Tuesday 22 February 2011

Righting A Wrong

Readers with long memories will recall I visited Parbold station back in - blimey - August 2009. At the time I managed to make a hash of the Merseytart/sign photo, because I had my eyes closed and I generally looked like an arse.

Well, that's been corrected now. I was in Parbold yesterday visiting my best friend, Jennie. She's currently pregnant, and so between anecdotes about her womb antics, we trotted out to the sign for a snap.

The lovely little lad I'm with is Jennie's son, and my Godson, Adam. Part of the reason I was visiting was to bring him his birthday gifts - he's just turned 8 - a Lego Space Shuttle and a complete set of Charlie Higson's Young Bond novels. I don't care if he's a bit too young for them - 007 indoctrination has begun!

Incidentally, I passed through Southport station en route (though not through the ticket barriers, so it doesn't count as a Tart). It's a lot nicer since the last time I visited - lots of glass, bright new signs, an M to Go, a cycle store. But they have got rid of the ALF! Sacrilege! There are big signs saying "Welcome to Southport", but I don't care. I must register my absolute disgust at this development, and I may have to nip back with a felt tip to draw some sand castles on the new signs.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Off Topic

Part Two of a Two-part trip: for the first part, click here.

Only two people got off the train at Lostock Gralam: me and a teenage girl. She'd got on the train alongside me at Nantwich, sat across the aisle from me, and got up to exit about two seconds before me. I remember thinking "I hope she doesn't get raped", because I would have ended up as the number one suspect. Which is actually quite horrible.
Astute readers will have noticed that Lostock Gralam isn't on the Merseyrail map. That ends just after Northwich: the Mid-Cheshire Line vanishes off to the side with a boxout. You are of course, absolutely correct. However, if you think I was going to come this close but not visit a place called Lostock Gralam, then you clearly haven't been reading this blog for very long. It's an utterly ridiculous name. Like a Martin Amis character gone wrong.
It's not much of a station though. Just two platforms at the back end of the village - fields one way, a church the other.
The village itself was a bit of a let-down, too. The brick terraces could have been from any town in England; the old people's flats were the usual ugly block; the traffic on the main road was chocka. Still, it's not all bad, I thought - there's a few trees, a bit of green here and there. Not a bad place to live. Then I saw this on a community notice board:
I'd forgotten that I was in Tatton, the constituency that managed to elect both Neil Hamilton and George Osborne, and which therefore needs to be bombed off the face of planet Earth for the sake of mankind. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to elect one complete wanker may be regarded as a misfortune; to elect two seems like carelessness. (Though in the interests of full disclosure, I should admit I have a small crush on George Osborne. It's the little nose. Don't look at me like that - it's not like I want to talk to him).
I decided it would be for the best if I got the hell out of Lostock Gralam as soon as possible, so I followed my OS map and found a little pathway that took me under a dual carriageway and back alongside the railway line.
The path was long and straight, and ran alongside a mysterious pipeline, about a foot in diameter. I've no idea what it was supplying - there were no signs or indications about it at all - plus I didn't want to look too closely. I was the only human being for miles around, and cars kept passing me slowly: I didn't want them to think I was some kind of terrorist (my experience at Stanlow and Thornton has scarred me for life). It came to an end in a confluence of pipes, just before the road turned away as well, and I was left to trudge alongside the track on my own.
There wasn't much to see. A lot of scrubby green and brown fields, trees not daring to start to bud in case there was a late frost, puddles on the path. The train line was silent beside me - one train an hour in each direction means a lot of quiet time. A blackbird sat on top of one of the rails, preening itself.
I passed underneath a huge telecommunications mast - adding credibility to my theory that the pipelines indicated the headquarters of some kind of nefarious criminal mastermind - and passed onto a narrow track, paved with gravel and dirt. It was so straight, the slightest bit of variety was visible from quite a distance away. Plumley West signal box became quite the landmark, something to look forward to.
I've said it before, but I still can't believe there are active signal boxes in the UK. It's so quaint and Victorian. I wondered if perhaps it was unused but no, as I got closer, I saw there was movement inside, and the signalman's Vauxhall Vectra was parked outside. What does he do all day? One train an hour in each direction, remember. Does he just sit there listening to the radio and surfing pornography on his iPhone? Is he building a scale model of the Taj Mahal out of matchsticks in there? Surely Network Rail keep him busy with something - perhaps he's doing the chairman's taxes between trains or something.
Signalling doesn't interest me in the slightest. I know there are men who get terribly excited over the idea of junctions and flying crossovers and all that stuff, but it's unfathomable and uninteresting to me. So long as it works, and my train to Hooton doesn't end up in the path of a Pendolino, I'm quite happy for it to remain a mystery. I was however pleased to see that my visit coincided with a train going to Manchester, meaning that I got to see the little flag thing clunk from "up" to "down" (let me know if I'm bamboozling you with all this technical jargon). Lovely.
A bit further on and I could cross the railway tracks to the Plumley side. The footbridge was overgrown - it's rare you see trees actually growing on a bridge - and the footpath indicators seemed to want to send me in the opposite direction. How dare they! I thought. I have an Ordnance Survey map, and it clearly has little green dotted lines going across the bridge. That's where I'm damned well going. I have Her Majesty's Stationers on my side!
