Sunday 24 June 2012

It's Grim Up North

I could live in Rishton, I've decided.  Perhaps when I retire.

The station was neat and tidy and had a footbridge, which was a first on this trip.  It was tucked away at the end of a suburban street.  There was an old-ish pub next to the platform, but on the other side of the street were modern bungalows.  Their gardens were aflame with blooms.

As I approached the village centre, the houses aged, turning into neat cottages with painted fronts.  Rishton originally made its money from weaving, and the homes had the pride and distinctiveness of a community based on a trade - people who built good houses for a decent job.  I could hear the screams and laughs of children at the local primary school, an old-fashioned Victorian hulk, with red bricks and separate entrances for boys and girls.

The town centre, meanwhile, was interesting and varied.  Local shops, a couple of small chains, some pubs.  Women with buggies and pensioners.  A bus turned up and carried a couple of people off towards Preston.  Small town life.

I was charmed and happy.  I headed for the bridge over the canal, passing through a gate built for the Queen's last Jubilee, in 2002.  Down there were walkers with dogs, a couple throwing bread into the water for the ducks.  The houses had landing stages built at the end of their gardens.  I'm not sure if they ever actually had a boat moor there, but it made a good spot for their barbecues and sun loungers.

The fishermen gave me a slightly different perspective.  A group of middle-aged men, casting their lines, a couple of mates with them.  All very pretty and Countryfile, until I got close and saw they were drinking White Ace cider from the bottle.  These weren't professionals taking a day off to enjoy the sport; they were jobless men looking for a purpose, something to occupy their time.  Rishton wasn't completely perfect.

The other downside was the incessant burr of traffic.  Somewhere, carefully concealed among the hills, the M65 was passing.  Landscaping, plus the natural rise and fall of the hills, meant I couldn't see it, but I could seemingly hear the engine of every passing truck, car and van.  It was a constant arhythmic throb beneath my scenic walk.

I let the sunshine bake me a bit more as I lingered on the towpath.  A girl passed on a bike, hair an unnatural shade of magenta, a phone clamped to her right ear.  She was barking loudly into it with one fist on the handlebars.  I was severely tempted to give her a little push in the direction of the water.

The noise of the motorway was getting louder, but it wasn't bothering the little chain of swans and cygnets up ahead.  With stately grace, they advanced along the canal, as arrogant as a bird can possibly be.

It was then I experienced a surreal moment.  I realised why the motorway was so loud; I was actually above it.  The stone wall to my left wasn't just another farmer's enclosure - it was the side of an aqueduct carrying the Leeds and Liverpool Canal over the M65.  I peeked over the top and saw this beneath me:

Then I turned back and saw this:

It was a paradox my head couldn't quite take on board - a scenic waterway one way, six lanes of buzzing traffic the other.

The path turned away from the canalside to head for Church (the town, not the place of worship).  I passed a jogger whose subtle tracksuit couldn't take away from one of the mightiest weaves I have ever seen: I wanted to stop her and congratulate her.

My concern for my iPhone's battery stopped me from tweeting "I am in Church" as I stepped into the town, but rest assured I was thinking it.  It was a different world to Rishton.  While the spectre of unemployment and misery was below the surface there, in Church it was front and centre.  The fishermen were there again, but here they jeered as I passed.  The streets were grim and ugly.  And as I approached a church, a skinny man with a carrier bag suddenly leapt up and bellowed at me from the graveyard.  I couldn't understand him - I'm afraid his Northern accent was too thick for me, and yes, I know how Margo Leadbetter that makes me sound - so I kept my head down and pushed on.

Underscoring it all was the constant grinding, banging, beep-beep-beep of reversing vehicles at a massive depot behind the houses.  The noise of the industrial plant almost drove me mad in the brief time I was in the town, so God knows what the residents must think of it.  I suppose you become accustomed to it.

I hurried on to the train station, the brilliantly named Church & Oswaldtwistle.  "Oswald Twistle" sounds like a character from an Alan Sillitoe novel, railing against unemployment in black and white.  It's not so much a station as a passing place on a viaduct.

