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.

1 comment:

gottago said...

I really like that ME logo!