Get some fresh air, the internet claimed. Go outside and find some nature, it said. Right, ok then. Where’s the nearest bit of nature that isn’t an extension of the suburban wasteland that surrounds me? There’s a place called ‘Dead Lake’ which I’ve been meaning to go and find for a while but besides sounding like it should feature in a low budget slasher movie it’s a bit further away than I would like right now. So where else? How about Formby? There’s a nature reserve there with red squirrels… There’s also a naturist reserve which I’m not so keen on stumbling into. I consider it but decide against it. What’s the point of going to Formby (pun intended, look it up if you don’t get it) when there’s another place a few stops back up the line. Quite literally, in fact, there IS Another Place.
LIVERPOOL CENTRAL STATION- AROUND 11:15 AM (GMT+1)
‘Millions of people, swarming like flies from Liverpool underground’
I’ve spent more time than I should have done trying to find this ticket desk, which is at the back of a little shop, and as I approach the middle aged lady at the counter she doesn’t look happy at being interrupted from whatever it was that she was doing. Everybody else is just going straight to the ticket barriers because they’ve all got passes or tickets already and I guess this is probably the norm here… I guess few people actually come in for a ticket and perhaps this lady is so used to that idea of being left alone that she hates it whenever anybody does come in for a ticket. Or maybe she’s just having a bad day. Whatever the reason I still get a sneer when I ask for a ticket to Crosby and she seems to think I want a single. When I say I want a return there’s another sneer then yet another one, with a huff this time, as I ask which platform I need. I haven’t been here before and I figure that I might as well ask instead of searching around for a board and potentially missing my train which is in, like, four minutes. I’m crisply told that I want platform 2 and the Southport train. Cool. That was all I wished to know. I leave the ticket lady to wallow in her disgust.
But where on earth is platform 2? There are just signs pointing to various lines, not platforms- The Northern line and the Wirral line. Crosby is not on the Wirral so I take a guess that I want the Northern line and so take the escalator down into the bowels of the city, into Liverpool underground. It isn’t as extensive as say the London Underground, the New York Subway system or the Paris metro (the actual underground only has four stations and the rest of the stations are all open and out in the netherworld of the greater Merseyside urban conurbation) but it is a thing that exists nevertheless. It isn’t as nice looking as the London underground but it’s a fair bit nicer than the New York Subway system. In this part of the underground the actual platform is all brightly lit and sort of alright but this is offset by the line itself which is bleak concrete and metal. Not nice when you have to spend five minutes looking at it. As I descend into this world I see that the escalator going up is jam packed with people and I can’t help but recall the words Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks… It was originally going to be Liverpool Sunset before Ray Davies changed it to Waterloo. The line ‘Millions of people, swarming like flies round Waterloo Underground’ suddenly seems appropriate right now- Millions of people, swarming like flies from Liverpool underground.
There’s a train at my platform, a train from which all those millions of flies have swarmed from I guess, but that isn’t the one I need. That’s going up to Ormskirk, heading inland, whilst mine is going on up the coast. I spend my time huddled beside a map of the network, staring at the digital display board. Something about being down here makes me uncomfortable but another part of me finds it really cool. There are a lot of people here and a little voice is also telling me I’m in the way of the map and I look weird. Does it really matter what they think though? The short answer is no and I’m not weird for long anyway, although it does feel like an age.
The trains down here are rather cool looking. They’re painted in bright colours and advertise all the places you can go on the Mersey rail network. As it prepares to leave the station the conductor presses a button in his little cab at the front (I saw this happen with the train that was here when I arrived) and it makes an old fashioned ding-a-ling sound. I like that. This one is yellow and I find myself a window seat at the back of the cab from where I can watch as we rattle our way into greater Merseyside.
Initially it is not a sight at all, because we’re underground and it’s all dark, but after a few minutes the train slips into the sunshine and stretching out before me, down to the river, is ancient urban sprawl. Where Liverpool itself actually ends I couldn’t say, it really all depends what you reckon is classed as a part of Liverpool. The definition is fluid. The train is very quickly cruising over Bootle and is Bootle, you may ask, a part of Liverpool? It isn’t run by Liverpool city council, it‘s run by Sefton council (which runs everywhere from here up to Southport) so I’d err on the side of caution on this one and say no. The same is true of Crosby, it’s run by Sefton council- Is it Liverpool, is it not? The answer as to what is and isn’t classed as Liverpool depends on who you ask. Some will say it is, some will say it isn’t.
