Saturday 25 June 2011


I've been thinking about art.

One of my favourite recent metro-related art stories is the tale of the Moustache Man.  He's been travelling all over the New York subway, writing "moustache" on posters in a distinctive curly fashion.  That's all.  I first heard of it via the lovely Sheryl over at Bitch Cakes and it struck me as a fun idea.  It's a tiny lift for commuters and travellers.  A smile.  (And one spelt the correct way, as well).

Except now the NYC Vandal Squad have arrested him and charged him with "Felony Criminal Mischief, Misdemeanor Criminal Mischief, Making Graffiti and Possession of Graffiti Instrument".  Of all those charges, "mischief" seems the only appropriate one.  It is mischevious, impish, comic.  It's a sly moment of humour and lightness.

I hate graffiti.  I hate the soulless, joyless crime of "tagging" - a wide mark of angry namechecking.  It's ugly and expensive and, worst of all, dull.  99% of the spraypainted graffiti employs the same pallette of colours and the same design of font.  The name is irrelevent - it looks like everyone else's.  Just look at some examples on Merseyrail - there's a wide spread of time there, over a decade's worth of graffiti, and yet it looks like it could have all been done by the same hand.  An artist should be expressing themselves, and their own interior personalities and souls - not trying to look like everyone else.

(And please note I'm not even going to give the banal, everyday graffiti the time of day - the inked initials, the crude genitalia, the names scratched into the train window with the tip of your compass - the tiny pains that make life a bit shittier).

So, since I hate graffiti, why am I upset by Moustache Man's arrest?  Perhaps because he was different.  There was humour and love in his work.  It was a step up from drawing a beard on Penelope Cruz and blackening her teeth.  It was imaginative and well-presented (just look at those curly letters!).  Maybe I'd feel different if I had to look at it everyday, instead of just getting edited highlights from the other side of the Atlantic; but this is a type of transport vandalism I could get behind.  Am I being hypocritical?  Probably.  I'm drawing a line between one type of art I approve of, and another I don't; I'm saying one is "good" and another is "bad", when surely they're just as valid as each other.  In fact, those spray painted train cars are a lot more work than one man with a felt tip.  I'm not an art expert by any means - just an interested bystander.   

I've gone on and on about Merseyrail's Art on the Network programme, and how much I like the idea of sponsored artwork to add beauty to travel.  I don't see the Moustache Man as being much different.  He's spending a few moments each day making your life more fun.  I hope he isn't treated too harshly.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Failure to Launch

The excellent diamond geezer has a regular feature on his blog where he highlights the shameless attempts PR companies have made to get him to plug their stuff.  I get a few e-mails like that myself, though there's one key difference between me and him: I have no shame.

Don't get me wrong - the integrity (?) of this blog is very important to me.  You won't find me peddling corporate crap for nothing.  However, if they offer me free stuff, I may reconsider.

Where this is leading is that I got an e-mail from Sally at Cheshire West & Chester Council.  Readers might remember her cameo as the Nice Lady on the Jazz Train trip a few months ago.  Sally's the Mid-Cheshire Community Rail Partnership Officer, and was letting me know that they were launching a new Rail Walks guide.  Did I want to come to the launch?


followed by buffet lunch in the Greyhound pub in Ashley at approx 12.30 – free booklet thrown in! 


Even as I boarded the train to Ashley, I started getting tense.  I'm way, way too shy, and the idea of going to an event where I knew no-one was starting to scare me.  What would I say?  Who would I talk to?

As the train headed from Chester through the countryside, things got worse.  I began to sweat.  My head started spinning.  My breathing became shallow.  I knew what was happening: I had a panic attack coming.

I couldn't do it.  I couldn't face it.  Just the idea of being at that station, talking, existing, trying to make conversation - it all got a bit much.  The train pulled into Greenbank, and I jumped off.  I couldn't handle it.  I stood on the platform and sucked in lungfulls of air while the train took off behind me.  Big buckets of oxygen as I wrestled with my anxiety and shook.

Good grief I can be pathetic sometimes.

So unfortunately, I didn't get to the launch - which is a shame, because it looks brilliant.  The booklet for the rail walks can be downloaded here, and it's a great idea - I'm surprised it's not more common.  It encourages tourism in the countryside, it gets more users onto public transport, and it gives a purpose to those remote stations that might be overlooked.  I must get back out there and try one out.

