On the Orbital (1)

Launched in the early 2000s as a response (partially) to concerns that the Royal Preston Hospital was too difficult to visit for people in the outer suburbs, the Preston Bus’ “Orbital” is formed by buses travelling either clockwise or anti-clockwise through the city and into the outposts.and fringes. It is popular, although specific passenger numbers are not easy to confirm.

Whilst succeeding in linking some parts of Preston with some other parts; I don’t think the “Orbital” has quite mastered  convincing people of the benefits of a journey which could last over 40 or 50 minutes (the entire loop can take ninety) and cost £3.30 if buying an all-day ticket, as Hospital visitors may find necessary to do. Logic dictates that people living on the anti-clockwise route can get to the Hospital far quicker, and far less expensively, by taking the dedicated Hospital service. Nonetheless, the “Orbital” has patched over gaps in the original services to the northern communities, particularly the new-build estates encroaching into the rurals and greenbelt, turning into a regular commuter service for some.

Taking my lead from such blogs as Diamond Geezer and London Buses:One At A Time, I chose to spend an early Friday afternoon taking the “Orbital” on its clockwise route. Unlike those blogs however, I broke up the journey in three places – I trust that one of these being for the purchase of a Morrison’s salad bar selection is considered both valid and not an “accidental Partridge.”

I don’t think anything else has to be said about THAT BUILDING other than to confirm that, yes, it has been awarded Grade II Listed Status, and that beauty is 20131011_144528in the eye of the geek (or, to quote the Leader of Preston Council, the nerdy sociopath).

Preston Bus Station is the start and end of the “Orbit”, for both clockwise and anti-clockwise services. They run very regularly, and one follows the other, to allow for the limited number of actual buses to maintain the service even when rush hour and Preston’s notoriously cramped roads conspire against them. One complete loop probably could cost less than £3.30, but my decision to break up the journeys into chunks meant there was little choice but to pay the full amount for what is a “hop on, hop off” ticket.
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From the building of which I will no longer speak (….for now) the clockwise 88C makes its way into the city centre towards the Docks.

This first jaunt should give an adequate indication of the myriad problems of travelling through Preston – stop/start, juddery, slow, plagued by congestion, traffic lights and inadequate road layout. Praise be to the heavens, mind, for something is in place to be done! Whether this will work is a point most moot, however, and critics and cynics alike consider the proposals to be inherently flawed. Shared space can work, it has been proven to do so. Not perhaps as Lancs CC envisage, particularly as they foresee each and every existing bus stop congregated outside the railway station, which I see as being just asking for trouble. But what, as so many people are wont to ask, do I know.

Two Mormons(es?) on this bus, incidentally, chose not to use their audience for rapid-fire conversion techniques. One actually fell asleep, his head slowly, slowly dropping down as the rest of us (teenage girl texting her driving instructor, two Cissie and Ada types gossiping, two others keeping themselves to themselves) bobbed about. The Mormons left only five or so minutes later (the fast asleep one waking up as a puppy might, head flicking from window to window in momentary confusion) and by the entrance to the Docks, every seat was taken.

Preston Docks was not future-proofed when it was regenerated for what was, in the 1980s at least, the brave new future of shopping and living. The only road into the Docks sucks everything onto it, cars often  backed up for a mile or longer. There are no passing points along the entire site and no public crossings, for that matter, which forces anyone from child to pensioner to play chicken at day and night. Solutions for either problem? Nothing.

One Morrisions salad later (too few slices of beetroot, too much potato) I wander to Ashton Park, where many of the trees stand taller, prouder and fatter than they were when I was a lad, throwing conkers into the road and whatever else passed for high jinks in my day. The “Orbital” from here takes in the first of the major residential parts, that of Ashton and then Larches, the latter showing all the signs of typical post-war sprawl. This 88c is standing-room only, school children and families at the back, elderly couples up front, and love’s young dream somewhere in the middle.

We pass under the Blackpool railway, one-time site of Lea Road train station. Beeching would say, I assume, that this specific example of bustitution proves his theory right, although, of course, he was not blame for that particular station closing.

Cottam’s well to do and getting by home-owners left for their chocolate box houses with earphones and page-turners close to hand. The change at Cottam has been rapid and remarkable – from grass to garages, from fields to crunchy-gravel driveways, and all within the most boom of all boom times in the British economy. From here the service runs through the comfort of Cadley, all bungalows and two-ups and the church of St Anthony of Padua. This is Fulwood, which strangers can get to by travelling up the A6 and turning left when they feel house prices shooting up. By now I was travelling almost alone, with three gossips and a headphone-guy for company. We passed Fulwood Academy, newly renamed and entirely rebuilt, looking like an office for call-centres and companies that offer ‘solutions’, all curved walls, spot lighting and silver-grey tinted windows.

