Saturday 31 December 2011

The Finish Line

2011 was a bit rubbish all round, wasn't it?  Lots of insurrections and rioting and people dying in a multitude of horrible ways.  It's a relief to reach the 31st December and still be in one piece, frankly.

I shall be celebrating the change of a digit on my calendar in my usual way - sitting on my sofa at home with a glass of wine.  Going out?  Are you mad?  I am not going to pay twenty quid so I can stand far too close to a woman in a tight frock drunkenly forcing herself on her best friend's husband while everyone sings the first verse of Auld Lang Syne then gives up because no-one knows any more lyrics.  Then you manage to extricate yourself from holding the clammy hand of a man with personal freshness problems to get to the bar where you find out it's a fiver a pint and they're only serving Carling because everything else has run out, so you get a taxi home and pay eight hundred pounds for the trip because you have the temerity to live at the wrong end of the Mersey Tunnel.  My only sadness is that New Year's telly is rubbish - the days when you got Clive James (CBE) being absolutely brilliant, like here, are long gone.  (Miss!  Yasmin!  Arafat!)

However, it does seem an appropriate time to look back over the year.  I've done more blog posts than ever before, with some of them even being on topic, so thank you for reading them and commenting and correcting my grammatical errors.  I really LOVE it when that happens.

As a finale to 2011 I thought I'd do a quick list of my five favourite blog posts.  Perhaps this will give you something to read tomorrow when you're lying in bed with a pounding skull and vomit encrusted fingernails.

5.  24 Hour Party Person (28th January)

In which I first experienced the high life of being an extremely low grade celebrity.  My trip to the Merseyrail Christmas do was a lot of things - terrifying, drunken, unexpectedly good, embarrassing - but it was an experience to remember.  And I finally got to meet Bart Schmeink!

4.  Cross Country (28th September)

There is a part of me that gauges a blog post's success by how many comments it gets.  It's very shallow, I know, but I can't help it.  Sometimes though, a post doesn't get any comments at all and I still love it.  This post, about my journey between Berlin and Prague, was a favourite for me just because it was writerly.  It was more of a mood piece than anything else, and I liked just doing something a bit different.

3.  Och Aye! (15th - 20th August)

I take the Sleeper train north of the border, have an unfortunate trouser experience, fall in love with the Glasgow Subway and wish that I was a Scot in more than just name.  I'm already itching to get back up there to follow the circle again.  Maybe doing that pub crawl this time.

Part One -
Part Two -
Part Three -
Part Four -
Part Five -

2.  End of the Line (4th October)

It was nice to ride Merseyrail again.  To do some proper, old-fashioned, Tarting.  No Northern Rail or Pacers or Cheshire Day Rangers or TfGM signs: just me and Merseyrail.  And it coincided with a lovely day out on the coast with a friend and her adorable baby.

Still wish Southport had an ALF, though.

1.  Wales: A Train Odyssey (20th May - 1st June)

It couldn't be anything else.  My four day trek across North Wales is one of the most fun experiences in my life, ever (which probably says a lot about my life but there you go).  One minute I was crossing clifftops on Anglesey, next I was walking in the sun in Conwy.  I fell, hard, for Llanfairfechan and its gossipy old ladies.  I played with arcade machines in Rhyl and took in the beautiful Menai Straits from the centre of the bridge.  I loved it, loved the places, the people, the walking.  Taking in these beautiful bits of our country.  I've been looking at other lines to see if I could replicate the experience next year, but I haven't found one yet that I think will match up.  I don't want to be disappointed.

Day One - Wales: A Train Odyssey and Westernmost Point
Day Two - Coasting and Thirsty Work
Day Three - Problems... and Love Profusion and Underworld
Day Four - Down and Out

And that was 2011.  Once again, thank you for reading.  I promise 2012 will be the year I finish the Merseyrail map - in fact, it has to be: if I don't collect Liverpool Central before April I'll have to wait months for another go.  It's a ticking clock...

Tuesday 6 December 2011

The Walrus and the Tart

I did something unusual on Sunday night: I got a bus.  I'd been out for a couple of pints in town and instead of getting the train back I took the 437 to West Kirby home.

I don't normally take buses for a few reasons.  I like trains, obviously, and Merseyrail provide a good regular service.  I've never been really comfortable on buses, and they seem to attract a disproportionate amount of insane people.  I like the certainty of railway stations and train lines.  Finding out where a bus goes to and from is a hassle, especially if you're going somewhere unfamiliar, and it's not always easy to find out where to go (Merseytravel's bus timetable site is a nightmare in this regard).

However, it was a wet, miserable night, I didn't fancy the walk home, and I had access to wi-fi in the pub so I was able to do a few internet searches to find out where I was going and where my nearest stop was.  I had a bit of a panic when I asked for a single to Claughton, and the driver said "where?"; it was on the route but it seemed he didn't understand me for some reason.

