Wednesday 29 July 2015

The Bridge And The Ridge Near The Wressle And The Hessle

Sometimes, when I go on trips for this blog, I'm going somewhere new and exciting that I'm genuinely thrilled about.

And sometimes, I'm just mopping up bits of the map I missed out on last time.

Wressle was firmly in the second category.  I'd planned on visiting it back in August 2013; unfortunately, a bout of depression took away my enthusiasm for station collecting and I just gave up on it.  It left it as an uncollected spot, along with its neighbour Howden, and since it was quite literally on the opposite side of the country and only gets half a dozen trains a day, I never really got round to doing it.

Finally I bit the bullet and took the three trains necessary to get to this quiet little halt in Yorkshire.  I was the only person to get off the train.  My eye was drawn to a cottage further along, a riot of colourful flowers, with blooms on sale for passers by.

Actually that's a lie.  I mean, it was a very pretty cottage, don't get me wrong, but the only reason I saw it was I'd walked the wrong way.  After five minutes of gentle strolls I checked Google Maps and realised I was going in the wrong direction.  This seems to be happening more and more often lately; my normally reliable internal compass seems to need recalibrating.  Perhaps I'm just getting old.

A 180-degree turn and I was going the right way again, past some railway houses; number 1 was named "Norty Korner" and I think it's a sign of personal growth that I didn't immediately kick the door down, murder everyone inside and burn the house to the ground.  Instead I continued on my way, grinding my teeth down to the stumps, crossing the road to enter Wressle village.  Quiet roads curled by brick cottages.

I left the perfect English village behind and walked out into the perfect English countryside.  It was a warm day, just the right side of hot, with dramatic clouds hovering over the flat landscape.  Pregnant grey skies, heavy with rain, promised to douse the landscape with a storm.

There was no pavement, so I wandered into the middle of the road.  There were no cars, no trucks to drive me into the ditch.  The only sound was the whispering of the trees, leaning in close to murmur about me as I walked by.

The alien noise of a siren broke the silence.  Somewhere behind me a level crossing had activated, then, a few moments later, a TransPennine Express train to Hull sped through.  A blue and purple streak amongst the greenery, then it was gone, and the sirens stopped.

I took a right turn, towards Brind, behind a tractor cutting the verges.  More silent lanes with dew-wet grass.  A cathode ray TV had been dumped in the hedge, face down, a piece of technology so out of date it actually looked more at home in the countryside than in a modern front room.

I checked the map on my phone, because I was sure I should have reached the village of Brind by now.  Turns out I was actually right in the middle of it; the i in Brind was right over my head on the map.  It was a single road lined with old houses and redeveloped farmyards; one house was called The Farm House Lane Farm, which made me imagine a war between a couple of homeowners over who Farm House Lane was actually named after.  There was a phone box; inside was a notice from BT advising that they were considering removing the kiosk due to low use.  I wondered if the low usage had anything to do with the fact that there wasn't actually a phone inside?

A field of pigs cheered me immensely.  Who doesn't love pigs?  In the world of livestock, they are easily the cutest and most fun, better than lambs even.  They seem so jolly and happy; in fact, one pig padded over to the fence as I passed, almost as if he wanted to say hello.  Also, they taste great.

Another right and I was on a B road, normally a quiet country lane, but after the silent streets I'd been walking it may as well have been the M6.  There were suddenly cars burning past me as I walked along the grass verge, past more farmhouses and black bags on the front drive by a sign saying Manure: £1.  There was a caravan site which proudly advertised it was "adults only"; I immediately thought of all sorts of Carry on Behind-shenanigans involving strippers and swinging.  Admittedly, a great deal of that thought was motivated by Elke Sommer, one of those minimally talented 1970s dolly birds with whom I have a bizarre obsession (see also: Anita Harris, Aimi Macdonald, Lorraine Chase - basically anyone who sat on the bottom row of Blankety Blank).