From here the journey reaches, by and large, its half way point. And so, I suppose, should this post.

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“Preston Junction”

Early maps of the railways around Preston appear to borrow from primitive drawings of the human circulatory system.Connecting nearby towns with the Industrial powerhouse of the Red Rose County was achieved by way of covering almost every available strip of land with track, ostensibly a result of the numerous rival rail companies battling for the right to serve Preston on their own.

The twisting turning trails of that early map have largely disappeared. Preston was to suffer from consolidation many years before the “Beeching Axe”, with financial pressures crippling early ventures from the start. One such line to suffer from economic hardship decades before Beeching’s report was the direct line to Southport, one I have walked in a two part series elsewhere on this blog. You can find the walk to Walmer Bridge here and the attempted walk from Southport here. (I say “attempted”, it was pretty much successful, just not ending where or when it should.)

Anyhoo, by far the most distinctive part of that early map is the two “pinches” allowing for fairly easy interchange between tracks to the south of the River Ribble. Those form part of the “Preston Junction”, a largely important but now quite forgotten piece of rail infrastructure. Forgive me if any of the images in this post look familiar – every last square inch of the former “Preston Junction” line and its connecting off-shoots have been all but obliterated. What’s left behind – mile after mile of cycle routes and pathways – resemble copy-and-paste levels in cheap computer games, each stretch of tree/weed/mud lined route looking just like the other.

It wouldn’t be in character for me not to try make senseof it all, though, so here goes.

How "Preston Junction" should be advertised....

How “Preston Junction” should be advertised….

And how it really looks...

And how it really looks…

There is no single place at which to start the “Preston Junction ” walk, so maybe I should start in the middle. The complex network of lines can be traced back to just one – the Blackburn-Preston-Farington (Leyland) route constructed in 1846. This would ultimately be consumed into the East Lancashire Railway network that incorporated every route from Liverpool and Ormskirk in the south to the Bury, Burnley and Rawtenstall in the east.

Very little of the Preston elements of this railway remains, as can be seen from the aerial shots on Google Maps, showing the distinctive curves and junctions as tree-lined pathways. The middle of all this for my purposes is the intersection of the railway with the Lancaster Canal Tramroad, remnants of which can be seen in the City Centre itself [anyone who has used the underground subway to the Fishergate Car Park should notice the distinctive brickwork around them; that’ll be Tram Road history,that be.)

Old Tram Road looking towards the 'intersection'

Old Tram Road looking towards the ‘intersection’

Leaving the Tram Route to take its way through the Carrwood Road estate, the right-hand path is the former rail route to Bamber Bridge, with clues to the former use of the path now reduced to rare curiosities such as this. A further three or so minutes along takes you to the Wateringpool Lane “Gas Works Bridge”, which remains in very good nick.

Under the Bridge...

Under the Bridge…

From here it’s another yomp along the path, bordered on both sides by bushes and over-grown greenery. The “Nature Reserve” element of the “Preston Junction Nature Reserve” really is advertising speak for “we’ve not cut back anything leafy or green for twenty-odd years”

It’s certainly the case that this is not so much picturesque as functional

Really, really functional.

Todd Lane/Preston Junction

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This National Cycle Network marker (sounds much better than “National cycle-path”, as I though it was, suggesting a country-wide network of lunatics roaming the streets) is the only plaque/sign/monument to Todd Lane railway station. On the approach to the road itself there are no clues to the former platforms, sidings, track alignment, nothing. Just lots of overgrown “nature reserve” plants and weeds.

To break up the mass/mesh of nature gone back to…nature…there’s a brook of some sort hidden underneath more overgrown plantation.

That word “junction” in “Preston Junction” indicates that something other than a direct route to Bamber Bridge must have been offered by Todd Lane. That something is the curved line through to Lostock Hall, visible on Google Maps. That line can be walked from a small, barely visible, off-shoot to the endless run of pathway-through-greenery. And there’s at least one thing of curiosity to be found along here…

Lostock Hall curve

From the Brownedge Lane bridge, the spur to Todd Lane looks impassable. Not so. The route is clearly underused (if indeed it’s used at all, even with a few clues of human/teenage use as a ground to dump bottles and cans, there was very scant evidence of it being popular). 20130718_145857 20130718_145949

I’m not going to claim knowledge about what exactly this is – a boundary marker of some sort? Or remains of original track? Answers please.