The 437 was comfortable and quiet.  There were a smattering of people, and none of them seemed to be particularly mad.  The last time I got the bus under the river was a Saturday night Tunnel Bus, fifteen years ago, with a (cough) gentleman friend; it was like being trapped inside a vomit soaked sex club for ten minutes, with all sorts of drunken, debauched behaviour surrounding me.  This was much more civilised and pleasant.

I got off the bus and walked the five minutes or so home.  I wondered why I didn't take the bus more often.  I realised it was the little things - the uncertainties about fares and bus stops and routes, the timetables being a bit odd.  Just niggly points that mean I'd rather walk to a Merseyrail station than head for the bus stop at the end of my street.

And that's why we need Walrus: for people like me.  An all in one smart card that is the key to Merseyside's entire network.  Because I'd be quite happy to swipe onto the first bus I saw and see where it went.  I'd be more confident at risking an unknown bus that was going in vaguely the right direction if I knew my Walrus card had all the cost covered.  It'd also mean I wouldn't have wasted the return portion of my train ticket - I wouldn't have been charged for it in the first place.  It's something I've done before in London, with my Oyster card - nipped onto a double decker rather than walk to the South Bank, or take an Overground train for a change instead of the Underground.

The Walrus would open up the bus and train network for people who don't use public transport often.  Stick one in your wallet with twenty quid stored on it, and then just hop aboard a bus when it's raining, or the ferry when you fancy a change from Merseyrail, or a train into town because you can't face the idea of parking.  It takes away the worry of how much and where you go and what you do.  Walk in - waft your Walrus - walk out.  Simple.

I know this isn't brain surgery.  The Oyster's done all the ground work for us.  It just came home to me on Sunday what a great thing the Walrus card will be.  I can't wait.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Up The Workers

This isn't a political blog, so I shan't comment too much on the whys and wherefores of today's strike (other than saying UP THE WORKERS!  SOLIDARITY BROTHERS!  THE PEOPLE'S FLAG IS DEEPEST RED, etc).  What is interesting is how it affected Merseyside.  The strike by public sector workers meant that the tunnels were closed and the ferries were suspended; the only way across the river was by Merseyrail.

I happened to be going over to Liverpool anyway to see my friend Andrew, so I got to see how Merseyrail responded first hand.  I came back through Central at five o'clock, expecting to be hit with a tornado of furious commuters and befuddled Birkonians.  It actually turned out to be - well, much like a city centre underground station during rush hour.  There were a few British Transport Policemen on hand to quell the masses, in case they went mad, but there didn't seem much call for them.

Heading below ground you got your first indication that this wasn't a regular day, because there were people on the escalator who didn't know you have to stand on the right.  This is obviously some secret code only people who use public transport every day know about.  How difficult is it?  Do you need a diagram?  A lesson?  Some kind of electroshock therapy?  People: officially very annoying.

I thought that by the time I hit the platform there would be throngs, but it still wasn't that busy.  There were people about, lots of them, but was it any busier than a normal evening at Liverpool Central in the Christmas shopping season?  I'd say not.  I'm guessing that a lot of people took the day off, not to mention all those public sector workers who didn't have the need to commute into the city today.

Merseyrail had planned ahead though, and arranged for a dispatcher on the platform.  I like to think that he had been specially trained in crowd control for today.  At the drop of a hat, he'd break out the white gloves and go into full Tokyo subway mode, shoving housewives onto the train without any regard for their dignity.

As it was he just had to stand at the front of the train holding a torch.  I don't understand the torch.

The train came in but again, it wasn't busy.  I could have got a seat without any problem.  Since I was getting off at Hamilton Square I stood up, right by two women who were giddy with excitement at using this new found "train" thing.  They cooed as we hit James Street, and aahed as we passed under the river.  Bless their simple souls.

The normal cross river bus services had been rerouted via Hamilton Square, so there were more disembarkations than normal, but there were still enough people to fit on one lift.  To be honest the most out of the ordinary part was that I was riding the Beatles train, at last.  They should have got Paul McCartney to do the automated announcements.  Or at least one of the blokes from Yellow Submarine.

It did make me think about the strange relationship between Liverpool and the Wirral, and how easily it's broken.  Let's be honest: the peninsular is mainly a suburb of Liverpool, and yet it has only four connections across the Mersey - two road, one rail and one ferry.  There is no pedestrian route; no way to cross by bike.  There's no way to cross the river without paying a fee.  For that you'd have to go all the way down river to Runcorn - and that'll change when they build the second bridge, as both will be tolled when it opens.

The strike highlights how vulnerable the Wirral can be.  Merseyrail performed adeptly in the circumstances; though it's clear they weren't over taxed, they'd obviously made preparations.  What if they were on strike as well though?  I don't know what the answer is - any kind of bridge at this point in the river would have to be ludicrously high to accommodate shipping, and would you use a mile long foot tunnel?

