Tuesday, December 18, 2012

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....