Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Autumn Fantasies

Autumn is the best season, and I will hear no argument otherwise.  Cold days where your breath crystallises in front of your face.  Breaking out gloves and scarves.  Watching the trees shift through a cycle of colours.  I bought a new jumper the other day and I was genuinely thrilled: no more t-shirts and shorts.  Instead I could wrap myself up in wool and hide in a corner of the sofa.

Winter is too grey, summer is too hot, spring just too damn perky ("Witness the boundless magnificence of nature!").  Autumn brings cold snaps, and mists, and rain storms that hammer at the windows while you drink a cup of tea and watch it fall.

To take advantage of this fantastic season, I set up a trip into the hills of Lancashire.  I wanted rain and grey skies; unfortunately it was one of those atypical warm days, and I peeled off my raincoat with a slight sadness.  I was in Darwen, between Manchester and Blackburn at the foot of the Pennines.

Apologies for the slightly weird photo featuring my apparently eight foot long arm.  I've had to replace my camera, again, after the last one refused to acknowledge when the lens was open and I had to write it off.  I could have got it repaired, but the cost was half the price of a new one, and that's just bad economics.  As with all new gadgets, it takes a bit of time to get used to.  Expect to see the quality of the pictures ramp up exponentially throughout the rest of this blog.

Darwen welcomed me with a boarded up pub and a sandwich board advertising "all your household needs - E-cig flavours 4 for £10"; across the street, a pair of parents stood by watching while their adorable little brat smacked the hell out of a roadsign.  It wasn't making the best impression, and a magnificent chapel with the words A JD Wetherspoon Free House over the top didn't help.

A turn round the corner, and it slightly redeemed itself; the road dropped away into town, so I was able to look beyond the Asda superstore and the multi-storey and see the hills on the other side of town.  There was also the impressive dome of a library, but as is always the case when I visit anywhere, it was the one day of the week it was closed.

I cut through the half-empty market hall, where stallholders milled around waiting for customers.  The local Rotary Club were selling Lego bricks for a pound to help build a model of the town's Jubilee Tower; they hadn't yet reached the top of the ground floor.

Darwen went from a tiny hamlet to a town in a few short decades, thanks to the manufacturing of textiles, and the town has a uniformity of styles that points to it having come together in a relatively short space of time.  The hefty brick India Mill still stands on the edge of the town centre, now converted into business units, and with the tower visible from pretty much everywhere.

I was heading steadily upwards, out of town and into the countryside.  Terraces of houses slid down the hill away from the main road, interspersed with the occasional brick block of flats.

There seemed to be a disproportionate amount of home furnishing suppliers; wallpaper shops and sofa shops and interior decorators.  I thought that maybe the people of Darwen were just really, really houseproud; it turns out Crown Paints used to be based in the town, and anaglypta was manufactured here for years until the factory closed in the early 2000s.  I imagine a lot of these businesses were experts from the old factory making good use of their redundancy money.

There was another surprise, tucked away to the side of the Bolton Road: a tram turning area.  Darwen was the first town in Britain to get a steam-powered tram network, opening in 1881.  As you can probably imagine, steam trains barreling down the main streets of the town weren't too popular, and they were gone by 1901.

Ignoring the curious stare of a woman with a spaniel who clearly couldn't work out why anyone would want to take a picture of some mossy tram tracks, I pressed on.  Up the hill I continued, my gippy ankle moaning with every step.  This is what it is to get old.  Be warned, youthful readers.

Past the town cemetaries, and then the homes thinned out.  There was a country park built on a landfill site and the single story building of the Ocean Palace Chinese Restaurant.  The countryside began to shift from the manicured, well-tended greenery by the town to the wilder moors.

I felt strangely lonely.  There were cars and homes but I didn't see any other people, and it became oppressive.  I began to run through scenarios in my head - never a good thing when you're a depressive with a wild imagination - scenarios where I was alone, the BF dead, me becoming a kind of hermit in one of the farm houses I could see in the distance.  Living off dried food and bread, not leaving the house.  Eking out my days, just waiting for death.

This kind of train of thought is why I am such a big hit at parties.

With my own personal rain cloud hanging over my head, I turned off the main road and onto a footpath.  A single sheep stared at me from its enclosure, its face almost quizzical; as I was wearing a white woolly jumper, I can only assume he thought I was some kind of freakishly ugly relative.

