Sunday, 16 April 2017

A New Low


Miss me?  Actually don't answer that.

Yes, like a certain other bearded traveller, I'm back from the dead this Easter.  I've been out on the trains again, for one simple reason: Low Moor.  Northern's newest station (sort of) opened on April 2nd, so I considered it my duty to head on over.  A TransPennine service to Leeds, a change, and there I was, out on the edge of Bradford.

There was a station at Low Moor for decades, until the good Doctor Beeching closed it down in 1965.  Weirdly, getting rid of the station didn't get rid of the locals' desire for a fast, efficient train service into the city, so fifty-odd years later the whole thing was rebuilt and reopened.  We could have saved an awful lot of time and money by just not bothering to close it in the first place, but there you go.

It's not beautiful, Low Moor.  Tarmac platforms and utilitarian lift shafts; lots of grey metal, some of it still being painted by workers in hi-vis boiler suits.  There's no ticket office, no staff of any kind,  though there is a car park.  It's functional and unglamorous, but it's there.  That's the most important thing. It's there.  And being used, too; there were passengers waiting on the platform, and a railfan on the overbridge snapping a picture.

Most important of all, it has a station sign.

It's like I never went away.

The question was, what to do now?  Normally I'd go onto the next uncollected station of course, but I've done them all.  The nearest station, geographically, was Bradford Interchange, but I was there only last summer - practically yesterday.  I didn't feel like I had anything new to say.  I looked at the map, traced a few routes, and thought to myself: Leeds isn't that far away, is it?

SPOILERS: actually it is.

I headed down the hill into Oakheaton, a far better name for a railway station if you ask me.  Plenty of stone-covered terraces, placed perpendicular to the pavement so you saw a parade of washing lines in the back yards, and a big old Victorian park.  The Working Mens Club noticeboard had a reminder about paying your subs, and previewed an upcoming appearance from Sonya - no, not the Scouse Eurovision chanteuse, but instead a woman with bleached blonde hair and thick black glasses.  Like Jenny Eclair.  There was a small row of shops, with a closed butcher advertising meats from Lower Woodlands Farm.  I entered Kirklees borough close to a miserable flooring company; rolls of carpet propped up against the wall outside, their bases damp and mouldly looking - and reached the centre of the village.

I was heading east though, so I took a side road under the M606, one of those half-finished spur motorways you find all over the north.  They were started enthusiastically in the 1970s, sent in the direction of somewhere useful, but ran out of money and political support before they reached anywhere you'd actually want to go.  Instead of heading into Bradford, the M606 peters out at the edge of the city, a mere two junctions after it started.

The M606 also seems to be a geographic border, because I'd barely emerged out the other side before a sign welcomed me back to the City of Bradford.  There was an incredibly forlorn looking recreation ground, just a couple of swings in the middle of a field, but I didn't mind because I'd needed the toilet since New Pudsey.  If it had been a nice park I might have felt guilty about nipping behind the bushes and peeing.

From there, the road began its slow, steep climb up the hill.  This is something I always forget to check when I plan my routes.  On Google Maps the road is just a straight line, but in reality, it's a series of climbs and descents.  Soon I was huffing and sweating, ducking to avoid brambles poking out of the hedge, trying not to catch my hand on the stinging nettles - except for when I didn't, ow.  A horse stuck its head over the fence at me in the hope I had a treat.  When I just stroked his nose, he got bored and wandered off.

There wasn't even a decent view as reward for my hike into the heavens.  All I could see were big grey boxes, the bulky units of the Euroway Industrial Estates.  Distribution hubs and factories, parts centres and engineering firms, belching out white smoke across the valley.

Boy Lane - yes, really - took me back into the suburbs.  I left the main road and disappeared into the long curved streets and impeccable symmetry of a council estate.  It should have been a pleasure - I love a good estate, laid out by a post-war town planner in the municipal buildings using set squares and curves.  Some of it was like that, with good, large homes for heroes, but it had been ruined by "regeneration".  New houses had been speckled in amongst the old ones.  Next to the large semis built by the council they looked mean and undersized.  Worse, they didn't follow the street lines; they curved into cul-de-sacs, or were set back from the pavement haphazardly.  The planned vistas were broken up.

