I thought I'd best say hello to any new visitors who've wandered over here from The Guardian. Firstly, can I say that I normally look a lot better than I looked on the website? There was a rain storm, a lot of fast walking, a wind; normally I resemble a perfectly ordinary human being. Though admittedly I've never really got to grips with my hair. It's less "styled" more "wrangled into place".
Secondly, thanks for visiting. I haven't actually visited any stations for a couple of weeks - the last ones were Manchester United Football Ground and Trafford Park - though I am going to Crewe next week. Bet you can't wait to come back and read that, can you?
In the meantime, here are a few posts that more or less sum up what I get up to.
The minute I was nominated for a Blog North award, my thoughts turned to my outfit. It was clear that such a magnificent occasion demanded an equally magnificent costume, and so I deferred to my personal couturier. We eventually went with something that combined all the best awards outfits of the past. Inspired by Lady Gaga's meat dress, I wore a hat made of bacon; my torso was covered by a single piece of spandex and mesh netting, a la Cher; and my legs were encased in feather trousers, as an homage to Bjork's swan dress. I felt that this was a dignified and tasteful way to make my entrance.
I arrived at the venue for the night's glittering festivities and was immediately confused. Where was the red carpet? Where were the paparazzi? Why wasn't there acamera crew from E!? I'd had my nails done specially, just in case I was accosted by Giuliana Rancic and forced to put my fingers in the Mani Cam. This all seemed rather low key. I was disappointed; not as disappointed as when I was laughed out of William Hill for trying to get the odds on my victory, but close.
I made my way through a packed bar to the rear of the venue, ostentatiously holding my ticket aloft and waiting for a member of hospitality to whisk me to my reserved seat. For preference, I would go for something a couple of rows back; front row is only for legends - Streep, Nicholson, Spielberg - a seat in the third row would imply dignity and humility. The man on the door took my ticket and stamped my hand then waved me through.
I stared at the stamp, uncomprehending. Would you stamp Jennifer Lawrence's hand? Julia's? Denzil's? Any of the Toms'? No, you would not; their legendary face is their hand stamp, and I thought that the ample coverage my fizzog gets on this blog would be enough. Apparently not. Still, what do you expect from a venue that can't even find an apostrophe?
Sashaying through to the awards space, I was pleased to see a stage and rows of chairs. The presence of a synthesizer cheered me immensely; perhaps there would be a musical interlude after all. Maybe a dance interpretation of the leading blogs by the Cirque de Soleil. I was sure that the absence of a "Best Song" category wouldn't hold things back.
There was a brief introduction by one of the organisers, who was American; this added a further sheen of glamour to the occasion, and provoked a noticeable frisson throughout the audience, like when a proper Hollywood star turns up at the BAFTAs. My fellow attendees didn't seem to have gone to the same effort, clothes wise; I assumed they were playing things low-key. They were saving their best outfits for the Vanity Fair party afterwards.
Some bloggers came out and read pieces to us, which confused me, as I didn't seem to have been invited to do the same. I assumed that they didn't want the entire evening overshadowed. Particularly good was Thom Robinson, from Thom Writes About Love Songs; his dry wit and Sheffield accent brought to mind Jarvis Cocker, to the extent that I worried he was about to moon some schoolchildren.
There was a short break, in the course of which I located the bar, and then we discovered the real reason for that synthesizer; a performance by Les Malheureux. Instead of breaking into a medley orchestrated by Mr Bill Conti they performed funny, quick stories with a rhythmic background and slides. All well and good, I thought, and I was undoubtedly entertained, but it wasn't exactly Adele belting out Skyfall was it?
My bacon hat was starting to drip.
Chris Killen came on then, wearing a suit made from tinfoil; finally, I thought, someone who has embraced the majesty of the occasion and dressed accordingly. His piece was called A Short Guide to the Future. It was sometimes funny, sometimes frightening, and made you think darkly about things to come, a bit like James Franco and Anne Hathaway hosting the Oscars.
Another break, where I found the bar again, and then it was onto the real meat of the evening: the awards. I crossed my legs demurely, and placed my hands in my lap for that "starlet just excited to be here" look. I assumed my blandest grin and politely applauded the nominees in other categories that weren't as interesting as mine. Finally, it was time for the award for Best Personal Blog.
