A Loop in time
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.
North Wales Rover
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.
North West Rover: day 2
TODAY’S JOURNEYS WEREN’T SO INFLUENCED BY whim or wanderlust; they were more shaped by necessity.
I was moving hotels from Liverpool to Carnforth, to give me a better base from where to explore the train lines in Cumbria and across the Yorkshire Dales.
Trouble was, while I didn’t have to check out of my old hotel until 10am, I couldn’t check in to the new one until the mid-afternoon. This meant over four hours in limbo. A direct route from Liverpool to Carnforth would only use up half of this time.
The only thing to do (save squatting in Lime Street station for most of the morning) was to make a virtue out of circumstances and travel northwards in as convoluted a manner possible so as to get the most out of my rover ticket. Hence the, at first glance, rather bonkers route I undertook on my second day on the rails:
Such is the freedom afforded to you by a rover. Why not, I reasoned, spend a morning zigzagging across Lancashire, taking in stations with as intriguing sounding names as Freshfield (missing a consonant, surely), Meols Cop and Parbold?
This idea bore fruit immediately when I realised I’d be leaving Liverpool on the Northern Line. The proper one. Or is it the other one. Whatever. Who knew it went so far north?
I decided to head first for Southport. This turned out to be a good move, not just because it meant leaving Liverpool (always a bittersweet experience) in the capable hands of Merseyrail. It also rustled up an unexpected moment of excitement when the train suddenly accelerated out of the tunnel north of Moorfields and crashed into the open air among the docks.
Yes, I am easily pleased. As I was by this:
Almost all the stations along the line to Southport boast notices promoting an ALF: Attractive Local Feature. The best ones I spotted were at Formby (buckets and a sandcastle) and Freshfield (a squirrel).
Now clearly this is an idea that needs to be extended across the entire country right away, not least at it would rid platforms of clunky business promotions (Newbury: Home Of Vodafone being a particularly joyless example) besides being a quick win for local tourist authorities struggling to make ends meet in Austerity Britain. Scott’s got some nice examples of ALFs on his Merseytart blog.
When I got to Southport, I didn’t spy any other person from my train lingering within the station walls to catch another train. Every single passenger bar me flocked to the exit. Well, apart from the woman who loitered outside the men’s toilets talking into her mobile phone, and who then proceeded to lean on the toilet door trapping me inside. Thanks for that.
What had started as a good day took a whopping nosedive when I saw that I would be enduring, rather than enjoying, my connection to Bolton. Reader, can you guess what kind of train was waiting to transport me across the otherwise delightful acres of Lancashire? Yes, it was a Pacer. Another wretched rotten stinking Pacer. My heart sank to my shoes.
En route it started to rain. Correction: it started to rain INSIDE THE CARRIAGE. Great gobbets of water splattered through the ceiling and on to the floor.
People sitting around me formed stoic expressions with their faces, as if to say: oh, it’s the rain this time, is it? At least it’s not the blizzards, or the gales, or the heat. They looked at me with the hooded eyes of a seasoned user of inferior public transport.
At Bolton I scampered across the platforms to catch a thankfully more superior train to Preston. I say more superior; it would hard to have found anything inferior. I was thankful to be in a carriage with proper floors, walls and a roof.
By now the skies were serving up continuous rain. The temperature plummeted. My spirits were low, but they were about to plunge even lower when I got to Preston and saw that the train for my next destination, Blackpool, was yet again one of…
Why was I going to Blackpool? Because I had concocted another over-ambitious plan.
I was taken with the idea of arriving at the resort at Blackpool South station but leaving it from Blackpool North. That way I’d avoid retracing my steps – something I’d been keen to avoid from the outset of my North West Rover adventures – and also get a bit of fresh air during what I thought would be a quick walk from the one terminus to the other.
I blundered. I’ll let me explain:
I did make it to Blackpool North in time to catch my train, but only just. I had to run, bags in hand, through the rain-caked streets, barging locals and sightseers out of my path, pausing only once in order to take a photo of this spectacular spelling fail:
Here I am, back on board, soaked but relieved:
If I’d missed this train, I wouldn’t have been able to get to Carnforth until late afternoon, meaning that once I’d checked into my hotel there would have been almost no time left to head back out on a train before it got dark.
