Sunday 26 February 2012

The Dockland's Light Railway

Turn left out of Seaforth & Litherland station and you could be in any inner city in Britain.  It's Urban High Street (2012 edition): cold and unforgiving.  Most of the shops are closed; the ones that are open are burger bars and chippies.  There are letting agents (£75 a week all bills included - available now!!!) and the occasional corner shop.  The pubs are closed and boarded up.   A deserted 1960s precinct.

I wasn't taken.  I pulled my coat close and marched purposefully down the street.  There were moments of charm - the sign in a shop window: "Please knock HARD as I am working in the back", a postcard sized bit of park - but all I felt was sad.  It'd never been great, Seaforth Road, but now it was worse.  The odd bit of Victorian exuberance aside (a cinema that had been converted into a gym, plaster roses on the outside wall coloured red and green) it was a low road, scraping along the bottom.

And up ahead - cranes.  Blue ironwork leaning in on one another, simultaneously reminding the street of its history and damning it.  They were in the docks that once provided work for all the people who lived here, except they were now doing the dockers' jobs for them.

I was tracing the route of the most famous lost railway in Liverpool: the Overhead.  Curving from Seaforth & Litherland all the way to Dingle in the south, the Overhead Railway was the first electrified elevated route in the world.  It opened in 1894 and lasted for sixty years, rising above the docks on steel girders and carrying the workers to their daily jobs by the ships.

Actually, I was going to sort of follow the route.  The initial stages of the Overhead's path are now buried inside the Freeport, and inaccessible to the public.  Instead I followed Rimrose (steady) Road south, paralleling the line's route until I could get a little closer.

The air tasted of hot meat.  Something in the industrial units around me was filling the atmosphere with a strange, processed scent of flesh - breed unidentifiable, but definitely something dead.  I tried not to think of the sausage and eggs I'd had for breakfast, and where they might have come from, and trudged alongside the busy road.

You'd expect one of the main routes north out of the city to be busy, but Rimrose Road is practically a motorway - six lanes in places, with drivers pushing the speed limit to breaking point.  It's not a pedestrian space.  There's a pavement, yes, but I was the only one using it, and I was thankful for catalytic converters or my lungs would have been blackened as truck after van after car barrelled along beside me.

The landscape was a mix of industrial and commercial - corrugated steel sheds that were disinterested in me as I walked past, turning away from the road, interspersed with brick built offices with bright coloured windows and doors to make their blandness a bit cheerier.  There was an incongruous Lexus dealership, gleaming and out of place next to a stubby dead end and with Bootle's high-rises as a backdrop.  I guessed that they had sold up a pitch in the city centre as property values rose, and now they were a sole moment of luxury on the road, until I saw Liverpool Powerboats on the opposite side of the carriageway.  It was practically millionaire's row!

Hardly anything dated prior to 1945.  This area wasn't just bombed during the war, it was decimated; a Blitz that rivalled London's but was kept quiet by the censors.  The King didn't turn up here to view the devastation and shake hands with the plucky locals - people just had to get on with it.  Thousands of people across Merseyside were killed or made homeless by the bombs.

It was underlined for me when I happened across a little park.  My attention was caught by a little sign on the entrance:

Nice.  But my interest was piqued even further by the landscape.  Instead of it just being a bare patch of grass with maybe a few swings, there were monoliths and columns, seemingly at random.  I wandered in and looked at the largest stone, in the centre.

The plaque read:
Here stood the parish church of St Mary from 1827 until it was destroyed in 1941 by enemy action.  Within these hallowed grounds are buried the earthly remains of 760 people.The churchyard and grounds were restored in the year 1960 by the Mayor Aldermen and Burgesses of the County Borough of Bootle in co-operation with the Vicar and Churchwardens of the parish of St Mary-with-St John.
The graves remained, weathered and ignored.  It should have been a place of silent reflection but the roar of the traffic put paid to that.  Still, it was nice to find a square of green among the grey of the town.

I left the park through its side entrance, onto Church Gardens, where there was a small housing estate.  The house on the corner had optimistically set out their front garden with a table and chairs, and a swing.  I'd hate to go to a barbecue round their house; it must be like lunching on the hard shoulder of the M62.

