Holding pattern

There will be something,
I would hope,

In this place.

Rain, whenever it feels the need
advances, as
a smile.

But only dead fish
swim with the tide.

Advertisements

2013 in music

“Upcoming trends” is such an outdated phrase, isn’t it? But without articles like this Pitchfork would struggle to fill a page and I’m convinced freelancers on the NME mailing list would struggle to afford their vanilla lattes if they didn’t get payment for 2,000 words on a new band whose name has a serious punctuation problem, so here goes.

Songs performed at their normal speed

For most of the year estate agents and cough medicine sellers and God knows who else have made a killing pretending that a 32-year old session singer from Hoxton is an undiscovered teenage talent found waiting tables at a Cambridgeshire gastropub. The annoying thing is that a cursory glance at Twitter would make most PR-types realise that slowing down to funereal pace beloved 80s hits  doesn’t translate the lyrics into anything more or less meaningful than originally intended. Selling a girl with an acoustic guitar used to suggest that the industry had realised the power in treating women with a bit more respect than in any years following the Girl Power incident. Now it just means “We’ve bought an eighties compilation CD from Aldi and we’re going to use it to the max!”

Of course slowing down songs to ‘reinvent’ them was given a kickstart by unexpected Christmas number 1 “Mad World”. Now I would fight anyone to the death if they suggested all this began with my beloved Alex Parks, the most fine reality TV contestant in history, ever, though she wasn’t innocent in all this. Unfortunately the X-Factor took it to the extreme by having every “Lone Bloke With An Indie Haircut (That We Just Gave Him)” slow down Britney Spears to make them look WELL GOFF.  My favourite X-Factor moment was Aiden Grimshaw being forced to look at his most uncomfortable not just once but twice because the producers assumed this was going to be his “thing”.

Then he went and amazeballed the totes out of everyone with my favourite pop song of 2012, hopefully killing off the slow-downed hell behind him (and us) from now on.

I get the impression that the dog is wagging the tail as much as the tail is wagging the dog, so we should see the end of all this before the summer. There’s only so much indie sensibility the industry can squeeze out of the tube. If  nothing else, most of 1/2-speed versions of Human League songs being used to sell Dulux are so insipid that they’re not going to shift units of either product or soundtrack, thus rendering the whole concept impotent.

More novelty records in foreign languages

Let’s get this absolutely straight, sometimes novelty songs in foreign languages are quite good to have in the background. Unfortunately “Gangnan Style” was power-upped by the Internet, meaning nothing can kill it, not the sun exploding, not a unicorn shitting lava, nothing.

The result of PSY will be the iTunes charts being attacked by every K- and J-pop act with a melody, and God  knows there’s enough of those about, and to be honest, there’s not much accessible to a Western audience for these to make any commercial sense. This is the most baffling thing about PSY; every newspaper article about him has had to explain what the song actually means, and whilst I’m happy that the UK embrace the Korean language (because whilst the French, say, are happy to listen to songs in all manner of languages, you’d be more likely to eat well at McDonalds than hear a “Can i Gymru” song on Radio 1), it was all done for the dance [i.e., the image] rather than the lyrics. Which is such bleak and black irony that I feel unwell.

Inevitably, though, the door has now been opened, so I expect a slew of this sort of thing in the coming months. I’ll not count Costa Del hits, by the way, because these have dried up in recent years, although anyone who wishes to rediscover Eurodance would be alright with me.

The [continued] rise of Thom Yorke’s children

You can hear it with The xx and Liars and Alt0-J, and you’ll hear it increasingly in 2013. Those brought up on Radiohead being positively normal all grew up to play guitars in guitar bands with guitars and shit. All those brought up on Radiohead sounding like passive aggressive C+ coders are making records which used to be sold in Piccadilly Records under the label “WARP REC. & Others.”

These are the children of Thom Yorke, and they’ll play around for the short and medium term for as long as bars exist with abstract noun names hand-written onto the letterbox. There’s some excellent examples of this sort of post-dance (?!) out there, which is good for the indie industry which was worryingly close to adapting Britpop again, and that’ll never do. The only problem from all this, of course, is that sooner or later the country will run out of thin blokes singing in their natural accent over the sound of a busy Macbook, which could see the instrumental movement take over where vocal-led bands stood. There’s only so many things you can do sounding like you’d not like to be called “dance version’s of Radiohead” (isn’t there Hot Chip?) so if the flame dies as quickly as it flared, we’ll at least have had a good time of it.

And Latitude has to make at least one more year, don’t forget.

The [continued, inexorably] rise of Florence Welch

At some point over Christmas, Florence Welch turned up on The Culture Show, for no other reason that the presenter fancied her and he needed a reason to accidentally fumble her whilst tiptoeing around the National Portrait Gallery. It turns out that Welch actua….Sorry, she’s never called that, is she?