Anyway, the one good thing about having my hissy fit at Greenbank was I could walk to Hartford station on the West Coast Main Line for a train straight back to Lime Street.  Hartford seemed very pretty - very moneyed Cheshire, lots of green lawns and discreet buildings.  The station was on a high street with a Co-Op, a pub and a church; it was so typically English it could have been in a Miss Marple.  A good Marple, not a rubbish ITV one.

It meant I was able to cross another station off the map, which was something at least.  A small crumb of comfort from the embarrassment of the day.  I headed down to the platform to wait for the train, which gave me plenty of time to look at one of the ugliest station buildings in Christendom.

British Rail's architects in the Sixties were just lazy, weren't they?  I bet they just drew a box on their plans and said "that'll do" before heading to the pub.  I suppose we should be thankful that it was at least staffed, though I feel sorry for the poor sod inside who has to spend his day selling tickets from a public toilet.

If anyone else wants to send me free stuff or invite me to shindigs, go ahead.  I'll try to turn up this time...

Thursday 9 June 2011


Let's see if this works, shall we?  I've had to change blogging software as my old program seems to have gone down the drain.  I've had to download a new one so, hopefully, the weird formatting and spell checks will be a thing of the past.  Possibly.  I'm just trying to avoid using Blogger's very basic online editor.

So anyway: to the fulcrum of my gist.  The third in Grant Searl's Animate the Underground series has been unveiled at Hamilton Square.  This one is called Garden of Icons, and it's the best one yet.


It leaps out on you.  One minute you're walking up the yellow melamine corridor from the platform, surrounded by the usual 70s Merseyrail underground...


...then suddenly you're surrounded by greenery.  It's the best location yet, and makes me wish that James Street's One Life One Love One Liverpool had been similarly sited.  It's much easier to appreciate it when you're right up close, and it breaks up that dull yellow mass.

The theme this time is "Liverpool's icons", and there's a fair few of them in amongst the topiary:


By my count, we've got:

- the Superlambanana;

- a Liver Bird;

- one of Antony Gorman's iron men from Another Place;

- the Yellow Submarine;

- a Diddyman, complete with jam butties;

- one of the Go Penguins;

- E. Chambre Hardman's camera and photos (just off the screen).

I'm not sure who the thin man on top of the bush is; anyone know?  I'm also surprised by the lack of St Helens' Big Giant Head, or Dream, or whatever it's called.

With the new artwork, we also get a new riddle:


I'm no good with riddles.  The Bf and I spent last night debating what it might mean, and we've got no clue.  We'll have to wait until the fifth clue is unveiled for us to get the full picture.  I can't wait now.  The quality of the works is improving every time; Moorfields and Central should be brilliant.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Happy Feet

Before I headed off on my tour of North Wales (and by the way: thank you for all your comments - it's really appreciated),
there was an important international event: Eurovision.
Don't look at me like that.
As is usual, it was a night for snacks, booze and borderline racist comments.  Joining in the fun was Jamie, who arrived
bearing gifts.  Always a sign of a good guest.
The gifts were courtesy of his partner Chris, a.k.a The Golden Voice of Merseyrail, fresh from his stint doing the
announcements at Aintree during the races.  Top of the list came those magical items: MERSEYRAIL FLIP FLOPS!

This season, the flip flops are coming in black: minimalist and subtle.  The perfectly elegant accompaniment to any outfit.
There's also a little ad for Merseyrail's Facebook page too.  I'd be curious to know how many of the glamorous ladies
attending the races immediately ran home and Liked that page; I'm guessing the numbers ran as high as zero.

There were also a few postcards.  You might remember that I love the new Art on the Network poster, the Art Deco blue
one.  The postcards have been produced to promote the competition, and are little marvels.  First we have the blue railway one:

I love that so much.  In fact, I even e-mailed Merseytravel and asked if they had prints of it for sale.  I never got a
reply but I maintain they could make a tidy sum flogging those in the MtoGo shops and the Travel Centres.  
Anyway.  The second image, in the same style, is themed around the ferries:

Love.  It.  You can't tell me that the Ferry Terminal shop wouldn't be able to shift a few prints of that?