A wail of sirens signalled another level crossing, and more importantly, Howden station.  It was a couple of platforms and a signal box either side of the road.  I was twenty minutes early for the train, but the pub next door (the Barnes Wallis - he worked on airships near here) was resolutely closed.  I remembered the strange opening hours from the last time I was on this side of the country.  It was almost like they didn't want people to get drunk in the middle of the day.

There was a sign pointing to the town centre, but a quick look at the station map revealed that the town was actually about half a mile away, so I took the sign picture then lodged myself on the platform to wait for the train back to Hull.

One disappointing sandwich on the platform at Hull Paragon later and I was on my fifth train of the day - pleasingly, one named after Barbara Castle.  I was on my way to Ferriby, a village turned commuter town on the banks of the Humber, and my train was full of tired looking office workers on their way home.

It had a pretty looking station, and there were some jolly women having an earnest discussion on the platform, but I didn't have time to hang about.  I had an hour to walk the three and a half miles to my last station, Hessle, or I'd miss my connection at Hull to get home.  I dashed over the footbridge, took my sign pic, and dashed back again.

The front gardens of the houses down to the river were filled with notice boards demanding that we Save North Ferriby.  It seems that the village was protesting against new developments on some former industrial land, though as usual, it seemed to be the people in the newest houses who were objecting most vociferously.

I found a badly signed footpath at the side of a house, and ducked down it.  I always find this curiously thrilling; following back alleys and rights of way that are ignored by the locals.  I followed the path between a high fence and roughly maintained trees before the vista suddenly opened out and I was staring out at the river.

The Humber is a strange, maudlin waterway.  So wide and silent, a crack in the side of England.  As it approaches the North Sea it becomes so vast and empty.  The tide was out and it left black stones and thick mud behind while the water rolled by.

I turned east, following the waves and getting my first view of the mighty Humber Bridge.  So huge and delicate, black traces of concrete and steel threading against the sky.  Even from a distance it astonishes.

I followed the path on a recently reinforced ridge above the waterline.  The coast here was reinforced by the Environment Agency to protect against flooding; the railway line to Hull was on the other side of the path, and so a rising water level would cut Hull off from the rest of the country.  Even more than it already is.

I was glad the tide was out; I'd spotted the coast path on the train earlier and it had looked a bit anxiety-inducing.  I didn't actually think I'd be swept off to my death in the river, but the gap was so narrow, it would have been a constant concern.

The path left the riverside as I closed in on the bridge.  I surprised two teenagers snogging under the trees; he was white and she was Asian and I immediately wrote an entire novel about their love across the cultural divide and how they had to sneak off for furtive fumbles.  The path gave way to the car park of the Country Park Inn, a bland looking building that seemed to exist mainly for wedding receptions and funeral teas.

But what a fantastic spot.  I walked under the bridge, awe-struck, totally captivated by it.  When I'd done the stations on the other side of the river I'd seen the bridge, of course, but I hadn't got this close.  Its bulk and its efficiency was inspiring.  I bitterly regretted that I'd not actually crossed it, and now that I was finishing off the Hull line, I'd have no excuse to come back and do it.  Why didn't they put a railway across the bridge as well?  Why didn't they slot in an extra deck, so that you could have a sort of Far East Coast line from Grimsby to Scarborough?  Instead there are stations either side and a bus to take you between them.

I suppose, in the Sixties and Seventies when the bridge was planned and built, rail travel was the past.  It was the motor car that was the future, so why build for a dying technology.  I wish I could say things had changed now that rail passengers are at a new high, but the Mersey Gateway bridge lost its second deck for public transport only a couple of years ago.  Short-term win for long-term loss.

There was a tiny development of new cottages under the bridge, and I thought how romantic it would be to live there.  Wake up every morning to gaze at that colossal piece of engineering.  Of course, the traffic noise would soon drive me mad, and the clunk-clunk of each car passing onto the bridge deck would give me a nervous tick, and the stream of tourists taking a look would mean I'd have my curtains closed permanently so they couldn't peek in, but the point is, for a while I dreamed.

