Saturday 25 August 2012


I think it's safe to say the new Liverpool Central's a triumph.

I stepped off the train this morning into a gleaming, shiny white new world.  The Wirral Line platform (the Northern Line is coming in the Autumn) is now a wonderful place to be.

Removing the heavy brown plastic mouldings that previously occupied the platform wall has made it feel so much lighter and more pleasant.  Removing the rubber floor helps too.  The seating's been replaced with these grey and yellow beauties, which I believe are the same ones featured on the London Underground:

The other thing that strikes you is - there are no ads.  This must surely be a temporary measure; I can't believe that they've decided to just give up a handy revenue stream.   Equally, I can't see how they can put them in now that the cladding's in place.  I assume that there is going to be some kind of display case put in later, because I really hope this isn't permanent:

Yes, those timetables are pasted on the wall.  That's going to get really unpleasant really quickly.  Still, as you can see from the light boxes above, there's still a lot of work to do.  As I worked my way up to the concourse my fellow escalator riders were mainly Merseyrail staff and hi-vis clad builders, staring at me and my camera as though I was some kind of lunatic.  Ha!

I don't know if it was because it was so early in the morning, or if it's the new white tiling, but the station's acquired a zen-calmness.  Again, the lack of posters adds to the effect.  The station suddenly feels like that very calm transit station at the start of Star Trek: The Motion Picture: gleaming, pale efficiency.

The posters reappear at the mezzanine between escalators, so any hope I had that they were being replaced by whizzy LCD video screens was dashed.

Also gone: that massive poster space over the head of the Wirral Line escalators, the one that advertised a computer game shop that stocked games for "Commodore, Spectrum, Amstrad" well into the 21st Century.  I wish I'd got a photo of that while it was still there.  Sigh.

Anyway, that's gone, to be replaced by some tiles.  Probably for the best, as the last advertiser there was the Sony Centre on Paradise Street, and they've gone the same way as the Commodore.  It's a cursed space.

All this is, of course, just the hors d'oeuvres before le grand buffet: the new look ticket hall.  I'd lowered my expectations, to be honest, trying not to have high hopes.  There was no need.  Damn it looks good.

That big yellow space on the left is the new-look toilet area.  It's no longer a grim, UV-lit hole; instead it looks like something straight out of The Colour Tsars' fantasies.

There are LCD advertising spaces up here, as well as photos of the old Liverpool Central building across the back wall (unfortunately my pic was hopelessly blurred - sorry!).  Turn right and you pass through the ticket barriers - exit barriers in the centre.

The MtoGo's had a bit of a tarting up, though not much because obviously it's still pretty new.  It's been re-branded over the door - "easy-to-eat food" - just in case you were worried that they were selling live squid or doughnuts with nails in or something.

That emergency exit on the left, incidentally, isn't permanent, in case you're worried that the Colour Tsars missed a bit.  That will eventually give escalator access to the new Central Village development.

The biggest change in the ticket hall is... light.  There's actual, real daylight streaming into the hall now. A major design flaw in the old station was the location of the lift down to the platforms.  It was actually outside, meaning that the disabled, the elderly and mothers with prams had to walk through the rain to get out.  That area has now been brought into the main ticket hall and roofed over with a glass ceiling.

It makes everything so much brighter, and also means you get a good view of the Victorian rooftops behind.

Also in this space is the final part of Grant Searl's Animate the Underground series.  It previously got the short straw, being stuck on the floor of the station in a spot where you couldn't pause and contemplate it.  Now it brightens up the path to the lift, and it looks so much better.  Did they ever announce what the solution to the riddle was, by the way?  I don't remember seeing it anywhere.

Basically, Liverpool Central's a joy.  They've taken it, washed it down and made it new again.  My only concerns are those posters stuck to the walls (that can't be the final version, can it?) and a tiny worry about whether those brilliant white walls are going to stay brilliantly white for long.  I feel like standing at the entrance to the station and confiscating magic markers off particularly cheeky-looking scallies in case they decide to mark it for posterity.

After a bit of shopping, I got the train back from Lime Street, meaning that we paused at Central and I got to see it gleam all over again.  There were some dignitaries on the platform (presumably they're waiting for the Northern Line to reopen before they invite me round - I can do the official opening, if you want, Merseyrail).  I loved watching people getting off the train and taking it all in, and I can't wait for the new look to spread across the other underground stations.  I've seen the future, and it's ruddy marvellous.

