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.

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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….