Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Only A Northern Song

This post is very late.  I started it two weeks ago, and then the BF said, "shall we book a last minute holiday?" and, long story short, I've been in Croatia for a week.  So it's not the triumphant return that I'd intended after that whole "I'M BACK!" post.  More a slightly embarrassed shuffle onto the scene.

It seemed right to start collecting the Metrolink stops at Manchester Victoria.  After the bombing at the Arena, right above the tracks, a few weeks ago, using it as the starting point for something new seemed appropriate.  A fresh start.  I don't have anything to say about the tragedy that hasn't been said better by cleverer people than me, but I will say that the station seemed back to its old self.  It was busy and efficient.  The only signs that something had happened here were the closed off entrances to the footbridge and the Arena, and the adverts taken away in favour of upbeat messages of positivity.


Victoria Metrolink stop was one of the earliest to be built, and it's not long been upgraded.  This is the point where the line splits to cross the city centre, so there are four - count 'em - four platforms for the trams.  Admittedly, two of them are used for terminating services and don't get much of service, but it's impressive none the less. 


I crouched under the platform signs to try and fit my fat head and the stop name in the same shot.  They don't do the totem signs like proper railway stations - and anyway, I'd got Victoria station's totem when I collected it in the Northern phase of the blog - so this would have to do.


Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The tram soon arrived and whisked me out past the giant testicle of the Co-op building.  I'd picked the Bury line almost at random; it went from Victoria, and it was more interesting than crossing the city centre, where I'd been a hundred times.  The Bury line was one of the original branches of the Metrolink network, a heavy rail line converted to light rail, but my first stop was one of the newest stops on the map: Queens Road.  (No, there isn't an apostrophe.  Yes, it is annoying).


Queens Road backs onto the Metrolink depot, and for many years there was a simple staff-only halt here to allow a change of staff.  They finally bit the bullet in 2013 and turned it into a full blown stop, though it's still used by the staff.  As I got off, a gang of enforcement officers climbed on, shouting "Tickets please!"  I headed up to the main road to get a sign picture but, even after a decade, I still can't quite my face to look anything less than smug when I'm taking these selfies.  Maybe I just have a smug face naturally?  Oh.


From there I disappeared into the scrawny suburbia behind the tram line.  The houses on Woodlands Road were big but ugly, built when there was a noisy steam line running behind them, not smooth electric trams, and so they were unloved and grimy.  Two or three bells fought for space on the door jambs.  


It began to rain.  I don't mind it raining in Manchester; it's part of the experience.  It's what you want to happen.  It's like going to New York and getting mugged - authenticity!  Besides, it was a cooling summer rain, breaking off the warmth with a splash of refreshment.  I ducked my head down and barreled down the road, circling a man who dawdled with the sadness of someone with nowhere to go, and dodging by the wheelie bins set out for the day.  Trees had been planted along this part of the road but they were too big for their sites.  Now their roots burst up through the pavement, badly tarmacked over and creating humps in the footpath with ominous looking cracks.


The tram scythed across the road on a bridge, and I got my bearings.  I'd been here before, back in 2012, with Ian.  We'd been heading to the Manchester Museum of Transport and had got off at Woodlands Road stop.  There was no sign of it now.


Early Metrolink relied on re-using the rail infrastructure that already existed wherever possible, to save money.  That's why the trams are so high above the ground, for example, built to accommodate British Rail platforms rather than the much lower ones more common on tram networks.  Stops were, in the main, simply opened where there used to be a station, so Woodlands Road station became Woodlands Road tram stop.


It was never well used.  Sited in an inconvenient spot, in a quiet residential area, it slowly became more obvious that it needed to go.  The solution was to replace this one stop with two new ones: Queens Road to the south, and Abraham Moss to the north.  The last tram visited the site on 16th December 2013 and the platforms were torn up.  In TfGM's typically lackadaisical style, they still haven't taken down the bus flags nearby, even though the tram's been gone for four years and no buses come this way any more:


The new Abraham Moss stop is a further up the same road, accessed via an alleyway between houses on this side of the line.  There's a yellow archway to greet you, which I definitely approve of.  More of these please.


The stop was carved out of land at the back of Abraham Moss school, a fact immediately obvious from the clientele.  Bored teenagers loitered on the platforms, huddling against the rain, watching a man from Metrolink fill the ticket machine with lazy eyes.  They sullenly slumped towards the tram when it arrived, too cool to be enthusiastic about it.  