Friday 24 August 2012

Brigg It On

Kirton Lindsey railway station serves the village of Kirton-in-Lindsey.  I'm not sure why they don't bother with the "in".  Perhaps someone at Rail House has a hyphen phobia.

Two of us got off the train, raising the question: are there only three trains on a Saturday because no-one uses the service, or does no-one use the service because there are only three trains on a Saturday?  You could end up falling into a spiral of an argument with that one.  The only way to test it would be to increase the service and see what happens, but why would Northern Rail bother with that when there are only two people using the station?

The station once had two tracks, a footbridge, and a fine station house; now only the house remains, converted to a private residence.  It's been well preserved though, with a nicely planted garden.

The boy who got off the train with me was already barking into his mobile phone as we trekked down towards the road.  I let him get a bit ahead of me so I could take the station sign pic.  Five years later, and I'm still a bit embarrassed larking around with a camera in front of a BR sign.  You'd have thought I'd be used to it by now.

Of course, I wouldn't look like such an idiot if I didn't pull faces like that.

I needed to catch a bus from the village and, as usual, it had been incredibly difficult to plan it back home in Birkenhead.  It's 2012, people.  I should be able to sit at my computer and be able to plan a simple bus journey with little hassle.  As it was, I scurried along the footpath, knowing that there was a bus stop somewhere around here, and hoping I'd get there with time to spare.

Train boy was still yelling into his phone, but he was walking far too slowly, so I overtook him somewhere outside an industrial estate.  Kirton-in-Lindsay, from what I saw of it, won't win any prizes for Britian's Most Charming Village.  I think the state of the bus shelter pretty much sums it up.

Now I'm a fan of gratuitous male nudity, as I'm sure you're aware.  If you feel like removing your shirt (or more) - go for it.  I have no objection, and I will happily watch out of the corner of my eye.  That's the kind of pervert I am.

I normally like a bit of warning though.  I was waiting at the bus stop, minding my own business, when I noticed that train lad had taken his shirt off and was changing.  I didn't know where to look.  Well, alright, I did know where to look; I just had to try and do it subtly.  I thought I'd managed to get away with it until I got home and found a photo of him staring straight into the camera.  Ahem.

(Verdict: six out of ten - a bit podgy).

I could have walked from Kirton-in-Lindsay to Brigg, the next station.  There's actually a footpath that connects the two villages.  I'd have preferred it, to be honest; it's more in keeping with the spirit of the blog.

Problem is, Lincolnshire's not the most scenic of counties.  It's incredibly flat and open.  There aren't many hills or forests to surprise you.  So I'd have been trudging across field after field.  And worse, the path was a completely straight, uninterrupted diagonal.  You can see the faint trace of it on the satellite map below - just a single line cutting through crop after crop, just above the farmhouse.

View Larger Map

It looked, let's be honest, boring as hell.  And it was an eight mile trek.  Eight miles without interruptions, turns, or hills.

Stuff that, I thought.

The 103 took me to Scunthorpe and, by the time we reached the town's bus station, I was the only passenger.  I was trying not to feel paranoid about the way public transportation seemed to empty when I got on board.

This is going to sound odd, but I didn't want to explore Scunthorpe.  Its station is on my to-do list, and so I wanted to save the town for when I collected it.  Using up all its delights on a bus journey just seemed wrong.  I wanted to keep it for when I arrived by rail.

Instead of wandering around for a while, I headed for the department store - which was another Co-op.  Again, I was reminded that this is the county the twenty-first century forgot.  On my way in I'd been surprised by how many independent petrol stations there were - no Shells or BPs, just "Riz" and "Applegreen".  The cafes in the town centre seemed to regard modern coffees - lattes and cappuccinos - as some kind of aberration.  It was all a bit bizarre.

Nice scones though - and yes, I put the jam on top of the clotted cream, WHAT OF IT?

After that, all I had to do was return to the exchange for my next bus, out to Brigg.  This one was a lot busier, alleviating my fears that I was some kind of public transport curse.  We headed out of town on utterly straight, utterly tedious dual carriageways.  The land here is so cheap and easy to build on that they indulge themselves with the transport network - long, clear, over-engineered roads that other parts of the country can only look at enviously.

We passed signs for the Humber Bridge, and I craned my neck in the hope of catching a glimpse of its famously tall towers.  I thought I saw them at one point, but they turned out to be some chimneys for an ugly factory; I think the bridge will have to wait for when I collect Hull station.

