Saturday 4 February 2012

From a Rock to a Hard Place

It's hard not to feel sorry for Rock Ferry station.  There was a time when this was a major interchange.  Six platforms.  A large station building.  Trains going as far as London.

As the network developed, however, it slipped further and further down in prominence.  Now it's a couple of platforms in a lowly district, with a bay platform for trains to be stabled in.  Electrification removed any need to change here.  The expensive station building was demolished and now a brick shed cowers underneath the road bridge, almost embarrassed to be there.

Platforms five and six are still there though, on a railway line that exists, but is no longer used.  This was the one that interested me.

This railway line branches off what's now the Wirral Line here at Rock Ferry and heads north, through Birkenhead, and out to Bidston.  It's still there in many places - as you can see, there are tracks in place - but it hasn't been used as a working railway since the Eighties.

It's not possible to walk the line exactly so I wandered away from the station and the track and towards the New Chester Road.  What used to be the main route from the Queensway Tunnel along the Wirral has been downgraded, firstly by the Kingsway and the M53 taking away most of the traffic, and secondly by the Rock Ferry Bypass whisking you away from the people.  You're left with grey boxes forming industrial estates, the sort of places that have criss-crossing wire mesh over their windows and company names that give no clue to what they actually do.  There are a few houses left, but the wind of regeneration has been whistling through Rock Ferry for years, and new semis are being built on the formerly vacant lots.

Why was I walking it?  Why not?  You can see the hints of the line throughout Birkenhead, teasing you, hiding in your peripheral vision.  It was an alternate history of Merseyrail.  It was a dead line.

The railway and the main road converged, and I was walking down a busy dual carriageway.  It's been built with one purpose only: to get you to the tunnel as quickly as possible.  There's very little room for humans here.  The only other person I saw walking was an old man with a Dachshund, who disappeared somewhere between the KFC drive-in and the Carphone Warehouse.

The new roads here - once again leading to industrial units - have been named after the famous ships built at the yards here - Ark Royal, Valiant, Vanguard.  The massive box of Cammell Lairds still dominates the river side, and is doing surprisingly well again after years of poverty.  Somewhere inside that behemoth of a building, an aircraft carrier was being constructed - a bizarre thought, like finding out NASA have opened a shuttle launch site next to Sainsbury's.

The funny thing about Green Lane station is: you look at it and think "railway station, railway bridge, yes, that all makes sense".  Then you go inside and find out that the platforms are underground.  The freight line from Rock Ferry passes over the back of the station.  It makes the Merseyrail platforms seem almost secretive.

I rounded the corner, past what used to be The Yard pub and is now The Yard Mini-Mart, and began the trek up the hill.  The houses here are brick Victorian terraces which once overlooked the Mollington Street depot.  The route of the main railway line's been preserved through there, but the sidings and buildings are long gone.  It means there's a crescent shaped hole in the centre of Birkenhead, covered in scrub and trees.

View Larger Map

It's the kind of vacant property that should be snapped up for redevelopment, but nothing much has happened yet.  A planning application just went in for a new "urban village" here, with shops and restaurants and houses - but with the recession, who knows?  Until it's built, the residents of Hinderton Road get an impressive view across the Mersey.

The road turns and then you're heading down again, towards Birkenhead Central station.  The old line bypassed this station, heading for its own station called Birkenhead Town about ten yards away.  I decided to have a hunt around to see if I could find any sign of the old station.

On the Liverpool side, the Queensway tunnel is a neat grey hole in the ground.  It's understated to the point of insignificance.  That's because all the real work is on the Wirral side.  All the toll booths, flyovers and facilities swerve from the Birkenhead exit across the town centre.

Walking round the area underlined how dominant the tunnel's access points are.  I skipped across roads and car parks in their shadow, ducked beneath their concrete spans.  The roads underneath it have become unimportant stubs.  Dead ends and dead buildings.  A single structure is between the roads; in the time I've lived here it's been a club and a gym, but most of the time, it's just been empty.  No-one wants to make the trek here.