The public sector workers' strike has actually demonstrated that their role is more than just collecting your bins or processing your Business Rates or caring for the sick.  Without them, the actual region becomes fractured, and movement becomes impossible.  Something to bear in mind, I think.

Tuesday 29 November 2011


I don't cycle.  I haven't ridden a bike in years.  In fact the last time I rode a bike was on my BMX when I was about 14.

I will say, however, that if I did ride a bike I would follow certain fashion rules.  No lycra, for one.  No tight spandex.  No shiny fabrics.

And unlike this gentleman I spotted at Hamilton Square station, I'd wear socks that matched.

Or am I just being picky?

Incidentally, while I'm very glad that Merseyrail is so cycle friendly, is there some way we can make them take the lift from the platforms?  I'm getting a little tired of having wheels shoved in my face on the escalators.  Thank you.

Thursday 24 November 2011

And The Hoscar Goes To...

I was riding Gracie Fields.

I have to admit, this was a first for me.  I'd been on Red Rum and John Peel, and I'd seen the Beatles, but never Gracie.  Gracie Fields is a real generational thing, isn't it?  Like Tommy Steele, or clackers.  It's sort of impossible to comprehend her appeal from the 21st Century.

Anyway, Gracie the train took me off through Lancashire.  Luckily they didn't play Sally the whole way.  I was off to finish that last bit of the Wigan-Southport line, the overlooked station at Hoscar.  To be frank, it's easily overlooked; I'm not sure National Rail is entirely aware it still exists.  It's north of Lathom, in the middle of flat fields, and not far from a sewage works.  No-one will mistake it for St Pancras International.

The station spreads across the level crossing, with a platform on either side, but this isn't the original layout: wander down the Southport platform and you'll see the remains of an older one on the opposite side.  It's now grown over and sitting in a farmer's field.

I also saw the neatly decapitated corpse of a pigeon.  You might not be so lucky.

The station building is still there. but it's a private house now.  The Railway Inn was closed at that time, too, though it got a crisp delivery while I sat there.  It was all very quiet and peaceful, even when the fast trains sped through and the level crossing beeped and whined its way into life.

This is normally the point where I trek off to a different station, or a place of outstanding local interest, or a canal or something.  That didn't happen at Hoscar.  A clue to why can be found in the Local Area Information map at the station:

Plenty of features to enjoy there.

Instead I wandered to Lathom, and my friend Jennie picked me up, and we went out for an afternoon of coffee drinking and bitching at Cedar Farm.  It was a bit of an anti-climactic way to finish off an entire line on the Merseyrail map, but it's that kind of place.

Lancashire's got some beautiful areas - the sandy coast, the Pennines, the desolate beauty of the moors.  The area of West Lancashire round Burscough is not in the same league.  It's utterly flat and boring.  The towns and villages are small and uninspired.  It's a grey region; a place to live and commute from.  My visit to Hoscar hadn't felt any different to New Lane or Bescar Lane or Appley Bridge.

But that's another significant part of the Merseyrail map gone.  In fact, in that entire square above, I only have Leyland and Euxton Balshaw Lane still to collect.  Remember when I hadn't even touched the red and grey lines?  That was a long time ago....

Sunday 20 November 2011

Bittersweet Goodbye

The Liverpool Empire on a Thursday night.  I could only be there for one reason.

Of course not.  Ray Quinn as Danny?  Can you imagine?

No, I was here for a far more interesting reason.  A party.

I wasn't looking forward to it.  I never do.  I am, at heart, deeply shy, deeply antisocial, and deeply awkward.  I'd doped myself up with my special uppers (they're prescription pills, before you write in) but I could still feel my stomach twisting itself into a Möbius strip in my belly.  If I'm honest, listening to Ian's Midwinter Moon on the way there probably didn't put me in the party mood.  It's a lovely tune, but it's not exactly Do You Wanna Funk?, is it?

I couldn't say no, though.  Sally from Merseyrail had contacted me and very kindly invited me to this special occasion: Bart Schmeink's leaving party.  Refusing wasn't even an option.

I came into the party behind a load of people who'd made the trek from Rail House, so I wandered over to the bar and got myself a beer.  They'd put on a great spread for Bart: sandwiches and quiches and chicken satay, and tiers of Merseyrail cupcakes.

I was seriously tempted to steal the marzipan train from the top.  In addition there were Bart Schmeink dollar bills as party favours; you can bet I robbed one of those.

A projector beamed moments from Bart's tenure onto the ceiling of the Empire bar, which mainly seemed to be him dressed up for Children in Need and Comic Relief over the years.  I started to feel sorry for him, actually.  He's a serious businessman but once or twice a year he's required to put on a frock and arse around in Liverpool Central.