Back up the hill towards Hessle station.  A couple of big old Victorian houses had been converted into flats; one was called Dykes House, which I only mention because I'm incredibly immature.  The road had been superseded as the main route by the Humber by a busy dual carriageway which roared to my left.

The local rugby club was marked by a poster begging the local dog walkers to keep their pets off the pitch; it brought, unbidden, an image of men diving for a rugby ball through a mound of dog turds and I felt quite ill.  I crossed the dual carriageway via a narrow footbridge and came down to land by Hessle station.

It was a surprisingly old fashioned station.  The former ticket office sat above the platform - a beauty company had failed to make anything of the building, and now it was advertised for let again - and then ramps ran down to track level.  It felt like a really early station, like Edge Hill perhaps, where the same lines were used for goods and passengers.

I whispered a small prayer of thanks that I wouldn't have to walk across that rusting hulk of a footbridge and instead leaned up against the wall to wait for the train.  I was joined by a couple of young men in suits, probably from the solicitor's over on the other side of the road.

On the opposite platform a man who was old enough to know better performed tricks on a BMX, bunny hopping and twisting around the big empty space.  He'd occasionally stumble and fall over, and every time I imagined him falling onto the tracks and a train neatly slicing his head off his body.  And then my train would be delayed, and I'd end up stuck in Hull overnight.

That was another line crossed off the list as complete; everything between Leeds and Hull was gone from my map.  Not long until the end now.

Sunday 26 July 2015

1923 and All That

Another station, another Cheshire Lines design straight out of their big box of generic plans.  It's actually an idea that the railways have returned to in recent years; Network Rail now have a bunch of pieces that mean they can simply assemble a new station in kit form, as at Buckshaw Parkway for example.  It's a good way to save design costs and speed up the construction process, but goodness it's dull.  I'd like the stations to look different from one another, so I feel like I've actually traveled somewhere.

Another way of saving money is to not put up a decent station sign.  Glazebrook's got a distinctly rubbish looking way of marking its territory.

From there it was a brief walk until I reached the local village.  It's the fringes of Manchester, so while it had a village green and a parish council, it wouldn't be suitable for a Miss Marple location shoot.  It was a bit grimy and base.

The community notice board was absolutely full of anti-HS2 posters; the connection to the "traditional" lines for trains to Scotland will branch off and pass by Warrington on its way to Wigan.  I sighed.  I know I wouldn't want a giant piece of railway infrastructure built through my back yard, but that's progress I'm afraid.  The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  After a certain point you just have to accept that these things are going to happen and invest in triple glazing for your windows.

Incidentally, I apologise that my photography is not up to my usual high standards (LOL).  Somewhere between Birchwood and Padgate my camera stopped responding; it refused to recognise that the lens was open.  I was left with the camera on my phone, which is how this blog started before I got ideas above my station so it was pleasingly retro, if a bit inconvenient.  It added a frisson of tension too: would I get to Irlam station before the iPhone's finicky battery decided all this "use" was just too inconvenient and gave up?

A turn off the bypass and I was walking through Irlam.  The lamp posts were still wrapped in Christmas tinsel, which is an admirable way of saving time and money for next year but isn't it bad luck?  (Though I once left our Christmas tree up until spring because I couldn't be bothered and I didn't end up with a horrible run of misfortune.  Well, no greater than usual anyway).  There were a couple of factories, and then I was approaching rows of small shops and pubs that had been converted into office blocks.

Irlam's retail offerings seemed to be, let's say, "quirky".  In addition to the above pun-based cafe, there was one called "Bready 2 Go", a woodwind instrument shop, and a letting company with an inappropriately glamorous looking sign called "Property Showcase".  There was also a shop that didn't have a sign board, but which I can only assume was set up to supply all your anti-social behaviour needs.  Its neon window signs advertised sale prices on air pistols and ammo, BB guns, darts, bikes and scooters.  It was a one-stop shop for the local drug pushers.