The presenter, a very neat looking young man from a web hosting company, announced the runner up. I wasn't really paying attention because (a) I was silently cursing that Ronald McDonald picture on my last post, because it made the blog look really tacky onscreen and (b) who cares about runner up? First loser, more like.
"And the runner up is... Round The North We Go."
I smiled benevolently. I carried on smiling when Wife After Death was announced as winner, and she leapt up and down excitedly with all her friends like those schoolgirls getting the parts of pilgrims in Addams Family Values. I carried on smiling when the host broke in to say that the judge's decision was "unanimous", even though I considered that to just be rubbing my face in it.
I applauded the winner, thinking stoically of poor Amy Adams, who's done the same thing at four separate Oscar ceremonies now. I reminded myself that Hitchcock never got a competitive Oscar, or Cary Grant, or Richard Burton. I certainly didn't leap to my feet and scream "FIX!", though I have had interest from the people who made that film about the 9/11 conspiracy; they seem to think that there's a nefarious scheme at work here, and who am I to argue with such reasonable sounding gentlemen?
The rest of the evening continued with some more awards I didn't really care about, though I was annoyed that Thom Robinson didn't win his category (yet further proof that the Blog North awards are controlled by the Illuminati. Or so I'm told. I couldn't possibly comment).
Still, runner up (or "biggest loser") isn't bad, I suppose. And it was genuinely a thrill just to be nominated. Also, it turns out there wasn't an actual trophy, so I haven't missed out on a new paperweight after all.
I made for the Sainsbury's over the road and purchased a frankly obscene amount of alcohol. Then I went home and made a fry up out of my hat.
A corporate mascot is a difficult thing to pull off. Get it right, and you have an instantly recognisable, beloved representative of your company like Ronald McDonald:
Get it wrong, and you end up with an abomination summoned up from the very depths of Satan's armpit, like their first attempt at Ronald McDonald:
There's a very fine line between "cute and loveable" and "dead eyed horror". Merseyrail have got by fine with a very simple corporate logo, but for some reason, their latest campaign has introduced a new character for us all to grasp to our collective bosoms.
I'm not actually against the idea of a fluffy, cuddly character to bring a bit of humanity to the cold world of public transport. I don't think that a CGI anthropomorphic letter M is necessarily the way to go. The character - who I will christen "EMma", because these things always have a name like that and the eyelashes point to a female - has suddenly sprung up all over the place on posters and leaflets telling passengers how great Merseyrail is.
I'm not keen. Part of this is just based on aesthetics: they're going for a cute fluffy Muppet-type character, but you need very good CGI to do decent fur. You need to be Pixar, basically. It means that Emma looks a bit like she's been made out of a pedestal mat, and a green one at that. It's not just me, is it? She looks green to everyone else?
And she's floating, which is a bit weird. In fact, it looks like she's sneaking up on that couple above - you've got the old Star Wars prequel problem of people acting against something that's not there. Though Emma is obviously far more palatable than Jar-Jar Binks (as is dysentery).
My hope is that she'll be broken out in a physical form - perhaps cuddly plush Emmas on sale in the M to Go shops? Emma key rings? Some poor actor fresh from LIPA squeezed into a costume to wave at schoolchildren? The possibilities could be endless. And then you'd be able to make her look a bit less like a stomped down hall rug, all touchable and furry, and her eyes would seem a bit less dead and staring.
It certainly seems we've got her for the long run, so they need to start making full use of her. In fact, we could shoehorn her into my previously mooted animated series for CBeebies about the stations of Merseyrail; get in touch, Maaaaaaarten. We could make MILLIONS.
It's funny: it took me absolutely ages to write about my trip along the Esk Valley, but I forgot to mention an extremely significant fact. Namely, that at some point during that trip, I passed the 50% point of my quest.
There are 531 stations on the Northern Rail map, and during my trip I visited numbers 265 and 266, pushing me over the line. I'm not boring enough to work out exactly what were the stations that straddled the halfway line, so I'm picking Redcar British Steel as the one that pushed me over the edge, purely for its rarity.
Now admittedly, a hefty part of that was done during the round the merseyrail we go era. Basically most of the left hand side of the map is also on the Merseyrail map, so I was able to count those stations before I even started. That was 84 stations I'd crossed off without too much hassle. But it's still a fair old achievement.