I didn't particularly want to make the trek myself.  Still, needs must and all that.  The roads look like they've been bombed, with all the empty space, but then I came across the wide open flats of the tunnel entrance itself.  The whole area was flattened and built for a traffic calming scheme that never really worked; now it's just a concrete wasteground.

There was a fence separating me from the traffic flows while I poked around behind the billboards for any sign of the old station.  The station closed in 1945, but the buildings stayed for another twenty years until the road upgrades finally put paid to it.

I found a bit of cornice, but that was about it; I can't even be sure if it was part of the old station building.

The railway line's a lot easier to see.  It's in a culvert beneath the road level, so I peered over the walls to spot it.  There's not much to see - just a load of vegetation.  The tunnel underneath the toll plaza is still there, but it's been blocked up - fly tipping was becoming a problem.

I love that stubby bit of flyover.

I had to walk around the tunnel entrance - pedestrians are banned from making a dash across the lanes, understandably - so I picked up the railway cutting on the other side, at the top of Conway Street.

I was in Birkenhead proper now.  The streets of the town are laid out in a grid, but the railway arrogantly bypasses all that, cutting through them at a diagonal.  I passed the closed up Sherlocks, a notorious Wirral hangout, and Strummers Cafe (Today's special: Scouse with beetroot) and into Dacre Street.  The car park of the Lawnmower Company is a triangle between the street and the railway line.  I leaned up against the wall and looked down into the green trench - a strange part of nature fighting its way through the urban landscape.  It looked almost civilised here, like a garden path.

Above it was a shop and flats, nineteenth century and now barely managing to hold itself together.  The plants had risen out of the old line, like Triffids, and were slowly taking over the side of the building.  It made it look even more like a ruin.

In this part of town, old and new are uncomfortably close.  A square of Victorian civic pride backs onto  1970s garages; empty waste ground is next to 21st century offices.  I followed the line round the back of the technical college, where catering students, still in their whites, were breaking for a cigarette.  Down an alleyway and I was onto Europa Boulevard, a dual carriageway of brand new buildings with a tree filled central reservation.  Shame about the name.  I don't think there should be any "boulevards" in the UK; it's a word that doesn't sit well on English tongues.  It promises foreign glamour that can't be fulfilled, certainly not in the middle of Birkenhead.  Conway Park station is here though, still looking surprisingly new and modern. The developments around it haven't come though, so it still sits isolated on that side of the street, with just the back of the cinema and a car park for company.

The fact that they built this brand new station on the far side of the road, away from the old freight line, underlines how useless people see this branch.  If there was even the slightest hint of the line coming back into use they would have built Conway Park in a place where you could interchange; as it is, it's miles away, and they'd need a lot of underground passages to make it so.

At the top of the boulevard there's a railway bridge, letting the old line pass through.  The glass tower of the probation service overlooks the litter-strewn cutting.  Everyone's chucked their old cans and bottles in here, their chip wrappers, their crisp bags; it's like a massive landfill site in the centre of town.

Two streets away the offices vanish and become terraces of Victorian houses with MOT garages and car washes.  It makes you realise what an ostentatious waste Europa Boulevard was; a new district grafted onto the old one with little regard for its surroundings.  I crossed by Farrah News - hopefully a tribute to the late Ms Fawcett - and walked to the unused tunnel entrance.  While the main entrance to the Queensway is a massive spread of concrete, this old side exit is simply chained off.  The dock exit used to enter the main tunnel with a set of traffic lights, holding up the main flow, so it was mothballed a few years ago.  Now it's used to store maintenance equipment and to act as an emergency exit.

While I was looking at road tunnels, the railway line had sneakily risen upwards, and was now at street level.    At Freeman Street there's a level crossing.  It's a proper, old-school level crossing, an escapee from a Hornby train set, with gates that would cover the width of the street.  The lights are still there too, a bit battered and switched off.

The footbridge has fallen to pieces; there are no slats to carry you across and the top of the steps are boarded up.  But it's an incredibly evocative piece of railway architecture.  Its degradation somehow makes it even more attractive.

I realise I might be alone in this.

Once there would have been dockers streaming over this bridge every morning, every evening; now it's battered and moss-covered and collapsing.  It's a monument to a lost industry.

