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.


Robert said...

I had no idea there was a plaque commemorating the Overhead. Judging from the photo, no-one else knows about it either - it looks slightly neglected.

There is a bit more to see at the south end of the line: the Dingle Tunnel entrance of course, and there are also supports for the structure embedded in the dock wall on Wapping.

Ian Jones said...

A wistful ramble, wistfully told. Could this sort of thing be a way of continuing the blog once you've ticked off all the stations? (Hint: yes, yes it could.)

Anonymous said...

Another way of continuing the blog would be a 'Then and Now' photograhic approach. Surely there's a publication deal there somewhere?

Dan said...

Speaking of 'then and now', how about a blog on Central before and after the refurbishment? Just a thought.