Sunday, 21 January 2018

Downtown


It's a new year, but some things never change.  I'm still arsing around on trains.  In this case, it was a real repeat run, as I returned to East Didsbury.  I first visited here in - blimey - 2013, and it was all very familiar.  Still a blank empty station, made even more maudlin with a sheen of January rain.  There was a slight excitement on exiting in the form of a new ticket machine, a sleek slab of glass touch screen tech:


Otherwise it was another drab Manchester railway station.  I was here to collect a stream of tram stops: the Didsbury line, stretching down into the posh south of the city.  Five years ago I'd got the tram out and then taken the train; this time I'd done it the other way round, as part of my commitment to supplying new and innovative content at all times. 

I knew the Metrolink stop was vaguely north of the station, but there weren't any signs pointing it out.  I mean, why would you?  TfGM really, really hate signs.  Information is for losers.  I set off across the busy stream of traffic, or rather, around the traffic.  Getting across meant a series of staggered pelican crossings, which first deposited me on the centre of the roundabout.  As roundabouts go, it was very nice, but it wasn't actually where I wanted to go.  Across the way, the Parrs Wood Entertainment Complex loomed threateningly, a big slab of cinema and chain restaurants, a Death Star of fun. 


Another set of traffic lights and I was on the side of the road by the Tesco.  I could now see the yellow flag of the Metrolink in the distance, a tiny bit of colour amidst the grey, but I still had to use another pedestrian crossing to get there.  I couldn't help but wonder if there was a better way of doing all this.  There's also a bus station outside the cinema; it's as though the transport planners understood the value of a tram, train and bus interchange, but thought people would really enjoy a nice walk in between changing modes.


At least I was finally here, at the East Didsbury tram stop.  Its tracks still pointed hopefully towards Stockport.  There's not much chance of it happening now - Metrolink has its fasr more exciting Trafford Centre extension to play with - but East Didsbury dangles, gently hinting every day that it'd really prefer not to be a terminus, if you get its drift.


A gentle electric shimmy down the tracks and I was in Didsbury Village. 


I apologise in advance for the quality of the sign selfies, and not just because my big red face is in them.  The low winter sun meant that every other photo I took was splattered with light, and a lot of the time I couldn't see the screen so I was just mashing at the shutter button and hoping for the best. 


Didsbury is desirable.  It's invested with the sheen of middle-class respectability, the discreet glamour of restaurants and wine bars and an M&S Simply Food.  BMWs and Audis purred past, while mums with pushchairs moved from artisan shop to coffee shop.  It's got money; not the flashy, brash cash of a Wilmslow, the more money than sense strip of designer clothes and kitchen shops.  This is the cushioned money, not rich but well off, the privileged glow of a nice house and meals out and wine without thinking about the bills.  It has a musical instruments shop, for goodness' sake, violins and cellos proudly on display in the window.


It also contains the new middle-class mecca: Aldi.  I'm not sure when Aldi and Lidl became the new go-to places.  Suddenly people were banging on about "the middle aisle" over chardonnay at dinner parties the way they used to eulogise for Waitrose.  Perhaps people have realised that paying £2.50 for a slice of cauliflower when you can get a whole one for pennies is daft; perhaps there isn't quite as much money swilling about as they'd like you to believe.   I did notice that this branch had been updated with the new logo, introduced last year.  They've not got round to refreshing the one in the North End of Birkenhead, for some reason.


I crossed the tracks just as a tram clattered underneath the bridge; on the side a plaque told me this was a 1989 replacement for an 1875 bridge.  I wonder how the people of Didsbury felt about the trams.  This was a railway line for the best part of a century, until Beeching closed it in 1967.  The only thing that remains of the old Didsbury station is the clock tower outside Tesco.


That was forty years of quiet isolation.  There were buses, yes, but not the rattle of trains and trams.  That link to central Manchester probably added something to the house prices, but the big houses that backed onto the line?  Probably not so keen.  And it's hard to be exclusive if you're really easy to reach.