It turns out that Florence isn’t just good at sounding like this year’s Beth Ditto, oh no. She knows all about proper art and stuff, and giggles like the art school lecturer you’ve always fancied whenever somebody suggests she could write a song about post-impressionism.  This year has been the year of “Florence Guests on Everything”, both largely ”indie” and largely ”mainstream”, which is fair enough given that she can sing and all, though it does leave her now as a kind of Respected Indie Woman For Hire, and that can only lead to the same nightmarish hell suffered by Cerys Matthews, ensnared by “The O Zone” or whatever was on BBC Two back in the day to become a mainstream voice to the masses, when it was clear that she’d rather be treated like all the other bands of the time.

If the future is as predictable as I fear it may well be, next year will see lots of “Featuring Florence Welch” from the kind of bands talked about above, turning out 21st century versions of Enya for wine bars to pipe out whilst literature students are eating deconstructed pork pies from a roofing slate. Talking of which…

All Hipsters Must/Shall Die

I don’t have a problem with the ‘hipster’ crowd, actually. Indeed some of my favourite people to talk to of an evening aren’t exactly mainstream, and never have been. Unfortunately what used to be considered the fashion of the age has been allowed to seep through everything in society (which certainly didn’t happen with lads in the 90s wearing duffle coats and pointy shoes, thanks again INTERNET).

For the most part, I’m not convinced that the ‘hipster’ thing actually exists, as such. Women walking around as 1950s housewives are doing so because, by and large, that look is just damn sexy. Men walking around like Brylcreem testcards are following the same path – again, by and large – and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem comes with the accompanying soundtrack, as in, there doesn’t seem to be one.

In the 90s and 2000s, music and fashion caught up with each other. Then there was a schism and it’s only just getting back together again. If someone up high can please let it be known that it’s just as acceptable not to look like the only colour scheme in your wardrobe is ‘rust’, that’ll be handy. But by the same token, if we could please stop with backstreet bars hosting hour long ‘gigs’ where the organiser’s best friend reads out poetry over Skillrex, that’ll be much appreciated too.

“Folk” will explode

I understand that most ‘new sound’ predictions overdose on “urban” music (or whichever term is used this week). This is a difficult place for me to venture, because I automatically shut down at the very thought of most ‘urban’ music, even when it’s supposedly the most accessible of its form. You see, it’s not that I dislike hearing the ills of the world put across as a rap song, or with rap influences, but at somepoint in the last 10 or so years, the basic functions of ‘rap’ generally have been sucked out and disposed of, replaced by what I like to call “McDonalds music”. I’ve listened to 1Xtra on a number of occasions, and found it to be a muddle of listener’s bedroom recordings and over-produced autotuned Americans. There’s nothing in the middle, it seems; you’re either a lad from Dagenham finding ways to rhyme “NHS” (“unholy mess”, “Tory pets”, “not dench”) or you’re a “record””producer” who, and I’m not making this up, can say the word “Steven Spielnigga” with a straight face.

I love language and word-play, and very good rappers are superb at breaking up words to create new and interesting rhymes and rhythms. Unfortunately, all that seems to be fading from the scene now, so rather than predict the future is safe in the hands of foul-mouthed women barking swear words over squarking samples, I say….

WHY CAN’T WE ALL JUST LIKE MUMFORD AND SONS?

I didn’t wet myself when Frank Turner appeared at the Olympics singing “Screw The Tories (La La La)” or “I Have A Militant Tendency”, or whatever it was he did. Good to see him there, though, and grand to see Mumford and Sons gather in the profits from middle-aged types hunting out an alternative to the Beautiful South. Next year has to be one where those people singing their own songs at normal pace (see the first section) can be guaranteed success without pretending to have some other-wordly concept about them, surely? I’ve received far too many promo CDs from singers who would, ordinarily, garner pretty good support from the usual places as a normal singer/songwriter, but instead feel its necessary to sell themselves as mystic/Pagan/Green Party supporters whose songs come to them in a dream/whilst stoned/listening to “Late Junction”.  Everyone needs a gimmick, but you’re into “hipster” territory if you’re telling me that the story  behind your next single is the result of living on Eigg for twelve-months eating tree-bark.

Pop will rise again….

“Call Me Maybe” is, let’s be clear, a good song. Not great. Not brilliant. It’s good. I don’t particularly like it, frankly, and for really geeky reasons. Such as – the structure is all wrong, the hook is a bit laboured, the backing track is blatantly half-inched from the recording studio’s lift music CD in the style of Father Ted’s Eurovision entry, and so on and so on.

HOWEVER, it’s also a promising sign that pop is back. Not quite completely, but it’s green shoots time, and that’s always something I look out for. I’m a man of simple pleasures. I enjoy good pop, and if that means a boyband sausage factory number, so be it. It’s just no boyband has been given anything decent for years and it’s been a long time since Girls Aloud had anything to crow about, so what you going to do?

Part of the problem is the reality show, for whom “a good singer” means, “can turn one note into 5, one verse into half of the Bible, and one song into twelve.”  Give the X-Factor a pop singer and what do you get? Voted off, usually, or treated as a novelty. JLS were handed some fairly decent numbers for their first album, though now I notice they’ve been dumped in favour of One Direction, whose back catalogue consists of bland, boring, identikit dribble for an exclusive audience, rather than the inclusive outlook of their predecessors. Remember when 5ive and the Backstreet Boys had songs written for them which were genuinely good pop songs, not just love letters to 14-year old Twitterers? Well, that, please.

