Manchester's tram network is starting to get annoying. It's good, it's clean, it's fast, and it keeps expanding. It's that clever, pretty friend you have on Facebook whose status updates are all "OMG! Just found out that painting I bought at the car boot is a long-lost Rembrandt!" or "LOL It's so hard being teetotal when you keep winning magnums of champagne in competitions!".
Last month Metrolink opened yet another line - a route out to East Didsbury. Since Ian was up from London again, and Robert was about as well, we decided to have a trip out on the new tram and then collect some stations on the way back into the city.
After grappling with the ticket machines on the platform at Piccadilly - only two were working, which is no problem in one of the busiest railway stations in the UK - we boarded a tram into the city. There was a lengthy pause at Piccadilly Gardens, while we changed drivers; Ian had to be restrained from breaking into the cabin and driving it himself. Round the corner, a poor woman was stood alone on the Moseley Street platform, looking confused as the tram swept past. She clearly hadn't noticed the half-dozen THIS STOP IS NOT IN USE signs pinned all over the fence. A change at Cornbrook, and finally we were on an East Didsbury tram.
The early part was familiar enough; in fact, I'd been on this route on my very first Metrolink ride. At St Werburgh's Road, we pulled away from the platform onto new tracks, passing the under construction Airport spur as we did so. The track follows an old railway line that was Beechinged, but much of the infrastructure - bridges and underpasses - is new for the Metrolink. Not so new that it hasn't been graffiti'd. South Manchester's street artists have pounced on the new blank canvases of concrete. There isn't much street art, though, mostly just people writing their name in permanent marker and colouring it in.
We travelled all the way to the terminus at East Didsbury. There's a park and ride here, with space for 300 cars, and it seemed to be well-used already. The island platform was full of passengers heading into the city for shopping. There are two tracks here, which seems like a bit of a waste for a terminus, but it's another of those "live in hope" constructions.
The railway line continued from here through Heaton Mersey and on to Cheadle, and the Metrolink planners have pointed the line firmly in that direction. Stockport is temptingly close to that alignment. There's little chance of it being built, but you never know, right?
We crossed the tracks and walked back up the line towards Didsbury Village. It would have been easier to just get off at the earlier stop, but then we wouldn't have ridden the line right to the end, and that sort of thing is important to me and my tribe. Under a road bridge there were hints of old railway infrastructure; tiled walls covered with tags.
Didsbury Village is a charming little place. I've been here a few times, as I have a friend who lives nearby, and it's got a great mix of shops and restaurants. There's a place called The Cheese Hamlet, and I feel the need to record the "To Brie or not to Brie?" gag I made at the time. Obvious, perhaps, but I do love a pun. The arrival of the Metrolink can only make it more desirable.
After coffee and paninis amidst yummy mummies and men reading the Daily Express we left the village for some proper station collecting. Trams are all well and good, but their stops are basically shelters with a bit of concrete attached; it's not architecturally inspiring. We walked out to Parrs Wood Road, past the copyright baiting Didsbury Perk and towards East Didsbury station. It's separate to the Metrolink stop - there's about 200m difference - and it was far more unloved.
A hamster run of ramps and steps carried you up to the platform. There was a waiting room, with windows thick with dirt and scratches, and that was your lot as far as passenger facilities were concerned. It was clear that East Didsbury and Didsbury were similar in name only, a bit like South Wimbledon Tube station; it's trying to capture a bit of magic fairy dust it's not really entitled to.
On the platform, Ian found a map and pointed out station names to me. "Have you been to Hall i' th' Wood yet?"
"How about Patricroft?"
"It's on the list."
"Dore & Totley?"
It was a little dispiriting. Where the hell had I been? I've been doing the Northern Rail map for over a year now, and there's still bloody hundreds of stations left on it.
Luckily a train came along to interrupt his line of inquiry. We travelled one stop south, to Burnage, a station that was even less inspiring than East Didsbury. Everything at Burnage seemed to be boarded up.