As it was, I had just two minutes back at Preston to catch my connection to Carnfoth. More running was required in order to get to the correct platform. “Hold that train,” I shouted. They did – or at least I’d like to think they did.
Carnforth is a market town at the base of the Lake District and, as can be seen on the map above, a junction with lines running east into the Pennies and west into Cumbria. A useful place, in other words, for the bearer of a rover ticket.
But it’s most famous as the place used for all the shooting of the 1945 film Brief Encounter: a fact celebrated proudly at the station with a hugely impressive visitors’ centre, exhibition and refreshment room, done out exactly as it appears here:
Well, save for it being in monochrome. Although it kind of feels that way, or did when I went back there after checking in at my hotel to have a look around before catching my next train.
I was particularly surprised to find a full-size replica of my own living room:
Here’s the clock from the film, still keeping good time:
Speaking of time, here’s a deeply unpleasant science fiction icon who travels through time whipping up mayhem and despair. And standing next to Dr Who Colin Baker, a Dalek:
This, meanwhile, can only be a good thing:
Then, right on cue, the sun came out.
It was another of those moments. There was grit on the platforms, in anticipation of temperatures dropping close to freezing come nightfall. About the only thing that counted against Carnforth on this evocative late Tuesday afternoon was the fact that my train was also late. And there aren’t many that pass through Carnforth that will take you directly to another destination. You invariably have to change. As I did, at Lancaster – where my next train was also delayed.
My plan was to nip up to Windermere just in time to see the sun setting by the lake. But because both my connections were delayed, I saw the sun start to set in Lancaster.
Now this was pleasant enough, and from what I could see Lancaster is a pleasant town:
But my appreciation of the place was compromised by frustration at experiencing that universally ubiquitous sinking sensation of a well-crafted scheme going awry. I skulked in the newsagents just inside the entrance to Lancaster station, watching a woman behind the counter cutting up fashion magazines and whispering (loudly) to her colleague: “My face is too thin to wear black”.
My train eventually tiptoed its way to Windermere. There was just enough light to make out some of the Lake District’s signature scenery, in between having my attention distracted by two of the onboard staff discussing in bonechilling detail an accident that had occurred in the area a couple of nights ago.
It was virtually dark by the time I arrived. I had an hour before the return journey. I thought this was long enough to find a nice viewpoint to get a few photographs. It wasn’t. I got lost. In the pitch black. And the cold. I found the viewpoint eventually…
…but then had to slog back up an enormous hill at an unpleasant pace to make it back to the station in time.
Thinking back it’s hard to recall just how pissed off I was at this point. Conveniently, here I am talking about that very subject, right there and then:
It was the end of a very long day. I beat a weary retreat back to Carnforth, having to wait for connections both at Lancaster and, before then, Oxenholme.
Maybe tomorrow would bring a slightly less manic and more rewarding bout of rovering.
North West Rover: day 1
I LIVED IN LIVERPOOL FOR 12 YEARS and in all that time Lime Street station barely changed.
It was a dependable constant. Apart from the day a tea urn exploded on the concourse, nothing unusual or unexpected ever seemed to happen. Little was added, even less was taken away. The whole place felt stubbornly – reassuringly – resistant to anything that bore the tiniest whiff of redevelopment.
Then in 2006 I moved to London, and the inevitable happened. Lime Street changed. On every return visit, there appeared to be a new feature or modification. Shops. “Customer” lounges. Even the handrails and balustrades were replaced.
Above all, for the first time in possibly decades, the station’s exterior was allowed to actually resemble an exterior, thanks to the demolition of a hideous tower block and removal of the rather charming greasy cafe that used to live in its bowels. The decision to replace both with nothing whatsoever has given Lime Street space to command your attention and respect.
Of course the suddenness of all these transformations is entirely illusory. Had I been living in the city it would not have felt hasty at all. And it would be facile of me to deny that the changes have not brought improvements. That empty space between platforms seven and eight was always crying out for some kind of waiting room (though not, perhaps, an exclusive “customer lounge”).
Nonetheless, as I arrived to begin my first day of travelling with my North West Rover ticket, it was slightly comforting to find the station as chilly as ever. As long as I can remember (insert Wonder Years-esque musical cue) Lime Street has always been cold, regardless of time, month and season.