The first railway viaduct carries a goods line, so I passed under it and down the hill to the second route.  Irlam station was tucked somewhere behind a new business park, so I followed the inadequate signs to the subway.

For decades, Irlam station was empty.  The building had been abandoned, with no ticket facilities, and vandalism and arson took their toll.  Its boarded up face groaned at passengers as they passed.

Finally, last year, the local council, heritage groups and private investors got together and spent some money on the station building.  And it's a triumph.

It's been carefully, lovingly restored, with all the features repainted and repointed.  Even the water fountain has been scrubbed clean.  I did a circuit and then went inside.

Irlam station is now home to 1923, a cafe/bar, and it's been charmingly done.  Yes, it's full of railway memorabilia, as is legally required, but it's also fixed with contemporary furnishings and lighting.  I ordered a couple of pastries and a pint of beer and went looking for a seat.  The place was incredibly popular, particularly with nice ladies of a certain age, but I found perhaps the best seat in the house.

The booths have been done out as railway compartments, with plush seating and luggage racks.  I slid in place opposite period-appropriate repro posters.

It was utterly delightful.  I chomped on my pork pie and sausage roll with a grin on my face.  I should have ordered something a bit classier, a bit more Orient Express, but I didn't have the time.  Instead I just filled my face with pastry and washed it down with beer and smirked.

Even the toilets are period appropriate, though surely this sign can't be real..?

Making sure I wouldn't be liable for a sixpence fine I made my way across to the Liverpool platform for my train home.  It was inevitably a disappointment after the riches on the Manchester side.

There was an intriguing sign, however.  On both sides of the station, towards the end of the platform, the Irlam sign was replaced by a curious set of hieroglyphs.  It looks like something from the far east, but I couldn't work out what it was for.  Is there a large Chinese community in Irlam?  I hadn't seen one.  It just seemed odd.

It's the best sign at the station though, because God knows the main one is dull as heck.  Still, when you have a station cafe as gorgeous as 1923, who needs a decent totem?

Sunday 19 July 2015

New Town Blues

We've got workmen in at the moment.  Our house is shrouded in scaffolding and a parade of middle aged men with tool belts and impenetrable Scouse accents are clambering all over it.  Pointing, painting, roof fixing, rendering - it's all getting done in a relentless mass of hammers and power tools.  I can't take a step out the front door without hearing two gap-toothed plasterers sharing an off-colour joke while Radio City belts out its latest piece of dense techno.

Fortunately I have the BF to deal with them.  He's very good with workmen.  Years of being a boss have given him a friendly yet authoritative manner, while his natural Merseyside charm allows him to chat away without sounding patronising or rude.  Within about three minutes of the BF dealing with any builder, he'll have knocked down his quote, found out his marital status, and established whether he is a Red or a Blue.

I clam up.  I get wide eyed with terror.  I don't know what to say or how to say it.  I either turn into Margo Leadbetter and froth at the mouth at the insouciance of the lower orders, or I cower in a corner and let the workman walk all over me.  I get stressed just at the tea making protocols.

The BF had to go out on Friday, which left me at home with them all day.  (This isn't about to turn into a Penthouse confessional, don't worry).  I did what any grown, mature man would do: I fled.  I ran to the railway station and headed out into Cheshire to collect a few stations so I wouldn't have to make coffee for filthy handed workies.

Birchwood had workmen in too.  They're building a new footbridge with lift access, so much of the station is hidden behind metal hoardings and badly written posters ("we hope you'll like it when were finished").  The station opened in 1981 to serve the eastern suburbs of Warrington, and it's a station very much of its time.