I'm posting that picture up there now, so you know I was in fact at Church & Oswaldtwistle station.  Because when I took a pic using the crappy front of phone camera, the name completely vanished.  I promise I was there.

Excitingly, the station had an ALF!  Well, a demi-ALF.  I had no idea what Oswaldtwistle Mills were, but I assumed it was something supremely exciting - a key moment in the history of the Industrial Revolution, perhaps.  Imagine how let down I was when I got home and found out it was another fucking craft mall with, yes, an Edinburgh Woollen Mill.  Even the fact that it's home to the World's Largest Pear Drop couldn't stop my disappointment.

My feeling of general sadness continue to Accrington.  I got off the train and saw this:

I have no basic objection to Tesco.  It's a shop.  People like to shop.  It just happens to be better and more efficient at giving people what they want than other shops.  You shouldn't really blame Tesco - you should blame the people who flock to it.

In this case, I'm going to blame Accrington's local authorities.  They've allowed Tesco to build a behemoth of a store right in the centre of town, yards from the rest of the shopping centre.  It's got a car park, two floors of merchandise, handy access from the train station.  It's got everything.  And in the process it has royally fucked over the town centre.  The locals basically strung up their own noose.

I guess they got a new railway station out of it - all local stone and elegant curves.  Anywhere else I'd be pleased with it.  Here, I just felt sad.  The town had whored itself for some money.

Like hundreds of other people, I didn't bother with the town centre, and headed out of town.  In the process I passed under a mighty piece of engineering - a viaduct, right in the centre of town, built for the railway.  If it had been a motorway overpass, it would have divided the town, but the high elegance of this structure added to the town.  There was even a coffee shop built into one of its arches.

Two things around the viaduct made me think that perhaps Accrington wasn't in the greatest shape.  The first was a man in his fifties with a carrier bag of snacks.  He walked past me, to the grass verge by the McDonalds, sat down and took out a bottle of Coke.  He was setting up for a picnic on a patch of land next to a roundabout.

The second was a man who stopped me and asked for a pound.  I apologised and said I didn't have any coins (which was sort of true; I only had a five pound note and some five pences - I didn't fancy asking for change).

"Go on," he said.  "I'll give you me watch."  He offered forward a large, elegant men's watch that didn't match the rest of him at all.  And he wanted to offload it for a quid?  Hmm.  I apologised again and walked away.

My next station was on the outskirts of town, and there was a road which could have taken me there directly.  I didn't fancy that though.  As I was in Accrington, I simply had to see an icon of the Eighties.

Everyone at school did that voice.  Everyone said "EXACKLEY!".  I couldn't come into the depths of Lancashire and not see them.

Unfortunately, Accrington town centre's in a valley, and the football ground's on a hill.  I found myself trudging upwards, reflecting that I was probably going to be doing a lot of this as I crossed the North of England.  This wasn't going to be a series of gentle strolls along smooth level lanes.  I was going to have to cross moors, hills, even the Pennines.  Whose idea was this again?

The plus side was the architecture; a series of softly shaded villas, with their front gardens penned in by  iron spikes.  It was elegant and subtle, and certainly made the walk a lot more pleasant.

The Crown Ground, Accrington Stanley's home, is on a small side street.  Walking up to it I could almost see inside the stadium.  There was a tiny car park, with a portakabin housing the offices and the club shop.  A sign on the shop door said When shop is closed, please ask at reception.  It was sweetly local.  I don't have much time for football but I admired the people who came here every Saturday to watch lower league rambling.  That's dedication.

I turned around and followed the road out of town.  It became a gravel road, then a path, then I was on soft soil between fields.  A pony trudged over to the fence and meekly allowed me to stroke its nose.

