Saturday 21 January 2012

The Rakes: Progress

It started with a kettle.

The BF's mum - who lives in the flat below ours and, in a hilarious twist, doesn't realise her son is gay - broke her kettle.  He walked in one morning to find it billowing steam like Puffing Billy.  Since she's elderly, we headed to our nearest retail behemoth to get her a replacement.

The Currys at Bromborough is roughly the size of Andorra, and features enough electronics options to get a gadget freak like me drooling.  After fondling the DSLRs and coveting an iPhone, we bought a kettle and headed into the car park.

"Do you know what?" I said to the BF.  "I'm not coming home."

"Ever?" he said, with what I hope wasn't glee.

"I'm going to do some stations."

It's been a while.  Not for lack of desire.  I nearly went out a couple of times last week, heading for Acton Bridge, but they were miserable mornings and so the prospect of getting an 8am train just didn't appeal.  Here I was though, in Bromborough, with an uncollected station just a few minutes walk away.  I couldn't resist.

It's more than a few minutes walk, actually.  First you have to trek across the soulless plains of the retail park, then cross the A41, just to get to Bromborough village itself.  It's a dinky little enclave, and surprisingly busy.  In most places the presence of a massive retail park would devastate the local shops, but here they've carved out a niche for the kind of homely, small products you can't get in Bensons for Beds or Comet.  There's Muffs, the award winning butcher with the snigger-worthy name, and real hardware stores, and coffee shops, and locally-owned clothes shops.  The Co-op provided a more ethical alternative to the sprawling Asda across the way.  There was even a 1960s precinct, with a Boots and an Italian restaurant, Roberto's.

It underlined the fact that, no matter how hard the Council tries, the Wirral will never be one entity.  It's not a single body, like a normal city, but a series of tiny towns thrown together through geographical convenience.  Birkenhead's the biggest centre, but if you lived in Bromborough or Wallasey or West Kirby or Heswall you'd have no need to ever visit it.  It'd just be somewhere you passed under on your way to Liverpool.  It makes you realise that the Council should just give up on its attempts to unify the peninsula - like its ridiculous bid for city status back in 2002 - and instead embrace the differences.  Stop with homogenisation and instead show it for what it is - colliding city states, brushing up against one another but never merging.

Oddly, the nearest station to the village centre isn't Bromborough, but Bromborough Rake, at the end of the long straight road of the same name.  It passes through one of those wonderful Council estates.  The ones that were built with true optimism in mind.  They took the lessons from the Garden City Movement and applied it to Corporation housing.

Long straight roads, with grass verges at the roadside, intermingle with symmetrically curved avenues.  Big solid red brick houses with generous gardens overlook communal greens and playgrounds.  Shopping precincts and pubs all provided.  My nan lived on one of these estates her whole life, bringing up children and grandchildren there, and there was always something impressive about the estate's spaciousness.  Plus, if I'm honest, all those symmetrical roads appealed to my OCD.

It's a shame the greens are now blighted by "No Ball Game" signs.  It's incredibly mean-spirited.  A bit like building a fairground then putting up a sign saying "No riding on the roller coaster".  What else are you meant to do on those big expanses of flat turf?  Barbecue?  Go for a perambulation round the edge?  At least teenagers playing football aren't sniffing glue or smashing up bus stops.

Pass a row of shops with half the store fronts shuttered - including the copyright baiting "Sunny D's" - and you reach Bromborough Rake station.  This wasn't an original halt on the line.  It opened when the line to Hooton was electrified in the mid-80s, and it shows.  The building's minimalist to the point of barely existing, just a brown box with a ticket window in it.  You could build it out of Lego and you wouldn't even have to reach for your specialist bricks.

Still, the ticket lady was friendly and jolly, and it served its purpose.