Crumpsall was the first tram stop to still feel like a station.  There were canopies over the platform, and a footbridge over the tracks.  Steps lead up to the road and to a square patch of empty land that had clearly once been a ticket office.  Squint and you could have been in Heaton Chapel, or Rose Hill, or any other slightly forlorn Manchester railway station.


Crumpsall is also a gloriously Northern name; say it out loud and you find yourself curling your lip up into Alan Bennett disdain.  It's ugly and yet also fabulous.  I turned off Station Road, past the Canny Scot convenience store, and along a road mixed with hefty villas and small more modern homes.  A handwritten sign in the window of one of them said: This house will be up for sale in 6-8 weeks.  Text me for price and then a phone number.  I was almost tempted, which shows the power of advertising.  


There were a couple of care homes, their nurses taking a brief ciggy break outside, then a row of shops with an ironwork canopy.  It was an area of fading wealth, a drop off in standing somewhere along the line.  The Johnsons Paint building on the corner had tiles that hinted at a much more illustrious past.


The uninspiring bulk of Heaton Park Synagogue took me by surprise.  It was large but not attractive; it looked like the back of a school hall, the spot where the bins were.  I'm sure it's delightful inside but here it was just a block.


It, and the boys' school across the road, reminded me that I was in one of Britain's largest Jewish communities.  More than that: I was inside the Manchester Eruv.  According to Orthodox Jewish beliefs, you cannot carry any object on Shabbos, unless you're within an Eruv: a specially delineated and marked area of town.  This area has to be maintained and clearly defined.  It was strangely thrilling, to be in a special zone, though I didn't see any actual evidence of it.  The people I passed were the usual mix of Mancunian faces, all colours and sexes.  It's a very British form of religious enforcement; it exists, but if you don't subscribe to that belief or don't even know about it, no-one is bothered.


I wandered down the hill, past a Working Men's Club turned polling station (it was June the 8th; I wanted to get out of the house on election day because I anticipated bad news), and just missed the tram at Bowker Vale.  


It was another stop that felt like a station.  It's going to be really hard for me to get used to typing "stop", by the way.  It doesn't feel right.  A stop is minimal - a bus has a stop.  These hefty structures, with lifts and stairs and ticket machines - they don't feel like stops.  I've been to quiet rural halts in the countryside with far fewer provisions that glory under the title of "station".  


I got off the tram at Heaton Park to a lot of announcements.  The following weekend was the Parklife festival nearby, and the automated voice was carefully pointing out that there wouldn't be any trams from this stop to alleviate crowding.  As it turned out, there weren't any trams; someone was sadly pushed onto the tracks in the city centre, and the whole line closed.  The festival goers had to walk.  I headed up to the top for the selfie... and there wasn't a sign.


I mean, come on.  All that space, all that quite notable construction, and there's not one single bit of board with "Heaton Park" written on it?  This is TfGM being utterly lazy with their signage again, and it's infuriating.  If you didn't know Manchester how would you know that was the right stop from the road?  It's a simple and incredibly useful fix.  Get on it.

I stomped back down the stairs, infuriated, and squatted on the platform.  Classy as ever.


I turned away from Heaton Park itself and instead headed into the back streets - always my preferred route.  A strip of shops were heralded by, surprisingly, Phillip Schofield Upholstery.  I'm pretty sure it's got nothing to do with the grey haired TV legend, though I have in the past encountered Bill Beaumont Textiles, which was owned by the Question of Sport captain, so who knows?  Maybe Pip spends his weekends stuffing scatter cushions, always afraid that the telly work will dry up and he'll have to fall back on a trade.  I dodged round a truck filling potholes and another polling station and ended up on Rectory Lane.  


Look at that sign.  Not only does it say Prestwich Station, not Prestwich Metrolink, but if you look closely you can still see the outline of a British Rail double arrow symbol.  Reminder: heavy rail services stopped at Prestwich in 1991.  Twenty six years and Transport for Greater Manchester still haven't got round to updating the sign.  It's just lazy.


