Thursday 30 May 2013

Map!: The Next Generation

I've been over-analysing the Merseyrail map for years, but I've never really turned my attention to the Northern Rail map.  As they've just issued a new version, it seems like a good time to take a look.

It does the best it can with a difficult job.  Northern Rail's a wandering octopus of a network, with no real centre and tentacles flailing across half the country.  It's a commuter service in Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds; it's a rural connector in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.  It has to cram in hundreds of station names as well as Passenger Transport Executives and limited services.  After all this, it's a miracle that it's even legible.

The new map, issued this month, replaces one from January 2010 which was well past its sell-by date.  This version doesn't change much, but its alterations improve that version 100%.

The main alteration is the addition of grey lines to denote services not run by Northern Rail.  This is a pretty standard feature on most other networks' diagrams but Northern shied away from it in the past.  It means that the map becomes less disjointed and empty, with "new" services tying parts together.  For example, the part of the map that covered York and Darlington used to look like this:

Now it looks like this:

That pair of grey lines opens up new journeys that the old map seemed to say was impossible.  If you wanted to get from Liverpool to Newcastle on the old map, you had to go via Carlisle - this presents an alternative.

It also turns towns that were previously culs-de-sac into through routes:

It's interesting how very little jiggling about had to be done to accommodate these new lines.  Some of the route names have had to be rolled over to the opposite side of the line but that's about it.  In fact, they've slipped in so easily, you suspect that the map was designed to have them on there all along - look at the angle the Runcorn line takes, for example, and how neatly the West Coast Main Line slots in alongside:

Speaking of the West Coast Main Line, it now appears in full on the map.  From a purely aesthetic view, it would have been nice if had formed a straight vertical axis from top to bottom - there's a kink around Earlestown and Newton-le-Willows - but at the end of the day, it doesn't carry Northern Rail services, so they're not bothered.

What else?  The line through Lincolnshire has been straightened into a single diagonal, perhaps to make it look like a more desirable option now the through line via Scunthorpe has appeared.  It means that South Yorkshire's been shrunk as a result but is much more pleasing, visually.

I'm not keen on the two lines heading south though, one through Retford and another between Worksop and Shireoaks; it looks sloppy, and since both lines then head straight off the map, it's unnecessary.  You could have just had the East Coast line via Retford and it would have been fine.

The mistake at Cheadle Hulme has been corrected, so it's on the north side of the junction - previously it looked like it was only served by one of the lines:

Funnily enough, the area that comes off worst on the whole map is Merseyside.  The new map now includes the Northern Line, with the connections at Southport, Ormskirk and Kirkby and a guest appearance from Liverpool Central:

It's not perfect - the way it folds into the City Line after West Allerton implies that through services to, say, Widnes are available - but at least it's there.  The Wirral Line is completely absent.  The peninsula itself is a weird little nub on both versions of the map, and it seems redesigning it to accommodate the Merseyrail service was too much bother.  It does mean, however, that Chester has a missing connection to Liverpool.  Worse, there's a grey line from Ellesmere Port disappearing off into Wales!

I accept that fitting all four branches of the Wirral Line, plus the tunnel under the river, would have been complicated.  Perhaps the New Brighton and West Kirby lines didn't need to be shown.  A simple diagonal heading from Chester and Ellesmere Port and then crossing to Lime Street and Central wouldn't have been too complex.  You don't even need to show the loop, or Moorfields and James Street.  It's doubly strange given that Merseyrail and Northern are owned by the same company and so are presumably keen to encourage passengers to transfer between services.

The biggest news for me, as a person trying to visit every station on the map, is the fact that there are eight stations on the new one that weren't on the old one.  One is Liverpool Central, which I've obviously already been to.  Another is Buckshaw Parkway, which finally makes the map a year and a half after it opened.  Again, I did this one ages ago.

The addition of the West Coast Main Line means that there are now four more stations in Cumbria.

