For reasons far too dull to go into here, I found myself in Manchester with some time to kill. The obvious solution was to cruise round some train stations, so I headed for Deansgate and bought myself a Manchester Day Ranger.
Well, I did eventually. There was no-one behind the counter at the station, and no amount of polite rapping on the metal shelf could rouse some attention. I tried the machine, but that didn't offer day passes; I wandered over to the Metrolink station, and had a look at their ticket offerings. It had a multitude of day travelcards available, all of which included tram travel (which I didn't want) and with no information about where they were valid for. Travelcards in Manchester are ludicrously complicated. Every combination of transportation and every bit of the city seems to be covered by a different card, available from a different place, with different terms and conditions. System One? Wayfarer? I just want to travel on a train, dammit!
I gave up and headed back into Deansgate, which was now staffed. A man was leaning back in his chair, chatting to his colleague, and he treated my request for a ticket to travel with the disdain it deserved. Damn passengers.
A packed out FirstTransPennine train later, and I was disembarking at Horwich Parkway.
Parkway is an awful suffix, isn't it? So unimaginative. There's no intrigue or affection attached to it, unlike "Halt" or "Junction" or even "Bridge". It just says, "you can park your car here if you want". Liverpool South Parkway is the worst. The perfectly lovely Allerton and Garston were replaced with a name so perfunctory they may as well have just called it GET TRAIN HERE and had done with it.
Horwich Parkway was built in 1999, and it exists for one reason only.
I mean, there's a retail park and a housing estate and hotels as well, but at the end of the day, this station was built to whisk people to and from the Reebok Stadium. In a design familiar to anyone who's been to Aintree, the footbridge is accessed via steps and long sloping ramps, all the better to accommodate football crowds.
It's clean and tidy and practical. It was also surprisingly busy that day, no doubt due to the Easter holidays and desperate parents trying to find something to keep the kids quiet.
I headed up the avenue towards the stadium. It's a proper, decent sports venue (as is the circular Bolton Arena, just over the road). With all due respect to my Scouse readers, Anfield and Goodison Park are kind of dumpy. Years of piecemeal development have resulted in lopsided, clattering stadia in amongst backstreet terraces. I've been to Anfield twice (the BF used to have a season ticket; this was in the early days of our relationship when I did things that would please him) and both times I was shocked by how scrappy and plain filthy it was. They're paying the players hundreds of thousands of pounds a week but we were entering the stadium by an alleyway by some people's back yards and the toilets looked like below decks on a slave ship.
Bolton Wanderers moved into the Reebok Stadium in 1997, and it's held up well over the years. It's exactly what you'd want a football ground to be like - simple to navigate, easy to get in and out of, plenty of space. Shame about the name. Corporate sponsorship is a blight on the beautiful game. I'm currently living in fear about what West Ham are going to call the Olympic Stadium when they move in. They're bound to end up with an absolutely horrible sponsor and yet they'll still put Olympic in the name; the QuickQuid Olympic Stadium or something equally horrendous. (Mind you, when they had to come up with a name of their own, Sunderland plumped for the embarrassing Stadium of Light, which sounds like the place where Jesus is going to host the Rapture. Perhaps we should just go back to naming grounds after the road they're on).
The thick smell of fried meat assaulted me as I crossed the mammoth car parks. A cluster of fast food restaurants competed for football traffic - a McDonalds, a KFC, a Subway, a Frankie & Benny's and, for those feeling a bit fancy, a Chiquito. My stomach reminded me that I hadn't eaten lunch. I thought about nipping over and swallowing a McGreasey, but I had a time restraint and I needed to get off towards my next station. I turned away sadly.
I needed to get out of the retail park, which sounds easier than it was. The units formed a U shape, with the Reebok Stadium placed within the open end. From where I was looking, all I could see was a continuous strip of DFS, Laura Ashley and Pets at Home. A massive Asda took up the right hand side. I was sure there was a way through, somewhere, but I couldn't see it, and my phone was being unresponsive so I couldn't check on Google Maps. I had a bit of a wander round, the only pedestrian in sight, dodging cars and skipping across busy access roads. Despite the presence of Horwich Parkway, the Middlebrook Retail Park isn't built for people without their own transport. You're not likely to lug a new sofa home on the train, so they're not interested.
Finally I admitted defeat, and headed back out the way I came. I was going to have to walk all the way round the retail park, and my carefully outlined timetable had gone to pot. I finally broke free from the retail park's clutches (Escape from Middlebrook! being one of the less successful Fighting Fantasy books) and found myself walking along clear, open industrial roads, built to whisk the lorries and deliveries away as quickly as possible.
I should have been annoyed at my schedule being in tatters, but fortunately I was listening to disco. It is impossible to be dejected when you are listening to disco. It's my secret love; it makes everything better. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is a classic up there with Sgt Pepper as far as I'm concerned, and I think I might have Diana Ross's Love Hangover played at my funeral. Disco even made Barbra Streisand tolerable; the only time I am willing to give that Gorgon the time of day is when she's singing No More Tears (Enough is Enough) (and let's be honest, 75% of the genius of that track is Donna Summer related). It is an eternal regret of mine that I have never been able to zip on a pair of tight purple velveteen flares so I can boogie on down to The Trammps' Disco Inferno. I was born too late; by the time I was going to nightclubs, the only disco was Disco 2000, and you could only dance to that under a thick layer of detached irony. It meant that while I was being passed by diesel belching trucks heading for the Hitachi factory, in my head I was in the 2001 Odyssey, doing a line dance with Annette and Double J.