The bus one is less successful.  I like the green but I'm not sure it gels in the same way the other two do.  It's still pretty
gorgeous though.
They're really great.  Many many thanks to Jamie and Chris for the pressies, and many thanks to Merseytravel for
producing them.  Budding artists: don't forget you can still enter the Art on the Network competition here.
As for Eurovision, at least we weren't humiliated this year.  The winner was pretty unmemorable though; I couldn't
remember which one it was until they played it again at the end.  Ah well.  Next year in Baku...

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Day Four: Down and Out

***apologies if there are issues with this post for Firefox users; due to an error with Blogo I had to post it using Blogger's own editor, and it seems to have created layout problems for Mozilla's browser.  IE9 and Safari both work!***

Seriously Colwyn Bay: what the hell?
It was bad enough the night before when there was almost nowhere to
eat dinner with utensils. As it turned out, nowhere in the town centre opened for
breakfast either. Does no-one need a swift cup of coffee before work? Are there
no people in need of a shot of grease to set them up for the day? Even the
Wetherspoons, which promised a huge breakfast on the menu outside, didn't
open until nine. If you're eating breakfast at nine, you don't care any more: the
day is yours. You may as well have a bacon barm at 11am.
Fortunately the Bf, and more pertinently, the Prius, were still with me, so
he whisked me out of town to a McDonalds where I could fill my face with bacon
and use the wi-fi. I have to give kudos to McDonalds for that - free, uninterrupted
wi-fi, with no password, for as long as you're inside. That's better than the likes
of Starbucks or Caffe Nero, who charge you, or a thousand other places, that don't
even give you wi-fi in the first place. It's worth clotting your arteries if it means
you can have a swift look at the local talent on Grindr.
The other advantage of the Bf's presence was he could drop me off at
Abergele & Pensarn station. If he hadn't turned up I was going to walk along the
coast from Colwyn Bay (with a theoretical breakfast inside me). This was the only
point of the entire trip that I had been anxious about. The Ordnance Survey map
showed a cycle path, but not a footpath; obviously where one goes, the other
almost inevitably follows, but it wasn't a certainty. What's more, the cycleway
seemed to skate dangerously close to the water at times - I had visions of being
trapped on a ledge above the tide, with nowhere to go.

In the pantheon of tragically abandoned railway stations of the North Wales Coast Line,
Abergele & Pensarn wins the prize for "saddest station building". Everything pointed to
the lovely station house.  The approach road and the car park were outside. The station
sign was outside. It looked great. But it was boarded up, locked and abandoned.
Dammit, can't they at least put a flat in it? Just in the upstairs? Just to give some
life to the area?

It's a shame, because the station's in a beautiful spot; right on the coast, with the sound of the sea hitting the beach audible from the platform. You could walk off the train and into the water within a minute. You'd probably have to pause to get undressed first: I doubt Arriva Trains Wales would approve of you sitting around in your Speedos.

I'd been looking forward to Rhyl. Miserable, down at heel seaside resorts are a secret passion of mine. I like there to be a grim air of seediness beneath the roller coaster; a mix of teenage runaways, fag-toting landladies and enormous women with tattoos telling Bethany-Louise to get off that fucking ride because I'm saving my five pences for the bingo.

Rhyl is also blessed with a big, proper train station that's clearly had a load of regeneration money thrown at it. For starters, it has some of the widest platforms I have ever seen - they've clearly filled in the old trackbed with concrete, so as you step off the train you feel sort of small and alone.

There's a red phone box, and painted ironwork on the overbridge. I'm afraid to say that it was only at this point I realised why green, red and white was so popular for station colours in Wales. In my defence, the Colour Tsars are so busy all over Merseyrail, I'm just baffled by anything not being yellow and grey.
The ticket hall was gorgeous. Not only did it have staff, ticket gates, and somewhere to buy things - no really - but it also had elegant green tiling, and a real sense of money well spent. See, Arriva Trains Wales? It's not too hard to do.

It failed only on one, essential criteria: nowhere is there a sign saying "Rhyl station". Judging by the pins on the porte-cochere, there used to be one, but it fell off at some point and no-one's bothered replacing it.