It wasn't exactly a road I was walking on, more a gravelled track, and it was pretty dull.  The scenery was magnificent of course but the relentless crunch of the stones under my boots was getting wearing.  I checked my OS map and found a side path, one that took me over a stile and onto a grassy route through the fields.  Far more interesting.

Almost immediately I rolled over on my already fractious ankle.

Still, at least I didn't feel like chucking myself off the nearest ridge any more.  There's a big difference between being lonely and being alone.  On that road, with traffic and houses ignoring me, I'd felt small and unloved.  In the wilds, though, there was no-one but me, and that was actually enjoyable.  I was the only person for miles, and it felt liberating.  Perhaps I would enjoy living in a flint cottage away from civilisation.

As I got closer to the woods, the ground became softer, wetter.  Hidden bogs sucked at my boots.  Moss concealed swamps beneath.  I darted across them, trying to minimise my tread, until I was on the safety of a needle strewn path beneath the trees.  The air was flavoured with pine.

I could see hints of blue through the trees, the still water of the Turton & Entwistle Reservoir.  The idea of being the only person beside that gently rippling lake was intoxicating, and I dashed down the hill to get closer.

It was a fantasy soon destroyed.  The reservoir itself was gorgeous, of course.  Late morning sun highlighting each movement of the water; the blue matching the sky.  The trees softening the edges and holding it.

The problem was all the people.  What you can't see in that picture are the two power walking women, yammering in voices that carried all the way across the lake and probably to Clitheroe.  You can't hear the girl and her fiance, discussing the forms she'd just filled in:

"Did you put Miss or M-S?"

"I put Miss.  M-S is Missus."

"No it's not.  M-R-S is Missus."

"Then what's M-S?  Is that Master?"

Best of luck with your forthcoming nuptials, folks, but for the sake of human society, don't breed.

It carried on like that all round the lake.  Grandfathers with toddlers in pushchairs.  Joggers.  Men walking fat waddling dogs.  Fishermen.  I resented all of them, not just for disturbing my peace, but also for getting here the easy way.  They'd all just parked up somewhere and wandered down.  They hadn't tramped over fields full of sheep poo and got their legs soaked by the dew on long grass.  Lazy.

I turned off the lakeshore and instead headed back into the woods, taking an off the map shortcut to the road.  Brown leaves, still new enough to have not dried out, carpeted the forest floor.

The tiny hamlet of Entwistle snuck up on me.  I hadn't expected there to be houses; I thought the station dropped you in an uninhabited wilderness, like Middlewood,  Instead I had a row of tiny cottages, culminating in an impressive manor house (which is currently for sale).

More importantly, there was a pub.  I knew that was going to be there, because my research for this blog usually consists of is there somewhere I can get a pint?  It had formed a valuable part of my Autumn fantasy, where I would stagger into the isolated pub, buffeted by the rain and wind.  I'd get a pint and dry out in front of a fire, while the locals talked in the background.

The warm clear weather may have robbed me of the cosiness, but the Stawbury Duck (sic) was still a pleasing pub, made of different rooms and with a good selection of beer and food.  I ordered a pint and a lamb burger, and sat in the back room.

The biggest problem I had with the Strawbury Duck was it was "dog friendly".  I like dogs, and dogs in pubs are obviously ace, but there is one minor flaw: dogs don't always like each other.  Two couples in the main bar had brought their pets in with them, and they had developed an instant dislike (the animals; I'm not sure what the status of the owners was).  They yapped and yelped at one another, taking turns to bark and irritating me thoroughly.  Not the animals - they were just being dogs - but the owners, who just let them get on with it.  The only attempt to bring them to heel was the occasional "shush, Poppy".  How about you move into a different room instead of creating this simmering hotbed of canine tension?

Full of chips and onion rings and beer, I headed down to the station platform, skidding a little (because the tarmac was wet, not because I was drunk, HOW DARE YOU).

The line's been singled through here, another of those false economies the rail network does in an attempt to hobble itself as thoroughly as possible.  On top of that, Entwistle's a request stop, my first in a long time.  I kicked my heels on the platform ready for the train back to Manchester.  On the way, my hoped for rainstorm finally arrived, but all I could do was stare longingly at it through the window.

My arm is still huge.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Downward Spiral

Sometimes people say a tiny little phrase and it sticks in your head.  Sheffield residents Fiona and Ruth both refer to Sheffield's out of town megamall as "Meadowhell", and so I headed for it with some trepidation.  I was imagining a kind of hideous temple to Mammon, overstuffed, overlit, overpriced.

