Saturday 12 June 2010

A Walk In The Woods

From Hooton, Robert and I walked onto the old railway line that forms the Wirral Way. There is still the odd remnant of the old line at Hooton - the platforms are there, and there's an old waiting room, grown over with ivy. The station really was a behemoth in its day, with goods facilities to add to the mix as well. Unlike Rock Ferry, which is a shadow of its former self, Hooton still manages a brave aura of importance, a sense of place.

The Wirral Way curves south from the station, then heads due west. I had no idea how far we were going to walk, only the vaguest notion that it was a nice warm day, I had good company, and there was nothing else to do of a Sunday afternoon. The path was well maintained - it forms part of the National Cycle Route, and is popular with horses too - but the foliage either side of us was a disappointment: weeds and stinging nettles. There's maintaining the natural landscape, and there's letting it go to pot.

As we walked, we chatted idly. Robert has recently come back from a holiday in Scotland, and he told me about his misadventures there. I'm afraid that after clambering up and down mountains and glens, the almost flat landscapes around the Wirral Way were a bit of a come down. He spent a lot of time moaning about the lack of bracing vistas and inspiring views.

Normally I'd have told him to shut up and pushed him into a bank of stingers. In this case, he had a point. The path follows the track of the old railway exactly, and so it tends to be at a lower level than the surrounding landscape: it's also surrounded by high trees and hedgerows. The net effect is that you feel like a bit of a Borrower, stumbling around at the bottom of the vegetation.

It also quickly became clear why the railway failed. We had absolutely no idea where we were once we left Hooton. According to the map, we were passing to the south of Willaston, a large Cheshire village; but there was no sign of it at all. The railway builders had followed the path of least resistance, with the cheapest land and the simplest routes, so as a result the line passes close to a fair few settlements - but not close enough.

The first sign of civilisation was when we emerged at the preserved station at Hadlow Road. I came here back in the early days of the blog; when the line closed, the council kept the station as it was as a tourist attraction. When I had visited before, though, the ticket office had been closed, and we took the opportunity to have a poke around inside.

It's easy to romanticise old railways. Easy to forget that the service on this line was infrequent, and in noisy, filthy steam trains. Looking around the ticket office, with its bare wooden floors and charming anachronisms, you can forget that it would have been freezing cold, and there were only bare wooden benches to sit on. There was an undeniable power to it though, a whole mix of whistles and Bernard Cribbins and the smell of ash. Nostalgia for something which was dead long before I was even born. Another of those strange ideas that goes through the male psyche like words in a stick of rock.

We pressed on down the path, our conversation having turned, as it usually does, distinctly x-rated. I won't go into it here, as this is a public website: all I'll say is that Robert has a dirty mind.

Once again I gave thanks that I'm a man as I nipped into the bushes for a pee, and then we were passing under the Chester road through a dark concrete tunnel that the local teenagers had "decorated". If you believe the graffiti there, everyone in Willaston is inbred, Liverpool FC will last for ever, and a boy called John sucks cocks. I don't know where Frank Muir used to find his witty graffiti for the books he used to produce every Christmas: all I ever see is crudely drawn penises and insults. What's worse is text speak has crept onto the walls as well - there was actually an LOL up there, which is depressing for a hundred reasons.

A sense of magic began to infuse the path then, as we descended into a cutting. We were suddenly walking between high rock walls, slick with moisture and moss. I loved it. It was like being underground, or in a secret cave. I've always loved caves, and alcoves, and niches: it comes from reading too much Enid Blyton as a child, when middle-class children couldn't nip to the shops for a pint of milk without encountering smugglers hidden in a labyrinth of potholes. My absolute favourite was The Valley of Adventure, where four well-scrubbed youths and a parrot are isolated in the middle of a Mittel-European country and have to hide out in a cave behind a waterfall. I loved that idea. Maybe not the parrot though.

I expect that's where my love of underground railways comes from, too - the world of secret trains, of exciting hidden places. Either that or it's something deeply psychologically disturbing it's probably best not to dwell on.

At Neston, the line is broken by people, as the town has grown over the old railway line. There's still a Station Road, but now it's been subsumed by suburbia. Of course, as soon as we hit a population centre, it began to rain, and Robert and I must have looked a sight: wet, sweaty, slightly dirty from the mud.

We were at a metaphorical crossroads now. I'd done this section of the Wirral Way before, last year, so there wasn't really any need for me to do it again. On top of that, if we carried on, there'd be a while before we would find a way out again, and it was starting to rain. Neston had buses and trains that could take us somewhere dry.

Never underestimate cheapness. Yes, we could have left the track at that point, but we both had Saveaways, the Merseyside only ticket, and we were still in Cheshire. We'd have had to pay for a bus out of there, at least to the county line.

We walked on.

Fortunately the rain was only a shower, enough to get us mildly damp but not soak us. The path was a lot busier at this point as there were walkers out with their dogs, families out for a stroll, and bikers. Lots of bikers. Lots of nice families out cycling together. I never went cycling with my family when I was younger - me and my brother had BMXs, and we'd race around the estate on them or try and do wheelies, but my Dad never cycled, and it would have been a cold day in hell before you got my mum on one of them. I didn't think we were missing much. We used to go on walks as a family, where you can all talk to one another - it's hard to bond as a unit when you're whizzing along at fifteen miles an hour in a straight line.

Soon we were at Parkgate, home of the Famous Parkgate Ice Creams. I don't have a sweet tooth, at all: I mean, I like ice-cream, and I'll happily have the odd Magnum or Cornetto, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it. I'm far more a Cornish Pasty kind of guy. So Robert volunteered to find out why the ice cream was so famous, and bought himself a twin cone. For some reason, he then decided to perform oral sex on it:

Yes, folks, he is single and available. Just in case you want to find out what it's like to be a ball of toffee ice cream.