Given this was the only day I would be able to start and end my travels in Liverpool, I wanted to cover as much of the bottom half of the Rover “region” as possible. I’d come up with a route that resembled a giant loop snaking across to Huddersfield and back again. And here it is! Apologies for the rather amateurish doctoring of a, erm, official map. You can click to enlarge:
It all looked rather ambitious. And it proved to be almost over-ambitious.
The upside was that, given I was fairly familiar with most of the towns and cities through which I’d be passing, I wasn’t bothered about spending any time checking them out.
The downside was that by opting for a timetable built upon a sequence of very tight changes, including one with only two minutes’ grace, the slightest slip-up would send everything to pot.
Naturally this happened within about an hour of setting off.
I began by taking the train from Lime Street to Manchester Piccadilly. This has always been one of my favourite journeys, and not just for the route, which soars above the rooftops of the Liverpool suburbs, inches high above the Manchester Ship Canal (twice), then threads its way gingerly round Salford’s smoky tops, side streets and snaky waterways before the approach into the splendour of Piccadilly station.
I travelled this way hundreds of time when I was younger, en route to see friends, relatives, films, gigs or simply the city itself.
As such, what for most people is just a drab commute has now become, for me, a rather shamelessly sentimental voyage that allows me to wallow in bittersweet nostalgia. Oh dear. Funny how the most ordinary of things can take on extraordinary resonances thanks to the passing of time.
Anyway, I talked a little about this trip down memory lane, along with my plans for the rest of the day, in an audio clip I recorded on the platform at Piccadilly station:
And here is where things went awry. For in taking the time to do (and, indeed, redo) this slice of indulgent waffle, I missed my connection to Salford Crescent. I actually saw it leave from one end of the platform while I stood, hapless and pathetic, at the other.
This meant that my entire schedule for the rest of the day was kind of in tatters.
However there was now an unexpected development. For if I had caught that train, I would not, in waiting for the next one, have found myself standing a few metres away from Ray Gosling:
And had I caught that train I would also not, upon boarding the next one, have found myself once again standing a few metres away Ray Gosling.
Nobody else seemed to be aware of who he was. Or if they were, they were doing their best to look ignorant.
For his part, Gosling was sitting at a table appearing to do some sums in a notebook, breaking off now and then to finger some tatty photocopies in a clear plastic wallet marked, unsurprisingly, PHOTOCOPIES.
I decided to approach. For a brief moment I contemplated covertly recording our conversation, but thought better of it. Instead I decided simply to wish him well and shake his hand.
He recoiled slightly as I loomed over him but once he established I meant no ill-will, he visibly relaxed, reached out to grab my hand, and urged me to write to the BBC to get him his job back.
He looked, I’m afraid, in a bad way. Yet his predicament, it now seems, is one he largely brought upon himself, and the sympathy he won earlier in the year misplaced. Well, perhaps not misplaced, just misdirected. He remains, however, something of a broadcasting legend, and hence I was glad to have had this brief if bizarre encounter.
At Salford Crescent I caught a train into Manchester Victoria where, after pausing to take some photos of the beautiful regional train map painted above one of the stone entrances, hopped on a train that at least was heading in the direction of Huddersfield, via Rochdale and Todmorden.
I was surprised how quickly I found myself leaving the melancholy sprawl of Greater Manchester behind. It was a bright, blustery day and South Yorkshire looked in fine fettle.
Some hasty computations using (geek alert) the absolutely fantastic Train Times iPhone app suggested that were I too break my journey at Hebden Bridge, then catch another train to Mirfield, I could – with a good following wind – pick up the train I originally intended to take to Huddersfield.
This good news was compounded by what I found at Hebden Bridge, a place I hadn’t intended to visit. I’m very glad I did:
It’s a charming station that self-consciously plays up its heritage (no bad thing) and its proximity to the Rochdale canal (ditto).
There was a gorgeous smell of cooking enveloping the platform. I tore myself away from it for a short walk along the bank of the canal, where one evocative whiff was replaced with another: smoke from the engine of a barge. The place was pretty much deserted apart from a duck. A crisp autumn breeze made the leaves whirl around my feet. Hills rose up on all sides. It was one of those moments.