Lapwing Lane was a pleasing row of Victorian villas and well-built housing association flats, ending in a row of shops outside West Didsbury tram stop that were a little further down the economic scale from the village centre.  There was still a deli and a hair salon, but there was also a chemist and a newsagent, and the restaurant on the end was a Pizza Express.  I love a Sloppy Giuseppi as much as the next man but now they're everywhere; they're Nandos with a crispy crust.  I was more intrigued by the pub over the way, the Greenfinch, which had an outsized leather armchair in the garden and an appealing looking sturdiness.  Is it too early for a pint? I wondered, then remembered it was barely eleven a.m. and felt ashamed. (Dry January is not a movement I subscribe to, because my birthday is slap in the middle of it and I refuse to be sober on that day, but I did wonder if I should re-examine my drinking habits).


There was still a Christmas tree outside the tram stop.  A few days after Twelfth Night, fine, but this was three weeks into the New Year; take it down, it's just depressing now.  A persistent Christmas tree is a reminder that the good times are gone.  The tram was pulling in below me, so I dashed down and snatched a hurried picture.


Burton Road came with a warning from the future.  That vague fancy for a pint of bitter had registered with the gods, and they put on a bit of street theatre to knock me back on the path of righteousness.  Two drunks fell out of the tram with me, rolling over each other, cans of lager in hand.  They staggered towards the exit, taking in their surroundings with an unsteady stare of suppressed anger.  I hung back and let them get way ahead, and considered switching to alcohol free beer.  (I didn't of course, because no-one drinks beer for the taste, but I did at least consider it).


At street level, West Didsbury's Pizza Express had been replaced by a Pizza Hut Delivery outlet, and that seemed about right.  There were still restaurants and pubs, but they were homier and less polished.  They were also more ethnic; Didsbury's restaurant scene had seemed resolutely European, but here there were Indian and Chinese options. 


I walked past a boutique called Bond, which obviously caught my attention, and turned right into Cavendish Road.  Opposite, a good old-fashioned hardware store clung on, the kind of place I love to see as I whizz by on my way to B&Q.


There was the noise of children in the playground fizzing in the air as I walked past tight little terraced houses.  They all had curtains or blinds or screens covering their front windows to shield the contents from passers by.  I would find that horribly depressing; never being able to look out at the street because you don't want people looking in.  Never any sunlight.  There was a pocket park, where two women in hijabs gossiped over pushchairs.  A man walked past with a shaggy Golden Retriever; the bottom half of the dog, from the belly down, was black with mud from some ill-advised jump in a pond. 


I ended up on Princess Road, the huge dual carriageway which goes from the city centre out to the M56.  Manchester is blessed with these wide, straight roads to whip traffic in and out of the suburbs.  When originally built they had tram tracks running down the centre; now the trams go beneath it on the old railway line, and it's just a strip of scabby grass.


Withington is a slightly misnamed tram stop.  The actual district of Withington is a mile away; in fact, Burton Road is closer.  It was in a bit of a desolate spot though - the tram stop is mainly there as a park and ride - and the nearest landmark was the Southern Cemetary next door, a distinctly cheerless name for a transport hub.  So Withington it was.


I got off the tram at St Werburgh's Road with two teenage girls.  They were wearing their pyjamas and had their hair pulled into tight buns; no fucks were being given, and I was scared of them.  They yammered on and I tried to work out how to take a sign pic without incurring their scorn.  I hovered a bit, so they could leave, but it seemed they were waiting for the Airport tram.  Then, blessedly, I spotted St Werburgh's Road has an arch, and I dashed off before they noticed I was fat and old and decided to tell me.


I'd been here before as well, in 2011, but that was before the line had even opened.  Back then I'd never ridden a Metrolink tram.  What a different time it was.  Again, I took a different route; I hate to repeat myself.  I vanished into a road of semis, heralded by the noisiest cat I have ever heard.  From the first moment I turned into the street I heard its mewling, but I couldn't see it anywhere.  I assumed it was close.  A few minutes walk and I finally spotted it, sat calmly on the pavement opposite, miaowing repeatedly for no apparent reason.  It fixed me with a cold stare and I carried on, still hearing its bellow.