From here, the line disappears behind a thick brick wall, onto the Dock Estate.  I'd planned on following the wall, but something was afoot.  The police had closed off the bottom of the Corporation Road to traffic, due to an "incident".  What the incident was, I didn't know, but they let me walk past with no problem.

Further up though, there were more police, blocking off every side street onto the Corpy Road.  I didn't want to keep running their gauntlet.  I've led a blameless life, which is why I inevitably panic and sweat when I come in close proximity to a police officer.  I didn't want to hysterically confess to the Birmingham bombings or the Moors Murders or something, so I moved turned onto a side street.

It was good to get back towards civilisation anyway.  The Corporation Road's a rat run now, just a long straight road away from speed cameras.  A nifty shortcut, until after dark, when the local hookers turn out, shivering in lingerie under drab macs.  They ply their trade on an increasingly hostile highway - the dockers' pubs are closed, the factories are barred and darkened, the street lamps are non-existent.

Cleveland Street will never be mistaken for the Champs Elysees, but at least there are people and traffic and bus stops here.  The wrecking yards let out metallic groans.  A heavy coated worker chucked wood onto a brazier, huddling close in the thin piss rain.  A wide expanse of grass should have been a welcome change from the bleak industry, an infill of greenery, but it was rough scrub, just good enough for a guy in a hood to walk his dog across.

It wasn't parkland, anyway; it was a void created in the name of "regeneration", though the actual redevelopment hasn't happened yet.  Is it still regeneration if all you do is knock stuff down?  Is that an improvement?

There was the strong smell of frying onions and bacon from Oakesy's Diner [sic], a brick and concrete shed on the corner of the street.  The menus on the open shutters advertised sausage and egg binlids, but the chalked up specials board boasted paninis and baguettes.  Can you imagine a docker taking a panini in for his dinner fifty years ago? He'd have been beaten to death for his la-di-da pretentions.

The paninis were the only sign of gentrification here.  I crossed Duke Street, waving at Birkenhead Park station in the distance, and carried on past the Merseyside Police Custody Suite on a roundabout.  The railway line had re-emerged from behind the wall and for the first time I could actually get up close to it.  The trees and grass from further down the line were still evident, but I crossed the street and put a foot on the metal track; a little moment of connection with the railway.

I'd expected to be alone all the way along the trackside, but further up was a surprise: a work party.  Orange boiler suited workers with blue helmets were working on the track.  There wasn't any vegetation, and it looked almost as if they were shovelling ballast between the irons.  Was it community service, I wondered?  Is this what they do - send them out on a truck to do pointless labour?  I couldn't see the virtues in uncovering them again.

Because this really is a dead railway.  This branch will never see service again.  Before I set out I'd thought I might see the potential for regeneration and reopening, but as I'd walked it I'd seen there was no hope.  I'd passed five stations en route, so there was no way they'd open it to passengers, and freight trains would have to intermingle with the intensive Merseyrail services below Rock Ferry.  I can't see anyone being keen on opening up the railway - with its great punctuality rates - to other trains, and creating potential havoc.  Perhaps, if Wirral Waters ever happens, there might be a call for a light rail network - but the line skirts the edge of Peel's dock estate, too far from where the main focus points are.

Right now, the track goes past... nothing.  This area's been "regenerated" too, and now there are just acres of empty space where there used to be streets.

Apart from one house.  One single resident remains in this echo-chamber.

I imagine an old man, buying his council house years ago and being horrified to learn it's scheduled for demolition.  I picture him complaining, standing up and screaming at public meetings, pushing people away.  His road becoming more and more desolate, until the diggers come in and knock down his neighbours.  And then he's left in silence.  The houses either side had to be left to keep his standing, but they're covered in metal sheets.  He's still got his home though, while the Council rolls its eyes and cynically waits for him to die.

Strangely, his house got me angry.  All that wasted space around him, all those homes condemned, while the country is bursting at its seams for new homes.  Look at that house - it looks decent enough to me.  Couldn't those homes have been refurbished?  Couldn't they have been made better?  Did they have to be demolished?