Over the years Bootle has produced such well celebrated luminaries (sarcasm) as Derek Acorah and Keith Chegwin and from the train I can tell that this is not a wealthy area. Unlike the city centre where I have come from, which is all fresh and regenerated and exciting and modern, here all the neglected scars of old industry are present, left to decay and wither. All the money from the Capital of Culture status some years ago never came up here. There looks to have been no regeneration and I can see from the window of the train all the last remains of the nation’s great industrial power; old warehouses and storage yards as well as big old concrete brutalist apartment blocks with many missing windows (though some of these look to have been rejuvenated and appear quite nice) There are many more neglected buildings besides. Much of what I can see is decay and neglect. The best and most impressive things are a huge concrete structure on top of a building, it looks kind of like a rocket, and a massive aircraft hangar and a church that at first looks as though it is built higher than all the surrounding buildings but is actually just really, really big. Meanwhile I notice that the track is lined by bushes with white flowers. I don’t know what they are but they look nice.
BLUNDELLSANDS & CROSBY STATION- 11:45 AM approx (GMT +1)
‘No point coming to the beach if I’m not going to get my feet dirty’
It’s been far too long since I’ve ventured into truly unknown territory like this, gone somewhere I’ve never been anywhere near before. I really don’t know what to expect as I hop off the little yellow train at the tiny station. There isn’t much here in all fairness. There aren’t any spectacular monuments, no historical marvels. There’s not much in the way of attractions. There isn’t much interesting to say about the place- the famous people from these parts include Cherie Blair and Anne Robinson- That is all you really need to know about Crosby. One thing here is definitely worth seeing however and although it is man made and not natural it is in just the right place for fresh air. First displayed at Cuxhaven in Germany in 1997, the art installation known as Another Place (by Antony Gormley who also designed the Angel of The North) now has it’s permanent home on the beach here at Crosby. It consists of around one hundred cast iron men standing, staring out to sea at intervals along the beach and this is the reason I’ve come to this small, insignificant town north of Liverpool. I also haven’t properly been to the seaside in an age and a beach visit sounds like the perfect antidote to my recent blues.
I set off from the station and down a long straight road at the far end of which I can see an open patch of grey-blue sky, The beach! It doesn’t look too far and I press on with eagerness. This looks to be a fairly nice area, quite the opposite from Bootle. Near the station this looks like an affluent, middle class sort of place. There’s a posh prep school across the road and a lot of big looking houses with huge front gardens, often hidden by trees and plenty more with long driveways. There’s one for sale… Or two for sale next to each other? I don’t know, there’s two signs, but just from the outside I like the look of that house. I take a peek down some of the driveways but oftentimes I can’t even see the houses at the end. I can guess that a fair few must be really nice houses though. One on a corner is gated by what looks to be the remains of an old monastery or church but closer inspection reveals it to be a modern thing.
I come close to the beach and there is a couple walking in front of me. I initially think it to be a grandfather and his granddaughter but I start to doubt this as I get closer. He’s very tall and she’s quite a bit shorter than I am. Eventually I see the woman turn to look at something and I can see that she’s no girl. She’s middle aged at least. She has wrinkles. They walk slowly and as we reach the entrance to the beach, a path through some scrub and dunes where people are playing with dogs and then some dunes, I’m almost past them. The road ends and whilst I jaywalk across to the path the couple follow the pavement around. Somehow they reach it first and now there is no way past them as the path is too thin to get by. I have to slow down now which I’m annoyed by. I just want to reach the beach. They stop completely to shoo a dog away (they might be German but I’m not entirely sure) and I despair. Finally through the dunes the beach arrives and I still can’t be rid of them because the lady stops at the top of the steps, unsure about going down onto the beach I think. I wait patiently for her husband, I presume he’s her husband, to coax her down and then at last she goes and whoppee, finally I can get onto the beach!
The first thing I do is sit down on the concrete retaining wall and remove my shoes and socks. No point coming to the beach if I’m not going to get my feet dirty. I shove them into my bag, sling out my camera and then set off across the sand towards the sea and the nearest man. The sand here isn’t the soft kind. It’s firm and compact and quite often gets completely covered by this coast’s massive tidal range. It’s coming in when I arrive and some of the iron men, particularly those further out, are half submerged. When I start out the nearest is at the edge of the water but by the time I get to him he’s paddling. The tide here, as well as having a huge range, can also come in quite quickly. I see that he and his fellows are looking across Liverpool bay towards a rough ridge of mountains. What these are hasn’t clicked yet but it will soon enough.