Three women bounded out of a house, the third pushing a child in a chair with one hand and holding a mobile to her ear with the other.  She was bellowing.  At first I thought she was talking to her mates, who were slightly ahead, but then I realised, no, she was shouting into the phone.  It wasn't an angry shout - she was just yelling to make herself heard.  Twenty odd years of mobiles becoming commonplace and we still haven't quite worked out how to use them.  Although, having said that, I almost never use my phone for actually calling people; when it rings I look at it as if it was an alien creature come to life.

A cut down the side of the Hallmark factory - not the puppy dog and daffodil scented haven of loveliness you'd have guessed from their treacly output, but instead a big ugly box - and I was on the main street of the brilliantly named district of Tong.

You can forgive all sorts of grimness if a place is called Tong.  Half empty shops?  Newspapers shouting the arrest of a paedophile?  Druggies loitering on a street corner suspiciously?  Tong had all of these, but it was called TONG, so I was too busy smirking to care.  It was a rough, hardened place, the kind of district where it always feels like it's about to rain.  A banner on a fence advertised a tanning place called Hotter than Hell - 38p a minute - and even the Conservative Club looked like it needed a few quid's investment.

I ducked under a sign for places too Northern sounding to actually exist - Drighlington, Gomersal, Heckmondwike - and passed the vast modern campus of Tong High School, all glass bricks and white walls.  Soon I was out in the countryside again, albeit on a busy road filled with trucks heading for the M62.  At one point, on a hillside, I suddenly got a glimpse of Leeds.

Not exactly the shining city on a hill, but it was good to see anyway.  It just looked quite a long way away.  I'd already been walking for an hour and a half, but those skyscrapers at the centre of Leeds looked really distant.

It didn't matter though, because I was enjoying this.  I missed this.  Since I stopped the blog, I've barely left the house.  I've become a semi-shut in.  The BF's elderly mother has reached the stage where she needs to be woken in the morning, dressed, fed.  Our lives now rotate around that schedule and it means you can't go anywhere for more than a couple of hours.  The BF is fine about me going out on my own - positively encourages it - but it's not the same, and any time I do go away it's tinged with the guilt that he's at home chopping up a Cornish pasty for his mum's lunch while I'm enjoying myself.

Plus, there's the whole question of where would I go?  Collecting the Northern map gave me a reason to go out and explore.  I discovered places I would never otherwise have visited, just because they were on the map.  It gave me a structure for my exploration.  I love going to new places, and the map showed me where to go.

I almost started again a couple of months ago.  Coming back from visiting my mum at Christmas, my train was diverted through the edge of Birmingham.  I saw a chain of small, entirely unknown to me stations pass by and thought: I wonder?  I got home and pulled up the London Midland map, worked out what kind of ranger tickets I could use and thought, should I?  Should I go and collect another rail map?

I was all ready to start.  I'd sorted a day with the BF.  I'd planned where I was heading - Telford, and thereabouts.  And then... I didn't go.  Because I realised I didn't care.  I didn't have the curiosity and the enthusiasm that I had for the Northern map.  I was just going to the Midlands because it had a map.  I didn't see places that sparked curiosity in me: I just saw a list to be crossed off.  This is an expensive, tiring hobby to have; I have to at least enjoy it.  And I know me: I know that if I'd started on that map, I wouldn't stop until it was finished, even if I hated every moment of it.  I couldn't leave it uncollected.

Which still leaves me with the fact that I was enjoying walking from one railway station to another and missing the days when I did it all the time.  And a need to find something to fill this hole I have in my life.  A purpose.  I'm not sure I have one any more.

The Manor Golf Club signaled a return to civilisation - or as civilised as a golf course can be.  They were publicising a dinner and dance evening with "Miss Francis, Lady of Motown".  Now I don't want to get all judgmental here, but I couldn't help but notice that Miss Francis was more than a little bit - well, white.  Somehow calling yourself a "Lady of Motown" when you're paler than pasteurised milk seems a bit off.

It was bin day in Drighlington, and I shadowed the lorry all the way into the village centre.  When did we stop calling bin lorries "dustcarts", by the way?  That was the only word we used for them when I was growing up, and now it never gets used.  I blame the invention of the wheely bin.  (Sorry, I turned forty since my last blog post, and so I'm now required to grumble impotently about the modern world on a regular basis.  Such is the lot of the middle-aged man).

There was a delightful surprise in the centre of the village: a gigantic painted sign for "Larkspur Soft Drinks".  It was a gleaming beacon of colour and frivolity.