And now they're gone, why aren't we rebuilding them?  Why hasn't a housing association swept into all that vacant land and started building good, cheap homes on this no-doubt bargain basement land?  Why aren't there nice three bedroom houses with a garage and a bit of garden filling up these squares of emptiness?  Why is it just being ignored?

I thought of the people being forced to live in squalid conditions while this all stood empty.  I thought of the new block of flats round the corner from me, built on the site of a single Victorian detached home; tiny little boxes that people will pay a fortune for just because this is a "nice" area.  Build a new "nice" area!  Build a district of good homes for families!  Build a place with trees and grass and residents who can love where they live.

Angry and depressed I found the end of the line.  It's not the real terminus; the actual rails continue on a little further, towards Bidston Dock.  At this point though, they vanished into the Merseyrail depot, so I couldn't carry on.  I just stood behind the level crossing gates and snapped my last photo.

Obviously, I've never included the depots in my quest to visit all the Merseyrail stations; unless I can go in and have a poke around it doesn't count.  But as I was here, at the "Birkenhead North Track Maintenance Depot", I decided to do a traditional shot anyway:

I'd walked about six miles.  I can't say I was uplifted, or ecstatic, or even happy by the end of it; in fact, there was a part of me that wanted to rip up the old track and throw it away.

I didn't expect that.

It was just that everywhere I'd gone, the old branch railway had seemed like a barrier.  It was a high embankment cutting off Rock Ferry from the main road to Liverpool; it was a vast empty space in the middle of Birkenhead; it was a slash across the grids, cutting the squares in half.  It was filled with litter and weeds.

No-one wants to run trains on it, and no-one ever will.  Put the people first and let them build good homes and offices and factories over the top.  Right now it's just a fossil doing nothing for anyone.

Perhaps I'm being unfair.  I'm sure there are loads of people who'd love to redevelop all of this space; there just isn't the money.  It's just sad to see the despair and depression of abandonment across the town.  I love it here, and I wish everyone else did too.


Jamie said...

Much of the railway you walked is still down and still getting (very) minimum maintenance because the MoD objected to the closure and requires the line to be made operational again at six months' notice should we ever need to fight World War II again (or, even more specifically, if we ever need to fight World War II again *and* come as close to starving as in 1941 and have to have the same Plan B of invading the Irish Free State and confiscating their food).

The wall behind the billboards is the wall of the booking office of Birkenhead Town, built in Wirral Railway "booking office on the overbridge" style despite being a GWR construct.

And as for the non-redevelopment of northern Birkenhead and its docklands: I share your anger. There are people sleeping rough across Merseyside and NOBODY CARES. There are families in B&Bs, young people "sofa surfing", battered wives with children turning up at Birkenhead Town Hall with suitcases, old people living in unheated slums... and we have "wasteland" that isn't being used? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

This is WRONG. It is DISGUSTING. How did we let this happen? Why are we letting it happen? IT IS SICK. But there's the money available to put That Woman in the ground with all due pomp and circumstance as soon as she dies. How many houses would that build around Birkenhead North? Even if it was just one house, it would be money well spent.

*takes medication*

Anonymous said...

Though the line was built for freight access to the docks and has never carried passengers, there were some charter trains for enthusiasts that ran over the line several times in the eighties. I was on one of them. Also rolling stock on the Wrexham to Bidston line went back to Mollington Street to refuel in emergencies on several occasions in the late seventies, so it saw some empty passenger trains. Freight to the docks continued until the mid eighties and also to Spillers flour mills in the early eighties. Dock sidings were left in situ for use in any 'national emergency' but have rottted too far for use now. There was a large trackside semaphore signal box at Canning Street level crossing that was padlocked but usable for a decade after regular traffic ceased.Chris.

Justin Dunn said...

The house in the middle of the wilderness is owned by a guy called Charlie Wright.

Google him, I published a couple of pieces about him for the local paper ;-)

Anonymous said...

And then you see adverts for that film about Maggie on the sides of buses, or go into WH Smith and see that they've reprinted all her books. Sickening.