The bus terminated in a lay by behind the shops in Brigg, where a couple of teenagers were celebrating Saturday night with a bottle of Strongbow in the shelter.  I followed my fellow passengers into the town centre.

Gainsborough had felt like it wanted to be as up to date and exciting as the rest of Britain, but it somehow never managed it.  Like no-one invited it to the party.  Brigg, on the other hand, had abstained from the modern world, and it felt all the better for it.  It had decided that it was quite happy with living in the past, thank you very much.

The market was just packing up as I stalked the cobbled streets.  I stood on the bridge over the river and watched ducks peck at underwater food; I passed families sucking 99s after a day's shopping.  Presumably the bunting was a hangover from the Jubilee and the Olympics, but equally, I could believe it was always there, hanging across the high street, a tribute to Her Majesty (gawd bless you ma'am!).

Behind the main street were elegant Georgian townhouses and tiny courts lined with flowers.  I was charmed,  in spite of myself.  Brigg was where the folk song Horkstow Grange was first recorded by the academic Percy Grainger.  If you've never heard of this song, lucky you.  It's perhaps best known for its main character, who gave his name to 1970s folk rock band, Steeleye Span - who, as I've complained on previous occasions, are The BF's favourite band.  Basically, if Brigg had burned to the ground in the middle of the seventeenth century, then Steeleye Span might never have happened.  That I overcame this massive prejudice against the village tells you how nice it was.

It began to spit with rain, so I took shelter in the only logical place: a pub.  I picked the Woolpack, and immediately regretted it.  It was a local's pub, full of bruisers watching the football scores come in.  I hid in the corner with my pint of bitter, trying not to look out of place, trying not to attract more quizzical expressions than I had to.  So much, I reflected wryly, for choosing a pub because the name amused me.

I had another one in the Black Bull, which was a bit better, but still smelt of wet dog (though that might have been the two husky gentlemen at the table across from me).  At least its patrons didn't look like they were on the edge of smashing a chair over one another's head for fun.  Then I headed out to the train station.

It was, at least, sign posted this time.  A wide expanse of rough tarmac would probably have served as a great car park for commuters, if there were any commuters who worked for only three hours every Saturday.  A footbridge rusted quietly.  In the distance, I could see the gates of a level crossing a couple of streets away.

As with Gainsborough earlier in the day, I wasn't alone at Brigg.  They weren't trainspotters this time, but a couple of bored teenagers, who had annexed the station as "somewhere to go".  They looked at me with undisguised annoyance then, realising I wasn't going anywhere, they got up and walked away.  Damn these passengers, coming along and ruining their peace.

The train was late.  I don't like late trains at the best of times, but I had a tight connection at the next station.  I'd counted on there being ten minutes between the train arriving at Barnetby and my train home to Liverpool departing.  With each moment of lateness, my tension ratcheted up, my mouth got drier, and my heart stopped.

It wasn't just about getting the train home, after all.  I had to collect the station.  There was no point in coming all the way across the country and doing almost all the stations on the line.

The train arrived, eight minutes late, and I found a seat near the exit.  I was going to have to be quick.

I flung myself off the train and ran up the steps, up and over the bridge, and back down again.  Back when I started this whole project, I said that a station only counted as "collected" if I passed through the ticket barrier - or whatever the unstaffed version of that is.  A platform sign just won't do.  It's a rule that I've stuck to throughout, and one that some people should probably take on board.

I ran past the bemused locals in the pub garden opposite, found the sign at the bottom of the road, and took my photo.

That gave me a bit of breathing room.  I was able to walk back up the hill - past those now even more bemused locals again - to have a look at the station building.  Though it's in the middle of nowhere, it's an important junction, and gets a lot of freight traffic passing through on its way to the ports on the east coast.  The old station's now being used by Network Rail; it might not be quite the same as a nice waiting room and a friendly stationmaster, but at least it's getting some use for railway business.

It was strange thinking that I'd spent an entire day in Lincolnshire, but I'd only made two short train trips within the county; most of my time and effort had been taken up with just getting here.  And now I had to do it all over again to get home...

Thursday 23 August 2012

Gainsborough Pictures

...and with that, I stepped onto Lincolnshire soil for the first time in my life.

That isn't actually the moment.  If I'd stopped to take a photo of my feet the minute I'd stepped off the train, I'd have caused quite a considerable blockade.  Instead, I wandered off to a side part of the platform and took it.  