A quick kink, a glimpse of a distant office tower, and I arrived in Chorlton Cum Hardy, which is a filthy name.  It sounds like a Tumblr slashfic about Chorlton and the Wheelies; I can see why Metrolink went for the far tamer "Chorlton" for the name of its stop.  The shops here were rough and unkempt, a Chicken Cottage, a Star News, the brilliantly named Booze Corner.  It did feature something I'd never seen before: a Metrolink inspired cafe.  In London, you often see Tube-related business, skirting the copyright law to hang off the back of the famous brand, but this was my first tram-based one.


They've got the font and the white circles and everything.  Sadly, that seemed to be it for the theme; I don't think there were booths in the shape of trams or anything. 


I took three pictures at Chorlton and that was the most flattering.  IMAGINE.


A busy tram arrived and took me to Firswood.  And hurray, another arch!  I really can't work out why some stops have arches and some don't.  Stops with access from an overbridge seem to have them more often, but Chorlton didn't, and I've been to stops with level exits that have them too.  It's not a particular branch, or an era of opening; they've been applied to older routes as well as the new ones.  It's a shame, because they're about the only piece of distinctive station furniture the Metrolink has.  The rest of it's just a posh bus stop. 


Firwood is on the fringe of Old Trafford, as I realised when I saw signs advising Permit Holders Parking on "event days".  What a monumental pain in the arse it must be to have two major sports stadia on your doorstep; just as the football season finishes, the cricket starts, and you spend your Saturday picking chip papers out of your hedge.


I walked along the straight-as-a-die Seymour Grove towards Trafford, which was a mistake.  The lack of landmarks or even curves meant my mind wandered, or rather, turned inwards.  I slipped into darker thoughts, thoughts of death and decay.  I've turned 41, a frighteningly adult age and one which means I'm probably in the second half of my life; on top of that, my mum's finally retired and the BF's mum is in a nursing home.  Everything seems to be winding down, and it's been weighing on my mind a lot.  I became distracted and downcast.


It didn't help that my surroundings were resolutely unlovely, a strip of tarmac with mean looking semis crouching against the traffic.  The office towers, from a distance, looked mildly impressive, until you got close and realised they'd been turned into dark apartments.  The only joy was a house with a beautifully crafted pair of front doors, made out of wood and easily the best bit of the entire building. 


While Didsbury's Aldi had received a makeover, this one hadn't even survived; the building was shuttered and up for lease, the Iceland next door hanging up a faintly desperate Open as Usual banner.  Then a strip of takeaways with pictures of food in the window, none of which looked even vaguely appealing, just lumps of brown with lettuce.  The subtle menus and outdoor terraces of South Manchester were a long way away.

Trafford Bar had a delightful surprise; a proper station building.


This had been Old Trafford railway station until 1991; remember that Old Trafford tram stop, which is next to the cricket ground, was called Warwick Road when it was served by trains, and the station next to the soccer stadium is called Manchester United Football Ground.  Frankly I'm surprised anyone ever got to any events by public transport, as they all seemed to be deliberately named to confuse outsiders.


It was a nice little building, with interesting features, but sadly missing a purpose now.  Metrolink doesn't need ticket halls, and there are roads either side for access, so the building sits empty and unloved.  I went down to the platform and discovered the grimmest tram stop yet.


It had, just barely, been converted from its railway days, but the facilities were terrible; an actual bus stop on the southbound platform, while the northbound shelter was just a bit of corrugated tin supported by struts.  There was a turnstile at the side, a practical measure to accommodate football crowds on the one hand, a harsh-looking barrier on the other.  The only plus was that this was the end of my trip; not a high, by any means, but at least I could head home.  That always makes me smile.


Monday, 4 December 2017

Map! - The Greyening

There's been, over the last few months, a quiet design revolution at Merseytravel.  I'm not sure if this has been a corporate-led initiative, or if they've employed a couple of new, go ahead designers, but suddenly there's been an upswing in the quality of the promotional material produced by the PTE.  The posters are a little wittier and cleverer - this one, for example:


Or these two advertising term time travel, which I love.  They're simple, striking and fun; they catch the eye and give you the info you need.  Side by side like this they make a real impression.