This left me with a quandry. I needed a photo of me with the station sign - I just had to have it. But what do I do if there isn't a station sign? Normally I'd have to trot back in and use the platform signs, but in this case, I'd already passed through the ticket gates: if I wanted to go back in, I'd have to explain it to the guards, and then again when I came back two seconds later without boarding a train. I was already cringing with embarrassment.

I walked round the building, and finally found a little side entrance,
with a forgotten sign. That'll do!

My first glimpse of Rhyl proper was disappointingly classy: an old Carnegie Library, with beautiful stonework and a tower. Where was the neon? Where was the faded grandeur? That was just plain grand.

Fortunately, the town centre was far more eclectic. It was a pedestrianised precinct, full of pound shops and hairdressers and cafes. It looked like any number of low-class towns in the UK, except, every fourth store was covered in buckets, spades and inflatables, and there was a much higher incidence of bare upper arms in the shoppers than you'd usually expect.

Eventually I found my way to the front itself, and to the real target of my affections:
an arcade. When I was growing up, an arcade was the only reason to go to the
seaside. I mean that sincerely. Why spend your day sprawled on the beach when
you could be inside, pumping fifty pences into OutRun or Operation Wolf?

To kids like me and my brother, back in the 1980s, the seaside arcade was a hallowed place. It was where you could see games with more than one colour onscreen at the same time, where there was digitised speech, where you could see - whisper it - parallax scrolling. There were cabinets you could sit in to drive, cabinets with guns to shoot, cabinets with ridiculously over-ambitious painting on the side to seduce you into splashing your pennies on it.
My brother and I loved the arcades. We had a day trip to Brighton once, and 50% of it was spent in the arcades, while the other 50% was spent asking when we were going to the arcades. Each one seemed seductive - we could walk out of one and into the one next door, just on the off chance that it had some new, amazing game we'd never seen before.
Remember, we had Spectrums at home; anything without a tape deck was exciting. Gauntlet on a portable tv was one thing, but in an arcade Valkyrie and Elf were quite clearly different creatures, and not just the same sprite in either blue or green. For everyone of my generation, the arcade was a glimpse of the future: we knew we'd be getting boiled down, stripped back versions of these games in a few months for our own home computers. This gave us the chance to see them in their original, unadulterated form. (There was a boy at school who claimed to have a Neo-Geo, which was like an arcade machine for your home, but we treated him with the contempt he deserved).

There's no appeal in the arcade games now. No-one wants to pay to play a game, standing up in the middle of a resort, when they have a game that's just as entertaining on their phone. You can't pay 50p and get an experience as thrilling and in-depth as Grand Theft Auto, and you can't stay in there long enough to get every nuance. Gaming has moved on, and left the old arcades behind. The only machines left were for show-offs - Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution, and even they were rarities. If you played OutRun, you locked yourself into that cabinet and played alone, without an audience. Just you and the machine.

What was left were fruit machines and penny pusher games. I changed 50p into two pence pieces and spent a merry quarter of an hour shoving them into the machines, watching them dance down the back before mixing in with the other coppers and just sitting there. I loved these games too as a kid, but it was harder to justify putting your money into them - next to Sega's blinking, shouting, bleeping machines they looked distinctly old hat. Now they were the main attraction. They all had bizarrely old school names - I spotted a "Disco Inferno" next to a "Rio Carnival" but they were all the basic stick your two pence in and see if you get anything back. I was sure they used to come in different denominations - ten pences and pennies - but maybe that's a trick of my memory. Certainly my skills haven't improved. I got a few cascades of coins, which I chucked back in again, but none of the prizes. I suspect that the Japanese earthquake wouldn't have dislodged them.
With my fifty pence gone, I went back into the sunshine, knowing secretly that I could have happily spent the whole day in there, funnelling coins away. I had a pocket full of change jangling beside me - I needed to get away before I started selling my body for one more go.

Across the street was the prom, which in Rhyl is made of sand-coloured stone, undulating back and forth. Its various bridges and steps and seats mean that you can't actually see the sea from the town, which seems a bit odd, but I could see its appeal on a windy rainy day. There was an aquarium, and a circular space which was clearly the 21st equivalent of a band stand.
Sadly, none of the kiosks were open. I'd wanted some candy floss, or a toffee apple, or some rock. It was ten in the morning; does North Wales have its own time zone or something? Breakfast happens after nine and tourist spots open after twelve.