I walked past the just-begging-to-be-graffiti'd Pados Studio Theatre (next production: Hobson's Choice) and along a trim suburban back street into Prestwich.  One house had replaced its front lawn with astroturf, a great idea if you want to be maintenance free, though perhaps don't pick a shocking lime green if you want it to look like real grass.  It was the colour of a highlighter pen and probably glows in the dark.


There are shopping centres, and there are precincts.  Prestwich was the latter.  It was concrete and decay, faded, the shops indifferent.  A new block of flats had injected some cash into it more recently, but the shops at its base were prosaic.  Greggs.  Costa.  BetFred.  A Home and Bargain with a sign in the window: Due to recent issues, Children in school uniform are no longer welcome in the store, unless accompanied by an adult.

 
I was starving hungry, so I bought a cheese and onion pastie from Greggs and ate it in the drizzle.  It was hotter than Mercury, immediately incinerating the skin on the roof of my mouth and making me cough.  Crumbs fell to the floor and burst into flames.  Looking down did mean that I got to see the work of AlShepMcr: stencilled lyrics that slipped into the double yellow lines.


Apparently these are from Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division.  I didn't know that; I had to look it up.  I'm not very good with lyrics, or music in general.  Music has never been important in my life.  It's something I enjoy, but it goes on in the background; I don't analyse it or really pay much attention to it.  I have my favourites of course - Blur, REM, Madonna - but they're wrapped inside memories and places too.  It's not just the music, it's what the music makes me think of.

I know Love Will Tear Us Apart of course; I am a human being living in Britain in the 21st century.  It's just one of those "oh, that's good" songs.  I can't get excited by it.  Apparently AlShepMcr also does the same with The Smiths, and I really can't get on board with The Smiths.

For reasons of full disclosure, I should also point out that I read it as Resentment, Emotions, Rides High, Won't Grow, so don't bother looking for me as Paul Gambaccini's replacement on Pick of the Pops any time soon.


I shuffled over to the tram stop, another of those clearly-a-heavy-rail-in-a-past-life halts.  It had subways under the track and ran on a bridge over the road; the bricks were yellowed and old, and the concessions to the modern world - ramps for disabled access and cycle racks - were inelegantly clamped on the side.  I followed two Scottish drunks up to the platform, listening to them loudly shout obscenities about their landlord, and took the tram to what is undoubtedly one of Metrolink's crown jewels.


It's not the station that's the glory here, it's the name.  Besses o' th' Barn.  Incredible.  Just the apostrophes would make it great, but the sheer tripe infested whippet driving flat cap wearing pint of mild drinking ey up our kid wonder of its Northerness takes it to the next level.  No-one knows why this district of the city is called Besses o' th' Barn; there's a story regarding Dick Turpin's horse Black Bess, but that sounds like the kind of thing the tourism office would come up with.  There's also a theory that there was a pub that looked like a barn that was run by a woman named Bess; that one's just dull.  I hope we never find out.


Look at the glee on my face!  It's Hall I' Th' Wood all over again.

As I walked down the path to the main road, I glanced at my watch and realised, with a shock, that it was barely an hour and a half since I'd left Victoria station.  An hour and a half and I'd visited eight stops already; I nearly had the entire Bury branch polished off.

This clearly wouldn't do.  Tram stops are closer together of course, and the frequent service meant I'd rarely had to wait more than a few minutes for my next ride.  But just whistling through an entire line in a morning?  Where's the fun in that?  Where's the achievement?  I realise that sitting on a train and waving at the platforms as they go by is apparently the new way to collect stations, but I'm old school.  I reckon you should actually visit the stations.  Otherwise I could have literally finished off the whole Metrolink map in a day.


I decided that the next tram stop, Whitefield, would be my last of the day.  That left two at the end of the Bury line flailing around uncollected, which is annoying, but gives me a reason to come back.  I always like a reason to come back.  I turned away from the roar of the M60 and wandered towards Whitefield.  It seemed to be a low-key foodie district of the town - there was a huge patisserie, Slattery's, three floors of cakes and desserts.  I don't have a sweet tooth in the slightest, so I passed.  There were Indian restaurants, and pubs that did food, and places that had ambitiously set up terraces on the pavement so you could enjoy your meal next to the A56.  (There was also a beauty salon that offered something called a "vampire facelift" - frankly, I don't want to know).  The run of restaurants was crowned by a one two punch of charm.  An old bank building had been subtly converted into a Chinese restaurant, changing little and letting the good architecture shine through:


And the cafe by the station - a place for tea and toast and maybe a bacon buttie - had given itself a name that scrabbled for glamour and higher status:


Whitfield had a low slung 1960s frontage that, in a regular station, would have been filled with ticket facilities and a waiting room.  Instead it was just empty.  My feet echoed on concrete as I headed for the platform.  I got trapped on the stairs behind a woman and her grandson.  He was only tiny, taking each step at a slow pace.  At the bottom he stopped dead in his tracks and pointed excitedly across the tracks.  "Tram!" he shouted.