My fellow guests were lovely to me, even though I was, let's face it, an interloper.  They involved me in their conversations, said nice things about the blog, asked me how many stations I had left to go.  A lot of them asked me what I'm going to do next, to which the answer is, "erm, I dunno."  I wasn't exactly a sparkling presence, put it that way.

After a while I retreated to a corner with my beer and watched the party.  There was a Merseyrail employee tinkling on the theatre's piano, very ably in fact, and I listened to him play while people chatted around me.  I felt very out of place.  This was a works do, after all; I was an invited guest but I wasn't one of them.

I thought I should go and speak to Bart, say my goodbyes, say nice things, but he was the star of the show - there was always someone round him.  I didn't feel confident enough to wander up and interrupt.  Then the barman recognised what I was going to order before I even reached the bar, and I thought maybe it was time to go.

So I went to the party but I wasn't a hit.  Sometimes my anxiety wins, and this was one of those occasions.

Good luck to you anyway, Mr Schmeink.  Liverpool's loss is Amsterdam's gain.  Maybe I'll nip into GVB headquarters next time I'm in the Netherlands.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Rolling With My Homie

It's been a long morning.  That meeting went well, but there's another one to come.  You've got to cross the river on a train and then get going businesslike all over again.  All you want to do is kick back and relax with a roll-up.  You want to step out of that station and start sucking away on the nicotine as soon as you can.

The solution?  Start rolling on the train.  That empty seat gives you plenty of room to spread your papers around.  Keep a good grip as the train bumps over the tracks though or you'll be chucking Golden Virginia all over the floor.

Well done.  You'll be full of tobacco before the door of Hamilton Square slams behind you.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Still Waters Run Deep

Sitting on a platform, waiting for a train, gives you a good deal of time to ponder life's eternal questions.  Like, how can Lulu really pretend she's never had plastic surgery when she looks like that?  Or, why do women make such a fuss about leaving the toilet seat up?  And, how come no-one can agree how to pronounce "Meols"?

This last one was particularly pertinent as I was sat on the platform at Meols Cop, in Southport.  It's pronounced like it's spelt - meels.  While about twenty miles away, on the Wirral, is the station at Meols.  Pronounced mells.  How did two communities, so close together, come up with such an unusual place name, then disagree on the pronunciation?  Couldn't they have got together at some point and worked out who was right?  In fact, I'd have made it one of the first jobs of Merseyside County Council, as was.  I have sat down the Wirral and Sefton councillors and told them they weren't getting any biscuits until they hammered out an agreement on pronunciation.

If I had to chose, I'd go with mells, mainly because I like places whose pronunciation confuses Americans (see also: Gloucester, Leicester).  My walk to Meols Cop had also revealed that it was sited in a somewhat tedious suburb of Southport, unlike the coast and country location of Meols.  Long straight streets of redbrick houses, with corners taken up by tiny one-off businesses.  Chippies, hairdressers, taxi firms, general stores.  A kitchen fitter that, improbably, featured a quote from the Bible on its sign.  Becky's Blinds.  A minicab driver dozed in his car on the forecourt of Ladbrokes, his bluetooth headseat still rammed defiantly in his ear.

The line from Wigan is ramrod straight, but at Southport it makes a sudden diversion, curving northwards to reach Meols Cop, before swinging back on line to reach Chapel Street.

View Larger Map

It's all down to a combination of Victorian railway competition and our old friend, Dr Beeching.  In the 19th Century, two competing train lines entered Southport from the east.  Meols Cop was built by the West Lancashire Railway on its line to Preston; another branch was later built to send it south.  At the same time, the Manchester and Southport Railway company constructed the railway line via Wigan we still use today.  At Blowick, it shot like an arrow straight into the town centre.

The problem was, the Manchester and Southport Railway were cheaper than the West Lancashire.  They sent the line across at ground level, putting in crossing gates where it met roads, including on the busy Meols Cop Road.  The West Lancashire Railway, on the other hand, built road bridges over their line.  Come the Sixties, with the car now king and one of the branches due to be closed, the more direct route was chopped so they could get rid of the level crossings on the route.  As a pure sideline it meant that Meols Cop survived closure, though its Preston services vanished completely.  You can still follow the old M&SR route through the town, tracing where new semis and industrial buildings have been built over the line of the railway.

Now it's an orphan station: in Merseyside, covered by Merseytravel, but not on Merseyrail.  After Meols Cop you get the red rose of Lancashire, but here there's still the M in a circle.  It's a bit weird to see a Merseytravel shelter painted Northern Rail purple.  The Colour Tsars must be furious as hell.

They managed to get a yellow information board on there, but it's filled with posters from the Friends of Meols Cop Station, rather than useful timetables and bus routes.  They've done a nice job: lots of friendly pieces of A4 with details of a monthly clean up operation at the station, and black and white photocopies of the station in older times.  Back when it had a booking hall and proper station buildings.

