Tuesday 19 March 2013


What the hell?

A few days ago Robert posted a pic on his Twitter feed of Aigburth station being improved.  "That looks interesting," I said.  "What's happening?"  "This," he said.

You couldn't possibly disagree with that, could you?

Yes you could.  Because right now Network Rail is pulling down the pretty wooden awning and the ironworks.  They're being taken away to be "held in storage" for a station that apparently deserves an attractive station more than Aigburth.  The ironwork, too, carted off to be stuck in a museum.  In its place will be one of those off the shelf waiting shelters, assembled in kit parts like a very dull Meccano model.

Stop this.  Stop this right now.

As this article makes clear, this isn't what rail users want.  I'm not sure they were even consulted.  There's a perfectly good waiting room at Aigburth already, just closed up: reopen it as has happened at Rock Ferry or Bromborough.  Leave the historic features - features which are nearly 140 years old. 

It's astonishing that this has been allowed to happen and Network Rail, Merseytravel and Merseyrail should all be thoroughly ashamed.  The message being sent out here is that Aigburth doesn't deserve to look nice.  I thought we'd reached a stage in history where we realised that good, attractive architecture should be enhanced not demolished.  What next?  The closure of the ticket office?  Removing the platform indicators and chairs?  Closing it altogether?

Aigburth is a lovely station.  It's absolutely worth defending.  It's about more than that though, it's about making sure that Merseyside isn't second best.  Our railways are a real asset.  We need to make sure they remain so.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Friends in High Places

Brace yourself to think less of me, but I haven't been watching The Railway on BBC2.  I have recorded all of them, and they're stacked up on my Sky box, but I'm just never in the mood.  The problem is I've been with the BF for 16 years and he is utterly obsessed by docusoaps and fly on the wall documentaries.  Real Rescues, Motorway Cops, Airline, Airport, 24 Hours in A&E, Sun Sea and A&E, that one with that bloke who used to be a drug dealer in Corrie going "sorted" a lot - he watches them all.  He even watches foreign ones, ones with lifeguards on Bondi Beach or Auckland customs officials where it's all "I'm rilly sorry bit yi cin't bring binanas into Niew Ziland" and then they chuck someone's lunchbox in a bin and mark it Biological Hazard.  I try to ignore it but it all seeps in; I strongly suspect I would know what the correct procedure is to stabilise a young girl who's been thrown off her horse in North Yorkshire (young girls are always getting thrown off their horses in North Yorkshire; someone should start a petition against it).  I'm all fly-all-the-walled out. 

I understand it's very good, anyway.  I understand it's been a fascinating and insightful glimpse beneath the surface of a valuable public service.  The main reason I'm mentioning it in this blog though is last night's episode followed the folk of Merseyrail, and it featured a cameo by friend of the blog Chris Bowden-Smith.  Those were his dulcet tones telling the ladies in their eight inch high heels to mind their step, and asking the passengers to drop the Heineken cans before they got on board; they were his eyes physically assaulting the young men in morning suits as they disembarked.  Well done Chris.  (Obviously I haven't seen the episode, but I did skim through the first few minutes to make sure he was in it.  Luckily he was right at the start).  You can watch it yourself here

At the same time, at the other end of the country, another friend of the blog has made it into print.  Ian's marvelous, universally adored 150 Great Things About The Underground caught the attention of the people at Creative Review, and they asked him to pen a feature for them, including his own photos.  His spread can be found in the current issue, available from all good newsagents.  It's a great magazine on top of Ian's bit; a London Underground special, with some fascinating pieces about the evolution of the network's design.

So all in all, a great time for my friends to become famous.  I, meanwhile, am slogging my way across the north of England at six in the morning with no reward whatsoever.  Where's my book deal?  Where are my magazine pieces?  Where is the six part tv series chronicling my travels, eh?  I don't ask much - BBC Four would be fine or, at a pinch, one of the better Discovery channels.  I'm far more photogenic than that ugly pair after all.

No, I don't mean it.  I am totally pleased for Chris and Ian.  Now I'm off to strangle a kitten.