To reach the platforms you head down a long ramp which, on the southbound side, takes the place of what used to be the third and fourth tracks.  These were cut back decades ago and instead you find yourself wandering through mature trees and bushes.  Combined with the woodlands behind the northbound platform, and its position at the foot of a cutting, there's it a surprisingly rural feel.  Not easy when you're metres from a massive housing estate.

One steamy train later (inside I mean - it was electric like all the other trains) and I was at Bromborough station.  This is a vintage Victorian station, though why they built it quite so far from the village centre baffles me.  It's even clearer here that there were once four tracks, as the footbridge looks unbalanced and a bit lost without the third stairway.

It's nice inside though, like Hooton's old footbridge.  Only dry.

The building's a little Victorian gem as well.  It's interesting to note how the attitude to passengers shifted between Bromborough and Bromborough Rake.  Their footprint is more or less the same, the design - a square ticket office with a footbridge - is similar, but at the older station the travellers are sheltered from the rain and wind.  You don't queue in the rain here, and your passage to the platform is warm and clean.

Lovely though it was, Bromborough's best feature was tucked away next to the Photo-Me booth.

A station cat!  A bloody marvellous station cat!  Ok, he wasn't there, but just knowing he exists cheered me immensely.  A little internet research reveals he's a ginger tom called Owen.  Wonderful stuff.  I'm really disappointed I didn't see him, as he seems to be a little star.

I was so excited about the station cat, I completely forgot to take a picture of myself in front of the sign. I had to turn back ten minutes later and come back, even more soaked through, for the snap.

I was walking south, towards Eastham Rake station.  I always knew I'd have to do these three stations as a set.  Their names form a lovely Venn diagram.

This sort of thing pleases me.

Plymyard Avenue was a cut above the Council houses of Bromborough Rake.  These were detached manses, four and five bedrooms of pre-war exclusivity.  It was a stroll through Metro-land, with Tudorbethan houses surrounded by mature hedges and high walls with security gates.

The verges here didn't have signs banning the local kids from games of footie; they didn't need to.  The disapproving stares of the local Marples were a far greater deterrence.

Behind some of the houses, by the railway line, the owners had sold portions of their back lawn to developers.  Tiny closes of orange bricked semis were squeezed in, each with a beach towel sized garden and a square of parking.  In some places the builders had just given in to the size constraints and built a block of flats who could peer down into the back windows of the posh houses on the avenue.

The road began to take a downward slide as I got further and further from the station.  The detached houses became smaller and separated by alleys instead of gardens; they became Modernist seventies cubes instead of period throwbacks.  And sometimes they just couldn't hide the fact they weren't in a very nice place to live.

It was lunchtime, and South Wirral High School was filling the neighbourhood with the smell of school dinners.  I was amazed that it smelt exactly the same as my old school dinner hall.  I never ate there - I went home at lunchtime for a sandwich and to feed the dog - but the whole building reeked of greasy chips and oil.  I thought that in the modern, health-conscious 21st century I'd have been hit by the scent of tuna nicoise and Quorn burgers, but no, it still turned my stomach in exactly the same way it always did.  In a further two fingers to Jamie Oliver, there was a queue of kids outside the chippy in the neighbouring precinct.

I was accompanied by the noise of the motorway now.  The M53 curls round at Eastham, and the houses here nestled in the crook of its elbow.  Combined with the sound of Merseyrail trains, it was like a reminder that people were off out, elsewhere, going places.

On Eastham Rake itself, a plaque memorialised a young girl who'd been run down - a sobering way to end the walk.

Eastham Rake opened in 1995.  It's indirectly responsible for my Merseyrail fascination.  I moved here the same year, and I was impressed to see the map in the trains with Under Construction under its name.  It made me think that Merseyrail was a vibrant network, still developing, still modern.

The station building demonstrates the shift in attitude that had taken place since Bromborough Rake was built.  Merseytravel was re-energised and they built a large, impressive building, with a car park.  It was a real step up from the brick block that passed for a station building in 1985.