This route takes only a few minutes, is very uneven underfoot – no bland tarmac here, or indeed for that matter anything, just ballast and stones and weeds and mysterious parallel lines.

The walk from this curve to Bamber Bridge is unremarkable, and not just because the destination itself is, well, just that. The route comes to a sudden stop because of the A6 London Way, with the original alignment of the railway surviving as the B5257 roundabout slip-road. Don’t say things get boring around here, folks.

The view from Bamber Bridge station, had I taken it, would have shown where the two parts joined together. The Google Maps friend is back again, as it shows how the Brownedge Road part meets the scrapped railway lines overlooking Irongate, home to Bamber Bridge FC.

In summary then, the route from Preston to Bamber Bridge along Todd Lane has almost no indications of its former route, other than the tucked-away Lostock Hall pathway.

West Lancashire

Now for some cross-blog pollination. The West Lancashire line from Preston to Southport is one I’ve walked and written about before. Here’s how to get from there (ish) to Preston Junction (more or less).

The two junctions at east and west – I suppose “Lancashire Bra Straps” is a bit tasteless but you get the idea – represent the connections needed to link towns to the south of Preston without going over the Ribble and into the town’s central station. Looking at traffic congestion on the roads, let alone the WCML today, it’s sad that these lines were disposed of so easily.

The walk along these curves and junctions begins with a walk towards the grand (if now sadly tumble-down) railway bridge over the Ribble. Lancashire County Council has undertaken a massive regeneration scheme around this bridge, converting the overgrown and abandoned trackbed into a cyclepath, bringing to an end Vicar’s Bridge in the process. Not only has this opened up the path (and removed in situ track), it’s reduced by a factor of hypergazillion the number of dodgy men rubbing themselves against oak trees. Win-win.

This shouldn’t shock you, but crossing the bridge takes you to another nondescript tarmac’d path. At least along this part of the walk, there’s a couple of historic artifacts still in place.

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And that’s it, because to follow the curve around towards Penwortham, it’s back to nondescript tarmac. The “Penwortham Spur”, if that’s the formal name is marked by these bizarre pieces of public art. I’ve no idea what they represent.

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These bendy-metal-eye stalks turn up at the end of the junction, which is otherwise just another stretch of…you guessed it..

The walk to Penwortham uncovers a piece of railway infrastructure – or so I think – on the track which leads onto Middleforth Green, a piece of suburbia on the way to Lostock Hall. (All roads lead to Lostock Hall, you notice). As you can see from the map, the two junctions/interchanges have bridges ‘in situ’, both of which do their best to appear bleak and imposing even at noon.

I honestly don't know.

I honestly don’t know.

There are two final jigsaw pieces to the “Preston Junction” puzzle; the part which connects these two sweeping and swirling rail-lines to the West Lancashire line to Southport (which I followed), and the line attaching Croston to Lostock Hall just south of Longton (which I did not).

The missing segment through Penwortham is now a housing development, and a typical example of the bland rabbit warren estate which is squeezed into any available space. The street doesn’t even have a name related to the former use of the alignment on which it now rests, which seems an opportunity lost.

Mmm, just reach out and touch it

Mmm, just reach out and touch it

Can't get enough of bland paths

Can’t get enough of bland paths

So this is where the railway would have taken passengers to or from Southport/Blackburn, with its bland new build development name.

The road looks out onto very familiar looking brickwork which also provides a great clue to just how substantial the railway infrastructure was before it was closed down. That’s one heck of a size.

The Park Road estate rests in the middle of the “Penwortham Triangle”, where my previous walk began on the opposite side.  The name “Penwortham Triangle” has an echo where the bland pathways are marked by bendy-freaky-metal-glass-alien-art, namely “Whitehouse Triangle” on the maps of the time. You should be able to see that map on the Google image above.

With numerous generations passed since any trains did, it’s little surprise that the conversion of rail to dog walker paradise has stripped so much land of so much history. The lack of many clues to the past beyond aerial photographs reflects the extent to which the past has been truly left behind, leaving only bridges and brick-work as hints to the history and heritage of Lancashire. I would recommend having a mooch around these parts whilst the weather stays good – maybe you could tell me what the modern art things are supposed to represent?

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….