Spotify will open a club, and other potential “End of the World” scenarios

“The CD will kill off the cassette tape” just seems so cute now, doesn’t it? You might as well have worried that “A panino* will kill off the bacon barm”.

What hasn’t killed off the club DJ is the on-demand music website. iTunes and Spotify and lastfm and all the rest of them – how often did we hear;

“WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE POOR INDIE CLUB DJ?!”

Of course now people are falling back in love with the vinyl LP, though not necessarily with the album, which is why the Facebook sidebar telling you “A friend is listening to…” fills up so quickly because they’re unlikely to be sat there without pressing “skip”,. Spotify has worked where, say, Grooveshark hasn’t by seeping into the national consciousness at just the right time. It was able to sell itself as the ‘mixtape solution’ for party hosts who just wanted to sit around getting baked on that week’s version of ‘drone, and nobody considered the consequences for the city centre clubs struggling to find a DJ who wasn’t just going to press ‘random shuffle’ at 9pm.

The natural conclusion I thought would happen from the success of Spotify et. al would be the owners finding a warehouse somewhere in Shoreditch and shacking up with BrewDog for the ultimate experience in TRENDY LOVE(tm). I’m aware that some achingly trendy people already run club nights where customers can play arcade games, watch Dick Dastardly cartoons and listen to 32-year old sessions singers, etc, etc. The next natural step has to be an on-demand bar, powered by hashtags and the like, a sort of turbo-boosted jukebox. It’s one thing to have a touchscreen jukebox for £2 a go, it’s quite another to have a branded jukebox bar, fed by and promoted for the benefit of an on-line company which otherwise gives away services for free.

(I’m prepared for the news that something like this already exists in a former fabric factory in Limehouse)

I can’t predict – but will hope – that there’s an end to the hypermegasuperstars who seem to release a single every week in  between sessions of appearing in tabloid newspapers. Who/what is a Nicki Minaj, for example? I’ve tried listening to her songs to fathom out whether there was a commercial tie-in with a children’s television channel, though all I got was a burbling mess of pre-recorded keyboard samples overdubbed by a robotic moaning. I’ve known porn with more emotional realism. Ditto Lady Gaga, for that matter, in whom I’ve grown bored having mistakenly subscribed to the hype early doors. If 2013 gives us anything, can it please put all the hypersupermegafamous people into a big room, possibly underground with just enough air for a week, to avoid any further overproduced, under whelming nonsense being released?

(*Stuff off with your ‘panini’s’)

Glastonbury will save, and then bury, the “Big Ticket” music festival

Obituary writing is dead easy. DEAD, hah, like DEAD PEOPLE.

*ahem*. No, it really is, as any broadsheet journalist in the last five years has proven having been asked to spew out 2,500 words on “The end of music festivals as we know it.” (Or for the Daily Mail, “Drugs, drink and easy sex: Is this the end of music festivals as we know it?”

With ticket prices soaring, most bands treating the festival circuit as Premier League sides treat the FA Cup, it’s little wonder that the gleam has been reduced somewhat. I’ve seen pensioner’s television screens with more balance than the coverage given to the “Big Ticket” festivals. In fact, let’s get it over with:

*We know that Reading/Leeds is awful
*We know that T In The Park is……well, Scottish
*We know that Glasto has its moments. Usually on BBC Three at 2am with sodding Sara funking bloody Cox

If austerity is a path followed deeper next year, the best thing Glasto could possibly do is become a celebration of everything music in this country has ever been (aka, “The Olympic Opening Ceremony, just with more 6Music radio presenters”) and then pull the plug on the whole festival thing. Shut down all the “big ticket” items. There’s enough left with the niche, the middle-layer and the below-the-radar. We really don’t need the all singing, all money grabbing behemoth music festivals any more, no more than we need party political conferences. Nobody has ever felt better in life through watching Johnny Vaughan mugging to camera about how 90s everything sounds in the “Mojo Tent”

Walking West Lancs (part 2)

Venturing along the former West Lancashire Line from Preston to Southport was not going to be easy (or for that matter, particularly easy to explain to people who wondered what I was doing.)

Part 1 of my journey presented a mixed bag of remnants of history. The imposing stone columns spanning the Ribble, the steep embankment at Penwortham, the shattered fences at Hoole – there’s not a  lot remaining from decades of passenger and freight use. The line from Penwortham into Longton has essentially vanished, retaining its presence only through the distinctive cut which makes its way through the fields on a Google Maps aerial view.

Southport

Concrete transport hub not under threat
from its Council


Reportedly the influence for the Champs-Élysées, Southport is ‘posh Merseyside’, an outcrop of Lancashire cut off from the rest of the county by nothing more important than the swipe of an administrator’s pencil. Back in the mid-1970s, the long and protracted post-war reorganisation of local council administration was finally put into action taking the old model of bits-and-pieces Britain into a mix of one- and two-tier authorities, including massive metropolitan boroughs whose names live on today. “Greater Manchester”, “Merseyside”, even “Avon” (…maybe…) – they all remain in the national consciousness, long since after they were abolished.