And, as you can see, it was a wet dream for the Colour Tsars.

It was a perfect spot for a station.  The motorway was close, allowing for park and ride, and there was a residential population who were unserved by Merseyrail.  The only question was where to site it: the north side of the road would mean the station was behind houses, but if they built it to the south, they'd have to build on a nature reserve, and extremely close to the motorway.

After much negotiation, the northern site won, but the residents insisted on high walls so that they retained their privacy.  Spoilsports.  I love staring in people's houses from the train.

With the grey walls and the strange shelters (only seen here and at Birkenhead Park, I think) Eastham Rake has a unique feel to it.  It's perhaps the most exciting looking station on the Wirral Line; there's a vibrancy to its design, with clean minimalist lines and good facilities.  It's a shame that Merseytravel have lost the momentum with adding new stations on the network; Headbolt Lane and Maghull North have been on the drawing board for years with still no sign of progress.

I plonked myself down in the shelter, glad to get out of the rain, and allowed myself a moment of sadness.  This was the end of the Wirral.  This was the end of everything west of the Mersey, in fact.  Those three stations meant I was almost done with the Merseyrail map.  I've got four stations left now - Leyland, Euxton Balshaw Lane, Acton Bridge and Winsford - plus the four city centre stations.  And that's it.  Not long to go.  Not long until it's all over.

Friday 20 January 2012


"Damn.  The free bus from Chester station to the city centre has finished, but it's printed on every map on the network.  We'll have to reprint all of them with the new info.  Unless you have a suggestion?"

"I've got this magic marker."

"Yeah.  That'll work."

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Bedding Down

It was the end of my Christmas visit home.  Presents packed, stomach stuffed, and I was heading for the station.  Instead of turning south, for the train to London, I went to the northbound platform at Leagrave station.  I was heading into Bedfordshire.

Bedfordshire's sort of a pointless county, really.  It's my home so I'm allowed to say this.  It's tiny.  It's geographically anonymous.  It's not East Anglia, but it's not the Home Counties, but it's not the Midlands.  It's a mix of villages and towns with none of them being especially notable.  And its most famous son is John Bunyan, a man famous for writing a book that people may have heard of but probably haven't read.

It's also deeply divided internally.  Luton occupies the bottom right corner of the county, thrusting at its borders and forever threatening to burst free and swallow more of the land around it.  It's Luton vs Bedfordshire; town vs country, industry vs agriculture, working vs middle class.  Luton sneers at the Bedfordshire countryside for its parochialism and its backwardness, while Bedfordshire patronises Luton for its ugliness and its poverty.

Luton also looks south for its destiny.  Its eyes are very definitely trained on the capital, half an hour away, while Bedfordshire looks around it for solace.  Dunstable would rather work with the tiny country towns of Ampthill and Leighton Buzzard than the grimy industrial Luton, even though the dividing line between the two is blurred beyond all recognition.

This preamble is to explain how this was the first time, ever, I'd stood on that northbound platform, even though I'd lived there for eighteen years.  I'd never been north of Luton, not to visit; I'd always just passed through on a train or a motorway.  This was going to be my first trip into the county of my birth.

The train was one of the new ones. all air conditioning and automated voices.  I was surprised to find that the woman doing the Thameslink voices was the same one who does Merseyrail.  I felt strangely betrayed, like I'd caught her cheating behind my back.

Another reminder of home was the "no feet on the seats" sign -

- or as it's also known, "Please keep feet off the seats - but feel free to rest your enormous penis on them."

My first stop was Harlington, a small commuter village.  The station building was an exact replica of the one at Leagrave - it was as though the Victorians got them all out of a kit, like those McDonalds Drive-ins that come on the back of a lorry.

It still felt appreciably countrysidey, though.  The direct trains to London make this a popular place for City workers but the air smelt of hearthsides and there were fields immediately in view.

Yes, my hair is a disaster.

