talking a load of undeveloped, barely used industrial land. In addition, the whole structure would tower over the Strand for its length, blocking those beautiful views of the riverside buildings with clumsy inelegant ironworks.

(Peel Holdings have suggested a sort-of restoration of the route as part of their Liverpool Waters scheme, except as a monorail running to the airport. To which I say, I will believe it when I see it).

Moving on to Merseyrail proper, and there's a map of the Mersey Railway, precursor to today's network. This map dates from 1904, and used to be on the wall at James Street. It features the railway not long after completion, and before the electrified lines were extended over the rest of the North Wirral coast. Perhaps one of the strangest parts of this sign is how much of it is still there. Leaving aside the West Kirkby-Hooton railway, now the Wirral Way (which used to be covered up with masking tape when the sign was still in-situ), almost every station on the Wirral is still there; only Ledsham on the now green lines has gone. Burton Point and Storeton on the Borderlands Line have gone (though we've gained Hawarden Bridge). The most notable disappearance is the Seacombe line, a branch that was never that popular in the first place; it was never electrified with the rest of the lines, and eventually got ripped up and turned into the approaches for the Kingsway tunnel.

Of course, then all the railways were nationalised, and the Mersey Railway and all its connections fell under British Rail. By the early seventies, there was a Public Transport Executive for the area, but Merseyside hadn't yet come into existence, so British Rail were still issuing the promotional material - resulting in this disastrous map.

Look at it. Horrible colours, barely legible typefaces, odd symbology (asterisks for car parks, making it look like there's some kind of addendum to 90% of the stations, and randomly placed BR symbols - St Helens Junction?). The worst crime is the erratic, clunky lines of the routes themselves. There's not a single consistent angle in there, making it look like a join the dots picture rather than a logical diagram. Look at the awkward polygon below Runcorn - why not a triangle? Or the strange horizontal break between Thatto Heath and St Helens Shaw Street interrupting a nice clean diagonal. Or that sharp angle between Hamilton Square and Rock Ferry. And look at the placing of the station names, running all over the route lines willy nilly, and in the case of New Brighton and Hamilton Square, actually crossing the Mersey. It's just horrible.

Thank God it wasn't all bad. The next pic is of an in-car diagram from 1971, and this doesn't look too different from the Northern Line we have today; everything north of Sandhills is still there, though the names may have changed a little (Town Green & Aughton, Walton Junction). Of course, it all goes into Liverpool Exchange, rather than through and out to Hunts Cross, but this would form the basis for the next twenty-odd years of Northern Line diagrams. One thing that did vanish was the smily train on the right; Jamie tells me before we got the swirly Merseytravel logo, this was used as the symbol for the network, and even appeared on the trains! To which I say, wow. There really were some powerful mind-altering drugs around in the late sixties, weren't there? I do applaud their early embrace of gay relationships though, with the man on the train giving his businessman boyfriend a bunch of flowers - very Brief Encounter (the film, not the bar. Well, the bar too).

The Wirral Line's always been a lot more complicated, of course, and it's gone through a lot more changes than its blue cousin. This 1977 diagram (now with the familiar plughole logo) shows the indecision about the various branches, and the portrayal of the Loop. Perhaps the most shocking part is that the loop is a FUCKING SQUARE - and damn, it was as ugly then as it is now. It's not even centred on the Mersey Rail Tunnel. I do like the way of showing the unidirectional trains though - arrows within the route line itself, a subtle but clear way of doing it (subsequently used by London Underground for the Heathrow Terminal 4 loop). Also in evidence is a sticker, hastily plastered on in 1978 when funding was cut on the Borderlands Line, and the service was pulled back to Bidston, and of course the clunky break at Rock Ferry where the electrified lines end.

Also from 1977 comes this map of the whole Merseyrail system, which replaces the square with a diamond. It kind of works, but once again features one of those bizarre little illogical moments which makes you wonder if the designers were just being deliberately obtuse. Why, why, why would you put Moorfields off centre, meaning that the Northern Line has to do an odd little kink in the centre of the map? It overcomplicates it for the sake of overcomplicating it. It's also strange to see the map without any water at all on it, no river, no Irish Sea, nothing. Underground diagrams of course, don't need to show overland details. There's no need to stick a park on there, or a tourist attraction - all the route maps are designed to do is show you what the next station is.

