Liverpool recently saw the closure of a unique institution. A distinctively designed building, a portal to all kinds of after dark adventures into strange lands, run by a small, close-knit team. No, not the Kazimier. Norton Street bus station has closed down after twenty-one years.
Ok, forgive the hyperbole – but I’m sure I visited Norton Street more times, and I do have a strange affection for the place.
National Express is often my transport of choice because of cost – in my experience the tickets are about 20% cheaper than the train. But the attraction is also aesthetic. I like being up high in a coach, watching the city move by outside. The ride is always smooth and what engine noise there is, is deep and soothing.
Despite the romance of the rails, on a train you never get to know your driver. Apart from a muffled announcement of the stops along your route. On a coach, the driver checks your ticket, stashes your luggage and answers any questions you might have. Most are amiable, even entertaining; I remember bonding with one such guy after I recognised his ringtone was Frank Zappa’s ‘Hot Rats’ (he wasn’t on the phone whilst driving, I hasten to add).
These are all reasons to be a coach traveller, but Norton Street added a distinctive flavour to the whole thing. Using the station meant a trip to London Road, a neglected and un-cool part of the city centre, which nonetheless has its own gritty charm. Some of you will only have visited this area to buy tickets for Academy shows or perhaps for furtive trips to Cash Converters, or the excellent Maharaja.
It’s a place with its own weather system, with an overcast sky spitting rain almost continuously. Walking up London Road to Norton Street you pass a couple of pubs, with hardened all-day drinkers standing outside puffing on ciggies with complexions like corned beef. Further up of course, is TJ Hughes, the soul of London Road, the unpretentious ‘mart with a heart’ that survived the onset of a flashier retail culture down the hill.
London Road is the direct route to the university and the Royal Hospital, and probably an embarrassment to the city authorities, with its low-rent vibe, cheap new builds and insufficiently affluent regulars. The loss of the station is another body blow this area doesn’t deserve.
Sitting at the back of all this, and surrounded by roads and refuse-strewn car parks, the station is away from any kind of action. But it tries its best to be eye-catching – an angular glass and steel structure with some tubular metal business sticking out of the roof that looks like an arrangement of drinking straws. I think it’s a great building; in its isolation it looks like a lunar base or something (I look forward to my career as an architecture critic). Inside, the designer has almost eliminated right-angles, which makes it feel more organic, even as the metal and glass make it industrial. Despite the lack of space it doesn’t feel cramped, as there is nothing extraneous. No shops, no screens showing ‘breaking news’, just a coffee outlet-ette.
The staff always seemed like a family. There was the matriarchal female station manager in charge of things, a younger woman on the ticket desk and a lad on security. On quiet afternoons you got the impression that the security guard, a guy with plenty of testosterone in him, would far happier working on the door at Cream than explaining the workings of the ticket machine to a pensioner. Throughout the day, a succession of father figures (drivers) would arrive, mostly old hands of fifty-plus who would exchange a few words with the station staff before hitting the road again.
Random characters would sometimes wander into the station; I remember encountering an amiable bag-lady there who kept a pet snail in a Tupperware box of mixed salad. She was the most cheerful person in the place, eager to introduce everyone to her gastropod friend.
For some reason the multicultural makeup of the population is particularly visible in coach stations. Many travellers are young Africans, possibly students, travelling alone. Such folk are perhaps less wedded to the fabric of particular cities, travelling regularly by the cheapest means to maintain personal connections and find new opportunities. Most of my trips were to Manchester, for poetry performances. After the gig I’d board the last coach to Liverpool and savour the journey home. There is something uniquely special about the dimly-lit comfort of a night time coach with hardly any passengers on it. Warm (and warmed by alcohol), letting your mind wander as the spangled cityscapes rush past.
Arriving back at Norton Street it was a short walk past the derelict restaurant, the Salvation Army hostel and the graffitied hoarding, back into town. I can see how this location could feel unsafe to some travellers at night, but I will miss its character all the same. It’s a part of the city that isn’t desperately trying to prove anything. It’s unbranded.
The new coach station is in Liverpool ONE, where according to National Express, visitors to the city will experience the “wow” factor as they alight in our smart, modern consumer paradise.
Presumably the idea is that they will head straight for Liverpool’s must-see attractions – Zara, Hugo Boss, the Apple store. “Wow,” they will gasp, “Liverpool has exactly the same shops as Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle”.
That kind of stuff might be attractive to day trippers, but for those of us who live in the real Liverpool, we know that it’s about much more than designer brands and PR airbrushing. It has its blemishes and we don’t mind seeing them.
Norton Street will always have a place in our hearts, and leaving aside the poetry, the politics and personal preference, I haven’t even mentioned the most obvious, practical reason – it’s closer to the M62.