Tuesday 30 October 2012

Rebirth 2: The Northerning

Liverpool Central finally opened its Northern Line platforms last week.  I thought about visiting last Friday, when I was in the city for Skyfall, but the sheer amazingness of the film left me light headed.  I didn't want to risk over stimulation by going to a refurbished Central as well.

(By the way: GO AND SEE SKYFALL.  Thank you.)

Instead I waited until yesterday, because I was out in the city with my friend Jennie and her adorable children Adam and Joy.  We had a day of eating, art and shopping, and then headed back to Central so she could get her Northern Line train home.

There was an immediate problem - a queue for the lift.  I've never used the platform lifts at Central, so I hadn't realised what a tiny, confined space it sat in.  I also didn't realise just how popular it was.  The queue of parents with buggies and elderly women stretched right round the corner and into the main concourse.  It was also showing signs of fatigue already: clearly someone with a wayward pram had crashed into the wall and taken off a big chunk of yellow plastic.  I'll be curious to know when that finally gets fixed.

Eventually we managed to wheel Joy's pushchair inside the lift and whizzed down to the platform.  The first impression is how bright it is.  The Northern Line platforms are Victorian in origin, and there was always a cavern-like feel to the space.  The water running down the walls didn't help.  Those corrugated metal coverings are still trackside, but on the island platform itself, everywhere is white.

It means that the centre of the station somehow glows and seems even brighter.

A new circulating space has been carved out under the escalators by moving some of the mechanics; it means that the middle of the platform is much more open and can accommodate more waiting passengers.  With the new seating spaces upstairs, hopefully this will allow for more desperately-needed breathing room - though it seems the passengers haven't modified their waiting patterns yet.  They were still mainly hanging around the long tongue at the foot of the escalators, instead of moving into the new wide open area.

The new escalators now have funky little "no entry" lights at the bottom.  I wouldn't normally care, but it became a welcome moment of colour in amongst all that white.  Another welcome moment of colour is up top, where the entrances to the Wirral and Northern platforms are marked out with coloured arches and LED lighting - a simple but pleasing touch.

Disappointingly, there are still only three escalators.  The steps have been left in the fourth space.  To me, this means that there's still a "right" end of the station and a "wrong" end; one where it's easy to get up and down and another where it's more difficult.  I guess £20 million only buys you so much.

I headed for the Wirral Line escalator.  I'm assuming that there's still work to be done, because there are no signs telling you that's what it is; it's just a way down into the unknown at the moment.  Incidentally, as I took the pic below, the girl on the left was having a blazing row with her boyfriend, and was smacking him quite vigorously round the head; she saw me with my cameraphone and shouted "what's he taking a picture of?".  I made a hasty exit.

A couple of months ago, I was rapturous about the new look Wirral Line platforms.  Now they're complete, I'm going to have to register a couple of complaints.

First of all, they've taken away the line diagram on the tunnel wall.  I understand there are maps and line diagrams elsewhere but still, this was a useful addition to have.  

The second complaint is regarding the signs.  A few years ago the Colour Tsars introduced new yellow and grey signs across the Underground stations.  There were line diagrams, exit signs, and maps of the station.  These new signs have since been rolled out across the network - any time there's a new set of works (like at Hooton for example) the grey and yellow signs are in evidence.

I didn't mind these signs making their presence felt.  What I object to now that Central's been done up is that the rest of them haven't been changed as well.

White background, grey background, grey background, white background.  All above a white band.  It's a mess.  It offends me.  It looks cheap and temporary, and considering the station was closed for literally months that leaves me out of joint.  I want there to be consistency and elegance; I want there to be a definite corporate feel, one way or the other.  Not this ugly mish-mash of both styles.

Am I overreacting?  Being too OCD, too picky?  Absolutely.  It's tiny things like that which niggle.  It's little flaws that make you think that someone doesn't care.  I wanted to endorse the new look station wholeheartedly but I can't.  That stops me from declaring Liverpool Central an entirely flawless success.  That and the escalator thing.  It's close, but not quite there.

