Friday 29 October 2010

Who You Gonna Call? Ghost Stations!

Quick: head to iPlayer and check out the Radio 4 documentary, The Ghost Trains of Old England. It's a lovely little programme about parliamentary trains, and it's very much worth a listen.

And on a sidetrack, there was mention of the rarely served Denton station in Manchester. I have a mild yen to visit this station, because it's the same name as the town in Shock Treatment, and Shock Treatment is one of my minor obsessions (this is my ringtone right now). Strangely, it seems that Network Rail seem to also realise how dreadful the service to this station is, and recognise that if you want to get there, you may as well be fictional:

Let's take a closer look at that, shall we?

Much as I like a bit of humour in corporate life, that's just taking the piss, isn't it?

Thursday 28 October 2010


Above is the happy smiling face of Gary Briscoe, the newly crowned winner of the Station Staff of the Year award at the RailStaff Awards. The Wirral Line Manager was nominated for the award a couple of months ago, but in a ceremony last Saturday he was given the prize by none other than Pete Waterman. I don't think Gary demeaned himself as I would have done by berating Pete for our lacklustre Eurovision entry, but that's why he's a classy award-winner and I'm not.

A hearty well done to Gary for the award - a real achievement, and on a national scale too. It's great to see great customer service rewarded in this way. I still haven't collected Bromborough Rake station, and I look forward to it now; not only to see all of his achievements in the flesh, but also to get a paparazzi-like photograph with the newly crowned King of Merseyrail!

You can see all the winners here.

Monday 25 October 2010

On Her Majesty's Kirkby Service

Robert e-mailed me this pic, and I had to share it. It's the 25th October 1978, and the Queen is officially opening Merseyrail by riding to Kirkby. (Not that I'm trying to score points or anything, but they could only get Prince Charles to open the Jubilee Line, and that was named in QEII's honour).

First of all, I am loving that hat. HM was quite groovy in the Seventies, wasn't she? It seems to match her scarf too. She also looks like she's having a rollocking good time, more so than that lady-in-waiting next to her, who looks like she's afraid of catching Working Class.

It's interesting to note the grime, mud and general air of misery outside the window, too. One of The Richest Women In The World obviously hasn't.

I'm also pleased to see that even when a train has been buffed, scrubbed and polished in readiness for a Royal visit, they still couldn't get those awful yellow and green seat covers to stay on properly. Look at the ones in front - I bet the Kirkbyites who rode the train back into the city had them off and chucked round the carriage before they reached Fazakerley. The Queen didn't ride back on the train; her limo was waiting for her at Kirkby station. Two standard class rail journeys in one day? Are you mad?

In short: this is ace. Any more photos on this theme would be much appreciated. Perhaps a shot of Liz getting a corgi stuck in the door, or having her ticket checked by an over-enthusiastic inspector. Or a photo of the exact expression that came over her face when she got off the train in Kirkby. I would like to see that one, very much.

Thursday 14 October 2010


Part two of a two part trip: for part one, click here.

I passed a camping and caravan site on my way out of the Delamere Forest. This immediately got me thinking about lunch. I've seen both Carry on Camping AND Carry on Behind: I know about these places. No-one can go more than half an hour without ramming a load of sausages down their throat, washed down with twelve pints of beer. And possibly a pickled egg. Then they all try and get a look at Elke Sommer's Bristols and the tent falls over, with the pole going up Terry Scott's bum.

It stands to reason that if there's a caravan site, then there will be a pub close by. Probably a flea-bitten, jaded place, where the dart board is surrounded by a constellation of holes and the suede effect seating has fag holes in it. The kind of place that features brands of beer you've never heard of, or lagers you thought had gone years ago ("pint of Double Diamond, please!"). All served by a barmaid who's the wrong side of sixty, but no-one told her wardrobe. In short, a joy.

I was practically rubbing my hands together at the thought of the ramshackle establishment, and knocking back a pint of warm beer. It'd be great material for the blog.

First I'd have to establish where the station was because it's another of those ones that's hidden away. It's buried under a road bridge - a road bridge with pavement only on one side, the opposite side to the station. There's no station sign.

I headed down the steps, in the hope of finding a decent sign for when I came back, and possibly that dodgy pub. Instead I found something much better.

The Station House. Some genius had taken the old station and converted it into a snug little cafe, tucked away alongside the footpaths into the forest and overlooking the station itself. It didn't look like I'd get that pint, but I didn't mind. (No, really).

