All over the country, there are railway ghosts. Lines that have been abandoned. Stations that were closed. Goods yards declared surplus to requirements. You can trace their shapes on maps: big supermarkets right next to railway lines, or the tracks suddenly splitting wide apart to accommodate long demolished platforms. Sometimes you can see a long vein of green that runs round the backs of houses for mile after mile. It looks like some particularly forward thinking planners laid out a pedestrian route a hundred years ago, but it's actually the trackbed of a railway that was Beechinged.
The Liverpool Loop Line - or to use its older, more formal name, the North Liverpool Extension Line - was a railway that ran from Halewood to Aintree, skirting the city's eastern suburbs. It took revellers to the races, freight to the docks, day trippers to the coast. It's all gone now, turned into National Cycle Route number 62, part of the Trans-Pennine Trail, and a ghostly thread through the past.
I'd long wanted to walk the Loop and trace this piece of railway history but, to be honest, cowardice got in the way. The line passes through some of the less desirable areas of the city, and the idea of being on an isolated, out of the way track, vulnerable and alone, put me off. Fortunately, for this trip, I had backup. It was only Ian and Robert, so it was less the Krays and more the Three Stooges, but there's safety in numbers.
We got off the train at Broad Green and crossed under the M62. The flyover sweeps over the whole area, a grand concrete arc that refuses to bow down before the little houses below. Its confidence is admirable, and it's sad that it almost immediately crashes into the mess of the Rocket junction, brought low by a lack of funds and ambition. Cross the road by the Turnpike pub and you can find the slopes down to the former railway line.
It might be "just" a cycle route now, but there's no denying that heritage. It's clearly a railway route, with that fantastic Victorian bridgework contrasted with their more prosaic 20th century cousin. We followed the path down to the track level and we were soon on a cool silent pathway.
There was a secondary motive for our little journey. Ian used to live and work in Childwall, before he headed off to the Big Smoke, and so this walk was something of a nostalgia trip for him. I was intrigued to visit parts of the city I'd never been near before. Generally speaking, if it's not on the Merseyrail map, I've never been there; famous chunks of the city like Old Swan and Knotty Ash are complete mysteries to me.
The old railway bridges are still intact throughout the walk; it's what makes it such a good route for cyclists, because it's miles of entirely segregated pathway. We were frequently interrupted by the tring of a bell as another lycra-clad bicycler came up behind us. One pair even had cameras mounted on their helmets; it's the Liverpool Loop Line, folks, not stage five of the Tour de France. All you'll get out of that is a very dull YouTube video.
After a mile or so we peeled off the route to head into Childwall. We were actually passing over the site of the former Childwall station, which closed in the early 1930s. The railway company built the station to service the village, but it was a little too far for easy commutes, and when the tramways started providing competition they gave up and closed the station.
There's no sign of the old station; it was demolished not long after it closed. There's a Sustrans information post, on which someone's graffiti'd Stab the BNP (combined with the Fuck UKIP at Broad Green, it made you sort of proud of the politicised vandals), but there's no info on the old station. Across the road are cottages built for the railway workers, but they could be semis anywhere in Liverpool.
Before he became one of the London elite, Ian worked for Liverpool's most glamorous company: Mersey Television. Ok, he was a website writer, not Chief Boob Wrangler to the many glossy haired starlets, but it's still a frisson of showbiz that Robert and I could only aspire to. As he lead us through the village, he pointed out its many links to Hollyoaks - the parish church frequently pressed into service for weddings and funerals, the sandstone pub that doubled for Chester's boozers. Childwall (pronounced "chilled-wall", not like a small human, in another of those damnable Scouse affectations designed to alienate outsiders) was a charming little place, green and pleasing.
