Content is why, when your little girl swallows furniture polish and you go to the website to find out the ingredients, you have to battle through a Shockwave animation, sign up for their Facebook and Twitter feeds, and watch a YouTube video of the cast of Geordie Shore buffing up their sideboards. Someone in the PR department persuaded the company execs that they wouldn't be taken seriously unless their website was filled with content. It's their fault that you're playing a Flash game involving anthropomorphic chamois leathers while little Molly is choking to death behind you.
I've never really been bothered by content before. I just write stuff when I feel like it. I go out and visit places when I have money and a spare day. I sometimes feel bad about dragging stuff out - it took me way too long to write up the Esk Valley Line - but it's my blog, so I'll just do what I like.
Then I got nominated for an award (voting link is on the right, cough, thank you) and I suddenly panicked. I had no plans to go out in the nomination period so I'd have no new posts going up. New visitors would come here and think I couldn't be bothered writing anything. I needed some new content.
An opportunity presented itself when I went to Altrincham. I was there with the BF, and our friends Norman and John, to visit the Art with a Heart exhibition I posted about a couple of days ago.
It's actually a great little exhibition, in a really interesting space. The contributors have dealt with the "no automobiles" themes in different ways, so while there are Jim's oil paintings of trains on one wall, there are also collages of bicycles, and plates painted with tickets. There's also historic maps of the Altrincham area's railways and exhibits on loan from the Manchester Museum of Transport.
After half an hour in the exhibition, we nipped over to the second hand bookshop across the road. I found a copy of the More Great Railway Journeys book, featuring that wonderful Victoria Wood Crewe to Crewe epic, so I was happy. And then I bid them all farewell, even though they were going for a delicious sounding lunch in a local Italian, so that I could go out and get some content. You see the sacrifices I make?
I headed for Hale, rather than Altrincham station. There are three stations bunched together along the Mid-Cheshire Line in the town (Navigation Road is the other) and I thought I would get them in the "wrong" order. Just for a change.
I was predisposed to dislike Hale. From what I understood of the place, it was one of those towns that were quite sniffy about being incorporated into a metropolitan district. Hale was Cheshire, like Heswall is Cheshire, and they really don't care what you or the Council or the Post Office say about it. I was ready to prick their pomposity by sneering.
It also has a lovely railway station. It straddles a level crossing, a level crossing which was refusing to open for some reason that day and slicing the village in half. Pedestrians were forced to cross the tracks via the station footbridge, which doesn't sound too inconvenient until you see some poor mother clattering a pram down the steps.
It opened in 1862 as Peel Causeway, exhibiting that Victorian genius for calling your railway station the wrong name entirely. 150 years later it's pretty much unchanged, though the southbound platform building is now home to a physiotherapist. But there are still pretty glass awnings over the platform, and wooden benches for passengers.
I crossed the tracks for the station sign, trying to get it quickly. The village was full of public schoolboys from the nearby Altrincham School, unleashed on the shops in search of lunch, and they were definitely staring as I tried doing my selfie.
Also behind me was a set of fine gates which lead into what was now the station car park. Obviously they were closed and bolted. It infuriates me when architects have designed an impressive entrance to a building, but modern planners create a "more convenient" way in - in this case, a hole in a brick wall. Couldn't they at least open those gates as a pedestrian way into the station complex?
I went back to the northbound platform to wait for my train, alongside two girls with pink hair who seemed to have no plans to leave. They were giggling at the end of one of the wooden benches and drinking something from a bottle: I'm guessing it wasn't Lucozade. When the train came in, neither of them even stirred from their seat.
Navigation Road has two platforms as well, but the track arrangement is very different here. I'm not aware of any other stations where there's a through platform on one side for trams and a through platform for trains on the other, though I'm sure there probably is somewhere.
