Friday, 6 February 2015
The train bursts out of the tunnel into monochrome. The world is black and white. Thick snow whirls against the windows. The Stanley Dock buildings, normally a redbrick monolith, are just a grey blob in the distance. The only colour is the bright green corporate branding of a BP garage, glowing through the weather.
I'm on my way to Southport for breakfast. The wonderful Bob Stanley, Saint Etienne legend and lover of anything that can be given the description, "New Elizabethan", posted this on his twitter feed:
On the main road in Southport was the Swiss Chalet, a cafe straight out of a Cliff Richard film. I knew I had to visit before it closed forever, so I grabbed a Day Saver and headed for the Northern Line.
The carriage smells of Doritos, thanks to a man working his way through a party sized bag of Chilli Heatwave flavour, and there's the occasional incursion of snowflakes through an open window. I wasn't sure why the window was open on what seemed to be one of the coldest days of 2015 so far, but there was a woman sat right underneath it. She clearly needed the air.
Sandhills seems deserted until the train came to a complete halt. Then the doors on the waiting room slid open and bundled up humanoids shuffled on board, like the world's slowest zombie film. Sandhills is aggressively chilly at the best of times; the wind whips across the Mersey and hammers at the viaduct, whisking at coats and umbrellas. With snow too, it must be hell.
The seat across the aisle from me is taken by a teenage girl who is, at first glance, talking to herself. Only when she shifts her head does her hair catch on her shoulder and reveal the slim microphone of a hands-free kit. She begins what seems to be a monologue - I assume she's on the phone to someone; hopefully she's paying, because the other person isn't getting a single word in - that stops suddenly when two British Transport Policewomen push down the aisle and into the next carriage.
"Fuuuuuuuck" she hisses into the mic. "The police are on the damn train." I guess that the little chatterbox has declined to buy a ticket, and secretly pray that the police make their way back with an inspector. We pass through Bank Hall, a white strip of platform against the black walls, and she bellows, "I just missed a call off Kevin 'cos I'm on the phone to you!" A tap at her smartphone with her touchscreen enabled gloves and she switches to Kevin. "Yeah, I know. I'm getting off, like, now." While I wonder if there's any call for a Scouse Catherine Tate, the rest of the carriage heaves a sigh of relief when she leaps off at Bootle Oriel Road.
Her replacement is a neat middle aged lady with enormous glasses, swaddled in a camel coat. She immediately pulls out a 2015 diary from her sensible handbag and begins flicking through it. Barely a month into the year and already the pages are defaced with squiggles and doodles. She snaps through the weeks, sighing at all the jobs still to come.
The snow doesn't seem to be settling everywhere. The roofs of Bootle are white, but the streets just look wet, and the playing fields of schools are streaked with green. It tries to hide the heaps of rubbish abandoned trackside at Seaforth, but can't make it pretty; nor can it conceal the boarded up windows or the graffiti on the tower block.
A man, further down the carriage, seems to have a cold, or the early stages of one. He coughs, hacks, sniffs, then clears his throat of a voluminous amount of phlegm. I'm scared he's about to gob it onto the floor of the train and I'll have to stare at it for another half an hour, but he gets off at Waterloo and the spit goes with him.
Beyond Blundellsands the houses double in size. Terraces are replaced by semis; there are gardens and driveways. At Hall Road, the old engine shed has been demolished to leave what a sign advertises as a Development Opportunity; no-one is biting, and so there's just an expanse of concrete. The coastal dunes appear, sandy heights, mixed with the sand traps of our first golf courses. With no buildings or trees to stop it the wind barrels across Liverpool Bay and assaults our little train, hammering at it loudly, making me hunch up in my seat.
As we approach Hightown the woman across the way folds her diary back into her bag and clutches her head, suddenly panic stricken. She closes her eyes for a while so she can think hard, then tips her head back and stares at the ceiling. Her fingers play with the mittens in her lap.
Floodlights and high fences; the military firing range skulks between the line and the sea, red and white Keep Out signs every few metres. The snow seems to be letting up. Formby just looks damp, not frozen. The platform is packed and a stream of pensioners board the train; one takes the seat opposite diary lady and pulls out a crumpled copy of The Times. There's suddenly life on board. Until now the passengers have been silent, but now there's a gang of old ladies gossiping at one end, and two workers in high vis jackets laughing boisterously at the other.
