Sunday 4 March 2012


Let's clear one thing up before we start: it's pronounced Exton, not Youxton.  Euxton Balshaw Lane is out on its own on the Merseyrail map, a tiny blip on the red line between Wigan and Leyland.  It's a relatively recent addition to the map, only being built in 1998 (though there was previously a station here until 1969 - damn you Beeching).  The station's appearance, like Conway Park and Eastham Rake and Lea Green, was one of those factors that convinced me Merseyrail was a rapidly expanding network.

It's just a couple of platforms on a little side branch off the West Coast Main Line.  In fact, it feels like you're in a lay-by, watching the big trains speed past while you munch on your sandwiches.  Freight trains rumble past, trailing miles of anonymous blue boxes, on the big line while you hang around for your Sprinter.

They didn't break the bank when they built Euxton Balshaw Lane.  Two big staircases and a couple of chairs, that's about it.  No "next train" indicator or even a clock.  And I was the only person to get off.  I was left wondering why they bothered.

I carried on into Euxton itself.  It's a type of place that's become familiar to me over the course of this blog - the overgrown village.  You can see that once there was a little rural idyll, somewhere in the centre, but people realised it was handy for the motorway, and Preston.  Housing estates sprung up, medical centres, car showrooms, and soon it's a hybrid of town and country.  Too small for a high school and a hospital, too big to appear in Countryfile.

That church tower worries me.  It looks like someone bought it in the sale, realised it was the wrong size, but stuck it on the roof anyway.

At the village centre, I ducked down an alleyway and into quiet avenue.  It was absolutely silent - as though all the sound had been sucked out of the atmosphere.  Quite eerie.  There were no cars.  Bicycles were left in front yards.  A swing rocked in the breeze.  I was starting to wonder if there had been some kind of disaster which had wiped out the population, when I finally saw another human, an old man oiling his gate.  He nodded at me as I passed.  

A cut between some garages and I was into the countryside.  The muddy path was peppered with handwritten signs, warning me to stick to the path.  Not that there was much to attract you.  A few miserable fields, green but still recovering from winter, so speckled with mud and churned up by horse hoofs.  The path followed the edge of the fields, then headed towards the M6, where there was a bridge.

I was surprised to see that there was a tractor sat on the bridge.  For a moment, I thought it was blocked off completely, but then I realised it was just a farmer parked there.  He was chatting to a mate, and the two of them were oblivious to my approach.  I felt nakedly conspicuous.  A little embarrassed, I shuffled closer.  I was preparing myself for awkward conversation at best, an angry farmer demanding to know why I was there at worse.  They carried on ignoring me though, and I pushed past.

Their presence actually stopped me from being a big girl's blouse on the high bridge; I swaggered across as though I wasn't thinking about plummeting to my death among the juggernauts.  Over a little stile and I was in a field of sheep.  They looked at me as I approached, chewing thoughtfully while they gave me the once over, then as a flock they marched away.  It was hard not to feel a little hurt.

It was a beautiful day, but the ground under my feet reminded me that no matter how sunny it was, we were still only just out of February.  I had to choose my steps carefully or I'd sink into the soft earth with a squelch.  The grass looked new and healthy but it concealed a waterlogged swamp that had me dancing around.

With McFly playing on my iPod (it's amazing how much better that band is now I've seen Harry Judd with his shirt off) I tracked round the edge of a pond and towards a farm house.  I then found that the OS map I was using wasn't completely accurate; it showed a bridge across the tiny stream, but there was nothing of the sort.  I was going to have to go through it.  Luckily for me, the lack of rain meant the stream was just a trickle, but there was still a thick mass of grey mud left behind.

I balanced on one foot, swung my leg, and bounced across, managing to time my jump so that I didn't become trapped.  I still left a deep print in the mud.  It reminded me of the fossilised tracks of dinosaurs you see in museums.  Not that I have massive feet or anything.

Now I was on the edge of Leyland, close to Runshaw College, the local sixth form.  It was coming up to one o'clock and the students were making their way back for the afternoon lessons.  The girls chattered in groups, the boys skulked together, all of them smelling of too much cheap deodorant and too many unexpressed hormonal urges.  They all looked far too healthy and bouncy and pleasant to me.  When I was at Sixth Form, you didn't look like you were enjoying it.  You spent your time moping, dragging yourself around the campus and moaning.  Of course, it was the era of grunge; it's hard to look happy in checked flannel.  These students looked pretty and bright.

I'd almost given up on the next generation as a bunch of joyous try-hards when I saw a student who was basically me at seventeen.  He was on his own, with long hair and glasses, a massive bag swung over his shoulder.  He looked like he'd much rather have been at home, playing wailing rock music and reflecting on the agonies of his existence.  Kudos to you, sir.  You stopped me from hating all youth.

What a pretty town Leyland was, I thought.

Then I turned 180 degrees.

It's a Tesco the size of Luxembourg, just across from a pretty town cross and a parish church.  It's quite gobsmackingly ugly.

I'm not a person who campaigns against Tesco on a daily basis, or sees them as the Darth Vader of the High Street (though I should say I am a Sainsbury's person).  Looking at this horrific construction, an alien space craft built out of tin and glass and dropped into Leyland, I considered grabbing a spanner and smashing every window.  There's no attempt to integrate or work with the local area.  There's no architectural merit.  Five hundred acres of blank car park surrounding a building that's just a shell for corn flakes and toilet roll.

Cowering to one side of the Tesco was a lovely war memorial and garden.  Carefully maintained, pretty, human in scale.  It had more dignity and personality in one branch of the hedge knot than in the entire twenty million square feet of the shopping centre.