It doesn't stop me from looking forward to what they're going to with James Street though.  

Sunday 28 October 2012

Mountains and Sunsets

Yes, that is Conisbrough.  For some reason - presumably to fox outsiders - there's an "o" missing.  Sneaky.

I'd passed back through Doncaster, and I was now on the line to Sheffield.  I wasn't going to do the whole of the line, mainly because I think Sheffield deserves more than a cursory passing through.  Plus, it's got a bloody tram, so I have to have a go on that.  Instead, I was just going to do a couple of stations, then turn round and head back the way I came for the last remaining line out of Doncaster.

For the first time, I felt like I was properly in Yorkshire.  So far today there had been very few moors or hills, and absolutely no men in flat caps walking their whippets.  The latter point would sadly elude me completely, but at least here there was a bit of landscape.  The railway line and the river Don intertwine with one another in the valley below, but the road hugs the ridge above, giving me the occasional glimpse of a tree lined drop as the houses parted.

I don't suppose a town is in rude health when the Working Men's Club is closed and shuttered, but Conisbrough was doing its best.  Much of the regeneration was related to the Earth Centre, the lottery-funded enviro-theme park nearby that for some reason, no-one wanted to visit.  People aren't daft.  Who'd want to pay to be lectured about all the horrible things we're doing to ruin the planet when you could spend the money at Alton Towers instead?  The ecodisaster closed in 2005, but it has at least left a legacy of pleasing wooded walkways and bits of random artwork.

An old cinema was now the Empire Gym; a pub had become a Balti restaurant.  There was a sign advising me that Balfour Beatty's mains diversion works would continue into 2002.  I'm guessing they were related to the new Bambury Bridge, which crossed over the river by an Asda Supermarket - probably another doomed attempt to make the Earth Centre accessible (though you weren't meant to drive there, you carbon spewing heathen).

I paused for a moment on the bridge, just to look across the valley.  It was really quite beautiful.

My OS map reckoned there was a pathway down to the river just beyond the bridge, but I couldn't see it: someone had built a housing estate in the way.  It was, naturally, a development of "luxury apartments and town houses", still under construction, so that the 4x4s and BMWs had left sand tracks up to the front doors.    For hundreds of years, no-one had built on the island in the river, and there was probably a good reason for that.  Shame the Earth Centre was closed, as I'm sure they'd have had a nice educational diorama on "rising tide levels" and the dangers of building on flood plains that the builders might have learned from.

So instead of a stroll along the river, I went up, travelling into Mexborough.  This was a proper Yorkshire town, with grey stone miner's cottages in rows.  Normally I'd bitch about having to climb a hill after all the walking I'd already done, but here I was happy for it, because it felt like part of the town.  The landscape was serving it.

The town suddenly took a turn for the worse with a massive, divisive dual carriageway through the centre.  There must have been a powerful road lobby working in the North of England in the Seventies, because so many otherwise perfectly decent towns have decimated their centres with ugly bypasses.  Pedestrians were forced onto narrow footbridges while the engines of the relentless traffic barked.  As I walked along it, two boy racers in souped up Subarus burned down the tarmac, using it as their own personal Silverstone.  The only plus side was being raised up above the traffic gave me another great view of the valley.

Coltran, incidentally, went into liquidation last July.  That dominating sign is now tainted with sadness.

The train station is on the "wrong" side of the dual carriageway, so now it's separated from the town centre.  I didn't have high hopes for it.

There was a scrap yard on the road to the station, and then there was a station building.  I was glad it was still there - Conisbrough's is long gone - but I've been fooled by this before.  Just because there's a building, doesn't mean it's in decent shape.

How wrong I was.

Mexborough's had a load of money thrown at it fairly recently, and the result is a good, lively station that works.  It's got a waiting room, a ticket office, a toilet.  There's even a fish tank!