Back onto the main road, dodging the dog turds (seriously people of Bootle: clean up after your animals) and soon I was passing over the Alexandra Dock branch railway.  It's another of those little stubby tunnels that have somehow managed to cling on in a post-privatisation world, hiding under the city streets and hoping no-one notices it.  It's one of the reasons Merseyside is such a wonder for people like me who love train tunnels and abandoned lines - they're everywhere.

Finally, at Miller's Bridge, I was able to turn right and onto Regent Road, the actual route of the Overhead Railway.  This was where Brocklebank Dock station once stood and, appropriately enough, there was a ship right there.  It brought a smile to my face.  I'm still excited by living so close to working docks, with huge ships regularly moving in and out.

The road along the docks has been hammered to death by thousands of HGVs over the years, and it's pitted and pockmarked, like an adolescent's chin.  I was the only pedestrian as I strode along, this time accompanied by a peanutty smell, like the remnants of a Christmas tin of KP.  To my right were the fenced off, inaccessible world of the ships - mysterious structures rising up in multicolours with pipes and gantries all over them.  It was like the Pompidou Centre without the glass.

On my left, the warehouses and sheds were mainly empty.  The exceptions were the cafes; earthy, bacon and eggs and a cup of tea places.  I thought about how these would probably have been docker's pubs once upon a time, doling out thick foamy pints to thirsty men.  Society has changed ; the only people who have pints at lunch now are the factory girls in Coronation Street.  The idea of knocking back a few units then returning to work is anathema to us.  The White Star Cafe declared that it was home to "the Titanic Breakfast - the largest breakfast in the world!".  I was really curious about what that entailed.  A dozen sausages?  Twenty rashers of bacon?  Or did you just take a knife to a pig carcass, there at your table?  (I'm assuming that the White Star has empirical evidence that it is the largest in the world, peer assessed and with figures to prove it.  Possibly a certificate from Norris McWhirter.)

I carried on, past the old Canada Dock station.  There is nothing to see, by the way, in terms of Overhead remains.  The whole structure was found to be unsafe in the fifties, a combination of being regularly harassed by the Luftwaffe during the war and decades of neglect.  The railway company - having been left out of nationalisation - couldn't afford to do the repairs, and the council and British Rail were unwilling to stump up to help.  The whole thing was pulled down and sold for scrap, every bolt, girder and rail.  This journey was more of a ghost walk than an archaeological trip.

It felt like a trip through an abandoned landscape, too.  The only other person I saw on the walk was a waitress in the Retro Cafe; she looked up as I approached, out of curiosity, then returned to wiping the table when she saw me pass.  Brick warehouses with broken windows loomed above me.  I pictured how this road must have been when the warehouses were all around, a man made canyon with the Overhead clinging to one side.  Then my mind turned to how it must have been when the bombs rained down and it was all fire and heat and screams, soot and shrapnel, water from the hoses mixing with ash.  One bombing run put paid to a munitions ship, causing it to scatter bits of its hull over a mile away.  Imagine the noise and the fear in the air.

A conveyor belt ran over my head, carrying scrap metal across to a massive heap on the other side of the road.  Once Liverpool exported goods all over the Empire; now it exports rubbish.

The SS Malakand had exploded in Huskisson Dock (HUSKISSON!), which I was now passing.  Today it's home to Calor Gas, a couple of oil companies, and Tate & Lyle.  Am I wrong for hoping there would be another large explosion, just to see what would happen to all that sugar?  One decent blast and you could have the world's largest block of toffee.  You'd need a jackhammer to get at it.

Sandon Dock rang a bell for some reason.  I'd seen its name on the list of Overhead Railway stations, but I couldn't think why it was familiar.  Had something important happened here?  Was there a different wartime tragedy?  Then my nose detected the scent of sewage.  Ah yes.

The dock was the processing centre for the Liverpool Interceptor Sewer, which was built along the Mersey shoreline in the Eighties and Nineties.  Previously sewage was simply dumped in the river; the new sewer picked up the waste and carried it off to Sandon Dock to be cleaned and scrubbed.  (Fun fact: the sewer was partially responsible for the destruction of the ferry pier a few years ago - the sewers used to wash the sediment away from underneath the floating stage, but when they stopped, it was allowed to build up, making the storm waves much more severe).  This is the last exit point for a million people's dinners; I wondered if it was a coincidence that it was half-a-mile from the home of the Titanic breakfast.

