I confessed to what is apparently the crime of the century: I'd never been on a Metrolink tram. Seriously, the e-mails I got after that - a mix of bafflement and horror. I had no idea it was such an issue.
Since I was in Manchester with Robert, I could right this cataclysmic wrong. We headed for Piccadilly Gardens. We were headed for the Museum of Science and Industry
, so we decided to take a tram across the city centre rather than walk.
I stepped aboard the tram - one of the new yellow and grey ones, even better - and I was instantly in love. Look at my smily face!
It was clean. It was speedy. It was attractive.
The gentle hum of the electric engine took me back to trips to Amsterdam, but without the rattling and clanging you get in the Dutch system. We seemed to glide through the streets. At least, until Robert realised he'd guided us onto the wrong tram, so we jumped off at Market Street.
The right tram to get, it turned out, was one of the old blue ones, which was ok but not the same. Obviously it was battered around the edges, but it was still pretty good. And in an especially exciting twist, the older trams have a seat in the hinge between carriages. I immediately plonked myself on that seat. I love riding in the hinge - whenever I've visited Paris I take the seat in the middle. There's something slightly trippy about watching either end rotate around you. Even better, I realised I could put one foot inside the carriage, away from the hinge, twisting away in a different direction. Robert, quite rightly, looked at me like I had lost my mind. The tram had turned me into an eight year old boy.
We got off at Deansgate-Castlefield, the clumsily retitled former G-MEX stop, and headed for the MoSI. I'll cover that in a future post (ooh! Suspense!). After the museum, we had a bit of a look at Granadaland - the studio complex at Quay Street.
Because I grew up Darn Sarf, I don't have the same attachment to Granada that Robert did, (I had Thames, until that exciting moment every Friday night when they handed over to LWT and you got the Six O'Clock Show
) but I am still appreciative of its legacy. The italicised logo on the side of the building is up there with Television Centre, as far as I'm concerned. I know what a shame it is this is all going to - urgh - MediaCity: UK, though a glance at the front door showed us that Granada isn't what it once was:
Any tv company that gives such prominence to The Jeremy Kyle Show is in trouble. Still, it was nice to wander round a bit of British television history, even if we didn't see any Coronation Street actors nipping out for a fag. I'd desperately hoped for an encounter with Jason Grimshaw.
Back into town, under all those mighty railway bridges that cross the canal basin and which are always turning up in Corrie. There were some wonderful sweeping masses of ironwork, soaring above our heads and regularly shaking under the wheels of another train or tram. I have a very romantic affection for these urban bridges, the way they divide up the city and create lonely islands. Walking underneath them feels inherently dramatic. Maybe I wouldn't want to walk under them on a dark rainy winter's night, but on a sun bleached July afternoon, the way we moved from shade to warmth was interesting and different.
After lunch we rode the tram out to St Werburgh's Road, where I'd visited the previous week when the extension wasn't open. It was obviously one of the new trams, and was surprisingly full: it seems that the residents of Chorlton have embraced their new transport link wholeheartedly.
It was nice to stand on the gleaming, pristine platform, still litter-free, unscuffed. No blobs of old chewing gum yet, or peeled off stickers on the glass of the shelter. Still the shiny future of urban transportation.
"What shall we do now?" said Robert. "Is there anything to see round here?"
"Not really. It's just a little suburban street."
So we went back into the city on the same tram we came on, riding it all the way to Victoria.
As the tram pulled through Cornbrook, we got a great view of Manchester city centre. It's a strangely anonymous panorama. There are dozens of tall buildings, rising and falling on the skyline, but nothing grabs your attention, except the Beetham Tower and perhaps the top of the Palace Theatre. The rest is just blocks. They come in all shapes and sizes - triangular, square, curved; squat and tall - but none of them are particularly memorable. I bet they were all described as "iconic" by the architect, but the net effect is an amorphous blob.
There's a similar spot on the train in Liverpool, before you reach Edge Hill. It doesn't the same quantity of tall apartment and office blocks as Manchester; the regeneration there hasn't been quite as successful yet. What it does have is the soaring bulk of the Cathedrals, the slim but beautiful Radio City Tower, and the epic stretch of the Mersey beyond. Somehow Manchester's managed to fill the horizon but it hasn't managed to produce a single building that takes your breath away like that view of Liverpool does.
Victoria, of course, is infamous for being the tatty sister to Piccadilly's efficiency and glow. It's got so many great features, with its beautiful Victorian wood panelling and tiled map of the network, that it's a shame it's been neglected. The MEN Arena has condemned half of the station to permanent darkness, while, thanks to the lack of a roof, the other half gets a bit too much daylight. There are plans to sort it out, and the sooner the better.
There was an interesting poster, probably from the 1970s or 80s, advertising a rail hire service. I'd love to know how much business they got. "Hello? Could I have a train to Glasgow please? Just for me; I can't abide sharing a carriage."
A bit more coffee drinking and then we headed for Piccadilly so we could go to Robert's last Parliamentary station. The Piccadilly Metrolink station is built in the undercroft of the station, so it's all brick and ironwork - quite appropriate for Manchester. It's practical, down to earth, and yet attractive. They could do with another escalator up from the tram platform, though.
I want some trams. I want to ride a tram every day, into town, round the city centre, between Merseyrail stations. I want Liverpool to benefit the way Manchester has. There's long been a rumour that Merseytravel want to buy the heritage tramway in Birkenhead, and extend it into the town centre and to the park. A great idea, but that's still for the tourists, not for the commuters and the shoppers like Metrolink. The trams make the city centre seem so much more vibrant and exciting, and they're so convenient. They also have a lovely system map:
I love the font, and the different colours for the different services; something that's going to be more and more important as each new extension opens. I've sometimes wondered if maybe Merseyrail should have a similar look for its map, to differentiate between its branches; a map that showed the different routes, rather than just the lines, would make it clear you can't get a direct train from Ormskirk to Hunt's Cross, and might help Wirral Line users with their multitude of branches. It's one to ponder.
We were early for our train, so we hunted around for a seat. Unsurprisingly, unless you want to buy a drink or a sandwich, these are in short supply. Network Rail has followed the example of the airports and decreed that if you want to sit down somewhere, you can at least buy a Coke. We refused to cave into their craven demands and found some seats by the Pendolinos.
Finally we could board a little Northern Rail Pacer to head for Ardwick. This station gets a peak-hours only service, despite it being not far from the city centre and having dozens of services pass through it every day. It seemed strange to us... until we got there.
Ardwick is stuck in between a wide expanse of lines heading into Piccadilly, and a load of industry and rubbish on the other side. It's got no platform buildings, no ticket office, and the only way to get to it is up and over a rusting brown staircase.
To be frank, it was a dump.
Even the best part - a view of the City of Manchester stadium - was spoiled by the piles of waste in the foreground.
It got worse. Access to the street was down a narrow alleyway, then some more steps. It would be difficult to make a more unappealing public transport destination, short of having an abattoir empty its leftovers onto the platform to rot. Finally we were outside the station, on the kind of back road under the railway arches which features in Guy Ritchie films.
We didn't hang around. We had a train back to Liverpool to catch, and besides, we didn't want to get shot in the face by a mockney gangster. It was an interesting place to visit. I shan't be going back.