Instead it was a little time capsule of what shopping malls used to be like: the American model, shipped over wholesale and dropped on the edge of Sheffield.  I went to a large mall in Charlotte, North Carolina once, and Meadowhall gave me serious deja vu.  It was all there - the shiny marble floors, the pillars, the Roman Temple via Las Vegas decorations.  Two floors of shops with ample free parking.  And a dome, of course.  There's always a dome, so you can spot it from the motorway.  I've never been to the Trafford Centre, but I imagine it's just like this, only bigger.

I went up to the first floor, because the BF had asked me to get him a boiled egg slicer from Lakeland (don't ask), then back down again.  There was a waterfall between the escalators, its prettiness ruined by the heavy scent of chlorine.  I should imagine it was Meadowhell on a Saturday morning, when there were harassed mums and unwilling dads and bored teenagers hanging off the balustrades gobbing their chewing gum into the hair of passers by below, but on a weekday morning it seemed perfectly fine.  The main irritation for me was that it existed at all.  There were shops here that wouldn't open branches in Sheffield now; too close, too down at heel, too many hazards involving parking and so on.  I hope this kind of building is on its way out in this country as we rediscover the cities.  Liverpool One has shown how a new shopping centre can be open and attractive and an asset to the city without putting up barriers; the same for post-bomb Manchester.  America's malls are dying as shopping habits change, and this could be a real opportunity for Britain's cities to reassert themselves.

A brief pause at Greggs for a bit of lunch on the go - is it just me, or have Steak Bakes got smaller? - and then I headed out of the mall towards the Meadowhall Interchange.  That's a positive difference between Meadowhall and their US equivalents: if you don't have a car in America you just can't visit these shopping centres, and, to be frank, they don't want you.  I once tried to visit a mall in Charlotte on foot and it involved a dash across four lanes of traffic (there was no pedestrian crossing), a walk on a snow covered verge (there was no pavement) and a long trek across acres of vacant tarmac to get in (there was no footpath).  I was surprised they let people actually walk around the mall itself, and didn't just make the whole thing a drive thru.

Meadowhall Interchange combines rail, bus and tram into one super access point.  It could get even bigger if HS2 ever comes along; the plans call for Sheffield to have its station on the new line here.  That would be a mistake.  If HS2 goes to the fringe of the city then so will other services as a way of interchanging with it.  There will be a slow creep away from the main station and out to Meadowhall.  It'll cost more money and be more difficult to send the high speed line through the city centre, of course, but if the project is to really connect to northern cities it has to actually serve them, not a distant park and ride on the edge.  I hope the city council is pressing for there to be a change in the plans.

I was heading up the line to visit Swinton.  There are two Swintons on the Northern Rail map, and I'd always planned on visiting them on the same day.  However, the Farnworth tunnel works mean that the Swinton in Greater Manchester is just getting a bus service at the minute, and with no end in sight, I decided to just get South Yorkshire out the way.

The train slid past the county's last steelworks, now owned by an Indian conglomerate, and deposited me on an isolated platform.  Ahead of me was a woman and her daughter, arms full of bags from Meadowhall, already lighting cigarettes as they stepped down off the train.

I'll say this for Travel South Yorkshire, they're good at integrating their transport facilities.  Swinton had a generous car park and a turning circle for buses to use.  It also had, for reasons I couldn't fathom, a graveyard for dead bus shelters.

Years of reading Go Fug Yourself mean I have an automatic urge to write Swinton in all caps - SWINTON - as a tribute to acclaimed actress and demi-human Tilda Swinton.  It would certainly save any confusion over the two Northern Swintons if one was always written in caps, with the accompanying emphasis when you pronounced it.  Perhaps they could build a statue of Tilda outside, doing one of her regular activities - winning an Oscar, participating in a polyamorous relationship on a small Scottish island, communicating with her alien overseers.  Something like that.

I headed into SWINTON itself and found another of those ridiculously steep hills that South Yorkshire is cursed with.  There were not one, but two working men's clubs, the second advertising its bingo night with the phrase "bring yer dabber!".  A fine library had been turned into flats and was now "Carnegie House".  I felt like going back in time and telling Andrew Carnegie not to bother building all these educational establishments for the betterment of society; in a hundred years they'd just be flogged off and his investment would have been wasted.

Across the street, two women were walking a tiny dog.  As with most tiny dogs, it was yapping incessantly, until the younger one snapped and screamed, "shurrup, will ya!"  Surprisingly, this didn't placate it.