Larkspur was a short-lived soft drink in the Seventies, and they'd painted an advert on the side of a building here.  It lingered for decades after the brand had gone the same way as Quatro and Tab Clear, until, in 2014, the Parish Council paid for it to be restored.  It's quite wonderful.  Strange how joyous this hand painted advert for a product that doesn't exist any more seems, compared with the studiously posed photo billboards your eye slides past a thousand times a day.  It's like your brain realises that this is art, and needs to be appreciated as such.  I'm not sure if "a billion bubbles a bottle" is a verifiable claim, though; might want to check with the Advertising Standards Authority on that.

Drighlington had become a dormitory village, the school now apartments, new developments squeezed onto the outskirts of town.  Two women in neon pink and green outfits power walked across the road, their backsides spinning circles, before disappearing down a public footpath.  I pulled my loose shirt over my expansive beer gut and kept my head down.

The road was climbing again, and this time my body protested even louder.  My right knee registered its protest, and my feet were dotted with the sharp pains that hinted at blisters to come.  Maybe not doing any exercise for months and then suddenly deciding to walk ten miles wasn't the best plan of action.  I need to remind myself of how old and unfit I am now.

Cockersdale - steady now - was grimier and messier than Drighlington, its buildings vaguely disheveled.  Behind the abandoned Co-op store was a compound for fairground travellers.  Caravans and mobile homes mixed in with tarpaulin-covered wurlitzers and shuttered candy floss stalls.  A couple of days later, and they'd probably be gone, off to catch the Easter holiday crowds.

Further on, an abandoned garden centre welcomed me to New Farnley.  The glasshouses were still there, but the entrance had been blocked with heavy stones.  A big pile of railway sleepers was too heavy to move and stayed behind, while above the frame for the centre's sign was empty.  I considered stopping for a pint at the Woodcock pub, maybe a bit of lunch, but I knew that if I did stop I'd never start again.  I'd have to get a bus or a taxi the rest of the way because I'd have lost the momentum.  Instead I pushed on, past 728 Whitehall Road, past the back of the cemetary, and onwards into town.

At this point, I gained a companion on the road.  A boy of about nine or ten came out of a side alley and walked along the road a few metres ahead of me.  He was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and had a backpack slung over his shoulders.  In his arms was a football.  And this is where the anxiety kicked in.

He bounced the ball as he walked.  Not the odd one or two, but constantly, over and over, dribbling the ball like a basketball player as he walked.  The plasticky beat of the ball hitting the pavement.  Thlop.  Thlop.  Thlop.

Now this was a busy A-road.  The pavement wasn't too wide.  And this boy was bouncing the ball next to a stream of cars and trucks and bikes.  Thlop.  Thlop.  Thlop.

I was tense.  I was waiting for that ball to end up in the road.  I knew it would at some point.  Even the Harlem Globetrotters drop the ball now and then.  Thlop.  Thlop.  Thlop.  I knew that ball would end up in the road, and the question was: what would happen after that?  Would a car swerve to avoid it?  Would it burst beneath a tyre?  Would the boy run out to get it?  Scenarios ran through my head, all of them ending with me having to describe what I witnessed to a policeman.  I began to pay close attention to my surroundings so I could give a proper description.  Thlop.  Thlop.  Thlop.

Then it happened.  The ball caught his foot, and shot out sideways, straight into the road.  It was, luckily, at a point where there were no cars on our side, and it passed easily under a Vauxhall in the other carriageway to rest in the gutter.  The boy, to his credit, followed the Green Cross Code to the letter: looked both ways before crossing, didn't run.  Then he came back over... and started again.  Thlop.  Thlop.  Thlop.  Except now, thanks to that little break, he was only a couple of metres in front of me.

I couldn't stand it any more.  The road had progressed into more countryside, with no side streets.  I realised he was probably heading into Leeds too, and I couldn't bear to follow that for another couple of miles, grinding my teeth and waiting for him to fall under a truck.  I put a rush of speed on so that I could overtake him.

Suddenly I wasn't the most anxious one any more.  Suddenly this young boy, who had been minding his own business, was on a country road with a large middle aged man with a sweaty, bearded face swooping towards him.  I only realised as he glanced over his shoulder for the third time just how dodgy this looked.  By that point, I couldn't stop, because that would have looked even dodgier.  Instead I barged past as he fumbled in his pocket for his mobile phone.  I kept the pace up for a while longer, despite my feet and knees both yelling at me to slow things down, until I was sure there was a fair distance between me and the terrified lad.  Then I went back to my normal pace, and hoped that I could explain all this to a police officer without sounding too odd.

