Well, it’s a bloody long time since I did a rolling blog, but today’s the day…
I’m currently sat in the 07:00 from Sowerby Bridge to Wigan Wallgate which is making its way through Salford. The train’s never been more than 25% full – even between Rochdale and Manchester, which used to be rammed. Manchester Victoria station was eerily quiet too. Here’s my 3-car Class 158 when I boarded.
On the plus side, it’s a beautiful sunny day, although the fact I’m on my way to a funeral does take some of the shine off it.
Most of my fellow passengers have been conscientious mask wearers – although the couple who weren’t may well be exempt. The train’s clean and well presented, so it feels safe.
It feels slightly odd to be heading back to Southport. Even though I grew up there and have family still residing it’s a town I feel little connection with nowadays. I suppose it’s a combination of factors. English seaside towns haven’t fared well in the past 50 years with the advent of cheap holidays abroad. Add in the rise of out of town shopping and poor planning decisions and it’s not hard to see why.
A bright spot is that I’ve just passed through the wonderful Hindley station. It’s one of the jewels in the crown of the community rail movement. The group who look after it have transformed it from semi-dereliction into a garden oasis.
I had to change trains at Wigan Wallgate where I’ve swapped my nice comfy 158 for my least favourite train – a Northern 150 with 3 + 2 seating and bugger all legroom! There’s a mix of people aboard including a young mother with a baby, a retired chap with a walking stick and camera, a couple of workman plus two teenage girls and their younger brother. It’s obvious leisure travellers are returning to the railways, but not in the numbers they once did. Yet…
Well, that was a trip down memory lane, and (considering it was a funeral) not a sad event at all. On arrival I walked to my sister’s house as Anne wanted to come to the funeral too. She remembered Mike from when he lodged at my mothers house for several years back in the 1980s. The addition of Anne meant there were 13 at the Crematorium. The service was conducted by the chaplain of the Hospital Mike died in. He did an excellent job. He kept God out of it and the short ceremony was all about Mike himself. He read out part of my blog, which Pat had passed on to him. Another more recent friend of Mike’s who shared the same love of books read from Some of Mike’s favorites, such as Terry Prachett’s ‘Mort’, Oscar Wilde and also Shakespeare. Mike’s love of books was such that Broadhursts (Southport’s oldest and finest bookshop) had sent a representative. Apparently, his bungalow was literally crammed with books, some of which were rare and valuable. Martin taught me things about Mike’s later life I didn’t know. How Mike would teach his kids about literature and send them wacky Xmas presents. From the Chaplain I learned that Mike had actually arranged to have his body left to science and had even completed the papers with a major medical school, but Covid brought an end to that plan as the school wasn’t accepting bodies – so the funeral we were attending wasn’t the plan at all!
After the ceremony half a dozen of us adjourned to Pat and Jake’s house. As the weather was so good we could sit and social distance in the garden whilst reminiscing about Mike and the old days and play games of “whatever happened to?” Sadly, there were two murders amongst the stories. On the bright side – I seem to be faring better than some of my contemporaries…
When we left I bid goodbye to my sister and walked into the town centre through streets that left me playing Detective as I spotted the odd cluster of new homes and tried to remember the name of the pub that stood there before. Wasn’t that the site of the old London and its bowling green that backed onto the railway? Yep. Oh, and that’s where the Shakespeare stood – another vast multi-roomed building that had no chance of commercial success in this era.
Strolling through town I took a look at the Old Ship and paid my respects before moving on and walking on to Lord St, which still has plenty of life, even if the big department stores are all closed and boarded up. Ironically, the broad pavement and canopies have come into their own during Covid as there’s plenty of outside seating to be had at the bars and cafes, so even if the weather’s not as good as today you can sit outside in safety.
Having had a wander around the town centre I’m struck by how busy the place is. In the era of Covid and ‘staycations’ it seems people are rediscovering seaside towns like Southport. The trains from Liverpool are certainly busy. Of course that adds another hazard, as well as mobility scooters you’re now having to dodge a plethora of prams and the associated flotilla of kids, like destroyers protecting an aircraft carrier.
Funny the things a wander reminds you of isn’t it? I’ve just passed through the Cambridge Arcade (Arcades were very popular in Southport) and spotted a shop that’s now a barbers. I remember it as something very different. In 1976 I’d just left school and I landed a job as an apprentice locksmith in a town centre shop owned by a father and son company. They were real duckers and divers who made the fictional Trotters look like amateurs. They also owned a lingerie shop (what’s now the barbers). One day the son came into our hardware shop and said he needed a man to stand in the shop for an hour or so whilst his wife cashed up and did some stock-taking – and I was that man! In reality I was a shy 16yr old and standing around in a lingerie shop with nowhere to hide was excruciating! I can laugh now but the memory has stayed with me, which gives you an indication of how powerful the feeling must have been at the time. One day I’ll relate how they invented these handwriting analysis kiosks and we built one on a Blackpool pier..
I’m now on the train Eastwards, heading home. It’s a Class 156/150 lash-up with the 156 leading, so there’s no guessing where I am and wo-hoo – it’s set 460, so it has USB chargers! I was surprised how many people were awaiting its arrival but the overwhelming majority are being good and the front car’s certainly not crowded.
I abandoned the lash-up at Salford Central, where I was left with 40 mins to kick my heels. I’d forgotten the building was one of the BR modular designs of the type a few of us had been discussing on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. I should’ve – Network Rail had me there as their official photographer!
I’m now on another 158 back to Sowerby Bridge. There’s definitely a build up of passengers and Manchester Victoria is starting to look busy again, but numbers aren’t going to return overnight.
The last entry. It’s been a really interesting day and far more positive than I first thought it might be. The fact Mikes funeral was all about Mike and (despite the small numbers) it was obvious he’ll be remembered was reassuring – and the stories were fond. Who can ask for more?
One other thought from today is – this is the most people I’ve seen since lockdown started. No, not the funeral – Southport! I actually felt uncomfortable at times because of the crowds. Me, who lived in London for 25 years and used public transport most days! How things change…
I’ve a favour to ask…
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Not travelled the Wallgate to Southport route for a while, I’ll have to put it on my list. The contrasts along the route from Manchester always fascinate. The industrial stretches through to Wigan where the countryside starts to take over as the train curves past Appley Bridge and Parbold before you hit the long, flat dash into Southport itself. On my last trip out there a few weeks back I was saddened to see the market so reduced at present, thought theyed cracked it with the last revamp.