The Sandon Dock also marks the point where the useful docks end and the derelict ones begin.  Above this point they've been adapted to accommodate today's larger ships and facilities.  Below they're just too small, too antiquated, too precious to fiddle with.  Even the wall here is a listed structure (to be fair, it is very nice).

I was entering the Stanley Dock World Heritage area - the expanse of docks whose importance had been recognised by UNESCO.  My timing was fortuitous.  The day before English Heritage had formally submitted its objection to the Liverpool Waters scheme, an idea to turn the abandoned land into homes, offices and leisure facilities.  Amusingly, there was a planning notice tied to one of the lamp posts, as though it was an application for a new conservatory, not a million-pound regeneration scheme:

EH argued that the plan for skyscrapers and cruise liner terminals would destroy the historic character of the area.  UNESCO has similar views, carrying out an inspection to see the plans and decide whether to revoke the World Heritage Status.  It's true that there is some beautiful Victorian architecture here.  The entrance gates to the docks are a particular delight: castellated turrets, terrifyingly sturdy and imposing.  They impressed me every time they showed up.

I was less impressed by another sight that appeared almost as frequently.

"To Let - Flexible Terms Available".  Because isn't that the crux of the matter?  These docks are unused and unloved.  Peel, with the Liverpool Waters scheme, has at least come up with a plan for them beyond "do nothing".  I'm not totally convinced by the plans - I don't know where all these new jobs are going to come from, or where all these new residents are coming from - but surely it's better than what's there right now?

Liverpool Waters isn't about demolition and destruction.  Their website features the clock in the photo above prominently, a preserved feature in the CGI'd images among the cafe bars and laughing families.  The water will remain, and won't be filled in to make room for houses.  The dock wall will stay, and there will be a Listed Building officer breathing down Peel's neck every time they raise a pickaxe.  What's the problem here?  When did English Heritage become about preserving an ambience?

The Stanley Dock, further along the road, shows some of the dangers of just preserving a building.  I love this whole area: the way the massive, massive structures (the Tobacco Dock reportedly the largest brick building in the world) gather round the central stretch of water.  They seem to huddle in to talk over the still blue rectangle.

These are buildings that absolutely, totally should be preserved and re-used.  I can't agree with EH more on that front.  But in the meantime, they're falling apart.  Empty.  Uncared for.  A good scheme would reuse these buildings and respectfully restore them, using them for a much better use (and there are good ideas for it out there).  Is it better that they're allowed to become graceful ruins, and stay in their proper Victorian form, or should we adapt them to modern life and make them work again?  I'd say the latter, every time.

I paused on the wonderful Bascule Bridge, an example of Peel's regenerative commitment: they restored this historic structure when it looked like it was about to fall into the sea.  They not only made it work again, they also repainted it in its original colours, and restored the operator's cabin.  Buttering up the Council with heritage points, perhaps, but I'm happy to accept it.

I had a moment of blissful remembrance there, recalling that they filmed Captain America here, the film that features this, and then moved on.

Clarence Dock station had served the Stanley Dock as well, and was the last station before we entered what you'd consider to be the city centre proper.  There were still a few remnants of the old docklands in the side streets, which were atmospherically dark and sinister; I could easily picture hoodlums firing tommy-guns into barrels of moonshine underneath their arches.  It was seductive decay.  Not seductive enough for me to want them to stay that way, though - the Waterloo Dock apartments further along were what I wanted to see round here.

Strangely, English Heritage haven't seemed to notice that the dock estate is also home to a building so futuristic, it looks like it's about to take off: the Kingsway Cooling Vent, a massive concrete tower thrusting into the sky with enormous fans either side.  It's a giant 1970s phallus, though admittedly with an oddly shaped pair of bollocks, and it's brilliant.  It's taller than pretty much everything around it, it doesn't pay homage to Jesse Hartley in any way, and it works.  New developments don't have to be destructive, and they don't have to be eyesores, and they don't have to be mock-Victorian throwbacks.

Now I was passing Costco, and Toys R Us, and the Princes Dock, whose station would have been between two skyscrapers if it were still here today.