After taking a few photos I dip my bare feet in the water, letting the waves wash over my feet and soak the bottom of my jeans. Feels good! I dip my fingers in and have a taste of the water to see how salty it is. We’re practically standing at the mouth of two major rivers here, the Mersey and the Dee, so the amount of freshwater being churned out by both should, if my geography teacher didn’t lie, cancel out much of the salinity. I find that isn’t overly salty but it isn’t fresh either. The tang is still strong. Either the fresh water from the Mersey and the Dee doesn’t come out this far or my geography teacher lied. The former is the more likely. I walk along the shore to the next man, my feet skipping between sea and sand. This really does feel gorgeous and blissful I don’t go in too far though, mostly because there are signs saying not to. There are deadly tidal mudflats out there and it isn’t safe.
Beside me there’s a ripple of water where the tide has already crossed a part of the beach and it still looks crossable so keep walking this side of it. The tide is coming in quick though and when I’m half way to the man that ripple is becoming a deep lake. If I reach the man I’ll never make it back across. I’m in danger of being cut off by the tide, marooned on an island about to be washed away. I head back, looking for a way across this rising lake. When I reach a part that looks shallow enough I take the plunge and cross. Being barefoot now looks like it was the best idea I’ve ever had as my feet sink into the soft, muddy sand under the water. When I look back a few minutes after crossing that bit of sand where I was walking has gone.
A SAND DUNE, CROSBY BEACH- 12:45 PM approx (GMT+ 1)
‘I’m not even through the first word and I’ve suddenly face planted the sand’
There is a point where I realize it might have been a good idea to bring a towel. There is another point where I realize that a picnic would have been an even better idea. After walking a short distance and collecting some shells along the way I have come to rest on a sand dune some way down the beach, a place where I can sit and watch the tide coming in and all the iron men standing frozen as the waters wash around them. Somehow, despite the presence of an enormous wind farm, the cranes of Bootle docks and a cargo ship, the view is a lovely one. All the statues make it even more special. There is something haunting about them, something eerie, especially the ones that are now stood waist deep in water or up to their necks. From a distance they don’t really look like iron men at all. There’s an unnerving realism about them from this distance. An image from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy TV series of a man taking his clothes off and walking into the sea comes into my head, as does the phrase ‘always know where your towel is.’ Any one of these iron statues could be that man. The figures, despite there being one hundred of them scattered along this beach, look kind of lonely as well. They look forlorn, isolated. The words of Eleanor Rigby by a certain group from a certain nearby city are apt to describe them: All the lonely people! Is this where they all belong I wonder?
Now it clicks what those mountains in the distance are. I stare down river at a collection of buildings on the other side. It must be New Brighton, I think to myself. That was going to be my next destination before I decided to come here. My eyes pass along the coast of the Wirral and they fall onto the mountains. They’re the other side of the Wirral so they must be the Clwydian range… Wales! Home! Of course. And further still… No it can’t be. It’s a cloud right? Is that hazy, misty thing in the distance Anglesey? That little lump at the end could be Ynys Seiriol. There are definitely some higher, hazier mountains lurking behind the Clwyds and they have to be Snowdonia. Not sure about Ynys Seiriol though. I think that is a cloud. My eyes start to well up. God, I miss that place. Despite the odd few days here and there I’ve been away for a long time now and as many times I have said I am going back to stay it hasn’t happened yet. One day though, one day. Right now the only thing I can do is sit and stare.
After staring homewards for a bit I decide that there’s something I need to do whilst I’m here. There’s a cutaway clip I’ve been thinking of filming for an age and whilst previously the idea was to use a good looking woman, I think that it will look even funnier if I do it myself. The dune behind me will be the perfect stand in for Burkina Faso. The joke involves swearing at myself so I’ll have to change it a bit because there are very young children hanging around this beach as well as a lot of other people walking dogs who look like they might not appreciate me turning the air blue. I settle on shouting ‘WHY DID YOU DO THIS TO ME’ and set my camera up for the shot. I already have my tripod with me, just encase I wanted it, so I bury the legs in the edge of the dune and psych myself up for making myself appear absolutely crazy. There must be around fifty people on this beach, as well as dogs, so this really is going to look weird. Once on my knees with the camera running I begin. I’m not even through the first word and I’ve suddenly face planted the sand. I don’t think about it, I just do it whilst I’m screaming. Covered in the sand, I lift my head, thinking that actually what I have just done might be perfect. Checking the footage back a reshoot is unnecessary. That is going to look hilarious once I’ve incorporated it. Alas now it is starting to rain so I best hurry off and get to some shelter. I wipe the sand from my face, spit as much of it out of my mouth as possible and then get going, at which point it stops raining.
