Saturday 31 August 2013

Day One: Reversals

This damn camera.

It was having a hissy fit.  I'd arrived at Great Ayton, my very first station on the Esk Valley Line, and the camera had frozen.  There was a green "on" light, but nothing worked.  Remember when cameras were just a series of mechanical processes so if you pushed a button, it moved something that moved something else and click! you had a photo?  Now you're wandering around with a computer in your pocket, something that could conceivably turn malevolent at any time.  It's not restricted to cameras - my television crashed the other day, forcing me to reboot it.  My television.  I only wanted to watch The Big Bang Theory, not find the Higgs-Boson particle.

After a few moments of panicking, bashing, and swearing, I pulled out my iPhone and took the photo with that instead.

Hence my look of barely concealed tension and frustration.

It had been a bit of a fraught day, all told.  I'd managed to get from Birkenhead Park to Great Ayton despite the Gods clearly disliking the idea.  There were overcrowded trains at Manchester, unexplained halts outside Leeds.  At York, my train - along with every other train north - was delayed due to overhead line problems at Doncaster.  I sat on an Inverness train for ten minutes as it slowly filled with fizzing, frustrated people, like we were sinking into the sea.  Only instead of the carriage filling with water it was being flooded with anger and passive aggressive moans.  I ended up jumping off the train, unable to stand the wait any longer, and instead getting a rail replacement bus to Middlesbrough.  I almost missed that because the staff from First Transpennine Express didn't seem to be in any hurry to tell people which was the right coach, and the boy on the information desk at York station was next to useless:

"Can you tell me where the rail replacement buses go from?"

"I'm not sure.  I've seen a bloke with a First Transpennine clipboard outside so I'd guess it's from out there somewhere."

I was feeling so discombobulated I had a Burger King meal, much to the consternation of the girl behind the counter who tried to put me off ordering with "We've got no drinks, only Tropicana".  She seemed annoyed when I wanted my food anyway.

It was a relief to finally get off at Great Ayton station.  I'd made it!  Just the six hours or so of travelling across country to get here.

I took the photo of the station sign with my phone then set off for the next one, fiddling with the camera.  Finally, in desperation, I popped the battery out, left it for a little while, then shoved it back in.  The camera whirred to life as if nothing had happened.  I hate this camera.  It was my second choice, because I needed to make a quick decision and Currys had sold out of my carefully researched first choice, and now I was deeply regretting it.  It's just a little bit off, just a little bit not good enough in places, not so bad that you throw it away as a bad lot but sufficiently awful to irritate you every time you use it.

There was a woman ahead of me on the narrow footpath, a young pretty girl in tight hiking shorts.  She'd clearly been wandering across the north all day, but she was walking very slowly.  I became aware that I was advancing on her at a disturbing pace.  It's hard to try and overtake young women without looking like some disturbing sex maniac; I put my best "I'm gay, honest" look on my face as my footsteps loomed up behind her, then stepped into the gutter to get past to really underline how disinterested I was in being close to her.

Fortunately I was soon in the village of Great Ayton, away from any potential "sex crime on lonely Yorkshire lane" Crimewatch reconstructions.  The streets were surprisingly busy, filled with couples, families, dog walkers.  I couldn't help noticing they were all walking in the opposite direction to me though.  As I headed round through the houses and then out of the village, I met a dozen people, all coming the other way.  It started to get embarrassing.  I'm not sure what was going on in the next village, but apparently it had just finished and now everyone was heading home.  Although in my twisted mind, all I could think about was the ending of The Mist.

The people petered out as I crossed the river at Little Ayton, then I was on quiet empty roads.  Now and then a cyclist would whizz by, head down, his sleek vehicle whirring efficiently.  The Yorkshire Moors are a place for proper cyclists, people with lycra and ambitions, not your day to day perambulators.  There were hardly any cars.  After a while I was wandering in the centre of the road, unconcerned about being mown down by a passing truck - there simply weren't any.