Sunday 10 March 2013


For reasons far too dull to go into here, I found myself in Manchester with a few hours to kill.  Immediately my thoughts turned to tarting, and to perhaps collecting some of the lines that radiate out from Piccadilly.

Thing is, it's not that simple.  The Northern Rail map makes you think that those are simple, easy to collect stations, but they're not.  Almost every line featured quirky service patterns.  A station that only gets two trains a day.  A line where the stations are served by two different services, each of which skips selective stations.  Stations which are only served when Jupiter is in a rising Pisces.  That sort of thing.  Eventually I gave up poring over the timetables and headed to Buxton.

As the terminus of a line, Buxton seemed like a nice place to go for a one off trip.  It's a pretty town, and I thought that I could wander out into the countryside and collect the enticingly named Dove Holes if the mood took me.  Unfortunately, somewhere outside Stockport, a cloud crash landed into Derbyshire; the whole county was smothered in a thick, white mist.  I didn't fancy wandering around in that.  It looked like it would be just the one station then.

Fortunately it's a good one.  The coming of the railways caused the genteel residents of Buxton to clutch their collective pearls.  They'd seen what trains had done for other towns - grimy smoke, an influx of the working classes - and worse, ugly station buildings.  Two train companies, the Midland and the London & North Western Railway, were threatening to put termini in the town, and they were afraid that what the corporations built wouldn't be in-keeping.  The locals intervened, picking a site for the railway and then commissioning Sir Joseph Paxton (of Crystal Palace fame) to build the stations.

Yes, that was stations, plural.  Since there were two railway companies involved, Buxton would need two station buildings, two sets of platforms, two ticket offices, and so on.  Paxton's solution was a symmetrical pair of buildings, facing each other across a courtyard and connected with an archway.  At the front end of each station he built a large fan window surrounded by the name of the company.

It wasn't, if we're honest, the best use of resources for a small town in the Peaks.  The rationalisation, and then nationalisation, of the railways reduced the need for the extra facilities further, and then Beeching came along to deliver the killer blow.

Only the LNWR building, on the left hand side of the site, still remains.  It has two platforms but no roof.  The Midland building was closed and, after a brief attempt to build a heritage railway there, it was demolished and turned into a ring road - perhaps the ultimate humiliation.  The stone buttresses of the station building still remain, but now they form the edge of a car park.

It also meant that Paxton's fine window was lost.  The LNWR one is still there, and has recently been restored, though since the roof over the platform's gone it's a bit pointless.

I crossed the ring road alongside a man who pressed the button on the pedestrian crossing with the tip of his umbrella.  Yes, Buxton's that posh.  We headed down the hill and came out in the centre of town.

It has all the grandeur and beauty you'd expect from a former spa town.  It's like a miniature Bath, only without the men dressed as gladiators stomping all over the place.  I hunted out the Opera House, a gorgeous building alongside a park and suitably epic.

What's that?  A production of Little Voice starring Liz McDonald AND Ray Quinn?  I'm THERE.

Strangely, Buxton abandoned its spa heritage in the 20th century.  I wandered over to what had once been the Hot Baths, and was now the Cavendish Shopping Centre.

I should have realised that having a shop called Divine Trash at the entrance was a sign.  This fine Victorian building had been carved up into tiny cubes, only half of which were full.  They sold expensive, unpleasant clothes, stuff that only the most bored WAG would buy.  It was disheartening to look past the displays of silk scarves to take in the classic tiling and architecture from its bathhouse days.

The developers of the shopping centre did get one thing right: a new glass roof was commissioned to cover the central atrium.  Designed by Brian Clarke, the roof is watery and elegant, its blue panes soothing you as you pass under.

I left the arcade by Pizza Express.  I'd been to Buxton once before, about five years ago with the BF.  As we'd passed the window of Pizza Express, I spotted Rhona Cameron in there, having some lunch.  For those of you too young to remember, Rhona Cameron was a "comedian" who was briefly famous around the turn of the millennium: her schtick was that (a) she was Scottish and (b) a lesbian.  She was like Susan Calman, without the likeability or the jokes.  If she's remembered at all, it's for her titular sitcom, which also starred the infinitely funnier Dave Lamb and Mel Giedroyc.