Burnage is, of course, the home of the Gallagher brothers, meaning I could wheel out both my Liam impression and my long-held animosity towards Oasis. I was on the side of Blur in the Great Britpop War of 1995; my brother was on the side of Oasis, so the week Roll With It battled with Country House for number one was a hotbed of sniping and taunting (even more than usual). I won, of course, because I always do, but eighteen years later I have to admit that Country House is not a very good song. Roll With It isn't either, to be fair.
I just wasn't an Oasis person. I will freely admit that Definitely Maybe and (What's The Story) Morning Glory? are great albums, but they are pretty much two halves of the same train of thought. Even now I have problems remembering what track was on what album. Be Here Now is the sound of cocaine and partying and self-indulgence (there is absolutely no reason on earth for All Around The World to be NINE MINUTES long) and the rest of their albums have the odd ok single that's a bit like a B-side they might have put out in 1996 but are otherwise forgettable.
Blur, on the other hand, are amazing. I'll freely admit that they've had their dodgy albums too - Leisure is like a chick that's broken out of its shell too early, unformed and unfinished; Think Tank is too fractured; The Great Escape too decadent. But each of those albums contains a handful of tracks that hit the target full on (Sing, She's So High, There's No Other Way on Leisure; Out of Time, Brothers and Sisters and Crazy Beat on Think Tank; The Universal, Best Days and Fade Away on The Great Escape). And a song that misfires on a Blur album - something like Mr Robinson's Quango - is still trying to be different and innovative, whereas a misfiring Oasis song is just dull.
And then you have the just plain great albums - Blur and 13 - and the masterpieces: Modern Life is Rubbish and Parklife, both of which are as perfect as it is possible to be. Oasis has never written a single track which can even sit in the same room as Advert or Sunday Sunday or Turn It Up or End of a Century or London Loves or This Is A Low. The minute of noodling that is Lot 105 contains more imagination and experimentation and joy than the whole of Heathen Chemistry. I mean, after the band split up, Liam and Noel both went on to release albums that sounded like they were made up of tracks found down the back of Creation's sofa. Damon Albarn went off and formed Gorillaz and wrote an opera based on Monkey. Case closed.
(I will concede that Alex James is an annoyingly smug Tory cheesemongering twat. But Coxon and Rowntree more than balance him out).
Ian and I, as Britpop veterans with the scars to prove it, filled in Robert with a rough history as we left the station. He was too young to pogo in the indie room of a club to Road Rage; he had never worked out a series of dance moves to Supergrass's Alright; he'd never known the heady joy of seeing Pulp get to number one on the chart with an album about class war. Robert reached adulthood at a time when number ones were going to Craig David and Westlife, which tells you all about the collapse of human civilisation you need to know.
Beyond the station entrance was a parade of shops, including Sifters record shop, which actually appears in an Oasis track (Shakermaker; it's on Definitely Maybe. I looked it up). I imagined the young Noel in the store, buying second-hand albums and taking them home, then lovingly copying all the good bits and pretending he wrote them. You can imagine my delight when I saw a poster in the window, here in Gallagher territory, for a music festival called Parklife.
The most surprising thing about Burnage was how posh it was. It was working class, yes, but the houses were generously proportioned Corporation semis, with gardens and driveways. There was parkland and wide avenues. From the way Liam and Noel had spoken, I'd imagined them being dragged up in a terraced house somewhere, playing on cobbled streets and fighting in ginnels. It was used as a stick to beat the art school Blur with; their claim that they were proper rough, unlike Damon and his Estuary vowels and evenings down the dog track. Burnage seemed quite nice.
It even has a blue plaque. Louis Paulhan flew from London to Manchester in 1910, the first man to do so, and the plaque commemorates the spot where he landed. It took him twelve hours to make the flight; four hours in the air, plus an overnight stop in Lichfield for refuelling. I've flown from London to Manchester - you've barely unbuckled your seatbelt before you're coming in to land again these days. The road where he made the landing is named Paulhan Road in his honour.