Maps of the time show Southport has had plenty of changes to its rail map, partly in response to the popularity of the town as a tourist location for the well-heeled traveller. One of the most significant changes, of course, was the closure of the West Lancashire Line, which has left a noticeable (just) space between streets and avenues between the outer boundary and the town centre.  Southport’s main station is a concrete box facing the shopping arcades away from the fancy faces of Lord Street, with more brand names than boutiques (though Lord Street isn’t what it was, let’s be honest).

The concrete block has been spruced up somewhat, mind, with a Merseyrail “one stop shop” fitted, a kind of ticket office-meets-corner shop. It is the “end of the line” in the same way Liverpool Lime Street is at the other side of the ex-county of Merseyside, all ticket gates and Merseyrail’s distinctive yellow coaches. As with Lime Street, slightly different coaches from Northern Rail stop here too, though these days the destinations are Wigan and Manchester, not Preston or Blackburn.

What makes things difficult to ‘rediscover’ is just how convoluted the map used to be around here. In short, Southport has been the location of stations called:

Southport (Chapel Street)
Southport Central
Southport Windsor Road (aka Southport Ash Street)
(Southport) St Lukes

And for good measure Lord Street.

My first biro circle on a map is St Lukes, which seems to have been in two places at once. No wonder I was already set for a day of confusion. The walk takes me up Mornington Road and Kensington Road towards St Luke’s Road. There are pubs along the route, either shut for good or looking very much like they are, and women chatting in an Eastern European language walk towards me at regular intervals. It’s “very bay window” as a wise woman might once have said. When I get to St Luke’s Road there’s only one place I can think of where the station must have been,  and with one track bending off into overgrown greenery, I guess this must be it.

The location of Southport St Luke’s, with the tell-tale
signs of a place long since lost to history (and nature)

Hesketh Park

I’ll be honest – this is where things started to go wrong, although I wouldn’t know until the end of the day that I’d ventured off course somewhat.

The location of Hesketh Park station, as the Google Maps approach only works as long as there’s trees alongside the gap where the line used to be, and in this case the line vanishes into a new-build rabbit warren called Preston Road. My rough working out had the station somewhere on/at/near Hesketh Drive, as Hibre Close seemed to be suspiciously rectangle shaped for my liking.

As it goes, this is probably quite accurate, and at least the bridge suggests its former life more than the back garden of a house does, so let’s call it a partial credit.

This part of Southport starts to get very leafy and house-pricey, by the way, and it’s only going to get more so as the town makes way for its two outermost suburbs; Crossens, and Southport.

Churchtown

Some places are more distinctive than others, even when subsumed into a larger conurbation, and Churchtown certainly is that. It’s got all the look of a place which has kept its distance from the larger town down the road, especially as everything and everywhere is marked “CHURCHTOWN”. I swear dogs had branded name-tags. What isn’t so different is the Merseytravel infrastructure, the blazing yellow bus-stops at every turn, regular buses from internal and regional travel tootling along at regular intervals.

At the main crossroads – marked at one point with kerbs branded “BOUNDARY” – there’s all the usual signs you’d expect, from a post office-cum-corner shop to a ladies who lunch style café. Alongside the row of shops is another suspiciously long, straight road, which has all the indications of a railway line to me.  Today it’s bounded by a Boots pharmacy and a GP surgery.

The line goes on, largely north-northeast, but I have to take a longer route around Balmoral Drive and deep into Crossens first, where things aren’t quite as bay window as only ten or so minutes before.

This road follows exactly the former line

 Crossens

Another point where I was uncertain about the exact location of the former line or platforms, though at least I was able to take a wander around a cul-de-sac without being stopped or arrested under terrorism charges, so maybe there’s hope for people who walk around taking photographs after all. On my trusty map, I’d circled the streets of Two Pools and The Crescent, thinking there’d be something approaching a clue to my accuracy. Well, as it turns out, if I had done anything wrong, I’d been looking the wrong way, facing out to the marshes and fields rather than the drives and front gardens, as this is where the station would actually have been.

As it turns out, not the location of the railway line,
which actually is at my feet.

The exact location is actually completely inaccessible, as it sits behind The Mallards. My photograph of the vast fields beyond almost misses the line completely; it was probably at my toes.

As I mentioned in passing last time, it’s perhaps not surprising that there’s little actual evidence around these days after forty years. There’s something else worth noting too – just how useful a train station would be round bout now. The population of these areas isn’t going down, nor are the roads becoming less busy. However slight the solution might be on congestion, a regular service along the line could make a dent.

Banks

Oops.

My logical brain circled “Station Road”, and took a photo of it, and then ventured onwards to the next stop. What I could have done was consider more maps a little more carefully, as the station was actually about ten strides away at the other side of Guinea Hall Lane.

Who is (was) Ralph? Or his wife?