Anyway, Ms Cameron was in there chomping on a pizza, and I murmured to the BF as we passed that we were in the presence of F-list celebrity.  "Where/" he said, turning back and staring right at her through the window, like she was a gibbon at Chester Zoo.  He's not subtle.

There weren't any celebs in town that day, not even Beverley Callard taking some time out from Ray Quinn, so I went to Caffe Nero for a chai latte and a panini.

Refreshed, I walked to the other end of the dinky high street to find the railway viaduct.  Though Buxton is the end of the line for passengers, there's a second line (the old Midland line in fact) which is still in use for freight.  A mighty viaduct rises up over the bottom of the hill to carry it over the town.  Looking at it, you can see why the residents were so worried about what kind of station the railway companies might throw up.

Before I left, I wanted to find the original spring, the source of the town's wealth.  Ian had visited it before, and he'd rightly been outraged by people turning up in 4x4s to fill 2 litre bottles with the spa water.  As I reached the water fountain, a woman in a large BMW crashed up against the kerb, then nipped out to fill her bottle.  Worse, it was a Highland Spring bottle - she couldn't even splash out on a Buxton one.  I think she caught my look of disapproval as she left, because she looked suitably shamefaced.

I tasted the water from St Anne's Well, cupping my hand under the flow.  It was warm, which surprised me but makes sense, and had a strangely tingly sensation to it.  It was probably just psychological, but it both tasted like water and didn't.  There was a slight tang.  Buxton's rediscovering the importance of its water; the Crescent opposite the well is being redeveloped into a luxury hotel and spa.  I'm pleased.  It's a lovely little spot, and going back to the source (so to speak) of its riches seems absolutely right.  I wiped my hand down my jeans and headed back up the hill to the station.

Saturday 2 March 2013

Mojo Rising

It's not that Bingley was necessarily bad; it was just uninspiring.  It was a bit tired, a bit rough.  The glass roof needed a scrub.  The shop/cafe was vacant, and the "to let" sign looked like it had been there a while.  Everything needed a bit of paint.  And when you exited, you passed through an open passageway and straight out into a car park.  Never too pleasing.

It meant that I had to take the up the nose sign pic between a bus in a layby and a group of amused Asian taxi drivers.

If I'd had a bit of nous about me, I'd have bought a bowler hat to wear in Bingley, a la the famous building society.  That kind of preparation is, however, beyond me; you should be glad I'm wearing pants.  Thanks to the wonder of modern Photoshop (/MS Paint) I can pretend I did actually have a hat on.


It was just a bit sad.  A radiator shop has no place in a modern railway station.  I suppose we should be glad the station still has a glass roof; most of them have been swept away as too much hassle to maintain.

The archway down to platform 2 from the road bridge is a grubby delight, too.  The Midland Railway wasn't afraid to make its presence known everywhere.

I'd decided to take a prettier route towards the next station, Crossflatts, so I swerved Bingley town centre and headed away from the valley.  There was a slight rise, a turn, and then I was by the canal - the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, in fact.  If I'd wanted to I could have walked all the way to the Pier Head.

Despite the bright sunshine and clear skies, it was still cold; there had been a ground frost when I'd left for the station that morning.  Sheets of ice still clung to the surface of the canal.  Glass islands for the sun to reflect off.

The plus side of canal walks is they're a pretty easy stroll.  They're nature tamed.  A bit of water, a bit of grass, and a nice straight towpath alongside.  They're also nice and flat.  I was anticipating a pleasing jaunt when I turned a corner and faced this:

The Bingley Five-Rise Locks; the steepest set of locks in Britain.  The only way to get past the Pennines was to go up and over them, and this system of locks was designed to make that feasible.  A steady waterfall flows down the right hand side and, at the left, there's a footpath.  Not steps, mind; a footpath.  

If you look closely in that picture you can see a cyclist, who'd barrelled past me.  He only got halfway up the slope before his bicycle went into revolt, nearly tipping him backwards, and he had to shamefacedly walk it up the rest of the way.  I was struggling too.  It wasn't that the going was hard, necessarily; it just rose very quickly, very fast.  

