Monday 29 September 2014

Goodbye To All That

If you want to use Hamilton Square station today, tough.  It's closed.  It's closed for at least six months, possibly more - Merseyrail are being vague about a specific opening date.  The reason?  It's time for Hamilton Square to lose all its 1970s trappings and start to look a bit more 21st Century.

I headed underground on Friday to have one last poke around the station before it's refurbished.  I wanted to take some pictures and preserve how it looked in its last days.

I did this because I'm massively two-faced and stupidly romantic.  When the new look Liverpool Central was unveiled, back in 2012, I was euphoric.  It was everything I wanted - clean, modern, efficient.  It updated the tired surfaces and made them fresh.

Familiarity has bred contempt.  As James Street and Lime Street undergrounds succumbed to the makeover, I began to feel affection for the original Merseyrail styling.  Brown and yellow and metal.  Harsh fluorescent lighting and rubber floors.

Of course it looks tired.  The finishes are literally as old as I am, both of us having been birthed in 1977.  We've both seen better days and could do with a nip and tuck to bring us back up to our fighting weight.  That's a given.

This is the future from forty years ago.  The designers did their very best to make the stations on the Loop tough and resilient but also attractive.  And they largely succeeded.  The off-yellow panels are a bit chipped, but they're still in one piece.  The tiles are stained and cracked but they could be rescued with a little care.

It's just dated, that's all.  And as I found on my trip down the Victoria Line in London, dated isn't necessarily bad.  It has its own charm.  It needs to be treated with sympathy and affection.

I headed down to the platform.  That's where the most famous part of the Merseyrail look is - those moulded brown plastic seats.  Uniform, repetitive, straight off a production line.

No-one would pick brown for a tunnel these days.  Far too dark and oppressive.  It's even worse on the Liverpool/Chester platforms, where they combine with the black of the tunnel and the tracks to make a cave like space.

Even the bright fluorescents above can't disguise the fact that they're black holes.  They're also pockmarked with the scratches of a thousand handbag clasps and belt scratches and bored teenagers with a compass.  The bin units, such a good idea until the IRA started leaving bombs in them, provide a place to lean but not to get comfortable.

But I'll miss them, dammit.  They're so distinctively Merseyrail.  They look like no other railway system in Britain.  The new seats in Central and James Street and Lime Street; they've been bought out of a furniture catalogue, the same one the Underground buys its benches from.  I've seen them before.

Hamilton Square will always be a bit of a mess.  It's a 19th century railway station with a load of modern features clamped untidily on it.  There are steep narrow staircases and little used side doors and even a closed urinal on one of the platforms.

It's all part of the station's charm.  That'll still remain, I hope, when the white walls come in.  I'd hate Hamilton Square to lose all of its personality in the refurb.  Look at the new, utterly bland and forgettable subway beneath Lime Street to see how not to do this sort of thing.

So basically I want it both ways.  I want Merseyrail to be modern and attractive.  I want it to look like a 21st century transport network.  I want new trains and information screens and travelators and holographic adverts that go "WOOO" as you walk past.

But I also want the stations to look just the same, and to retain that slightly grubby, dated, old-fashioned look about them.  Is that really too much to ask?

Of course it is.  I'm just being stupidly nostalgic.  Ask any commuter which they'd prefer, the current Hamilton Square or the future one, and 99% will plump for the new one.  They're right.  I'll just look to Moorfields - due for its makeover in 2015 - and treasure it.  You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

Monday 22 September 2014

Terminal Feelings

Travelling across the North, there are a few landmarks that you expect to pop up over and over again.  Mill chimneys.  Bleak moors.  Hideous blocks of flats.  Minarets - not so much.  Certainly not outside the big cities.

Brierfield, though, offered up an extremely impressive looking mosque behind its terraces.  A lot of the time new mosques, like new churches, have a slight air of business park about them; as though an architect just pulled out one of his standard office designs and stuck a dome on the top.  Brierfield's mosque was far more prettily designed; still recognisably new, but sympathetic to its history.  I particularly liked that they'd built it out of local stone.