As I couldn’t follow the line exactly, my walk had to take one heck of a detour, walking along the beautifully enigmatic “Ralph’s Wife’s Lane”. This is the first clue of true, rural Marsh Town Lancashire, with farms on either side, some occupied by sheep, some occupied by vegetables. The line carried on some distance from me, as I approached it from ‘the north’, walking down Hoole Lane towards my intended target. There didn’t seem to be much to do in Banks, with its social club boarded up and the pub apparently closed. (You can see my priorities, can’t you?)

And after walking for what seemed like hours to the next stop, guess what happened there?

Hundred End

Fracking is in the news a lot these days, and this is fracking country. The walk from Banks to Hundred End (named because it was the boundary point between the old Hundred of West Derby(shire) and Leyland(shire)) took me to within binocular-spying distance of the attempt by contractors to shake Blackpool to its core.

Before all that, however, let me rewind. Aveling Drive is unlike many streets you’d see if visiting Southport for a bit of shopping. Suddenly everything becomes uneven, without Tarmac and without street-lights. An industrial estate gives way to thick trees and yards full of geese and hens. This is your actual farming community, this be, and the deeper into it you go, the more and more remote things seem to become. I turn into Square House Lane, where there is a clear sign of where the railway line would have crossed, in this case in between a squat bungalow surrounded by well-tendered gardens, and a neat country-style home with large trees surrounding. The former railway line is an official public footpath, though my shoes and the weather conspired against me using it.

Now a footpath, this follows the old line exactly.

Hundred End is at the very end of a long, long walk, one without pavements, one without much safety for pedestrians at all, truth be told. The vast expanse of fields might not be Lincolnshire or Norfolk, but it has the same feel. There’s no surprise, I bet, that I miscalculated the exact location of the former station by the time I got there, though I did manage to capture a sunset, so another partial credit.

This is one of those places where a station in modern times would be considered highly dubious, even if every farmer in the area tried to send crops this way. There’s not enough people to justify a station, I’ll be honest, even if you take in Moss Lane between it and Hesketh Bank. Talking of which….

Becconsall

No, I didn’t get to photograph Cherry Vale, the street on top of the former station here, because despite leaving Southport at sometime after twelve, it was now pitch dark and raining. A Samsung phone-camera with no zoom and a glaring flash wouldn’t have  been much use, I suspect.

To go back to an earlier concern, let’s talk about pubs. Hesketh Bank and Becconsall, near neighbours to Tarleton, have just two pubs between them, and the population figures of both suggest something around 5,000 people.

Reclaimed from whatever land was considered suitable to build on, the villages of Hesketh Bank, Becconsall and Tarleton resemble comfortable commuter towns, especially from the air, as it’s clear where one main road has been used as the column on which cobwebs of mainly 60s and 70s avenues have been hung. There’s more recent new builds from the 90s housing boom in Tarleton, where a railway used to run around the same time as the West Lancs line, and most recently pre-2008 housing was erected in double-quick time off our old friend the A59. Strictly speaking, Hesketh Bank is the most northern of the three villages, a triangle of housing running off Shore Road (so called because there’s a shore……miles and miles and miles away….), then comes Becconsall where a new Booths has been built to resemble a Norwegian primary school. Finally there’s Tarleton, where there’s some very nice butter pies if you like that sort of thing.

(There’s two pubs in Tarleton – and for all three villages – The Village Inn looks like an airport waiting lounge and doesn’t always look after its ale, whilst the Cock and Bottle has a pub quiz I rarely win and does very good jacket potatoes.)

There’s still a railway here of sorts, I suppose. From near here the West Lancs line’s ghost carries itself over the River Douglas. The Google Eye shows two things to the weary traveller – where the bridge used to be and the distinctive shape of a ‘spur’ running towards the Tarleton branch. It’s now impossible to cross the Douglas by any means other than swimming or a vessel of some kind, so the only options are walking, driving or the good old number 2 bus.

Conclusions

“Sunset at Hundred End”


By 1892, the company which has constructed the West Lancashire Line had been swallowed up before it would have gone bankrupt. By 1897, the Fishergate Hill station in Preston had lost its passengers to goods traffic only. It took until Beeching in the 1960s for the line to be closed for good, but maybe it had been close to death a long time before then. Services to Hundred End, for example, were lost in 1962, with local newspaper reports at the time suggesting passenger numbers had fallen to no more than enough to generate one pound a day. Southport was to grow for passengers from other parts of the county, and become attractive to car and coach travellers who found brash Blackpool a little too rough and ready for their tastes. Whilst Blackpool attracted packed trains to the Golden Mile, Southport was preferring to attract more genteel travellers and the line from industrial Preston wasn’t going to give them much of that.

In the years since Beeching recommended the line to close, a lot has taken over where the line used to be. In Preston, Penwortham, Longton, Hesketh Bank, Banks and Southport, housing and roads cover most of the old path, cars moving in where trains used to run. Around Longton, New Longton and across the Marsh Towns, farms and light industry now sit where the line used to carve through the countryside, and indeed aerial photos show the line still cuts a swathe in places.