Meanwhile a new symbol has appeared, the "bubbles" which tie the Merseytravel logo to the transport type.  It's swept across the county's bus stops and it looks good: modern, still in the corporate yellow and grey, and easy to understand.


A new Merseyrail map under this creative team should be great.  Can you hear the sadness creeping into my voice?  Because the new map is different, certainly, but it's not great.


(Click the pic to see it larger).

I'll start by apologising for the poor presentation of the new map.  I'd like to show it taken directly from the Merseytravel website, but they're still using the old map.  And by old, I mean a version dated 11/09 - yes, November 2009 - which still shows the Wirral Line loop as a square.  It may not have a bunch of new lines on it every six months, but come on; that's just lazy.  So I'm afraid you're going to have to rely on photos taken by me on a bright day at Hooton station and try and look past the reflections.

Initial thoughts: too much grey.  Grey border, grey info, grey everywhere.  There's no need for that grey backdrop to the map, especially as it highlights the mismatch in width between the map box and the station key underneath.  They don't align and it looks clunky.


Oddly I don't mind the grey being used to show the Merseytravel area.  That bit works for me; it makes the blue/green/red of the lines stand out more.  They're now definitely more important than the grey "other lines".  Although what's with that notch in the grey above Little Sutton?  That's either a glitch or an excessive dedication to the geographical boundaries of Merseyside.


And did you notice this isn't a Merseyrail map?  For the first time ever, this is headed "Local Rail Network Map" rather than Merseyrail.  The local rail company is relegated to the box at the bottom, just one of the transport providers:


Yes, I know that technically a Merseyrail map would show the Northern and Wirral lines and nothing else, but the diagram headed "Tube Map" in London should only show Tube services yet finds room for the Overground and trams and the Dangleway.  It's a change that makes me sad, but I can acknowledge it's perhaps a change for the better - or at least, the more accurate.  It's interesting to note that Northern are listed only for the City Line services, not for, say, Southport to Wigan; and that Arriva Trains Wales doesn't get a mention at all despite the Borderlands Line still occupying a prominent position.  Perhaps they didn't want to clutter up what is already a very cluttered bottom panel. 


A new addition is the logo for a Merseyrail bus station and Travel Centre, which seems like a good, logical addition... until you see how it's been applied.  The logo appears six times on the map.  Bootle New Strand and Huyton's Travel Centres are within shouting distance of their station; St Helens' is a very short walk away, so it's fine that they get the logo next to their station.  Lime Street has Queen Square, which is conveniently located if you come out of the right exit of the underground station; otherwise, it's a bit of a hike.  The logo at James Street is a fat lie, unless you think that a trek down the Strand is a handily located interchange. 

Birkenhead's travel centre symbol, meanwhile, is a collective throwing up of hands.  It's closest to Conway Park station, but of course, Conway Park doesn't have "Birkenhead" in its name.  So they've simply stuck the symbol next to the giant BIRKENHEAD on the map, tucking it in the notch of the Wirral Lines, and giving absolutely no clue which of the three stations nearby is closest. 


(Merseytravel's seventh Travel Centre is within Southport railway station, yet it doesn't get a symbol appended to it.  Why?  Because all the buses go from Lord Street, and the logo is for Staffed Bus Station and Travel Centre).

Up there in the key you might have noticed a weird phrase - "Rail to rail interchange stations".  What they're trying to explain is that a dotted line indicates two stations withing walking distance of one another - i.e. Greenbank and Hartford.  I don't think "rail to rail interchange stations" does mean that.  They've also removed the bus link between Burscough Bridge and Burscough Junction; I'm not sure if this bus no longer exists, or if they just decided it wasn't necessary to show it any more. 

There is, sadly, a real missed opportunity for some good news on the map.  Maghull North station is being built even as we speak; it's on target to open in 2018.  It'd be nice to put it on the map as Under Construction.  But no, that quarter of the map is still the same as ever (please note the dead spider is a feature unique to Hooton and does not appear network-wide... I hope).