When my train finally turned up, it was green.  Bit of a shock.  It seems Northern Rail had adopted an old Central train and still hadn't got round to properly refurbishing it.  Since Central Trains ceased to exist four years ago, it does make you wonder what they're waiting for.  Is purple paint really so expensive?  All they'd done was pull off the transfers with the old company's logo on.  Inside, the only sign you were on a Northern train was the new safety notices, stuck up alongside the old ones; everything else was green or in an alien font or covered in swirly Cs:

I tried not to think about how if they couldn't be bothered changing the seat moquette, maybe they couldn't be bothered examining other parts of the train.  Like, for example, the brakes.  Luckily I was only going one stop.

Three of us got off at Bescar Lane.  An old couple climbed down further along the train, and stopped to stare at me for getting off as well.  I couldn't decide if they were surprised to not be alone, or disapproved of me.  They stumbled off while I took pictures of the station, its platforms splayed either side of a level crossing.  Another local group had kept the floral displays going on the platform, though I can't help noticing that while the Friends of Meols Cop had embraced desktop publishing, the Friends of Bescar Lane still seemed to be working off an old Olivetti typewriter.

There was a nice old station sign as well, in a distinctive, pre-War font.

Getting a photo of the real station sign was a bit more difficult, though.  It was positioned in a little alcove, under a tree.  Combined with me having to use my rubbish camera phone, it took about a dozen tries before I could get a shot with me, the sign and the station name all in one.

You might have noticed the soft-focus backgrounds in some of these shots.  That's not a camera effect; the whole county seemed to be blanketed in a thick, white mist.  It was like being in a Kate Bush video.  That part of Lancashire is incredibly flat, and so everywhere I looked the landscape pretty much vanished instantly: there were no trees or hills to break it up.

Bescar's actually some distance from the station; it means it's stayed a small, picturesque village, instead of growing into a commuter haven like Burscough or Parbold.  There are still trees in the main street, and a church and village hall at the centre; a row of old almshouses are placed in the middle of the main street, with cottage gardens growing in front.  In some places it looks like a 1950s time capsule.

The old exchange and the land was up for sale; no word on whether you got the bus with it.  It'll probably be a "luxury architect designed executive home" soon, like the ones further down the street on Culshaw Way.  I sincerely hope this road isn't named after Ormskirk's least funny son, "impressionist" Jon Culshaw.  I can see it being the kind of thing media-whoring local councils and developers would do.

Beyond the village the road became entangled in woodland.  The quickest route from Bescar Lane to New Lane is via footpaths across the land, darting between the fields of turf growing for garden centres, and down tiny lanes.  I decided not to go that way, instead taking a long diversion south, through the Dam Wood.  The trees closed in above me, and even though I was sticking to the road, it became strangely moody and dark.  The signs warning me to stick to the road - Private Property!  Guard dogs run free! - didn't engender a happy atmosphere.  The chill of the morning slipped under my coat and cooled my flesh.

The road twisted round, occasionally throwing up a cottage or gatehouse, before the end of the wood came in sight.  With the white mist it looked like a hole in the sky: a white void on my path.  I felt like Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, stumbling out into the snow-covered Narnia.  I would totally have been Edmund if I'd been in that book, selling out my family for Turkish Delight.  Let's face it, the White Witch was ace.

I was heading for Heaton's Bridge, over the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.  In the flat farmlands the arc of the bridge was quite a landmark, with a pub obligingly placed beside it.  I headed down shallow steps to the towpath.

Again, this wasn't the quickest or easiest way to my next station.  But I was bored of trudging alongside roads, and this way would be quiet and peaceful.

Too quiet.  There's a melancholy stillness to canals.  It's utterly unmoving, except for the occasional ripple of wind across its surface.  It's a thread of cold, unfeeling water, indifferent to its surrounding, inviting the unwary to slip underneath and never be seen again.

The path was narrow and badly formed - more a track than anything else.  Occasionally I'd slip on the wet surface, and I thought about how close I was to the water.  I could plunge into that canal quite easily.  I'm not a good swimmer at the best of times, never mind wrapped in jeans and an anorak and carrying a backpack.  No-one knew where I was, exactly; I could fall into the grey and vanish forever.

Carrying this cheery thought with me, I struck along the way.  It was incredibly quiet.  The mist deadened any noise until finally, the alien beep-beep of construction traffic entered my consciousness.  There was a crane in the distance, and through the mist I could see the silhouettes of hangars.  This was the former HMS Ringtail, a wartime Naval air base which was now being redeveloped for industry.  It ceased to be MoD property years ago, but the runways proved useful for crop dusting, until finally the aerodrome was mothballed permanently.  The hangars, however, are in the possession of the Merseyside Transport Trust.