I got off the train alongside a young girl in a hijab.  Her feet had barely touched the platform before she'd whipped out her mobile phone and began yammering away on it in a thick Lancashire accent.  I couldn't make out the words - she was talking far too fast - but from her shocked-slash-delighted faces I can only imagine she was sharing scandal of the highest level.

Trudging up Railway Street and into the centre of Brierfield, I found a standard small town that had been touched with the exotic.  There were the regular sights - a library, a civic hall, a Co-op - but in between them were halal butchers, grocers selling mysterious vegetables, The Taste of Punjab takeaway which promised "original Pakistani food cooked in front of your eyes", making it sound like a magic trick.

It was the way the subcontinent had seeped into quite an ordinary place that pleased me most.  It wasn't a tight inner city, it was just a little place on the edge of Burnley, and it had acquired an infusion of spice.  I liked seeing little old white grandmothers next to enormous women in saris on the pavement.  Growing up in Luton, I was used to different coloured faces in the crowd; coming to Merseyside all those years ago was a shock.  It was so white.  This was like being back home.

Mr Left Right, at the bottom of that poster, looks particularly amazing; it seems to involve a man dressed as Napoleon, Borat with the body of Tweetie-Pie and The Hood from Thunderbirds in some kind of comedy extravaganza.  Who wouldn't want to see that?

As I left the town, the sights became more traditional.  A pub had been turned into a fireplace showroom.  A gasometer peeked over the rooftops.  A chimney poked out of the green trees of the Calder Valley.

Brierfield merged into Nelson.  A church spire appeared on the horizon.  There were still occasional hints of the Asian influence - a sign proclaiming the restoration of a listed building was being paid for by "Madina Masjid Nelson", a fried chicken restaurant noting that the food was halal - but it was more under the radar.  By the time I'd reached the town centre, with a Lidl and a multi-storey car park, I was back to being anywhere in England.

I turned into a side street by the Station Hotel.  It was an attractive yellow stone building, now far too grand for its new role as a town centre boozer.  I wondered what happened to all the guest rooms upstairs; if they were cobwebbed and abandoned, or simply used as somewhere to store the cheese and onion crisps.

Nelson station had been swallowed up by a massive green-glassed bus terminus.  There was, theoretically, a railway station in there somewhere, but it was very much a secondary concern.  It was bright and airy, but you really had to squint to find evidence of the railways.

The trains were so unimportant that the station continued to carry Network NorthWest branding, a short-lived British Rail venture that was killed off twenty years ago.

Incidentally, the whole time I was trying to take the sign picture, a lady in the bus station cafe was staring straight at me.  It was very disconcerting.

Nelson's hidden railway station is even sadder when you get up to platform level, because there it's remarkably pretty.

Somehow, despite its train service being negligible and its station buildings having vanished, Nelson's managed to cling onto its impressive Victorian roof.  A long stretch of attractive ironwork covers the platform, making it feel like an important and interesting place.

The second platform has been filled in, of course, but it was easy to imagine this used to be a busy place for crinolined 19th century ladies to wait for their train into town.  I took a seat and ate my sandwiches, watching a pair of magpies strut about the place.  It was good to see that there was some attention being paid to the line.

It was certainly better than the end of the line, Colne.  That's just a single platform with some planters and a shelter; not quite in the same league.

Of course, it never used to be the terminus.  The line once continued onwards to Skipton, and there are tentative plans to restore it; it would provide another cross-Pennine connection, towards Leeds, and the track bed is pretty much all there.  The problem is money, as usual.

It certainly felt disappointing to come right to the end of the line and find that was it.  The exit, through a flower bed to a small car park, could have belonged to any suburban station anywhere.  I wanted a bit more pomp.

I could have just got the train straight back down the line - it's what Ian did when he visited - but I decided to have a little wander around the town and get the next one.  I'm glad I did.  Colne was a charming little town, with a busy main street dotted with cafes and upscale shops.  Mature trees shaded me from the September sun.

