Saturday, April 18, 2009
Birchwood Station stop is one of those you pass on the Trans-Pennine Express on your way to Manchester, Leeds or York, where people get off and you wonder what they could possibly want to go there for. Birchwood is not a place either of us would consider a destination, consequently we were rather intrigued when we were allotted it as our stop on the Trans-Pennine Express project and alighted the train with a palpable degree of trepidation.
The ugliness of Birchwood hits you, like a sudden and hard slap across the face, the instant your feet hit the platform at Birchwood Station. The foul stench of pointless Newtown then continues to permeate your every pore like a menacing miasma of hideousness. Had it not been for the gloriously beautiful early autumn weather, we would have got on the next available train out of there, or thrown ourselves under it.
After the initial shock we composed ourselves enough to venture out into the unknown which was Birchwood, Birchwood is still there (unfortunately) but we are far more familiar with the place than anyone could ever wish to be, unable to ignore the moulded plastic seats and beige tiling in the waiting room and the dour brown bricks of the station building on our way out.
In exiting the station we were confronted with what appeared to be a surprisingly leafy infinity car-park, we took a right and walked along the pavement until it ended abruptly, the pedestrian semiotics of a sunken, yellowish knobbly surface urging us to cross over for no apparent reason. It is immediately and glaringly obvious that Birchwood is not a place for walking, it is a place for driving and parking. Bizarrely, every residential street in Birchwood seems to be a cul-de-sac, like some dark metaphor for the town itself: a dead end.
It is hardly surprising then, that all the local residents, including Snoop the Dalmatian and his owner, labour under the misapprehension that they live in Warrington. Imagine that, a whole town in the advanced stages of denial. However, after only six hours in the place we wanted to forget it ever existed, so who are we to judge them?
Notwithstanding, it seems that the residents’ denial of the actuality of Birchwood exacerbates its lack of charm, beauty or general viability, and rather enhances the futility and decrepit nature of it.
The centre of Birchwood, the town that God forgot and everyone else denied the existence of, is the shopping precinct, built with the same light absorbing brown bricks as the station. The exterior is riddled with boarded up shop fronts interspersed by a community centre, a tanning shop and a café. The precinct is a purpose built affair, designed to accommodate the needs of the Birchwood community. It is reassuring that someone once acknowledged Birchwood and thought about it long enough for a shopping centre to be built.
The exterior of the Birchwood shopping centre is desolate and if the buildings weren’t so close together you could imagine tumble weed rolling past, instead, the odd electric mobility vehicle overtakes us on our way inside. The interior sports a prolific 1980s décor complete with marble floor, mirrored pillars and a pistachio green theme, but with a rather beautiful, modernist clerestory. Inside Birchwood Shopping Centre we found the usual suburban high street outlets; Iceland, Greggs the bakers, Superdrug, New Look and a gigantic ASDA complete with a very popular café.
However, we opted for the less well-frequented Planet Café and a full English breakfast while more mobility vehicles whizzed by. We were hoping that with a substantial intake of fat, salt and caffeine, our attitudes would improve and we would see Birchwood in a more positive light, unfortunately for Birchwood food only seemed to fuel our sense of alienation and aesthetic despair. We briefly considered hiring our own mobility vehicle, as they are for hire from the shopping centre management office, but couldn’t quite morally justify even ringing the bell to make the necessary inquiries.
Instead we roamed around the shops for a few hours, bought a sweater and used the washroom facilities in ASDA and purchased some self-tan lotion in Superdrug eventually emerging on the opposite side of Birchwood Shopping Centre where we spotted a new Birchwood demographic: the lilac shirted worker ant. We decided it was imperative to follow them and locate the source of these identi-tagged professionals.
We deduced that these pastel office clones must be venturing out of their corporate nest to forage for food in the retail park. The yeasty aroma of the Subway outlet seemed to attract most of them, so we loitered outside there, waiting for an appropriate set of office workers to stalk. We followed our elected pair to a business park called Genesis (although we both agreed Genocide would be a more appropriate name), where they disappeared into some absurd architectural experiment covered in mirrored glass. As virtually all the buildings here were giant mirror-cubes with car park between them, it was a little like being on the set of a dystopian sci-fi film, which made one of us feel sick and the other uncharacteristically prone to self harm.
It was as though we had entered onto some cursed ancient burial ground, where the presence of evil was so great that had we stayed only moments longer, our souls would have turned into tiny puddles of grey sludge and eventually been run over by somebody in middle-managements 4x4. What is it that goes on behind all that mirrored glass? Whatever it is, it must be villainous.
On the way back towards Birchwood Retail and Birchwood Station we passed more of Birchwood Residential until we came upon a concrete footbridge that took us over a dual carriageway and safely into a large wooded area. The woods have tarmac paths, but whichever route we took we arrived in the same spot, which rendered our attempt at a woodland adventure pretty pointless, so we behaved properly and followed a path that would take us back in the direction of the station.
When heading towards the business park we had already happened upon the leisure centre, which sported three empty tennis courts and an uninhabited swimming pool. Amazingly, the leisure centre also housed the only pub we had seen in Birchwood, it was alarmingly full for a Wednesday afternoon, and even the reception area of the sports hall had that definite smell of cigarette smoke and beer-drenched carpet. We are now thinking that we should have probably stayed for a pint, way too late, as neither of us will ever go back to Birchwood of our own volition.
Anyway, as we were beginning to quite enjoy the walk through the woods, we saw an area of backlit trees, indicating a glade of sorts. As we came into the clearing we saw what can only be described as a Pond-Swamp. Obviously intended to be a local beauty spot for family picnics, quiet contemplation, etc, it has become a festering soup of luminous green sludge with beer cans, prams, shopping trolleys, cigarette ends and a handful of ducks floating around on it. As we sat on a rickety, damp bench we started to wonder what it would be like to live in Birchwood, what it would be like to grow up here. Not the kind of thoughts a vivid imagination should entertain in all fairness, so we left, quickly.
We realise that we perhaps have been harsh on Birchwood, but frankly, visiting a town where even the local population deny its viability, is decidedly odd and dismaying. It sounds extreme, but if Birchwood was a human being it would be a serial killing sociopath. So quiet, practical and ordinary on the surface, yet hiding a virulent malignancy at its heart.
What happens by the Pond-Swamp at night? Here’s what we think: Crack-Fuelled Rape-Murder.
Birchwood truly is a great place to leave.
Mia Tagg 2009®