I could smell September in the air.  The late afternoon was still warm, burning off the day's sunshine, but there was the whisper of Autumn underneath.  A tiny chill mixed with the summer vapours, a subtle hint that the trees would soon be dying.  Fields of hay were stripped back to stubble.  Harvested bales formed long shadows.

I was, technically, on the "ugly" side of the railway.  The border of the North York Moors national park hugs it between Great Ayton and Battersby, and I was in the part that hadn't been included.  To my eyes it seemed just as worthy of inclusion - fine rises of green hills, soft mellow fields, blue forests stretching into the distance.  It was a hard, rugged landscape, uncompromising, inspiring.

Easby was obviously participating in some kind of scarecrow festival; perhaps that was the draw for the villagers of Great Ayton?  I turned right at a Cruella de Vil, her 101 dalmations represented by a couple of photocopied pictures, and passed a mushroom farm and a Union Jack bedecked sign promising Easby Hogs: British Rare Breed Pigs.  All the while the skies closed in, threatening divine intervention.

The line between Middlesbrough and Whitby is actually a Frankenstein's monster of a route, cobbled together from various different lines over the years.  The original Whitby line is now the North York Moors Railway to Pickering.  From Grosmont, on that line, a branch was built off to Picton via Battersby.  Another branch was then built after Battersby north to Nunthorpe, where it connected with the Macclesfield-Guisborough railway line.  You can see the position of the various railways around Great Ayton and Battersby on the North Eastern Railway map at Middlesbrough station:

Do you know how irritated I am that I'll never get to visit Sexhow?  Not to mention Potto.

Various closures over the years, culminating in Oh! Doctor Beeching, cut off branches with the wanton abandon of Leatherface's chainsaw.  The route between Battersby and Picton fell in the process.  That map is actually misleading - Battersby is on the wrong side of the junction; it should be more or less where Ingleby is.

I passed what was once Ingleby station, now commemorated only by "Station Farm" and apparently better known for its cattle these days:

The line to Picton crossed the road and carried on across the fields.  A look to my right, and I could follow the track with my eyes.  More than fifty years since it was removed and nature still hasn't completely claimed it.

In most parts of the country the route would have been appropriated by walkers, cyclists and horse riders.  There'd be a bridleway and gates and finger posts.  Even though you can still follow the old railway line easily on satellite imagery, it's resoundingly closed to the public.  Unfriendly signs put me off any exploration.

I carried on into Ingleby Greenhow, a tidy village settling down for its Bank Holiday Sunday entertainments.  I could hear the men in the Dudley Arms starting to get rowdy.  A little girl leaned out the downstairs window and dropped her doll onto the pavement; a few moments later she dashed out of the front door, threw it back through the window, and ran inside again.  I imagined her mum and dad oblivious to her game as they chatted to their neighbours over pints.  The building next door was a family butchers, a tiny handpainted sign over narrow windows and a van parked outside: Orders delivered locally to meat your needs!

I paused by the parish notice board, always good value.  Anyone in the area might like to know that the village hall will be hosting The Way I See It, "a slide show set to music", on September the 6th.  I've no idea what it entails; I'm guessing it's one of those "light hearted" pieces about why this country's going to the dogs, as you can find in many a local paper.  The now deceased Wirral Champion used to be riddled with them, columns about the terrible state of modern life and how much better it all was in the twenties when we only had rickets and death in industrial accidents and grinding poverty to worry about.  (The BF once managed to get the magazine withdrawn from our local Sainsburys for several months after it published a virulently homophobic piece).

I could be wrong.  It could be a piece of pro-feminist agitprop from the Edinburgh Fringe that wandered south.  If anyone's in the area, could you pop in and let me know?  Tickets are just £4 - light refreshments included.  (Bring your own drinks/glasses).

I headed up the hill out of the village, past ridiculously pretty stone cottages.  Every now and then I was hit with the smell of a Sunday night, the thick meaty scent of roast beef and Yorkshire puddings drifting out through open windows.  I thought back to that Burger King meal and felt like I'd betrayed my country somehow.