Overall, forty years is a long time in human nature, and nothing was going to preserve the line forever after closure. Platforms and bridges may occasionally poke out of hedges and the like, but it’s not surprising that the clues are far and few between (even if, on occasion, I was facing the wrong way….). I’m a huge fan of the railways, and especially promoting access to the rail network for places which sit achingly close to existing lines. This route is different, though, and obviously so. There’s no chance that trains could ever return here, leaving only photographs and hints poking through nature as the only remnants of what used to be. It’s unfortunate and wrong that access to the railways has been snatched from so many people, but realistically the line would have only attracted maybe 30,000 or 40,000 people at the absolute highest today, by far too few to justify keeping services running. Penwortham is now well served by dozens of buses every hour, and regular bus services run through the Marsh Towns at least every 30 minutes. Beeching went too far, too fast (to coin a phrase). Maybe he wasn’t always wrong, though.

Walking West Lancs (Part 1)

Preston and Southport are approximately 16 miles apart, a greater distance than the width of Greater Manchester at its widest point, so of course transport between the two is only marginally better than that which exists between Kirkwall and Cowes. Most folk venture along the A59, which gets blocked around Penwortham for the school run and continues as Lancashire’s longest traffic-jam until the 5pm commute chugs along in the opposite direction.

Between the two used to run the West Lancashire railway, connecting an outer bit of the latter with an outer bit of the former. Most Prestonians probably don’t realise that the West Lancashire railway ran not to the main railway station on Butler Street, but to a smaller station at the bottom of Fishergate Hill.

This smaller station was closed off to passengers in the year 1900, though it was only until Guild Year 1972 when the station was finally abandoned for all uses, being demolished four years later. Services from Southport to Preston via the West Lancashire Line were cut in 1964, with the Beeching Axe immediately followed by the track, bridges, and station buildings demolished before the year was out. It was this search for what infrastructure might remain forty-eight years after closure which persuaded me to take a walk along the route

Not only did my shoes take a bashing, it became very clear, very quickly, that the intervening 48 years have not been kind to any signs of what might have once carried passengers and food across the Lancashire Marsh Towns. My trusty well-thumbed road atlas proved to be only half-way decent to getting the best out of the walk, and in any case the route has long since been taken over by housing, farmers and business-parks, so walking the exact route was a non-starter. My aim, therefore, was to venture as close to the line as possible to find the location of each West Lancashire Station.

(An aim which caused a friend and his father to double, triple and quadruple check that I hadn’t gone completely off my trolley)

The two parts of the journey divide the walk into halves – Preston to the River Douglas, and then the Douglas to Southport.

Preston (Fishergate Hill)

No trains leaving here


Now a GP surgery – and one which was under threat from closure – the site of Preston’s short-lived West Lancashire railway station shows no indication of its former life. Indeed whilst Google Maps is pretty good at showing the footprint of former industry there’s not much on the ground to indicate where the railway used to run.

The homes around this part of Preston are a mix of Victorian and Georgian houses of considerable size and value, some of which are owned by families whilst others have been converted for houseshares and students. There’s a new-build apartment development here now, too, minimalist apartments with thin walls and external letter boxes as per. Separating Broadgate from Riverside is dog-walking greenery which was once the West Lancs line, though its distinctive shape can only be appreciated as such from the air; at street level it’s two barely covered footpaths twisting and turning through trees allowed to grow where the railway used to be. Follow the line across the Ribble and you’ll see the distinctive stone columns which used to carry the line to Penwortham. This leads across to “The Penwortham Triangle”, now partly converted as a cycle-path and “natural history trail” (“we’ve neglected this for years and now claim the weeds, wildflowers and damaged seating offer a rustic charm”). As you might expect, the trackbed has been reclaimed by nature in all its forms – trees of various shapes, widths and girths, bushes, bracken and assorted suchlikes.

Cop Lane (Penwortham)

“Penwortham” on your address can mean the difference between “your house is a decent investment” and “your house is a reasonable price.” It’s the largest town council in England, and is best described as being split between Higher Penwortham (comfy suburbia, 80s/90s housing boom new build on rabbit warren estates, gravel drives, boutiques amongst the Co-op and Spar), and Lower Penwortham (post-war housing sprawl, terraced streets, chippy, Booze Brothers).

Carrying the West Lancs over the Ribble
Down this way, magic happens. Well, Penwortham
The cyclepath which takes me to the site of Cop Lane station runs parallel to the embankment and track-bed of the West Lancs line, scrambling up to which is a strife not worth taking (i.e., it was muddy and it really is very, very steep).  There’s not actually much to see here other than the allotments on one side and the embankment on the other, with one public footpath running north/south towards a residential estate bordered by the distinctive shell of what would have been a bridge.

Walk, don’t run. Or cycle. But don’t run.

One long stroll and crossing of “Golden Way” later, I’m on Cop Lane, where the station and all signs of it have been long since obliterated underneath the carriageways. As Beeching predicted would happen at the time, buses now run in every direction at regular intervals, to and from Preston in a loop and at the far end of the road Stagecoach services to Southport along the A59. As the lazy part of me wouldn’t mind following this A-road to New Longton, the ‘rules’ I’m making up as I go along mean my route has to take as close a line as possible to the original route, so away from the A-road I go to the back-streets and rural parts.