Of course, the true hub of the Hollyoaks industry is the Lime Pictures complex (formerly a teacher training college). It was easy to spot the entrance thanks to the dozen girls hanging around outside the entrance hoping for autographs. I don't watch Hollyoaks, never have; my only exposure to it is when I change channels and catch another blonde girl arguing with a gay-faced teen about something. I know Stephanie from Over the Rainbow is in it now, plus Gillian Taylforth and Candace from Coronation Street, and I assume that brother of the boy from 2 Point 4 Children is still in it because he is Chester's Ken Barlow. Ian still filled us in on the behind the scenes scandale, with tales of production team changes and writing crises. We craned our necks to see if we could spot any of the set (better known to me as Brookside Parade, because I am an old fart), but the site is surrounded by thick woodland. Finally we bought a bottle of water each and headed back to the Loop Line, pausing only by Ian's old flat so he could criticise the new owner's taste in wallpaper.
Soon we were heading south again on the path. Excited children on half term squealed and squeaked around their parents; women walked their dogs with the lead in one hand and their mobile in the other. The thick trees formed a cooling canopy over our head, gently rustling in the low May wind. We were isolated from the city around us.
Of course, that's part of the reason why the Loop Line closed in the first place: it doesn't really go anywhere. Linking up the suburbs in a chain might work somewhere like London, where the outer boroughs are townships all of their own, but Liverpool is centred around its river. A railway line that doesn't go anywhere near the city centre, just through a series of leafy suburbs, was going to have problems getting passengers.
The city recognised this when it was building what's now the Northern Line from Garston to Southport in the 1970s. The original proposal was that the Loop Line would simply link into it, making a massive circle line around the city, until analysis showed that people wouldn't really use it. The second idea was to make two loops, one in the south of the city and one in the north, which would have connected onto the main line into Lime Street. There was going to be a massive, six platform underground station at Broad Green which would have enabled you to connect with trains going to all points of the compass.
Ambition is one thing; reality is another. The Link and Loop works in the city centre went over budget, while the UK went into financial meltdown. British Rail put the whole scheme into cold storage, which is a polite way of saying "the bin".
By now we'd reached Gateacre (pronounced "gattaca", because obviously), which used to have its own railway station. In fact, it had a station right up until 1972. It lost it in a broken promise that I'm sure the residents are still bitter about.
The Big Idea in the late Sixties was to send all Liverpool's long distance services into Lime Street, while the local service - the Northern Line, as it would become - would travel under the city centre through underground stations. Problem was, the people of Gateacre had an existing railway service into Liverpool Central, which British Rail planned on demolishing. For a while they had a shuttle going back and forth, but finally BR closed the line and promised they'd get their station back when the electrified Merseyrail services opened in 1977.
Since that's the former station site, you may have deduced that Gateacre never reopened. Budget squeezes meant that the electric lines were only opened as far as Garston; a bit more money was found to extend it to Hunts Cross for interchange with the Manchester line, but after that, nothing. In what can only be described as a mean-spirited act, British Rail whipped up the tracks and built a transformer over the tracks at Hunts Cross, effectively a big yah-boo-sucks to Gateacre.
It's a shame, for a number of reasons. Hunts Cross is a rubbish place for a terminus; the line through there is far too busy, and it's close enough to Liverpool South Parkway for people to start suggesting that maybe it should be taken off the Northern Line altogether. If the tracks continued on to Gateacre, it wouldn't be such a problem.
Plus, Gateacre is lovely, and it would be nice if it were linked into the rest of Merseyrail. It'd be commuter heaven. Instead, everyone's forced to drive to work, or take a bus, and we all know that buses are rubbish compared with trains.
We wandered into the village's centre, past Moran's (the oldest music shop in Liverpool) and over to the Black Bull pub for lunch. We took a seat in what looked like an empty space near the front of the pub, but soon revealed itself to be the family room; not too much bother, really until we got onto Scottish politics and I called Alex Salmond a "c**t" three feet away from a toddler. I'm not built for family areas.
After a quick trip to the loo, I returned with accusations; which one of Ian and Robert had corrected the sign in the gents, crossing out the unnecessary apostrophes?
