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.


Jamie said...

The pedestrian paths in all new towns are the same for their meandering uselessness, and I think the reason is that such meandering lines look good on a map or a plan. Here's the houses for people to live in, nice and airy. Here's the shops for people to shop at, nice and airy. Here's the offices for people to work in, nice and airy. Here's the footpaths for people to walk on, nice and airy. Oh, how pretty. Couple that with an architect's picture of happy mums pushing prams and cute children skipping down the footpath and you've got a real winner in the eyes of an New Town Corporation chairman. If only real life was like the plans.

Anonymous said...

I used to feel that way about New Towns, but they are far better than the execrable rubbish of new build estates of the last 10 years. Most of the new estates in my town don't even have pavements anymore, just parking spaces straight in front of the too-small-to-swing-a-cat tacky boxes that pass for new houses in 2015.

Neil said...

On new towns, try Milton Keynes - the segregated Redway network is a pleasure to use. Not just a town designed for the car, but also for cycling and walking, though shame about the public transport.

As for that font, it's BR typeface (Rail Alphabet), isn't it? Shame on you for not recognising it! :)

Scott Willison said...

A Lutonian writes:

Milton Keynes is rubbish and it smells and is rubbish.

I don't think that is Rail Alphabet. The lines look too thin to me and the S and the T don't look like they're in the right proportion. It wouldn't surprise me if it was Arial but I'm totally not an expert!