Tuesday, 4 October 2011

End of the Line

It has recently been brought to my attention that this blog may have lost its way.

A certain red-headed Scouser pointed out that this blog started out as me and a map and not much more.  Now, four years later, it's transformed itself into a one-man trans-continental odyssey.  With gratuitous Russell Tovey and James Bond references.  And knob gags.  Lots and lots of knob gags.

I'd been feeling a bit guilty about it myself, so I took the opportunity of a meet up with my friend Jennie and her lovely daughter Joy to do some Merseyrail stations.  And proper, traditional, back to basics Merseyrail.  I was going to finish off the Northern Line*.

Birkdale's the penultimate station, and despite the name, it isn't convenient for the Royal Birkdale Golf Club, which I love.  More places that confuse American visitors, please.

It turned out to be a very sweet little slice of Victoriana; a nicely preserved 19th Century relic that's clearly had some care and attention devoted to it.  The glass and brickwork were clean and the ironwork was freshly painted.

There's also a newly inaugurated waiting room on the platform.  I'm really pleased that Merseyrail has brought back the waiting room over the past few years.  There was a time when they were sealed off and bricked up, presumably to stop smack heads and alkies from using them for nefarious purposes, but most of them have now been opened up and restored.  The Birkdale one also has pictures of the station in Victorian days, which is a nice touch.

At the village end of the station is a level crossing.  This end of the Northern Line is full of them, which must be a nightmare.  Trains every fifteen minutes in both directions pass through these level crossings, closing off roads on a regular basis.  How annoying.

As a way of getting round this regular closure, an underpass has been constructed for pedestrians.

It's a strangely evocative little passageway, with the high windows keeping it well lit and the multiple exits (two for the platforms, two for the street) giving it a unique feel.  

The Colour Tsars haven't held back.

I took my usual up the nose shot, much to the consternation of a nearby florist.  I apologise in advance for my rough appearance.  I've been ill the past week or so, and haven't shaved; I woke up too late that morning to be able to do it.  Hence the Bushman of Borneo look.

It's a very sweet little village, Birkdale, busy and thriving.  And rich.  Incredibly rich.  As I walked towards the coast I passed villas and detached houses with neatly trimmed lawns and hedges.  Between them were blocks of discreet flats, set back from the road.  It was quietly, impressively moneyed.  Even if some of the houses looked like British versions of Norman Bates' house.

As I got closer to the beaches it became clear that the council had pushed its luck with the dunes a few decades ago, and squeezed a couple more roads of houses in beyond the Victorian homes.  Boring brick homes had been pushed in, completely out of kilter with their forebears.

There are quicker ways to get from Birkdale to Southport town centre, but I wanted to follow the Coastal Road.  Firstly, because it's far prettier.  Secondly, it's a former railway.  There used to be a line from Liverpool to Southport via Aintree, snaking its way through the countryside in elongated curves and ending with a route through the dunes.  It sounds impossibly scenic, and it probably was, especially back in the 19th Century.  If you wanted to get from Liverpool to Southport though, the route from Exchange to Southport Chapel Street was a dead straight line.  The coastal route lasted until the 1950s, but it was never overburdened with passengers, and few mourned its loss.

The route of the railway became the Coastal Road, a bypass into the centre of town which avoids the suburbs, but still never gets too busy.  Southport's recently made a push as a cycling town, with specially laid out routes around the town and plenty of separated cycle lanes.

I was on the Shrimp Route, apparently.  Not quite sure how I feel about that.

It was October the 3rd, and Britain was having a bizarre heatwave.  There's something very unseemly about hot weather in Autumn.  A pleasing warmth, fine, but actual, sweat inducing heat?  I want the leaves to fall into wet piles, and a cold wind to whisk inward from the sea.  Instead I was walking along in a short sleeved shirt, staring out at the beautiful expanse of Southport's coast.

I formed a theory about the residents of Merseyside en route.  I think they're perpetuating a giant con.  I think, a few years ago, they started spreading rumours about them being thieves and scallies.  They went round telling people that you shouldn't visit Liverpool if you want to keep your hubcaps, and that the streets were crawling with gangs and thugs.

They did all this to stop people visiting, because they wanted to keep the city to themselves.  They didn't want people to know about how wonderful Liverpool was, about its theatres and museums and pubs and shops, about the friendly locals and effective transport.  They definitely didn't want people to know about the miles and miles of open sea front, long quiet sandy beaches and peaceful dunes.  They want to keep all this a secret, and I don't blame them.  It's wonderful, and once again I thought how lucky I was to live here.

Southport hides from the coast, so it comes as a bit of a surprise to find it appearing in front of you.  There was an interesting bit of sculpture, blowing in the wind, which on closer examination turns out to be a marker for the end of the Trans-Pennine Cycle Route.  It was a bit of a thrill, being at the end of the route.  On the other side of the country, near Hull, there's another of these markers; I imagined the excitement of seeing both of them at opposite ends of a journey.

Take the road inland, past the Moroccan fantasy of the Casablanca club and the closed up Pleasureland, and you come to a Morrison's supermarket.  When the CLC railway line closed in the Fifties, they turned the old station building into a bus terminus, pulling up the platforms but leaving the rest of the building intact.  It was all in a bit of a state though, and Morrison's turned up and bought the land for one of their faux-Victorian supermarkets.

On the plus side, they saved the frontage of the old Southport Lord Street station, and for a while it was an office development.  Now it's empty, and only gets use as a cut-through to the supermarket.

There's still an impressive clock tower on the street, though of course the clock doesn't work.  A board promises a luxury hotel development "to be completed in 2008"; in the real world, the developers went bust and a plan to turn it into a two-star Holiday Inn Express was approved last year.  A bit of a sad end for a pleasing railway building.