Battersby station was once Battersby Junction.  The second half of the name was dropped when the lines were closed, but it still clings on in the odd road sign, and in the name of the hamlet around the station.  I turned left at Tom Roy, Morris Minor Specialist, and took in the hand-crafted station sign.  Very unofficial, very un-corporate, very pleasing.

I hadn't expected there to be anything here except the station, but there were a dozen railway cottages around it.  They formed a triangle, butting up against the old line, and must have once housed workers and engineers.  Judging by the glimpses of front rooms I got from the pavement as I passed, it now seems to be a 50/50 mix of youngsters getting their foot on the property ladder and pensioners who are fond of glass cats and doilies.

Battersby station is now an anomaly.  Even though the trains are meant to go from Middlesbrough to Whitby, they have to do a reverse at Battersby.  This is because of that odd mismatch of lines I mentioned earlier.  The two lines both turn away from each other, trying to go to Picton, and all they can do instead is collide here.

The best way to illustrate this is through highly expensive CGI.

That took me literally moments, I tell you.

As you can see, since there's no connection at the curve between the Middlebrough section and the Whitby section, every train has to pull into Battersby station and stop.  There's a "token" scheme here, operated by the driver, because the line is single track.  This means that only the train with the "token" can travel on the railway, and stops two trains from ending up on a single set of lines.

Normally there's a signalman who would handle the token for you, as an extra safety measure, but Battersby is so isolated and underused the driver himself does all the work.  A cabinet on the platform houses the equipment and a telephone for him to obtain permission to travel onwards.

In an ideal world all this would be engineered out of existence.  A link would be built between the Middlesbrough and Whitby sections and Battersby station would be closed, allowing through services without an inconvenient five minute wait.  It'll never happen though.  The line just isn't important enough for that kind of investment.  Plus, closing a station is an expensive business, and would mean depriving a community of a rail link (okay, only 1500 people use it a year, but that's not the point).  Building a new one to replace it would be an expense utterly out of proportion to its benefits.

Basically Battersby is destined to remain a strange, clunky dead end on the rail network.

I like it.  I would probably find that five minute wait incredibly annoying if I used the line every day, but as an outsider, I relished its quirkiness.  I liked its anachronistic behaviour.  I wondered if the men at British Rail had left it this way out of a secret hope that one day the line through to Picton would be restored.  "Trust us," they'd whispered to local councillors, "we'll reopen it in twenty years time and you'll be glad we left all that track lying there!"  There's even a tiny spur riding on beyond the station, going nowhere except round the corner, but enough to look ambitious and exciting.

Yeah, I can pretty much guess what those "instructions" will be.  Turn back you idiot!

I dumped my bag in the shelter and changed out of my sweaty t-shirt into a clean one; the only advantage of the replacement bus was that I'd not yet had time to check into my hotel, so I still had all my stuff with me.  I sat on the floor, cross legged, and let the quiet station capture me.  Victoria Wood visited Battersby Junction as part of her wonderful Crewe to Crewe documentary, in 1996.  Its silent spell prompted her to say:
What a filthy old world it is.  There's still a few good bits left though.
The BBC still hasn't given me that documentary series, so I had to settle for putting my thoughts on my iPhone.

Come on: 6 x half an hour, 7:30, BBC Four.  I'm better than Portillo.

I was at Battersby for about three quarters of an hour, waiting for the train to come cresting round the corner.  There's not much to see.  The station house has been lovingly preserved, though the owners have put up a small wire fence to stop people sitting on the wall and crushing their petunias.  There's a water tower, rusting idly, long past its usefulness but too much hassle to remove.

The last train of the day finally arrived to take me back to the city.  Two stations done.  Not a bad start.

Friday 30 August 2013

Prologue: There and Back Again

What did you do with your Bank Holiday?  Some beers, meet the family, watch Ben-Hur or a Bond film?

I went to Middlesbrough.

Over here in Merseyside it's easy to forget how poor the railway services are in other parts of the country.  If I want to catch a train from my local station, Birkenhead Park, I don't even bother looking at a timetable.  I know that if I turn up I'll have to wait ten minutes, max.  It's that easy.