Yes, the Lake District has finally made it onto the map.  These aren't all the stations in that part of the world - there are actually two local halts, Staveley and Burneside, between Windermere and Kendal - but they're certainly the most important ones for tourists heading to the area.  I'm ok with this.  As was pointed out by Neil in the comments to my Cumbrian Coast Line epilogue, ignoring this area just because Northern Rail didn't serve it seemed childish.  It also means I can stock up on Kendal Mint Cake.

More annoying are the appearances of two heritage railways on the map.

The service to Pickering is operated by the North Yorkshire Moors Railway; a fine organisation and one that runs a remarkably good service in that part of the world.  It's a seasonal tourist line though.  Its timetable can change from day to day.  It's not a legitimate service in the same way the other routes on the map are.

Even more annoying is this one:

I've just been to Ravenglass, Northern Rail!  I thought I'd crossed that whole line off!  Now you've gone and added the heritage route to Dalegarth on, I have to go back.  This is very irritating of you.

I also feel sorry for the railways that haven't made the map.  How about the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, just as an example?  It shares a station building with the main line railway, it goes into an area of the country unserved by National Rail, and it's a major tourist route.  There's even plenty of room for it to fit on the map.

I don't often advocate less information on a map, but Pickering and Dalegarth are two completely different types of rail service.

One thing I would add to the map are local interchanges.  Manchester's Metrolink and the Tyne & Wear Metro are major transport services, but they're nowhere to be seen on this map.  You wouldn't dream of producing a map of London's railways that didn't include Underground interchanges.  A small tram logo in Manchester, for example, and an M in Newcastle, would show that there are further routes available off map.  In fact, you could go back to Merseyside, get rid of the clumsy Northern Line and stick a Merseyrail M next to the station name - simultaneously solving the Chester/Ellesmere Port error in the process.

My conclusion?  Not bad, Northern Rail, not bad.  There's certainly nothing as heinous as the Merseyrail SQUARE on this map.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go and adjust my running totals spreadsheet to include the new stations.  No, really, that's FINE.

Wednesday 29 May 2013

Sunshine and Strippers

If you've noticed a sudden change in the photographic quality, rest assured, it's nothing to do with me.  I've got a new camera.  You might have spotted that the photos during the Cumbrian Coast trip were flawed - a hair or something had somehow worked its way into the mechanism, and every shot looked like it had a little kiss curl.

The new camera's smaller, has more megapixels, features wi-fi and video editing facilities, and is all a bit overwhelming.  The instruction book is two hundred pages long.  This isn't one of those cameras with enormous lenses that weigh a ton; it's just a little point and click thing.  All I want to do is take pictures.

It means that some of the photos might be a bit unfocussed, or oversaturated, or just plain weird until I've properly got to grips with it.  Apologies.

One feature it does have which is useful is a self-pic monitor.  I point the cam at my face, it realises there's a person there, adjusts the focus accordingly and makes a little beep to let me know it's ok to take a picture.  Extremely handy when I'm out in the sticks on my own.

The "built in Photoshop to make you look like Ryan Gosling" feature seems to be broken.

Stocksfield station was gearing itself for an onslaught.  The Northumberland County Show was taking place near there at the weekend (the one just gone), leading to banners and revised timetables.  I was strangely pleased that an agricultural show could still be such a big draw that they have to lay on special trains.

A right turn out of the station, a little hill, and then I was on the main road to Riding Mill.  The sun bounced off my colossal forehead, and I once again regretted this haircut (I panicked in the barbers and gave the wrong instructions).  At least a bit of fringe minimises my Tefal-head proportions.  Not much, but a little.  As it was, I was quietly roasting in the heat.

I'm deliberately hitting the country stations for the next few months.  While we - theoretically - have a summer, I need to collect some of the out of the way places from the Northern Rail map.  Wandering across Ilkley Moor in December wouldn't just be cold, it would be properly dangerous.  It means a bit of a mad dash to rural halts to try and get them under my belt before they sink into a morass of mud and snow.