More golf courses, low rises among patches of flat, so artificial looking, with their tatty little flags hanging limply in the rain. The woman with the diary gets off at Ainsdale, and then there are trees, high, regimented pine trees, dark and swaying and filling my window. A pair of hardy walkers battle the winds with their tiny Jack Russell; he's wearing a little tartan coat.
There's a sudden smell of chimney smoke before Hillside, drifting in through that bafflingly still open window. Fake flowers in tubs look ridiculous on the platform, the bitter darkness around them making their plastic blooms look cheap. The computerised voice has started spluttering; her next station announcements are accompanied by a sharp crackle of static and feedback. The heavy squeak of the brakes as we pull into Birkdale, wheels struggling with the wet and cold tracks, add to the feeling that this train is past its best.
The guard talks over the computerised voice to announce the end of the line, adding a "small reminder" for us to take all our goods with us. The Times is folded away and the woman roots around in her handbag for her Concessionary Travel Pass - I must be one of the few people on the train with a paper ticket.
I barrel out of the station and straight down to Lord Street, not pausing, so that I could reach the Swiss Chalet before it gets busy with lunch. It's a tiny doorway with Grill Room above it, white on black, then a flight of steps upstairs. I push up, nervously. I have a prejudice against cafes on the first floor of buildings; totally irrational, but I'm always slightly afraid of what I'll find when I get up there. By then it's too late, there's no turning back, and you have to partake.
Upstairs it's warm and clean and very, very empty. I'm the only patron. At the back, a little grey haired waitress in a very traditional black uniform is chatting to the chef. His kitchen is fully open for us to see inside, and he leans on the counter, master of his domain. I hesitantly slide into one of the banquettes at the side and the waitress spots me. She hurries over with a menu, apologetic for not spotting me, and then leaves me to look down the page.
It's a feast of food you didn't realise restaurants still served. There are six starters: soup of the day (mushroom, I've been told), grapefruit cocktail, prawn platter, tuna platter, egg mayonnaise and orange juice. Just a glass of orange juice. It's brilliant. Further down there are lamb cutlets, gammon (with a choice of pineapple, egg or mushrooms), a mixed grill. Omelettes, sandwiches - open and closed - and various things on toast. I plump for a tea and a toasted sandwich.
"Do you want chips or salad with that?" she asks. I go for salad. "Aww, being good are you? Well done."
The seats are leatherette, the place mats are decorated with herbs. On the walls are pictures of French drinks (reproductions) and hefty pieces of tree bark to underline that Swiss Chalet feel. I don't think it's been redecorated for at least thirty years, probably more. Karen, the second waitress, bashes her way up the stairs and calls her hello across to her colleague. Diane tells her it's been dead - "bit of snow, risk of slipping, they don't come."
I warm my cold hands on the stainless steel teapot as Diane offers the chef a drink. He's Spanish, and he goes for "one of his Spanish hot chocolates"; she wanders behind the counter and busies herself with the steaming hot water. She's barely served it up before my sandwich is brought over. Toasted white bread and a pile of salad leaves and carrot shavings. "Do you want any sauce with that?" she asks. "Salad cream?" I decline, and take up my knife and fork.
As I eat, a pair of pensioners stagger up the stairs, pausing at the top for breath. They greet Diane by name and take a seat in the window. She chats to them for a bit, then takes their order, two coffees and a toasted teacake each. The wife snorts. "I guess that means he's off his diet!" In the background, Kate Garroway is taking hints for beating a cold on Heart FM. "Chew a raw clove of garlic? I don't think my husband would be happy about that!"
I'm suddenly sad this place is up for sale. The owner is retiring and I doubt it'll be bought as a going concern. It'll be ripped out and upgraded; the banquettes will be replaced by sofas and wooden chairs. The grill hatch will be closed off. They'll offer paninis and lattes and another piece of the past will quietly die. I wonder where the pensioners will go for their teacakes.
I eat my sandwich - the salad is incredibly dry without any kind of vinaigrette; I should have taken her up on her offer of salad cream - then I wait by the till to pay. There are postcards tucked into the top of it, from loyal customers no doubt. Diane is busy talking to her regulars, but the Spanish chef spots me and calls out for her. I over tipped, partly because I'm hopeless at that sort of thing, partly because I felt bad about her being put out of a job.
