Wednesday, 5 February 2020
Yes, after months of silence I've finally returned to the blogging fold. I mean, I've not been completely silent, as anyone who follows my Twitter feed will know, and I've been continuing to churn out my usual nonsense at the Coronation Street Blog. And some kind souls dropped a couple of quid in my Ko-Fi, even though I was providing no content at all (though now that I think about it that may have been a subtle hint). But I haven't had the chance to go out on the trains, for the simple reason that it's all been a bit mad at home. I have spent the past three months having endless stilted conversations with workmen, trying to be jolly while being totally terrified, sitting in a room while they act all working class elsewhere in the house. For someone with major social anxieties it's not been fun. (Also, and I cannot stress this enough, when it comes to workmen, porn lies).
I finally managed to carve out a single day on the trains to myself, even though this week is also extremely hectic. Heading to the Midlands seemed like a bit too much - I still needed to get back to deal with a plasterer that afternoon - so instead I went somewhere that wasn't even open last time I went out on the rails: Warrington West.
Opened on the 15th December, Warrington West is the newest addition to the Northern map. It's two platforms on the Liverpool-Manchester line, and at track level it's pretty standard: grey lift towers, steps, shiny new tarmac beneath your feet. It already felt well used. I was one of half a dozen passengers to get off the train, and there were people on the platform waiting for the faster service behind it.
Up above there's a ticket office, which was a pleasant surprise. A lot of new stations are built without them, a machine on the platform taking up the slack, but this had a proper building and everything. As to the building itself... erm.
I'm glad they went for something different. I'm glad it's not one of those off the shelf Network Rail designs that look like they arrived on the back of a truck. I'm not sure I actually like it, though. I'm guessing the curved roof is meant to evoke the hangers of Burtonwood airbase, the largest American air base during World War II which was nearby, but it's not especially pleasant. Inside it's cold and empty, too much space for too few facilities - barely a bench - and then you're out the other side and...
Let's be glad it got built at all, shall we? Let's be glad that there was an investment in rail. Let's focus on the positives. Like my mug under a station sign.
Admit it: you missed me.
Across the way was the real reason the station was built - an extensive car park. Warrington West is less than a mile from Sankey for Penketh station, a halt that's existed since 1874 but has the misfortune to have been left behind by geography. When Sankey opened it was serving a few small villages in Lancashire and that was fine; Warrington was a town several miles distant. Time and urban creep brought it closer and closer, but Sankey was still on a back road without much in the way of facilities. Warrington West, on the other hand, is smack bang in the middle of the new suburb of Chapelford, with a handy bus to the massive Omega development beside the M62 - a series of distribution centres the size of a space station.
Sankey station is still there, but its services have been reduced to nothing; just two trains a day. You need an actual Act of Parliament to close a railway station - an expensive and complicated procedure - so it's easier to leave it there and have the most token of services. One day they'll finally shut it and Sankey's Grade II listed building will become a coffee shop or a private house. For now it remains as a 19th century relic.
I headed away from the station and into Chapelford. As a tribute to Burtonwood's status as a US Air Force base, the streets have all been named after places in America - Boston Boulevard, Chicago Place, Minnesota Drive. The contrast of big American placenames with piddling little English houses was stark. The worst example was this one:
Sunset Boulevard is Hollywood glamour, it's intrigue and excitement, it's Gloria Swanson descending the stairs in an elaborate dress. It is not a rainy backwater in Warrington lined with "executive" homes. I was the only person about. These suburbs were built for motorists and even though there were kindly pedestrian signs showing me walking routes, nobody was using them. The only people I saw were white delivery vans dropping off internet purchases on doorsteps.
Chapelford is still relatively new so perhaps it's unfair to judge it on a damp February wander. But I didn't detect any hint of life or soul as I walked round. It was a dormitory. People here worked somewhere else, then drove home and went to bed. It lacked energy.
I crossed back over the railway line. I could've got the next train back to Liverpool from Warrington West, but I wanted to get a bit of exercise, so I thought I'd walk into Warrington and get the train back from Central. At the railway line Sunset Boulevard turned into Burtonwood Road, then I travelled back in time.
Chapelford became Sankey and immediately I was in a world of slightly-run down semis and terraces. Some of them had been elaborately renovated - the owners clearly following Phil & Kirstie's instructions that if you can't afford where you want to live, buy as close as you can and do it up - while others had gone to seed with mossy driveways and faded paintwork.