Actually, now that I think about it, the line was on an embankment.  So it wasn't really Lincolnshire soil at all.  Not to mention the concrete of the platform.

In fact, probably best if you just ignore this whole intro.

The point I'm trying to make is that I'd never been to Lincolnshire before.  In fact, the whole county was something of a mystery to me.  It has a strange, nebulous presence in my mental geography,  where it's "over there, somewhere".  I knew it had Lincoln in it, of course, which has a cathedral, but beyond that: nothing.  It was all new territory for me.

I was here to travel along a route which, on paper, seemed enormous.

According to the Northern Rail map, the route via Gainsborough and Brigg's the same length as the whole of South Yorkshire.  As is often the way with railway diagrams, it's a bit misleading: that massive stretch of line between Brigg and Barnetby is actually less than five miles.

Three trains carried me across the Pennines to Gainsborough Lea Road station, to the south of the town.  It was surrounded by trees, which made it doubly confusing when I stepped off the platform and looked down at the exit.

Was that some kind of climbing frame?  A jungle treehouse I was expected to clamber down?  No; the architects of Lea Road had just gone overboard with their design, putting little wooden roofs over the walkways, making it look less like a railway station and more like something you'd find in a pub garden to keep the kids quiet.

Tarzan's village was tucked behind a far more impressive station which was, regular readers will be unsurprised to learn, now derelict and abandoned.  Its grand, symmetrical facade was falling to pieces, just a backdrop to short-term parking spaces.

I positioned myself in amongst the trees for the station sign...

...then felt an immediate pang of sadness.  While the BR sign was all well and good, though in need of a clean, dumped in the grass verge was a much older relic.  It was probably meant to be artfully positioned, but to my eyes, it looked abandoned and ignored.

I knew nothing about Gainsborough as a town.  Nothing at all.  My expectations were high though: I thought it would be classy, elegant, refined - the urban personification of this lady:

Perhaps there would be a smaller hat.

My walk into town convinced me this wasn't going to be the case.  It wasn't that Gainsborough was especially bad, it had just clearly fallen on hard times.  The recession seemed to have hit it harder than most.  When your biggest factory has been turned into a half-filled retail park, it's not a great economic sign.

It wasn't all bad, retail wise.  There was this place, for starters:

I thought "wow!  I must have a poke round.  I'll come back later."  Then promptly forgot all about it.

The main portion of the town is based around a small triangular square.  There was a market on, but it was all very half-hearted.  I don't really 'get' markets.  There was a time when they'd do the basics for a cheaper price - fruit and vegetables, and clothes, and maybe the odd bit of hardware.  Now there's nothing there that you couldn't get in a supermarket or a pound shop, and at least there you're guaranteed some kind of recompense if things go wrong.  Perhaps meat and fish, served by experts instead of the bored Saturday kids you get in Tesco, but for the rest of it - why bother?

I carried on down to the River Trent.  The riverside walk has been regenerated, with interpretive artworks and clever paving and signs everywhere so that you never went a single moment without knowing exactly what you were looking at.  The river is incredibly wide and deep here - Gainsborough was an important inland port for decades - and on a hot Saturday, the cool breeze across its surface was most welcome.

The Trent has a strong river bore, the Aegir, which sweeps along at the change of tide.  The bore partly inspired George Eliot, who stayed in the town and used a thinly-veiled version of it in The Mill on the Floss; the flood at the end of the novel is a sort of Jerry Bruckheimer version of the Aegir.  River bores are fascinating to watch - you can actually see the sheer weight of water driving along the channel, a massively powerful thrust that reminds you how we're just slaves to the planet.

I stared across the river for a little while, then carried on along the path.  There were warehouses here, waiting to be turned into luxury flats, but with the occasional pocket of redevelopment.  Most were shuttered up, but there was a retirement court in one, and a cafe tucked into the ground floor of another.  I went inside and had a pot of tea and a slice of lemon drizzle cake for elevenses.  Though the building was historic, the cafe had been decorated blandly, with the interesting brick walls plastered over and identikit furniture.  The cake, however, was delicious, and I was able to squeeze three cups of tea out of the pot.

I headed into town across an empty car park, cut through a service yard, and ended up in what seemed to be the largest shop in town: the Lincolnshire Co-operative Department Store.  It was delightful.  I didn't even realise that the Co-op still had department stores, and judging by the interior of the shop, I'm not sure anyone else realises it's there either.  It was all deliciously 1983.  My nan worked in the Luton Co-op department store when I was very small, and this could have been the same one.  The signage, decoration, even the stock - everything was preserved in aspic.  The logo was still that incredibly dated curly sign that's been phased out everywhere else.  I pictured Lincolnshire Co-op's high-ups telling head office where to shove their "good with food".