Pride before a fall, etc.
Following the path took me across a field, then back onto another track, twisting and turning. Houses appeared on the horizon and I thought, hurray, nearly there. The track rose over the top of a hillock, then dropped down into.... this.
A ten foot long puddle, covering the entire track. On either side of me, bracken and barbed wire fences. Ahead of me, a lake. Behind me, a three mile walk back to Lostock Gralam.
I prodded hesitantly at the puddle with a stick, and it sank in four inches. This was right at the edge - who knew how much deeper it got in the centre? I gingerly took a step in at the side, and the water flowed right up over my Doc Martens, nearly up to the laces - I managed to yank my foot out before it gushed inside and soaked my socks.
I felt thoroughly disheartened. I'd come all this way, and I couldn't see a way to continue without ending up soaking wet. I hate turning back at the best of times, but I really didn't fancy that long walk through bare fields again. I'd have to do something else.
That was how I ended up clinging to the fence at the side, a foot above the water. My hands gripped tightly between the barbs, while my feet struggled to find holes big enough for my size 10s. I was clambering along, like a low-budget Spiderman. My arms were aching, yelling, as they carried my weight, and the brambles above the fence were slashing at my hands, drawing blood. My backpack slipped down my arm at one point, and threw me off balance, then my foot slipped out of a fence hole. I managed to pull it back in quick before it became submerged in the thick brown muck.
Ok reader, I know this is hardly up there with James Bond clambering up a rock face in For Your Eyes Only, but for an unfit, fat 34 year old like me, it was quite an achievement. I sort of wished someone had been around to witness my ingenuity, then realised what my arse must have looked like dangling over the water, and I was glad I was alone.
After my mammoth feat of physical brilliance, Plumley couldn't really compare. It seemed very posh. The gardens were big enough to house chickens and livestock, and all the houses had names, like "Halfacre" and "Brubeck Mews". None of your common old "Number 43" here.
The station itself was under a humpback bridge, and seemed deserted. The station building was long since abandoned, and was to let. There was a brick shelter on the Manchester platform. I was about to settle in when a temporary pause in my music (my Blur-athon had reached Leisure; 13 had finished somewhere around the signal box) alerted me to the shrill voices of a couple of teenage boys. I stayed well away.
It seemed that Cheshire was on half-term, because the train was full of squealing brats. Either that or there's a terrible problem with absenteeism in the county. There was a gang of half a dozen of them across from me, boys and girls, loudly comparing mobile phones and complaining about their network providers. Is this what kids do now? What happened to talking about sex and music and telly? I have this awful feeling that we're creating a generation of terrible dullards who spend their evenings on Money Supermarket trying to find better mobile tariffs, when they should be tonguing one another in a bus stop. (Not that I ever did that as a teenager. Chance would have been a fine thing).
If the teenage boys hadn't been in the shelter, I probably would have been heading home. It was starting to hail, and it was miserable, so I decided to just get the first train that turned up, rather than wait for the Chester one. Which is how I ended up in Knutsford.
The station was a bit Jekyll and Hyde. The platforms were lovely. Old CLC ironwork had been preserved, and the wood on the canopy was kept painted and clean. The ticket office, on the other hand, was a different matter. At some point in the 1980s British Rail had abandoned the Victorian building on the Chester platform and built a replacement on the Manchester platform, by the car park. They should have demolished the old building, to be honest, because the new building looked embarrassingly awful next to it.
Nasty red brick and angled roof - it was very Kirkby, very Runcorn East, very unpleasant. Small windows so there was less to clean; stark white artificial light inside. It certainly couldn't compare with Northwich.
I didn't know about Knutsford before I arrived. All I knew was it was the punchline to various Victoria Wood jokes. I certainly didn't realise how rich it was. It dripped with cash - I've never seen so many kitchen and bathroom showrooms in such a small space; it was like an outdoor Ideal Home Exhibition. Jaguars, Maseratis and Mercedes cruised up the narrow high street. The clothes shops were exclusive boutiques with chi-chi entrances, and the furniture stores advertised that they would do "home consultations". You don't get that at DFS.
I felt quite out of place in my Primark 007 t-shirt, hair still slick with sweat from my scramble over the puddle. As I wandered past the antique shops and wine bars, I was waiting to be spotted, and bundled into the back of a Transit van to be taken where all the poor people lived.
What I wanted was a coffee: a decent, unpretentious coffee somewhere I could sit down and regroup. Unfortunately, every coffee place looked like it had a dress code, or at the very least, an anti-oik policy. There was a Costa on one of the less desirable streets, so I made a beeline for that.
"No coffee until further notice - sorry for the inconvenience". What the blimming heck? Why were they even bothering to stay open - I don't think people beat down the doors of Costa for its paninis. I carried on walking, but there was nothing else. Fine, I thought, it'll have to be a pub. You can imagine what a disappointment for me this was. I went into the Cross Keys, and ordered a pint of bitter. Halfway through pouring it, the barman said, "By the way, we're closing at two-thirty".
It was ten past two.