The Esk Valley Line, from Middlesbrough to Whitby, is seventeen stations that get five trains in each direction.  A day.  Four in each direction at weekends.  If you're going to travel on this line, you'd better be sure you know when the next train is, or you'll be stuck.

For me, living on the other side of the country, it presented a problem.  I'd miss the first and last trains just getting to and from Middlesbrough.  If I timed it wrong, I'd be out in the countryside with no way of getting home.  The easiest thing to do was just to book myself into Middlesbrough Travelodge and collect the whole line over the course of three days.  It also meant I'd be able to squeeze in the North Yorkshire Moors Railway line to Pickering, which Northern Rail inconsiderately added to the map at the last revision and whose timetable is even more infrequent.

So.  Three days.  A whole load of stations.  A lot of walking.  A lot of pints in country pubs.  Worked for me.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Here We Go Loop De Loop

Oh, the Merseyrail map.  My secret love, my secret nemesis.  It gives me happiness and frustration in equal parts.

Last time I saw it the Merseyrail map was in a compromised state.  Lime Street's closure meant things were imperfect, in so many ways.  Now the whole network's open the map's been reissued.

But wait!  What is this magic, mystical form at the centre of the map?

It's a loop.  A proper loop.  After all these years the Merseyrail map has finally decided to show the Loop Line as a circle.  It's the only circle on the map and it's magnificent.  That's what I like to see.  Not a misshapen circle.  Not a weird polygon.  And certainly not, not ever, not for a million pounds, not a FUCKING SQUARE.

I was ecstatic to see the above map at Birkenhead Park earlier.  I was overjoyed.  It made my day.  And then I met up for a pint with Robert, and he widdled all over my happiness.


The split doesn't match up with the loop properly.  It's clunky.  It's alright from a distance, so long as you just get a quick glimpse, but the minute you look closer you see the join.  Robert spotted it straight away and he took great delight in showing it to me.  My perfect Merseyrail map was ruined. 

Why would you do that?  Presumably Merseytravel and Merseyrail employ professional designers.  People with graphical qualifications.  And they're turning out maps that don't even match up.

It sickens me.  It sickens me to my very stomach.

Saturday 17 August 2013

Best Days

A-level results day inevitably prompts mixed feelings in me.  Feelings of nostalgia and regret.  It's eighteen years since I flunked my A-levels, denying me my first choice university (Keele) and sending me off to Edge Hill in Ormskirk instead.  At the time I was distraught and unhappy.  Now I see it as a blessing.  I've been to Keele, and it's a massive sucky hole of misery in the middle of nowhere (highest suicide rate among all UK universities, I believe).  Edge Hill was small enough for you to get to know people, to have fun and not be lost, and it had that wonderful Merseyrail line to take me off to Liverpool.

I fell in love with Liverpool, I fell in love with the BF, I fell in love with some of the best friends I've ever known, all while I was at Edge Hill.  I didn't make it to my first choice but I had a hell of a good time anyway.  The best time of my life, in fact; everyone should be a student.  It's three years of being an adult, but without any responsibility.  You get to drink and have sex and stay out all night and eat junk food, but you don't have work in the morning or a mortgage or kids or anything to drag you down.  It's half a life away - literally - but it still makes me smile.  My only regret is the one that's beautifully articulated in the song I Wish I Could Go Back to College, from Avenue Q: "I wish that I'd taken more pictures."

For some reason Edge Hill didn't shut up shop after I graduated; in fact it just grew and grew, like a giant academic fungus.  The campus is enormous now; what were sports pitches and the Rose Garden when I was there are now giant teaching centres with acronym names.  The boiler room has been replaced by a huge student complex with coffee shops and breakout areas - we had the bar and a vending machine and the Terrace Cafe, and you'd only go there if you wanted something to eat and you were really desperate.  It's a behemoth.  In a way it's outgrown Ormskirk itself; this tiny market town now has thousands of youths streaming through it for ten months a year.