I took the glass lift up to the first floor, just because it was there, and also so I could pass the shiny, shiny mirrored balcony.  I half expected Linda Evans to be waiting for me at the top, ready to throw some champagne in my face.

I know what you're thinking.  "Fascinating though your attempts to recreate Joan Collins in Dynasty moments are, Scott, we don't come here for I Love the 80s recollections.  We have Stuart Maconie for that.  Where are the train stations?"  And you have a point, impatient reader.

Thing is, I had to kill time.  The Gainsborough to Barnetby line - as you may have guessed from its appearance on the map back there - doesn't have a very regular service.  In fact, it barely gets a service at all.  Every Saturday it gets three trains in each direction, and that's it.  It means a wait of around four hours between each train.

I'd missed the earliest one, of course, travelling across the north, so I had to wander around until one o'clock.  I was running out of things to look at though.  Gainsborough's alright, but it's not exactly a throbbing metropolis.  I found the parish church, which was very pretty, but also seemed to be in the middle of some kind of coffee morning.  I didn't think my bladder could take more tea, and besides, I didn't want to be pigeonholed by the vicar and lectured about God, so I walked on.

In the end, I gave up.  I decided I'd just sit on the platform for half an hour, so I went in search of the station.  Which was harder than you'd think it would be.  Clearly the town's worthies don't want to get people's hopes up about the services.  If you advertise a "railway station", people might start expecting there to be trains, and that's a pretty rare occurrence.  I ended up doing a circuit, which meant I got to see this billboard:

I don't think I've ever seen funeral options advertised on the side of a building before.  It's a bit disconcerting.  A little research reveals that it's a non-religious burial site, which sounds lovely, but which I found a bit disappointing.  I mean, they still bury you.  I thought they'd chuck you on a compost heap or something.  Mulch you into the next existence.  (Personally I want to be laid out in the desert and picked to death by vultures).  It was another reminder that Lincolnshire is just a little bit odd.

Finally I found the station, hidden at the end of an overflow car park behind that retail park I saw earlier.  One of the quietest urban stations in Britain.

I was surprised to find I wasn't alone.  There was also a surveyor in an orange hi-vis vest under the footbridge, tapping away on his tablet PC and clutching one of those wheely-measuring devices under his arm.  He wasn't Network Rail; his jacket had some other company's name on it, some sub-contractor who would theoretically save a load of money by introducing a whole new layer of complex bureaucracy to the procedure.   

Even more shockingly, there were people in the platform shelter, forcing me to squat uncomfortably on the concrete.  I regretted giving up on Gainsborough so quickly; now I had to spend half an hour leaning up against a chain-link fence, when I could have been having another slice of that lemon cake.

The surveyor wandered around, squinting intently at things.  He kicked a couple of steps on the bridge, which doesn't strike me as the most scientific way to test their strength.  Then he headed towards the shelter, no doubt to see if it was in need of repainting by scraping it off with a fingernail.

Big mistake.

While the line doesn't get much of a passenger service, freight trains are quite regular along it.  It means that a certain kind of gentleman gravitates towards the station to watch them pass, and possibly note them down in a little book.  These are the professional trainspotters; people who sneer at me and my pathetic attempts to remember the difference between a Pacer and a Sprinter.

The man in the shelter was hardcore and, on realising that the surveyor was a subcontractor, he launched into a lengthy monologue about the privatisation of the railways.  This was a speech that he made without hesitation or deviation, that referred to acts of parliament by name and year, that dwelt upon Railtrack at length; this was an educative moment.  It was also deeply uncomfortable to witness, as the polite, well-brought up surveyor squirmed and nodded and smiled and desperately tried to find a moment to step aside.  He was probably in junior school when British Rail was broken up, but the trainspotter was, in some way, blaming him personally for the current state of the railways.

Beside him, her mind elsewhere, the man's wife took another bite of her sandwich.  She didn't join in.  She'd heard it all before.  At least she was out of the house.

There was a gnat's breath of a pause in the rant and the surveyor took it.  He practically ran across to the other platform, busying himself with something.  Anything.  I think he was probably just making a note of how many petals were on the daisies growing out of the concrete.

As I said: Lincolnshire's a bit odd.