New Longton (and Hutton)

Creeping around bins. Nice.

Not in shot – man wearing novelty bow-tie

Opened originally as “Howick” and “Hutton and Howick”, the station at New Longton got another name change not long before its destruction. The walk I take as close to the line of the railway shows homes replaced by farm-houses, and the distinct smell of manure following the numerous tractors driving around in all directions. With the built-up commuter towns behind me, the difference is marked and immediate, as this is the start of the journey into West Lancashire’s main economy source – cabbages, and a lot of them.

New Longton is far more of a enlarged Middle England suburbia than it used to be, with the large homes looking out towards fields giving way to rabbit warren estates and post-war sprawl. I spot, easily enough, “Station Cottage”, the level-crossing keeper’s place of residence until the line was closed in the 1960s, and on the way there I am served at the Post Office by a man wearing a novelty bow-tie, lights flashing in sequence. They tend to have these sorts of people in villages.

Windsor Avenue, at the bottom of which would
have been the line on its approach into Longton.
Aerial maps show the end of the street abutting the track bed.

It’s not possible for me to stomp across the fields to get to the line of the railway, not least because of the housing in the way, so I have to follow the streets onto the next station at Longton itself. Which takes me almost to the end of the first stage, but not before spotting the distinctive Catholic Church, and before that…

Nursery Lane, between New Longton and Longton Bridge, at the
mid-point of which ran the station. It’s now the kind of
house which must have only been built through lottery winnings.

Longton Bridge

…crossing the A59 by taking a deep breath and just going for it. No traffic lights here, you see, just a fence with a gap in the middle.  The further I go along Chapel Lane, the wider the gap between me and the line, which is now running at a slight curve away from Longton “proper”. This is one of those “cause and effect” questions – has Longton always been destined to grow away from the location of its railway station or did it happen that way when the line was closed?

Certainly Longton exists in far greater area and population off Chapel Lane than it does where the line and station used to be, with a row of shops and pubs on both sides of the A59. What does still exist at what was Longton Bridge is the vast stone walls which used to carry the line over the road, with a new housing estate “Bentley Park” covering the station site itself.

Chapel Lane in the sunshine, a very distinctive place
of worship along the route for the weary traveller

Hoole

Longton Bridge station was on this side
of the road

The final station on my wander around looking for any remaining clues of the West Lancs Line is the first of the genuinely remote rural outposts, which requires a long walk along what is still called “Station Road”, although there’s very few remnants of this nowadays.



My walk has to follow the line as far as possible, though in this case, it’s not easy to do so, and I find myself following the bus route through near-by Walmer Bridge. Here’s a population centre which looks like a crossbow running off the main A-road, with both of its pubs now closed. Whilst it might have been sensible to name the station as “Walmer Bridge”, it is after the local parish of Hoole (“shed”) from which it took its name.

I notice that there are fences and rubble here which might suggest the remote location has saved more than most others, though only the fences are actually of the time, with the level crossing fences the most obvious. Not quite so obvious a clue to the nature of Hoole is the gin bottle I find nestled in the hedgerow.

Site of the old line and station

Gin Bottle, in Hedge

Conclusions

I take the number 2 bus back home, which meanders through and around all the places which used to have a train station. As has always been the case, the bus stops and starts at almost every bus stop, with people of all ages using it to get into Preston. If Beeching had designed his consolidation process with a view to promote bus travel, then at least here it’s worked.

It’s notable that the greatest sign of the line which used to be here remains in greater clarity though Google Maps rather than on the ground. If Penwortham is anything, it’s a town in need of access to the rail network, and that’s now impossible to ever achieve. Whilst car and bus travel continue to clog up the arteries, the short-termism of Beeching is shown up for the daftness it was. Rail enthusiasts might get nostalgic about reopening lines, though there should be some realism these days. Hoole, for example, is unlikely to justify Network Rail’s business case criteria, even if nearby students to Hutton Grammar and coppers from Lancashire police HQ were included.

Stagecoach probably do very well running three – count them – bus services along the Southport route, visiting all the places where stations used to be, although like my walk, the route is somewhat extended, takes longer in time and costs far more to complete. At its height, the route would enable passengers to travel to Blackburn without changing trains. To make the same train journey now from Southport requires changing at Bolton, or changing at Wigan and then Bolton, or maybe Burscough and Preston. With the advance in years, some steps have been quite clearly backwards.

The next stage of my journey takes me from the River Douglas to Southport….

On the register

The Electoral Commission tends and cares for the Register of Political Parties, letting us keep track of who wishes to enter the great political bunfights at local or national level.