A dodgy looking Flat Roofed Pub (© Jon Dryden Taylor), a sports bar that advertised "credit crunch prices all day", a row of shops with one of the largest Bargain Boozes I've ever seen - SWINTON wasn't grabbing me.  Not even a house with a red phone box in its front garden could sway me.  Nor the fully dressed mannequin inside the phone box.

(That house is owned by a psychopath, yes?)

At the top of the hill, older SWINTON took over, with a charming chapel and an traditional pub with a sagging roof.  There was a pocket park with a piece of artwork in it that probably commemorated the millennium, or the Queen's Golden Jubilee, or something, but to me just looked like a load of metal they had left over from a real bit of art.

The road carried on uphill after that, and I realised I'd had enough.  It wasn't just that my aching ankle was nagging at me.  It was just all a bit miserable.  After the delights of Sheffield, this felt like a real comedown.  It didn't help that a couple of days before I'd been swooning over Hebden Bridge and Halifax, so the hangover was doubled.

There was a man over the road waiting at a bus stop, so I dashed over and, sure enough, there was a bus into Rotherham due any minute.  Since my ticket also covered buses - Travel South Yorkshire's commitment to integrated transport again - I thought, sod it, and jumped on board.

Incidentally, compare that with the picture of the Supertram I posted yesterday.  See what I mean about a bus on rails?

I'd not known it before I visited, but Rotherham was currently playing host to an important conference: The Annual Convention of Loitering Scallies.  Every street, every corner, came complete with a party of rough looking teens, eyeballing passers by and necking Red Bull.

I clutched my wallet close and did a circuit of the town centre.  It was in a bad way.  If Meadowhall had impacted a little on Sheffield, it must have been devastating for Rotherham.  There were pound shops, payday loan places, the lowest level of bargain clothes shops.  If you wanted anything better than a Bon Marche outfit, you'd have to head off to Meadowhall.  To make things worse, a huge Tesco Extra crouched on the ring road, right behind the bus exchange, giving you all your weekly food shop plus clothes, electronics, a pharmacy... You didn't need to go into town; you could get everything you wanted from that one store.

There were a few highlights: the impressive Minster, a couple of buildings that had been attractively preserved, a pretty square.  The rest was misery inducing.

I decided to cut my losses and headed for the station.  The River Don passes right through the town centre, and the addition of a canal behind it has created an island in the centre of town.  Anywhere else and this would be a huge asset, a spot for a restaurant quarter perhaps, or expensive flats.  Instead Rotherham turns its back on it: the roads don't shadow the river banks, and it was home to the town's Tesco until the Extra opened.  Now it's a car park.  The island's only asset is the fifteenth century bridge chapel, hidden away and ignored.

The station reinforces Rotherham's determination to be second class.  The main route from Sheffield to Leeds runs through the town, but at a distance from the centre so the station wasn't as well used as it could have been.  In the 1980s, a plan was drawn up to get the line closer to town, and a line was built branching off from the mainline to a new station by Forge Island.  The old station was then demolished.

The problem was, they left the old lines in place.  They'd made the Sheffield-Leeds line faster, by removing a station, and stuck Rotherham off over there.  A lot of the trains stop at Rotherham, but an equal amount of trains don't.  They quite literally sidelined it.

Even the station they built was inadequate; it only lasted 25 years before it was demolished and replaced with the current building.  The new one opened in 2010, and it's a good station - light and airy and a landmark.  You need a station to stand out.  People need to instantly spot it.

I headed down to the platform feeling sad about the state of the town.  It's hard being the junior partner in sister towns: being Bradford, not Leeds, or Birkenhead instead of Liverpool.  The best way to deal with it is to acknowledge your debt to the larger town and carve your own niche.  Rotherham was going about it the very worst way.  It was letting Sheffield take everything from it, like one of those vanishing twins who are absorbed by the larger foetus in the womb.

I needed something to cheer me, and once again, Sheffield came to the rescue.  The Refreshment Rooms at the station were abandoned in the 1960s, but a few years ago some investors took over the spot and refurbished it.

The result is the Sheffield Tap, a glorious real ale pub that serves wonderful beers in a fantastic setting.  I picked the Pennine Pale, pretty much at random, and immediately fell in love with its rich flavour.  You can buy cases of it here (also, it's nearly Christmas, JUST SAYING).

A pint of fine beer in a beautiful station pub.  To me, that's perfection.