Colne is in the borough of Pendle, famous for its witch trials and now a source of tourism for the district.  I'd already seen a bus branded as "The Witch Way", and there was a cafe across the street called Pendle SandWitch.  I'm not sure how I feel about this - haven't we agreed, as a society, that witch trials were a pretty horrible part of our history?  That they were fuelled by fear, superstition, misogyny, and a whole lot of other nasty emotions?  As such, should we be incorporating the execution of a dozen women into our attempts to flog a salad bap?  It seemed a bit odd.  I suppose after five hundred years it just becomes a story.

There was an impressive civic hall, and a series of grand retail buildings - clearly Colne had been rich during the Industrial Revolution.  An old department store had been subdivided into smaller units, but the gold writing above the windows still proclaimed FURNISHING - CONFECTIONERY - GROCERY.  The shops that now occupied it were well-off designers and hair salons.  As I crested the hill I reached the real centre of the town, which wasn't as pretty; a 1960s Market Hall squatted in amongst the sandy stone work, offensively ugly.  There was a job centre here, and a Fultons Foods, while a gang of taxi drivers chatted beside their vehicles.

I was intrigued by a biscuit factory down a side street.  I mean, firstly it was a biscuit factory, which is obviously marvellous, but I was particularly taken by the 1960s sign work.  It was wonderfully evocative, and I could picture a staff made up of fearsome ladies in coveralls shouting intrigue over the noise of the machines.  Sadly, the factory seemed to be long dead.

I turned and walked back down towards the station.  A display of photos from an amateur production of 'Allo, 'Allo! caught my eye, mainly because Madam Edith had baguettes in her hair instead of rollers.  I'm not sure why, other than because she is a HILARIOUS FRENCH PERSON.

I was willing to be captivated by Colne, until my return to the station convinced me that the local residents are all scumbags.  I know it's deeply rude to tar an entire town because of the actions of one individual, but look at this:

Some evil person had rammed their fag end into a petunia.  Imagine the effort they had to go to.  The person had to push their cigarette butt in hard enough for it to lodge itself in the flower, but not so hard that it fell to pieces.  They had to put some proper thought into it.  That person is clearly a psychopath, and I was glad to leave their town behind.

I had one more place to visit.  Burnley has three stations: Barracks and Central, on the Colne line and, to the south of the town centre, Manchester Road on the Leeds line.  I got off at Central and walked through the town centre.  I passed through a quarter which seemed to be devoted to nothing except getting people drunk; it was full of shiny pub/clubs with names like Vogue and Lava and Ignite.  I bet on a Sunday morning the Council has to assign an entire team of street cleaners to hose down the dried vomit from the pavements.

Despite its prosaic name, Manchester Road is actually Burnley's main station, and it was in the middle of getting a makeover.  The building had been rebuilt with an impressive blue fin to attract attention, and there was a glass walled ticket office and waiting area.  It was still fenced off, ready to be completed.

Sadly, my platform was on the opposite side, unadorned and unmodernised.  I was pleased to see there was another railway station architecture fan poking around as well, though his photographic equipment was far more impressive than mine.

I'd crossed off another line, but I wasn't excited by it.  I was glad it was out the way.  I decided I'd have to go somewhere more exciting for my next trip out.  I can't afford to get bored of station collecting.

Thursday 18 September 2014



The element that creates this beautiful blue marble we all live on.  A precious resource we all treasure.  The thing Dominic Greene was willing to initiate a revolution for in Quantum of Solace.  Valuable, plentiful, beautiful.


I stared at the bottle of Volvic in Preston station's Whistle Stop shop with a mixture of awe and disgust.  Awe that they had the gall to charge that much for a bottle of still water - that's right; it wasn't even sparkling.  They'd not even gone to the effort of carbonating the bugger, just stuck a plastic bottle in a well, slapped a label on it and sent it out.  It wasn't one of those fancy, pretentious brands like San Pellegrino, or a bottle of Smart Water that would do whatever Smart Water does (increase your IQ?  Change a tyre for you?).  Mainly I felt disgust at the shameless gouging, the way the shop was taking advantage of the thousands of trapped individuals who passed through the station and just wanted a drink between trains.  They were in an unfamiliar city, they didn't know if there would be somewhere else if they ventured outside the station building, they didn't want to miss their connection, they just wanted to get rid of the dryness in their mouth.  They'd have to hand over the £1.95, and it'd be finished by Crewe.