The Metrolink took over the direct route from Altrincham to Manchester in 1992, so the "up" platform became the home for all the tram services, and is now painted in the distinctive (robbed off Merseyrail) yellow and grey. The "down" platform remained for the Mid-Cheshire line, and carries trains in both directions; hence it being painted in standard Northern purple. It's a clash of two different styles, with different fonts and facilities staring at each other across the track.
Still, yellow and purple were my old school colours, so I felt quite at home.
I darted across the level crossing, feeling quite daring as a tram was just pulling into the platform at the same time. A man on crutches got off the tram and followed me down the street. Disturbingly, he managed to keep pace with me as we walked, his crutches clattering on the pavement and never letting up behind me. I had visions of him as some kind of physically impaired Freddy Krueger before he finally turned off down a side road.
Grosvenor Road connects directly with Altrincham town centre; it's barely half a mile. In fact, the distance between Navigation Road and Altrincham station is so small you wonder why they bothered keeping it open when the trams arrived. I expect it was just less hassle to have the trains continue stopping there than go to the effort of closing the railway platform. It was a reminder that being a MetrolinkTart wouldn't be much fun; between the frequent services and the closely spaced stops I could probably polish off the entire network in a couple of days. Not that I'm necessarily ruling it out.
As I walked under the high retaining wall tram after tram passed, making me jealous of the superb public transport Manchester enjoys. I want some trams near my home, clean whizzy trams to take me somewhere interesting and fun.
In Altrincham town centre for the second time that day, I headed towards the station. I found a building site.
The station at Altrincham was home to one of Manchester's earliest efforts at an integrated transport hub. I'd seen a leaflet promoting the original plans in the Art with a Heart exhibition. In 1975, a bus station was opened in the station forecourt, while a concrete footbridge was built over the road to allow direct access to the shopping precinct over the road. Unsurprisingly, after nearly forty years, it was all starting to look a bit tired, and now the forecourt had been ripped up ready for a new bus station and travel centre.
If I'm honest, I felt let down. I was collecting Altrincham station when she wasn't at her best. I resolved to come back when the works were complete so that I could see it in its full pomp.
After negotiating a seemingly endless maze of temporary access routes I found myself on the station platform. There are four at Altrincham, two bay platforms for the trams - it's the original Metrolink terminus - and two through platforms for the Mid-Cheshire Line.
It was all very much a work in progress. In some places the paint was peeling and the concrete was broken; in others, there was the gleam of recent works. The ticket office, for example, was brightly painted with white walls and glass sliding doors. I hope they're going to fill it up with some seats or something; at the moment it looks a bit empty. Stepping through the glass doors and walking up to the ticket window feels like approaching the headmaster's office.
I'd thought I'd be able to get some lunch at the station - there was bound to be a cafe. It turned out the catering facilities extended to a milkshake and frozen yoghurt hut. I actually wanted a sandwich, not something that would give me a frozen brain headache. There was a little shop, but it was filthy inside, like a black walled cabin, and smelt strongly of penny sweets. The waft of artificial flavourings was so overpowering it actually made me nauseous, so I bought a bottle of water and a packet of sour Skittles and crossed to platform 4 to wait for my train.
I texted the BF: Three stations down - two to go.
He replied: Okay. We're just looking at the dessert menu. Had a great salmon risotto. We should come here again.
Bastard, I thought, and glumly chucked a Skittle in my mouth.
Incidentally, the builders at the Interchange should be proud of the work they did bricking up the wall where the footbridge to the shops used to be. It was a really professional job. See if you can spot the join.
We passed out of the city, into the leafy countryside, the concrete overpass of the M56 acting as a border crossing. I got off at Ashley, the next station, with one other person. He jumped into a waiting car and left me alone on the platform.
Now that I was out of Transport for Greater Manchester's sphere of influence, the level of facilities dropped precipitously. No ticket office or machines here, just a little shelter to hide you from the rain. The station building had been turned into a home, as a sign reminded you.
That sign seemed a bit rude to me - a bit exasperated. If you've bought a station building, one that literally sits on the platform, you have to put up with people thinking you're still railway property. Sticking up a sign won't change that.