Alright, the fish tank is a bit much.  But the principle stands.  Instead of closing up all these station buildings, why not make them into waiting areas?  Why not make them pleasing places to be?  Why not have a man there to sell you a ticket?


Sorry, I'll stop now.

The train took me back through Doncaster for the last time, and onto my final spur, the line to Leeds.  The afternoon was getting on now, and as I arrived at Bentley, I was met by schoolkids lazily wandering home.  They were excitable, boisterous at the end of the week and ready for the half-term.  Damn them and their youthful energy.

Bentley's principal attraction for me that day was an old railway line.  The Hull and Barnsley and Great Central railway line was a freight line which was built as a bit of a punt; there were hopes of a new coal field being found outside Doncaster which never materialised.  The line closed and was left unmourned, but its route now exists as a cycleway known as the Doncaster Greenway.

There was a voyeuristic thrill in passing behind people's back gardens, staring into houses that were only meant to be glimpsed in passing from a train.  The tunnel of trees and lack of companions only added to the feeling that I was in a secret, unseen world.

The end of the path emerged onto a busy main road, and the spell was broken.  The broken bridge was passed unnoticed by pedestrians, faded into the landscape and unquestioned, but acting as a tangible piece of railway history.

I skirted the edge of the housing estate, crossing onto a path that acted as the border between humans and nature.  The scruffy fences and litter were very human, but in amongst the empty tin cans were fairy rings of mushrooms, and a tiny mouse dashed into the trees in front of me.

I had the path to myself, which was surprising.  It was just like the fields near where I grew up, with the same network of paths and copses.  We spent most evenings up there, building "bases" and playing spies when I was younger then, when I was older, just hiding in amongst the trees to chat and laze and drink cheap cider.  There were brief contacts with emerging ideas - the odd porno mag found torn to pieces in the bushes, a memorable game of "strip poker" where no one really took anything off beyond a sock or a jumper.  It was an adult-free world, successive generations of children annexing different parts then passing it on to others.  Sometimes it lead to disaster - one of my schoolfriends, experimenting with smoking, accidentally set light to miles and miles of crops - but most of the time it was a secret, much cherished place of pleasure.

It wasn't completely devoid of kids though.  I surprised one young lad on his scooter, whistling round the corner and having to suddenly brake to avoid hitting me.  And a graffiti'd bench hinted at a place to hang out and drink whatever kids drink these days - WKD?  It was an odd bench, etched with the name of the Flying Scotsman; even if you knew that it had been built at the Doncaster works, a distant pathway in the countryside seemed an unlikely place for a tribute.

I was soon in Adwick-le-Street, whose pretentious name hinted at a social divide.  To my eyes, it looked like another post-war housing estate, and not a particularly nice one at that.  If you believed the stickers on the gates, half the homes were shared with bloodthirsty dogs lusting for the rump of a home invader.  It was the kind of place where "Welfare Road" seemed like a particularly apt name.

Cross Doncaster Lane, though, and you hit old Adwick; the houses here were gated and rich.  The church was medieval, not a red brick hall, and the pub ("The Foresters Arms") was double fronted and advertising its guest beer.  A wealthy couple, she wrapped in a pashmina, he in a soft brown leather jacket, went in, a tiny handbag-sized dog scuttling along behind them.

I imagined the divide between kids from either side of the road; the sneers when people found out which part of the village you came from.  I wondered if there were skirmishes on the border.

Adwick station is similarly divided between the old and new worlds.  The original station was opened in 1866 and lasted for a hundred years before being closed and sold off.  The pretty building remains, now a private residence, and teasing us with hints of a railway world lost through short-sightedness.

Because, it turns out, a station halfway between Wakefield, Leeds and Doncaster is something of a boon.  The passenger demand was still there, so in 1993 the South Yorkshire PTE built a new station on the other side of the road.

