Friday, 10 February 2012

Beyond The Ice

Blurry eyed, unshaven, disoriented.  The injection of coffee was having no effect; I was still half-asleep.  My cold hands gripped the cup for warmth.  I did not miss early trains.

For the first time in years, I was on a morning London Midland service from Lime Street.  And I didn't like it.  In a fair and just world I would have been curled up in a warm bed, perhaps with a cup of tea, a book propped up on my lap.

In the real world however, I had to get to Acton Bridge.  It's a station that's only grudgingly served, with half a dozen trains stopping there a day.  If I didn't get the early train it would be another two hours before I could get another one, which would have thrown out my plans for the day even further.  So a barely conscious outing it was.

I was the only person to get off at Acton Bridge.  I wasn't the only person on the platform though; right down the end, a man lingered by the passenger shelter, not bothering to board the train.  I suspect he was a trainspotter, but had hidden his notebook in case I poured scorn on him.  I felt like wrestling it out of his pocket and shouting "Gricer pride!".

The station building's a block on top of the bridge and is unstaffed.  It's got all the facilities in place - they're just not used.  The ticket hall smelt of disinfectant.  I suppose I should be glad it was being cleaned, but all it made me think was that it had recently been used as a toilet.  Was the undercurrent of urine in my imagination or was it in the air?

I stopped outside for the obligatory sign pic.  It amused me that I got it bang on first time.  I've been doing this blog for so long I know exactly where to position myself.

Now all I had to do was walk to the next station which wasn't, as you may have imagined from the Merseyrail map, Hartford.  I did Hartford last summer, completely by accident, which created a problem - I still had to do the stations either side, Acton Bridge and Winsford.  So my choice was to walk between them - a distance of about 10 miles - or go to Hartford, get the train to Winsford, then get the next train back again.

Since it was such an unbearably cold day, I was leaning towards the latter plan.  I had good intentions to walk all the way to Winsford, but it was the coldest day of the year - colder than Siberia, the newspapers said - and I wasn't sure I could last that long.  I was only five minutes out of Acton Bridge and my testicles had already retreated so far I could feel them under my armpits.

It was a good clear road though, and the pavement wasn't icy, so it wasn't a problem to walk.  A garden centre was prominently advertising bags of rock salt in a hastily written sign.  I passed a rural industrial estate, which seemed to have only two occupiers:

I'd love to know if there's an overlap between their clients.  "Well, we've got that frozen embryo - shall we get a nice teak box for it to go in?"

I was soon in Weaverham, whose village sign declared it was the Best Kept Village 1987.  No word on its entries over the last twenty-five years though.  In fact, the sign just made me wonder if it had gone downhill since then - if they'd won the prize in '87 and thought "mission accomplished" and started chucking their rubbish out on their front lawn.

I'd have hesitated to refer to Weaverham as a traditional village anyway.  At first it seemed to fit the bill, with lots of pretty historic timber buildings with blue plaques on them.  Keep going though and you come across a shopping precinct with a Co-Op, and a high school, and a sports centre.  The road was soon passing overspill housing and paved over front yards, making it feel more like a regular suburban estate than a scene from pastoral England.  And it seemed to go on forever, a long tedious road through boring buildings.

A brief bit of countryside - barely a shoelace - and then I was entering Hartford.  I crossed the town's other railway, the Mid-Cheshire Line, and paused at a crossroads.  There was a pretty silver hart commemorating the town, along with a dry water fountain - "The Gift of Agnes Bertha Platt - 1890".  It was decision time.  If I turned right, I'd soon be at Hartford station, for a nice comfy train.  If I carried on, I had a trek across countryside to Winsford, with no chance of turning back.

Of course I carried on.  I'm nothing if not stupid.  Besides, the walk had warmed me up: I was afraid that if I stopped now something would freeze and fall off.  So I plunged on.

It was a very attractive small town.  With its busy high street and good rail links, I imagined it would be a great place to live.  It seemed the Government thought the same, and had marked out Hartford for another 650 homes - which had not gone down well with the residents.  Now they were in the town, they were pulling up the ladder, and sticking up posters to that effect in their driveways and hedges.

