Wednesday, 28 September 2022

Seeing Is Believing

Perception.  It's a strange, unknowable magic.  What you see is different to what I see, and we will never know.  Our eyes play tricks on us, fill in gaps, take shortcuts that alter our views.  Our brains filter and reinterpret.  Each of us lives in a world no-one else can access.

Who you are changes too, and changes the way you see things.  I returned to Kidsgrove station not realising I'd been there before.  I'd visited back in 2014, as part of the Northern Rail map, and I'd forgotten about it.  When it showed up on the West Midlands Map too I blithely pencilled it in for a visit.  Back then, I'd come at the town second, starting out at Longport and walking up the canal.  I'd passed from the industrial ruins of Stoke on Trent through countryside and parkland before pitching up at Kidsgrove station.  The walk had turned greener and warmer as it went on; the streets I'd passed through had been leafy and the houses large.  There was a church and trees and a canal view - it seemed charming.  The station was a bit run down, but stations often are, and I'd come away with an upbeat report.

Since I'd last been here the Accessibility Fairy had visited and planted some lifts and new walkways.  I might have spotted that I'd been here before if they hadn't; I normally have a great memory for places.  Kidsgrove was just different enough to fox me.  Either that or the dementia has started hitting.  I was mainly impressed that all that clean white steel was still clean white steel and hadn't been graffitied or vandalised in any way.  I suppose it's only been a few months - this time next year the local teens will have discovered the blank canvas and will be painting it with obscenities and love notes. 

The station is on an island, a canal on one side, the tracks on the other.  Did I take this picture to shame the person who had parked on the extensive yellow hashes?  That's a distinct possibility.

Students of the decay of the human being may wish to contrast this photo with the one in the earlier post and then recoil in horror.

I crossed the canal to enter the town centre proper.  The A50 climbed a steep hill with small shops on one side.  The Kidsgrove Bank Dental Surgery still looked an awful lot like a NatWest, while flags hanging from the lampposts urged me to keep the town tidy.  On top of the hill the Victoria Hall stood firm, home to the town council (though it's now part of Newcastle-under-Lyme borough) and an event hall for hiring.  The clock tower kept the correct time which is depressingly rare.


I was in search of an old station site.  The current Kidsgrove station opened as Harecastle and was one of three stations that served the town.  Another line, constructed mainly to service the pottery and mining industries, looped away from the mainline and went via Tunstall to Stoke.  It gave Kidsgrove two more stations - Liverpool Road and Market Street Halt.  I ducked behind a telephone exchange and across some waste ground to where the Pottery Loop Line had once been.


It's now a walking and cycle route and Market Street Halt was positioned behind the Masonic Hall, handy for the town's main shopping district.  There's nothing there now, just a crossing of footpaths, but it felt satisfying to tick another station off, even if it was only virtually.  I went back to the town round the back of the Labour Club.


It turned out this was one of those "bitterly ironic" locations.  At the front of the club was a small queue, a few mums with pushchairs, some pensioners.  They were queuing for the town's food bank.  

Food banks make me furious.  I shouldn't know what a food bank is.  I shouldn't be aware of them.  I live in one of the richest countries on earth.  Nobody in this country should be relying on handouts.  Nobody should be suffering.  There shouldn't be people - vulnerable people, people with children - queueing for baked beans and powdered milk and tea bags.  This is appalling.  This country is appalling.  And if you voted for the shower of blue bastards who've made it worse over the past decade, fuck you.


Sorry, wandered off topic there.  But to return to the oddness of perception; I'd previously seen Kidsgrove as a well off town.  Now it was coloured with sadness and deprivation.  Now it had empty shops, low-grade retail, odd businesses that seemingly had no place on a high street.  That food bank queue had altered how I saw the town.  Of course, it's also possible that Kidsgrove has severely gone downhill in the interim; it has been eight years since I was last here, eight years of Tory rule, eight years of Brexit and Boris.  


I looped round the threadbare town centre, past motor centres and bakeries (this month's doughnut: Jaffa) and then down a side road.  There was a "neighbourhood community facility", buried behind high metal fences and looking very closed, and a lot of social housing that twisted and turned down the hill.  I could see through to their back gardens where they suddenly plunged down at terrifying angles, and tried to imagine mowing those lawns without slipping.  


Beneath the railway bridges, then on to Tesco, the site of Kidsgrove's other former railway station, Liverpool Road.  The Potteries Loop Line, gently curving through village after village, couldn't compete with the direct routes taken by road.  The goods traffic went first, then, in the Sixties, Beeching came along and killed it off.  A cycleway follows the old route but nobody is agitating for trains to return.


I nipped into Tesco to use the facilities, then returned back to Liverpool Road and turned down by the Lidl for the canal.  It was a thick brown, the colour of rust, a side effect of iron leaking into the water, and it looked grim and unloved.  A pub nearby advertised "canalside views" and I wondered if anyone bothered.


This was the Trent & Mersey Canal, connecting Northwich with Derby via the Potteries, but I didn't see much sign that it was well navigated.  I walked about a mile and didn't see a single boat navigating it.  There was one narrowboat moored up, abandoned, its woodwork rotted and its ropes thick with mould.  On the top a Dyson handheld hoover had rusted and cracked.  There were walkers, sprightly pensioners in cagoules who offered a cheery "morning!" as I passed, and the occasional dog.


Clearly the canal does still have its users; there were extensive facilities for showering and water at one point, and plenty of places to tie up.  Perhaps this was simply the wrong season for it.  I pushed on, trying to enjoy the walk, trying to avoid the dark thoughts swimming around inside my head.  Kidsgrove had depressed me and made me feel negative and I needed to distract my brain before I turned it in on myself.


Soon enough I was leaving the towpath and clambering up onto a busy road.  It was the same A50 that had passed by the Tesco earlier; I could've got here a lot quicker by following it, but then I'd have missed the delightful scents of Kidsgrove's sewage treatment works, which shadow the canal.


The village of Church Lawton, hidden to the north of the main road, gave way to the edges of Alsager itself.  A sign for the Geberit factory gave me a momentary chill.  I'm currently in the middle of a big bathroom refurbishment and I have seen way too many toilets and sinks lately.  They give me hives, particularly Geberit, which is definitely towards the "how much?" end of bog production.  


Alsager was a small farming community until the railways came, when it became a fashionable place for the more well-off industrialists from Stoke to have their homes.  There was a pleasing mix of cottages and villas, well-kept and well-scrubbed, proper Cheshire affluence that had arrived in the nineteenth century and never gone away.  Alsager is far too close to Crewe and Stoke to get the glitter of the Golden Triangle but it still carries with it a slight sniffiness, a "better than you" tone. A sign in a solicitor's window advised me that "a will is not enough" and "how would you feel if your grandchildren lost 40% of your estate in Inheritance Tax?"   To which any reasonable person would reply "bloody hell, how much money have you got?"


Alsager proper is centred around a crossroads, with a civic hall and library complex surrounded by trees and grass.  The shops here were very much open and well-used; the bakery here was promoting its fully laden, freshly made Turkey Wrap, rather than the pleasing but cheap assortment of E numbers you got in Kidsgrove.  

Nothing is fair.  There are winners and losers in everything, particularly capitalism.  But I'd only walked for an hour and I was in a different universe of wealth.  And yet: there's a food bank in Alsager too.  Nobody is insulated from poverty.  It's just that it's taking a little longer to reach some people - and by the looks of it, this winter will be the crisis point.


No, alcohol is not a solution to life's problems.  It does let you forget for a while, though.  I went in a deserted pub on the main street, the kind of place that you know is full of Sixth Formers on a Friday night taking selfies and doing Jagerbombs, and I sat in the window and drank my pint while Lizzo told me it was About Damn Time on the TV screen above my head.  I got lightly toasted.


It was time for my train.  I headed south to the station.  Ahead of me, an Amazon driver pulled off a u-turn from a Bond film, swinging across the carriageway and dodging traffic with aplomb.  The other cars stopped in his tracks - perhaps out of admiration, perhaps fear.  The barriers lights on the level crossing began to flash and the driver went through at speed as though he was being chased.  At some point all these Amazon drivers are going to get other jobs and they're going to unleash their mad driving skills on normal cars and our A-roads will turn into Wacky Races.


I went to the Crewe bound platform.  Across from me, there was an excitable group of teenagers, who literally leapt for joy when their train arrived.  I sank into a bench and ate the Marks and Spencer wrap I'd bought at Lime Street that morning, a little crushed after hours in my bag.  


Another day, I might have been charmed by Alsager.  I might have delighted in it.  Not today though, not after Kidsgrove.  Perception is a funny thing. 


Sunday, 11 September 2022

Park/Life


There's a lift at Birkenhead Park station.


This is news because there's never been a lift at Birkenhead Park station before.  Previously, to get from the street to the platform, you had to go down a stepped ramp.  This is a compromise between a staircase and a ramp that ends up pleasing nobody; yes, it's easier to negotiate than an escalator, but you still wouldn't want to push a pram up it.


The lift has been under construction for about fourteen years but it opened a couple of weeks ago and means that, combined with the new trains and their sliding steps, if and when they eventually arrive, the station is completely accessible for users with limited mobility.  

It's another stage in Birkenhead Park station actually fulfilling its potential.  I have a vested interest, of course, because it's (sort of) my local station - I'm a person who travels on Merseyrail all the time yet has managed to contrive to live quite a long way from a Merseyrail station.  However, I do feel like Birkenhead Park should be at the heart of a proper, regenerated community.


It's already got the bones.  The station, with its fast, frequent trains to Liverpool, Birkenhead town centre, New Brighton and West Kirby.  That sits at the centre of a local shopping precinct with a mix of businesses - furniture shops, takeaways, bakeries, even a store that sells - let's call it "paraphernalia", shall we?  It's got the park over the road, plus a lot of terraced houses, and the docks in the other direction.  The Tube has dozens of spots like this, places like Shepherd's Bush and Clapham and Elephant & Castle.


What it's not had, until fairly recently, was hope.  It was abandoned and falling apart.  This was a part of town with high unemployment and a general air of sadness.  That seems to be changing, just a bit, as two new apartment blocks have been built on empty lots.  They're a mix of social housing and rent to buy and they're clean and modern and have brought an influx of new residents.  A neat little housing development has been slotted in behind a carpet warehouse, modern homes with gardens and driveways based around an open green space.


There should be more of this.  Developers should be fighting over these spots.  Imagine you're a young professional, wanting to buy in Liverpool, not being able to afford it.  Birkenhead Park would be a great place to live.  A proper community, plus easy access to Liverpool itself, plus Oxton and Claughton within walking distance.  Gentrify it now!


Admittedly there's still a way to go.  There are more than a few abandoned and derelict buildings scattered around.  The closer you get to the docks, the more working industry there still is.  And let's be honest, it can still be a scary place from time to time - my wander around the station area was interrupted by a gentleman who was clearly under the influence of something screaming abuse at his "mate" as they crossed the road.  


However, with a national housing shortage and a cost of living crisis, squeezing more and more density into our towns should be a priority.  Building right next to a commuting hub is a no-brainer.  Get on with it.

Tuesday, 23 August 2022

The Varsity Line In The Sand

It's a question that's torn British society asunder for literally centuries: which is better, Oxford or Cambridge?  There has never been a definitive answer to this question... UNTIL NOW.  Yes, thanks to a couple of mini breaks I took this year, I am able to once and for all settle this question, through the twin powers of science and railway stations.  These are the only true metrics that should be used to decide anything.  I will run you through my workings before I reach a conclusion, breaking it down into a series of extremely valid categorisations:

1. NEWISH RAILWAY STATION THAT IS ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF TOWN


Oxford Parkway station opened in 2013, though weirdly, it didn't have services to Oxford itself until three years later.  This was part of Chiltern Railways' scheme to improve the line from the city into London Marylebone and it's a very Parkway station.  There's an absolutely enormous car park, tied into the local park and ride bus service, while there's a lot of silver cladding and glass on the building itself.


One feature it does have that I thoroughly approve of is tilework.  Ceramic tiles used to be all over railway stations - they're easy to clean, they add colour, they're charming.  It seems to have been lost over the decades however, replaced by plain walls or plasticky cladding.  Oxford Parkway brings back the tiles with a lovely blue colour throughout the ticket office and public areas.


Delightful.  There is one minus however, and that's the lack of a ticket office.  There's an "information desk", but if you want to buy a ticket, you have to use the machines.  Why they couldn't combine these two services into the one desk, I don't know.


Meanwhile there's another grey box over at Cambridge North, opening in 2017.  This one isn't a Parkway station, but was instead built to serve both the burgeoning Cambridge Science Park and the redevelopment of the area.  It's a bold, show off-y building, the kind of building that gets called "iconic" by the developers before they've even laid a single brick.


There is also quite possibly the largest cycling storage facility I've ever seen in the UK.  Imagine a warehouse, without walls, and filled with row after row of racks.  It looks like something from Amsterdam.


Cambridge North has been decorated with an intricate design cut into its steel fascia.  It looks lovely, and is apparently based on some incredibly complex mathematical something.  I don't really understand it.  Head over to The Beauty of Transport for the full explanation, and also, the story of how they got the wrong design and the one they used was actually by someone from Oxford, which is quite funny really.


Final verdict: Cambridge North should win this.  It's newer, it's funkier, it's got artwork.  But I'm going to give it to Oxford Parkway because... I liked the tilework.  I mean, I really liked it.  Also that family you can see in the picture above were really annoying, bouncing all over the station like it was a playground, and that put me off North.

WINNER: OXFORD

2. THE CITY


I spent one day in each city, being a tourist, clattering around pretty wildly without much of a scheme.  As such I almost certainly didn't go to wherever you thought I should've gone.  Yes, there probably is a fantastic cafĂ© tucked away at the back of an alleyway that's only open for twenty minutes a day, but sorry, I'm being basic and hitting the sights.


My impression was that Oxford felt more like a city: by which I mean, a functioning, modern place where people lived and worked.  It had buses and noise and bustle in a way that Cambridge didn't.  Cambridge felt more historic, more preserved, as though it had settled on its form sometime in the 15th century and hadn't bothered updating it.  Oxford was a bit more modern, although since we're talking about Oxbridge, I'm using "modern" in the sense of "felt like the Victorians might have actually been here."


Normally I'd go with the city that feels more modern because that's who I am.  I dislike cities that are fossilised.  But Cambridge had a charm woven through it that was absent from Oxford.  Wandering the narrow streets of Cambridge felt like a delight, a pleasurable experience in itself, while in Oxford, ducking down a tiny street was a means to get somewhere else.  It didn't bewitch me in the same way.


Final verdict: Oxford should win this on paper, but I simply found Cambridge much more fun to be in.  It made me smile.

WINNER: CAMBRIDGE

3. UNIVERSITIES


Obviously I didn't go to Oxbridge (Edge Hill massive, represent).  I did actually get invited to my Sixth Form College's Oxbridge preparation class; a teacher took me aside and advised me to attend it at lunchtime, because he thought I had the potential.  I went to one session and I was terrified.  It wasn't about simply being clever - you also had to be a certain kind of person, act a certain way in interviews, have a varied and interesting life outside of your studies.  I fled the class and put any thought of attending out of my head, which was lucky considering (a) I then comprehensively cocked up my A-Levels and (b) I wouldn't have been able to afford a single term there.  And this was when you still got grants!


I wandered the precincts and imagined how it would be to attend here and suddenly I got it.  I got that Oxbridge attitude, the slight sniffiness, the superiority.  It wasn't pure snobbery.  Walking among those buildings I could see how you had history pushed into you.  These were thousand year old colleges, places that produced kings and prime ministers and the finest scientists and artists and mathematicians of their age.  You weren't simply studying here, you were being added to their ranks.  You were being imbued with importance.


How can you wander through exquisitely designed ancient corridors and not feel like a prince?  I felt like that and I was only using it as a shortcut between one bit of town and another.  If I'd been wearing a gown and clutching a pile of books I'd have felt like the greatest person on earth.


FINAL VERDICT: Both universities seem like astonishing, inspiring places to study, places that have changed the course of the entire human race.  So it's a tie there.  I'll have to bring it down to alumni.  Cambridge has the Footlights, which has been home to some of my most favourite people on earth.  Oxford has the Bullingdon Club.

WINNER: CAMBRIDGE

4. RIVERS


Oxford is on the Thames, which seems like cheating.  The Thames is London's, and you can't muscle in on it, I don't care what "geography" says.  It's like Stockport having a Merseyway Shopping Centre, laying claim to a river that quite clearly belongs to Liverpool.  


Meanwhile, Cambridge is on the Cam, quite obviously.  That's more like it.  As the name implies, the Cam goes right through the centre of the city, while in Oxford it sort of bends round the edge - by the time you reach it you are most definitely on your way out of town.  