I came out at the side of the road next to a caravan park.  For a minute I thought I was back in Wales again.  This wasn't a bunch of holiday homes for weekending townies, though.  For starters, it was clinging to the side of the hill, right above a grim industrial plant and a series of warehouses.  The entrance was unmarked - there was no sign showing you had reached the "Happy Hills Holiday Park" or some such.  I realised that this miserable patch of side road had been allocated to travellers.  A little girl cycled through the centre of the compound on a tricycle, her wheels spinning on the grey mud, while a dog barked over and over.  The air smelt thickly of chemicals, like the inside of a Rustlers hot dog.  I didn't envy their existence in this patch of sadness.

There wasn't a path by the side of the road, so I balanced myself on the grass verge as eighteen-wheelers bombed past.  The earth was rough and pitted with litter; I kept imagining myself pitching to one side and falling in front of a truck.  Perhaps reaching out towards the fence on my fall, and managing to lacerate myself on the barbed wire.

By the time I reached Huncoat, I felt miserable and downbeat.  Passing an RSPCA rescue centre on the way didn't help - my concrete heart is always melted by the yelping of abandoned animals.  My mood had managed to plummet over the course of the afternoon, cracked by each successive town.  My ecstasies at Rishton seemed like a long time ago.

Huncoat's an old mining village; I passed a sign for the former colliery site, now given over to nature, but with stern warnings not to, you know, fall down a pit or something.  It's also the place where Diana "The Claw" Vickers grew up, which gives you an insight into why she was so keen to win The X-Factor.

I'd planned on doing a couple more stations before I went home, but I'd had enough.  I was tired and sad.  I didn't fancy moving onto another town that had seen better days.  I installed myself on a bench to wait for the train.

I love living at this end of the country.  I really do.  I don't regret spending nearly half my life the "wrong" side of Birmingham.  But my trip was reminding me that I was going to see a lot of poverty, a lot of unemployment and depression on my journeys.  This wasn't all going to be fun.

Thursday 21 June 2012

God Bothering

Things were not going well.  I'd got up at silly o'clock.  I'd forgotten my camera, leaving me with my iPhone and its delicate battery life.  I'd been accosted by a ticket inspector at Preston, despite having already passed him two minutes before on my way to the loo.  And now I'd made a wrong turn, making me retrace my steps and probably meaning I'll miss my next train.  Things were not going well.

It wasn't an auspicious start for the first Northern Rail excursion.  I'd decided, somewhat randomly, to tackle the East Lancashire Line.  This runs from Preston to Colne via Blackburn and Accrington, and seemed to offer a good mix of town and country.

I'd gone to Preston via Ormskirk, because it's always fun to revisit my Edge Hill days, and also because it was a little bit different.  I'd been pleased to see a community notice board giving the history of the station - until I spotted that it used 'formally' instead of 'formerly'.  This, of course, rendered the rest of the information useless; all I could see was that massive grammatical error, glowing at me, expanding to fill the rest of the poster.

A wretched Pacer arrived to take us north.  Whose idea was a 2+3 seat configuration?  No-one, ever, wants to sit on the row of three seats.  We're British.  A double seat invites far too much potential intimacy; the three-seater row pins you in a corner, with the possibility of two strangers installing them alongside you and trapping you up against a window.  It's like being stuck in the centre of a theatre row next to a Weight Watchers coach trip.  It just makes you wonder if you'll ever get out again.

Still, it had at least been thoroughly Colour Tsar'd on the inside, with familiar purple seats and yellow and grey handrails.  It pleased me that this Merseyrail-adjacent line had Merseyrail-adjacent branding.  Almost as though they were getting ready for it to become part of the Northern Line properly (oh, I can dream).  It was a while since I'd been this way, so I enjoyed watching the view, as various tired commuters got aboard with coffees and cans of Red Bull.  The man who sat in front of me smelt of some excessively rugged shower gel - something that came in a grey bottle and probably had SPORT written on the front in an angled font.  None of your Original Source Lime for him - he was a bloke.  Sadly it wasn't strong enough to cover up the stench from the fag he'd smoked on the way to the station, meaning there was a weird mix of nicotine and locker room.