They both denied responsibility, but we collectively agreed that whoever did it was a wonderful human being and we should buy them a pint.
Full of sandwiches and beer (except Ian, who remains bafflingly teetotal), we headed back to the line for the last stretch. There was an information point on the south side of the road, which we hoped would have a lot of stuff about the railway, but was very much cycling-centred. It's a shame they gloss over the line's history this way; it's so glaringly obvious why the route is there, they should celebrate it.
We trekked back up to the main route. Ian turned to me and said, "Does it not bother you that we've missed out walking over a section of the track?"
I paused. "Well, it does now."
I HAVE OCD, ALRIGHT. Much to Robert and Ian's bemusement/annoyance, I insisted that we backed up a little, so that I could cross the railway bridge and walk over the twenty yards or so of the path that we hadn't passed over. I blame Ian. If I hadn't realised there was that little section, uncrossed, I would have been quite happy to carry on.
Having indulged my mental illness, we headed south again. An abandoned tin of Asda "Smart Price" lager seemed to act as a marker that we were heading into less salubrious surroundings. The path was the same, with the greenery all around us, but the people changed. They were noiser and harder. The jogging women had thin, gaunt faces and bodies, and they wore unbranded track suits instead of the head to toe Nike we'd seen earlier. At one exit, a man was slumped against the bollards; something had put him out of it, and I'm guessing it wasn't joy at the onset of summer. Three teenagers appeared and nudged him into consciousness via shouting and prodding with the toes of their trainers. A gang of lads, spread across the path in a single line, walked a straining, sinewy dog.
It was still pretty, it was still charming, it was just a tiny nudging up of tensions, a hint of threat that hadn't been there before.
There were no bins along the path - a real oversight if you ask me - and so the bushes became the place to put your litter. Dog turds were left out on the tarmac too. It was a shame, especially when now and then you'd get a break in the trees and you could take in a long view over the Cheshire Plain to Fiddler's Ferry.
We'd left Liverpool now, and entered Knowsley. A cast-iron sign welcomed us to the "Halewood Park Triangle", which sounded wrong to me; shouldn't it be the Halewood Triangle Park? This was the point where the railway line used to split in two directions to form a wide junction with the Manchester line. When the track was lifted, they turned the whole area into a country park, with a lake, playground and sculptures. It's a pleasant place to wander, though I'm not convinced by some of the artworks.
That's just an exploded lamp post.
The path split, and we headed west, with the aim of reaching Hunts Cross for the train back into town. I was sweating profusely - the afternoon had turned out to be unexpectedly warm - and the tree pollen had got into my throat and made my voice croak. These sound like complaints, but really, I was absolutely content; I was with my friends in a railway based adventure, and we had a nice meal booked for later that day. It was about as good as it could get.
The green bridge carried us over the railway line and onto Higher Road. After the gentle noises of the country park, the A562 seemed overpoweringly loud, a cacophony of traffic and noise. I insisted that we pause for a selfie outside the park sign, then immediately hated myself for using that word: I was doing up the nose shots on my phone long before Kim Kardashian and Ellen at the Oscars.
We trekked along towards Hunts Cross, pausing only at the pedestrian crossing so I could embarrass myself again by discussing female ejaculation just as a nice middle aged lady turned up next to us (it's a long story). There was a nice surprise when we reached the station; it was one of those cheapskate brick ones last time I visited, just a kiosk for the stationmaster to sit in. It's had a bit of a makeover, and now there's a proper ticket hall.
It's a vast improvement, with a nice covered area and wooden ticket windows. Good work, Merseyrail.
It seemed appropriate that after a day of travelling over Liverpool's dead railways we should end up at a very active one, a station that seemed to have a new life in fact. The platform was full of people travelling back towards town. I wish the line carried on, and we'd got that massive Broad Green interchange, but at the same time I'm happy with what we've got. Merseyrail's great. We're lucky to have it.