We cut across Ladybarn Park on route to Mauldeth Road station. Our debate about whether we were heading the right way was picked up by a local, who turned back and said to us, "Station's this way. Train leaves in three minutes. Follow me." He looked like he had just finished fighting a Staffordshire Bull Terrier with his bare hands, so we thanked him then let him get on ahead so we wouldn't have to be on the same train.
A video tape had been unspooled across the path, a delightfully retro touch of litter. Normally I'd be complaining about some inconsiderate sod making the place a mess, but it just reminded me of my childhood; there were always unspooled cassettes in parks, usually hanging from the trees. Can you decorate a silver birch with an MP3? No you can't, which is why my childhood was better than today's kids' childhoods.
Hanging back to avoid The Man With The Golden Knuckledusters meant we missed the train into Manchester, so we wandered round the corner to get some water from the local Londis. The assistant shouted over our heads to a departing customer: "You know Eileen's back in hospital, don't you?"
"I didn't even know she were out."
This end of Burnage was more Asian than the other one, with a Halal butcher and Indian restaurants. An office building had green Arabic written on its front, with the English translation on a sign round the side. There was still enough custom to support a hefty pub though, with Saturday afternoon drinkers hovering in the doorway for their ciggies.
As we approached the station, Ian made a suggestion. The trip through South Manchester had taken less time than I'd thought, and so we'd polished off the stations I'd planned in superfast time. We had ages until our dinner reservation. Why not collect a couple more? Why not collect Gatley and Heald Green, the next two stations between East Didsbury and Manchester Airport?
And that, folks, is exactly why we are friends.
We went to the southbound platform of Mauldeth Road instead of the northbound one. The ticket office was undergoing reconstruction, but judging by the blank facilities on the viaduct, I doubt the new structure will rival St Pancras International.
Gatley had more of a rural vibe.
You don't get many wooden awnings on station buildings any more. Yes, it's been done over by the Purple Gang, and yes, it could do with a clean, but most of them have been pulled down as too much hassle to maintain.
Gatley also has two station signs, which is just showing off.
We let two Jewish gentlemen with matching pullovers and skull caps pass, then crossed over into the suburban backwaters of Gatley. Long avenues of discreet homes curved into one another. The streets were empty; the only people we saw were builders putting together a new bay window on a house, and a pair of boys in Manchester United colours tossing a football from hand to hand.
It was while walking through Gatley that I was involved in probably the most niche conversation I have ever been part of. The topic was thus: "Which now-retired ITV regional ident does the Arriva Trains Wales announcement chime sound most like?"
THIS IS A REAL THING THAT HAPPENED.
We went through the options - Tyne Tees? Yorkshire? Thames ("Here they are now MORECAMBE AND WISE")? Finally Robert did some YouTubing on his phone, and came up with Anglia, which he then played at full volume in the street.
I took a moment to dwell on that little chat and I could make only one conclusion. "Fellas. I think our virginities just grew back."
The road swung past a row of local shops and a nice looking pub, and we were forced to concede that, yes, this looked like a pretty nice place to live in. Then an EasyJet plane roared overhead, skimming the tops of the trees, and we remembered just how close we were to Manchester Airport's two runways. We postponed any estate agent searches.
I like it when railway stations are surrounded by shops and libraries and people. It feels so much more lively and part of a community. Park and rides out on the edge of town are all well and good, but they're often sterile and dead. Heald Green station was slap bang in the middle of the excitement.
It is not, however, in the middle of Wythenshawe, despite the presence of signs advertising the shopping centre.
I dislike these commercial Attractive Local Feature boards (CALFs?) anyway, but plugging a place that they cheerily admit is 1 and a half miles away is just taking the piss. Plus Wythenshawe is going to be getting its own tram link soon enough, and I bet the advertising money will vanish the minute that opens. If you must have this form of craven advertising, it should be truly local; I'd have rather seen a plug for the nearest Subway sandwich outlet if it was "only two minutes from this station!".
It had been a fun afternoon. Station collecting is a lonely business. It's nice to find a couple of kindred spirits who don't mind larking around in Manchester's suburban sprawl. Thanks again, Robert and Ian. Always a pleasure.