I clambered up the hill of Bath Street, and got that view that takes my breath away every time, along the Strand.  It was the most effective riposte to English Heritage I could think of: a view that got better and better the more that was built.  A hundred-odd years ago, all you'd have seen here would have been the Parish Church; then the Tower Building came, and the Liver Building, and the Atlantic Tower, and now the black glass monolith of the new Merseytravel building - all different, unique, arguably intruding on one another, but together forming a wonderful streetscape that worked.  The church isn't overwhelmed by the Atlantic Tower (or Unity behind it); the Liver Building isn't made to look pathetic next to the Mann Island development.  It's modern and historic in harmony.

Incidentally, if Merseytravel don't stick a giant yellow neon M on the side of their building, I will be very disappointed.

I finished my walk at the Pier Head.  The railway continued south, and I will walk the rest of it, but that could wait for another day; my stomach was rumbling too feverishly for me to want to carry on.  Mounted on the side of the Queensway Ventilation Shaft was a little brown plaque, ignored by the passers by:

It seemed like an appropriate place to end.  I tipped my metaphorical hat (I did actually have a hat, in my pocket, but it was woollen and brimless and therefore impossible to tip) and then headed off for my train home.

Monday 20 February 2012

Better Living Through Railways

I'm fat.

No, please; no arguments.  I'm officially fat.  (You were going to argue, weren't you?  No?  Bastard).

After months of denial I've finally decided to do something about it.  No more bread or potatoes - I'm on the Atkins, swallowing eggs for breakfast instead of a yoghurt, which feels wrong.  No tea or dairy of any kind.  No booze.  And exercise.

My exercise options are limited; I haven't done real, proper, physical exertion since that blessed day when I stopped having to do P.E. at 16.  This is because I think spandex is the cloth of the devil, and that no-one who says their hobbies include "going to the gym" is worthy of conversation.  But I love to walk, as this blog will attest.  I can walk for miles without thought or a moment's hesitation.  So I've adopted this, the David Mitchell Workout Plan, as my program of choice.  Ok, it's not exactly going to get me a body like Daniel Craig, but so long as things stop wobbling when I run, that's fine with me.

Plus, walking enables me to visit some of the places close by I've meant to cover for the blog, but haven't got round to it.  A quiet Sunday afternoon gave me an opportunity, so I walked out towards Higher Bebington and the down Lever Causeway.

It feels odd to find such a straight road in England; no bends, no deviations.  We're so used to roads twisting back on themselves and having a sudden kink in the middle because there was a rock there in 1366 and no-one could be bothered moving it.  This road was built by Lord Lever, the soap magnate, along with a couple of ones that have fallen out of use, as a way for him to get from his home at Thorton Hough to the factory in Port Sunlight as quickly as possible.  It makes me think of him as Toad, barrelling along the road in an open topped bone shaker, shouting "poop-poop!" and pushing its engine to its limits.

There's no footpath, so walkers follow the bridleways on each side on the grass.  I was feeling quite pleased with myself for walking just this far, until a man who looked like Gandalf's older brother jogged past swathed in yellow lycra.  I secretly hoped he'd get his foot caught in a hoofprint and break a hip.  That'd learn him, the healthy bugger.  For such a well made road, the Causeway doesn't really go anywhere.  The only place this road goes is close to Storeton, and even then, it bypasses it.  I decided to go through the village, which I'd never visited before.

A minute later, I'd walked right through the village and out the other side.  It's minimal to the point of insignificance - there's just a few stone houses and farmyards, no shop, no pub, not even a church.  It was pretty enough, but I couldn't see the appeal in living here.  And I certainly couldn't see why you'd build a railway station here.

The original station on what's now the Borderlands Line, opened in 1896, was called Barnston, but in 1900 it was renamed Storeton For Barnston.  I'm not sure why.  This tiny hamlet - which must have been even tinier a hundred years ago - doesn't seem to be a suitable draw for a railway company.  I wonder if they thought the low passenger numbers were due to the name, rather than its position in the very centre of rural Wirral.

I returned to the main road, which was again without footpaths, and trudged on.  I was enjoying the lazy pace, the singularity of my presence in the countryside.  It was a bright day, but I was listening to an audiobook, Charlie Connolly's Attention All Shipping, so my mind was filled with frosty days in the Faeroe Islands.  I heartily recommend an audiobook if you're out walking - far better than another load of mp3s on your iPod.  His clambering through Icelandic storms did put my five mile walk in perspective, though; it was a good effort, but I wasn't exactly Scott of the Antarctic.