Last week I went back to Ormskirk to meet Jennie (second from left above).  We took her adorable children Adam and Joy to the park, went on the swings, had a coffee, bitched about life.  The usual stuff 36 year olds do.  Coronation Park was on the way back to our student house in Cottage Lane; it was strange for us to be there without being just a little bit drunk.

At the station there was a real indication that Edge Hill dominates the town.  For many years, Ormskirk's Attractive Local Feature board was this:

Pretty typical for a small country town.  My latest visit revealed that the ALF had changed:

This pleases me for a number of reasons.  Firstly, I'm glad that Merseytravel and Merseyrail are still doing the ALFs; I was worried they'd been phased out.  Plus they kept the old colour scheme.  And of course I'm just happy to see Edge Hill getting some recognition, even if they picked a pretty bland building to represent the university.  I suppose they want to look all "modern" and "thrusting", but that building could be anywhere.  They should have used a picture of my beloved LRC (Learning Resource Centre, now unimaginatively renamed the "Library"), or the Venue, or a drunken student getting his stomach pumped after failing to handle all the alcohol in the "Around the World in Forest Court" booze crawl.  Next time, come to me for advice.

Now I'm off to have a little nostalgia fest: drinking cheap lager while I listen to Space and Gina G and Echobelly and Alisha's Attic and Terrorvision (Whales and dolphins, whales and dolphins, yeah!) and missing the old days.  

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Going Dutch

Why do people cycle?  If your destination is close by, walk.  If it's not, we have cars, and buses, and trains.  Using your body to power a vehicle seems so antiquated.  The internal combustion engine is over a hundred years old now; I'm pretty sure it works.  There's no need for you to sweat and grunt - get a taxi.  Who actually wants to be wedged inbetween a Polish HGV and a 4x4, eating fumes and hoping you won't get squeezed like the toothpaste in a tube?  You'd have to be insane, or Victoria Pendleton, and judging by her histrionics on Strictly last year I'm not sure the two aren't interlinked. 

Then there's the lycra.  Only two people should be allowed to wear lycra: Chris Evans in Captain America and Sir Chris Hoy, and to be honest I'm not entirely sold on that.  I don't trust any outfit that's so... form hugging.  You may as well walk up to strangers and hand them a photograph of your genitals: they've already been able to discern your religion through those tight tight shorts.

This isn't a universally held view, I know.  Andrew, for example, is currently cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats, mainly because he loves being on his bike.  My friend runs Barry's Mobile Bicycle Maintenance, servicing pedal vehicles across Merseyside.  People get very possessive about it.  You get protesters and "cyclist advocates" and men in helmets getting infuriated over rights of way.  There's the whole "eco" argument - I'm not shooting poisons into the face of children and pregnant women! - and the health angle - I could break a piece of wood between my thighs, and I my heart is so efficient it actually switches off at night.  Good for you, I say, and then go back to my footlong Subway Club.

One country that's very keen on cycling is the Netherlands, for the very good reason that it's flat.  They like bikes and hate skis.  Fair enough.  And now there's a Dutch company running our railways, they're shipping over their ideas to trial in the UK.  We've already had MtoGo shops installed in Merseyrail ticket offices, and now we're getting Bike & Go.

The scheme was launched yesterday at Liverpool Central.  It's similar to the Boris Bikes, but based around railway stations.  You pre-register, with a £10 deposit, and that gives you a card.  Present this card at a ticket office with bikes for hire and you get access to one or two bicycles for up to 72 hours.  The cost is only £3.80 a day, a pretty reasonable charge, and you can do with the bike what you will.  Just return it to the ticket office when you're done.

It's a nice enough idea, and I can see it being popular somewhere like New Brighton or Southport.  They'll be getting some of the first bikes on the Merseyrail network, along with the likes of Ormskirk, West Kirby and Hooton.  As it's an Abellio scheme, their other UK rail franchises are also getting bikes, so the scheme is getting rolled out across Northern Rail and Greater Anglia.