I felt like I may have missed something by visiting this part of the country in summer.  It was warm, it was pleasant, it was positively bucolic.  I was in Hadrian's Wall Country!  Surely that's wind-blasted hillsides and desolate scrub.  It's the bodies of a thousand Englishmen buried in the churning wet earth by bloodthirsty Romans.  It's cold and damp and miserable.

All that would be an absolute nightmare to walk in, of course.  I can only imagine the whining blog post I'd have written if there'd been a bit of rain that day, never mind if I'd had to haul myself through grey claggy soil as well.  I did make a mental note to leave it till Autumn at least to collect the other end of the line.

Riding Mill curved round a bend in the Tyne, houses built either side of a tributary that gurgled down from the hills.  Stone miner's cottages had been supplemented with more modern bungalows and detached homes.  Commuters and retirees had taken over the village.

I ignored the call of the Wellington Hotel and took a little side road up towards the station.  It didn't feel like the right road - it was sited in amongst a modern housing estate, not in the historic centre as I'd expected - but there was the curved metal arch to indicate I'd arrived.

Riding Hill opened in 1835, only five years after the first trains ran between Liverpool and Manchester, and as such is one of the oldest stations still in operation in the world.  It seemed strange to think that this quiet country halt was picking up passengers two years before Queen Victoria came to the throne.

Corbridge was a much more popular station.  I climbed off behind two pensioners with suitcases, experiencing that anxiety of not wanting to patronise them by offering to help combined with not wanting to see them struggle; in the end they managed it all by themselves, which didn't really alleviate my guilt.

The station building at Corbridge is still in use, but as an Indian restaurant now.  There were workmen repainting the footbridge and it was clear that they were using the restaurant as an unofficial canteen, with the fire door propped open and empty pint glasses on the table inside.  Once the train departed, the men wandered out, scratching themselves and looking content.

I turned my Bluetooth on and nothing happened.  Looks like I'll never know.

Corbridge station is actually on the wrong side of the river - the town is over the bridge - and I wasn't really in the mood to go and have a poke round.  Besides, I didn't have long before my train back to Newcastle, and I had one of those tickets that didn't allow me to vary my journey home.  I couldn't risk missing it.  Instead, I wandered into the local pub for a pint of bitter.

Yes, that pub is called "The Dyvels".  Inside, it wasn't a filthy coven, and there was no sign of recent human sacrifice; just a single bar room and a pub showing the BBC News channel.  There were a group of men in there who, as far as I could work out, seemed to be competing to be Sexist Pub Bore of the Year.  They were all in their late middle ages, all had hair that was just a little too long (to counteract the balding at the front), wore denim or a brown leather jacket.  They flirted with the student barmaid in a crass, unsubtle way, and she rebuffed them as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

They were talking about lapdances.  Except they weren't, because it was all couched in raised eyebrows and nudge-nudge-wink-wink, and references to "business trips" and "expenses".  "Are you allowed to touch them?" one man asked, breathlessly.

"No, no, no," said Brown Leather Jacket.  "It's like being at the ballet.  Only the dancing's much closer.  And they've not got any clothes on."

There were guffaws and giggles.  "But no touching?" persisted the other man.  I imagined he was mentally preparing masturbation material for when he got back home and his wife was at Tesco's.

"No, no," said Brown Leather Jacket, then arched his eyebrows.  "Not officially."  And the men of the world guffawed some more, and I considered jamming a broken pint glass quite firmly into his spine.

Behind them, the barmaid exchanged a glance with the chef, who'd come out for a cup of tea.  They smirked and shook their heads.  United against a common enemy.

I left the pub while I still had a stomach lining and returned to the station.  I'd finally broken my North East duck; the lines around Newcastle were no longer clean and untouched.  I'd have to come back many times more before they'd all be gone though.  So long as I never went back to that pub, I was happy with that.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

The Nature Walk

Prudhoe sounds vaguely dirty.  I'm not sure what it is - some kind of indecent sexual act.  And then he committed Prudhoe, your honour.  It's probably because it sounds a bit like "prod", which is, of course, a properly dirty word.