Croston still had its Jubilee bunting up over the entrance to the platform.  Somehow I knew that it would.  It's so Middle England.  We stopped at Midge Hall so the driver and the signalman could chat; behind it the old station building was covered in weeds and moss, unloved, abandoned.  Then we were at Preston, a wonderfully impressive station.  It's all through platforms, and dizzyingly busy.  The logistics of it all baffle me.  My Ormskirk train was almost immediately replaced by one to Manchester Victoria; there was one to Blackpool North beside me, and a Glasgow bound Pendolino across the way.  A freight train thundered through in the distance, not stopping at the platform, noisily clattering en route.  I thought of the shifting points, the signals, the co-ordination that was needed to make everything work efficiently, and my head swam.  It was too early in the morning.

Finally the Colne service arrived, and took us south through the city's suburbs to Lostock Hall.  It's funny how seemingly unique names can turn up again; I visited Lostock Gralam last year, not realising it had a half-brother forty miles away.  Since it was the first train after nine o'clock, the platform was full of pensioners, and I fought my way through a blue-rinse posse to get off.

It's a simple and unromantic little halt.  I wandered up to the street and prepared to take my sign pic.  I don't like using the iPhone for pictures.  Its dimensions are just a little bit off; it's easy to use as a phone or a touchscreen computer, but when you take a photo it's a bit too big for your hands.  I'm still getting used to it as well - I can never remember which volume button to press to take a photo.  I had a try at turning the phone round for the self-pics, as I'm used to, but it just didn't work.  In the end I gave up, abandoning the 8mp camera on the back for the less powerful camera on the front.  It means all the sign pics are a bit rubbish.  Sorry about that.

Lostock Hall was as plain as its railway station.  A couple of pubs, a war memorial, some basic shops.  The Pleasant Retreat Inn was covered in England flags, as you'd expect the day after they beat Ukraine in Euro 2012.  A car pulled up outside a small suburban house, bouncing onto the pavement.  The driver got out and manhandled a screaming baby out of the back seat, carrying it into the house with the air of a woman who was having a very bad morning.  I guessed that she was very late for the childminder.

A sense of disquiet was starting to crawl over me.  Shouldn't I have run into my next station by now?  I seemed to be getting further and further out of Lostock Hall with no sign of Bamber Bridge.  I found out the reason soon enough: a big sign at the side of the road welcoming me to Penwortham.  I was going in completely the wrong direction; in fact, I was halfway back into Preston.  I risked my phone battery by taking a look at Google Maps.  Yep, there it was, the turn I'd missed about fifteen minutes before.

I did a 180 degree turn on my heel and went back into town, panicking that I'd miss my train.  I had a fairly packed schedule planned; one missed train and I'd have to start cutting stations.  I took the correct turn - by a pub called the Tardy Gate, which just seemed to be mocking my lateness - and maintained a brisk pace along the main road.

An underpass signalled a change of scene with surprising swiftness.  I'd come through stoutly ordinary streets; semi-detached houses and British Legion halls and corner shops.  I emerged into Victoriana, with avenues and a church tower poking out of thick mature trees.  Bamber Bridge was most definitely different to its neighbour.

As if to underline its separation, the first landmark I saw was a monastery.  Not the most common of sights anywhere, but a real change from the working class Lostock Hall.  Sadly there was no sign of any monks, but there was a wonderful Virgin Mary in front of the church, carved from a single tree like a Catholic version of those large breasted figureheads on ships.

My worry about being late meant I skipped Bamber Bridge's town centre, taking a short cut through the back streets to get to the station quicker.  I was passed by two men on a tandem, pedalling sweatily; they then passed me again, going in the opposite direction, which probably means there were two drivers and no navigator on board.

Bamber Bridge has a level crossing, a signal box and a pleasant station building, but only the first two are still in use for railway purposes.  The last one's been restored but instead of selling tickets, it's being used as a day centre for the town's pensioners.  There's probably some symbolism in there if you look hard enough.

It does say Bamber Bridge behind me, honest.  You just have to squint a bit.

