Everything's so flat now, isn't it? Just a bit boring. The flags are down, the pink signs are being folded away. I can no longer switch on my telly and catch some sun-kissed, barely dressed athlete taking my breath away with his physical prowess. There aren't any dancing horses, or complicated categorisations for people in Paralympic races that I can't quite understand. There's no Claire Balding.
I miss London 2012. Not even a hug from Wenlock, Mandeville and that lion thing for Team GB can make me completely happy.
It was a filthy day. The end of the Paralympics seems to have been a signal to the weather Gods: no more summer for you. While the athletes parade was winding its way across London, the north was being hit by thunderstorms, and they stayed with us all week. Victoria station cowers under the Manchester Arena, a space cockroach clinging to the platforms, but through a rare gap of sky we could see heavy, driving rain.
It was only one stop to our first station, Salford Central, and we were unsurprisingly the only people to get off. It's barely in the new city, and isn't really useful for anything; the "Central" part of its name is a flat out lie. It has, however, received a decent block of funding in recent years to make it fully accessible.
It means that the station now has a fancy foyer, glass and steel and exposed concrete. Very pretty, of course, but completely unused. Apart from Ian and myself, there was only one other person in there, and I strongly suspect they were just there to hide away from the rain. It was a space that begged for a coffee stand, or a newsagents, but instead it was clinical, open, modern nothingness. The raw red brick of the arches above had far more personality and charm.
The plus side of having a friend along for the ride is that you don't get shots of my nose hairs at every station.
We crossed the road by the Lowry Fish Bar ("home of Funky Fish") and headed into Salford's back streets on our way to the next station. It was a weird mix of semis and low rise flats; not what you'd expect in a city centre at all. But then again, this isn't the centre any more - that's shifted over to the Quays. That's where the BBC are, and the posh shops. The old centre has until recently been abandoned to its fate.
The cathedral close provided a welcome moment of prettiness. We circumnavigated it, and found another piece of art off to one side; I'm not sure what the purpose of two big sycamore seeds in the middle of nowhere is, but still, nice try. Even if it does look like a couple of winged testicles.
With the rain soaking us thoroughly, it was hard to see Salford as much more than a grim inner city. The city's only recently turned its attention back to this area, and there is new paving and inspiring banners hanging off lamp posts, but the Crescent still threads through open car parks and tower blocks. Ian paused for a moment of nostalgia by the Old Pint Pot pub; it was the first place he'd ever eaten a chip barm. Sadly there was no blue plaque.
A bend in the Irwell signalled we were entering the University district - lots of 1960s buildings either side of the dual carriageway, with student accommodation dotted in amongst them. The University was one of the reasons that our next station, Salford Crescent, was built in the first place. I paused long enough by the sign to get battered by the rain, then we headed across the bridge to the station.
That picture was taken in the middle of the day. Look how dark it is!
Salford Crescent was opened in the 1980s, and it smacks of "will this do?" British Rail investment. There's a single island platform with a tiny cabin for the ticket office and a waiting room. Obviously, it became overwhelmed quite quickly, and now Network Rail have acknowledged it's probably going to need some hefty investment to get it up to code.
We were hopelessly early for our train so we took up a seat in the waiting room and talked Bond: James Bond. Ian is one of the few people I know with whom I can have an intelligent conversation about 007. Normally I end up getting frustrated as people mix up Moonraker and Octopussy or try to tell me stuff that is completely untrue ("no, I read it on the internet, Louis Spence was DEFINITELY first choice for Le Chiffre"). The upcoming Skyfall, plus the fiftieth anniversary, has us both grinning gleefully. The only frustrations I have are with Ian's insistence that Never Say Never Again is anything other than a boil on the arse of humanity. He loves it. He is wrong.
The next station is Clifton, but we couldn't visit that. It only gets two trains a day - one towards Manchester in the morning, and one towards Bolton in the evening. Robert's been there, but then, of course he would. I'll have to come back another time for it. Instead we plunged onwards to Kearsley.
On the train I revealed my ulterior motive to Ian: I wanted to show him a Nob End. In particular, the Nob End nature reserve between Kearsley and Farnworth stations.
I will go anywhere for a good bit of place name smut and, fortunately, Ian agreed. Conquering Nob End became our aim.
There was Kearsley station to collect first, a station which turned out to have a couple of pleasing relics. Firstly, there was a bright orange GMPTE sign at the entrance, a colour scheme that they decided to abandon, for some reason. Possibly because it's hideous.
Meanwhile, the station sign gave both of us nostalgic thrills.
Awww, British Rail. Poor, unloved, disregarded, now missed hopelessly, British Rail. You don't know what you've got till it's gone.
To reach Nob End, we had to pass through a copse of trees by the side of the river. One look and we knew this was impossible. The heavy, pestilent, remorseless rain had flooded the paths. The only way we'd get through there was with a kayak. Sadly, we concluded we'd have to kiss Nob End goodbye.
Instead we walked through the streets of the town. I slipped on a wooly hat, which you won't see here because it makes me look like a Nob End, and Ian put up his umbrella. I began to feel guilty for bringing him out here. He'd got a day off work and I'd brought him to an outdoor swimming pool. We were drowning in public. Our feet were sodden. Our jeans clung to our legs (I'd later take them off and find that my white jockey shorts were stained with blue dye). I had to take my glasses off because the thin rain clung to the lenses and obscured everything; it was easier to just squint.