Stuff your twenty-four hour drinking: in Knutsford, you're lucky if you can get a pint past lunchtime. And you'll note he didn't tell me this before I ordered my pint. Second customer service fail in a row for Knutsford.
Having knocked back my bitter at an uncomfortably fast rate, I wandered back into the main street. There was a tall white tower in the centre which, on closer inspection, revealed itself to be a memorial to Elizabeth Gaskell. I was seriously impressed, and immediately made it my ambition to have a tower built in my memory when I die. Pah to a bench in a local park - I want a fifty foot beacon with a statue of me on top.
Continuing with my ignorance of Knutsford in general, I had no idea that Elizabeth Gaskell had based Cranford on the town, but various plaques told me about locations that featured in the novel. I haven't read Cranford, or seen the tv series, despite the presence of Dame Judi. It's not that I don't like a good costume drama, it was just that Cranford looked a bit too costumey - a fine example of what my brother refers to as "hanky flapping", the kind of adaptation where every table setting gets a loving close-up.
Still, I'd finished my book on the way in (James Ellroy's American Tabloid) so I took it as a sign: the Gods wanted me to read Cranford. I thought it would actually be quite fun to sit in the middle of "Cranford" itself reading the novel. In the third successive customer service fail, however, the Knutsford Waterstones didn't have a single copy of the book in stock. Not one. How ludicrous. It's like a bookstore in Stratford not stocking Shakespeare, or the gift shop in a mental institution not selling The Da Vinci Code. Know your audience. Perhaps moneyed Knutsford types don't read anything except Cheshire Life and the Daily Mail.
My Gaskell hunt had meant I'd missed the next train, so I went to a different pub, the Angel, for another pint to kill time. The barman there called me "sir". I hate that. I don't want a barman to be obsequious and boot licking, just friendly and efficient. No-one should be called "sir" in this day and age. I found a suitably quiet corner to listen to Modern Life is Rubbish and gather my thoughts.
Knutsford should have caught me, I know. It is very pretty. But unlike Northwich, I found it alienating, cold even. This is probably inverted snobbery, but I felt like Knutsford was actively judging me. I didn't feel comfortable inside its rich walls. As I drank my pint, two women across from me discussed a recent safari holiday; one of them was talking about how they'd taken a minibus to a local village to see how the locals lived, and basically gawped at the poverty. I thought that was an awful thing to do, but it sounded like very Knutsfordian, like the driver of the Aston Martin in the narrow high street who was texting at the wheel. All money, no class.
I'm making sweeping generalisations here, I know. You can't judge a town from a couple of hours wandering round its centre. I'm sure that those coffee shops wouldn't have turned me away because of my Sainsbury's TU jeans, and I'm sure that I could have happily wandered round an antique shop even though my boots were thick with dried on mud. I expect the town is full of smiling, happy, pleasant people without attitudes. I just picked up a vibe, an aura if you like, that didn't sit with me, and made me feel alienated.
Having said all that, the local Thomas Cook did have a picture of Jamie Redknapp in a pair of shorts in its window, so it wasn't all bad.
I made my way back to the station, this time coming at it from a different angle. I took a pic of the sign here too, just for completion's sake.
There were two paintings on the wall, artwork from the local high school, and a memorial bench. A little plaque commemorated Arthur Sancto, the secretary of the Mid-Cheshire Rail User Association who used to "adopt" Knutsford station and who passed away in 2009. It was a lovely touch, really charming, and a nice note to leave the town on.
Finally I was on my way back home. I got into Chester station at five o'clock. When I used to commute from Chester on a daily basis, this was my usual train home, and I wandered up to my old spot on the platform to wait. Unfortunately they've put some new chairs right in front of the window sill I used to lean on, the window sill with big scoops in the sandstone where a hundred years of buttocks had worn it away. I was delighted to see two old characters from my commute on the platform though - Fat Bloke and his friend Bible Basher, who used to read the New Testament on the train, running his finger under the words as he read. The only time I saw him with a different book it was Casino Royale. Goodness knows what he made of that - I've had limited religious teaching, but I'm pretty sure no-one gets their genitals mashed with a carpet beater in the Gospels.
In a further development, the train was one of the new fast ones, that skip Capenhurst. The driver seemed to positively relish the opportunity to pit his foot down, and we bombed through the countryside, the fastest I'd been all day. I could see why they'd abandoned plans to skip Bache as well - the station was packed when we pulled in, mainly students from the Mandy Richardson University of Chester. Parklife was playing on my iPod by now, which made me feel very studenty myself, until I realised that these kids would have been toddlers when it was released. Bastards.
Perhaps when they move the University campus to the city centre, Merseyrail will revisit the service and shave another couple of minutes off the journey - their Twitterfeed certainly seems to indicate that they're struggling with timekeeping on the route at the moment as the new services bed in. Network Rail have indicated that they might raise the speed limit for the route as well.
So that's three more stations captured, for no reason other than "they were there". I suppose I got my money's worth out of my Cheshire Day Ranger, anyway. I'll have to be careful though. As the Bf said to me this morning, "You'd better not make this into a national project. I don't want you getting a train to Taunton anytime soon."
As if!