I'm getting through the map a lot quicker than I did on the Merseyrail map because of the distances I have to travel. I was happy to for one trip to cover one or two stations; it didn't really matter. If I had an afternoon with nothing to do, I could trot out to Aigburth or Widnes or something, and be home for dinner. Now that I'm travelling across the country, it would seem perverse to only get a couple of stations. To get my money's worth out of those expensive tickets I really need to make each journey count, so there are four, five, six stations to visit every time. I'm ticking off whole branch lines in one go. I've become a tarting demon.
There's still an awful lot untouched though. The east of Cumbria is a blank area, with the famous Settle-Carlisle line completely uncollected. Similarly, the Grimsby line is uncollected, and there's a lot of stretches of line in Yorkshire that I haven't even passed through. There are loads of stations around Newcastle, and the bottom of the map is also virgin territory. Manchester seems to be the blogging equivalent of the Augean Stables; no matter how many stations I collect, there seem to be dozens more. The Hadrian's Wall line is half-finished; same for the totally not-funny Penistone line.
In other words, there's still a good couple of years' worth of blogging ahead of me. And then I move onto my new project: round the new york subway we go. I just need someone to pay for me to live in Manhattan for five years or so, but I'm sure that won't be a problem.
Below is the map as it currently stands for me; the highlighted stations have been collected.
In a recent blog post, Robert referred to our friendship as "the greatest double act since PJ and Duncan". I don't necessarily have a problem with this reference; Let's Get Ready to Rhumble is obviously a high water mark for Western civilisation (the "h" in Rhumble deserves a Grammy all of its own). My objection was that he didn't say who was who. Am I Ant, the taller, balder one? Or Dec, the shorter, fatter one? I can't actually decide which one's better. It's not like Morecambe and Wise, where one is clearly a genius and the other one is good but not that good (by the way, the genius was Eric, and if you think otherwise, please leave this website immediately). In the end, I think I'd prefer to be PJ, as his blinding at the paintball game was a significant moment in children's television for my generation, up there with Zammo slumped on the floor of a toilet high on scag and Five Star being asked why they were "so fucking shit" on Going Live.
I had the opportunity to ask Robert who was the Ant and who was the Dec on Saturday, when we took a train to Manchester together. He said he didn't have a specific role for either of us in mind, which is probably a lie, and so for the rest of this blog I will refer to him as "Tennille", which makes me "The Captain." Equilibrium is restored.
We were in Manchester to visit a rarely open station: Manchester United Football Ground. Or, as the BF (a former Liverpool season ticket holder) calls it, "that shithole". He wasn't at all keen on me visiting the station, perhaps believing I'd come home with Manchester Fleas or something. I pacified him by explaining that the trains weren't actually being run for a football match: it was the Rugby Super League Final that afternoon, between Wigan and Warrington.
And that is the end of my knowledge of the subject of rugby, unless you count Ben Cohen's arms and an appreciation of the annual Dieux de Stade calendar. I went to the least athletic high school in the world - my year couldn't scrape together eleven boys willing to play football against other schools, so we just didn't have a team that year - and rugby was only on the curriculum for one year. There was a Science teacher who apparently had a minor in rugby and who taught us the basics on a freezing cold field in November. Then he left the school, and I went back to being a really distant fielder in rounders so I could have a nice sit down.
Manchester United Football Ground is tucked away behind the South Stand, and only receives limited services on match days. It's a hangover from the days when there actually used to be "football specials", four carriages of drunken violence and hooliganism that crossed the nation ferrying louts to the next match.
I've read Awaydays; I know that trains to football stadiums are full of bovver booted maniacs pulling up the seating and spitting on passers by. I began to get more and more anxious. It had started earlier, when I tried to find a neutral outfit that wouldn't imply allegiance to either team, and now it was growing. What if someone asked us who we were there to see? Or a more technical question? What if they started a singalong, and took issue with me not joining in? What if we were the only sober people on board? I don't like crowds at the best of times, but things are so much worse when you're jammed in the armpit of a twenty stone rugby fan who's been knocking back the Tennant's Extra since 8 that morning.
Adding to my anxiety was Michael Portillo on the platform, looking supercilious in a bright pink jacket (nice way to battle those rumours about your sexuality, Mike). In my experience, where a Tory politician goes, disaster is sure to follow. It didn't help that, purely coincidentally, Robert Tennille had actually mentioned Portillo in conversation moments before, raising the very real prospect that he is a minion of Satan who can be summoned just by uttering his name. Like the Candyman.