At the same time, Maghull North offers a little bit of hope.  Slotting it in there between Maghull and Town Green will require a redraw of the map in the very near future.  The Merseytravel boundary line will move; the gap between stations will need to be rejigged.  It means that this current version of the map is temporary.  I hope that the people responsible for those great posters at the top are given a bit of leeway to experiment and innovate.  The Merseyrail map is a great diagram that just needs honing to perfection.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Second Time Around


The moment I stepped off the tram at Hollinwood I thought "I've been here before."  I don't mean in an all-Metrolink-stops-look-the-same way; I mean it was actually familiar.  I wracked my brains; when had I previously wandered round East Manchester?  And then it came to me - almost exactly three years before, when I'd come to this part of the world with Ian and Robert.  We'd worked our way down the Rochdale line and then, when it was starting to get dark, walked from Moston station to here (looking back at the post, I realise I spelt it Hollingwood, and I apologise profusely).

I was impressed that I'd remembered it so clearly, though in truth it was mainly down to the stop's location.  It's squeezed in alongside the M60 motorway, with the giant hulk of the Trinity Mirror printing presses overshadowing it and an electricity substation at its foot.  It's not exactly a Garden of Eden is what I'm saying.


I took my sign picture on the platform, because I didn't want to get caught again like I had at Newton Heath (sure enough, once I got down to street level, there wasn't anything in the name of decent signage) and looked around.  I had to cross over the motorway, of course, and Google Maps seemed to indicate there was a junction further down the road that was bound to have pedestrian crossings.  But my eye was caught by a footbridge, running alongside the tram track and seemingly also going in the direction of my next stop.

I'm always intrigued by diversions - alleyways, signed footpaths, bridges and tunnels.  Little landscape quirks that take you away from the mainline.  I remounted the steps to the tram stop and walked confidently towards the footbridge.


It was a wide, generously constructed bridge.  Plenty of room for pedestrians and cyclists.  Fenced in to keep you safe and minimise suicides.  I'd thought this would be enough to stop my vertigo, but no, about halfway across I glanced through the mesh and saw the swarms of traffic passing under my feet and my stomach lurched about four feet to the right.  From then on I kept my eyes down, getting off there as fast as I could until I was able to pause on the other side.


The bridge, it turned out, didn't shadow the tram tracks entirely.  The path took an immediate turn to the left, so that it paralleled the M60.  In for a penny, I thought, and merrily started walking down it.  About five minutes later I realised I was walking in the wrong direction and I had no idea where I was headed.


The motorway hustled to my side, traffic muffled by the trees but still an ever-present hum.  The path was slicked with wet leaves and litter.  It seemed to be a cut through past a recreation ground, but there weren't any side routes off it.  I was being shepherded along without any clue about my destination.

It was in some ways exciting; the thrill of exploration.  In other ways, I was intimidated.  The lamp posts above the path had wire boxes around the bulbs to stop vandals smashing them; the back walls that now hemmed it in from the right had broken glass and spikes on top to stop intruders.  Finally the path broke out into a back street, and I was able to step away from the footpath and onto a proper road.


There was a tight network of terraced houses, lined along straight streets.  I followed the grid towards the main road, spotting my first Christmas decoration of the season on the way: a glowing LED reindeer in the window of one of the houses.  Just beyond it, in the gloom of the front room, I could see a white Christmas tree, fully set up.  I immediately put it out of my head.  I'm not in a Christmassy place this year.  Sometimes I've stuck I Wanna Kiss You So (Christmas In A Nutshell) on repeat from Bonfire Night; sometimes, like this year, it just hovers as a vast blackness at the end of the year, a worry and a stress that I'm sliding towards.


South Chadderton tram stop was crammed behind a park and a new development of homes for rent.  I walked down a path between the two, past a group of builders having their lunch in the front of their vans, and found it tucked away.


A quick skip on the trams and I was at Freehold. 