I stopped at the top for a breather.  There was a man there, gazing off into the distance, not moving at all, while his mate sat close by and ate cheese and pickle sandwiches.  A big lump of pickle flobbed out of the bottom and into his lap; he flicked it into the canal to treat the fish.  Across the way, a cafe owner brushed down the canal edge, ready to set out wooden tables and chairs for the day's passers by.

Professional looking walkers went by, people in serious anoraks with solid boots and thick woolly socks; they nodded at me, stolid, a single gesture of acknowledgement.  I was passing back gardens and yards where the owners clearly had a problem with dog dirt.  Every house had hand lettered signs, printed stuff with clipart, even bronzed ones with professional stencilling, begging you to clean up after your animal.  It was a bit relentless.

They put up with it for that view: across the Aire valley at the front, the canal behind, a one-two punch of English countryside.  It didn't matter that their houses weren't thatched cottages - they bathed in Yorkshire air.

I left the canalside way too soon, to find Crossflatts station.  The valley has been filled at this point with the railway and the A560, a dual carriageway; the two transportation methods intermingle all the way from Bingley to Steeton, sometimes joined by the river as well for a three-way dance.  Crossflatts was built in the 1980s to serve the nearby housing estate.  It means that it's without ornament or decoration; as perfunctory as possible.

I take back that stuff I said about Bingley.

Keighley was a complete change; it was as though Crossflats was there purely to lower your expectations.  

While platforms 1 and 2 are for regular commuter services, platforms 3 and 4 form the terminus of the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway.  Yes, it's a heritage line, so that means lots of bold capitals, lots of cream paint, and lots of lozenge signs.

If I'd been there the previous week, I'd have been able to take a ride, as it was half term.  Of course, I'd have hated every moment of it, wedged between caterwauling three year olds and frazzled mothers.  Instead I peered over the wall.

Kudos to Northern Rail, though; they haven't tried to compete with the heritage station by making "their half" relentlessly corporate.  There's no purple, just carefully painted old-fashioned features.

At the top, there's some wonderful tiling on the walls.  Why don't we tile all our buildings now?  It's so pretty,  so easy to clean, so charming.  Underpasses in white ceramic instead of grey concrete.  Footbridges with geometric designs instead of gang tags.  

Although I should say I hate that font they've used on the "Trains" sign.  Rail Alphabet or nothing!

Ducking into the ticket office brought another delightful space, all symmetry and natural daylight.  There was a quiet murmur as passengers negotiated with the man behind the counter.  The automated announcements seemed muted and elegant in here.

I took advantage of the mirror for another selfie, beneath the plaque commemorating the opening of the station in 1847.  

I missed the point that you're meant to actually be able to see your face in mirror shots.  No wonder my pic on Guys with iPhones is so low-rated.

Trains used to take up massive amounts of real estate in town centres - all those goods yards and sidings and maintenance yards. Today, there's little need for most of those services at all but a select few points, so railway stations sold off the land.  Keighley station's hemmed in by new developments.  Across from the station building, there is an Asda superstore on one side of the tracks, and a Sainsbury's on the other.  Next to the station Leeds City College have built a sparkling new campus building.  This made things even more awkward for the station sign picture.  Aging Asian taxi drivers staring at me, I can handle: 18 year old scallies pouring out for their lunch after a morning cooped up in hot classrooms, on the other hand, are more likely to laugh, point, and possibly throw things.  I snatched the photo as quickly as possible and rushed away.

The students were everywhere, flowing all over the town centre.  I was skirting the edge but they seemed to be in every shop, barrelling out of side alleys, wolfing down chips in cafes and pizza bars.  Avoiding their whirring footsteps became a full time distraction, meaning I might have missed some of Keighley's more beautiful spots.  There was a very nice multi-storey car park - shhh, it was great, with twisted columns - and a public library with a Charles Rennie Mackintosh-esque sign over the door.  Mostly it seemed like hustle and cars; I twice had to dodge taxis swinging into my path on cross streets.