The village proper was lovely too.  Tiny cottages hunched against the roadside, lovingly restored and whitewashed.  The day was dark and miserable - stuck in that void between Christmas and New Year and sulking - but the twist of a road to show a country church gave me a tiny lift.  The war memorial still had its poppy wreaths, and an old lady carried a single bag of shopping from the village store.  It was homely and pleasant.

A duck down a back alley took me to the newer part of the village, a post-war council estate.  In Luton, the design of cul-de-sacs and tiny alleyways lead to what my mum always called "mugger's paradise".  Here in pastoral Bedfordshire, it just felt homely and sweet.  The houses were accompanied by generous greens and no-one had paved over their lawns for driveways.

I wonder how many of those are still council houses though, and how many are now private homes, owned by commuters.  Good social housing that's now a bolthole for weekends away from the office.

By the surprisingly enormous Harlington Upper School I took a left turn, onto a pathway that ran alongside the sports pitches.  From here on I was heading across country towards Flitwick, the next station on the Thameslink line.  I could hear the Midland Main Line trains whizzing through on their way to Leeds or Sheffield every few minutes as I climbed the hill, but that was the only sound: most people were sensibly inside watching the telly and scoffing Quality Street.

I was following the John Bunyan Trail, a tribute to the County's most famous son and tracking places associated with him or The Pilgrim's Progress.  The geography in the novel is roughly allied to the geography of Bedfordshire, so it's possible to follow the journey - if you want to.  I have to be honest, I've never read it, and given that it sounds like the most obvious religious allegory ever written (the main character is called Christian, for goodness' sake) I doubt I ever will.  (I have read The Land of Far-Beyond, Enid Blyton's version of the story though).  Until they instigate the David Arnold Trail, it'll have to do.

The second warmest year on record meant the fields weren't too bad, but I was still getting mud splattered up against my jeans as I walked.  In most places it was just a little squidgy, but now and then it turned into thick grey clay that sucked at my boots and made my footsteps into tiny pools.  I staggered on through empty fallow countryside, or fields with green tops showing, before I came across a real surprise: straw.

A sudden golden horizon in a sepia day.  Straw-plaiting has a long history in the county (note the bushel of straw on the Harlington sign above), particularly in Luton, where straw hats were a massive industry.  Obviously, fashions changed, and now the only Hatters you find in the town are the football club.  I was surprised to see that there was still straw being grown, but tiny signs round the edge of the field said this was for an agricultural feed company.  I was pleased there was still a bit of farming tradition still ongoing.

I hadn't realised it but I'd wandered off the Bunyan Trail.  I was using an OS map (the BF bought me a subscription to their Get-a-Map service for Christmas) but I couldn't quite get my bearings - there seemed to be too many copses in reality, like someone had snuck in and planted more trees while the Ordnance Survey weren't looking.

It only became clear that I'd taken a wrong turn when I found myself in front of an old empty barn.

The barn was clearly used as a "base" by some local kids, but it had a maudlin, abandoned air to it; there weren't the expected empty cans of cheap beer and cider.  The walls were covered with graffiti but it wasn't the usual massive genitals and obscenities.  Instead there were tributes to someone called SUV, who had died.  I don't know who he was, or how he died, but it was clear from the walls that he was loved.

A scramble through a hedge, a death-defying leap over a ditch, and I was back on track (hoho) and following the railway line towards Westoning.

Westoning's about as ordinary a village as you can possibly get: its only features of interest were a road called The Pyghite (where did that come from?) and a clock tower built for Queen Victoria's Jubilee.  The tower had become a one-stop shop for all the village's notices, with signs about Bedfordshire in Bloom, the restorers, the history of the village and a Christmas decoration all slapped on the side.  It made it look a bit messy.