A low, wet cloud had descended, scattering spray over me as I disembarked the tram.  It clung to my face and my jacket and misted my glasses.  It also cast a magical gloss over the hulk of the Hartford Mill across the way.  The chimney disappeared into the clouds and made it romantic.


I strode purposefully away from the tram stop along sharply angled brick terraces.  A woman in a hijab tried to control the over-excited three year old at her feet; she had hold of an Octonauts lunchbox in one hand, and the girl's hand in the other, and it was difficult for her to keep a grip and walk while she twisted beneath her. 

I should've really twigged that something was wrong when I walked under a railway bridge just as a yellow and grey tram passed above.  I knew that I was headed for a right turn, a turn onto a main road to take me to Westwood tram stop, but it didn't seem like it was close.  When I encountered a mini roundabout, I realised something was wrong, so I whipped out Google Maps.


Yep, instead of turning left out of Freehold, I'd become so enamoured by the mess of the mill I'd turned right.  I was now virtually back in South Chadderton, so far away from Westwood it wasn't worth turning back.  I sighed and followed the curve past tiny sandwich shops and auto parts stores.  This time, instead of walking round Coalshaw Green Park, I walked through it, past silent swings and glistening bowling greens.


After a brief wait at South Chadderton alongside a lad who found the bench too complicated to work properly - he sat on the back and rested his feet on the seat - I finally disembarked at Westwood.


I got that sense of deja vu again, and I realised that the last time I'd come this way, Westwood hadn't existed.  The concrete had been there, ready for the tram stop, but the line still followed the railway route to Oldham Mumps; the town centre route hadn't been built yet.  It was deeply satisfying to know I'd witnessed the before and after.


I slowly climbed the steep hill - I was suddenly aware that I was on the edge of the Pennines - and reached Oldham town centre, close to a restaurant with the vague name of Kebabish ("Is this 100% meat in this kebab?" "Ish.").  It was one o'clock, and the schools and colleges that hugged the ring road had disgorged their students across the town centre.  Everywhere I looked there were fresh faced youths being excitable and fun and lively.  I skulked by.


Oldham King Street stop was absolutely full of them.  The sixth form college was almost next door, and they swarmed over the platforms, loud and boisterous.  I hid at one end and took a surreptitious sign picture, though for the selfie-literate kids, it was probably nothing unusual.


I boarded a hot and full tram, the windows steamed with all the packed bodies inside.  We wound our way past busy food places filled with students - chicken and burger bars swarming with kids, cafes with them sat in the window, and a disproportionate number of dessert-only restaurants.  If you want to get horribly obese, Oldham seems to be the place to go.


I'd been slightly concerned that I'd look an idiot, boarding at King Street then getting off at Central, but it turned out half the students on board were doing the same thing; it's lucky they have all those hills in Oldham forcing the kids get some exercise. 


I climbed the street into a wide open plaza around the Town Hall.  The building itself had been empty since the 90s - the council was now in the civic centre on the other side of town - and it had fallen into disrepair.  Finally, a couple of years ago, the area was redeveloped to form a new cinema complex.  It's a shame that the building has effectively been turned into a very elaborate foyer, but it's better than it falling apart.


It was an impressive bit of urban renewal, and I wondered if it would've happened without the trams.  Trams make places feel alive and modern; for such a traditional piece of public transport, they feel exciting and forward thinking.  They drape a little bit of magic across towns and add a liveliness buses can't manage. 


Back down the hill on the other side towards Oldham Mumps, the least attractive station name in the Western hemisphere.  It was the same strip of burger joints and anonymous fun pubs I'd seen a few years before - perhaps a little shabbier, but still busy.  A barmaid laughed with her regulars outside one of the pubs as they shared a fag break; a chicken shop with a couple of lads in giant parkas tucking into burgers.  Oldham isn't a particularly pretty or exciting place, but it's hard working and unpretentious.  It's hard not to like it.


Oldham Mumps station was the other side of the ring road; it hung around as a tram stop until they finally opened the town centre diversion.  Now it's waste ground, waiting for a development of shops and flats called Prince's Gate that still hasn't appeared.  I clambered onto the platform and huddled against the misty rain.  Back the way I came.  Again.