After a bit of walking, though, things became less frenetic.  A road out of town meant villas and detached houses, plus small worker's cottages plunging down the hill towards the river valley.  The pedestrians thinned out until I was the only walker, occasionally avoiding someone at a bus stop, but mostly having the pavement to myself.

That under-construction mosque is two doors down from a Christian Science church; I'd have loved to have seen their reaction to the planning application.  I'm just glad it's a proper mosque with a decent dome and minaret.  Sometimes new-build mosques look like an Asda, and the one in Birkenhead is just a couple of rooms above a shop.  Go large or go home, I say.

Walking on that ridge above the valley, I felt content.  It was hard not to enjoy the bursting spring around me, soft curls of green creeping out of branches and leaves.  There were patches of snowdrops, still in amongst mud and wet grass, but promising so much.  

Utley, the next village, was ordinary but in a lovely way.  It wasn't trying to be more than it was, but was happy to be a decent place to live.  A dog stared out a window at me as I walked by, following me as I passed, and I found myself waving at him.  I'm not sure why.  If he'd waved back I'd have been terrified.

There were sheep grazing in some of the fields, but no lambs yet.  I'm not sure when they'll start turning up.  They've already appeared alongside the daffodils and the Easter eggs in the springtime displays in the supermarket so we must be due them soon.

According to a plaque at the side of the road, Steeton with Easton is the home of the Steeton Male Voice Choir (which begs the question: where else would you expect to find them?).  I hunkered down, just in case I was suddenly accosted by a gang of men doing Amazing Grace in harmony.  

It was another pleasing village, though one of the pubs at the crossroads was up for sale.  I briefly allowed myself to fantasise about owning a small pub in the Yorkshire Dales, before realising that I actually hate (a) people and (b) hard work. I think I basically want to own a hand pump full of ale; the pub is a secondary consideration.  A right turn and I was heading out of the village, past the Steeton Hall Hotel ("Hotel of the Season Winter 2012/13", which is not much of an accolade to be frank) and the Millennium Business Park and to Steeton & Silsden station.

This is yet another station that Beeching closed, only for it to be reopened twenty odd years later.  I'm starting to feel a bit sorry for the old sod.  Every decision he made seems to be slowly being overturned.  It means that the station building isn't in use for railway purposes any more, but it does mean that it's a clean and modern facility.

I stood on the platform and ate my peanut butter sandwiches (I'm trying to save money by bringing them from home; it's why I also gave the pub in Steeton a swerve, even though every fibre of my being was calling for a pint).  This was as far as I could get on my West Yorkshire Day Ranger; I'd need a far more expensive ticket to get to Cononley and Skipton, further on.  It was a good, satisfying journey out, and I was glad to do it all over again.  I'd worried that I was losing my blogging inspiration, my mojo - I'd just not been able to get the effort (or the cash) to go out there.  A day on the railways reminded me what I was missing.

Friday 1 March 2013

Below The Salt

Damn you, Leeds.  As if your teasingly sexy railway station wasn't enough, your trains are also rather lovely as well.  I was on a whisper-smooth electric train, heading out of the city, sitting on a comfortable purple seat and peeking out through windows that had been tinted so my poor eyes would be shaded from the sun.

This is a class 333 train (yes, I had to look it up) and was designed to run on the Heathrow Express.  Sadly West Yorkshire Metro haven't carried over the tv screens with the fascinating "Heathrow Express TV" (a loop of BBC News, ads for bland luxury products, and a smiling woman telling you the difference between Terminal 1 and Terminal 4).  Such a missed opportunity.  They could have had episodes of Emmerdale on there or something.

I jumped off at the next station, Shipley.  The lines form a triangular junction, one of only two places in Britain this happens (the other one is at Earlestown), and the station building is nestled in the centre.  I crossed the tracks, past a man wiping down the handrails on the bridge, and ended up in the middle of the triangle.  There was a surprisingly pretty station building here, one which had seen a bit of restoration.

Inside, everything was warm and tidy, with shiny red and cream surfaces.  It had a cheery, turn of the century feel to it, the kind of place where you would happily linger.  Until the police moved you on for vagrancy.