The road passed over the M53, and I took a moment to gaze down at the barrelling cars, hammering their way through the centre of the peninsula.  It all seemed so fast, so unsuited for a Sunday afternoon.  Where did they need to be at 70 miles an hour?  It just didn't seem right.

A few more twists of the lane (that's how you build a road in England, Lord Lever!) and I was at the railway crossing.  It's just a bridge now.  Apart from the fact that you're on "Station Road", you'd have no clue.

There used to be two platforms here with a low station building, but it closed in 1951.  The Borderlands Line's always wheezed along, barely managing to stay alive, so it's no surprise that they culled the underused stations quite early.  There was a goods yard too, which stayed open for another decade, but which is now just some industrial units.

Back on the bridge though, if you look hard enough, you can spot one sign there used to be something here. There are two bricks on the bridge wall - an older one at each end, with a newer type infilling between them.  In addition, the sandstone caps on top of the wall are replaced by utilitarian concrete in the centre.  This'll be where the building was once.

I left the old station site behind me.  There wasn't much to hang around for, let's be honest, and besides, it made me a bit sad: visiting the site of a dead station.  A bit ghoulish.

I was soon being tickled by the tendrils of Barnston village.  Again, I wondered why they called it Storeton for Barnston when the latter village is bigger, more interesting, and closer to the station.  It's got a church, a pub, a school, everything Storeton didn't.  It was as though someone renamed Lime Street Birkenhead (for Liverpool).  Just another example of railway company perverseness.

Even if the Borderlands Line is incorporated into Merseyrail, there are no plans to rebuild a station there.  This had seemed a bit strange to me - there's quite some distance to the next station, and there is a centre of population that could be served by it.  When I passed some people playing tennis on the court in their garden, I realised why.  Barnston is seriously rich.  No-one here would lower themselves to using public transport.  You could lay on the Royal Train for the residents here and they wouldn't bother using it.

I paused for a moment outside my favourite store on the Wirral, the Barnston Village Hat Shop.  I love that this small village is able to support a retailer selling the most pointless and unnecessary item of fashion this side of a handbag-sized chihuahua.  I didn't see a Post Office or a Co-op, but the villagers are sorted for all their fascinator requirements.

There was a pub just beyond it, the Fox & Hounds, and I thought I'd get myself a drink and recover from my trek.  I went through the first door into the pub.  Big mistake.

I'd wandered into the snug.  It was smaller than my bathroom, and rammed with locals, ruddy faced, bearded, cheery.  They stopped and looked at me as I entered, something I didn't think actually happened in real life.  I couldn't turn around and leave, not in a space that tiny, so I had to brazen it out.

And I was tripped up by my diet.  Normally I'd have ordered a pint of something brown and frothy, with a name like Old Dickerson's Mange, but instead I had to order this:

A mineral water.  A bloody mineral water.  I could feel the disdain from the locals.  I collapsed into a vacant chair, under the flatscreen showing the racing, and buried myself in my drink.  Even that was a mistake, as I began to realise that the table was probably empty because it was reserved for one of the regulars - Pete or Mick or Dave or something else dependable.

I'm sure the pub is lovely.  I'm sure if I'd wandered into the Lounge instead, I'd be singing the pub's praises - it looks marvellous from the website.  Instead I cowered under the Callaghan-era Carling Black Label clock and the pub trophies and wondered how long I could brazen it out before I died of shame.  As each new patron arrived, they chatted amiably with people they've probably know for decades about the upcoming Liverpool-Brighton match, and I became even more anxious.  Don't ever talk about football in close proximity to me.  I'm begging you.

Finally I faked a call on my mobile and left.  Yes, I actually did that.  I'm not proud - I'm more than a bit ashamed - but it seemed the only dignified way to leave the pub before I'd finished my drink.  Strange that after all that walking, this was the bit that made me sweat the most.  Shyness is a terrible affliction.

Monday 13 February 2012

Testing the Limits of Friendship

Why are we here?

The question that has dogged humanity since the dawn of time.  The question that the greatest minds mankind has produced have wrestled with.  The question that has occupied Plato, Kant, Locke, Deep Thought.

I was grappling with the question myself, but at a much less lofty level.  I was stood in an abandoned car park in Staffordshire on a frosty Saturday morning.  Ahead of me, Ian and Robert were taking photos of empty railway tracks.

Why are we here?