My prayers to a non-existent deity had been answered; I had a minute to recover on the platform before my train arrived.

Pleasington was as nice as its name implied.  I was suddenly surrounded by greenery and nature, dappling the sunlight onto the platform.  I trekked up to the railway bridge to find elegant Victorian villas and the kind of pub you want to stretch out in front of with a pint and a newspaper.

I was soon leaving the village though, ducking down a side route between some houses.  The path ran between fenced off fields, descending into a dip and then a small copse.  The stresses of the morning began to fall off me.  I felt my forehead begin to delicately toast in the sun and realised, sadly, that I might have to start wearing a hat when I went out in the heat.  My hairline was crawling back to a point where it couldn't protect me any more.

The recent few days' sunshine still hadn't dried out the path through the woods, and I had to adopt a splayed, slightly indecent swagger to avoid puddles and mud.  There were nettles and thistles either side of me, lending it a slight air of danger, then I stepped into what seemed to be a car park.  I didn't expect that.

In reality, I'd hit the Witton Country Park.  It's a wide expanse of maintained parkland on the edge of Blackburn, and I'd arrived in the morning rush.  Cars were pulling up on the straight roadway through the centre and emptying out eager dogs for their daily walks.

A dozen sprightly looking pensioners came towards me, brandishing walking sticks and maps in plastic bags.  They were all wearing stout boots and thick socks, ready for a day's hiking through the park woodlands.  At the back, a single man was staring intently at a GPS device, as though he could make it work with his eyeballs.  Part of me hopes I'm that active at their age, while another part hopes that I can just spend my retirement in a chair with a nice cup of tea.

I crossed a pretty bridge over the river, and passed through wide open spaces of neatly cut lawn.  A sign at the side advised me that the space was reserved for "the operation of power driven model aircraft" at the weekends.  I'd never seen that before, and I resolved to come back one Saturday to watch the toy planes taking off.  I'd bring one of my own, but I have a real sadistic streak in me; the most fun you can have with a model aircraft, as far as I'm concerned, is crashing it.

Outside the park, I followed a priest along the pavement.  He was wearing the full garb, which pleased me.  I'm not keen on the God stuff, nor the paedophilia, misogyny, homophobia, racism and other unpleasant aspects of the Church, but I do like the outfits.  Nothing cheers me like a well-dressed nun in a habit.  Then the priest turned into an old people's home, and it struck me that someone was about to die, which killed the mood a bit.

There isn't a cherry tree at Cherry Tree.  I'm completely baffled about how this happened.  There were plenty of other trees around, yes, but not a single fruity one.  How hard would it be to plant a sapling?  Come on, Northern Rail.  A couple of quid in a garden centre and you get a moment of good PR.

In a complete reverse of the situation at Bamber Bridge, I was hopelessly early for my train, so I settled into the shelter.  I hoped that the plastic roof wouldn't enhance the sunlight, like a greenhouse, and turn my skull even redder.

If I was heterosexual, I'd have found Cherry Tree a delightful place to wait.  There's a college nearby, and the platform slowly filled with a succession of lanky, skinny teenage girls wearing tiny shorts and low-cut tops.  A straight man wouldn't have known where to look; as it was, I just wondered if they couldn't have worn a slightly less powerful mix of perfumes.

The next station's officially called Mill Hill (Lancs).  Presumably this is to stop people trying to get a train to Tufnell Park from here.  It was an island platform, which surprised me, and was a bit unloved; a stretch of concrete with a set of steps up to the road.  The bright sunshine really pointed up the cameraphone's flaws.

I was now in Blackburn proper, and the streets were a tight mesh of brick terraces rising and falling with the hills.  I crossed a bridge over and passed onto a patch of green, where a toddler was practising running under the watchful eye of his mum and nan.  He hadn't quite learnt how to control his legs.  I stepped out of the way to avoid a collision while he barrelled off into the distance, gurgling gleefully.