From Westoning I headed to Flitwick (pronounced Flit-ick, proving that Scousers don't have a monopoly on confusing place names).  It has always been paired with Ampthill, its near neighbour; while Ampthill is larger and more important, Flitwick got the railway station, which I'm sure always annoys them.  Similarly, only a last minute decision sent the main line from St Pancras through Luton, instead of its more historic neighbour Dunstable; now they're dwarfed by their neighbour and one of the largest towns in Britain without its own station.

Flitwick's lost what charm it had, buried under three-bedroom Tudorbethan semis and road improvements.  The station's in the centre of town but what really draws your attention are the car parks and the Tesco superstore.  There's no simple country life here.

I was lucky - there was a train to Bedford due in only a couple of minutes.  The station's got four platforms, and another Victorian building from exactly the same multipack as Leagrave and Harlington.  Everything's in purple and pink, which is all very "hey, we're modern!" but not exactly pleasing on the eye.

Bedford - the end of the Thameslink line, the County town (when there was a county council), and another town I'd never been to.  The us vs them between Luton and Bedford was perhaps the most violent, Bedford sniffy of this upstart town that had claimed all the jobs and people, Luton resentful of the smaller town having such sway over its life (Luton only recently gained administrative independence from the rest of the county; before that there was a period of just nine years where it was responsible for its own services).  I grew up thinking of the town as a sort of Cambridge on the Ouse, a historic town with ancient buildings, a perception coloured by visits to my mum's home town of Hertford.  That was another county town which was overshadowed by its larger, more famous neighbours.

But you know what?  Bedford's awful.  I had a little wander round, and it was an uninspired, colourless town - it was so generic it was embarrassing.  I could have been anywhere in the country.

And the railway station is horrible.  Just plain horrible.

I'd expected a Victorian terminus, but what I got instead was a brown glass box with a car park in front.  It dates from the 1970s and, oh boy, does it look it.  I'd always had a chip on my shoulder about Luton station's awfulness, thinking Bedford must beat it into a cocked hat, but no: this was equally awful, just in a different way.

Inside it was like being in a beer bottle.  The low roof was dark and uninviting, the steelwork made it feel unfinished, and the Pumpkin cafe and ticket barriers had been inserted inelegantly.  It was just a horrible mess of a station.

I didn't stay long; I had to get home (properly home, to Merseyside).  I have to admit that I felt a bit better about Bedfordshire now.  Not that it had impressed me, or seduced me, or made me think it was a wonderful place.  I felt better because now I knew it was just as rubbish as I thought it was.  All those years of never venturing north and imagining a House Beautiful beyond Luton's boundaries - nonsense.  The rest of the County was just as boring and drab as the my home town.

No wonder I left.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Mommie Dearest

Christmas means families.  Christmas means me hoisting my tired bones onto a Pendolino and heading south for a few days with my mum.  Christmas means eating far too many of her prawn cocktail vol au vents and vegetating in front of Freeview (she doesn't have Sky, Virgin, or even the internet; it's like travelling back to 1996 every time I visit).

This year though, in an effort to be active and a bit more interesting, I suggested a day trip to London.  Not for the sales, of course - I'm not insane - but just to have a wander round.  My mum very rarely heads into the city, even though it's a thirty minute train journey away, so I thought it would be interesting for her.

Plus, because I am at heart a selfish bastard and a heartless son, I wanted to look at some train stations.

We got a Thameslink train into the city.  It's called First Capital Connect (Thameslink route) now, but I'm a traditionalist, and I still call it Thameslink.  The presence of West Hampstead Thameslink and City Thameslink stations hints that maybe everyone else still does as well.  The train was a loud, rickety thing, redone in the FCC colours but clearly one of the original trains from when the route was opened in the Eighties.  It was full of people, noisily excited in that post-Christmas, "we're still on holiday!" way.  There was a woman on the train who my mum chatted to for ten minutes, before turning to me and saying, "You know who that was, don't you?"  Of course I didn't.  It turned out it was the daughter of her old next door neighbours, who moved away from home about twenty years ago.  She was surprised I didn't recognise her.

