Thursday 14 May 2015

Atomic Afternoon

I was innocently enjoying the walk from Morecambe to Heysham, the sun beating down on me, the sea gently whispering to my side.  Until I saw it.

Poking out from behind the headland, the square bulk of Heysham Nuclear Power Station.  The prospect of leukemia and atomic armageddon dropped a big pail of cold water on me.  For the rest of the walk, the power station would occasionally peek into view, like that giant hedgehog in Monty Python who'd appear over the rooftops and whisper "Dinsdale?" in a sinister tone.

It was a definite distraction from the scenic beauty, which was a shame, because the council had really done their best to make it a good place to walk.  More than that, they'd made it a place to exercise.  There were markers every 100m for the joggers.  For the slightly less active, there were balance beams, and low climbing walls, and space for star jumps.  I didn't see a single person use them, but full marks for the effort.

In the main, my fellow walkers were either pensioners or children.  The pensioners strolled from their retirement homes and flats along the front, out for a constitutional.  The children were balls of overstuffed energy, ready to explode at the nearest swing.  A throng of tiny toddlers in high-vis jackets were being corralled by some playgroup leaders.  The Scottish leader of the group was patiently and politely telling the children their plans for the day - "we'll walk to the park first" - while below her, a dozen three year olds fizzed and shook like Mentos in Diet Coke.

The path broke away from the sea front by a field of tired looking horses, and I turned inland towards Heysham village.  I'd expected a more down-at-heel version of Morecambe, so I was surprised to find a remarkably scenic little village green surrounded by antique shops and tea rooms.

There was a long stretch of parkland, with some pretty old whitewashed houses around it.  Further on were newer developments, cul-de-sacs of detached homes and executive villas, and all I could think was you know there's a nuclear power station just round the corner, don't you?

When I visited Seascale, just downwind from Sellafield, the village had a vaguely pre-apocalyptic air to it.  It wasn't overrun with deformed zombies, true, but there was a definite feel of fear and tension as I wandered the streets.  Heysham was the exact opposite; Heysham felt like any other Lancashire town, just one that happened to have a vast atom-splitting device at the end of the road.  I was walking along the streets thinking if anything goes wrong in that plant right now, you are dead.  That's it.  No escape.  You'll be a blasted shadow they'll find on the tarmac.  Meanwhile old people on bikes were laughing as they rolled down the hill like an advert for

I descended the hill, past the tiny cafe at Half Moon Bay.  It was doing a roaring trade with walkers and dog owners.  I was intrigued to see the cafe flying the Chinese flag; I decided that these were the least discreet spies on earth, trying to steal Heysham's nuclear secrets while being blatantly obvious.  MI6 were ignoring them on the grounds that no-one would be that stupid; meanwhile, Agent Yung had just nicked fifty pounds of uranium.

Behind the cafe was a sprawling industrial estate.  Freight trucks lined up in pens, ready for the trip on the ferry to the Isle of Man.  It was also popular with the local learner drivers, practicing their three point turns on empty streets.  I wandered through the high metal fences until I reached the edge of the port.

It's a shame that ports are such ugly places.  Your first introduction to a new country, and all you can see is parked up Tesco lorries and barbed wire.  You don't arrive in romantic Lancashire when you disembark at Heysham; you alight amidst car parks and disheveled aluminium sheds.

That's even without the nuclear power station, which was now incredibly close.  I was suddenly aware that I was a lone walker with no car and a backpack.  I braced myself for the Special Branch officers to leap out of the undergrowth to interrogate me at gunpoint, but none came.  I guess if I was called Samir instead of Scott it might have been a different story.

I turned into the ferry terminal entrance as an oversized load emerged from the power station entrance, a low-loader with a gigantic piece of tarpaulin-covered equipment on the back.  Naturally I assumed it was some highly dangerous bit of radioactive material, so I was disconcerted to see the driver gassing on his mobile as he drove it away.  Pay attention, mate; one bump and you could be scattering contamination across Morecambe Bay.

The Isle of Man ferry had already come in and discharged its passengers, so I wandered into a relatively quiet terminal building.  I had an hour until my train so I went to buy a cup of tea.  I had to queue because there was one woman being served and she was unfeasibly chatty.  She would not shut up, consulting with the man behind the counter about the various flavours of biscuit on display, explaining about her journey, dragging her poor husband up to give his opinion on the coffee.  The shopkeeper glanced over her grey head at me and we locked eyes; he looked like a hostage trying to silently plead for the sweet release of death.