If I'd had more wits about me, I might have gone over and demanded that he stop making that Great Railway Journeys programme. The concept of the programme is fine, it's just his halting, uncomfortable presence as a presenter I can't stand. The sight of him in a hairnet, attempting banter with some jolly production line worker as they turn out some historic Devon fudge, then pretending to eat it on the Tarka Line, turns my stomach. Probably because I suspect that his Damascene conversion to liberalism is all a front, and if David Cameron offered him a front bench role which involved herding the first born of welfare claimants into a large pen and dropping them off Beachy Head he'd be right in there.
We finally made it on board the train, which wasn't too busy; we got a seat, at least. Most of the matchgoers got on at Oxford Road. A hefty Wigan fan, Carlsberg in hand, installed his two kids in the seat in front of us and then bellowed down the carriage for the rest of the journey. Much of what he said was either boorish or incomprehensible; apparently he didn't mind if Wigan lost, so long as one of the Warrington players got his leg broken, which doesn't strike me as being a good sport.
The station is on a little bit of side track alongside the main line, which is why it has to have special trains and they can't just let the mainline ones stop here. TfGM have suggested closing this station and building a new one nearby which could be served by regular services and be more of an asset for the local community. Their proposed name for this station is "White City", after a nearby retail park, which needs to be stopped for being unoriginal. There's already a White City station, Manchester, and has been for over fifty years. Get your own name.
We let everyone else alight from the train then found a handy sign for our photos.
That's another rarity knocked off the map. The rest should be dead easy.
Now we had the problem of getting out of the station. The crowds had thinned, as passengers had passed through the turnstiles. Turnstiles. I worried that as we didn't have match tickets we wouldn't be allowed to go through, and we'd be stuck on the platform until the reverse services started up after the match.
Luckily the turnstiles were a relic of the old stadium, and were unmanned. We passed through and emerged in the shadow of Old Trafford, its high glass frontage and bright red signage everywhere. Even though it was a Super League final, they hadn't really bothered covering up its footballing day job; I thought there might be some banners or signs to celebrate the rugby match but there were still vast portraits of Wayne Rooney everywhere you looked.
I texted that picture to the BF, with a message saying "Look where I am!"
"Does it stink of shit?" came the extremely mature reply. Football can turn grown men into 13 year old boys.
Now we had to get away from the station, which was difficult, because we were going in the opposite direction to everyone else. Waves of fans were streaming closer, good natured enough, but still a hefty mass. We dived down a side street and found ourselves in what seemed like a perfectly ordinary suburban avenue. It would probably be quite nice living here, I thought, apart from the absolute hell of every other Saturday.
As though to emphasise the point, two women emerged from a patch of vacant ground, hoisting their knickers up. "There'll have been loos in the ground," said their friends, waiting politely on the pavement.
"I know," said one of the al fresco pissers, "but I just couldn't hold it in any more!"
We were headed for Trafford Park station for the train home. We'd considered staying in Manchester, but on top of the Super League final, Manchester City were playing Everton at home, so we decided the city would probably be nightmarish. We were also trying to time our return visit so we wouldn't get Everton fans on the train, or Crystal Palace fans at Lime Street, or Liverpool fans in the city's pubs; Saturday afternoons are a minefield if you can't stand sport.
Chester Road's a big, busy thoroughfare here, so I was fascinated by the idea that they'd close it on match days. I should imagine the inconvenience to traffic is worth it to get 60,000 people out of the way as quickly as possible.
There were still signs that a big event was happening. Crowds of supporters passed us, dressed in their teams' strip (I still didn't know which one was which, and the presence of away kits just muddied the issue). Outside a social club, the car park was crammed with people clutching plastic glasses of beer, and at the kerbside men in high-vis jackets beckoned passing cars into private compounds behind hotels and pubs. They lazily rolled their arms, over and over, like really bad interpretative dance.
Meanwhile, there weren't so much shopping precincts, as strips of grease. Chippies, kebab shops, Indians, Chinese - every kind of takeaway was here to ensnare the passing fan with tempting wafts of fried food.
Down a side street, we got another sign of the horrors of being a local resident: parking permit signs with dot matrix indicators to tell you when the next match was.
I quite liked that. I always find it thrillingly futuristic, a little bit of Blade Runner come to the present day. I get similarly excited by LED screens showing ads; if that one outside Lime Street ever featured a massive Japanese lady putting a pill in her mouth I'd be ecstatic.