I turned around with what I hoped was an imperious sneer but was probably more of a Kenneth Williams-esque flounce.  Pay that kind of money for water?  How DARE you, sir.

I was still fizzing when I got on board my train.  My objective for the day was to finish the East Lancashire Line, which I started two years ago.  That might seem particularly tardy of me but it's all part of my plan.  I prefer to spread things about a bit.  Lines often feature similar geography, similar architecture; doing them all in one go could be a bit dull.  I try to mix them up a bit - the exception is lines like the Settle & Carlisle, which are difficult to get to and so I have to do them in one mass tart.

My first station was Hapton, a request stop in the shadow of the M65.  I didn't request it - there were a few people waiting on the platform and I took the opportunity to jump off.

Up top, a bridge soared over the railway line and the motorway and took you into the village itself.  It was a tiny little community of straight terraces huddled around a main street.  I nipped into a small newsagents and bought two bottles of water for £1.30 from an incredibly jolly Asian man - his customer service skills were 1000% better than the two members of staff at the Whistle Stop drinking coffee behind the counter and having their own conversation - and continued to the canal bridge.

Something bad had happened.  There was a huge hole in the wall of the bridge, with missing bricks, and the carriageway was fenced off.  It was hard not to picture a car swerving madly, slamming into the wall and plunging into the water below.  That might just be my fondness for melodrama.

Soon I was following the Leeds and Liverpool Canal towpath.  It wasn't a particularly pretty stretch.  There were industrial estates on one side, and the motorway on the other.  Electricity pylons fizzed and crackled, driving away any potential fishermen.  It was well-used by dog walkers though; in fact I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise to the lady who came round the corner just as I was adjusting my sweaty testicles.  I'm sure finding a man shifting his bullion by the side of the canal wasn't top of her wish list.

Under it all was the thrum of the traffic on the M65.  It's a relatively new motorway, with its last section opened in 1997; confusingly, that was the section from junction 1a to junction 6, with junctions 7 to 14 having been completed years before.  The official reason for its construction is to service the industry of the Calder Valley, as a major regenerative tool, but that seems odd.  It doesn't really go anywhere, and when it does go somewhere, it's only Preston.  Its eastern limit, however, points hopefully towards Leeds, hinting that it was once intended as another cross-Pennine route.  There's no chance of that ever being built now.

The towpath ducked under the road, and I was surprised that even out here, away from the urban sprawl, there was graffiti on the concrete.  One proto-Banksy had stencilled Ginger Bastard on one of the columns.  I was confused.  Why would you go to the effort of making a stencil?  And who was the ginger bastard in question?

The canal went under the motorway again, then under the railway line, and then I was on the fringes of Burnley.  I clambered up to the road via a set of steps - dislodging two people who were sat on them eating their sandwiches - and walked the short distance to Rose Grove station.

It sounds pretty, but it isn't.  Rose Grove is a single platform between the lines and there's not a rose bush in sight.  Instead I found a shelter filled with a large family having a picnic, the children scattering crumbs and crusts all over the floor.  Through a wire mesh fence the traffic whizzed by.

I found a low wall on the platform and sat down for a drink and a bite to eat.  It was a strangely warm day.  Is it not meant to be September?  Shouldn't we be getting icy chills and rainstorms?

The Blackpool bound train arrived and took all the other waiting passengers away, then a few minutes later, the Colne train arrived for me.  The line splits further along.  There's a large, heavy route to Leeds that peels off towards the south of Burnley town centre, while I continued on the single track to the north.  The single track means that the service along here is severely restricted - there's nowhere for the trains to pass one another.