It would have been nice if we were at least in scenic surroundings, but Kearsley and Farnworth were distinctly average. Red streets, boring lines of shops and cafes, a subway under the M61. Nothing notable or inspiring. I found myself apologising for dragging Ian out in the storm for this. We couldn't even sample the delights of Probably the Finest Takeaway In The North West, the Fiha Tandoori. As yet, I've been unable to ascertain the scientific analysis that lead to them making this claim, but I'm looking into it. I'm guessing extensive market research and peer reviews over a lengthy period of time. I'm sure they haven't just slapped an unverifiable claim on top of their shop.
After a bit of business consulting a map, we managed to find Farnworth station. I really want to put an "s" in there to make it Farnsworth; too much Futurama.
Yes, that's me without my glasses. CALM YOURSELVES.
The best thing I can say about Farnworth is it has a shelter. We were able to reassemble ourselves, going through our pockets and bags and pulling out soggy papers. It was a brief moment of dryness.
As it turned out, the rain was having a last hurrah. Between Farnworth and Moses Gate it dropped back to a thin drizzle.
I'm not sure what Moses Gate is the gateway to. Unless it's a fancy name for "that really big junction on the A666", which was mainly what we saw once we left the station.
Now we were in Bolton, which is sort of Manchester, and sort of not. I was determined to be positive about the town, even though it did give the world both Peter and Vernon Kay. A truly horrific light entertainment double header.
The town didn't do too much to buy my affection at first. The road into town was a string of factories, industrial units and giant box retail units. Cars ruled in this part of town, and we skipped across pedestrian crossings between juggernauts and white vans. Workers stood outside, smoking a fag, watching as two dripping wet humanoids squelched past. Now the rain had stopped, making us just look stupid.
Still, the tower of Bolton Town Hall acted as a beacon for us, drawing us into the town centre. And when we got there, it was remarkably pleasant. Some nice pedestrianised streets, some decent shops, a healthy buzz. The Town Hall itself was a particular highlight:
The banner across the front read Congratulations Jason Kenny - Bolton's Double Gold Medal Olympian. We were suddenly thrilled. If there was a Gold Medal Winner, that meant there was a gold post box somewhere close by. We headed for a coffee shop so that we could re-energise ourselves with hot chocolate and search the net for its location.
The afternoon warmed up, as did we. Our jeans became less moist (though my socks would still be like sponges when I got home that night). It was a shame that the weather only decided to be kind on the very last leg of our journey. Across from us, the Albert Halls' ticker tape display advised us that Mick Miller and Jimmy Cricket would be performing on the 22nd September; I made a mental note to be anywhere else in the world on that night.
Finally we got up the energy to carry on. We passed the giant statue of Fred Dibnah which, for some reason, they have crafted to make him look as much like the local flasher as possible:
Tell me he doesn't look like the man at number 22 you told your sister never to make eye contact with.
We knew which street the post box was on, but not where that was. Luckily for me. It meant that we passed Prestons of Bolton, the Diamond Centre of the North:
I suspect there are only a very small number of readers who understand my delight at seeing this particular shop, but once you see this ad, you'll understand why:
"And we all enjoyed the champagne!" AMAZING. If it had been open I suspect I would have dragged Ian in and pretended we wanted rings for our fictional civil partnership.
We both spotted the gold post box at the same time, and dashed towards it. It's weird how a lick of paint can make a perfectly ordinary object thrilling. Ian was pleased to see it:
I was fricking DELIGHTED:
Not much else in Bolton could possibly live up to that (although the sight of two midgets drunkenly snogging in a pub doorway came close) so we headed for the station. Sorry, I mean Bolton Interchange - the addition of an unexciting bus terminus next door means that "station" is now a wholly inadequate term.
There's a dinky little station building up top - one which is perfectly adequate for its needs, Salford Central - and a pleasing portico. A homeless man had unfortunately installed himself in there, so we moved round the side so that my station shot wasn't ruined by urban blight.
Sign fetishists will note that's the third GMPTE/TfGM logo we've spotted on our travels. They're almost as bad as Lancashire County Council.
We headed down to the platform, an enormously wide space with a Coca-Cola emblazoned shop in the centre. Nothing out of the ordinary there. But round the side was another pre-privatisation delight.
Look at those British Rail signs! Yellow and red and ever so slightly naff. They're wonderful, and I'm pleased to see that Northern's equivalent of the Colour Tsars (the Purple Gang? The Purple Meanies?) haven't torn them down. If I could I'd put a spot listing on those two signs, before they can be replaced with something modern and charmless.
Ian and I both took pictures of the Buffet and Kiosk signs, much to the consternation of our fellow passengers. We didn't care. I suspect that the gold post box had reignited the Olympic flame inside of us and made us giddy and smiley again. That's the real legacy, if you ask me.
Postscript: Ian later sent me this A-Z of the Olympic venues, in a further effort to prolong the 2012 spirit. It is of course brilliant (how could anything that combined the Olympics and maps not be?), not least because I now know that the nearest station to Hampden Park is called "Mount Florida". Once again, thank you Ian. Wenlock and Mandeville and Team GB lion thing are very grateful.