Back on the platform, while making use of the unusually excellent toilets (something that becomes a recurring ritual when spending the day travelling on a rover ticket, though a far from uniformly excellent one), I wondered if an “Up” train was what I needed to catch. There was absolutely no other information in evidence as to which side of the tracks I needed to be.
I took a gamble and stayed put; I was right. The train rolled in on time and I was able to make it to Mirfield with precisely 120 seconds to spare before the connection to Huddersfield. But not before passing through Brighouse, an occasion I marked by calling up a particular tune and treating myself to the curious tone of the cornet, clarinet and big trombone.
Anyway, I needed every one of those 120 seconds. To get to the right platform at Mirfield, it turned out I had to leave the station, cross a main road, climb a flight of steps and enter a different part of the station entirely. All of which I did with just enough time to see my previous train depart and my new train arrive:
Then it was on to Huddersfield, a place I’ve never been before. I would have liked to have had some time to explore, and at the very least to have seen the outside of the station, which is a Grade 1 listed building.
But there was no time. To stay on schedule I needed to catch a train back to Manchester Piccadilly that was due in about five minutes. I poked my camera lens through some railings to record the fact that I’d been there, then it was back on board for some sweeping views of the area including, tantalisingly (geek alert), the Emley Moor transmitter: the tallest freestanding structure in the UK.
The line back to Manchester was different from that I took earlier; this one went via Stalybridge and Gorton. I had to move carriages at one point because a drummer, who was sitting on the floor, started practising his paradiddles. Loudly.
I then had an old man come and sit next to me and tell me of how he was heading into Manchester to buy a new coat to replace the one he’d lost at a football match at the weekend. He said I looked like I was a student a Huddersfield University. Seeing as I graduated 13 years ago I wasn’t sure whether to be irked or flattered.
Back at Piccadilly station there was just enough time to buy some food and to ride on the travelator. I very much approve of travelators and remain forever perplexed as to why there aren’t more in this country. In fact, apart from the one at Waterloo station in London, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen another. If they were more ubiquitous, hopefully more people would be familiar with the two basics of travelator etiquette: don’t stand still and don’t try to run.
Having had an enjoyable day so far, I was due a bit of a low. One duly arrived in the shape of the train from Manchester to Chester.
This was a dreaded Pacer. I remembered these – not fondly – from years ago. I am amazed they are still in service. They are absolutely wretched. Non-profane phrases that come close to describing these awful things include cattle truck, dirt wagon, crate on wheels and dust bucket. Bouncing around in one during the long journey to Chester subtracted all enjoyment from proceedings, besides ruining any appreciation of the rather lovely Cheshire countryside between Northwich and Delamere.
From the looks of my fellow passengers, nobody was enjoying the journey either. The fixtures and fittings matched the prevailing mood. The toilet had no lock on it. The engine sounded like it belonged inside a third generation Transit van. And propped up in the corner of the carriage was, of all things, a ladder.
They’re meant to be used in emergencies, but to get from where to where? As far away as possible from a Pacer, presumably.
A glance at Wikipedia reveals these rank beasts are used exclusively in the UK with one exception: the Islamic Republic of Iran Railways.
I was immensely relieved to be rid of this train once I got to Chester, but we would meet again before the week was out.
By now time was getting on and I hurried to complete the last leg of day one: a journey from Chester up the Wirral. Not before capturing this sweet little display on Chester platform:
And this not so endearing arrangement:
To be fair Chester station is undergoing a clearly major refurbishment, but I failed to see the need to keep passengers away from the timetables, especially as the “wet paint” on the supporting posts was in fact bone dry.
I was now among early commuters and people returning from a day out over the water:
But I was also back in the quietly reassuring arms of Merseyrail, who carried me up through the likes of Brombrough Rake and Port Sunlight (surely among the most evocative-sounding stations in the country) to Hamilton Square, where I changed on to a connecting service that took me to the end of the line at West Kirby.
My dad was brought up in these parts and I know them fairly well. I marked the occasion by walking out to the shoreline where, as has always been the case as far back as I can remember, the tide was out and the wind was up:
Then I pulled my coat up around chin and scurried back to the station for a train to Liverpool Central and, courtesy of The Lobster Pot, the finest portion of chips and beans I’d tasted for five summers.