Again I thought of all that empty space in Birkenhead - all those potential new homes that could be built cheaply, easily, in a place with good transport links and opportunities.  If the people of Hartford don't want them, well, zip up the M6 and build them somewhere else.  I bet no-one in the North End would complain.

I zipped across the Hartford by-pass, up some steps, and into a field.  The ground was rutted with the imprint of horse hooves, but the cold weather had frozen the soil, fossilizing them.  I cut across the grass, through a kissing gate, and down a slope.  I walked gingerly, staggering my footsteps so that I didn't plummet down and into the stream at the foot of the slope, and not caring that I looked a complete idiot.  Safety first, etc.

These were Vale Royal woods, a green reminder of the old Council, but it wasn't quite rural enough for me.  There were people walking their dogs, and cycling; I never felt like I was in the middle of nowhere.  Especially when a beautiful vista of the railway viaduct soaring overhead was ruined by braying Cheshire wives, changing out of running gear behind their cars and loudly boasting of their athletic endeavours.  They regarded me with ill-disguised suspicion, as though I'd come to this spot with the specific intention of catching a glimpse of their sports bras.  I hurried on, down to the canal.

It's funny how, in pursuing the pointless aims of this railway-based blog, I've spent a fair amount of time hanging around canal towpaths.  The two means of transport often parallel one another, taking advantage of geographical gaps for easy passage.  Sometimes the railways followed the canal in an "in for a penny, in for a pound" sort of way - the landowners figured their estate was already ruined by the waterways, so another line through wouldn't make it any worse.  Whatever the reason, the River Weaver is navigable here, taking a more twisting route south to Winsford than the railway line that accompanies it.

A pretty footbridge took me over the frozen side channel to an island, and then to the Dutton Locks.  I was surprised to see that the main body of the canal route was still flowing, having assumed the whole thing would be iced up, but of course this is a Navigation route, a natural fast flowing river that has been adapted for canal use.  Only the man-made pools and moorings were impassable.

I crossed to the other bank and trudged along the towpath behind two men and a dog.  They were walking a lot faster than me, which was humiliating since they were old enough to be at least my Dad.  Neither spoke, but they stamped their feet furiously as they walked, exorcising the frost from their toes.

I was busting for a pee; that latte at Lime Street seemed like an increasingly bad idea.  I was going to have to break it out in the countryside, as there wasn't a convenient pub, so I paused in some bushes and dropped my flies.  I let go onto the icy pool beside me.  If I'm honest, I'd hoped that my stream of hot urine would slice through the ice like the laser in Goldfinger; but either I was too cold or the ice was too thick, and instead it just puddled on the top.

Feeling refreshed I continued on my way.  The sky was astonishingly lovely, like a wet grey canvas with a single glowing bulb at its centre.   You only get skies like this in the darkest excesses of winter, like an apology from nature.  "It may be cold," it seemed to say, "but it's beautiful".

I couldn't quite work out if the path was frosted, or snowy.  It crunched underfoot but with a resisting crack, not the comforting noise of deep snow.  It was reassuringly solid though - I had no worries about pitching into the canal.

Harsh signs warned me that I was in the territory of the Winsford Angling Society, and that only they could fish here.  I didn't think there would be any anglers out anyway but then two passed me, wheeling a trolley of equipment so large it wouldn't have looked out of place at Terminal 5.  I decided that only about 2% of it was a rod and line; the rest was their thermoses of soup, comfy seats and portable storage heaters.

The anglers weren't the most insane people I saw that day - that prize goes to the canoeists, paddling furiously on the canal.  Why on earth would you practice a sport that could see you dunk in below zero waters?  Don't you people have things to do at home?  Wouldn't you be happier in front of Homes Under the Hammer with a mug of Ovaltine?  Still, people on pointless railway excursions can't really throw stones.

The landscape took a sudden swerve now.  Country became town; rural became industrial.  The beep of reversing trucks drowned out the birdsong, and the trees were gone in favour of iron and brick.

Northwich and Winsford owed their existence and their wealth to the vast salt deposits that lie underneath the ground.  They've been mined for centuries, the ancient remains of inland seas, and they still provide the area with much of its industrial base.  It's strange to think of gentrified, elegant Cheshire having this coarse backbone of working-class mining running through it.  It's like finding out the Queen wears George at Asda underwear.  