There was a couple sat outside already, supping tea from china cups. I went inside. It had been decorated in bright sunny colours, with very traditional furniture: none of your stainless steel and granite here, just pine and formica, but clean and decent. I will admit they've gone a bit overboard on the period signage: yup, this is another of those places full of tin-plate Bovril ads and pictures of a baby plugging Pear's soap. I wonder if cafes in the future will have the Smash aliens on the wall, underneath Alexsandr Orlov and that monkey on the Dairy Milk commercial?

The lady - buxom but friendly, in a smart black t-shirt and pants - took my order, a bacon, chicken and mango chutney panini. She called out to her friend in the back: "Have we got all the stuff for a panini?"

"Hang on, I'll check."

"We had a rush over the weekend," said the woman behind the counter. The word came from the back - yes, she had all the bits. £6.75 lighter - and smarting a little at the price - I was carrying my tea back outside to sit in the sun. The retro theme carried on out here - a preserved red phone box, and various agricultural implements of mysterious provenance.

I had twenty minutes until my train, so I hoped lunch wouldn't be too late. At least, I didn't at first. Then the sun began to get to me, weak but gently warming, and the opportunity to have a seat was so nice after two hours of trudging through woodland. My panini came, and I immediately felt guilty for quibbling about the price.

It was ridiculously overstuffed with meat, and accompanied by a massive quantity of salad (at one point I moved the panini to make some space, and found a pile of potato salad I hadn't even realised was there). Add to that the two and a half cups of good strong tea I got out of the pot, and I more than got my money's worth.

There was no way I was going to be able to polish all that off in twenty minutes: I may be carrying a few extra pounds, but that's down to my drinking habits, not my eating. It takes me ages to work my way through a plate of food. I took an executive decision - I'd get the next train. Besides, it was such a great spot. I heard the train pass behind me, all whirring of wheels and hissing of brakes, while I worked my way through the panini. I hadn't been sure about the mango chutney but it was a wonderful tangy edge next to the bacon and chicken. Finally I pushed my plate away, still laden with lettuce and tomato (I just couldn't do it), and leaned back to read my book.

Time rolled on. I felt my limbs become heavy. James Bond got his finger broken by Tee-Hee in Harlem. I watched more people arrive - a threesome of serious looking men waving an OS map about. A couple with a lively collie. James Bond risked his mission by absconding with the lovely Solitaire. Two old ladies debated whether to use the toilet in the cafe since they weren't buying anything. They disappeared inside, then re-emerged with a guilt-ridden tray of tea. A midget and his mother turned up and sat at the table next to me, eating bacon baps.

The Station House Cafe's up for sale, incidentally, if you've got a million or so quid free. I hope whoever buys it doesn't change it too much.

I drained the last of my tea, eking out the last drop from the teapot before wandering round to the Manchester platform. As I said, there wasn't a British Rail sign anywhere on the road, so I had to settle for a platform sign:

It's not the same.

The train arrived, and my heart sank: it was a Pacer, those bloody awful tin machines that somehow, somehow, have managed to persist into the 21st Century. It's always a surprise when one turns up: you always think it's something that's been eliminated from polite society, like bear baiting.

On board though, there was a strangely familiar air to things.

It was smarter than the usual bus-seat Pacers, with a nifty dot-matrix display and comfy chairs. But look at the colours... and the interior... it's all a bit, well, familiar, isn't it? And what about the seat covers...

As always when it comes to train related queries, I turned to Robert for guidance, and fired off a text. The reply came back almost immediately. Yup: it was a former Merseytravel Pacer, one of the yellow trains that used to do the City Line. It seems that Northern Rail repainted the outside, but didn't bother with the inside. It was quite nice: a little piece of home. And the Colour Tsars will be pleased about their influence extending into Cheshire and Manchester.

Cuddington next: a village that sounds like it was named after that stuff cows regurgitate. Charming. On the plus side, they know how to do railway station signs there:

Apart from that - what's going on, Cuddington? Why do you want to hide your light under a bushel? I figured that, as a rural Cheshire village, it would have a scenic centre - cottages, village shops, a tea room with doilies. Instead I wandered in one direction, then another, then another before I finally stumbled upon its throbbing hub. And by "throbbing hub" I mean "drab parade of shops that look like they've escaped from a pre-war council estate".

