Friday, 6 April 2012

Down by the Riverside

You wouldn't know it to look at it, but Woodside in Birkenhead was once a thriving, hectic spot.  The square of land by the river used to host a multitude of transportation options, local and national, land and seagoing.

It's all very different now.  I headed down there on a crisp Thursday morning to have a look round.  Of course, Hamilton Square is still there.  At that time of the morning it was regularly pumping out commuters, dishing them out onto the street like a suited man vending machine.  It's a lovely station, Victorian enough to pique your interest, but modern enough to be efficient.

The underground station used to have a mainline neighbour, Birkenhead Woodside.  This impressive terminus was sited close by, and carried mainline trains to Chester and beyond - including daily services to London Paddington.  The trains tunnelled under the town, via a route I followed a couple of months ago, and emerged in a cutting below Church Street.  The tunnel entrance, now bricked up, is still visible:

It looks strangely sinister there, like the entrance to a troll's hole.  If you'd stood on the other side of the bridge fifty years ago, you'd have seen directly into the rear of Woodside station, with the platforms poking out of a twin-barrelled iron roof.  Today, you see this:

The former grand terminus was completely demolished in the sixties.  Dr Beeching - him again - decided that if people from the Wirral wanted to go anywhere beyond their borders, they could cross the river to Lime Street.  Mainline services were pulled out completely, while the local trains were cut back to Rock Ferry.  Now the tunnel's throat has become a bus parking area - a distinctly ignominious replacement.

There's still a tiny hint of the former grand terminus in the wall along Chester Street, the only part of the station that still remains.  The carved ornaments at the top are far grander than you'd expect for a place for bus drivers to have a fag.

The station used to go right down to the riverside, with a side entrance used for access to the ferry terminal.  Famously, this was a mistake; the railway company wanted the ferry companies to build their termini on the south side of the station, where there was a grand entrance and fancy waiting rooms.  The ferry companies refused to comply, though, so a minor back entrance became the way in and out of Woodside.  A bit embarrassing.

I stood by the Mersey Ferries building and tried to imagine what the station must have been like.  It's actually quite difficult to picture a bustling station filled with steam and passengers when you're staring at a couple of tedious red brick office blocks.

That's the HQ of the Child Support Agency, with the local Land Registry offices next door.  Not exactly the most prestigious tenants.  Wilfred Owen's father had been station manager at Woodside, and I pictured it in its turn of the century heyday, all women in big hats and smart porters.  The luggage would be carried separately to the ferry for shipping across the river, ready for transfer to the liners and hotels in Liverpool.  Moving down to the riverside, I was pleased to see there was a cruise ship docked across the way.  It's always a wonder to stare at the Liverpool skyline.

Passengers getting the Mersey Ferry across to Woodside must be horribly disappointed.  Yes, there's the German submarine at the terminal building, chopped up in three like a giant metal salami, but you don't want to go too far beyond.  The tram terminal is here, a couple of sad little buffers that promise a great deal but don't really deliver.

When Woodside terminal was here, a dozen tram routes also finished in this little square; in fact, I would have been able to have got a tram from here right to the bottom of my road without a change.  A number of Wirral bus routes still end up here, but few passengers ever alight.  Birkenhead has a much better central bus station next to the shops.  It's a step up from the draughty building in the centre of the gyratory here, with nothing in the way of passenger facilities - even the toilets are boarded up.

There's one final piece of railway architecture here.  If you've been paying attention, you'll remember I wrote about the Mersey Railway's pumping house, on Mann Island.  On the Wirral side is its much larger cousin.  (This is in the grand tradition of putting nice, neat little facilities on the Liverpool side and huge ugly ones in Birkenhead; see also anything associated with the Queensway Tunnel).

It looks like a superannuated version of the one across the river - almost as if they were born twins, but one ate way too much fast food growing up.  The pumping facilities are still here, keeping the tunnel safe.  For a while this was opened as a tourist attraction called The Giant Grasshopper after the nickname for the pumping engine.  Calling it that was just setting yourself up for a fall.  "Hey kids!  Let's go and see the Giant Grasshopper!  No, it's not a massive insect, it's a fine piece of Victorian engineering.  Stop crying."

It's not open any more, of course, as the cuts meant Wirral Council couldn't afford to run extravagances like museums and libraries and so on.  Then they voted for a cut in Council Tax.  I despair sometimes.

I followed the tram lines away, through the old entrance to the dock estate.  There are large freight warehouses here, which have been converted into offices.  Is there a more potent symbol of Merseyside decline than a warehouse, by a dock, which used to be occupied by Littlewoods Pools?

On the plus side, the building looks like it's being redeveloped (again).  Which is more than can be said for its close neighbour, the former Pacific Road Arts Centre.  Once the tram terminus, this was made into a performance venue at the turn of the millennium, and hosted music and comedy events.  Naturally, this sort of frivolity can't be tolerated, so the Council closed it down after a dozen years.  The rumour is that they'd decided to pump their money into the rebuilt Floral Pavillion in New Brighton instead, because of course a borough of 300,000 people only needs one arts venue.  Now it's just sitting there, awaiting a sale, while its assets are quietly shipped up the peninsula.