The actual, simple reason was that Robert was doing another of his Station Master blogs, and Ian and I were along for the ride.  Yes, we were here in Norton Bridge voluntarily.  Probably the first people in a long time.

Norton Bridge is - and I'm going to use a technical term here - a shithole.  It's a barely-there hamlet of undistinguished local authority houses and miserable small holdings outside Stafford.  It has a red-brick church and a square of grass with some benches on it.  It has a pub, the Railway Inn, which serves food  weekday evenings but not at all on a Sunday.  It wasn't open, anyway.  There is no shop, no cafe, no village hall with roses curling round the door.

And, of course, there was the station.  It closed in 2004 when the upgrade of the West Coast main line meant providing a service here would get in the way of proper trains.  The closure was then underlined by the removal of a rotting footbridge, which left the platforms isolated in the middle of the tracks with no means of access.

Personally I think that they removed the station in a bid to make Norton Bridge disappear off the face of the earth.  Give it a few years and they'll blow up the road into the village as well and that'll be it.

We had an hour to kill until the bus out of there.  An hour.  A wander round the local streets revealed, yep, everywhere else was as drab as the village.  Some sheep showed a mild interest in us as we passed.  A man walked his dog.  There was a closed petrol station.  I contemplated suicide.

We headed back to the rusting, graffiti'd, fag burned bus shelter to wait for the bus.  Robert had planned the trip, working out the times for our visit, so naturally Ian and I turned on him.  Things then took a creepy air when he revealed he had condoms in his handbag manbag; suddenly it all seemed a bit rapey.  Ian and I pressed ourselves up against the far end of the shelter while Robert ate his sandwich.

The bus arrived, taking us away from the Straw Dogs remake we seemed to have wandered into, and carried us back to Stafford railway station.  It was built in the Sixties, with the electrification of the line, and it's quite hideous.

I'm not against the use of concrete for buildings, but it needs to be maintained.  It's not a building material that can be abandoned to the elements, especially not in a country as wet and cold as Britain.  Municipal buildings constructed out of the stuff end up looking horrible because the authority responsible has other things to spend its money on, rather than cleaning and scrubbing the walls.  The concrete structure ends up looking grim, while cracks are just patched up rather than being addressed.

Mind you, Stafford station wasn't exactly an architectural masterpiece to begin with: this was no brutalist landmark like the National Theatre or the Barbican.  It's a series of long concrete structures threaded along the lines with draughty exposed platforms.  Wood had been used as an accent, but again, it hadn't been maintained and it had been varnished black.  Stafford is the only station I've ever been to that has a poster for the Samaritans in its cafe.

Thank goodness for Stone.  The morning had thrown up - almost literally - some grim architecture, but Stone station was a triumph.  Built by the North Staffordshire Railway and opened in 1849, it's astonishingly pretty.

It's wonderfully symmetrical (always nice for my OCD) and has ornate windows and rooftops.  It's Tudor done by the Victorians, Hampton Court on the iron way, and a real triumph.  It's also only here by the grace of God or rather, Network Rail; the station was actually closed at the same time as Norton Bridge, but was reopened in 2008.  Too late for the building though, which is no longer in use for railway purposes; you have to buy your ticket on the train.

It was closed and shuttered - the "community use" didn't seem to be happening - which is of course a tragedy.  I suspect that behind the locked doors was a waiting room with an enormous stone fireplace, haunted by Victorian ghosts.

Despite its uninspiring name, Stone itself was another delight, a pleasant middle England town.  This was real Daily Mail territory; I nervously awaited the pitchfork wielding locals to drive us out of town for lowering the tone.  The Conservative constituency office was on the High Street, for pete's sake.  I was tempted to assume a Croation accent and ask the way to the Benefits Office, just to see what happened.  We paused for coffee and a panini in the local Costa (well, Ian and I did; we didn't have our Dads make us a packed lunch unlike some other people).  There was a boy in there strumming on a small guitar - it may even have been a ukelele.  I should have stabbed him to death with a wooden coffee stirrer.  There is absolutely no excuse for playing a musical instrument in a coffee shop, unless your name is Phoebe Buffay.

There must have been some vodka in the coffee, or something, because between Costa and the bus stop I managed to fall over completely.  My foot just stumbled on the kerb, pitching me sideways and onto the pavement, grazing my arm.  Fortunately there was hardly anyone around to witness my humiliation, just Ian and Robert, which was bad enough.  And now, I suppose, you readers.  In fact just ignore this whole paragraph.

We were heading for another rail replacement bus, and we were the only boarders.  It swung through Staffordshire's country lanes, occasionally scraping a kerb with an audible grinding sound, before we were dropped off in the village of Barlaston.  This was a vast improvement on Norton Bridge - it didn't just have a shop, it had a row of shops, plus a Londis and a garage.

The station here was closed in 2003, though of course, in the world of British railways, it's not that simple.  The station is technically open.  If you want to close a station you have to go through a palaver of getting Government permission; it's a lot easier for the rail company to just lay on a bus and pretend the station's still there.

In the meantime, they've blocked off the platforms and the station buildings.  Spiked planks have been laid down at the ramps from the level crossing, while the gates have been nailed shut.  Even the waiting shelters have been boarded over, just to stop the local scallies from hanging out there and causing a ruckus.

From there we headed down to the frozen canal.  It was a simple matter on the map - a wander along to the next closed station on the line, Wedgwood.  The problem was we'd forgotten how cold it would be.  Robert and I had come from a Liverpool that was, while chilly, completely snow free, while Ian was here from a London that was sitting under several inches of white.  Staffordshire had combined the two into a lethal combination: ice.  What little snow there had been was now shiny, glassy ice, right across the path.

We tramped onto the verge, where the ice hadn't taken hold, and found a new hazard - dog shit.  The residents of Barlaston should be ashamed of themselves.  No-one seemed to believe in picking up after their animals, leaving wet piles of abandoned faeces to be skipped over.  Our ankles moaned under the effort of the trudge, and our trainers skidded on the occasional hidden patch of ice.

"If I fall in, please save my iPhone," said Robert.

"Did I mention I can't swim?" I replied.

Wedgwood is actually inside the factory estate, and was built mainly to carry employees to work.  The acres of car parks around us showed why its "closure" hadn't been missed.

The station's got the same treatment as Barlaston - locked gates, scuppered platforms.  There's no platform structures to be closed, as the old station building was turned into a residential home a long time ago.  The house had a level crossing gate at its entrance, which was a nice touch, and an NSR crest embedded in a gable.

There's no station sign at Wedgwood so I pressed myself up against a poster with the name on it.  It was the best I could manage, and I posed for Ian to take the photo.  I'd forgotten that this pose would make my gut glaringly obvious.  Please only pay attention to me from the neck up.

You can see why they removed the stations from the services; it's an incredibly busy route.  The level crossing closed three times while we were there, letting Pendolinos, Voyagers and Desiros burn through at top speed.  Think of those trapped behind a quiet stopping train.  It makes a nice resting place for trainspotters though.

It was time for another bus out of town.  I missed the trains.  It's not the same, visiting stations without a train inbetween.  I know technically it was a rail-replacement bus, so technically it was as close to a train I was going to get.  It just wasn't as fun.  I don't like buses, never will, and having their drivers treat country lanes like the Nemesis ride at Alton Towers will never endear them to me (or my stomach).

Heading home meant our fifth station of the day, this one being Stoke on Trent, and very much open.  It's another beauty.  The North Staffordshire Railway company constructed their station around a brand new civic square, with a hotel on the other side and a statue of Josiah Wedgwood in the centre.  It's a grand, dark red building with imposing stone details.

Virgin have also spent a nice sum modernising it.  The heritage features have been cleaned and enhanced.  Glass doors provide a classy way into the bright ticket hall, with automated ticket machines and a cafe.

And the roof... I love the roof.  The zig-zag glass that crosses the track makes the station feel open and elegant.  It's bright and attractive, and it's different from the glass arch the Victorians usually go with.  The only arch inside is one constructed as a memorial to those lost in the First World War, from the station building onto the platform.

The only thing the station's missing is a sign.  There isn't a single one outside.  How ridiculous.  How obscene.  I'm tempted to write a snotty letter to Virgin demanding they install one.  I had to settle for a picture with a platform sign.

Ian boarded his train to London, and Robert and I headed for platform 2 so we could go North.  I was tired, exhausted from the long day, but happy.  I'd had fun.  I'd enjoyed the talks and the laughs.  I thought back to that question earlier.  Why are we here?  The answer was, to have good times like these.  To laugh and chat and smile and enjoy your day with your friends.  That's a good enough reason.