After nearly cracking my nose open on the automatic doors (they swung inwards, which was confusing) I returned to the platform.  There's no direct route from the ticket hall to the road - because of that triangle of lines, you have to cross under the tracks whichever way you go.  I picked the exit via platform 4, one of the back exits, because it would deposit me on Station Road.  That felt more appropriate.

Shipley town centre was a couple of minutes walk away.  It was centred around a pleasing pedestrianised market square, busy with buses and people, though there weren't any actual stalls open that day.  Above it was a modernist clock tower, clicking its way towards the hour.

There was an Arndale centre at the other end - a surprisingly small one; I thought Arndale only did town conquering behemoths - and pretty planters and seating.  An Asda supermarket lurked behind on a back street, as though it was embarrassed to show its face.

Because when I think of the best way to commemorate Diana, Princess of Wales, I immediately think "bit of paper shoved in a bush next to a sheep with an umbrella".  It's what she would have wanted.

The road out of the town revealed a surprising amount of alternative therapy practitioners and beauticians (including one with a sign outside saying Give her a massage for Mother's Day!, which made me shudder involuntarily).  I don't know if Shipley is a centre for holistic living, or if all the hippies just operate out of one street, but there did seem a disproportionate amount for a low-end Yorkshire town.  Perhaps they're all really brothels.

My next stop was far more distinguished.  Founded in 1851, Saltaire was a home for the workers at the nearby mill, and is a pioneer in urban planning.  Much as at Port Sunlight on the Wirral, the employees were rehoused from Bradford's slums into warm comfortable homes, with bath houses, a library and school to keep them entertained and educated.  It was pioneering thought.

It was a shame, then, that I reached the village through a more modern example of homes for the underprivileged.  Bland, featureless blocks of flats, regimentedly laid out.  A man with a neck tattoo walked his pug past me, bag of dog shit swinging casually from his finger.  Most tourists to Saltaire won't come this way; they get bussed in or come via the train.  It was depressing to see how we abandoned the idea of building the very best homes for workers in favour of a more "will this do?" approach.

It made me appreciate Sir Titus Salt's efforts even more.  There are streets of two up, two downs all over England, but how many have this level of artistry in them?  Arched windows, stained glass, white painted sills.

The municipal buildings occupied the centre of the village - the factory school opposite the Institute, built for the betterment of the workers' minds.  The benevolent factory owner believed that just housing people wasn't enough - you needed to stimulate them, provide them with places to be entertained, to socialise, to exhibit.  All of which we seem to have lost.  Councils are cutting their arts budgets by 100% because it's seen as a frivolity; yet here we have a mill owner (perhaps the most capitalist capitalist there is) understanding that it's a valuable part of people's life.

There are shops all around the Institute.  I'm guessing that in the 19th century they were rather more practical than the restaurants, tea rooms and art galleries that had taken the space to suck up tourist money.  Saltaire's a World Heritage Site now; I wonder what the UNESCO inspectors think about the scabby estate next door.  Given their objections to Liverpool's regeneration of its docks, I'm surprised they haven't demanded they're all demolished; the subsequently homeless residents would add a pleasing air of Victorian poverty.

It was too early in the morning for Fanny, so I went to a bakery instead.  I'd packed some lunch before I left the house but I couldn't resist the call of a cheese and onion pastie.  The crisp yellow pastry was the colour of Saltaire's buildings.

I didn't have the time to visit Salts Mill, now a gallery and work space.  It has a collection of David Hockneys (the artist is a local); if you work your way through their terribly designed, overproduced website you may just be able to read about it.  Instead I headed for the station.

That's the village church, by the way; the station doesn't have a building, never mind a collonade.  The original Saltaire station was closed by Beeching, only to be reopened less than twenty years later.  Apparently there was a significant call for public transport at a major tourist and residential spot.  Who'd have thought?

If Saltaire was on Merseyrail, there would be a suitable Attractive Local Feature board at the station.  Some urchins larking around in front of the Institute - something like that.  West Yorkshire Metro and Northern Rail are considerably less ambitious.

Hardly worth bothering with.

It was a charming, inspirational village, Saltaire.  I'd have loved to have lingered a little longer.  But I had more stations to collect...