I went straight back to the station. I'd been in Southport only the previous week, with my friend Jennie; we'd have gone to the Swiss Chalet then if she didn't have a pram with her adorable son Robin in it. My train is waiting for me at platform 3 and I realise that it's the one I came in on. The skies have now turned bright blue, a fact that had annoyed Diane in her chat with the old folks - "I'm covered in layers!" I'm the only one in the front carriage until just before departure, when a distinguished man with a walking stick and a Metro under his arm clatters aboard.
The guard on this train is far more refined than the one on the journey in. His voice is only slightly accented, as though he went to public school and had the Scouse forced out of him. "I'll be making my way through the train as we work our way down to Liverpool; if you have any questions feel free to ask."
The sun's refracted off the water on the parked cars at Birkdale; it shatters into pieces and fills the carriage. We pause a little longer because there's a teenager with a broken leg struggling to board. The tannoy has been fixed - turned off and on. Through a series of level crossings to Hillside, where a woman in an elaborate furry hat boards. Behind her is a tiny brown spaniel. I would never feel comfortable taking my dog on a train - what if it needs to pee? She goes to the front of the carriage and the dog settles in at her feet, used to the trip.
At Ainsdale another swarm of pensioners board; their Reactolite glasses have turned black in the sun, making them look like the cast of Oceans 80. They're talking about someone who's about to go in for heart surgery in frankly disturbing detail - "is it open or keyhole?" - and we're nearly at Freshfield before I realise they're talking about a dog. In the seats opposite is a smart-looking man in a buttoned up wool coat; at his feet is a University of Liverpool bag. He's bashing at his smart phone, tapping out a series of messages, until an expanse of golf course kills his signal. He tucks the phone back into his pocket, but at the next station it's out again. Across from him an old man reads the Racing Post.
The guard appears in the carriage, and it turns out he's something of a silver fox; a little chubby, but with a lovely smile. He leans in the doorway and watches the scenery spin past. Behind me, the old people are now talking about someone called Elsie. They've lowered their voices and I can tell from the murmurs that Elsie is not getting a glowing report.
"Tickets and passes please." To my surprise, the smart man looks suddenly shifty. He looks up at the guard pleadingly. "The man at Ainsdale told me to pay at my destination." The guard doesn't seem convinced, but he tells him he'll have to pay in Liverpool and moves on.
Two women have clearly got chatting on the platform at Formby, and are now in full flow. "I'm going to the Adelphi. Three courses for six pounds." They both oooh approvingly. "There's usually a roast," the woman continues, "or a beef thing in gravy, but the veggies never alter. Still, six pounds!" They both seem blown away by this, even the one who goes there regularly. It suddenly becomes clear why the Adelphi - once the jewel in Liverpool's hotel crown - will never stop being crappy and down at heel. With a constant stream of pensioners filling its dining rooms, why change?
Another dog gets on at Hall Road; its owner keeps it well away from the furry hat lady's spaniel. At Blundellsands, a Britpop refugee sits down across from me. He's got huge sideburns and a tight leather jacket and looks very Paul Weller circa "Stanley Road". He balls one hand into a fist over and over while across the way the smart man is talking loudly on his phone. The entire carriage is horrified to learn that the Bristol office is DEFINITELY closing. Britpop pulls out an iPod shuffle, and I choose to believe he's listening to a mix of Menswear, Kula Shaker and Elastica.
Racing Post gets off at Bootle New Strand, and is replaced by another Metro reader. I don't like the Metro because it's taken one of the lovely parts of rail travel - people neatly folding their read newspaper and leaving it on the seat for someone else to pick up - and turned it into an irritation. Now the train is flooded with copies of that day's paper with its wraparound cover advertising the newest drama on Sky Atlantic.
The train is really getting warm now; I suddenly understand why the woman on the journey up had the window open. It's stuffy, filled with people who've overdressed for the weather, noses poking out of hoods. There's a canal at Sandhills, struggling to look pretty in the midday sun, but too industrial to pass. The wrecked viaducts on Pall Mall, the old lines into Exchange Station, beg to be put to some use, but I can't think what, then we disappear into the tunnel under the Echo building. Britpop gets off at Moorfields, but we are joined by half a dozen other passengers.
I've decided to go to the end of the line. While most of the train gets up and shuffles off at Liverpool Central, I stay seated, the same place I've sat for three quarters of an hour. Someone smelling of chips gets on board - not chips, fries; they smell wet in a way that chips don't - and a woman with leggings printed with the sky holds an expensive looking carrier bag between her legs. Behind me, someone is talking about their daughter - "Catherine was very overweight so they took her to Slimming World and she lost four stone!" I wonder who 'they' are; I imagine some kind of intervention, with Catherine being bundled into the back of a van and driven to a church hall to be re-educated.