The road into the town is called Redlam, which sounds like a particularly sinister anagram; I felt like I should be able to rearrange the letters to spell BURN IN HELL.  It's an undistinguished main road, with convenience stores and pubs.  The Union Jacks and England flags were out here too, but they took on a slightly sinister air here - a quarter of the town is Asian, and the BNP have won seats on the Council.  The Jubilee, the Olympics and Gabrielle from The Apprentice have helped make the flag a joyful part of our national psyche again, something you can wear without embarrassment, but it can still carry a dark undercurrent in the wrong place.

I passed small houses that fronted directly onto the road.  There was a boy practising his guitar in the window of one, frowning at his music as he reclined on leather chair.  A massively fat lap dog was in another; his owner had left the front door open, revealing that, for some reason, they kept a dressing gown on a coat hanger in the hall.  Perhaps it's in case the postman knocks while you're watching Homes Under the Hammer naked.

"Regeneration" was in progress further on - or at least, I assume, that was what was going on.  Entire streets of terraced houses were boarded up and vacant, waiting for a bulldozer.  There didn't seem to be much happening.  I imagined everyone being turfed out a few years ago, promised shiny new houses, only for the recession to hit and the whole thing fell apart.  I hope they're somewhere better.  What was sad was the new houses around these Victorian relics - 1970s versions of the same, and now looking as tired and unpleasant, if not more.  New doesn't always mean better.

The shops were now reflecting the multi-ethnic mix of the town - an Asian cash and carry, a Polish supermarket, and dozens of takeaways from every region.  The chippies and fried chicken takeaways were filled with kids from the nearby high school, a pleasing two fingers to Jamie Oliver.  I don't like the idea of grossly obese children any more than the next person but I quite like the idea of his campaign collapsing under the weight of its own smugness.

I was enjoying Blackburn.  Ian came here a few weeks ago and didn't enjoy himself; it was a town of skunk and skanks.  (He also used a "four thousand holes" gag I wish I'd come up with).  It wasn't pretty or glamorous but it had a certain earthy charm.  A town that worked for a living.

I cut through the Cathedral Close.  Accordingly to Wikipedia (which is, let's face it, Gospel) Blackburn got a cathedral in the twenties because it was handy for the train station.  I love the practicality of that decision, and it makes me wonder if there were equally pragmatic reasons behind other religious choices - if Jerusalem's a Holy City just because early pilgrims couldn't be bothered walking any further, or if St Paul's only called that because the founder couldn't spell "Theobald".

Despite later additions, Blackburn Cathedral still feels like a parish church, and can't really overawe the way good religious centres do.  It was a pretty haven in the centre of town though, right behind the main street.  More regeneration cash has been splashed here - modern art and benches and hundreds of signs.  That seems to be the main focus of a lot of money; put an eight foot sign up every few metres to tell you that you're on King Street.  Just in case you forget.

Blackburn's the home to Thwaite's brewery, which I didn't know and which was another tick for the town.  They make some pretty good beers.  The brewery's high tower can be seen from all around, a remarkably practical and pleasingly Northern skyscraper.

And the cap on it all was Blackburn railway station.  Which is wonderful.  The town has combined a nineteenth century building with twenty-first century redevelopment to make a really joyous hub, with a practical bus gyratory outside.  Until fairly recently a Victorian train shed covered the platforms, but years of neglect meant it had to be demolished at the turn of the Millennium.  The easy solution would have been to simply not replace it, or, at best, wheel out a copy.

Instead, Blackburn was gifted with a new, innovative roof, a glass dome that sweeps over the platforms.

It's like a budget version of the fantastic entrances to Canary Wharf underground station.  That's not a criticism; they've done an awful lot with very little.

In addition, the station's been cleaned up, repainted, scrubbed.  Clean white and blue tiles cover the walls - practical but bright.  The ticket office is well appointed.  There are open public toilets.  It's everything a good small town station should be.

I wasn't surprised to find plaques in the station entrance celebrating the works, including some architectural prizes.  It was a joy to visit.  I started this blog because I love railway station architecture, and places like Blackburn are why I keep going.