He had a point.  Trams are exciting.


Saturday, 17 June 2017

Open Return

June 17th, 2007, and I sat down in front of my computer and announced that I was going to visit every Merseyrail station.  Just the Northern and Wirral lines, mind; doing any more than that would've been daft.

Five years after that, I thought I'd give the Northern Rail map a go as well.

Five years after that and I've done so, so, much more.  All of Merseyrail.  All of Northern Rail.  A whole load of others as well - bits of England and Scotland and Wales that have delighted and excited me.  And now I'm asking: what's next?

There's a hole, you see.  A big gap where station collecting used to be.  It had, though I hadn't realised it, become an obsession, and when you lose the obsession, you don't know what to do with yourself.  This must be what it's like when a stalker finally kills the starlet.  You're stood over the half-naked corpse with the butcher's knife in your hand feeling discombobulated and lost.

I thought I might write a book.  I tried.  I traveled to a bunch of bits of Britain last year to collect lines that I thought would be interesting (it's why there was suddenly a big gap in the blog in 2016).  The Severn Beach Line, the Borders Railway, the tiny tube trains on the Isle of Wight - places like that.  But much as I enjoyed the travelling, the writing - not so much.  There's a big difference between writing a proper book with actual facts and context, and chucking out a blog post off the top of your head.  Writing is hard.  I mean, depressingly, awfully, gut-wrenchingly hard.  Sometimes I'd manage to finish something I quite liked, and that'd be great, but most of the time it was just relentless, awful, misery.  At the point where trying to write was actually making me cry I thought, nope, have to let this go.  It's just not going to happen.

And I'm aware that I've got rusty.  Towards the end of last year I noticed a clunkiness creeping into my blog posts - leaden phrases clanging down on the page, sucking the joy out of the rest of it.  It was probably the sadness of knowing that it was all coming to an end.  So I stepped away after Manchester Piccadilly and did nothing.

There's still that hole though.  That gap in my life that I want to fill, because I really do enjoy getting out and about and writing a load of nonsense about it.  So I thought I'd do something easy.  Just slide back into the habit, as it were.


TRAMS!

Everybody loves trams.  They're a wonderful way to get about, quiet and efficient and attractive.  And the north-west is lucky enough to have the best tram network in Britain: Manchester's Metrolink.  It has 93 stations, stretching from Altrincham to Ashton and from the Airport to Rochdale.  So that's the plan: visit every tram stop on the Metrolink, even the ones I've already been to.  May as well.  It's just sitting there doing nothing, after all.

It's big enough for me to get my teeth into, but it's small enough for me to use it as training wheels.  This is me trying to - oh lord - get back on track.  Ninety three little ticks to get me back in the habit.  In fact, I've already done my first batch.  And who knows what will follow then?  Maybe I'll do all the stations in Britain!  (No, I won't).

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Tunnel Bore

For a city built on rock at the edge of a river, Liverpool is surprisingly porous.  There are tunnels and passages threaded throughout.  The Mersey Tunnels, of course; two for road traffic, one for rail.  There are bore holes and subways; there's even the remains of a pneumatic tube system, used to ferry messages from office to office before telephones became common.

The tunnels that catch my imagination, though, are the Victoria and Wapping Tunnels.  Running from Edge Hill to the city centre, these two (well, technically three: a cutting separates one of them into the Waterloo and Victoria Tunnels) abandoned routes under the city are magnets for transport enthusiasts, historians, urban explorers and ambitious architects.


I'd always wanted to trace their paths under the city, so, on an idle weekday a few weeks ago when the weather wasn't too bad, I set off along the Strand to walk to what was once Park Lane Goods Station.  From 1830 to 1972 this was the head of a freight line, plugging the city centre into the national railway system.