The tram tracks carry on past the new Twelve Quays hub for Wirral Metropolitan College, reminding me that they could actually serve a useful purpose if someone decided to use the trams properly.  Now that Merseytravel have backed out of taking over the line though, you're left to wonder if anyone else will bother.

While the tracks turn left for the Wirral Transport Museum, I turned right, to see the Egerton Bridge.  This is a bascule bridge, one which levered open to allow ships to pass underneath, and which was restored in 1993.  It's a fine piece of dockside architecture.

In what seemed to be an all-too depressing theme, this used to be open as a tourist attraction too, but was closed a few years ago.  Now it's just an over-elaborate road bridge, with its window broken and weeds growing over the steps.

Heading back towards Hamilton Square, I passed the most impressive piece of railway regeneration, the Cheshire Lines Building.  The massive goods warehouse has been sympathetically converted into a top-class office block...

 ...which was then occupied by Wirral Borough Council.  Something something noses something something trough.  It is a lovely building, though.

Which is more than can be said about Woodside in general.  It's just such an ignored district of town.  With Hamilton Square's Grade 1 listed magnificence just moments away, and the ferry and Merseyrail bringing a regular stream of Japanese tourists across, there should be so much more to it than a tram route past a sewage works that only operates weekends.  Part of the problem is that it's a dead district - there are a couple of pubs, including Britain's only pub/barbershop, but that's about it, and hardly anyone lives round here.  I've stood at the bus stops here on a Saturday night and not seen another soul.  Some good quality apartment blocks round here, cheaper than the big city ones across the water, but blessed with that magnificent view, would be a massive boon.  Build that and you could get a few decent restaurants perhaps (though the excellently-named Station, by Hamilton Square, is really good), a couple of cafes, that sort of thing.  The town centre's shifted away from here, down by the precinct, so this needs to have a different offering - a far more exclusive, boutique-y feel perhaps.

There should be some attraction here to get all those Americans taking the famous ferry to spend some cash.  Something better than a giant grasshopper anyway.  An aquarium perhaps, or a proper transport museum (or perhaps a well-funded arts centre).  Birkenhead should be the Gateshead to Liverpool's Newcastle, but the Wirral's far too caught up in its own petty dramas to even bother thinking about that sort of thing.  It might not be a transport hub any more, but it still could be important to the town.


gottago said...

I've always had a romantic (well more romantic than the area currently is) dream of the area around Hamilton Square station transforming into a glorious home for pretentious, young professional types with Mann Island style apartments sitting beside warehouses converted into apartments. The residents would all get the train to Moorfields for their office jobs in wealth management before returning after six to settle down in the restaurants and coffee chains that have opened up on the ground floors of their buildings before retiring to their pretentious one bedroomed accommodation where they have pretentious sex with their pretentious girlfriends with the curtains open so they can do it with that glorious view of Liverpool in the background. At the weekends they'd sneer at the old biddies and families visiting the ferry before buying that week's groceries from the Little Waitrose that's just opened off the square (that's what everyone calls Hamilton Square) and later get the train to Hoylake to do some pretentious drinking whilst surrounded by the cast of Hollyoaks.

Oh it would be wonderful. But for now it will remain a dead mish-mash within walking distances of the Wirral's premiere prostitutes.

Jamie said...

It's a tad unfair to say Merseytravel backed out of the Birkenhead tram. Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton and Liverpool councils didn't want to put money into something that would only benefit Wirral, so I don't think MITA had any choice but to order MPTE out.

This only happened because That Woman abolished Merseyside County Council in a fit of political vindictiveness even she must have found breathtaking.

By the way, what's the point of a sewage works that only operates weekends?

Robert said...

Last I heard the Merseytravel tram deal isn't dead entirely. Merseytravel have even bought some ex-Blackpool trams for use on the line, which are in store in various locations.

I believe one sticking point is that Wirral are/were insisting that Merseytravel take over the Pacific Road theatre as well as the tramway.

PS this post was really just an excuse to try out your new iPhone camera, wasn't it?

Scott Willison said...

gottago, you're speaking my language - though I'd have put the pretentious beautiful people on board the ferry in the morning, like commuters into Manhattan from Staten Island.. I'm not sure why it hasn't happened. That view is amazing; I'm surprised there weren't developers itching to take advantage of it. Woodside should be Liverpool's West Bank, not its poor cousin.

There's a pleasing symmetry to Wirral's tram plans being scuppered by the rest of Merseyside after Wirral refused to support Merseytram and sounded its death knell. I say pleasing symmetry; I actually mean "circle of bitterness and despair".

If I was just doing this as an excuse to use my iPhone camera this would have been a parade of pretentious Instagram shots. Ahem:

Anonymous said...

I find the Wilfred Owen connection poignant, given that Birkenhead Woodside was the terminal for main line trains from Paddinton via Shrewsbury and Gobowen (for Oswestry) - both places of significance in Wilfred's short life.

Robert said...

Here's the very latest on the Birkenhead Tramway takeover saga: