I guess most people don’t sleep much the night before their first ever trip to Liverpool football stadium.
I was the same. Except in my case it wasn’t the prospect of visiting Anfield that kept me awake. It was the image of one of my housemates sitting in our living room warming his gammy toe by the three-bar fire.
I lived in Liverpool for 12 years. During this time, which I began as an undergraduate student and ended interviewing the cast of Hollyoaks (that’s higher education for you), I stayed in accommodation that moved sequentially further away from the city centre.
I found myself eventually living next to a disused railway line.
I stayed, not surprisingly, for as long as I could.
I discovered the line after I discovered the property. I hadn’t yet got into the habit of sizing up a place to live based on its distance from the nearest railway (operational or otherwise). It pains me to admit I didn’t have a clue at first why the line was there. It looked to me like a footpath. In fact, it was – and still is – a footpath. Formally, it’s part of National Cycle Network Route 62. Informally, it’s the old Liverpool Loop Line, which used to connect a string of suburbs and villages clustering along the city’s hem.
IT WAS ONLY AFTER SEVERAL YEARS OF TRAVELLING on what, from 1998, was known as the TransPennine Express that I discovered the song Trans-Europe Express by Kraftwerk.
I still believe the former continues to miss a trick by not customising the latter for a publicity campaign.
Imagine the TV advertisement: to the sound of an infectious disco beat, immaculately polished carriages glide through dazzling city centres and exquisite pastoral scenes, accompanied by the urgent chant of “TRANS… PEN-NINE… EXPRESS!” and such lyrical exhortations as “From station to station/’Cross town, hill and dale/Our train never tiring/Our food never stale”.
Hmm. I’m not such which part of that fantasy is the most preposterous.
The journey to Sheffield was always one of my favourites when I lived in Liverpool. By way of a starter you had the route to and through Manchester, which I’ve written about already but whose extremes of shape, colour, history and sentiment I never grew tired of.
Then came the main course: the journey across the Peak District, with the line burrowing through coarse, winding tunnels to emerge suddenly in the crook of the most enormous green hills and below the largest, bluest of blue skies. Well, that’s how they always seemed at the time.
There were stations that punctuated the most rural and remote part of the route: the likes of Chinley, Edale, Hope and Bamford, at which troupes of ramblers and outward bound enthusiasts would materialise and dematerialise in a rustle of Rohan. A part of me envied them, but a part of me was also forever too distracted or disorganised to think about following their example.
On this occasion, Friday 14 June 1996, I was visiting a school friend who I’d known for five years and who was now a student at Sheffield University.
The journey across, which I describe in my diary as “tortuous”, I spent mostly listening to The World Won’t Listen and finishing reading High Fidelity, which rather neatly sums up the sort of person I was in the summer of 1996.
The return journey on 15 June was more eventful.
It was the first day of Euro 96, and I’d already had to fight my way back to Sheffield station through various manifestations of “street theatre” which had been laid on throughout the city to mark the tournament’s opening.
I’m afraid I was not in the mood to be entertained by interpretative dance or satirical busking. It was boiling hot; my neck got burned. Then, once on the train, I had to sit in direct sunlight; my face got burned.
Of chief concern, however, was the fact it took much longer to get back to Liverpool than usual. The train was delayed by almost an hour. No information was given for the hold up. I was especially bemused by how slowly the train crawled through the centre of Manchester.
It was only when I got back to Liverpool that I realised I had passed through the city only a few hours after this had happened, and although I saw no obvious evidence of the damage from the train, in retrospect the clues were there: police out in force at Piccadilly and Oxford Road, a subdued atmosphere among passengers getting on, a wary atmosphere among those getting off.
I spent the rest of the day catching up on this and other news that I’d missed by virtue of simply being away from a TV and radio for several hours.
Then I stole some of my housemates’ food, something I did with increasing nonchalance towards the end of every term, and went to bed.
IT WAS TOWARDS THE END OF my first year at university, and the end of The Boo Radleys’ first and last slice of stardom.
A “friend” of mine, one of those hall-of-residence “friends” who I was shortly to never speak with or see ever again, had got tickets to see The Boo Radleys at the Parr Hall in Warrington. He knew I was a fan. I owed him a favour after he agreed to come with me to see Gene play Liverpool University Students’ Union. It was during that aimless period between the end of exams and the announcement of results. He asked me to come to the gig. I said yes.
Since starting at Liverpool University, I’d passed through Warrington countless times on the train, either en route to Manchester and Sheffield to visit old school friends or on the way to and from my hometown of Loughborough. (This was before I discovered the “quicker” route of leaving Lime Street on a fast train bound for London, then changing at Nuneaton for a local service via Leicester).
I’d never, however, had cause to visit the town itself. Nor had I ever seen the Boo Radleys live.
The latter would prove to be the more fulfilling of the two formative experiences, but only just.
The gig got off to an atrocious start courtesy of the support band, Swervedriver, who, according to my diary, “sent me into a semi-coma” of “bored fatigueness [sic]”.
Two friends of my “friend” had come along purely to see Swervedriver, and once the group had gone from the stage made it very clear they couldn’t be arsed with the Boo Radleys at all, rudely disappearing off into the recesses of the Parr Hall.
Once they and other Swervedriverers had sloped away, the remaining audience comprised one third of people who knew and loved the Boos for their earlier stuff, in my case their utterly splendid 1993 album Giant Steps, but two thirds of people who knew them as That Band Who Did A Jingle For The Chris Evans Breakfast Show.
And these two groups of people did not like each other.
I described the majority in my diary as “ludicrous under-age pre-pubescent knicker-throwing teenage girls.” They had every right to be there, of course, but this didn’t stop me raging inwardly at their presence, particularly at how they seemed to make the Boos “aggressive and pissed off with things”.
It became a battle of the cliques. That troika of rousing Radley epics, Wish I Was Skinny, Barney (…And Me), and Lazarus, were received by most in the hall in bemused near-silence, apart from me and the minority, who cheered them to the skies. Meanwhile the new stuff, especially (inevitably) Wake Up Boo!, was heralded with tumult by the masses but stoical indifference by the few, leading to enormous scuffles and convulsions that left both my feet and back severely bruised.
I think it was this gig that turned my dislike of Wake Up Boo! into rampant, untethered hatred.
At the end of the gig we got lost trying to get back to the station. I can’t remember if it was Bank Quay or Central, but we made it just in time to catch the last train to Lime Street: one of those barely-furnished bone-rattlers that stopped at everywhere and resembled the inside of a bus.
Nobody said anything to anybody for the entire journey. The only sound was the creak of the carriage, the echoes of belligerent cheering, and a clutch of flawed, fading harmonies.
IN ALL THE YEARS I lived in Liverpool, I must have only visited Wales about half a dozen times. Possibly less.
Because it was so close, and because neither it nor I were going anywhere, the idea of popping into the country took on as much significance as popping into my local pub. Both of which, as time went on, slipped gently down my must-go-there-and-do-that list.
But then I did go somewhere: I moved to London. Since when I have rued the fact that I could and should have nipped over the border far more than I did while I lived 10, not 110, miles away.
On my most recent return visit to Liverpool I decided to begin to address this failing. I bought the version of the North Wales Rover ticket that is valid for just one day, and set off for a dash around what nobody save Prince Charles and Sarah Kennedy calls the Principality.
As with all rover tickets, this one was, in my view, a bargain. It was just £23 to go wherever I wanted in north Wales, including, if I so wished, a reunion with the Cambrian Line. The decidedly non-Welsh Chester is thrown in for good measure, meaning I had only to catch one of the regular Merseyrail services to the city from Liverpool in order to kick off the day.
On the platform at Liverpool Central I spotted this enlightened notice:
How nice of them.
This first leg of my journey was actually the least agreeable. It wasn’t the fault of Merseyrail. Rather it was the combined presence of impenetrable mist and fog outside the train, and interminable mithering from a couple of fellow passengers inside, that got things off to an irksome start.
The former, if it persisted, would have left me bereft of any decent views of the likes of the sea or Snowdonia.
The latter consisted of an old man with dyed black hair who was an ex-con and who spoke at a speed of 10 fucks per minute, and his “companion”, who he may well have met for the first time the night before, who sat with her legs up on the seat opposite (grrrrrr!) and did nothing to shut up her consort (grrrrrrrrrrrrrr!).
As the train pulled into Chester, and a big sign saying CHESTER slipped into view through the carriage window, the lag turned to me and said: “Is this Chester?” When I said that it was, he replied with a bemused “fucking hell”.
I was glad to leave both him and the indifferent weather behind.
A few miles into the journey from Chester to Holyhead, the sun came out. So did an old woman with orange hair and slippers from behind a copy of Metro, who proceeded to exchange low words with a man half her age across a table, both speaking Welsh, both oblivious to the rich mix of landscapes through which the train was passing, and both equally oblivious to the reaction of their fellow passengers.
Fortunately their behaviour was nowhere near as intrusive as that of Old Man Jailbird and Maggie Mae. They and I were soon joined in the carriage by a dozen young Christians, some blokes returning from a weekend of heavy golfing/drinking/golfing and drinking, and an old man who kept visiting, but never entering, the on-train toilet.
Such was the collection of colourful characters that accompanied me across Wales to Holyhead.
My route for the day took me all the way to the end of the line on the far side of Anglesey, then back to Llandudno Junction where I caught a train down to Blaenau Ffestiniog, from where I retraced my steps back to Llandudno and to Chester.
Not a particularly complicated or ambitious route perhaps, but certainly an intriguing and, for the most part, rather beautiful one.
Much of the line between Flint and Bangor hugs the coast: always a tantalising arrangement for an inland suburbia-dweller like myself.
I’d forgotten quite how vast is the cluster of seaside homes and portable dwellings that brush up somewhat ungainly around Prestatyn and Rhyl. About half, maybe more, seemed to be occupied, despite it being late March.
I’d also forgotten about that curious, solitary ship that looms up on the shoreline suddenly, like a beached piece of Hollywood studio set, utterly abandoned and ignored.
Much more character oozes out of Colwyn Bay, Llandudno and Bangor (all for under a pound, you know).
At Colwyn Bay they actually seemed to be trying to rebuild, or at least retame, part of the sea. I came here once in the late 1990s on a day trip while my sister was visiting me in Liverpool. My chief memory of the outing is of a reassuringly unassuming cafe, wherein we drank a reassuringly unassuming pot of tea. I don’t remember the rather non-unassuming red benches being there before:
The stretch of the line that first skirts then crosses the Menai Strait via the Britannia Bridge is simply majestic. It gives you the best of all possible introductions to Anglesey, a place I hadn’t been to since a family holiday 25 years ago.
Unlike then, I did not make a point of photographing myself standing next to the sign on the platform of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Instead I passed straight through (mainline train services only stop on request), thereby avoiding the coachloads of tourists making a point of photographing themselves standing next to the sign on the platform of Llanfairpwyllthisnamehasbeenlengthedpurelyforshamelesspublicity.
At Holyhead, I was the only person to not head for the ferry. Instead I used the 40 minutes or so before the train started back down the line to mooch about what bits of the town were designed to be mooched through, which weren’t that many. I very quickly formed the impression that it is not a place in which visitors are encouraged to dwell. You’re only meant to pass through, preferably on to one of these:
Still, the railway station and ferry terminal are neatly conjoined, so for those who are intending to get out of Holyhead as quickly as possible – in either direction – there’s no need to set your feet or thoughts much beyond a sequence of charmless waiting rooms.
The line between Llandudno Junction and Blaenau Ffestiniog is almost without exception charming. The exception is its terminus. After an hour or so of the lilting hills and burbling water of the Conwy valley, you arrive in a place so despoiled that the boundaries of the Snowdonia National Park had to be specially drawn so as to avoid it entirely.
Part of me was in awe of the great mountains of disused slate that loom over Blaenau Ffestiniog. Part of me felt instantly claustrophobic and intimidated, qualities that were compounded by the atmosphere inside the town itself.
In the half hour I was there, before the train returned down the line, I was made to feel distinctly unwelcome. Children, dozens of them, skiving off school or else on some kind of half-day holiday, eyed me unpleasantly while scoffing wodges of junk food. Adults, dozens of them, all drunk, cast threatening glares in my direction while lolling over the bus stops and benches and shouting conversations along the lines of:
“As long as it’s got a sock on it, I don’t care who’s I have.”
“If he tried to put a sock on his, it’d fall off.”
I don’t want to call Blaenau Ffestiniog a dying town. I’ll just say a part of me died while I was there.
One day I’ll have to go back, though, in order to ride on the Ffestiniog Railway.
My guess is about half of the entire Conwy line is single track (including the longest single track tunnel in the country). Most of the stations are request stops, and on the day I was there plenty of passengers were making requests.
The majority, it has to be said, were of senior years, but this was perhaps only to be expected as travel on the line is free of charge to the over-60s. This is thanks to the Welsh Assembly Government. Yup, them again. How nice it must be to live in a country where your government treats railways with respect and not as a nuisance or a necessary evil.*
On the train back to Chester I nodded off. I was surrounded by kids, or possibly students, one of whom was wearing a pair of sunglasses with flashing lights embedded in the frame.
At Chester I saw no fewer than six people smoking cigarettes right next to a No Smoking sign. I was tempted to take a photo, not in order to report them to the station authorities, but just to see if and how they’d react. Fortunately, perhaps more for my sake than theirs, my train to Liverpool arrived and the moment passed. Instead I took this photo. Nice to know David Cameron’s new enterprise zones have got off to such a cracking start:
From there it was back up the Wirral in the safe hands of Merseyrail, and then into Liverpool city centre for the obligatory welcome portion of chips and beans from The Lobster Pot.
It was still light, and I’d barely covered half of the track to which my ticket entitled me, but I’d had my fill and felt satisfied to call it a day. Besides, by then I’d already decided to come back later in the year, armed with the four-day version, and do the whole thing.
*Some politics. Apologies.
**More politics. Apologies again.