Good news if you're that kind of manically athletic person who can't help being healthy at all costs.  I'm not that kind of person.  I looked at the scheme and wondered, am I tempted to fork out the tenner for a card, just on the off chance?  The answer is no.  Sorry.

Firstly, England is not Holland.  Norfolk's very flat, but the North most definitely isn't.  The coastal regions of Merseyside are low lying but right behind them are high ridges and hills - have you seen the road from the beach to New Brighton station?  It's about a 1 in 3.  Walking up those hills would be one matter, but hauling a bunch of steel with me is too much.

I'd also be concerned about the security aspect.  One of the clever parts about London's bike hire scheme is you're only responsible for the bike while you're riding it.  You take the bike from one set of stands and drop it off at another.  It's held there securely in a prominent place, and when you want to go home, you can get a different bike and leave that behind.

Bike & Go gives you one bicycle and makes it your responsibility.  So if, for example, you pick up a bike at Southport station and cycle down to the prom - a reasonable use for the scheme - you're then responsible for chaining it up and making sure it's safe.  There are two locks built into the frames but I'd still be concerned about leaving it lying around.  If a bike is stolen, it's a £50 fine if the bike was locked up and you have a crime number, or £400 if you haven't.  I totally accept that I am an over-anxious person but I'm not sure I'd be able to let that bike out of my sight.

It also has to be returned to the station where you got it from, which seems like a missed opportunity.  There will be Bike & Go racks at both West Kirby and Hooton; given that the Wirral Way connects those exact two stations, it would be handy if you could cycle from one to the other and leave the bike at your destination.  Not possible, I'm afraid.

My final concern is about the idea of letting people like me on the roads on bikes in the first place.  I haven't cycled properly for about twenty years.  Being able to turn up at a ticket office and handed a bike without any kind of safety checks seems sort of odd - you're not even required to wear a helmet.  Proper cyclists can be terrible at riding.  I've seen them go through red lights, veer across the road wildly, ride on the pavement or the wrong way up a one way street.  Even Andrew, who goes out every day, forgoes a bell on his bike in favour of having his iPod blare out rock music as he passes, despite me lecturing him on how incredibly antisocial this is.  These are professionals, people who were born to have a saddle uncomfortably wedged in their nethers, and yet they are still a hazard to road and path users alike.  I estimate it would be take me about twelve minutes of riding one of the hired bicycles before blood was shed (either mine or some innocent bystander).

In short, I see Bike & Go as an interesting, if flawed experiment.  I can't help thinking back to all those green cages sitting empty on Wirral Line platforms and wondering whether Merseyrail's Dutch overseers should give up on the bikes and introduce something a little more British at the stations.  A burger stand, perhaps.

Tuesday 13 August 2013

The Elegant Venus

"That poster's disgusting."

The BF looked up from his phone.  "What is?"

"That.  It's obscene.  It's like something out of a porno."

He squinted at me quizzically.  "What's wrong with it?  It's a girl on a beach."

"You don't think that picture's smutty?"  Now it was my turn to look quizzical.  How could he not see it?  It was utterly obvious to me that this was the first shot of some X-rated epic, and now Merseyrail were using it to flog Family Tickets. That's right, Family Tickets.  I found myself bristling in a distinctly Whitehouse fashion.

He stared at the poster, properly stared, stared for so long I began to feel a bit uncomfortable and was convinced that our fellow passengers would think he was a pervert.  Finally, he said, "There's absolutely nothing wrong with it."

We moved on, but that poster stayed with me.  Why was I the only one who could see it?  And then, last weekend, it suddenly came to me.  I realised what I was seeing.

Honeychile Rider, by George Almond
Taken from 007 Magazine, Winter 1989
It was a naked girl, with her back to him.  She was not quite naked.  She wore a broad leather belt around her waist with a hunting knife in a leather sheaf at her right hip... She stood not more than five yards away on the tideline looking at something in her hand.  She stood in the classical relaxed pose of the nude, all the weight on the right leg and the left knee bent and turning slightly inwards, the head to one side as she examined the things in her hand.
Merseyrail were printing a picture of a happy woman on a day trip to Southport.  I was seeing Honeychile Rider, naked, from the novel of Dr No.  That's my go-to image when I see a female at the water's edge: a Bond Girl.  I was basically undressing that woman with my eyes.