I finally turned off the canal by a neat row of cottages.  For the first time, I saw some boats, moored up against the bank.  I wonder why all canal boats look like they were built in the nineteenth century?  Surely there must be a market for modern canal boats, ones made out of fibreglass, with all mod cons?  Not everything has to look like it comes with a Toby jug and a beard.  There was a swing bridge across the canal, with complex instructions attached to tell you how to work it.  I love the "stop" sign on the span; you know, just in case you decided to risk squeezing through that two foot gap.

From there it was a short wander up to New Lane station.  It was another one with its platforms either side of a level crossing, but at least it still had its old station building - albeit now a private home, with the access to the platform bricked up.

The level crossing's automated as well now, so I was the only human presence on the station.  (Well, I say "human").

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself.  With New Lane, I'd completed the stretch of line between Southport and Wigan.  Every station was under my belt, and another vertice could be struck from the Merseyrail map.  Funny how it ended in such an obscure place, I thought.  I settled into the shelter to wait for my train.  My friend Jennie was joining it at Parbold, and we were going to head into Wigan together for a coffee.  I thought of the gingerbread latte I would buy from Starbucks, with extra whipped cream, as a celebratory treat for achieving this milestone.

We passed through Burscough, as I floated on a cloud of unbearable smugness.  There was a slight pause as we stopped at the next station on the line, Hoscar.

Wait - where?




Bollocks.  Still one to go, then...

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Room at the Top

Merseyrail have announced their new boss, and I for one welcome our new railway overlord.  His name is Maarten Spaargaren, and he looks like this:

I have to be honest - there was a part of me that was worried that the departure of Bart Schmeink would mean the orange influence on Merseyside would disappear.  I nervously anticipated the appointment of a "Bert Carr" or a "Sean Druckett" or a "Philomena Mellencamp" and we'd go all boringly English.  But no: with the arrival of Maarten we have a man whose name is so Dutch it should come with a free bunch of tulips and some pornography.  I couldn't be more pleased.

Sad though I am to see the great Mr Schmeink leave, I look forward to the arrival of the Spaargaren Regime at the end of the month.  I'm available for a pint of Grolsch any time, Maarten.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Country Sad Ballad Man

Oh, Lytham.  Such a tease.

Get off the train and it looks like there's a fine, impressive station building to greet you.  Head round the front though, and you realise it's all gone.

A formerly grand booking hall is now a pub; not even an open pub - it was "closed until further notice".  It's still very attractive, though, especially as almost all the other stations on the line have lost any semblance of platform buildings.  I hope the closure is just temporary.  I'm guessing that if the pub fails that old station will be replaced by apartment blocks before you know it.

In the meantime, Lytham is represented by a rather ignominious sign tucked down the side.

If I'm honest, there's no reason for such a big station anyway.  Lytham's a small, pretty town, that's it.  It's a bit like St Anne's, but more down to earth - there were a few more chain stores.  A bit less opulence.  A Spar.  Still very pretty though.

It was lunchtime, and since the Station Tavern was out, I randomly picked Upstairs Downstairs.  A chubby homosexual with irritating facial hair got me a baguette, while two waitresses stood behind the counter gossiping and pulling a face every time a customer wanted to be served.  It was alright, I suppose, but I couldn't help noticing that my tea cost twice as much as the one in Blackpool.

The rain finally gave up so I headed out of town.  My next station was out in the countryside, so for the first time that day I turned away from the coast.  I passed through quiet streets, past a playground with a rocket shaped climbing frame and rope swings (remember when just a slide was the most exciting thing ever?) and a very posh looking Booths supermarket.  I've never been in one of these stores, but since it was advertising an "Artisan Cafe" on site and had an attached garden centre, I'm not sure I'd be welcome.  Not without a credit check first.

Of COURSE I'm going to reference the Village People now.  How could I not?  I'm sure it's not like this in Lytham though.  (That clip is from Can't Stop the Music, the Village People musical, which is jaw-droppingly awful.  It's a must-see).

Passing up the opportunity to find many ways to have a good time, I carried on.  Soon I'd left Lytham behind and I was out in the countryside.

I have a real fear of walking beside the road in the country.  I don't like places where there aren't pavements.  Walking in the road always makes me anxious, even if I know I'm following the country code and I'm perfectly within my rights.  Luckily Lancashire County Council had the decency to build a path on one side, but it still felt a bit hairy beside a national speed limit road.

Drivers tend to take one of three manoeuvres when they see you walking at the side of a country lane.  In the best case, they slow down a little and move away to give you space.  Next are the ones who swing right over to the other side of the road, thereby implying that you're really fat and they don't want to accidentally clip your chunky thighs.

The third type are the wankers.  They're the ones who put their foot down, or stay right up against the side of the road, or just ignore you.  They're the ones with attitude, the ones who are listening to a Clarkson audiobook, the ones who are saying Quake with fear at my mighty four-wheeled progress, pathetic biped!  Feel my superiority at manhandling this machine with skill and speeding past your limited progress!