On the plus side, the fear stopped him from bouncing his ball, so I didn't have to hear that thlop thlop thlop receding into the distance behind me.

A tinny version of the Match of the Day theme drifted up from a nearby industrial estate; an ice-cream van was chancing his arm with the offices there, seeing if he could tempt a couple of secretaries into a ninety-nine.  He didn't seem to be having much luck if the bored smokers on the front step of a low office block were any indication.

By now the solid bulk of Bridgewater Place was directly in my path, something to aim for.  All regional cities these days want to have a big, iconic skyscraper on their skyline to show off how modern and thrusting they are.  Manchester got the Beetham Tower, with its lopsided profile and its whistling fin.  Liverpool - which already had an iconic skyline to begin with - added the graceful West Tower, a glinting glass crystal on the waterfront.  Leeds, sadly, settled for Bridgewater Place.  There's nothing charming or glamorous or sexy about Bridgewater Place.  It's a big chunky block of a building.  It looks like it was built out of a kit, one of those model skyscrapers in the back of a future city in an early Next Generation episode, constructed out of bits they had lying round the workshop.  It's not pretty, it's just big, as though Leeds thought just having a tall building was enough.  And it's actually a hazard: it caused so much downwind in the surrounding streets, literally knocking people off their feet, that they have to close some roads on windy days.  Its only asset is that it acts as a giant "Leeds city centre is HERE" sign for the surrounding area.  They could've just put a large helium balloon on a piece of string and tied it to the top of the Town Hall and achieved the same effect.

I crossed the Ring Road and entered a world of inner city industry.  Garages and decorators; architectural salvage firms with giant rescued numbers stacked outside.  Whitehall Road brushed up against the railway then, at the Dragon Bridge, crossed over it, dropping any pretence of charm and becoming a rat run for lorries.  There was a bright spot in the none-more 1960s HQ of William G Search Ltd:

Never mind the architecture, look at that font!  Wonderful.

It was as a trudged along this tedious back road towards the city centre that I realised, to my horror, that my flies were undone.  This would be bad enough on any normal day but, if you cast your mind back to the early stages of this blog, you'll realise I last urinated about three hours and eight miles before.  I'd walked on ever since with my groin open to the elements.  No wonder that boy had been scared.  (I should point out that my pants had kept anything obscene firmly tucked away).

Now I was on the fringes of the city centre, where the big office superstores and the car showrooms and the self-storage solutions live, pressed up against the dual carriageways.  The path narrowed and directed me to... oh no.

There was no way over the road other than by a pedestrian bridge.  Regular readers (hello you!) will remember I suffer from vertigo, a condition exacerbated by being a vulnerable little human on a tiny footbridge over speeding vehicles.  I took a deep breath.  I was so close to Leeds and, more importantly, a nice sit down, so I absolutely had to get past this.  I took my glasses off - I'm always scared they'll get whipped off my face by an errant gust - gripped the handrail, and started up the ramp.  I managed to make it to the other side without screaming or crying or having a panic attack, so I count that as a victory.  The filth on my hand is testament to just how closely I clung to that rail:

As I passed a carpet showroom, a woman in the car park clipped her son over the back of the head; I took that to mean I was now properly in Leeds.  I negotiated the back streets, passing under railway bridges and finally crossing the canal to enter the new city of Wellington Place.  Leeds has built up a reputation in recent years as a financial hub, and this new, gleaming world of clean office spaces and empty piazzas certainly brought to mind the sterile world of Canary Wharf.

I allowed myself a grin as I passed the new office block at 26 Whitehall Road - remembering 728, all those hours before - and staggered further and further into the city centre in search of somewhere to rest.  I wanted somewhere cheap, somewhere that sold food - I hadn't eaten since a pastry on the train that morning - and somewhere that wouldn't judge my disheveled appearance.  I ended up in the Pret a Manger at Leeds station.  Perhaps because I like Pret.  More probably because part of my brain realised, this journey had to finish at a station.  They always do.  That's how I always end things.

(Except Ilkeston station's open now as well.  So it's not really the end.  There's still more to come).

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Gratitude Journal

I've been meaning to write this post for a while, but I've been waiting.  Partly because I'm not very good at writing things that are nice, because I am bitter and evil and cold.  But mainly because I wanted to time it right.

