Happy New Year! I hope you all got drunk and threw coal at a first footer while singing Auld Lang Syne, or something. Personally I stayed in and watched telly, which was great. I'm not a big fan of New Year's Eve, but then I hate anything which demands I enjoy myself. It offends my misanthropic soul.
Anyway, before New Year, there's Christmas, and with it, the obligatory trip down south to visit the family. It was all very jolly, apart from that strange disconnect you always get when you return to the house you grew up in. Things look the same, but not quite; rooms are the same shape, but smaller. It doesn't help that my brother annexed my childhood bedroom a long time ago so I end up sleeping in "his" room. It all gets a bit alternate universey.
On the last day, I went off to catch my train and, in the process, capture Luton's three stations. I explained to my mum that I needed to visit all three stations, and she looked at me with the kind of expression reserved for elderly relatives with early signs of Alzheimers. She couldn't quite understand me, and thought it was probably best to just move on.
The first station was Leagrave, in the north of Luton, and the closest to my home. This was the station I used to regularly walk to for the trip into town, rather than piling on board the 23 into town. It's a proper old school station, built in the 19th century and well-preserved. In the snow it looked picturesque, and brought back a whole load of memories of trips to London and so on.
I risked the ridicule of the cabbies outside by getting the station shot and bought my ticket for the trip to Luton. £2.90! For one stop! Still, the one time I ever travelled without a ticket was when I jumped on a train to Luton from here, and I was caught by a Revenue Protection Officer. I was sixteen and the shame of it still burns inside me to this day. He took my name and address - well, a name and address; I wasn't going to give him my real one - and charged me a tenner. My cheeks are turning crimson just at the memory.
I stomped my feet on the snow outside. There was a fifteen minute wait for the next train, and I paced the platform, trying to keep the blood flowing. It was absolutely freezing.
The train might have been warm, but it no longer had a nice little picture of the London skyline inside. Boo to First Capital Connect, not least for that ridiculously contrived name. I miss good old Thameslink. It's especially galling when you see all the posters plugging the Thameslink Programme around the stations.
Readers with long memories will remember that Luton was declared the 8th worst station in Britain. The correct response to that is "only 8th"? It is - and I'm going to use a technical phrase here - a shithole. Luton station is one of the most unremittingly grim stations, anywhere. It doesn't so much welcome you to the town as spit on your foot and demand to know what the hell you want.
I'd hoped that I'd be able to report things had changed, that it was all sunshine and daffodils, but no. It's as horrible as I remembered. The building is angular, badly constructed, and falling apart. A new mult-storey car park looms over the platforms and cuts out the sky. There was water dripping into the bridge over the platforms as my fellow passengers and I shuffled out into the main concourse. Like Moorfields, the ticket office is built on the first floor; unlike Moorfields, Luton station's a dump.
The reason the ticket office is a floor up is because the train station is because a public right of way runs right through it - a bridge connecting the High Town district with the town centre. The route to the town is via this charming edifice:
Would you believe me if I said that bridge used to be worse? It used to be clad with filthy frosted glass, covered in steel mesh - they may as well have put up a sign saying "Luton welcomes careful rapists" over the entrance. At least now they've taken the glass off, you can't smell the tramp's piss.
It's so depressing to find the main railway station in my home town is unrelentingly horrific. It's an outrage, a blot, and the council should have demanded action a long time ago. They have plans to build a new station square, with a bus exchange, but frankly they've been saying that for twenty years. I'll believe it when I see it. They can't even put hands on the station clock.
Just to compound the misery, there weren't any trains south. It turned out that there was emergency work going on between Luton and St Pancras - something to do with the snow, I should imagine - so there would be a replacement bus. All the way to London. Since I just wanted to go to the next station on the line, Luton Airport Parkway, I thought I'd walk. So yes, pedants, I didn't actually take a train to or from it, so it violates the Merseytart rules, but tough.
I'm not sure what goes on in the head of Luton's planners. I'm not sure if there are any planners. If there are, their default setting is "pug ugly". I didn't remember the town being so depressingly miserable. There's the Arndale of course (you can call it The Mall all you like - it's still the Arndale to me) - a massive, all encompassing, pile of hideousness that squats over the entire town centre. Back in the 1970s, shopping precincts were all the rage, and Luton didn't so much embrace it, as have a filthy love affair that gave it syphilis. Entire streets of historic warehouses were demolished and replaced by indoor malls, while the streets around it were reduced to access routes to car parks and delivery areas. At the time it opened, it was the biggest covered shopping mall in Europe - ridiculously oversized for a town of only 160,000 people. It's too big to destroy now, though, so it strangles the town centre with its cheerless bulk.
Beyond that, there are grim blocks of ugly offices and light industry, right in the centre of town. The main parish church - just about the only historic building left in the entire town - is hemmed in by dual carriageways, car parks, and 1960s concrete. Right behind it, the University of Bedfordshire - or Luton Technical College as it was - is building a block of student flats that are about nine storeys tall, higher than the church's checkerboard tower. It's as though they want to keep compounding that error.
At some point Luton decided to pledge its heart to industry above anything else. It invited all these big companies in, big strapping factories, and let them run roughshod over the town. They built what they wanted, where they wanted.
The industry's gone now, though, and what the town's left with is the ugly grey hangover. As I walked out of the town there were signs all around me of despair - the grim aftermath of a town that doesn't quite know what to do with itself. The population's still growing, but the new residents are commuters - they're using that fast train link to London, and using Luton as somewhere to sleep. The town's in danger of becoming one large bedroom.
Towering over me as I walked was the proud sign of Vauxhall House, the HQ of the company - but they don't build cars here any more. They're built in Spain or Italy or, yes, Ellesmere Port. How long before they pull out of Luton completely?
The only thing that will be left is the airport. This is at least one industry in the town that's still growing. When I lived there, I remember the celebrations when they hit three million passengers a year - now it's pushing ten million, and still growing. The terminal I used to visit on days out as a kid (we were simple folks) has now been subsumed into a much larger building.
And it's finally got its own train station. Opened in 1999, Luton Airport Parkway might still be a mile away from the terminal, but it's a lot prettier than Luton mainline. It comes in that standard grey and glass Network Rail chic, to the extent that the name of the station is barely visible in case it ruins the charming lines of the building. Squint and you can see it over the entrance.
I hurried inside and bought a coffee to warm my frost bitten fingers. Even though there were no trains, the ticket hall was packed - mainly confused tourists, trying to work out how to get to London. There was another queue for the free shuttle bus to the airport - take note, Merseytravel, this is what you should be doing from South Parkway.
I was left feeling deflated, sad. This was the first time I'd ventured out of Sundon Park, my little home quarter of Luton, and into the town for years. And it was awful. I was seeing it all with new eyes, spoiled by Liverpool and Birkenhead. I felt let down, somehow. Luton is my home town, the place I lived in for the first twenty years of my life, and I wanted it to delight me. Instead it just made me want to return to Merseyside.