Here’s the most recent additions, which acts as a companion piece to those recorded as leaving the Register in the months after this year’s main elections.
Where a web-presence is available, I’ve linked to them. All links are followed at your own risk, I can’t vouch for their safety, and I don’t necessarily agree with the policies or contents of any/all. 
October 2012
*”Royalist Party“, registered to Mr Thomas Harrison.
*”Zero Tolerance Policing Ex Police Chief”, otherwise known as Kevin Hurley, Surrey’s first Police and Crime Commissioner
*”UK in Europe Party (UK EPP)”, registered to Mr John Stevens. It might be this which links to this
*”Nottinghamshire Independent Forum“, registered to Mr Barry Answer. 
*“UK Yorkshire Socialist Alliance Party”, registered to Mr Ian Wilson
*“Democracy2015” registered to Mr Andreas Whittam Smith. At the Corby by-election, candidate Adam Lotun stood for Democracy2015 and received 35 votes. By way of comment/comparison, David Bishop got 99 for “Elvis Loves Pets”.
*“Pro Liberty”, registered to Mr James Rigby
*“nine eleven was an inside job” registered to Mr Simon Lane. This (in)famous candidate stood at Croydon North, receiving 66 votes, three more than Robin Smith from the Young People’s Party. His Facebook profile is (largely) open and contains links to some of his other “inside job” conspiracies.
*“Bristol 1st”, registered to Chris Luffingham, the candidate from which is now the first directly elected Mayor of Bristol
*“PLC Party” registered to Andre John-Salakov.
November 2012
*”Patria”, registered to Mr Ian Johnson. I have tried numerous search terms and can find no web presence. 
*“Don’t Cook Party”, registered to Mr Richard Murfitt. A candidate aligned to this lot, Mr Mozzarella complete with comedy Italian accent, stood in the Corby by-election.
*”New Democracy”, registered to Mr Richard Laycock. There’s no website, yet.
*”The Community Party”, registered to Mr Arya Hussain. It might be this person or this one, but there’s no website that I can find.
 
December 2012
*”F.A.I.R”, registered to Mr Gordon Barker. It’s not the easiest search term to put into Google, and with a few attempts I’ve found nothing.
*”The Entertainment Party”, registered to Mr Gwinyayi Nyagowa. “Your search term Mr Gwinyayi Nyagowa did not match any documents”. Searching for “The Entertainment Party” and “TEP – The Entertainment Party” brings up nothing either. 
*“The Ethical Governance Party”, registered to Ms Sarah Goldsmith. 
*”Wigan Independent Network”, registered to Councillor Garry Wilkes. He doesn’t/didn’t like the PCC elections
 

Google minus, feeling unlucky

So, how’s that ‘sharing information around your circles’ going?

Google ran adverts in the UK asking people to subscribe to the ideal whereby a well-to-do family of SEO copyrighters and Haggerston vintage shop owners watch the birth, life and death of someone (presumably related, perhaps adopted) inbetween sessions of eating spag-bol with red wine whilst watching Werner Herzog films. 

This advert was supposed to sell Google+, its social media service that’s not a social media service, and sell it as a place where you can involve yourself in the goings on of the day without feeling like you’re wasting time (Facebook), wasting effort (Twitter), or bandwidth (Pinterest). everywhere. 

These screengrabs were taken from across various sites at moments across the day, from new and old stories. “Share buttons” are ubiquitous footnotes across the Internet now, and without much poking or encouragement people use them to take pages from one site to across their friends lists even if they don’t necessarily agree with the content. In fact it’s often better to share something you don’t agree with to encourage discussion (no, this isn’t trolling. Well not under the current definition.)


If these examples are any guide – and they’re as representative as any – the Google+ success rate is right down there with the LibDems in Rotherham. Even at the most popular at the top, Google is running in three figures compared to Facebook at over 21,000.  Above you see from the Guardian – the target audience for the spag-bol-with-red-wine advert family – Google is closer to LinkedIn than Facebook, and that’s by no measure a social network.

AH!, you say, well Google+ isn’t a social network either, don’t you know. Well I do know, or at least I was told this by advocates of the service with whom I discussed this some months ago. They assured me that the big day for G+ was coming – once people realised you can read news on Google News, share it on Google+, and talk about it through Google Hangouts, then the drain from Twitter alone would be like a displacement of hipsters from an indie club when the music started. But if these advocates are accurate, and G+ just needs everything else Google provides to work in unison, then what’s the point of staying in the walled garden? Twitter is where most people seem to share news, never mind discuss it and create the odd headline themselves here and there. Facebook might be the most democratic of all, allowing people from the SPORT ARE TROOPS reactionary wing to raise awareness of the latest developments of day alongside those who know where to find BBC Four on the television guide.

Google+ has none of the attraction that these two established services enjoy, which for something with the name “Google” attached is pretty bad going. My newsfeed on Google+ is predominately taken up by  Mark Elgan, who I don’t know, and spam feeds labelled “What’s Hot”.  My friends list, whilst full of people, is active with just one person, photographer Ian Hex, who seems to speak the language better than I do.

Crucially though, Ian’s content is other Google+ posts re-shared, and not outside material brought in. Unlike Facebook, then, this is a highly insular network, a view underlined by the pitiful numbers of the “Share Button” scoreboards.

“Walled Gardens” aren’t rare on-line, though they are out of fashion somewhat. Google loves its son as any parent might, but any kid which is ordered to only play with itself won’t live to be a developed or popular individual.