The glass in the footbridge is tinted brown, and the brickwork is bright red.  It's all very Sheena Easton and the Falklands War.  The plus side is it's large and open and full of facilities.  There are seats, a ticket office, waiting areas, a vending machine, even toilets.  There are much larger towns whose stations can't compete with that.

I crossed the car park - recently relaid in line with the station improvements - and found the totem sign.  I took the usual picture, not realising it would be the last decent station sign I'd see all day.

Across the way was the Birchwood shopping centre, accessed through another car park and past a red brick office building that housed an NHS drop in centre and Labour's north west office.  Inside the shopping centre was a surprisingly classy home to a less-than-classy parade of shops.

The pale lighting and white marble floors couldn't distract you from the pound stores, the Home and Bargains, the Greggs.  It was trying to be Liverpool One with a client base of Belle Vale.  At the end was a colossal Asda, probably the main reason most people came here in the first place.  I left the centre and found myself in another car park, with no footpath that I could see.  I headed for the newly-built pub, as I could see a footpath there, but it only ran for the length of the garden and ended behind a substation.  I was forced to walk on a grass verge, ducking down the slope then darting across the road to pick up the pavement again.

I knew where I had to go: over there.  I knew it wouldn't be that easy; there was a relentless drum of noise coming from the M6, which sliced between Warrington proper and Birchwood, but I'd checked on the map and there was a large dual carriageway that crossed it.

I took a wrong turn.  No, that's not quite right; I went the right way, it was just there was no access.  A series of extravagant boulevards carried cars into the parking lots around large office buildings.  Each island was separated from the next by tarmac, a gated entry, and wire fencing.  It wasn't possible to simply walk from one building to the next.  You were diverted every time.

I realised, with some frustration, that even though I could see the road I needed, there was no actual way of reaching it.  I turned back and instead followed what looked like a path through some woodland but turned out to be the main pedestrian route.

The path took me away from the main road, round the back of the office buildings.  A green, algae filled channel carried the Birchwood Brook in a regimented fashion.  I got odd looks from a couple of workers, smoking at the back of their building, separated from them by a high metal fence with spiked tips.  I didn't see any other walkers.

This is the sadness of New Towns.  People without cars are not just unimportant; they're ignored.  They're pitied.  If you want to get from A to B, then take your car.  If you haven't got a car, then take a bus.  If you want to walk, the planners treat you like you're insane.  Why would you want to do that?  Why would you use a method that takes longer and involves effort?  Why aren't you driving?

Because they don't understand pedestrians, New Town planners patronise them.  Well, they think, if you want to walk, it must be because you have all the time in the world.  You must want to promenade.  So we'll build you a nice pedestrian network, away from the cars.

This sounds good in theory - a space just for walkers - but in reality it's ghettoisation.  The drivers get long straight roads that take the shortest route between two points.  The pedestrians get meanders, curling paths with unnecessary bends and twists that double the time it takes to get anywhere.  Trees are planted, creating green tunnels that are dark and badly lit.  It's hard to get your bearings about where you are, because you are shuttled off to the side.  If a building is visible from the path, it's the backside of it, the service area and the smoker's hut, because the important view is from the roadside for cars to whizz by at thirty miles an hour.

People find a way.  The footpath took an unnecessary curve around a mound, and the pedestrians had formed their own path up and over it so they wouldn't have to go to far out of their way.  At the top was grass leading to that road, that road I wanted to get to, but which didn't have anywhere for me to walk.  There was also a large hunk of rock there.  I'm not sure why.  There were no markings on it, apart from graffiti, and there wasn't any sort of plaque or sign to tell me anything about it.

I headed back down the slope and into the gully between the road embankment and the security fencing.  I get that, on paper, this is what pedestrians should want.  A quiet path away from the traffic.  It doesn't work like that.  These New Town footpaths isolate and frighten.  I wouldn't want to be a young woman walking home from work on a dark night; I wouldn't want my kids walking to school through underpasses.  I wouldn't want to walk round the corner of one of those meanders to encounter a gang of bored teenagers wanting to get their hands on a new iPhone.  There was no way to escape the footpath.  Nowhere to run to.