This is a thank you post you see, to say thank you to people who've read the blog and said nice things now it's finished.  And writing thank you posts is always hard because you have to have the right amount of dignity and coyness but also the correct level of gratitude.  You have to time it right, because you want to wait until everyone has left their nice comments so you can thank them all, but you want to do it soon enough after the post so that people notice it.  It's a complex balancing act, and if I'm honest, I think I failed here; I probably should have written it about a month ago, but there's been all sorts of shenanigans going on at home.  Plus I really wanted to take a break from writing anything.  Just clear my head for a bit.

New Year's Day though, that's a nice time for me to write a little post.  New horizons, new starts, newness.  NEW.  All those things.  It also means that I get a 2017 entry, which is nice.

So, to the fulcrum of my gist: thank you.  Thank you for the very nice things you said about the blog, both on the blog and on social media and even, weirdly, in person.  I know; actually talking to a live human being - how very 20th century.  But it was always appreciated, even though I have a very complex relationship with compliments; when you have self-esteem as low as mine a compliment is inevitably scanned a thousand times before bouncing off my carapace.  (Insults and negativity on the other hand get a free pass into every inch of my soul, which is why I am this delightful mess of a human being).

Thanks for being lovely readers, thanks for being lovely people, and thanks for existing.  Thank you.

I'm going to stop now before this turns into a Sally Field at the Oscars situation.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Better To Travel Hopefully...

Ending the blog on Manchester Piccadilly wasn't planned.  I mean, it was sort of planned - I don't just chuck these things out you know - but it mainly came about because I realised I'd forgotten about it.  I collected Oxford Road back when this blog was Round The Merseyrail We Go and the name "Merseytart" actually made sense.  I visited Victoria then too, although as I didn't actually take a sign pic, it took a few years for me to collect it properly; pleasingly, I collected it with Ian and Robert, two friends I actually made because of this blog.  And I collected Deansgate on a very special day trip to Coronation Street - the old, Quay Street set that's now been knocked down.  I saw Audrey Roberts and everything.

Manchester's other three stations covered different aspects of the blog, over the years, so it seemed appropriate to finish up at Piccadilly.  It helps that Piccadilly is a fine station.  A fantastic Victorian trainshed over busy platforms, always moving, always thronged.  It could be argued that Piccadilly is the centre of the North's rail network, perhaps only rivaled by Leeds.  Suburban and national trains pour in and out, minute after minute.  Lime Street's great of course, but as a terminus, people tend to stream straight out into the city.  People change trains at Piccadilly, so there's always life.

The station got a hefty makeover in time for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, with a new, glistening concourse and more shops.  Shops everywhere.  If you need a sandwich, or a birthday card, or even a new outfit, Piccadilly's got you covered.  And yet it doesn't feel cluttered.  A mezzanine's been strung along the back, with a curving shopping street, but there's still plenty of space for you to mill about and watch the departure screens.  They'd prefer it if you bought a crab and rocket baguette, of course, but if you just want to hang out, that's ok too.  (You might not get a seat).

I was feeling low, this being the last ever blog trip, so I headed out of the station for a bit of air.  Curving away from the entrance is Gateway House, a great 1960s office block that sidles down from the station entrance in a lazy S-shape.  For years it's been neglected, but a change of ownership has meant it's now being converted into an aparthotel.  The new windows are modern but still in keeping; the architects haven't destroyed what made Gateway House special.

Actually that's not entirely true.  For years, the parade at the base of Gateway House played host to an Ian Allen shop.  Ian Allen prints pretty much every railway book worth reading, and a lot of ones that aren't.  Their shop was a lovely place to browse, with an upstairs filled with model railway supplies.  I'd hoped to have a browse, maybe treat myself to a gazetteer, but it's gone.  Closed forever.  There's a Waitrose and a Subway, but that lovely railway bookstore has vanished.

Even more dejected, I wandered round the back of the station, past the former car park which might, one day, host the HS2 platforms.  That'll not be until at least 2032, when I'll be in my fifties.  I wonder if I'll still care?  I've realised lately how many big, elaborate projects, big national schemes, aren't going to come to fruition until I'm a pensioner.  My excitement for them now is tempered by the knowledge I'll be too old to enjoy them.  (Presuming President Trump hasn't annihilated us all by then).