I cannot apologise enough.

Monday 12 August 2013


"Here domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster"

Hull is crap.  I mean, officially.  You don't come 1st in the national Crap Towns competition unless there's a reason, do you?

Except, it sort of isn't.  It's sort of lovely.  I know.

I wandered around Hull city centre and I found it interesting, charming, pretty.  There were some decent buildings.  Good shops.  Plenty of trees and monuments to stoic Victorians.

In many ways, it reminded me of Liverpool, only on a smaller scale.  Liverpool made its wealth from importing slaves and cotton from Africa and the Americas; Hull got rich off lace and sausages from Germany and Holland, so there's clearly a difference of scale here.  It's on the wrong side of the country to really profit from Transatlantic wealth, but that's ok.  It means its grandeur and memorials are a little more human in scale, a bit more modest.

Liverpool demolished everything in the 18th and 19th centuries so it could build enormous palaces that showed off just how rich they were.  Hull didn't; it just built on what it already had.  The road layout is a bit more medieval and old fashioned, with little pockets of sailor's homes.

It also means that there's docks right in the centre of the city.  Ever expanding cargo demands meant that Liverpool decommissioned its old facilities and built new ones, over and over.  John Lewis now sits on top of Liverpool's first dock; the Pier Head and the Echo Arena are both built on filled in water spaces.  All the actual shipping activity moved north and south of the city to vast purpose built dock estates.

Hull still has tongues of water poking into the centre, like the Princes Dock above.  Ok, so one side of the dock has been given over to a bland corporate behemoth of a shopping centre, floor after floor of chain restaurants and a googleplex cinema, but on the other side it's still all Georgian and dandy.

I took a promenade along the quayside, jaunty, a veritable Beau Brummel for the 21st century with my sweaty Olympic hoodie and a pair of jeans from Sainsbury's.  There were bars and restaurants, with people dining al fresco beside the water.  It's difficult to do that by the Mersey; the wind comes barrelling in and rips the top off your Mr Whippy.  If a seagull doesn't get there first.

Further down the docks had been turned into a marina with smart flats and nauseatingly healthy people jogging round the perimeter in tight pants.  It felt alive and lived in, a twenty four hour place to enjoy; some of the marina developments in Liverpool's south docks are silent for most of the day.  This felt like a part of the city, not a suburb with a pond in the middle.

I followed the ring road behind an excitable Asian family.  They were swinging carrier bags from The Deep, Hull's massive aquarium.  The children were bouncing, full of energy and enthusiasm, and I was once again thankful that I didn't have a gaggle of six year olds to keep amused for two months every summer.  Although children today are spoilt, with day trips and theatre clubs and soccer schools; we spent our holidays sitting on the school gates taking the mickey out of passers by and watching WACaday.  There were no camping expeditions or aquarium visits for us; if we were lucky we might go and see my nan.  Did we complain?  Not at all.  Not being in school was reward enough.  Kids today, etc....

Anyway.  Hull was thoroughly bombed by the Germans, as you'd expect for a major port on the East coast.  All they had to do was nip across the North Sea; it wasn't really very far for the Messerschmits to go.  The post-war rebuilding produced some - shall we say? - interesting experiments, with bits of concrete all over the place and a surfeit of indoor malls.  There's one called the Prospect Shopping Centre, which sounds depressing in itself; something about the word "prospect" just says "Aldi, grey floors, and a general air of despondency".  In some places, however, the rebuild achieved wonders, such as this, the best BHS I've ever seen:

I didn't go inside because (a) it couldn't possibly have matched up to that fantastic exterior, and (b) who goes in BHS now, anyway?  Pensioners on the hunt for cardigans and slacks?  Desperate souls looking for Secret Santa gifts?  Mothers needing somewhere clean to change a nappy?  They used to be up there with Debenhams and Marks and Spencer - I got my first ever pair of boxer shorts from a BHS, underwear fans; a pair of New York Giants ones I could wear to cub camp - but now they just smell of despair and age.  It's like Littlewoods in its dying days, and we all know how that ended.  I think the rot set in the minute they stopped calling themselves the British Home Stores.  There was something reassuring and comforting about the British Home Stores, almost as if the clothes had Government approval: "this overcoat has been stamped with the official seal of Her Majesty's Department of Wet Weather Garments."

