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 Mรถbius 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.