I also took the time to wave at Manchester's other station, the abandoned hulk of Mayfield across the way.  Opened as a relief station for Piccadilly, it stopped taking passengers in 1960, and closed altogether in the 80s.  Now it rots, looking for purpose, always on the verge of being demolished.  Of course, I love it.

Back round the side of Piccadilly, under the viaduct for through trains.  Platforms 13 and 14 have always been hopelessly overstuffed, and they're about to get even busier once the Ordsall Chord is built and more trains can go through Piccadilly without having to reverse in the main trainshed.  Network Rail has plans to build a second viaduct, with two more platforms; you would think they'd build this first, ready for all the new trains when they come, but things never work out that way.  Instead, 13 and 14 will get much busier for a few years until 15 and 16 arrive.

I ducked into the Metrolink platforms, for a look.  I still adore the trams, and putting them in Piccadilly's undercroft makes them even better.  I just like the word "undercroft".  There's too much space for them, if anything, with a big empty concourse that never fills, but it's clean and modern and charming.  They're another part of Manchester's glistening network that's about to get bigger, with works approved for an extension to the Trafford Centre (about 20 years after it should have been built, but anyway).

And that was it.  I'd pretty much "done" Manchester Piccadilly, which is good in a way, because I can never remember how to spell it (two c's?  two d's?).  I wandered round to the front and took the final sign selfie.

End of the line.  In the run up to this day, I'd always fancied getting a meal in one of Piccadilly's restaurants to celebrate.  A kind of final hurrah.  However, even though it's overloaded with catering outfits, none of them took my fancy.  Yo Sushi terrifies me, all those domed concoctions rolling by on a conveyor belt; what if you got the wrong one?  What if you picked all the expensive ones and ended up with a huge bill?  I've only been to a Carluccio's once, and it was rubbish.  And eating in a TGI Fridays at 11:30 on a Tuesday morning, alone, would drive even the most happy and well-adjusted ray of sunshine to loop a length of cable round their throat and end it all.  I ended up, appropriately enough, in The Mayfield, Piccadilly's pub, where I ordered a Newky Brown and took a seat on the mezzanine.

I didn't feel like celebrating.  I started this blog in June 2007, a few months after I turned 30.  I didn't know it at the time, but I was in the middle of a bit of a crisis.  All the things I'd thought would happen before I was 30, all my dreams, hadn't happened.  I was in a job I didn't like.  I was going through a very rough patch with the BF that nearly finished us for good.  I didn't know who I was.

Station collecting came along and helped me.  They were a refuge.  Crossing each one off the map became a real triumph.  As it grew, as I went more and more places, it became more important in my life.  I took days off to go to places at the edge of the Merseyrail map.

Then my mind collapsed.  Depression swamped me.  I spent days in bed, not wanting to move.  And yet, this blog was still there for me.  It was a reason to get going.  It was a reason to leave the house.  As I shifted to the much larger Northern map, the pleasure of it increased.  Planning, mapping, plotting.  Excel spreadsheets full of train times.  Ordnance Survey maps covered with routes.  It became my hobby and also, in a way, my saviour.  Railway stations made me smile in a way the rest of the world didn't.

It brought other benefits, too.  I've met some fantastic people thanks to this blog, made actual, real friends.  I got invited to places, nominated for awards.  I appeared in The Guardian.  I actually know what Diamond Geezer looks like.  I got some free flip flops off Merseyrail.

It's also given me some incredible memories.  I've been all over the north of England to places I never thought I'd visit - never had a reason to go to - and it's never failed to wow me.  This is a wonderful, beautiful country we live in.  It's filled with astonishing beauty and fascinating places and great people.  Cities and towns and railway stations that we should all go to, even if it's just once, just to see.

All the memories.  Getting caught up in an apocalyptic rainstorm on the way to Squires Gate.  Hiking over the clifftops below Chathill.  Falling in a ditch somewhere around Goxhill.  A night illuminated by starlight at Kirkby Stephen.  Hot, sticky walks to Langley Mill and Chinley and Heysham Port.   Pints of beer in Selby and Ribblehead and Snaith.  Leeds and Newcastle and Bradford and Carlisle and Manchester and Liverpool and Skipton and Entwistle and Ravenglass and Mytholmroyd and Glasshoughton and Hexham and Urmston and Sandbach and Whiston and every single other spot.  Every single station has a moment associated with it.  The Northern Rail map isn't a map of places any more, it's a map of my brain.