Now it's a mess of businesses that gravitate towards big patches of open land in city centres.  A surface car park, a car hire place, a builder's merchant.  At the back, some Portakabins acting as site offices for the nearby development projects, with health and safety notices and hard hat area signs.  I followed the footpath right to the end of the street.


There it is: the tunnel portal.  If I'd got some bolt cutters and some spelunking gear, I could've walked straight to Edge Hill station - not much over a mile in a straight line.  As it was, I turned round and headed back down the road, past a lad from the builder's yard on his fag break, and turned into Blundell Street.  The McDonald's there was filled with hi-vis jacketed builders, their fluorescent bodies shining through the windows.


It was a reminder that this part of town was changing rapidly.  For decades it's just been a sea of empty warehouses and industrial units and abandoned, rotting shells, but now it's the Baltic Triangle: Liverpool's hottest new address.  The City Centre has spread southwards, and those warehouses first filled with artists and club nights, and then they became tech industries and startups, and now they're becoming apartment buildings.  The gaps in the landscape, there since the Luftwaffe did their own bit of town planning in the forties, are starting to be filled with steel and brick and glass.


It's a bit of Liverpool I've never really gone into.  For a long time there was no reason to head down here and now, as it becomes the place to be, I don't feel at home here.  I don't have an asymmetric haircut and skinny jeans.  I don't listen to the newest music.  I did once have a coffee in the Baltic Social and, while it was a wonderful space and everyone was very nice, I did feel like the chaperone at a teenage party.  And that was at lunchtime; goodness only knows what it's like in the evening.  It also means I'm far too self-conscious to venture into Sonic Yootha, a club night in Kitchen Street which sounds like just my kind of thing.  I mean, it's named after Mildred Roper.  Yootha is wasted on the young.


Across St James Street and into the network of cul-de-sacs that were built by the Council in the 1980s, and which now seem incredibly out of place.  In a few years these will be a enclave of desirable homes in the city - a garden and a driveway five minutes walk from Liverpool 1! - but now they're a clunking bit of suburbia that somehow got dislodged and floated inside the inner ring road.  I dodged the man on a child's bike, circling round and round, waiting for a rendezvous that I very much doubt was legal, and went into Great George Square.


It's odd that a building as huge and dominant as the Anglican Cathedral can sneak up on you, but there it was, suddenly looming over me.  Good cities always surprise you.  Liverpool does it better than most.

Good cities also have oddities in the corners, curiosities in plain sight.  The Wapping Tunnel was built in an age of steam trains and all that billowing smoke had to go somewhere.  The engineers built four brick shafts to ventilate the route, and three of them are still there.  And they're huge.


I'm willing to be that most of the local residents don't even notice that.  A four storey brick tower poking out of some waste ground and it just becomes part of the landscape.  I headed back into the square, following the path of the tunnel as it passed under Chinatown.


If you're the kind of person who loves railways - and if you're reading this blog, you probably are - this is the most frustrating part of the Wapping Tunnel's route.  Beneath Great George Street, in the shadow of the cathedral, right at the tip of Chinatown, the Wapping Tunnel and the Northern Line cross over.  Two underground railway lines intersecting without a station; that's the kind of thing that gets a certain kind of railway fan frustrated and angry.  I'm one of them.  But I'll come back to that later.


I crossed by the Chinese Arch, where a man was explaining its history to a group of enthusiastic primary school kids, and disappeared into the Georgian back streets.  Given that I was only a few minutes walk from the centre of the city, they were oddly silent, and I walked down the centre of the road without being troubled by any traffic.


The Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts crowned the top of the street at its junction with Hope Street.  I could hear a full-throated choral performance echoing from inside; the windows on the corner were filled with racks of spangly costumes.


Across the road and I found another of those ventilation shafts, neatly fenced off behind a nursery school.  I wonder if the well-off merchants who lived in these streets when the tunnel was built were consulted about its construction?  Was there a planning procedure in the early 19th century?  Or was it just, "we need to build this.  Shut up."


This is another bit of the city I don't really know.  In general, if there isn't a railway station close by, I don't know anything about that part of town.  I was chatting to a friend the other day, and he mentioned he'd been to a market in Old Swan; I genuinely couldn't tell you whereabouts in Liverpool that is.  On the other hand, I could probably find Cressington or Old Roan with my eyes closed.