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Love Train

Part One of a Two-part trip: for the second part, click here.

I'm not keen on Valentine's Day. I don't approve of any festivity that relies on guilt for its power; in a similar vein, I don't like Mother's Day (but I understand that if I didn't get my mum a card at least, my life would not be worth living). Plus, the Bf and I have our anniversary two days before, and that's far more important to our relationship.
He wasn't bothered therefore when I said I'd rather spend February 14th romping round Cheshire looking at train stations and not spending it with him. He's good like that. So I was up and out the door and on a train to Greenbank by 10 am.
The train was a mess, incidentally. I'm a big fan of Colin Firth, but I got kind of sick of seeing his face stare back at me from a thousand copies of the Metro. I like the idea that you leave your newspaper on the train for someone else when you're finished. It's a polite, generous, British thing to do. I don't like people slinging copies of a freesheet all over the place so it looks like there's been an explosion in a printing press. Take the Metro with you. Mind you, I'm baffled why anyone picks it up in the first place; it's rubbish.
I got another little shock as I travelled down the Mid-Cheshire Line: an Attractive Local Feature Board! An ALF! Ok, it's not a proper ALF, but Delamere now has a nifty little sign provided by the Forestry Commission underneath its name plate. I had to take a pic out of the train window, so it's a bit blurry and grimy, but it's nice to see - it wasn't there when I visited last year. More please.
Anyway, Greenbank. I'd considered getting here via Hartford station, as the Merseyrail map indicates that they're close enough to be an interchange, much like the two Wigan stations. However, if I'd done that, it would have destroyed the binary stars of Hartford and Winsford in my head. It's one of those patterns that for some reason have established themselves for me; a twinning. So instead I took the Northern Rail train straight there and jumped off.
Let's be honest: that is a shit station sign. Just awful. It looks like it was knocked up by the local school kids out of cardboard. One good rainstorm and it'll be gone. Greenbank also has nothing in the way of customer facilities, apart from the usual bus shelters on the platform. I'm afraid the station building has been annexed:
They seem to have extended it, and refurbished it, but I'd still much rather see a station building as, you know, a station building.
I trudged on into the town, with Blur banging in my ears. They are my favourite band of all time - great tunes, great performers, just brilliant. I'd already listened to The Great Escape on the train, and now I'd worked my way onto Blur, their self-titled album from 1997. We used to have that CD on an almost permanent loop in our student house - that, Gina G's Fresh and the Evita soundtrack. We were nothing if not eclectic. In fact, here is our student kitchen, with the Blur poster on the wall:
My cupboard was the one with the GoldenEye poster, if you hadn't already worked it out.
It meant I entered Northwich on a bit of a high - a good soundtrack does that for you. I was further fascinated by a mural by a bus stop:
The mural commemorated Northwich's Roman past - as a historic producer of salt, the town has long been a stronghold. A nearby plaque further explained that I was standing at the entrance to Condate, a Roman fort that straddled the Roman road from Chester to York. It was part of a heritage trail, set up by the council as a memorial to a local historian, Brian Curzon. If I'd had more time, I'd have followed the whole trail, but I didn't know how far away from town I was and I didn't want to get distracted.
Northwich was already starting to charm me. I'd never been before, apart from a visit to the nearby Anderton Boat Lift about five years ago, so I hadn't known what to expect. What I had got so far was a pleasant, small town feel, strangely countryside like: I never felt that I was too far from trees and open fields, even when I was walking past burger bars and estate agents. It had that kind of air to the place.
I was even more pleased to close in on the town and find this fantastic bridge over the Weaver.
It's a swing bridge, straddling the river, and has been beautifully restored. It made for a suitably inspiring entrance into the town centre.