In actuality, Prudhoe is a perfectly ordinary station in the shadow of a paper mill.  From one side, it looks like a charming country halt, but from the other angle, it's dominated by enormous smoke spewing chimneys lovingly crafting toilet roll.

Still, it used to be worse.  Before the paper mill ICI had a chemical factory here.  It produced agricultural fertilizers until the 1960s, belching filth into the air and the river.

A by product of the chemical factory was the enormous chalk spoil mountains known as the "Spetchells".  When ICI moved out, the chalk stayed, forming a nature reserve which is open to the public.

It meant that, even though I was in the grimy North-East, alongside the filthy Tyne, I actually had something of a nature walk.  Once I was past the cafe (only open in the summer) and the bikers had disappeared, it became a quiet, pleasing stroll.  Butterflies and birds, the rustle of trees, the gentle dapple of the river against the bank.

Occasionally a footpath had stripped back the vegetation, revealing the white scar of chalk underneath.  Amazing how life reclaims a dead landscape.  How industrial waste churns into a green space.

Across the river, a brick mill chimney poked above the trees, the last remnants of a dead factory.  There was already vegetation halfway up the sides.  It was like the outflung arm of a drowning man, just before he's dragged under the waves.

A period under cool tree canopies reminded me that even though it was May, summer wasn't here properly. There was a slight chill and the skies threatened rain.  I was glad when the trees fell back and I was in a wide meadow.

There were horses grazing in the meadow, a couple wandering around lazily, while a third sat on the floor.  It gave me an imperious look as I passed.  One horse allowed me to stroke its nose, breaking off from its grass chewing to give me a better reach, brown eyes staring at me in a fairly bored way.  Are you nearly done? they seemed to say.  I patted it one last time and headed back into the woods.

Much of the route used to be a railway line.  You get an inkling of this from the wide central pathway, occasionally straight, definitely man made, but the railway's real legacy is the Hagg Bank Bridge.

This is one of the oldest arch suspension bridges in the world; the grandfather to the Tyne Bridge and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  A single span was necessary because of coal mines in the area; there were worries that support piers could cause the shallow workings to collapse and flood.  It used to carry two railway tracks and their paths are still marked by deep smooth routes on the bridge.

I should really have tagged every time I mention Dr Beeching on this blog; he's almost as omnipresent as James Bond.  Beeching closed this line but rather than demolish the bridge completely the Council turned it into a public walkway.

I passed over it and the river and into Wylam, a little village with cafes and pubs which is probably most famous as the birthplace of George Stephenson.  The irony of reaching the home of the grandfather of the railways via an abandoned line wasn't lost on me.

If I was a proper railway historian, I'd have gone to Stephenson's birthplace to pay homage.  It's owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.  I'm not a proper railway historian though, I'm just a twat with a blog, and I couldn't be bothered walking out of the village to reach it.

Instead, I went to the pub.  Regular readers would be disappointed if I hadn't.  I crossed over the Wylam bridge, once a toll bridge with a tollhouse still at one end, and nipped into the Boathouse for a pint of Tyneside Blonde.  Ahead of me were three Geordie ladies, out for their constitutional, and now treating themselves to pints of cider.  Their accents were thick as a winter blanket, and they genuinely used the phrase "way ay" in speech, which thrilled me immensely.

This is the signal box at Wylam.  It was once the standard design on the line, but now there are only two left, and they are listed buildings.  I loved it - such a pretty way to solve the problem of where to put a quite perfunctory building.  The footbridge over the tracks is listed, too, but that was undergoing restoration and was swaddled in tarpaulin.  I have a habit of turning up to places when they're being refurbished so I can't appreciate them properly.

The station building, meanwhile, is long boarded up and abandoned.  Northern Rail have painted the wood over the ticket windows purple, but that's not much of an attraction.

One thing it hasn't got is a decent station sign - just a sort of arch over the entrance.  Bad show.