I do know that whenever I end up north of Hope Street I'm enchanted by it.  What's not to like?  Quiet streets of pretty Georgian houses, discreet mews, trees and cobbles.  It's a wonderful part of the city centre that feels like a secret.  Perhaps not for much longer; again, there were the cranes and scaffolding of new developments, luxury apartments, exclusive town houses, as the recolonisation of the inner city continued.


I ducked down Bedford Street, coming out by what had used to be Myrtle Parade.  That had been a low, concrete 1970s precinct full of takeaways.  Now it's been replaced by a block of redbrick student housing, with the inevitable Tesco Metro at its base.  You know how in London, you're never more than six feet from a rat?  In Liverpool, you're never more than six feet from a Tesco Metro.


There used to be a ventilation shaft for the Wapping Tunnel here, too, on Chatham Place, but that was demolished some time ago.  Now it's just a lot of student flats.


Behind the acres of university accommodation, however, there's a spot of green open space.  Crown Street Park is a bit of open land that could be anywhere.  Some grass, a couple of playgrounds, some paths.


For the railway fan, it's a far more important site.  It's basically a place of pilgrimage.  Firstly, there's the Wapping ventilation shaft.  Perhaps the biggest of the lot, or maybe it just looks that way because it's surrounded by open land.  Once again I was taken by how completely incongruous it is, and yet everyone accepted it.  You know how in Doctor Who, they explain that people just ignore the Tardis - that it's just there, and people look round it?  It's like that.  Metres of tall brick towering over the landscape, and people just walked their dogs, like it was completely acceptable.


More importantly, Crown Street was the site of the world's first intercity station.  Stephenson's Rocket took off from here in 1830 and changed everything.  The station lasted for six years, but it was too far from the city centre.  There's a high ridge of rock that encircles Liverpool - most obvious at Everton Brow - and so Crown Street was the easiest place to site the station.  Passengers were forced to transfer to carriages for the final part of the journey.


Everyone realised this was a bad idea almost immediately, and so they dug the series of cuttings and tunnels that are still in use today to get the railway to Lime Street.  Crown Street only lasted six years; the site was converted into a goods station, which lasted 140 years before closing in 1972 and becoming the park.  It's a bland stretch of grass, oddly shaped, with uneven contours; it seems to be a park because that was the simplest way of dealing with a messy spot.  There is a single piece of railway line still here though, a stretch of track that juts into a cutting to allow trains to reverse at Edge Hill if necessary.


Edge Hill was Crown Street's replacement, a sop to the district now that the important people were going elsewhere, at the head of the rail works.  I came here in 2009 and it hasn't really changed.  It hasn't really changed in 180 years, let's be honest.  The same bricks, the same low slung, discreet buildings, constructed before a railway aesthetic had developed.  No-one knew what a railway station should look like back then.


I had a wander down to the platform level.  This is where the lines split in three.  To the south, there's the Wapping Tunnel.  In the centre, the routes to Lime Street, the path recently closed by a collapsed wall.  To the north, the entrance to the Victoria Tunnel.


It's a sad station, Edge Hill.  Too close to the city for commuting, too far out for a decent journey.  Most trains passing through miss it entirely.  But it's huge, spreading across four wide platforms, line after line stretching away.  It's empty and mostly silent.


I walked around for a while, snapping photos, the only one about.  Then I walked back up the cobbled street to Tunnel Road, to return to town via the Victoria and Waterloo Tunnels.


This is another bit of town that's being transformed.  Huge swathes of terraced streets between Wavertree Road and Edge Lane were demolished, replaced with smaller, tidier town houses and apartments.  It's been a clunky, badly executed change though, slow to catch on, meaning that homes have been surrounded by empty space and building sites for years.  On the south side of the road was the first of the Victoria Tunnel's ventilation shafts.  Smaller and much less impressive than the Wapping Tunnels, its little conical cap turning it into a turret in search of a castle.