Now this is where things get disgusting.
I walk back down the promenade at the edge of the beach. I’m still wiping bits of sand off me. It’s gone everywhere- In my hair, my eyebrows, it’s still in my mouth. When I’m off the beach, where I’ve had a pleasant hour or so, I’m heading down the road back to the train station and I feel the need to wipe my nose. More sand… It’s flowing out of my nose! Oh, wonderful. How much is up there? I look around to make sure no one is watching and end up pulling out (I didn’t bring any tissues either, fool!) what I can only describe as a very big and very nasty sand bogey. I can feel more up there and this is not anything pleasant. A tissue would be heaven right now… And the shadow chancellor (at the time of writing) John McDonnell and his wife are coming up behind me (No they aren’t… It just looks like him) so no more picking my nose. People might be watching. Interestingly though, McDonnell is from Liverpool, if you wanted to know.
At the station I wipe yet more sand off myself, looking at my reflection in the glass of the station building. I can’t see any more but its there, I can feel it. There is yet more up my nose which I desperately want to get out but can’t right now because this tiny, tiny little platform is packed with people, including the aforementioned shadow chancellor lookalike and his wife. On the plus side the train that pulls into the station is named Harold Wilson, after one of my favourite British prime ministers, and this cheers me up. This is, as I now know, very spooky. Between 1945 and 1950 Harold Wilson was the MP for Ormskirk, a constituency that was later divided up and one of those divisions was… CROSBY! I’m standing in what remains of his constituency and Harold Wilson turns up. Extraordinary and spooky. Or maybe not… They probably run him on this line because it’s appropriate.
It is actually amazing to think how many British Prime Ministers have an association with Liverpool and the Merseyside area. There’s the aforementioned Harold Wilson and, of course, Lord Liverpool but he just had the name and nothing to do with the city really. William Ewart Gladstone was born here, Andrew Bonar Law was MP for Bootle for a time, the family seat of the Earls of Derby was Knowsley Hall (just outside the main city) and the 14th Earl, the one who was PM, was born and died there. As mentioned above, Cherie Blair (Wife of Tony Blair) came from here as well. That is at least SIX prime ministers who have a connection, probably more than any other city outside of London. There is right now another potential connection that could well come to pass- Maggie May, who once walked Lime Street. Very soon Maggie May could be the list of female prime ministers! That bit of trivia does work better with the Rod Stewart song overall but for the Liverpool connection I’ll stick with the robber of the homeward bounder.
I’m a little sad at leaving Crosby. From what I’ve seen it’s a nice place and I’ve really liked my short time here. Will I be back? I don’t know. Never say never.
A TRAIN NEAR EDGE HILL- 3:00 PM approx (GMT +1)
‘Could she be a certain girl who sat next to me on a plane many, many years ago?’
The last couple of hours I’ve been relaxing before catching my next train; you know, having a coffee (an espresso), a lemon tart and wandering around Clas Ohlson where I’ve seriously considered buying a mini casserole dish. Now I’m on the train and minding my own business and through the gap in the seats my eye happens to fall on a face further up the train… My heart skips a beat. The face appears familiar. Could she be a certain girl who sat next to me on a plane many, many years ago? She could well be, she’s very similar. She has gorgeous eyes, I notice. Should I go up and talk to her? The urge is strong. But who is that she’s looking at? She’s looking at someone in a kind of goo-goo eyed way so its going to be a boyfriend isn’t it! As if to prove me right he leans over to her… Has he got a highlighted fringe? I can’t repeat what I’m thinking. Oh… Now he’s chewing her face off on a packed train. Yeah, alright. I get it, she’s spoken for. You can stop now. I shuffle back into my corner and continue to check myself for any last traces sand. Little do I know that I’ll still be finding it the next day.