I also found one of the famous cream phone boxes, which was a tiny thrill.  It's another reason to love Hull - it's a sort of island.  Its position as the only city in an incredibly rural area makes it isolated and alone, not helped by the wide Humber cutting off any access from the south.  It's given the citizens a flinty, independent spirit.  Only Hull kept its own municipal phone network, refusing to let it get absorbed into the Post Office and, later, BT.  It's still independent from the rest of the country, though it's now been privatised; the council took the money and went on a mad spending spree, revitalising council houses and generally trying to make everything nicer for the citizens.  Hull is also the home to Hull Trains, one of the few "open access" train operators to make any money.  Hull Trains wasn't tied into any particular franchise, and existed solely to run trains between London and the city.  It was so successful it was subsequently flogged to the First Group and rebranded.

Which neatly brings me back to the railway station.  (SEAMLESS!).

It's not actually called Hull Paragon any more, which is a terrible, terrible shame.  Hull Paragon is a thoroughly ridiculous name, and should be preserved wherever possible; the railway companies dropped the name and just call it Hull now.  The locals showed that feisty independent spirit once again, however, and when the station was redeveloped with a new bus terminal they sneakily renamed the whole complex Hull Paragon Interchange.

The bus station's been inserted into the space formerly taken up by train tracks, making it a genuinely useful interchange.  Double deckers whisked in and out as I watched, transferring commuters seamlessly from bus to train and back again.  The travel centre is also optimised for use by both methods of transportation, though when I went in there was a huge queue for the trains and no-one looking for bus info.

Paragon's been thoughtfully and tastefully restored all round.  The curved roofs arch over long empty platforms which have been allowed to stay that way; there hasn't been a thoughtless intrusion of Journeys Friend shops or Starbucks.  The retail's all been allowed to congregate at the front of the station.

It doesn't feel crammed up there though - there's still plenty of concourse space to mill about.

The waiting area/toilets were built in the 1980s, but they manage to avoid many of the disasters British Rail's architects inflicted upon the network in that decade.  A plaque on the inside notes that it was opened by "The Right Hon. The Earl of Halifax DL" which is just lousy.  I mean, he's not even a proper Royal; the 1st Earl was a former Conservative politician who got given a peerage even though he was an arch-appeaser before the War.  They couldn't even scrape together a cousin of the Queen or something?  Surely Princess Michael of Kent will open anything if there's a buffet.  It makes the Chuckle Brothers' recent reopening of the Cleethorpes line look like an A-list booking.

Far more notable is regular traveller, arch-miserablist and poet Philip Larkin.  He was actually born in Coventry but lived in Hull for most of his life, dying here in 1985.

The statue is inscribed with the first line of his great poem, The Whitsun Weddings, in which he travels from this very station:
That Whitsun, I was late getting away;
   Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone.  We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish dock; thence
The river's level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
Larkin's reputation has suffered in recent years; many of his papers reveal him to be misogynistic, racist, and just a bit of a git all round.  I can't believe people were surprised.  This is the man whose most famous poem is This Be The Verse:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad
They do not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
After that I'm shocked anyone bothered talking to him again; this was clearly a man who enjoyed the darker side of life.  He's not exactly Betjeman cooing over Metroland.

I sat in the station for an hour, just watching, watching people, watching life roll by.  I liked Hull Paragon.  I liked Hull.  It's not a crap town at all, it's just a bit different.  I like different.  Different is good.  Different should always be applauded.

Incidentally, the following year Hull was kicked off the Crappest Town In Britain list; the trophy went to Luton instead.  I'll say no more.