I cut down the side of Taskers, one of my favourite local chains.  Their branch at Speke is a true treasure trove.  On the one hand, it's a DIY store, with cement and floor tiles and chainsaws.  On the other, it's home to some of the most ghastly home furnishings you have ever seen.  It's aisle after aisle of bejewelled, glitzy tat, and it's utterly marvelous.  Sequinned lizards?  Portraits of Marilyn Monroe with a tattoo painted on her arm?  Mirrors with frames that Louis XIV would have thought a bit over the top?  All these can be yours!  It's the epicentre of a very Scouse brand of bling, and it is to be cherished.


Round the back of an industrial unit, tucked away in the yard, I found the next ventilation shaft.


I walked down the hill back into town.  This was the slightly less glamorous approach to the city centre, thronged with disheveled council houses and abandoned pubs.  The cuttings to Lime Street broke up the landscape, creating holes over and over that fragmented the streetscape.

On Smithdown Lane, near the police station and behind some more student homes, I found a quiet mews with this plaque:


I'd quite like to be called a "pioneer of tunnels".  All I need is some unemployed men and an eccentric mind.  Joseph Williamson set the men to work building a network of tunnels under his home, a network that is still being uncovered today.  No-one is entirely sure why.  Most think it was a job creation scheme, but there's also a strong argument that Joseph Williamson was just a bit odd.  It's a strange, curious place I've never actually got round to visiting, so I looked forward to checking it out - except:


Story of my life.

Instead I continued to the back of what was once Archbishop Blanch School.  They moved to a new site a few years ago, leaving a massive plot of land right on the edge of the city centre just begging to be redeveloped.  The school buildings were demolished leaving the two Victoria ventilation shafts exposed, listed structures and unmoveable:



This is going to be a new district of offices and technical buildings, supporting the university and the new hospital over the road.  The Royal College of Physicians are going to open a new northern outpost here, there's an international college about to start construction, plus a series of specialty medical buildings.  It's all very impressive.  To support it, Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson has suggested there should be a new railway station which has caused both excitement and confusion.

As is obvious, the Victoria Tunnel runs right under the site, making it perfect for an underground station.  It's also obvious that the tunnel hasn't been used for nearly fifty years, is single track, and is partially flooded, so it would be expensive to build.  Perhaps he meant a new station on the Lime Street route?  That also passes close by, with a cutting behind the University's vet school:


But that would mean opening out the route into Lime Street, which is incredibly expensive, and sticking a new station right in the way of all the fast trains into and out of Liverpool.  It doesn't seem to make sense either way.

The tunnels were planned for Merseyrail use once before.  Back in the Seventies, when the Link and the Loop were under construction to bring underground rail to Liverpool, a third phase was planned.  The trains that currently form the City Line would be sent into the Victoria Tunnel after Edge Hill, then into a new bit of tunnel to a University station under the Student Union, then into the Wapping Tunnel to get it to Liverpool Central from the south.  I've turned to highly expensive CGI to show how this would have happened:


True artistry, I'm sure you'll agree.

It didn't happen, because the Link and Loop overran and no-one in the 1970s had any money.  There were header tunnels built to the south of Central, ready to accept the new trains if the route was ever built, but nothing ever happened.  In a way, it was lucky, because Central is already hopelessly under capacity, its island platform handling 15 million people a year; stick the Huyton services in there too and things would get dangerous.

It all leads to hope, though, and hope is a dangerous and powerful drug for a railway fan.  Tunneling under a city is an incredibly expensive and difficult task.  Liverpool has two railway tunnels just sitting there, waiting, unused, and it leads to imagination and fantasy.  Do a quick google search and you'll find loads of ideas for "extending Merseyrail", maps and diagrams and even full on plans of stations.  And it's lovely in a way - it's great that people care and have imagination.  I fully admit to letting my mind wander now and then, imagining new metro lines beneath the city.  It all comes from love.


It can go too far.  Someone told me about the term crayonista, a person who draws lines on a map and says "let's just do that!"  The Victoria and Wapping tunnels encourage those extreme crayonista tendencies, because people think you can just build a metro on the cheap because there's a tunnel there already.  You can't.  The most expensive part of a metro is the station, for a start - building and fitting out a deep underground hole for access to that tunnel.  As I walked the routes I went through some wonderful, untouched spots of the city.  Would it be great if there were underground stations to give them access to the wider transport network?  Absolutely.  Would the cost of building them be in any way justified by passenger numbers?  I doubt it.  But there are furious debates and angry justifications all over the place as people shout at one another about how much better it would be for everyone if there were metro stations on every corner.  Railfans want more railways, and they get very passionate about their ideas.