I alighted at Burnley Barracks.  Disappointingly I wasn't greeted by a fit squaddie.  When it was built this was a busy, built up area, but road improvements and the demolition of slums have meant that passenger levels have plummeted.  Which is handy, because it took me about fourteen tries before I got the sign pic: in a more populated area I'd have been spotted as a lunatic and reported to a constable.

The road dropped away steeply towards Burnley town centre, with houses built on the side in a cascade of rooftops.  Small industrial units peppered the side roads: one had a sign warning lorries not to use its entrance as it was too steep for vehicles.  I paused by an abandoned car park to take in the Burnley viaduct, an impressive piece of Victorian engineering that carries a bare minimum of trains these days.

All towns in the North, to some extent, are struggling to find a new role post-industrialisation.  The councils are forced to allocate their limited funds for regeneration - new ways to attract people and businesses to towns bearing the scars of Thatcherism.  Sometimes it's transport facilities, sometimes it's tourism, sometimes it's vast new business parks.

Burnley seemed to have settled on a policy of signage.  There were signs everywhere, for everything.  Barely an old building went by without having a bit of ironwork slapped on the side to tell you its history.  Roads had explanatory notices to tell you the reason for their name.  It was as though the Council had decided that the reason Google hadn't opened its European HQ in Burnley was because they didn't understand the derivation of the town's name (from the River Brun, a metal plaque on a bridge helpfully informed me).

It's a shame they didn't concentrate their efforts on the town centre itself, because that's just a generic pedestrianised zone.  Bright red brick pathways pass between 1960s precincts and a Market Hall.  I nipped into Marks and Spencer and used their facilities before pressing on towards Burnley Central station.  Standish Street was a bit more interesting, with small independent shops, tattoo parlours, and The Emporium, a "Goth shop" selling twisted artworks and everything black.

I was joined at the pedestrian crossing by dozens of excitable sixteen year olds.  Burnley's Sixth Form College is just behind the station, and the local A-level students had obviously just nipped into town for lunch.  In amongst their happy, carefree faces, with my sweaty hoodie and my thick beard, I felt very old and very sad.

There was still twenty minutes or so until my train so I nipped to the Sainsburys across the way for a cup of tea.  I was delighted to find it was only £1 for a decent sized cup to take away, and I made a mental note to absolutely recommend this on the blog.

Unfortunately it tasted awful.  What I managed to taste, that is.  It was hotter than an Icelandic volcano, and the man in the store didn't put the lid on properly so I managed to spill it over my thumb.  I now have a nice blister there.  I also managed to spill some down my front, which I didn't realise until an hour later.  This wouldn't be a problem unless I was wearing a white top - OH WAIT, I WAS.  I had a four inch brown smear right across my stomach.  And when it finally cooled enough for me to be able to consume it, it tasted of ash and despair.  It made me unaccountably furious.  How hard is it to get tea right?  This is ENGLAND.

I chucked the remainder of the tea over the bushes and headed into the waiting room for a seat.  Burnley Central is a sad little station, whose name gives it a grandeur it doesn't deserve.  It's a 1960s box built up from the road - the track is still at height here from crossing the viaduct - so it presents a blank face to the street and access is via stairs and ramps.

The waiting room, meanwhile, has had a Northern makeover, purple and blue and shiny metal seats.  A young couple were keeping their child in a pushchair entertained while behind the counter the two railway employees talked amongst themselves.  I took a dislike to the employees of the station because of an A4 sign on the front of the toilet, informing passengers that it was for disabled customers only.  Able bodied passengers were redirected to Sainsburys or Asda.  That's just petty.

There was a moment of grace though, a sign - this is Burnley after all - in memory of Graham Nuttall.  Readers with long memories might remember him from when I visited Garsdale on the Settle & Carlisle line; he was an active railway campaigner who sadly died while hiking in North Wales.  I felt a strange rush of emotion looking at the sign, and a delight that I was able to pay him the proper attention he deserved after I'd missed the statue at Garsdale.

I was feeling a bit miserable.  The East Lancs line wasn't driving me into raptures.  It was all so ordinary.  I hoped it would perk up further down the track.