Finally it rose upwards to that fabled dual carriageway, and I realised it was doing so at exactly the wrong time.  The one time you do, actually, want to be segregated away from traffic is when there's a lot of it moving very fast.  Instead, Warrington's planners send their walkers onto a narrow route with an urban clearway on one side and one of the busiest roads in the country beneath you.

It was dizzying, and vertigo inducing, and I had to stare down at the pavement to try and keep a level head.  Fortunately it was soon over, and I was lowered down to the side of an elaborate avenue.  There was no way to cross it, other than being routed along almost its entire length to where a pedestrian crossing had been installed (and fairly recently, too, as there were still NEW TRAFFIC SIGNALS signs at the side of the road).

Still, at least there were houses here; I'd managed to finally reach a space where there were human beings.  I didn't actually see any, but I knew they were there.  I could see the backs of the houses.  I could look down the side roads into the mesh of cul-de-sacs (Freshfields Drive: Leading to Saffron Close, Lovage Close).  Estate agent boards congregated at the head of the roads, because if you put them outside the houses, who would see them?

It was astonishingly dull.  I found myself wondering why anyone would move here.  It was the magnolia of estates.  I couldn't even get the effort to hate it.  It was just a featureless roll call of bland design.

I wondered why you would voluntarily live here.  I decided that you would only want to move to this kind of place if you were coming from something much, much worse.  The most grievous inner cities, the very deepest sink estates.  If you grew up in a two-up, two-down, this must be paradise.  It's quiet and green.  You've got your Ford Mondeo if you want to go somewhere interesting.  This is the place to sleep, and bring the kids up, and have a barbecue on a sunny Saturday.

As I detoured down yet another pedestrian back route, I wondered what the local teenagers did with their time.  It was the kind of place they would run to get away from.  I should imagine that Birchwood station is absolutely rammed every Saturday morning as the youths hunt out the thrills of Manchester and Liverpool.  Anything to get away from this middle-class, middle-England, middle of nowhere.

There was, briefly, some excitement.  The pub for the estate - built in the centre of a car park, because of course it was - was long closed, and some travellers had colonised the concrete.  Suddenly there were people talking and laughing.  Suddenly there were children playing.  There was litter, and too-loud radios, yes, but at least there was life.  I expect they've already been moved on.

I finally reached Padgate village.  There had been a settlement here for centuries, and there was a church and a C of E primary school, and suddenly it felt a bit lively.  It wasn't exactly Trafalgar Square, but I felt like I was in a community, not a dormitory.

The houses faced the road here; a tiny architectural detail, but one that makes a huge difference. People are facing people; you can see and be seen.  You can't hide away.  You have to be with your neighbours.  It's no coincidence that for the first time since I'd arrived in Warrington I was sharing the pavement with young mums, couples, old people.

Padgate station is, architecturally, the brother of many other stations along the line.  It came straight from the Cheshire Lines design book, alongside others at Widnes and Hough Green, though this one was in rather worse condition.  Padgate only gets a train every hour, so much of the building has been converted to commercial premises.  Sadly, it looked like Greenfingers was no more, but the Plaice Station chippy was still thriving, belting out the smell of fried food and making my stomach rumble.

I wandered around to the platform side.  Bizarrely, you can't get to the chip shop from there.  Although that was a good thing because I had twenty minutes until my train arrived and I probably would have caved and got myself a fishcake if it was simple to get to.

I sat on the bench and put Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast on (Robert Webb: very funny and clever) while I waited.  It was all very pleasant, but I have to say, the very worst thing about Padgate station is its utterly rubbish sign.

Look at that.  In no universe should fish and chips be more prominently advertised than a railway station.  And what the hell is that font?  That is distinctly non-standard.  2/10, Padgate.  Must try harder.