Strangely, the new yellow-stone development wasn't anywhere near as charming as the tin roofed Bright Spot Arcade. Its newness and determined blandness reminded me of nothing except a Tesco Superstore, or a recently pedestrianised town centre.

This is blatant hypocrisy on my part, of course. I wouldn't go on a holiday to Rhyl, at all, ever, and I definitely wouldn't go if it all smelt of damp and the prom was covered in rust and dog muck. Seedy charm is all very well if you want to come and stand to one side and then get the hell out again. The people who do come here for holidays want good clean fun, with their kids, and they don't want broken glass and homeless people fighting. They want it to shine and be there for them when the sun decides to make one of its rare appearances.
I finally managed to uncover the shore by following a group of day care workers taking their charges out for some sea air. Three women, each with a triple buggy - I dread to think how many Pampers they had stowed away. They were happily gossiping as I overtook them to follow the coastal path behind the Sun Centre.

If you've never been to Rhyl, and so you're not sure what to expect from the Sun Centre, you need to imagine a B&Q Supercentre, painted yellow, with a sign featuring a font not seen since Cheggers Played Pop. Hollow out the inside and fill it with water, then overcharge the public because you're the only place within a square mile that's ok to be inside while it rains. It's so ugly, it makes you wonder if the Council just had a load of corrugated iron left over from roofing some allotment sheds and decided to make a swimming pool out of it.

From here to Prestatyn there's a long concrete promenade, following the sea wall and curving round.  The road drops away into the distance and you're left on a pedestrian and cycle route. I had the sun beating down on me and the noise of the sea. The path was empty except for the occasional dog walker or cyclist.

And yet... I quickly found myself plunging down into a little hole of depression.

I try to keep this blog jolly and happy and light. I don't post when I'm feeling down. I keep quiet about low days. I feel like telling everyone about it is kind of self-indulgent. So I apologise for this whole bit - you can skip it if you want. Go to the point under the next photo. I won't feel insulted.
The thing about depression is it's always there. It's like having fuzzy edges round your vision; surrounding everything you see. Sometimes it's just a little haze, but sometimes it swirls down over everything and colours your vision.
That's what happened between Rhyl and Prestatyn. I fell into that hole. I'm guessing it was a combination of my weariness, thanks to the last few days' walking, and the loneliness of the spot. I just felt ridiculously depressed, and alone, and horrible. I hated myself and everything about that walk. I fell onto a bench and just stared at the ground.
I probably would have stayed there for hours. Fortunately, in addition to suffering from depression, I have an obsessive compulsive disorder. The two mental illnesses had a little tussle inside me, and the OCD dragged my arse up and out of the seat. Because, dammit, there were two. Stations. Left. That was it. Two stations and it was complete.

With heavy legs and my forehead lightly toasting in the sun (if you look at the photos over the course of this trip, you can see me turning a nice shade of pink) I pushed on into Prestatyn: the town where people go to die.

The Bf's mum used to live in Prestatyn. (She now lives in the flat below ours. I know, I know. Don't get me started). I've been there a few times, and what's always struck me is how low it all is. Not just its position on the coast, between the sea and the mountains, but also its architecture: long straight avenues lined with bungalows. Nice single storey buildings for all the pensioners to hole up in. Each house was the same. No grass in the front lawn (too hard to maintain), just a load of gravel with a thousand pieces of garden centre tat positioned all over it. If you think gnomes are a bit declasse, you should see some of the horrors perpetrated in Prestatyn's front yards. Each house had a glass porch on the front, with a couple of wicker chairs, so that the occupiers could sit and stare out the window and wait to die. If I hadn't been depressed before, I would be after all that.

Prestatyn station was undergoing some major, major redevelopment. The single island platform was surrounded by a mass of ironwork and glass and scaffolding. Disability Discrimination Act works mean that an enormous ramp was rising up to a new lift shaft.

I understand that access for all is extremely important, but that is one ugly ramp. It makes Aintree's twisting mess look positively understated. Is this all necessary?

