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.


Gavin Kincade said...

Great stuff, and a return to classic Tarting on the Wirral. I like the Venn diagram particularly.

Andy Howe said...

Great stuff (as always Scott), I'm so familiar with this line, it's good to see it from someone else's point of view, I love your Venn diagram!

So that's the Wirral done, your going to have to think of something else when you have completed them all, on a Merseyrail theme obviously, maybe don't need a theme, just keep the blog going!! :-)), as it will be a shame when all the stations are completed, I guess though that the 4 loop stations will need an entry each. Still trying to get hold of that book on Merseyrail (it's out of print), it's got a real interesting history, the building of the loop in the 70's was a big deal at the time, be glad when that horrid brown plastic seating on 4 main stations is finally torn out...

Cheers, keep it going Scott, or we will have to start some kind of campaign (we can't force you of course), but it will be a shame when it's all complete :-) :-)

Anonymous said...

I live on the Bromborough Rake estate. Enjoyed reading your description