On the plus side, I was getting exercise and fresh air, so they'll probably die before me.

I couldn't really sense where I was in relation to the railway line - it was somewhere over there, as far as I could work out, but I couldn't see any sign of it.  I passed over a canal, and past the local tip, which the council had thoughtfully put right next to a caravan park.  Apparently plots for holiday lets were available; can't say I'm surprised.

As any schoolboy knows, a group of crows is called a murder.  This is one of those facts I learnt when I was little because (a) I had a fondness for the macabre and (b) I liked knowing more than everyone else.  I watched a murder now, rising and falling over a cropped field; they rested on the ground then, at some unseen signal, all the crows rose up into the air, swirled around one another, then landed a few metres away.  It was like watching a very anxious sandstorm.

Fortunately, the crows decided not to attack me.  My gory death at their pecking beaks will have to wait for another day.  The only wildlife to surprise me that day was a particularly nosy cow, who thrust her face through a gap in the hedge as I approached.  I like cows.  They are dumb as a box of hair, but they have a simple charm and unthreatening personality that I'm fond of.  Like Rav Wilding. My great uncles farmed cows, and I used to like to pat and stroke them.  Then eat a steak.

I ran my hand of the muzzle of the cow and, predictably, it let me without much protest.  As I said, stupid.

Actually that all sounded like I have some weird bovine fetish.  I don't, honest.  We're just friends.

Crashing on.  My next station was Moss Side; not the dodgy area of Manchester, thankfully.  This was a tiny country station by a level crossing, just a platform in the middle of nowhere.  I took a seat on the platform and listened to the peace.

Sort of.  What actually happened was that Northern Rail decided to interrupt my rural idyll with regular announcements over the loudspeaker.  All our stations are covered by CCTV... please keep all luggage safe... vandalism will not be tolerated...  Yes, one of these announcements told me my train was on the way, but apart from that, it was a stream of noise pollution.  In the near dead-silence of an Autumn afternoon, it was all you could hear.  The locals must find it incredibly annoying, hour after hour of the same repetitive, booming voices.

Unsurprisingly I was the only person to board.  I settled in on the Pacer for the trip, choosing a seat right at the back - I was getting off at the next station, anyway.  Across from me was a woman who was staring intently out the window.  She was sat on one of the "sideways" seats, where you can store your bike, and she seemed to be incapable of closing her legs.  Thankfully her skirt was past her knees or it would have been like a very low budget remake of Basic Instinct.

As the train started up she started to sing, quietly, under her breath.  At first I just thought she was mouthing, but then I realised I could just about hear her voice under the train noise - it was something about Jesus.  Over and over.  "Mmmmffffmmmm JESUS mmmmfff."  The Jesus part was getting louder, so that she could be heard over the grinding of diesel engines.

I have no objection to people having a faith, and wanting to praise Jesus in their own way.  But when a spreadlegged woman with a tight Croydon facelift is murmuring the Lord's name, you start to get unnerved.  Especially when the train stopped for one of those random reasons in the middle of nowhere and she fixed her eyes on me.  "The next station is Kirkham and Wesham," she intoned, and my testicles turned tail and made their way back inside my body.

The next station was Kirkham and Wesham, and I was very glad to disembark (I was even more glad that she didn't).

It's a lovely little station.  Again, some care and attention's been devoted to it (and some money), so there's a nice covered set of steps, and a clean and tidy ticket hall.  This was the sort of station building that I'd have thought Lytham could get away with, instead of that epic piece of architecture.

I got a bit confused on the bridge, trying to work out which way to go.  Kirkham was in one direction, and Wesham was in the other; I needed to go into the former, but I ended up on my way to the latter.  I wondered if the railway bridge acted as a sort of frontier post, knowing how easily people start hating their neighbours.  I could imagine the local schoolkids stood on either side, baiting one another, daring them to cross over the bridge to their half.

If you've watched much of the new series of Doctor Who, you'll know the concept of "fixed points in time".  The Doctor can run round the universe changing history wherever he likes normally, but sometimes there are events which absolutely must occur.  Pompeii, for example.

I had my own equivalent of a fixed point, though admittedly it wasn't in quite the same league as "make sure Shane from Neighbours dies on Mars".  My version was called Salwick.

If you know anything about train services (or perhaps you've read the story of Robert's visit) you'll know Salwick only gets three trains towards Preston a day - one at 7:13, one at 8:13, and one at 16:15. I absolutely, positively had to get that 16:15 train, or I'd be stranded in the middle of Lancashire.

I'd been quite cocky about catching the train earlier that day.  The walk from Kirkham to Salwick didn't seem too arduous.  In fact, I even texted Robert and asked if he knew if there were any pubs that way, because it looked like I'd have time to kill (I'd forgotten that he hadn't even left the station on his visit, so as if he'd know).