It looks like a well to do, pleasant village, so why was it so colossally boring and suburban? Plus there was no sign of that tea room. A Premier mini-market, a Chatwins, a dry cleaners and four - count them! - four hairdressers. The people of Cuddington may have nowhere to chat over a petit four, but they do have nice hair.

I'll forgive them though, for two reasons. The first was the dry cleaner's window, which featured this epicmazing poster:

I got some funny looks from the dry cleaner for taking that shot, but it had to be done. They just don't do ads like that any more.

The second reason for glee was the village hall, which had a bulletin from the local police posted outside. Having grown up in Luton, and now dwelling on Merseyside, I have a pretty jaded view of crime and its effects. Frankly, you could disembowel a hooker on my doorstep, and I'd only take an interest in how much blood was getting on my brick paving. Murder, rape, burglary, vandalism - these are bread and butter to me and my cynical mindset.

It's not the same in Cheshire, as a bulletin from the Constabulary made clear. Some choice elements:

  • "We had an incident reported to us in Newton where a farmer found that 3 of his chickens had been beheaded. This is very unusual."
  • "Officers swooped on a drink driver this week in Tarporley. On Saturday night local people reported a man driving erratically."
  • "Sightings please for a Red Audi A3 index number P141PLL. This vehicle's occupants stole a Hoover from a shop in Frodsham and made off."

I know I shouldn't laugh, but can you imagine the ecstasy in Birkenhead if the worst they had to deal with was a few decapitated chickens? The police would have a street parade.

I was charmed, and decided to give Cuddington a passing grade. But that had taken twenty minutes, total: what the hell was I going to do now?

I'll have you know, this was under sufferance. The only pub I could find was - urgh - a Hungry Horse, and during the course of my visit, they managed to play Robbie Williams AND Ronan Keating. There was also tinsel on the walls, and two customers asked when they'd start serving the Christmas menu. It was a sunny, cheery October, and people were already considering when they could stuff their face with turkey. Enjoy today! Stop rushing ahead!

It did give me time to think about the countryside. The walk in the Delamere Forest had reminded me why so many people dream of moving to the sticks; the peace, the beauty, the awesomeness of nature. It was very seductive. Cuddington had reminded me why I could never do it myself. I'd miss the hustle of town, the accessibility, the choice; I didn't want to live somewhere with one pub. No coffee shops, no decent stores - I would feel isolated and marooned. I'm a city boy; what can I say?

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Get Out Of Cities (Return To The Trees)

It's a bacon bap, a coffee and a James Bond novel. Yup, I'm off on another day out tarting! This particular fuel stop was at Carriages, the new cafe-bar in Chester station. I thoroughly recommend it. The above only cost me £2.50, and the cafe restores the look of the old Victorian station beautifully, with 1930s posters on the wall. It was peaceful and elegant - certainly a welcome difference from the overpriced Costa on the platform.

I'd decided to go out for the day to head into the countryside. I'd meant to do this stretch of line during the summer, as it was going to be dependent on good weather, but (a) there wasn't much good weather around and (b) when it did come, I had my foot in plaster and couldn't leave the house. Fortunately, the last week has been gorgeous, and quite un-Autumny, so I took advantage of the unseasonal warmth and hopped on a train.

I was on my own. The last few tarts have been accompanied, but I was back to Billy No-Mates for this trip. Confession - I was secretly pleased. Don't get me wrong; I love sharing my trips with other people, and I've had great fun with everyone, and I hope to do it again, many times, but sometimes I just want to be the Merseytart, just me. It's my little project and it's nice to hug it to my chest sometimes.

Of course, you know what that means. Yes! It's the return of the dodgy up the nostril shot!

That was the fourteenth attempt. I've lost practice, you see? Plus Mouldsworth's station sign's at a funny height - I was squatting uncomfortably on the pavement at this point. Thank God it was early in the morning - I'd have ended up drawing a crowd otherwise.

Mouldsworth station is no longer staffed, of course (it is in Cheshire, after all) but at least it's not a boarded-up mess, as seen elsewhere. Instead, the building's been divvied up - there's a hairdresser's in one part, and a board was advertising offices to rent. I'm guessing there's also a house in part of it, as there was a washing line too. Either that, or Northern Rail have a very laissez faire attitude when it comes to staff using the facilities for drying their knickers.

