"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.
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 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.