What a colossal waste of money.  I mean, building the station was obviously a good thing, but they had to re-erect platforms in a different place because the old ones were all gone.  Ridiculous.

Architecturally, the new station can't even slightly compare with the old.  That's less a railway station, more a community centre, and the less said about the footbridge with its small branch of Aldi towers, the better.

Still, it was at least there, with ticketing facilities and all that.  I shouldn't moan too much.

Such a Tefal head.

I took up a seat in the waiting shelter next to a man and his daughter.  She was excitable about something - probably just being nine - and he was doing everything he could to ignore her.  He had headphones in, and was playing a game on his mobile, studiously refusing to engage with her constant chattering.  I began to doubt they were even together, until his phone rang and he arranged for a lift to pick him up from outside.  "Come on," he said, meeting her eye for the first time, and they left hand in hand.

My Daytripper ticket was valid for anywhere in South Yorkshire, but it also included a couple of stations just over in West Yorkshire.  It was getting late in the day, but I knew I had to get these two stations to really finish my blitz.  It meant that instead of a southbound train, I boarded one for Leeds.

The line here has been electrified, and it was a revelation riding on a whisper quiet train after a day of noisy diesels.  The sooner they are rolled out across the whole country, the better.

Even though I'd gone north, I'd ended up in the south - South Elmsall.  I had a relatively tight connection to get, so I had to dash across the town centre to its other station at Moorthorpe.

It was a busy little town, just getting ready for a Friday night.  The chippies were full, the pubs were starting to acquire bouncers.  Girls tottered past me on impossibly high heels, barely covered in wisps of fabric that exposed belly buttons and thighs.  Some of them had bottles in their hand already; one particularly classy lass was swigging from a litre bottle of Lambrini.  They were raucous and jolly.

I started to get a bit concerned that I was running out of town.  Darkness seemed to be coming far too quickly, and I was worried that I'd taken a wrong turn somewhere and I was going to end up in the middle of nowhere.  I tried to check my position on my phone, but according to Apple Maps, Moorthorpe station doesn't exist.  Sigh.

And then there it was; lit with the orange of the dying evening, a little station sign.

Just in time.  A few minutes later and I would have had to use my flash to take the picture, and trust me, you don't want to see that face glowing in a white hot blaze of light.

Moorthorpe station had been refurbished to such an extent it didn't look real - the bricks had been scrubbed so hard they looked like Lego.  The main building was now a cafe, which was obviously closed at that time of night, but there were ticket machines and next train indicators and all the other signs of a good station.

Not enough benches, though.  I was forced to lean up against the wall to wait for my train.  One day, eleven stations; I was pleased with myself.  It was a massive chunk of the map just wiped away.  It's a weird achievement, I suppose; but to me, it's an achievement.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Nice Times

He'd look like David Bowie, if David Bowie didn't have that pet donkey that eats all the old off him.  Blonde hair and photochromic glasses and cheekbones you could slice cheese on.  He sat opposite an enthusiastic younger man, who practically claps with delight as he reaches into his Tesco Bag for Life.

Bowie pulls out a small metal cube.  It's penetrated by circular hollows, so you can see all the way through it, plus screw holes in each corner.  It looks a bit like a Cenobite puzzle cube that's been opened up.  He also pulls out a three legged device, like an upside down bar stool, about a foot tall and with coloured wires dangling down.

From a pocket - perhaps? - he pulls out a ball bearing and drops it into the cube.  It falls into the top hollow and sits there, gently rocking with the train, hovering in place.  "We have to be careful," says Bowie.  "This [he points at the other device] is generating a magnetic field as well."  He pulls out a velvet box, like a jewel case; inside is another cube, identical to the one on the table, and he slots it neatly over the top of the other one so the ball bearing is held inside.

And then we arrived at my station, and I had to get off, doomed to forever wonder if he was an agent of Quantum assembling a doomsday device on the 09:51 to Goole.

Kirk Sandall feels lonelier than it is.  The island platform, the lengthy ramps, the surrounding trees, somehow conspire to make it isolated and cold.  The other people alighting was a tight group of students, who seems to band together, silently, until they were safely away from the station.

I'd been quite pleased by the modern, clean Travel South Yorkshire logo, a slanty T that appears on the side of some of the trains.  It turns out that this is just the "front facing" logo, one invented in 2006 as part of a PR exercise to unify all the services together.  The older logo still lingers on in places - like here, outside Kirk Sandall station, a logo that personifies the forward thinking and excitement of a Ted Heath government.

I think if you licked that sign it would taste of Aztec bar.

The village was much nicer; a thoroughly middle-class enclave.  Plastic crates of recycling were neatly left on the kerb.  Dog walkers with swinging bags of turd hanging from their wrist.  Old ladies with tartan shopping trollies.  It was just nice, inoffensive, and yes, a bit dull.

The morning mist still hadn't burnt off.  It swaddled the fields and the trees, obscuring the horizon.  The footpath faded away and soon I was walking on dewy grass, the bottom of my trousers turning dark with moisture.  The verge was rough and unkempt.  I picked my way anxiously through patches of stinging nettles, until finally I turned a corner and I was on a main road, with a proper footpath again.

I'd been up since 5am.  The rutted earth under my feet had made me tired again, and I'd only just started.  Perhaps doing the whole of the North was overambitious.

Dunsville is not, perhaps, the most glamorous of names.  It's like they decided this town was the end of the line and that was it.  It certainly didn't snag me.  A long Broadway had been built by ambitious town planners, perhaps to remind us of boulevards or avenues, but it had been lined with small, grim semis.  The pavement was patchy where verges had been paved over - 21st century parking requirements mean that grass and trees are fripperies.  They cost too much for the Council to maintain, anyway.

I crossed over Sheep Dip Lane, past the Broadway pub, which was advertising its family Hallowe'en fun day.  The houses were getting refurbished here, covered in scaffolding, with builders attaching polystyrene to the outside as insulation.  Not all the houses though: just the ones the Housing Associations ran, meaning that people who'd exercised their right to buy stood out.  They were pretty easy to spot anyway, as most had invested in a different coloured paint for their pebble dash, or a more elaborate front door, or a porch, but I should imagine there were still a few put out homeowners.  "We've got a mortgage and negative equity and patio doors but the tenants next door are the ones who are getting the insulation!  Broken Britain!"  If I lived in one of the rented houses I'd start walking round the house without any clothes on, just to underline how toasty warm I now was.

The station continues the theme of unfortunate naming - Hatfield and Stainforth.  It's difficult to find - if you didn't know it was there, or realise that you was on "Station Road", you'd have no idea.  It's down a side street, with no sign outside, just a couple of timetable boards that were half-covered by bushes.  You walk down a badly paved road to the bright orange station building which is, of course, long closed up.

You can't miss the stairs, though.  Purple and yellow, a complex of steel panels and tubes that rises up too high and stretches too far.  There are six tracks at this point, with the passenger services just using two in the middle, allowing freight to pass either side.  A few industrial services passed while I waited with unfamiliar names pasted on the side - GBRf, VolkerRail, EWS.  A massive Freightliner train passed, brown trailers looking like rusted Darth Vader helmets.

I clanked across to the northbound platform, the only person to be heading that way, in search of a decent sign.  For the first time in ages, I was going to have to settle for one on the platform.  Not the same.

I took up a seat in the shelter and watched the opposite platform fill up.  There was a party who looked like a stag do: four middle aged blokes, bruisers, two wearing t-shirts that say Mac's Final: THIS IS IT.  With them was a teenage boy, probably from Mac's first marriage, who didn't really know how to talk to these raucous, filthy, excitable men; I imagine them slipping him ciders later in the evening until he pukes behind a chair somewhere.