Directly opposite the station is the Goshawk pub and restaurant, and I cast a long, loving look in its direction. The food there is gorgeous, absolutely wonderful, and it's a favourite of The Bf and I. It wasn't open at this time of the morning which was probably a good thing, otherwise I would probably have gorged myself and tottered straight back to the station to go home, fat and contented.

Instead I pressed on. It was a truly beautiful day. Autumn sometimes creeps up on you and springs a surprise. This year it's decided to be kind, and there was a glow over the landscape. I wasn't wearing a coat, just a shirt and t-shirt, and the sun was beating down on me. It was different to the harsh summer sun though, warming and comforting, and combined with the dew still clinging to the grass and the nettles, it meant that there was a freshness in the air.

It's easy to forget just how beautiful England is, to take its greenery and elegance for granted. I walked along the road, and each corner seemed to surprise me with its well-composed picture of loveliness. You could close your eyes, spin round, and open them on a picturesque view straight out of a watercolour. A pond here, sheep grazing there, sudden flashes of colour from wild flowers. This is the time when nature should be winding down but it felt just as lively and vivacious as ever. I looked through one open gateway and spotted a bird of prey, perched on top of an empty stable: it lifted into the air at the sight of me and swirled over the field, a majestic, twisting genius of form, light bouncing off its feathers as it vanished into the horizon.

The only annoyance was having to occasionally hurl myself into the hedgerow to avoid an oncoming car, but this was rare; the road was as quiet and peaceful as the undulating landscape. The ground rose and fell beneath my feet like a waltz. Soon, I had looped round on myself, and I was heading towards the railway line I'd just left.

Passing under the bridge was like entering Narnia. The sunshine and warmth disappeared, and I was plunged into the cool woodland beyond. This was the Delamere Forest; two and a half thousand acres of trees in the centre of Cheshire, and the cue for me to go off road.

I hadn't really thought through my outfit for the day. Here I was, trekking through the woods, and I was wearing a shirt and jeans. I looked like a call centre worker who'd got lost on the way to work. Two cyclists passed me, cagouled up to the hilt, and I'm sure they must have thought that I'd wandered out of the Tardis or something.

The cyclists were the first and last people I saw for a long time. I took the smaller, less well-trodden paths, pushing through the undergrowth. I love wandering through woods. When I was growing up, we had woods and fields very close by, and my friends and I would go up there and just wander round, talking, coming up with schemes, building "bases". It's a strange mix of the familiar and the dangerous - so easy to get lost in the depths and vanish from sight.

I'd been wearing my iPod when I passed under the bridge, but I stopped it as I got deeper and deeper into the Forest. Michel Legrand's Never Say Never Again soundtrack is a load of brassy nonsense at the best of times, but in the middle of all that green and shadows it seemed positively offensive. When I pulled the earbuds out I was shocked by how silent everything was. There wasn't even birdsong, just thick, cold air around me. I felt weirdly, strangely, thrillingly alone; it felt like the woods were mine somehow. Sometimes I'd spot a squirrel, or the odd bird, but other than that it was just me, my thoughts and acres of greenery.

Even though it hadn't rained for a week, bits of the path were still thick mud, particularly at the base of small rises. I did my best Nureyev impression where I could, leaping over the bogs as best I could (and being even more glad that there was no-one there to see me), and clambering through the bushes to avoid the worst of them. Finally, my luck ran out, and my left foot sank into a thick mass of brown gloop, disgorging a disgusting smell and a wet fart as it did so. I yanked it free, quick as I could, but the water had already flooded inside my trainer and soaked my sock.

(Yes, I know I should have been wearing boots, not trainers; but the lace on my DMs snapped that morning as I was putting them on, so I had to settle for the trainers. Lesson learned).

I squelched off, and found a picnic area in a clearing where I could pause and wring out my wet parts. I also took the opportunity to check out the Ordnance Survey map, and I was astonished to find I had barely penetrated the forest; there was a massive lake to the south which I hadn't even seen yet.

Soon I'd stumbled upon a car park, and my illusion of my own private forest was lost. Round there, it was like Oxford Circus - there were people swarming all over the place. They could be roughly divided into three categories:

1) Cyclists bouncing over the rutted earth with little regard for the state of their buttocks;
2) Families with small children, picnicking;
3) Retired couples desperately trying to find something to fill their time with.