I drank my tea and watched as the car mustering area slowly filled up outside.  There must have been some kind of rallying event on the Isle of Man that weekend; a number of the 4x4s were pulling trailers with cars on the back, or mysterious pods that looked as if they'd unfold to reveal souped up motorcycles like in Never Say Never Again.  The tv screens in the terminal were showing a Top Gear video, but fortunately the sound was muted, so I could ignore it.

I've never been to the Isle of Man, and I began to wonder how much it actually cost to get there.  I considered wandering over to the ticket office and making a couple of enquiries, but I was sure I'd end up being talked into a trip and next thing I knew I'd be phoning the BF from halfway across the Irish Sea.  "Yes, I seem to be in Douglas.  I'm not sure how."  I'll have to make the trip someday, because I've lived in Birkenhead for nearly 20 years and the only boat I've ever boarded here was the Mersey Ferry.  That seems wrong.

When I'd finished my tea and seen far more of Richard Hammond's face than I ever wanted to, I made my way out to the railway station.  It butts straight into the ferry terminal, which sounds like a fantastic boon to intermodal travel, but is actually no use at all as it only gets one train a day.

Incidentally, I'm not sure why the timetable says "Heysham Harbour", when everywhere else it's referred to as "Heysham Port".  Maybe they're trying to take it upmarket.

Heysham Port itself used to be a lot busier, with a route to Belfast, but the Troubles put paid to that route.  For some reason, it wasn't seen as a good idea to have a route from the terrorist capital of the United Kingdom to a nuclear power station, and so it was ended.  Now there's just the Isle of Man ferry so the line was singled and only a token service is sent that way.

There were four of us waiting for the train.  Two girls puffing on cigarettes had managed to annexe the one and only bench, so the rest of us had to sit on the floor.  Now, I'm aware that I'm not an important person high up in the echelons of Northern Rail, so I might be talking nonsense here, but I would have thought that if there's an hour's wait between the arrival of a ferry and the departure of the train, it might be nice to provide more than one place to sit.  I suppose they thought people would much prefer to sit in the terminal with a cuppa, but on a warm day, I'd much rather be outside.

A Pacer (grrr!) finally turned up to take us out of the port.  Unbelievably, these rickety warhorses of the network take passengers all the way to Leeds from Heysham, a journey of two and a half hours.  Welcome to England.  Outside Morecambe station, the train came to a halt, and the driver literally climbed down to operate the points.  It's so underused that there's no point in employing someone else to do it, so the driver pulls the oversized lever himself.  It's all very Thomas the Tank Engine.

One reversal at Morecambe later and we were pulling into Bare Lane station.  There were plenty of people waiting for the train on the platform, but I was the only one to get off.  Bare Lane still has two platforms, though in the main only one is used.

According to Wikipedia, the station house was featured on an episode of Homes Under The Hammer.  As a major HUTH fan I was annoyed I hadn't actually seen the episode, but took consolation that it's repeated so often it'll turn up on one of the digital channels within the week.  I wondered what tune the on-the-nose music producers played while Lucy poked around its interior; Bowie's Station to Station? The Chattanooga Choo-Choo?  Perhaps as a tribute to the name "Bare Lane", 1970s comedy classic The Streak?

I let the level crossing reopen before I tried to get the sign picture.  It's one of those odd ones that are sited back behind a fence, so you might need to squint to see it properly.

I'd moved up the social scale by quite some degree.  The contrast with the grime of Heysham Port couldn't have been more stark.  Suddenly there were avenues, and cherry trees.

This was Conservative country.  Morecambe and Lunesdale constituency has only been red during the Blair era; the rest of the time it was as blue as Margaret Thatcher's varicose veins.  On election day, I didn't see any Tory posters; I saw two Labour flags in front gardens, and a bay window filled with I'm Voting UKIP literature.  I didn't take a picture of the last one because the owner of the house was stood in the bay window, staring at passers by and scowling, doing nothing to dispel the image of UKIP voters as paranoid nutcases.

Clearly the Tories didn't need to break their back trying to win over the locals and in fact, on the day, the local MP increased his majority from 866 to 4590.  Given the state of Morecambe when I visited it, I can only assume it was a smoking crater when David Morris took over, because I couldn't see much indication that things were fantastic enough in the town to warrant such a massive rise.  But then again, there was so much about the election results that was thoroughly confusing, so who knows what was going through the minds of the locals?

I cut through a small bit of park - this'll all get paved over if the Tories get in, because the Council won't be able to afford the upkeep - and continued down the hill.  Morecambe and Lancaster merge and intermingle here.  I passed a small Booths and became quite riled.  I'd always assumed that we'd never got a Booths round our way because they favoured large superstores with room for a wine cellar and an art gallery; seeing one the size of a decent Co-op made me feel like they were just ignoring us.  Build a Booths on the Wirral, please!  We like overpriced food just as much as the rest of the north!