I like Southport.  It's a very easy town to walk round, with its wide boulevard through the centre and its ornate arcades.  It's classy enough to maintain a good level of shops and restaurants, but also has that pleasingly tacky underside that all good seaside resorts should have.  It's not at Blackpool levels - heaven forbid - but there are still gaudily lit arcades and cheap bars in amongst the tea rooms and boutiques.

It has a gentility and a slight prissiness which stops it from being the Brighton of the North (and it's not nearly as gay), but it's hard not to be charmed as you take in its attractions.  The park is well laid out and has a sweet little miniature railway, there's a carousel on the front, and the war memorial is one of the finest in the country.

I met up with Jennie, and we took a stroll along the pier.  When we first met, fifteen years ago, Southport meant one thing for us: Manhattan's, the incredibly dodgy club Edge Hill students used to travel to on a Monday night for random hook-ups and cheap beer.  The first time I went I was given a free bottle of Diamond White just for walking through the door.  Jennie was always a more committed Manhattanite, but I still went now and then, pogo-ing in the "Indie Room" to Britpop classics.  I once copped off with a lad in there, which, given the rampant heterosexuality of the place, I count as a personal triumph, and one of my favourite memories of my student life is the whole Indie Room swaying and singing along to Don't Look Back In Anger, our arms linked, our voices hoarse, convinced this was the greatest time of our lives.  Maybe it was.

Of course, now Jennie and I are in our mid-thirties, and she was pushing her second child in its pram, and I was carrying about five extra stone.  Manhattan's is empty now, with a sign on the outside appealing for developers.  We always have a moment of silent tribute when we pass though.

The winds didn't seem to have got the Indian Summer memo, and were curling across the wide beach in increasing force.  We struggled down the pier, with Jennie clutching Joy's pram tightly in case she took off.  I stopped to take a picture of the pier tram, which amused her enormously.  We might even have travelled on it if it was a bit more frequent than once every half hour.

Lottery money has meant that there's now a glass pavilion at the end of the pier, with Victorian penny arcade machines in one half and a cafe in the other.  I got a cup of tea while Jennie fed Joy her bottle.  The sun was amplified inside, turning it into a bit of a greenhouse; God only knows what it's like in August.

As you can tell, she loves having her picture taken.  But isn't Joy sweet?

We spent the rest of the afternoon haunting the town's coffee shops and bookstores (incidentally, Esquires has an extremely hot barista) before it was time to head back to the station to get our trains home.  This meant, of course, that I had to collect the station sign, and Southport's got perhaps the biggest sign on the network.

It'd have to be a beast, because the station is squirrelled away behind a shopping arcade.  Look at the size of it though.  Just the Merseyrail M is bigger than me:

The station was revamped in 2007 and has been greatly improved.  What was once a dank underlit building, like walking into a concrete bunker, has been transformed and prettified.  There's one of the earliest MtoGo's here, and one of the biggest: Southport gets city centre levels of traffic.

It's also got automatic ticket gates fitted, and I was pleased to see pensioners happily swiping their travel passes on the yellow pads to get through.  It bodes well for the Walrus.  The only person who had a problem with it was a girl in her twenties who couldn't work out you have to put your ticket in the slot to get through.  Sometimes I worry for the future of our nation.

Beyond, the glass roof has been cleaned and opened up, the signage improved, and the nasty ultraviolet lights have been pulled out of the toilet.  There were 13 platforms at Southport until Beeching, back when it was called Southport Chapel Street, but now there are only six: the old platform space has been turned into a car park.  As part of that Southport Cycling Town project, they've put in a cycle hire and maintenance unit, with plenty of parking and space for your cycle helmets.  It looked like it was pretty well used too.

It feels like a proper terminus, Southport, even though there are only two lines going into it.  It feels like a hub.  The only negative is there's no ALF.  There used to be, before the revamp: it was blue and had a roller coaster on it.  Instead there are now signs welcoming you to England's Classic Resort.  All very nice for the tourist board I'm sure but it's not an ALF, so I have no time for it.  I refused point blank to take a picture for this blog.  You have to make a stand sometimes.

*Halfway through writing this up I realised I still haven't done Liverpool Central.  So the Northern Line remains unfinished.  Which I'm actually sneakily pleased about.


Robert said...

A certain red-headed Scouser pointed out that this blog started out as me and a map and not much more.

I think you should leave Sonia out of this.

Ian Jones said...

I was actually up near Hull the other week and happened to visit that very marker. I say "actually" as if this information is of any great significance. Which it isn't.

Southport's ace, though.

gottago said...

Please don't ever use a title like that again. My face dropped when I saw that and thought you were giving it all up!

Gareth said...

Funnily enough, I was in Southport that very same day with the girlfriend. We were going to go the beach as the weather was nice & summery but it changed to being drizzly as soon as we got there. Also, the wind was horrendous. We almost couldn't stand on the pier.

We also considered the tram but it left just as we were getting to the end of the pier (with no one on it) and we couldn't be bothered waiting half an hour, nor paying £1.50 for such a short journey - we'd bought our all-zone saveaways so what more did they want?

Anyway, we just went to that pub on the promenade which claimes to be the smallest in Britain and then to the Spoons on Lord Street and then headed back to civilization.

All in all, it was a decent day, despite not being the type of day we planned.

Anonymous said...

Great to see that you're getting "back-to-basics". I do hope you will revisit your tarts once you've collected them all. Afterall, there have been many improvements and changes to the stations over the past couple of years; Besides which, I would miss reading your amusing and insightful commentary.

PLS said...

Geez, I really enjoy this blog. That you.