The last category were the most unnerving; they walked in pairs, completely silent, not talking to one another or anyone else. They were like haunted ghost couples, floating through the woods. All of them were plastered with the ramblers uniforms, thick socks, anoraks, rucksacks; they'd spent their pensions on all the gear and they were going to get their money's worth, dammit.

I was still trying to take the road less travelled, but it was harder now - all the paths were well worn, and signposted to buggery. I picked one, more or less at random, and saw that the trees were thinning out; it seemed I was headed towards the lake, Blakemere Moss.

I wish I was a better writer, or photographer, and I could convey to you just how wonderful it was to step out of the trees, and down to the edge of the lake. Sparkling light everywhere, with the gentle slap of the waves against the shore; birds massed in the distance. There was a cool breeze drifting across the surface, enough to muss my hair like an affectionate uncle. I had no idea it was so huge, so blue, so tranquil. I sat down beside it and just watched the ripples for a while.

Even more bizarrely, Blakemere Moss is younger than me. It was here for hundreds of years, before being drained in the 19th century and planted with trees. It never really thrived, however, and the area was flooded again in 1998 to form a new wetland. Sitting there, I had no inkling that it was so recent; it felt so much a part of the landscape.

Eventually I had to move on. I still had train stations to collect, never mind fannying around by a bit of water. I knocked back a couple of Softmints and walked back into the forest. It got busier and busier - the odd cyclist became a group of six, the picnicking families became whole school parties, and the retirees came in bunches, like wizened grapes. One gang of pensioners were tucking pine cones into carrier bags, and looked at me with undisguised suspicion, as if I was going to steal their precious booty.

The final straw came when a woman in an invalid car belted round the corner, dragging a poodle in her wake, and nearly knocking me sideways. I'm all for increased access to our natural landscape, but I don't think a court in the land would have minded if I'd pushed her and her electric battering ram into the lake.

Nope, my idyllic morning of lonely walking had been well and truly finished. Time for me to break cover and head for the next station: the imaginatively titled Delamere...

Friday 8 October 2010


I've just had some very bad news. My friend Jim Horsford has sadly died.

Jim had been ill for some time, but he passed away last night after a fall. The Bf and I had only seen him on Wednesday, where he had been full of anger at David Cameron's speech and making plans for holidays. He'd seemed upbeat and cheery, unleashing his fearsome tongue on the Tory conference and updating us with the gossip.

Jim was a real railway fan; I was in awe of his knowledge and his passion. His home was crammed with models, books and magazines. His specialities were the Czech railway system, and the railways of the Caribbean - to the extent that he wrote a couple of books on St Kitts and Barbados. He'd just received the proofs for a third book, this time on the Jamaican railway, and was going to be checking them through. He was also a gifted artist, and had begun to sell his paintings; only a couple of weeks ago he put some on display in Northgate Street in Chester. He typically painted railway scenes, great plumes of smoke billowing out over landscapes, beneath Victorian arches, steam and fire and iron.

He was also a fan of this blog, and I think secretly pleased to find another railway geek in his circle (though goodness knows he already knew hundreds - he was nothing if not gregarious). Jim had a massive collection of photographic slides, amassed over the decades, that he was working to transfer to his PC. Among these were a number of shots of Merseyrail stations over the years, and he'd promised to send them to me for the blog when he scanned them in.

I'm writing this not long after finding out about his death, so I'm still a little stunned. The Bf, who had known him for the best part of thirty years, is even more upset. It'll be even harder for his partner Norman, and all my thoughts are with him today. I'll remember Jim for his humour, for his sense of fun, for his wicked, wicked way of talking, When the Bf and I signed our Civil Partnership earlier this year, we did it very quietly, with no guests; but Jim was one of the witnesses, and I was proud to have him there. He was one of a kind.

Above: Jim (centre), with his partner Norman on the right and our other witness, John, at our Civil Partnership in June.

Thursday 7 October 2010

Green Shoots

As Jeff Goldblum kept saying in Jurassic Park, nature finds a way. We're metres underground, in the artificially lit, hostile environment of Liverpool Central. Trains are whizzing past every five minutes on electrified tracks. There's hardly any fresh air. But somehow, these plants have managed to find a little dirt, a little water, and have started to grow out of the drainage holes by the track. It's almost inspiring, even if it does raise troubling questions about the maintenance regime.

(Also, has the Doctor dropped his sonic screwdriver under the tracks, or what?)