There are two types of New Town. One is the entirely new construction - your Milton Keynes, your Skelmersdale, your Cumbernauld. Yes, there are going to be older communities in it - we are a tiny island and you can't really go too far without hitting a village - but the town centre and the facilities will be all new.
The other type is like Warrington. Warrington was a quiet, perfectly ordinary town for centuries. It had a bridge over the Mersey, it had a couple of stations. When the Industrial Revolution happened it got factories and chemical plants but there was nothing to mark it out as especially different from dozens of other towns across the north-west. In the Sixties, however, someone in Government looked at it on a map. Warrington is halfway between Liverpool and Manchester. It has the West Coast Main Line passing through it. It has the M6 going down one side, and the M62 to the north, and the M56 to the south. They slapped NEW TOWN on Warrington and it doubled in size.
It's left the town feeling disjointed. Each new suburb was grafted on to the side. It didn't grow organically, it didn't spread. Going from Chapelford to Sankey felt like a border crossing; I'd gone from one part of town to the other and I doubted they ever talked.
I followed roads lined with trees, cul-de-sacs hidden from view behind signs saying leading to... There was a Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints church, crowned with an incongruously American-style of spire, and I remembered reading once that Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses do incredibly well in New Towns. There are a lot of lonely people, away from their families, disconnected from their communities, and then a church literally knocks on the door and offers to be your friend.
At the end of the road I entered the Sankey Valley Park. It's a long strip of green running from north to south through Warrington, following the Sankey river and canal, and it's a refreshing example of New Town optimism. They constructed a slice of open space for the enjoyment of everyone, instead of lining the waterways with expensive apartments.
It was a moment of calm and pause. There was the odd dog walker, and a lad on a bike, but otherwise I had it to myself. But it was another barrier. As with the railway line, as with the dual carriageway, the Sankey Valley Park felt like a demilitarised zone to be crossed, a no-man's land between sectors. It was an impression reinforced by the townscape when I walked out the otherside only a few minutes later.
Now it was tiny straight terraces with the brutalist hulk of the Warrington Hospital looming in the distance. It was a whole different universe, never mind a different town. I walked up to the ring road, with a bus stop filled with sad-faced patients, and a petrol station/general store/post office. It ducked back under the railway line with a constant stream of noisy traffic at my side.
I hate walking down main roads - it's so dull, and the carcinogens pumped out of all those cars mean I may as well stay at home and neck a load of fags - so I took a chance and ducked down a side alley. I came out in another world again. Warrington is a foam bath, bubbles clinging to one another, connected but separate.
I'd arrived at Regency Square, a development that made me quite furious. You hear the name Regency Square and you think of elegant Georgian terraces; fine houses grouped around open space giving you air and space to breathe. This Regency Square was four roads surrounded by houses, but in the centre were more houses. There wasn't a spot to promenade. Instead the homes at the centre turned their back on one another, with the middle being given over to parking.
I understand why it's laid out like that; of course I do. Land is precious and modern developers wanting to extract the maximum amount of cash don't want to build a park that won't have any return. That's fine. Don't call it Regency Square though. You're writing a cheque you can't cash.
In fairness, there was a brief burst of green space on the northern edge, between two apartment blocks. Hedges formed a perimeter square around a patch of paving slabs. No statue, no fountain, not even a playground; just grey squares of concrete laid in amongst some gravel. Enjoy!
I left the estate and entered an expanse of industrial units and trading parks. They were doing works on the railway bridge so it was reduced to one lane; this meant that an HGV was forced to park on the pavement, leaving only the tiniest of gaps for me to squeeze through, but he put on his hazard lights so that was ok, apparently. On the other side, a white Mercedes screeched to a halt on the double yellows beside me and the driver dashed across the road to the garage opposite. He left the engine running, and part of me immediately wanted to steal it, but he looked like an extra from a Guy Ritchie film so I quietly continued on and spurned a life of TWOCing.
I was now on the fringes of the town centre, with the Golden Square shopping centre appearing on my right. It gave huge prominence to Debenhams on its exterior signage, which didn't bode well for its future, while its "open til late" poster plugged a bowling alley and a Nando's. I doubted the residents of Chapelford ever came into town unless they had to, driving out to the Gemini Retail Park (it has Britain's first IKEA you know) rather than paying for parking in the multi-storey here.
I wonder if Warrington West will change this, if a regular, fast railway service into town will get some people to abandon their cars. After all, Warrington Central is only a short walk from Golden Square's entrance. I doubt it. I expect they'll stay in their bubble, and if they boarded a train, they'd go all the way to Manchester or Liverpool for their entertainment. It's hard to change people.