Tennille was at my elbow, complaining, doubting my navigational skills. It was not a little triumph that I pointed at Trafford Park station on the horizon; of course I knew where we were going.
It was a sad little station. A ticket office had been constructed when it first opened at the turn of the 20th Century, but it had been closed a long time ago. For a while it was a taxi office, but now it seemed to be abandoned altogether. The windows were boarded up and iron bars were over that.
Behind the building was a long pathway up to the platform level. The station doesn't get much of a service, and there was a real peace to it. When we reached the platform level we were hit by a bright orange sun, lighting the platform and the tracks.
Tennille hammered away at his phone - he's just got an iPhone 5C, and needed no excuse to bash at it - while we waited for the train home. The rest of the line could wait for a quieter day, some time when I wouldn't have to run the gauntlet of burly men in shorts. Back to Liverpool we went, for a pint or two.
The barmaid sighed the long cold sigh of the eternally put upon. "Well, sort of. I'm on my own. There's only so much I can do." She pointed at the blackboard. "I can do the sausages. And the meatballs. And the cheese paninis."
Ian and I followed her gaze to the menu. There were only four items on it, and she could do three. "So basically anything except the pie?"
We ordered two cheese paninis and went and sat in the conservatory. We were in the bar at Stalybridge station, on the outskirts of Manchester. It seemed like the perfect place to start our day out - a award-winning pub on a station platform? What could be more perfect?
A couple of problems. Firstly, Ian is teetotal. He did explain why to me once, but I didn't comprehend the words coming out of his mouth. In a CAMRA-listed public house his choice was limited so he ended up with a pint of Coke. I didn't really pick the venue based on his needs. Conversely, I had too much choice, row after row of handpumps with obscure badges attached. When my first choice beer was "off" I picked another one, basically at random, and I could almost feel the atmosphere in the pub plummet as my beer choice was judged furiously.
That was the other problem with the pub - the clientele. I like "old man" pubs; back street boozers with a few regulars. No juke box, just the slow tick of a clock over the pool table, or the gentle background noise of Sky Sports News on a little flat screen in the corner. A couple of men nursing pints and bantering with the barmaid. I like pubs like that.
The clientele of the station bar seemed a lot less friendly. They appeared to regard Ian and myself as interlopers. The men lined up on the wall benches - they were all men - were islands, none of them talking, just staring ahead. Considering it was actually on the station platform - and therefore bound to get quite a lot of passing trade - their hostility seemed peculiar. Unless it was all in my head.
We sat under walls covered with just too many random signs and posters and ate our paninis. A man with an inside out Ian Allen bag and a Stranglers t-shirt came in to read his railway magazine and have a pint; I realised that the pub is the nexus between two very committed, very intense fandoms - trainspotters and real ale aficionados. It was a bit like building a One Direction cafe that served Twilight-themed food; people in the middle of that Venn diagram took things very seriously. Perhaps they just didn't appreciate Ian and I questioning what the Wesleyan Methodists would feel about their fundraising certificates on the wall of a boozer.
Stalybridge station itself is quite impressive. Lines from Victoria and Piccadilly meet here, and long-distance services that cross the North pass through. There are five platforms backdropped by the Pennines, somehow bleak and cosy all at once. It was the kind of vista that made you hunch up your jumper. I imagined being here on a cold January night, the station the only spot of illumination, the moonlight bouncing off the snow-covered hills.
It's also received a fair amount of investment in recent years, with two new platforms built to enable services to turn back here and new glass shelters. It was something of a shock to walk down the passageway from the historic station buffet to the ultra modern glass and steel ticket hall. I liked it though, the contrast between the old and new; almost as if TfGM had said to the bar's owners "you can have all the old bits you want: we've decided to go modern."
We hovered in the car park for the sign shot. It's funny how slow Transport for Greater Manchester are being in replacing their red GMPTE signs with the new black logo. It's a bit of a lottery as to which colour you're going to get.
That's the wind that made my hair do that, by the way. I haven't suddenly gone all fashionable or something.