I craned my neck to get a look at the new ticket office for West Hampstead Thameslink, but from this angle it looked like just another box.  The new footbridge looked impressive though, and there were workers on the lifts, even in the holiday period.  South, through St Pancras International, and then through the remains of King's Cross Thameslink.  Its platforms were still there, with their none-more-80s fake marble treatments and their bright red seats, but now signs saying "DO NOT ALIGHT HERE" have been stuck all over the place.

Fat chance - the train barely pauses as it carries on into Farringdon.  One day this will be a massive interchange, the point where Thameslink passes over Crossrail and interacts with the Underground, but for now it's just a building site.  There was a little hint of the future in a new exit to a new ticket hall at one end of the platform, but that seemed to be it for the time being.  Still, they've got another six years or so.  No rush.

At the end of the platform was a polite notice in a serif font: Drivers!  Do not forget to drop your pantograph!, which sounds like a line from a Carry On film.  It's actually a reminder that Thameslink uses two different kinds of electrical power - overhead lines from Farringdon north, and third rail from Blackfriars south. The crossover point is City Thameslink between the two, where the pause is always a little bit longer so they can make sure they're properly keyed into the new power source.  Pay attention, because this could be the future for Merseyrail - it's the cheapest way to bring the Borderlands Line into the network.

And then we're at Blackfriars, and it's time to get off.  This was what I really wanted to see - London's latest expanded station.  What was once a dowdy station is being demolished, rebuilt and extended beyond belief.  Now the trains stop in the centre of Blackfriars Bridge itself, and exits are positioned at either end.  The old northern entrance is being buried under a new office development, while to the south, a brand new ticket hall has been opened on the South Bank itself.  Above us, metal struts were being installed across the length of the platform.  These will eventually hold the glass roof to protect you from the elements, and also, enough photo-voltaic cells to provide half the station's electricity.  For the time being, it felt enclosed and a bit tight, not helped by our view over the river being obscured by blue hoardings.  It's still very much a work in progress (the Tube station is still closed).

We headed out onto the South Bank via an array of stairs (there are two lifts, but the one from the mezzanine down to the ground wasn't working).  At the foot was a proper ticket office, which was a nice surprise.  With TfL closing down ticket offices across London, it was nice to find that this one was built with space for ticket men and women.  The barriers were open though, and a construction worker was loitering beyond.

I got my mum to take the picture outside the station.  She had no idea why, struggled with operating the digital camera, and managed to take a photo of the pavement before she got this shot:

I hadn't realised how close the new station entrance was to the Tate Modern.  A brief stroll down the river and there it is.  Strangely, after twenty odd years, this could be the development that opens up Thameslink as a proper cross-city route, a valid alternative to the Northern Line.  Until now it's been a bit of a secret for commuters, but I can see tourists using this station a lot more than Southwark to get to the Tate Modern.  And once you've done that, and discovered you can get to London Bridge and King's Cross St Pancras from here as well...

We poked our head in at the Tate Modern, because my mum had never been, but she's not a fan of modern art - "I like pictures to look like what they're meant to be".  Instead we crossed the Millennium Bridge, giving me another look at Blackfriars station under construction.

It's been deliberately designed to be as squat as possible, so you will still get a look along the river.  Personally I can't wait to see it at night, the glass tube glowing from within as it flows across the water.

We paused for a coffee and a sandwich at Pret a Manger then carried on to Mansion House Tube station.  On the platform, my mum turned to me and said, "Isn't the Underground horrible?"

"No," I replied in a surprisingly calm voice.  "I love the Underground."

"No you don't."  (My mum is prone to sweeping generalisations which are based on the premise that if she doesn't like something, no-one else, anywhere, does either).  "How can you like this?  Everyone hates it.  It's dark and it's miserable and it's depressing.  Everyone hates the Underground."