The plant was surrounded by a bend in the river, allowing me to take in the full extent of the workings. Trucks motored in and out with clockwork regularity.  No doubt this is their busiest time of the year, the salt industry's version of Christmas, shipping out orders like an Amazon warehouse on December 24th.  Of course, in one of those ironies of landscape, at this point my path on the opposite bank was completely iced over, forcing me to walk on the grass.  Is it impossible for them to chuck some product across the river?

A swan drifted over to me, thick with its dirty grey winter plumage, hopeful that I had a loaf of Hovis tucked under my arm.  I found myself apologising to him for getting his hopes up.  Up ahead, a crane stopped rooting around in a pond and took flight.  It was strange how my side of the river was still an episode of CountryFile, while on the opposite bank it was more like Blade Runner.

Not for long.  The path was rising up now, pulling away from the bank, until I reached a junction.  The path was signposted to continue over the hill, and my OS map agreed, but there was a side path downwards.  It seemed that the industry and the countryside crossed over at this point, and I'd have to pass round a different salt mine.  Upwards was the quicker route, but I wasn't keen to let go of the river, so I took the right-hand fork and followed it into the copse.

This was not a good idea.

The path went to sea-level a lot quicker than I'd anticipated via a series of flat wide steps.  Obviously, I made it all the way down to the last step before I fell, my legs rising about twelve feet above my head, my hands smacking into the hard ice.  I thudded downwards on my backside.

This wasn't just a fall; this was a humiliation.  I'd been sniggering at the BF all week after he managed to fall down the steps to our flat, bouncing down at least three of them and ending up bruised and battered.  He'd been whining all week, and I'd been less than sympathetic, laughing behind my hands and prodding the angry purple welt on his elbow to make him yelp whenever I got the chance.  Karma is a bitch.

Fortunately it seemed my damages were a lot less significant; I came away with red palms and a slight "just got off his horse" swagger, but nothing more severe.  Even better, no-one in the salt mine saw me.

Winsford is shaped like a bow tie.  On the western side is Over, with the main civic buildings and the shopping centre.  On the eastern side is Wharton, which is traditionally residential but is also home to the railway station.  The Weaver passes between the two districts with bridges over the river forming a gyratory at the bow tie's "knot".  I emerged right in the centre of the gyratory, and headed east.

The salt mines and their attendant industries had all formed along the Weaver, and the homes along Station Road reflected their Victorian origins.  It was like walking along a history of the town - tiny narrow houses close to the centre, to house the workers, with slightly larger brick villas further along for the managers.  Then the railway must have come, and the road became desirable for a different reason, for people working in the other direction, because the small terraces and corner pubs sprung up.

It was simple, inelegant, reliable working class stock.  But it was in an undeniably attractive position, with the lakes known as the Flashes shining in the distance.  It was probably less pleasant a hundred years ago when the salt mines and factories belched out filthy smoke but right now it seemed ok.  A man at a bus stop said hello to me as I passed - I suspect he was probably at least eight parts mad, but it was nice anyway.  One of the houses was a model shop, Loyns, with scale railways in the window; I would have nipped in if it hadn't been so decidedly closed.

Finally I saw the Winsford railway sign, across a roundabout.  I took the required shot and headed down into the hollow where the station was.

I'd remembered the building being miserable, but not this bad.  It was a long neglected Portakabin of a structure, with peeling paint and broken wood.  There was no charm to it.  Functional, impersonal, ugly.  London Midland hadn't even bothered painting it in their corporate colours, as if they knew it was throwing good money after bad.

I decided not to bother with the cold, ugly waiting room and instead leaned up against a bridge support to eat my M&S chicken and sweetcorn sarnie.  My legs were aching from the walk, and my nose felt like it was crafted out of solid ice.  But I felt energised and happy to have done it.  It was a good way to enjoy the February chill.


Anonymous said...

Great post!

Patrick said...

I'm jealous of your impressive beard growth since last week. At this rate, you'll look like Wolverine by the time that you do the victory loop of the city centre stations.