Once he'd eaten his ice cream, and sucked the sticky liquid off his fingers (steady...), we returned to the Wirral Way. We inadvertently ended up on the bridleway, which sounds fine, until you realise it's (a) soft and moist and (b) littered with horse muck. I mean, everywhere. Can't horse riders take a plastic bag out with them, like dog walkers? Though the quantities we saw would mean you'd probably have to cart a bin bag around with you.

Fortunately we were able to get back on the path in time to cross the border into Wirral, and with it, Merseyside. A plan was forming, as the afternoon was getting on and we were increasingly tired. We'd walk to Heswall, then go to the bus station in the town for a (Saveaway-funded) bus home. It wasn't that far, and in the meantime, we could admire the scenery: finally we were properly above ground, and we could see the Welsh mountains across the estuary.

I'm at a loss to explain what happened next. For some reason, we managed to walk past Heswall altogether, something which passed us by until we realised we were stood in the middle of nowhere with fields all around us. I can't explain how my normally fantastic sense of direction let me down. It must have been Robert's fault. Yeah, that's it.

We could have turned around, walked back, but that's an incredibly depressing prospect, so we decided we'd carry on to the next village, Thurstaston, and see if we could get a bus there. Robert was immensely disappointed that this would mean we wouldn't get to visit the not-funny-at-all Gayton, but there was no alternative. We was tempted to make a detour for this:

I mean, The Dungeon? What? We decided not to bother looking in the end, as the reality could never be as interesting as the Orc-manned torture chamber we had in our heads, and Thurstaston couldn't be too far away - could it?

It depends what you mean by Thurstaston, I suppose. We stumbled upon the old railway platform there, still preserved: the line was only single track, so this would have served up and down trains. More interestingly, behind the platform was a proper visitor centre, with a cafe, toilets, and exhibition space.

Inside were the usual rag-tag elements that the name "visitor centre" implies: a few stuffed animals in a diorama about the nature of the Wirral Way, a model ship, a few informative plaques. There was a brief history of the line's railway past, too. Once we'd spent a respectable amount of time cooing over the exhibits, and tried to work the hi-tech public transport kiosk (which could only tell us that yes, the Wirral had buses), we ventured into the village.

You know how I said the railway bosses had built the line some distance from the village they served? Well, take what I said about Willaston, and times it by a thousand for Thurstaston.

There was an astonishing distance between the village and the railway station. With planning like this, it's no wonder that Doctor Beeching decided to give the axe to the route. It's a shame it went, but there's no way it would survive, not in today's economy: there are vast lengths of route without anyone nearby - fine in an intercity railway, not so good on a little local one. Robert suggested that it might have been nice as a preserved railway, a steam train running between West Kirby and Hooton. That might have worked, but sadly, the line's now been built over in places, so it's never going to happen. Instead it's being slowly reclaimed by the earth: the only wheels that'll pass over it now are bicycle wheels.

As for us, we'd walked nearly ten miles in an afternoon, which isn't bad for two slightly podgy men with little or no athletic aptitude. There's now only a little strip between Thurstaston and West Kirby that I haven't walked, so I'll have to do that for completion's sake. In the meantime, we decided to celebrate the end of the walk as men always do:



Martin Greaney said...

Great post. I've walked a bit of that route with the folk and my brother. I can vouch for the quality of the ice cream.
I love the old moss-covered lines too. I'm an exploring sort - that's why I became an archaeologist!

Keep up the good work!

Jamie said...

At Thurstaston there are two relics of the past still available to the casual passer-by, and only one needs a Geiger counter.

There was a railway accident at Thurstaston. Not very big, but the mark is still there - in the edge of the platform, you can see a big dent and cracked and replaced bricks, from the impact.

Meanwhile, here's where you need your Geiger counter: the sidings were used to store wagons with sandy soil contaminated by yellow uranium ore. There it was emptied into a big pile where it waited for two years before they decided what to do with it. The answer, I'd imagine, was to dump it into the Irish Sea and make it Somebody Else's Problem.

The area had to be "decontaminated" before it became a public park. I wonder how well that went, based on previous experience of the UK government "decontaminating" areas?

Scott Willison said...

So what you're saying is, if I get cancer, it's Thurstaston's fault? Good to know.

dreadedvacuumflaskmonster said...

It's a good walk is the Wirral Way. The section between Hooton and Neston is probably the more interesting part than the rest. Ice cream at Parkgate is lovely, but on my walks I've always by-passed it because there's a part of me that just wants to KEEP GOING!!!

Like you say, Saveaways aren't much use in Cheshire.

Ian Jones said...

Really enjoyed reading this, Scott. I reckon walking the routes of disused railways is almost as rewarding as riding on real ones, especially if there are tangible bits of former platforms and services along the way.

There's a fair few in north London, both formalised into proper walks and, well, ones you can improvise - like tracing the route of the line that used to join the two top halves of the Northern Line together, which (for me, at least) involved navigating both a nature reserve and the M1.

One of the places I lived in Liverpool backed on to the old Loop Line in Gateacre, which is a great walk in places but pretty grim in others. I never dared venture north of Broad Green, basically.

Anyway, nice one Scott - hope you and your trusty Passepartout continue your travels!

Scott Willison said...

It's fascinating when there are relics of the railways behind, you're right: it's great to find those archeological remnants en route.

We were actually talking about the Liverpool Loop walk while we were out (the one that goes through Gateacre and Broad Green). It was a conversation along the lines of "wouldn't it be nice to walk that route without getting murdered?"...