I'm joined in the shelter by another passenger.  He's skinny, wired, full of nervous energy.  He's hopped up on something, and I'm guessing it's not the e-numbers in his Um Bongo.  He starts rolling his own in the shelter, bouncing it on his thigh, but he steps outside to smoke it.  I suddenly felt nervous, nakedly aware of a couple of hundred quid's worth of iPod, iPhone and camera in my pockets.

The train arrived and, unsurprisingly, my fellow passenger headed straight for the toilet and stayed there as the ticket collector did her rounds.  We both got off at Thorne North, and he made a dash for the exit, while I lingered.

It was the kind of station you wanted to linger in.  The delicate ironwork bridge over the tracks, the flowers in the planters, a small Victorian station building.  Even more pleasing, it was a working station building; staffed, cleaned, modernised.

I was delighted to see it.  A proper ticket office.  Lovely.

Thorne was lovely too.  Directly opposite the station was a fishing lake which gleamed like a freshly polished sapphire in the Autumn sun.  The homes I passed weren't tiny Council boxes, but were instead Victorian manses set back from the road behind automatic gates.  Trees shaded the nameplates on the front steps, because none of them had something as gauche as a number; they were all Rose Cottage and Ivy House and Lavender Hall.

It was a rich, pretty little town.  Not perfect, of course.  The tall tower of a brewery caught your eye, but on closer inspection, I discovered that it was long closed.  A carpet showroom had moved in, but even that looked on its last legs.  Fulton Foods (Famous for Value) was there too, its blue and yellow shop front somehow making Farmfoods look tasteful and refined.  The Town Council had tried to make "The Green" look like a French town square, with thin trees providing shade over metal seating, and they'd succeeded in part; there was a man sitting there reading his newspaper.  It was hard to ignore the public toilets right next to it though, and the loading area for the shops.

The pedestrianised shopping street was full of charm, thronged with butchers and bakers, smelling strongly of pastry and bread.  The little coffee shops were packed - I gave up hope of stopping off for a cup of tea and a slice of cake when I realised the queues were right up to the doors.

I could have dashed through the town and made it to Thorne South station in time for an earlier train.  I didn't want to though.  I'm thoroughly middle class.  I like little market towns instead of rough backstreets.  I apologise if that makes me a bit dull, but I can't help it.  I was thoroughly pleased to come across a traditional town square, with a pub that had been there for nearly three hundred years.  I had to celebrate it.

The bar maid called me "love", which is always a bit weird when she's younger than me.  It feels a bit creepy.  There was free wi-fi though, which she was using to watch the iPlayer on her netbook.  It was a simple, old fashioned boozer - they hadn't gussied it up with old books bought in bulk or brass sextants or a "theme".  Comfortable chairs and tables, a little stage in the corner, an old man counting out his small change onto the bar.

Lunchtime pints always go to my head, so I tripped out of the pub towards the station.  I had a bit of a giddy grin, not helped by Skyfall coming on my iPod (you ARE going to see it, aren't you?  That's an instruction).  There was a bit of road with no traffic and an empty park, and I'm afraid to say I had a bit of a singalong as I walked.  If you heard me, residents of Thorne, I can only apologise.

Thorne South is very much the ugly sister of the two stations.  There aren't any pot plants here, just some benches and a couple of shelters.  They haven't even got a footbridge; you have to cross the tracks.  Some men from Network Rail were there, examining the state of the platform, and they attracted the attentions of the girl in the jeggings next to me.  "We could do wi' a ticket office here," she said commandingly.

"There's not enough room for a bench, never mind a ticket office," he replied.  "Besides, an honest person always buys their ticket on the train."

"I always do," she said, a little huffily.  "I can't get away wi' it now I'm older."

I sat on the bench, quietly sobering up, watching a donkey chew on the grass in the neighbouring field. It was peaceful, calming.  Just nice.