I don't know what I'll do now.  I thought about going somewhere else.  A different railway map, a different network.  It just wouldn't be as much fun.  I'd be doing it out of duty rather than enthusiasm.  I might pop back here now and then, a little odd moment, a little hello, this is what I've been doing.  There are a couple of railway-related things I always meant to do and never did; I might do them.  I had an idea of a book, but I'm finding it hard to get it down on paper; the pressure to make it good (instead of this old guff) gets to me.  Maybe.  I just don't know.  I'm nearly 40, and this seems like a good way to bookend my thirties.  Close it off.

I finished my beer and headed down to platform 14.  I waited.  Then I took a familiar purple train home.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

As Seen On TV

The death of Victoria Wood earlier this year broke my heart.  No-one has influenced my personality and my sense of humour more than her.  As a child, I was allowed to stay up late to watch As Seen On TV: at least half the jokes must have flown over my head, but I still laughed till I cried.  My taped off the telly copies of An Audience With... and her one off playlets became lined and worn.  I got her book of sketches, Barmy, out of Luton Central Library and sat on the wall waiting for the bus reading out choice lines to my mum.  I did sketches from the book for GCSE Expressive Arts.  I even wrote about perhaps her greatest sketch, Self-Service, for my English Language A-level.

Her comedy runs through me thicker than the writing in a stick of cigarette shaped rock.  Earlier today, I saw some green moss forming at the top of our steps, and said to the BF: "we'll have to have a go at that with the Jeyes Fluid," which isn't one of her lines, but sounds like it could be.  Her language was precise, and elegant, and infinitely quotable.  Get a few gay men of a certain age round a pub table and the lines will start to drift in.  "You've a look of Eva Braun - did you know?" ...  "I said, excuse me, I was wearing leather shorts before George Foreman had a ukulele" ...  "So I leant over - tapped her on the cleavage with a pastry fork"...  "Emotional farewells, dear; they take more out of you than a hysterectomy" ... Mention Urmston and get told there's two ways to get there.  Go to post a letter and mentally hear "walk, walk, walk to the pillar box".  Spot Peter Barlow on Coronation Street and complain about when he went "off up to Scotland.  Coming back after twenty years without so much as a Scottish accent."  (It can get tiring).  And that's without mentioning her Great Railway Journey, "Crewe to Crewe", where she traveled on the Caledonian Sleeper and went to Whitby and Battersby and Carnforth and basically did this blog, only better.

Her death upset me because I realised I'd never get to meet her and tell her just how much she meant to me.  How her funny, clever, sad, heartbreaking words filled me up and made me happy year after year after year.  I wanted her to know that.  I think a lot of people wanted her to know that.  I hope she did know that.

The reason I'm bringing all this up isn't just a belated obituary.  Her passing prompted the excellent Network to release a box set, Wood Work, which collected together her work for ITV.  It's largely her very early stuff, before As Seen On TV, when she was still trying out her voice and her style.  There's Wood and Walters, her first sketch show, hamstrung by a deathly silent audience and co-stars who are very much not Duncan Preston and Celia Imrie.  There's also Screenplays, a collection of her three one-off plays: Talent, Nearly A Happy Ending, and Happy Since I Met You.  It's the last one that brings me to something resembling a point: the final scene is filmed in Manchester Victoria's buffet, and it was instantly recognisable.

That blue and white marble is still there, now scrubbed up of course.  The tables are a little classier, now it's a craft beer emporium, but it's still definitely the same.  The same can't be said for the view in the other direction.

It's like a film with Albert Finney.  The big empty space outside, now filled in with the Cheetham School of Music.  Station Approach actually in use as a road, rather than as a pedestrianised route for the Arena.  Low buildings and mist.  Then that big radiator and the plastic dinner hall chairs.  This is the cafe part of the refreshment rooms, a Pumpkin when I visited back in 2014, prior to the station being refurbished with its not actually meant to be collapsible roof.  The 1981 version is very, very British Rail:

I'm fascinated by the pork pie salad - was it really anything more than a Melton Mowbray on a pile of lettuce?  It cost 94p, anyway, a very Ministry of Works price.  Fruit juices were 24p, and a cup of tea was 16p.  I like the cafeteria from a retro, nostalgia, good old days perspective, but that doesn't hide the fact that this modernist canteen had no place in that glorious marble buffet.