I look up for the gap in the tunnel that signifies the old St James station, as I always do when I come this way, and briefly fantasise about a day when there will actually be a Baltic station there. A sudden deceleration and we drift into Brunswick beneath high sandstone walls. The woman with sky-painted leggings gets off, and I see that her expensive looking bag is from Swarovski. The train is silent again. No excitable pensioners, no groups. A girl stares at her phone as though willing it to come to life, then drops it into her lap, exasperated, halfway through the tunnel to St Michaels. When daylight appears she snatches it up again eagerly.
St Michaels station needs an ALF, maybe two; one for the Festival Gardens, one for Lark Lane and Sefton Park. As we continue onwards, the computer voice tells us the next station will be St Michaels; she gets stuck on that station for the rest of the journey. Clearly her reboot didn't take. Aigburth obviously makes me think of Robert, who lives within spitting distance of its platforms, and Cressington is as charming as ever. A workman is painting the woodwork in corporate grey. I'm surprised his tin of paint is from Dulux and doesn't have Colour Tsar Approved stamped all over it.
Furry hat woman gets off at Liverpool South Parkway; I'd forgotten she was still there. Her dog was so well-behaved throughout. I also forgot to look out for any remnants of the old Garston station, though I don't think there are any. It's now a slow creep to Hunts Cross, a kind of extended sigh at having to go this far. There are men on the tracks by the Northern depot and I try to remember the last time I came this way. I've certainly never gone end to end on the Northern Line before, top to bottom and back again.
I head out of the station for a bottle of water, and return in the midst of a sudden, violent hailstorm. I'm behind two Community Police ladies, knocking off their shift for the day, chatting about where they're going to go tomorrow morning. We huddle in the warm waiting room - there used to be a coffee bar in here, but it seems long gone - while the hail batters at the windows. A new train comes in and we hustle aboard along with a member of the "Train Presentation Team". He whisks down the aisle with a black bin bag, completely missing the Nature Valley wrapper under the seat in front of me. I am momentarily anxious that future passengers will think it's my litter.
There are already people on board; I suppose they just grab the first train they see, rather than wait at the station in the cold, and go to the end of the line and back. The new guard is a woman, and she tells us in enthusiastic Scouse to change at Liverpool South Parkway for mainline services. Ones like the fast East Midlands train that we're forced to let by at the flat junction outside the station. We cross over to the local lines and sink down to LSP's Northern Line platform. The computer voice tells us to change for long distance services, but she says "Birmingham" with a slight question in her voice - "Birmingham?". A kind of, why would you want to go there?
A couple get on, already bickering. "Don't shout at me, I'm not stupid," she snarls at him when he calls her over to an empty seat. He lays out a cushion on the seat next to him and their tiny dog leaps up and makes himself comfortable. She pulls off her scarf furiously and they sit in angry silence; I'm so busy watching them I miss Garston again. My neighbour is a man with an upside down head - bald on top, beard on the bottom - who taps at a game on his phone. His high forehead wrinkles with concentration.
Aigburth again, and a gaggle of nice ladies with handbags in the crook of their arms get on board. My ears pop in the tunnel after St Michaels. The angry wife now pulls her coat off, but she seems to have calmed down, perhaps taking her cue from her dog who is utterly unruffled. A harassed looking woman whose hair has escaped her pony tail boards; she jabs at her phone so hard I can hear the crack of stylus on glass across the aisle.
At Brunswick, a rough looking woman with a tooth missing is fascinated by the dog on the cushion. She starts talking to it then, when it unsurprisingly fails to respond, she turns to the owner and starts yammering to them. We learn that the dog is called Filo, which immediately makes me think of pastry, and the woman starts calling his name. Filo looks terrified. She calls out "seeya!" as though the angry couple were old pals and jumps off at Central. I'm not surprised that the wife says "seeya!" back before following it up with a roll of her eyes and a whisper to her husband.
I thought about getting off at Central, but the OCD part of me knew I'd have to cover that last little bit of line so I ended up back where I started from. A fabulous looking old lady takes a seat with her leopard skin suitcase and an enormous handbag; she looks like a Lancashire Elaine Stritch, I get up, my knees protesting now that I'm 38, and wait by the doors as we pull into Moorfields. There and back.