What Oxford does have is a disused railway bridge to let you cross the river.  This is the Gasworks Bridge, which used to carry a small spur off the mainline to a long demolished gasworks.  


Cambridge, on the other hand, has footbridges that belong to the colleges and are fenced off to the plebs.  In fact, at one of them, the BF paused in the shadow to check his phone, and a porter appeared behind him and eyed him suspiciously in case he tried to open the gate.  Unfriendly.

FINAL VERDICT: I almost gave this to the Cam based on the fact that the trousers of the punters are extremely tight and make their backsides look amazing, but at the end of the day, I can't fully condone private bridges.  

WINNER: OXFORD

5. JOHN LEWIS TOILETS

If you need the loo in a strange city, head for the John Lewis, because they'll be clean and easily accessible.  I visited the department stores in both cities and while they were both nice enough, Oxford's mall was a bit better and more interesting, so they get the win.

WINNER: OXFORD

6.  HARRY POTTER TAT

Harry Potter still means a lot to people, of course, even though its author has turned out to be a thoroughly awful person.  I enjoyed the books myself.  And even though it's literally more than a decade since they last released a Harry Potter film, lots of people still want to visit the locations.  Fair enough - I visited Matera while I was in Italy, not because of its stunning architecture and proud history, but because James Bond shot a significant portion of it to pieces.  Oxford, however, has really embraced its legacy as a filming location, to the extent that you can't go more than ten yards without someone in a striped scarf lurching out of a side alley talking about their patreon.  There are Harry Potter shops and Harry Potter cafes and Harry Potter walking tours and I will remind you that this is the oldest university in the English speaking world and a city that existed for more than a thousand years before JK Rowling put aside her rampant transphobia for a couple of minutes to write a book.  There was something quite depressing about standing behind a tour guide talking about the Bodleian Library, one of the finest academic centres on earth, and have them reveal that it was used for a scene in one of the Harry Potters to gasps from the assembled tourists.  Cambridge, on the other hand, wasn't used for a single scene in the films, and so can't make any spurious claims to fame; it sells itself on being Cambridge rather than Gryffindor adjacent.  Perhaps if Hogwarts' dining hall had been in Peterhouse College instead of Leavesden Studios it'd be a very different story but for the time being Cambridge comes off as a lot classier. 

WINNER: CAMBRIDGE

7.  CENTRAL STATIONS


I'm going to tell you the winner before we even start here, because I'm sorry, it has to be said: Oxford station is a dump.  I expected a historic, beautiful building, something with a bit of class.  Instead I got a load of red and blue metalwork chucked up during the fag end of British Railways.


Who hurt you, Oxford?  Who told you this was acceptable?  Aren't you embarrassed?  I suppose they have the Oxford Tube, that famous coach line that runs direct to London, so the trains are an afterthought.  Still, I expected better.  I thought of the thousands of people who must pass through here every year and get this as their first view of a legendary city.


I must also point out that directly outside the station is the entrance to the Thatcher Business Education Centre, named after That Bloody Woman.  Welcome to Oxford, indeed.


Cambridge on the other hand - now that's what you want from a railway station.  An epic frontage, a station square, some artwork.  Admittedly Cambridge has a slight advantage in that it's clearly in the middle of a big regeneration project; the station is surrounded by a serious of large bland boxes that house apartments, hotels, offices.  It's a bit like Canary Wharf has crashed into the Fens.  


Still, it's better than the bloody Thatcher Institute.  The interior suffers slightly from being a through station - it's more of a long corridor stretched along the platforms - but it carries itself well, and has some lovely heritage features.  It also has some funky LED next train indicators with animations and colours.  I'm easily impressed.  It is, however, lacking a proper totem with the station name on it.  Sort it out, please.


FINAL VERDICT: Duh.

WINNER: CAMBRIDGE


AND THE OVERALL WINNER IS:

Cambridge!

Both cities are beautiful and elegant and totally worth visiting, but Cambridge nudges ahead.  Cambridge was the one that I could see myself revisiting someday, for a longer period, whereas I feel like I've "done" Oxford.  Still, it's good to finally solve the eternal question of which one is better.  You can argue with my decision in the comments if you want, but know this: I am right and will not be persuaded otherwise.  Next week, I definitively prove which is better - Cats or Dogs.  

(Spoiler: it's dogs).