There's also an earlier scene where Julie Walters is out on the station platform and it gives a glimpse of what Victoria looked like pre-Arena, pre-teflon roof.

At least, I assume it's Victoria; it looks so different - there are only six platforms now, for a start.  The next departure is for Wigan Wallgate, so it does seem to be right.  But then Julie goes down some steps which lead to a subway, a bit like at Stockport.

That building behind the man staring at the camera doesn't seem to exist in present-day Victoria either.  Any railway experts want to confirm?  (Incidentally I always hated those red phone boxes with the big pane of glass).

Manchester Victoria was linked to the late great Ms Wood one final time in June, when Sue Devaney hosted a celebration of her life there.  There were songs and quotes and people dressed up in berets (something I have never done, and I never will).  I didn't go because, well, did I mention the people in the berets?  But also because I think I'd have found it way too sad.  For a day it became Manchester Victoria Wood station, and frankly they should have kept it that way.  She was a legend, and I'm sorry she's gone.

Monday, 3 October 2016

One Is The Loneliest Number

I've got a spreadsheet where I keep track of my station visits.  I started this when I moved onto collecting Northern stations.  When I was doing Merseyrail, people would say to me, "how many have you got left to do?", and I'd reply "dunno".  I'd just been crossing them off the map, not keeping count.  It made me sound a bit dopey, so when I moved onto the much larger Northern map, I introduced a spreadsheet.  Spreadsheets make everything fun.

Anyway, after my visits to Thirsk and Malton the other week, I came back and added them to my spreadsheet and pressed return.  And this happened:

The end is nigh.  There is just one open, currently served by trains station left for me to visit.  (I've not included Low Moor, Ilkeston or Warrington West, for the simple reason that you can't get a train to them and nobody really knows when you will be able to).

It's the end of the line.  I know exactly what that last station is; have known for a long time.  I decided to make this station the finale a long time ago.  I'm not going to say which one it is, but I will say it's already been on this blog.  I've been there before.  I just never, for some reason, did a proper blog post about it, and I didn't do a snap of my big face in front of its sign.

So there you are: one to go.  I don't know when I'm going there because, obviously, I don't really want to go there.  When I go to that station it's all over and done with.  The end.  But consider this notice: it's all coming to a close.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Mixed Messages

Northern have snuck out a new map!  I only chanced across it - there hasn't been any fanfare that I'm aware of.  I came upon it on the website when I was looking at the map I downloaded in April.  This hot mess had grabbed my eye:

I'd not spotted WARRINGTON West in my previous look at the new map.  This is a proposed station between Sankey for Penketh and Warrington Central - not that you'd know it from the April map, because they forgot to include the dot on the line.  That was probably why I missed it last time.  This mistake has been rectified on the new map.

A few things immediately stand out.  Firstly, the new map isn't scalable.  When you zoom in on it - on the website or as a download - it goes fuzzy.  The second is that the dot for Warrington West destroys the spacing of the stations on the line.  It's also unclear which dot Warrington West is - there are three potential candidates (possibly four, if you count Widnes as well).  Presumably this will all be sorted when the station opens, which won't be until at least 2018, thanks to a funding shortfall.  This is why it's been ghosted out.  (They've also dropped the caps for Warrington, thankfully, because this station is not in the centre of town).

There are other ghost stations too.  On the earlier map, forthcoming stations were simply stuck on the map as though they were open.  Obviously this created huge disappointment, so the stations are now spectres.  In addition to Warrington West, there's Ilkeston:

Low Moor:

And Kirkstall Fo - wait, what?

Yes, despite Kirkstall Forge opening in June - even getting a visit from me in August - the new Northern route map (dated September 2016) shows it as under construction.

(Also, that promise on the map key of "see below for expected opening date"?  Not true.  There's no opening dates on the key, as you can see from this screen grab of Ilkeston.  Where it's also spelled wrong).

On the positive side, a key!  And a grid!  They've also corrected the font for Staveley and Burneside, so they're the same as all the others on the map:

At least I think they have.  The fuzziness of the scaling makes it hard to tell.  Burneside looks right, but there's something a bit off about Staveley - it's too big next to Windermere.

No sign of the sea though.  I'd confidently predicted it would be back but it looks like they're standing firm on that one.  I miss it.  It gave a proper sense of place to the map, a real This is the NORTH.  Without that simple geographical signpost, the map drifts.  The logo's gone too, that big proud northern in the top right hand corner.  This could be anywhere.