The calm suburban world was temporarily broken by extensive roadworks.  The M6-Heysham link road comes through here, a dual carriageway that's designed to finally sweep all the port traffic off Lancaster's roads and send it straight onto the motorway.  It's been suggested for decades, but it's only just happening now.  I was annoyed to find that I was passing the Vistor Centre but that it wasn't open on a Thursday.  I do like a good Visitor Centre.  I'm sure it would have had a scale model of the route and everything.

The falling land gave me a great view of the Ashton Memorial, on the far side of Lancaster.  Built in 1909, it's a memorial to the late wife of Lord Ashton, and is exactly the kind of thing I want the BF to do when I pop my clogs.  Only I want mine to be larger.  Possibly visible from space.

I'd passed a college earlier on the walk, and two students had come out of the entrance ahead of me.  They seemed to be going in exactly the same direction, and with every turn I hoped they'd go down a side road.  I was painfully aware of my sweaty, porky frame following two teenage boys: I may as well have written sexual deviant across my forehead and stuck my hands in my pockets.  Things only got worse when one of the boys peeled off, leaving me trailing a lonely boy.  I prayed he'd go a different way to me before we reached the park.

Poor Amira.  I bet she'd like something stronger than tea now.

Luckily for me and the Sex Offender's Register, the teenager crossed the road as we reached the park, so I was able to wander in without a 999 call.  The grass fell down to the River Lune, paralleling the railway line, and it provided a moment of calm.  A friendly dog ran up to me with a tennis ball in his mouth, and nudged me to get me to play.  His owner was stood chatting further up the road, so I graciously declined, and headed down to the river.

I'd planned on crossing the river to reach Lancaster city centre by the railway bridge.  A pedestrian footpath has been strung alongside it - as should happen with all railway bridges, in my opinion - but it was undergoing maintenance.  I sadly turned away and followed the walk along the shore.

Instead I crossed via the Millennium Bridge, a new and attractive curve over the river that deposited me onto cobbled streets.

I'd only been to Lancaster once before, for my graduation.  I am, technically, a graduate of Lancaster University, since Edge Hill didn't have degree awarding powers when I attended back in the last century.  Someone suggested that I should put that I had a Lancaster degree on my CV because that was more impressive, but I was always afraid the interviewer for a job would be a local and he'd ask me all sorts of specific questions I couldn't answer.  "Is that one-eyed barmaid still in the Dog and Necklace?"  "Erm..."

I found an appealing, agreeably laid-back city.  Lancaster is naturally a very historic place, with a castle and a cathedral, but there was none of the pomposity ancient cities can take on.  Instead it felt a little bit hippy, a little bit doped up; this may just be a perception based on the number of people I saw who looked like acid casualties.  It felt youthful and vibrant - no doubt a side effect of the university.  Certainly the only political poster I saw in the city that day was for the Green Party (and in the election, Lancaster & Fleetwood would be a rare Labour gain, so well done them).

I'd thought about finding a pub, obviously, but I turned a corner and the railway station was right there, so I took it as a sign.  Lancaster station is double sided.  The Eastern entrance has, over the years, become the main entrance, and this is where the ticket hall is housed.  It's closer to the London platforms and the city centre.

It's a shame, because the Western Entrance is far more impressive, and more redolent of the station's original name, Lancaster Castle.

At platform level, things are far more standard, the Virgin branding having subsumed any personality the station might have.  Red and white is everywhere, along with horribly twee signs.  You're not funny Virgin.  Stop it.

I took a seat to wait for the Preston train.  Lancaster's only one stop up on the West Coast Main Line, but it feels like a world away.  Preston is familiar, Lancaster is exotic somehow.  I admit I may have very low standards.


David said...

Great report. Can't resist observing that the BF would have been rightly hacked off to hear you were in Douglas.
Fnarr fnarr.

I'll get my coat.

David said...

Presumably the Chinese flag is to welcome non-gangmastered cockle pickers for well-earned cup of green tea?

Like the vernacular of Bare Lane and the grandeur of Lancaster stations.

Right with you on twee signs/customer interaction -not confined to Virgin. See Malmaison hotels, Zipcar, you namae it...piss off, all of you! I want good service, not you to banter with me like I'm your mate.

Anonymous said...

In case anyone ever reads this again, I'd like to point out that the cafe changes the flag periodically, as different flags appear in the google photos of the cafe, and on the street view image.