I headed up to the bridge, past the warning triangle telling me to say NO to strangers; the local kids had scratched out the eyes of the supposedly friendly dog on the picture and tippexed drool from his mouth, turning him into Cujo.
I left Ashley past a charmingly tiny village store - barely more than a front parlour converted into a shop - and onto the main road. There was a tempting looking pub, but I manfully ignored it, crossing the forecourt of an abandoned car showroom to get to the footpath. Across the way, the Save Tatton Action Group (STAG) had hung a banner on the fence: Save Tatton - Say No To Theme Park!!!
"A theme park?" I thought, confused that the home of the Royal Horticultural Society's annual flower show would be turning itself into Chessington World of Adventures. A bit of digging reveals that the planning application is actually for a "treetop village" aimed at "3-11 year olds", which isn't exactly the Nemesis at Alton Towers. Maybe I'm naive, but I doubt that a few treehouses, a "story telling area" and a "park train" will cause Knutsford to be turned into a car park, as STAG seem to think.
Also, STAG spell "tenacity" as "tanasity" on their website, and I can't support such a flagrant disregard for the English language.
The footpath quickly ran out. This makes me nervous at the best of times but here, in footballer country, it was even worse. Every other car was a Porsche; there was a stream of 4x4s and Lexuses (Lexi?). Most were being driven with a disregard for speed limits, the Highway Code and general human decency. I remembered the recent story about a footballer allegedly hitting a cyclist and then telling him "good luck finding me on foreign plates"; out here in the perfect home for Liverpool and Manchester's millionaire mansions I didn't want to end up buried under Colleen Rooney's Audi.
Instead I criss-crossed the road, walking on the verge wherever possible, pressing myself into the hedge when another BMW came roaring round the corner. It became tiring very quickly. Above my head, aeroplanes roared - Manchester Airport's twin runways were pointing straight at me, disgorging Boeings and Airbuses at regular intervals. It made STAG's claims that the screams of excitable children would ruin this rural idyll seem even more hysterical; as well all know, a four year old hyper on E-numbers is far noisier than a fucking jet airliner.
I had a bit of trouble finding Mobberley station. I could find the railway line, no problem, but all the roads seemed to go away from it, and I couldn't reconcile the street layout with my Ordnance Survey map. Finally I picked a road at random and walked down it, and almost immediately saw a sign for the station.
A round of applause, incidentally, for Waugh Brow Farm Shop and its collection of fibreglass livestock. I particularly like the slightly indignant looking sheep. I should also award bonus points for the farmhouse next door, which not only looked exactly like a farmhouse should look - ridiculously inviting - but also had its front door open with a sheepdog sat on the threshold. I was severely tempted to go in and ask for a glass of milk, fresh from the udder.
I crossed a narrow bridge over a stream; someone had laid a single apple, a blackberry and a raspberry on the parapet, like a still life. I couldn't quite work out why. I passed another pub without going in - I should get some kind of award - and reached some pretty railway cottages by the level crossing.
I can't take Mobberley seriously. I know it's a highly desirable village - it's where Dolly from dinnerladies wanted to retire to, until she finds out it's the centre of a huge rubber and bondage scene - but it's just a ridiculous name. It sounds like the kind of noises you make when the dentist has anaesthetised your gums and you're trying to tell him where you're going on holiday.
The station was a let down too. Though there was a pretty signal cabin, the station facing parts of the main building had been artlessly bricked up. The new owners had basically turned their back on the whole reason for their home existing in the first place.
There was Stockport, I suppose, and bizarrely I still haven't collected Manchester Piccadilly; I'm not sure why, because I'm there all the time, but now I'm starting to take a perverse pleasure in not collecting it. They didn't count as Mid-Cheshire stations, anyway; until the Metrolink came along the trains didn't even go via Stockport.
The thought of finishing off the line - of closing down a section of the Northern Rail map - made a warm feeling wash over me. A strange type of happiness. I reached for a word to describe it. Ah yes. Content.