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.
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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...