"Clearly you and I move in different social circles."  I should also state, for the record, that Mansion House has been refurbished and is remarkably clean and pleasant.

She jabbed at me with a finger.  "You can't tell me that if you was in one of those Tube trains and it broke down in the tunnel and all the lights went off, you wouldn't hate the Underground too."

"But... that's ridiculous!" I spluttered.  "That's like saying you hate cars because there's a chance they might break down in the middle of the countryside in a snowstorm and you freeze to death."

"That's a completely different thing.  Don't be stupid."

I felt that my mum's ideas needed to be preserved for history, so I tweeted it (the station's shallow enough that you can get a weak mobile signal).

"Put your phone away," she scolded.  "Everyone here is fiddling with their mobiles.  It's awful."  Again, remember: if she's not doing it, no-one else should be either.

"What should we be doing instead?"

"Look around you.  Look at the building.  Look at the adverts."

"You just said the Underground was dark and miserable.  Surely it's nicer for people to look at their mobiles?"

"No.  They should look up at the adverts once in a while.  It's rude."

I'm not sure if she meant it was rude to her fellow commuters, or if it was rude to the advertising execs who'd poured their creativity into a big poster for Ikea.  Either way I fell silent, wondering if I was adopted.  The Underground is horrible?!?!

We got on a train to Temple, just two stops (technically one, because Blackfriars in between was closed) and got off in the delightfully 19th Century station.  My mum pulled me to one side on the platform and whispered, "That'll teach me to tell you to read the adverts.  The one opposite me on the train was for the London Sperm Clinic."

We went from Temple into Covent Garden, because my mum wanted a wander round the market, and so I suggested a little trip to the London Transport Museum Shop: partly because I love it there, and partly because I wanted to wipe the memory of my mum saying "sperm" from my head.  I terrified my mum by pointing out how many of the books in the Underground section I owned, while she wondered out loud what had happened to me to turn me into a nerd.  I pointed at a copy of Mark Ovenden's Great Railway Maps of the World.  "That book is brilliant."

"I doubt that very much."

I came away with a copy of Mark Mason's Walk the Lines.  It's very good apart from his frankly bizarre preference for Leslie Green's ox-blood Tube stations to Charles Holden's elegant 1930s ones.  He completely dismisses Arnos Grove which I found personally upsetting.

Another coffee, this time in Old Compton Street.  My mum's fine with me being gay so long as I never mention it in any way.  As a result I get perverse amusement out of taking her to very gay places without her understanding why.  Whenever she's in Liverpool, I insist on a drink in the Lisbon, and I took her to Christopher Street in New York without her being any the wiser.  Now we sat on the pavement opposite the Ku Bar, watching various tightly muscled men with cropped hair walk past, and she was too busy complaining about the price of her coffee to notice.

It was starting to get dark so we decided to head home via St Pancras.  Any excuse for me to have a look at this truly magnificent station, one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in the country.  I especially love the Olympic rings on the end of the train shed - somehow they just fit.  It's also amusing to think that people from (second place) Paris will get off the train here and be reminded that they missed out on the 2012 games.

There was another feature at St Pancras worth checking out: the giant Lego Christmas tree.

The Thameslink station underneath the new Midland Main Line platforms is impressive in a different way.  It's very 21st century, all concrete and glass and cool blue lights, but it's wonderfully efficient and pleasant.  It's the kind of transit station you can imagine turning up in Star Trek.

The platforms, meanwhile, are absolutely huge, ready for the day when 12-car trains will come through here to take you to Cambridge, Hertford, and dozens of other destinations that currently only go into King's Cross.  The old, shoddy trains look frankly embarrassing in this gleaming temple of the future.  They're being replaced, but not fast enough for my tastes.

I can't wait to return to the capital to properly take in all the improvements; to see Thameslink at its full strength, to see Blackfriars snaking across the river, to see all Farringdon's improvements.  I probably won't take my mum, though.