People aren't logical though. People subdivide places, draw imaginary lines on routes all the time. People take familiar routes to the shop, because that's the way they learned. People put other people into boxes according to what street they're on, what district they're in and, especially, what side of the river they're on. It's real human geography, a geography created by people in their minds.

The Mersey (or the Thames, or the Seine) is a barrier between villages and towns; they divide people into what they are and what they are not. There is a big psychological line in that river between the Wirral and Liverpool, and it gives a sense of place to anyone who sees it. Remove it from the map and it somehow becomes a blob. Amorphous, undignified and ill-defined. The little section of rail between James Street and Hamilton Square crosses hundreds of years of history, and it's important that it remains there. Thankfully it was restored in the 1978 map I talked about last time (albeit in a bizarre, wiggly form).

While we're here, I'd just like to register my approval for the purple used for Southport-Wigan. I just think it's a nice colour. So there.

Finally we've got one last in car diagram, used exclusively on the trains that ran through the Link. In the early days of Merseyrail, trains from Garston ran through to Kirkby; Southport and Ormskirk trains terminated at Central. It's interesting to note that these services got a line diagram of their own, rather than just the generic Northern Line map. This map was used until 1983, when the trains it was on (503s) were replaced with 508s. (I didn't know that, incidentally, I'm just quoting Jamie; please redirect any rolling stock queries to him). We're starting to get to the Merseyrail we know and love now - the font is British Rail standard, there's plenty of white space and clear colours. No sign of the Hunts Cross extension on there, though - presumably they didn't bother sticking it on as new trains would arrive to service that route.

So, unless Jamie and Chris have another bunch of diagrams stuck under their bed, that's the end of our little tour through the history of Merseymaps. It does make you realise that with the exception of The Square That Dare Not Speak Its Name, we've reached a pinnacle of map design for our area. Merseyrail's never had a genius like Harry Beck to revolutionise the way we see our local services; instead we've quietly transformed into the simple, clear diagram we have today. I mean, however much I complain - it's not that hideous British Rail effort, is it?

Thursday 1 April 2010

Techno Techno Techno Techno

Since I started writing this blog I've had literally thousands of queries (none) asking me about the technology I use to capture the various shots of me arsing around in front of station signs. "Do you employ a specialist photographer," they ask, "or do you just break out an Olympus?"

Well, this may shock you, but David Bailey has never come anywhere near this site. Lord Lichfield won't return my calls, and as for Rankin - well, he says he's busy, but I know it's just an excuse. The result is that I end up having to take my own photos, and I generally use my camera phone to do so. At first, I'd considered taking out a proper camera, but I wasn't keen on the extra bulk, and besides which, I've always had pretty good camera phones.

The first phone I used was a Sony Ericsson K800i, one of those chunky "candy bar" phones which had a 3.2 megapixel camera on the back. Then, a couple of years ago, I moved onto the C902; about a week after I got it, it showed up in Quantum of Solace, and I had to spend the next three months telling everyone it was just a spooky coincidence. It WAS.

All was fine until last Christmas, when my trusty C902 started to fall apart. The keyboard began to peel away, revealing the workings underneath - I was constantly checking it hadn't fallen apart in my pocket. Problem was, my contract didn't expire until March, so I was stuck with it. Fortunately I don't often leave the house so it didn't get too much wear and tear.

Now I have a brand new phone and I am mucho excited. It's a Sony Ericsson Vivaz (which I admit, sounds like a Japanese-Swedish stripper), it arrived yesterday, and it's delightfully shiny and glam. Eight megapixels, Wi-Fi, Walkman, a touch screen: I feel like I've entered the 21st Century. It's also nicely shaped in my hand, which is very handy for when I want to pretend I'm Doctor Beverley Crusher using a tricorder. That happens.

What's even more exciting is that it has the capability to film HD video. Yes, people, there may soon be moving pictures of each tart! Or more likely not, as if I talked on the videos you'd hear my weedy little voice and no-one wants that. It's nice to have the option though.

So, expect the quality of the pics to zoom up from now on. Well, the megapixel quality anyway. My limited point and click photo skills will continue to be as bog-standard as ever. Some things never change.