Sometimes I wonder if the tunnels should just be filled in.  Just take away that hope.  It'd cut down on a lot of internet arguing.

(For the record: my fantasy would be a short tunnel from Speke via the airport to South Parkway, then above ground along the City Line to the Wapping Tunnel, building new stations at Bedford Street for the university, Chinatown for interchange with the Northern Line, and a terminus at the King's Dock.  It's a brilliant plan, and would totally work, and anyone who argues is wrong.  Also this line would be called the Scott Line).


South, past the new Royal Liverpool Hospital, which I still can't decide if I like or not.  Is it bold or clunky?  Is it impressive or a mess?  I can't decide.  It's certainly different to the old, grey shell of the 1970s hospital, but I'm not sure if different actually means "better".


Pembroke Place has now been almost completely colonised by the University, with teaching buildings on one side and the dental school on the other.  At its foot, however, it opens out into a brief square outside the venerable Liverpool institution that is TJ Hughes.


I have to confess, I've never actually been inside TJ Hughes.  It's just a little bit too far out of the city centre for me.  If only there was a railway station here... NO.  STOP.


Down a side street to another cleared site, ready for development, and the last of the ventilation shafts.  It used to be at the back of the National Express coach station, but they relocated to Liverpool 1 a couple of years ago and the building was levelled ready for a block of - yes - student flats.


I headed down Islington, the huge swathe of dual carriageway that sweeps you up from the tunnels towards Edge Lane.  The pavement narrowed, then narrowed a bit more, and soon I was on a barely there strip of pavement with trucks and cars speeding past.  I was happy to slip beneath the concrete overpass, into a strange netherworld of empty ground and parking spaces at the back of the World Museum.  It felt like a space that should be used for something, but I'm not sure what.


A series of traffic lights shepherded me in a right angle so that I could reach the other side of the road.  Slightly set back from the road, with a patch of green around it, there's a brick wall.  This is actually the edge of a cutting, the point where the Victoria Tunnel meets the Wapping Tunnel: a void leading underground.


The water fountain is of course broken and unused.  Now it's a handy bin for antisocial arseholes.


I stepped away from the swirl of traffic on the Scotland Road and into another quiet estate of 1980s houses.  The clunk between city and suburbia is even more pronounced here; playgrounds and bungalows right next to masses of apartments and office blocks, with more to come.  I wondered how comfortable it was to relax in your back garden on a sunny summer Saturday when you're aware that eight floors of residents can all see you spread out on the lounger.


I crossed the mad whirl of traffic that is Leeds Street and wandered up Pall Mall.  The building site was empty and silent, its construction halted by rumours about financing and dodgy deals.  The Waterloo Tunnel broke cover here, rising out of the ground then under Great Howard Street to the Waterloo Goods Station.


Great Howard Street crosses the line on a bridge.  Even though there aren't any trains using it any more - and probably never will be - that bridge is being rebuilt right now, closing off the bottom of a busy route into the city.  Like I said: block up the tunnels.


The goods station closed in 1972, and is now a Costco and a Toys R Us, their enormous flat bulks slotting neatly into what was once a massive space for railways.  It wasn't the end of the line though.  The trains continued across Waterloo Road and on to the Prince's Dock.


In the days of trans-Atlantic passenger ships, the Victoria and Waterloo tunnels gave a convenient route for boat trains.  They'd cross the road and then pull into Riverside station, on the Prince's Dock, right next to the departure point for the ships.  It was a huge transport interchange that was killed by aeroplanes.


And now there's nothing left.  The dock is a quiet, sedate strip of land by the river, surrounded by apartments and hotels, a canal route marked out through its centre.  There's nothing left of the old Riverside station, which was only demolished in the 1990s.  It boggles my mind to think that if I'd arrived in the city a couple of years earlier I could've seen the rusting hulk of an abandoned station here.


Liverpool is a beautiful, wonderful city.  I've lived in this part of the world for over 21 years now, more than half my life, and it still delights and surprises me.  I loved wandering round bits of it I'd never seen before, tracing the routes of a couple of tunnels most people don't even know are there.  Will they ever see trains again?  I doubt it.  But it's always thrilling to know that there's a secret world beneath your feet.