Leyland is, of course, the home of Leyland trucks, and there's no way of forgetting it.  The town is immensely proud of its industrial heritage, and you can see the distinctive, swirly Leyland logo all over the place - from the entrance to the market to the local Wetherspoon's.  It's also home to the British Commercial Vehicle Museum, a collection of trucks and buses and what not.  I've already made it clear that transport museums made up principally of motor vehicles are right up there with the crater of an active volcano as far as desirable days out for me, but it was there, so I thought I should visit.  Plus, I'd seen the BBC documentary Behind the Scenes at The Museum a couple of years ago, which tracked the backroom strife, so there was a certain macabre interest in the place.

Fortunately it was closed, so I carried on into the town centre itself.  It was a nice little strip of small, local shops, nothing special, and culminated in a massive roundabout with an interesting clock.

Seeing a sign with Leyland Motors - For All Time felt like a sick joke - like seeing a sign saying Woolworths: Now and Forever or getting a lifetime guarantee from Rumbelows.  It didn't help that the backdrop to the clock was another massive ugly retail park with a McDonald's and a Poundstretcher.  It felt like it was rubbing salt into the wound, forcing Leyland to confront the fact that it no longer really made things, just consumed them.

As I turned the corner and saw a gargantuan Morrison's and Homebase lurching up in the distance, its towers and roofs suggesting nothing less than a 21st century castle, I wondered what the people of Leyland did.  Clearly there was a retail market here, but where were the people earning their money?  Where was all the money coming from now that they didn't make anything?  Was it just folks earning their pay working in one shop and then spending it in another shop next door?  Was Leyland basically just passing the same used fivers round and round in a cycle, over and over?

I was a bit miserable just thinking about it, so I was pleased to come across the train station at last.  It's just a wooden building, very simple and basic, but it was pleasant enough.  There were at least facilities to buy a ticket and to sit down under cover, and a screen with the departures on it.

Down below there are four platforms.  Platform three was currently occupied by a group of serious looking men, the kind of blokes who spend their days seriously discussing plumbing and car engines over pints of real ale.  I wondered if they'd been disappointed by the Commercial Vehicle Museum being closed.

That was it, as far as stations on the Merseyrail map was concerned, but I still had one more place to visit.  Buckshaw Parkway is the newest railway station in Britain, opened on the 3rd October 2011, and it was the next stop on the line.  I couldn't pass up the opportunity to have a nose.

In another example of post-industrialisation England, the station's been built to serve a massive new brownfield development.  The site used to be a Royal Ordnance Factory, but since its closure it's been handed over to the housebuilders, who are throwing up townhouses, executive homes and semis all over what were factories and testing grounds.

The station is the latest example of Network Rail's modularised design for new buildings, first seen at Greenhithe in Kent.  Simple to construct, the format can be adapted to local requirements and budgets, but is basically the same - red tiled walls, glass automatic doors, a ticket office and a disabled toilet.

I was curious to see this new style in the flesh.  It seemed to work, certainly in comparison with the stark Euxton Balshaw Lane.  There was a ticket window, and a ticket machine too, which was certainly an improvement.  The presence of a staff member also made it feel more secure than the deserted Balshaw Lane.

Would I have preferred a carefully designed, interesting station building?  Of course.  I know that Network Rail is working within a ridiculously tight budget though, and so these modular stations are a good way to provide a new service without breaking the bank.  The idea of a standardised station building is nothing new, after all - work your way along the line between Hough Green and Manchester and you get a single design repeated over and over.

Besides, it's not like it's been built in the middle of an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  The station looks like it's in the middle of a Bosnian war zone at the moment, surrounded by scrubby wasteland and dead end roads.  And a Tesco the size of Estonia, of course.  Always a Tesco.

I needed to get from the station to the main road, so I followed the exit to the left.  Rookie mistake.  I should have realised that in this post-apocalyptic wasteland, the roads were mere suggestions of routes to take.  The tarmac ran out at a roundabout with four exits, none of which lead to roads.  I ended up tramping across a brick strewn mess to get to the road out of Leyland.

Now it was just a walk back to where I'd started from, Euxton Balshaw Lane, for the train back to Liverpool.  I felt strangely cheered by Buckshaw Parkway, and the way it showed a confidence in the railways.  The houses would probably have been built on that ex-ROF site, but the presence of a direct route to Manchester probably added a couple of grand to the asking price.  It looked like the station was well used too: the station car park was half full, which isn't bad considering it's still in the middle of a building site.  It's just a shame about the name.  I hate the "Parkway" suffix.  Just call it Buckshaw, without advertising the parking spaces.

There was a trainspotter at Euxton Balshaw Lane.  He was hovering on the staircase with his telephoto lens, ready to snap a picture of a Pendolino as it came whizzing past.  I was tempted to go over and introduce myself, ask him what he was looking for, if he came here often, but (a) I'm too shy and (b) that's a bit creepy.  He crossed over to the other platform anyway, ready to take a picture of my train when it pulled up.

As I rode back to Liverpool, surrounded by screaming infants and men jabbering in Arabic, I felt a sadness. It was almost the end.  I went to Brew on Bold Street to drown my sorrows with a cup of white needle tea.

I miss booze.


Gavin Kincade said...

You're looking very well in the photos. Any thoughts on Tesco's role in the government's latest workfare scheme?

Neil said...

Shame you didn't (presumably) get to see the old Euxton ROF station. Marooned as it was away from the tracks, unspoilt because vandals couldn't get to it but tumbledown because of its age, it would have been so nice to see it reinstated as it was.

That said, the new modular design looks modern and practical. And it isn't just a couple of platforms with bus shelters, as was the way forward in the late 90s.

But a *real* shame that the name "Euxton ROF" wasn't retained.