I sauntered through Kirkham.  It wasn't just that I had plenty of time; I was also encountering hills for the first time on my trip.  Steep hills, that went down one side and up the other.  After a day's walking, this wasn't a welcome development (I'd done something to my right knee too, and it was letting out a little yelp with every step).  It did mean I got to see some of the town's unique features in great detail, like a weaver's loom in a bus shelter.

Kirkham was once a big textile centre, and when the last mill closed in 2003 they preserved the final loom in the town.  A nice gesture, but I can't help wondering if the mill would have lasted longer if they hadn't been using equipment from the early 20th Century (the plaque claims it was manufactured after the First World War).

I passed Kirkham Baths, which were also run by the YMCA (is there a massive gay movement in the Fylde I didn't know about?) and headed into town.  I'm going to apologise in advance to my friend Jennie, who grew up in this bit of the county, but I didn't find Kirkham that impressive.  It had been described as a "market town" but to me it seemed like a housing estate with pretensions; the buildings were boring, the shops uninspired, the traffic relentless.  I was in no hurry to linger, which was handy because I realised I would have to get a move on to get to Salwick now.

I'll give the town bonus points for this old fashioned hardware store, though.

I walked out onto the bypass, where I jumped on a regular basis as cars sped by, seeing 50 miles an hour as a suggestion rather than a limit.  It was a boring road through boring countryside; the farms on either side weren't pretty, Darling Buds of May country estates, but agricultural factories with unattractive outbuildings and messy yards.  I was the only person walking, of course.

On and on it went.  I was tired and thirsty.  In my head I could hear the relentless ticking of a clock, counting down to that 16:15 departure.  I hadn't realised it was so far to walk - there had been a serious miscalculation somewhere along the line.  Buses passed me, but I didn't know where they went and I didn't have any cash to buy a ticket anyway.

A check of Google Maps on my phone to make sure I was heading in the right direction (if I wasn't, I suspect I would have jumped under a juggernaut) and then I found my left hand turn, off the main road and towards Salwick.  A road without a pavement.

I take back my previous kudos for Lancashire County Council.

I hauled my tired legs onto the tarmac, and stumbled along.  There wasn't much traffic, thankfully, but it was still a tedious slog, pressing myself into the hedge every time I heard a car in the distance.  I tried walking on the rough verge at the side of the road, but the uneven ground made my sore knee yelp even louder.

<insert reference to Emmerdale's past their sell-by date "comedy" family here>

I did at least get a view of a perfect pastoral scene as I reached the village proper.  A church, green grass, sheep.

It was a shame about the relentless hum of the nuclear processing site in the background.  Kind of ruins the pretty country scene.

I hadn't realised the business of the "Works" on the OS map.  This is the Springfields site (yes, I immediately thought of Mr Burns too) and it's the reason Salwick station is still there.  A high angled fence surrounded the whole facility, and there was a tense, unidentifiable atmosphere around it.  Perhaps it was all the references to the Anti-Terrorism Act on the signs, and the policemen with guns at the main entrance.  It doesn't make for a pleasant stroll.

On the plus side, I was nearly at the station.

Never have I been so glad to see a road sign.

A new tension began to grip me as I approached the station, though.  What if I couldn't take my photo by the sign?  What if I was leapt upon by trained soldiers, determined to stop me from taking pictures in such a sensitive area?  What if even now I was being marked out as an insurgent, simply for walking round the site perimeter with a backpack?

I have to be honest - I wasn't concerned about myself.  I was worried about the blog.  I imagined writing this entry up, perhaps from my cell at Belmarsh, and having to put in those horrible words: I wasn't able to get a picture of me in front of the station sign because the police deleted that photo.  I imagined the list of stations visited, with one gap where Salwick should be.  A hole in the network.  An incomplete itinerary.

That thought made me sweat and panic far more than anything else that day.  Even more than the nutty woman on the train.  I simply had to get that last station sign picture.

And I did.

As it turned out, I wasn't even questioned.  Bit disappointing really.

Salwick's just a ramp and a platform, though at least there are two tracks at this point on the line.  I thought I'd be the sole visitor again but there were half a dozen people waiting for the Preston train.  I imagine there is a shift at the plant that relies on this service for its staff, though I'd hate to think what happens if there's a cancellation.  Or what it's like on a wintry day, with the wind whistling round you and the snow coming down.

I slumped down into my seat on the train.  I was tired and cold, but full of satisfaction.  That was another line down.  It was a line I didn't need to go near, it was a line I'd got no real interest in, and it was a line that hadn't really thrown up any magnificent stations or inspiring moments.  It was just there. And now it was under my belt.

As a bonus for my day's efforts, Northern Rail kindly laid on an extremely fit bloke on the train for me to perve at.  A man who then pulled down his case from the overhead rack, making his shirt ride up and revealing six inches of smooth white naked stomach.

The perfect way to end the day.