My-my-my-my-my boogie shoes took me up the hill, towards a new housing estate. The signs said it was a private road, but it seemed like a perfectly ordinary development to me, so I pushed in. There was sand on the roads, and the noise of heavy diggers and cement mixers, but there were also houses with curtains at the windows and some awful statuary - people were living in amongst all this building work. I guess that's how they fund each stage of the estate, but I wouldn't fancy living next to dozens of navvies clambering over scaffolding all day like concrete-covered baboons.
A prize for anyone who can work out exactly why a bunch of brick buildings deserves to be called "The Meadows".
I found my way up to the Chorley Road via a street that was marked as a cul-de-sac. In fact, it was a through road with a barrier across it. I imagine this is to stop the poor people from the old communities of Horwich from driving into the new build part. The new residents exited via roundabouts and long straight roads and could be on the motorway without having to see a single person who didn't own a lawnmower or a plasma tv.
This middle-class citadel was actually constructed on what used to be Victoria Mill, a grimy cotton mill that would have been filled with flat capped Lancastrians. I'm assuming they had flat caps; the probably also had whippets and a pipe. They certainly would have looked unkindly on the soft-arsed occupiers of the bland homes now framed by their mill's entrance.
The Chorley New Road was far more simple and down-to-earth. Brick terraces and corner chippies; builders merchants and unfortunate looking factories offering "meat products", a terrifyingly vague description. I felt far more at home here than in the white bread cul-de-sacs and avenues. I did that BBC class test that was doing the rounds this week and I came out as a "new affluent worker". Clearly I was amongst my people, brothers of mud and toil, the hard grafters. Not that I'd ever dream of talking to them, because heaven knows where they've been, but still: right on, chaps.
Horwich was once home to a large railway works, established by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, but again, that's long gone. There are the occasional remnants - bridges over trackway that isn't there, the Old Station Park - but the biggest artefact was the Horwich Loco Industrial Estate.
The town centre was off to one side somewhere, so what I was seeing were the fringes, the odd little businesses that didn't work anywhere else. There seemed to be a disproportionate amount of denture repair workshops, a strange industry for a town to concentrate on. The road rose slightly as I walked - I was close to the moors now; I could see the hills through gaps in the buildings. Spielberg-like rays of sunshine glittered off the stubborn patches of snow.
The Bolton Corporation Car Shed - an old tram workshop, now a mechanic's - reminded me that this would have been a much busier road at its height. This strip of shops would have catered for the workers at the mill and the railway works, with trams carrying you right into the town centre. Now it was a backwater.
Then, a surprise; a village green, of sorts. The meeting point of two busy roads had produced a patch of open land, with a couple of pubs (The Crown Hotel and the Toll Bar Inn) to snag passers by. Again, my stomach rumbled - if I couldn't eat, at least I could have a pint. I was resolute; I could still, possibly, make the next train if I pushed on. Tempting though a frothy pint of bitter was, I'd have to get past it. I turned left and headed for Blackrod.
I was heading back downhill now, past narrow houses that tripped down to the pavement. Outside a corner shop, a couple of teenagers were inefficiently flirting. She was trying to get him to buy something for her; he refused to do it unless she gave him the money. Their dogs sniffed at each other around their legs, far better at courtship than their owners. Finally she handed over a quid in a way that implied that was all he'd be getting off her.
The roar of a motorbike briefly interrupted my chirpy disco mood (Turn the beat around, love to hear percussion). The owner was doing a wheelie up the street, for no reason other than he was a massive dick. I paused in the hope that there would be a squeal of brakes and a clatter of metal, but no such luck.
The houses here were plain, simple, well-kept. If I'd been single, this was probably the kind of place I'd have ended up in: a two up, two down terrace on a side street somewhere. A bay window I could sit and read in, a bit of garden for when it's sunny, nothing too much hassle. Instead I ended up with someone who already had a mortgage so that saved me the bother. There's still a part of me that finds them pleasing, a life not lived.
Under the M61 and then back up the hill on the other side towards the station. I'd missed that train, so there was no hurry. Blackrod sounds intimidating - I expected a glowing eye of Sauron over the top of it - but in fact it was just a plain little halt surrounded by industrial units and terraces.
There were two - yes, two - station signs to pick from: the old BR one, and a much newer TfGM one. I'm a traditionalist, so I headed for the BR sign for the pic; besides, the newer one was too small to bother with.
Now I had fifty-five minutes to kill before my train back into town. I'd hoped to collect Lostock and Westhoughton, but the aimless wandering round the retail park had killed off that hope - I needed to get back into Manchester at a decent time. Instead I loitered on the platform.
The station has just had a load of money thrown at it. This stretch of line is due to be electrified, so in anticipation of more users, Northern Rail has invested in new shelters, ticket machines, and ramps from the street. The redevelopment is all so new, the station still looks naked; the trees are stunted, and there's no greenery. You don't realise how green our stations are until it's all stripped back.
There's a signal box too, though not for much longer: the modernisation means control of the line has passed to Piccadilly, and so the box will soon be knocked down.
I took a seat in the shelter; it was a warmer day than recently but there was still a cold wind whistling down the valley. Blackrod must be the place to be after 6pm for the local teens as the shelter was full of broken glass and empty cider bottles. What do you do with kids like that? Personally I think a taser to the genitals might make them a little more considerate. It wasn't the nicest place to spend nearly an hour with no 3G service and an urge to have a pee. It was however, nice and isolated and silent, so when I started to do The Hustle, there was no-one around to make fun of me. Apart from the CCTV operators at Northern Rail HQ, obviously.