Now don't get me wrong; I know Northwich isn't Venice or Rome. It's just a small Cheshire town. There was something about it that appealed to me, though, something that made me smile. It had an undefinable charm. The buildings were a nice mix of Victorian and modern, the pedestrianised precinct had a good variety of shops, and the place was busy, even though it was only a Monday morning. It just felt good.
Perhaps I just liked it because there was a menswear shop called, without irony, "Gigolos". Sadly it didn't feature amazing pimp hats, tight trousers and thongs.
I stopped at a Wetherspoons for a sit down and the free wi-fi until my train. The place was heaving, even though it was eleven thirty, with a strange mix of pensioners and committed alcoholics. There was a group of what I would term "rock grandads" - leather jackets, piercings, body odour, about twenty years too old be looking like that - tucking into their full Englishes with gusto. In front of me, an elderly couple were having one of those utterly silent excursions that old people seem to manage - a cup of tea in front of them both, as they stared into the middle distance, not talking, not doing anything. There was another guy, in a flat cap, filling in betting slips with a copy of the Racing Post and a pint of bitter; he greeted half the pub as they walked in by name. It was homely and pleasant. The building itself used to be the main post office, and it had been tastefully restored - whatever your opinion of Wetherspoons as a company, you can't deny that they've managed to preserve a lot of old buildings that might otherwise have been abandoned.
Having said that, if the Bf announced that we were going to be taking advantage of their Valentines offer - two steaks and a bottle of wine for £14.99 - I believe a divorce would be justifiable.
Refreshed, I carried on to Northwich station. By now I was onto my third Blur album, their last, Think Tank. There was more efficient reusing of old buildings on the way, as this:
turned out to be a bingo hall.
Northwich station was a nice little blast from the past, not just because the next door Tesco store seemed to think it was 1986:
Finally, we had a railway station building that was still being used as a railway station! Admittedly, only part of it, the ticket office, and even then it closed at 2:30, but still: it was hope. It was also a well-preserved example of the Cheshire Lines style, restored, and clean. It had one of those big BR logos and the station name on the outside, right above the CLC name, which I love - I think it should be a legal requirement on all station buildings.
The station sign itself was in Tesco's car park, so I risked life and limb getting a pic.
There was a curiosity inside the ticket hall. Amongst the usual Northern Rail posters and leaflets, there was a little framed photograph of a boxer. The caption read:
Lostock born Ray Wilding was employed in the parcels office at this station on leaving school in the 1940s.
His later career as a prominent heavyweight boxer saw him settle in the USA, where he fought in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and, on five occasions, in New York's world famous Madison Square Garden.
He retired from the ring in 1956 after 47 wins from 53 encounters and his name was honoured in New Jersey's Boxing Hall of Fame. Ray died, aged 65, in 1995.
I think that's brilliant. The quiet, dignified acknowledgement of a local hero, right in the centre of a 21st century train station. My dad was a massive boxing fan, so I grew up hearing all about them (for one terrifying moment, he considered naming me Stracey, after John Stracey) but I'd never heard of Ray Wilding. I love that he's commemorated in this tiny way.
Buoyed, I headed out onto the platform, which was another little gem - baskets for flowers, benches, a big clock (which unfortunately didn't work - see blogs passim for my rants about station clocks). Admittedly, all the facilities were on one side. If you were waiting for a train to Chester you'd be cold and rained on. The Railside Cafe seemed to have realised this and its advertised list of features started with "It's Warm". I think that's underselling yourself, a bit.
I had a little wander up and down the platform as it slowly filled with people. I liked Northwich. I liked its quiet buzziness, its understated charm, its politeness. I liked the way it seemed to carry itself with a strange grace - it wasn't a big town, it wasn't important, but it had a confidence to it. And of course, it had a decent railway station. Never underestimate how important that can be.