Down on the platform, there were already a few people waiting for the train. There was a highly excited father with his little boy in a pushchair, getting him overstimulated at the prospect of a train arriving soon. There was also an enormous woman with two teenage daughters, proudly telling another woman that her fourteen year old daughter was so mature looking she regularly got served in pubs because they think she's over eighteen. Nice.

All the works meant I had to settle for a platform sign:

Onto my last Arriva Trains Wales service. On the whole I can't really complain about them. There's that horrible blue, of course, and some of the guards had been less than pleased when I'd made a request for them to stop, but they were on time and mostly clean. Some of the trains were stupidly small for the routes, and ended up being rammed, but it wasn't too bad. Perhaps Deutsche Bahn are having a positive influence on them.

The next station was Flint or, to give it its full Welsh name, Fflint. And with that extra F Fflint wins the prize for Most Annoying Use of A Consonant. Are there really Welsh people looking at "Flint" and thinking, "How do you pronounce that? It makes no sense."
The Bf lived in Flint for many years, and one of his best friends still lives there, so I'm not unfamiliar with it. I don't remember seeing a giant disembodied foot on any of my previous visits, however.

Called Footplate, by Brian Fell, it is a "tribute to all forms of transport", with the foot filled with cogs.  It's a bit weird, if I'm honest, but still nice to see.

It's nice that Flint was my last station because it's a delight. Really. It's well maintained, nicely painted. It's a good building, appealing to my OCD with its symmetry.

The ticket hall includes photos of the station and trains from days past in its clean, well appointed waiting area:

Lovely stuff. A plaque commemorates the work, and it's well deserved. Kudos Flint.

As a tribute to the combination of England and Wales over the last week, I took my photo in front of both station signs. Flint and Y Fflint, one country and another.

Are you sitting there saying "but wait! He hasn't been to Shotton! That's the last station between Flint and Chester!" Well, actually I went there two years ago, as part of the Borderlands Line.

I did think about carrying on. I thought about walking along the coast, but it's not a pretty route, and it gets decidedly dodgy around the steelworks - there's no paths marked on the OS map, and I didn't fancy trotting along the side of the A55. I considered getting a bus to Shotton, but then I thought - sod it. I was having a bad day. You could hardly say I was slacking off.
So I went for a pint.

This was actually a bit of a mistake, because the pub I went to was one of the scabbiest, most low rent pubs I have ever been in. I walked in past a haggard old man sucking on a fag in the doorway; he followed me in because, as it turned out, he was the barman. He poured me a pint with disdain - how dare I interrupt his ciggie time? - and I took up position on one of the threadbare benches with a view of Bargain Hunt on the tv.

Still, it gave me time to sit and think. My journey was practically over. All those miles and all those trains. All that walking and riding. It was all done.
I loved it. At the time, sat in the pub, I was glad it was over, but that was more to do with my depressive state of mind. Now, a couple of weeks later, I've got nothing but good memories. It did what I'd originally set out to find when I looked at the Merseyrail map: it gave colour to the names, an added dimension. Those little ticks on the map now have memories and pictures attached to them.
Sixteen gorsafoedd (stations): Holyhead, Valley, Rhosneigr, Ty-Croes, Bodorgan, Bangor, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Llanfairfechan, Penmaenmawr, Conwy, Llandudno Junction, Colwyn Bay, Abergele & Pensarn, Rhyl, Prestatyn and Flint.

That's a lot. And I'm pleased I did it. It feels like a great achievement, and I get a real sense of satisfaction. Of course the question is: where next? (Just don't tell the Bf).
Finally I got the train to Chester, a Virgin Super Voyager. Trek geek that I am, I always think of Janeway and her crew of annoying idiots whenever I see that name. It's always a slight disappointment that Neelix isn't manning the shop. I clambered up and over the bridge at Chester to platform 7b.
There was something pleasingly right about finishing my journey here, on a Merseyrail train. I'd started this whole blog because I had an all areas Railpass to get to work in Chester, and I realised I could get my money's worth out of it. I'd spent months and months on that platform. And now it was time to go home.

Bear With... Bear With...

For anyone eagerly awaiting the final instalment of my Wales trip, it has been written.  Unfortunately my blogging software and Blogger seem to be arguing, so I can't upload it.  It is on its way as soon as I work out what's wrong...