We passed under the rail bridge and passed the Q Inn, with a plaque commemorating its entry into the Guinness Book of Records as the pub with the shortest name in the UK. As committed Bond fans we were pleased by their choice of letter - though disappointed the pub sign wasn't a picture of Desmond Llewellyn or, at a push, Ben Whishaw - but there were a few doubts. As Ian pointed out, there was nothing to stop someone else opening a bar called, say, X; it wasn't much of a record. And I distinctly remember there being a venue in Liverpool city centre called the Q Bar in the 90s. The more you thought about it, the more it seemed like an extremely tenuous record to have.
We avoided the town centre of Stalybridge itself, instead heading down a side street to a cool towpath. The Huddersfield Narrow Canal runs between the town and Ashton-Under-Lyne, and we decided this would be a more interesting route to our next station. Built at the turn of the 19th century, the canal was designed to service the mills and factories that threaded across the Pennines.
It still felt like a walk through the industrial heritage of the north. Heavy brick buildings were joined by steel-framed modern ones, machinery grinding, a crash of workers and manufacturing. High mill chimneys rose up among the trees. Where the canal crossed the River Tame, two men had set up fishing rods, leaning on the parapet and murmuring jokes to one another.
The canal was allowed to die in the middle of the 20th century, silting up, impassable, paved over in places. A concerted effort by British Waterways in the 90s saw the route reopened to traffic but it still hasn't caught the imagination of boaters by the looks of it; we didn't see a single barge on the town section.
The old factories haven't been colonised by executive apartments wanting a watery view yet, either. Instead they're still empty red blocks, smashed glass windows, ironworks on display, silent. They were filled with ghosts. They'd been built with confidence and pride, the firm knowledge that there would be a factory here for millenia, and now they were shells. I loved them.
We turned away from the canal to get to Ashton town centre. Underpasses took us beneath a dual carriageway and then we were in the backstreets of the town, home to a Polish shop, a pizzeria with laser printed cheese all over its sign, a drop-in centre for African refugees.
A statue of a pie man meant we were by Ashton's famous market. I was ridiculously pleased to see it for quite personal reasons. One of the sad side effects of ITV's abandonment of its regional identities is there aren't as many of those weird local ads any more. Ones that plugged the actual addresses of shops. I still have fond memories of the way a man shouted "Shannon Corner, New Malden!" in a furniture advert when I grew up.
There are still some of these local ads hanging on. When Ian was up North a previous time, I was extremely happy to see Prestons of Bolton, the "Diamond Centre of the North" and creators of some truly dreadful commercials. There are those horrible Safestyle UK ones, featuring a troll pushing window frames over, though I think they may have infected the rest of the country by now.
The all time best local advert I have seen though was for Ashton market. It was burnt to the ground in 2004, and took a few years to rebuild. To celebrate its reopening someone had the bright idea of getting local celebrity Amanda Barrie - Alma from Coronation Street - in to do a commercial. But - and this is the brilliant part - she clearly couldn't be arsed coming back up north, so they filmed all her parts in front of a green screen then composited her into shots of the market. I have scoured the internet for this masterpiece of cinema but this is the best version of it I could find:
My favourite bit is when she points at the meat. They could have CSO'd a Sontaran battle fleet in there and she'd have pulled the same facial expression. "Because I'm an Ashton girl!" Quite.
I filled Ian in on this piece of false film making on a par with the Roswell tapes but we passed on visiting the market itself. Indoor markets, in my experience, permanently stink of fish. You nip in for a cauliflower and all you can smell is haddock. Instead we passed through the outdoor market, a scene which, Ian pointed out, could only have come from the North.
We crossed Camp Street to reach the station. Someone in Tameside has a distinctly Carry On-esque sense of humour; in addition to Camp Street, my Ordnance Survey showed the districts of Cockbrook and Cocker Hill, while Mossley station seemed to be located in an area called "Bottoms".
It's interesting that Northern Rail's timetables, maps and other literature call the station "Ashton-under-Lyne", but the station entrance seems to prefer the much shorter "Ashton". Well, I thought it was interesting, anyway.
We ran up the ramp, because the train was on the platform with the doors closed, but didn't hold out much hope of catching the train. Luckily for us, the guard spotted us, and let us on through the back of the train.
Now Ian and I are great Northernphiles. We're both originally from much further South, and while he currently lives in London, his heart resides somewhere above Birmingham. For myself, I couldn't imagine living anywhere else. There's a wonder and a joy to the North which fades as you pass down the M6; when it turns into the M1 around Rugby, an icy chill slides down your spine. The region has a tantalising touch, microbes of which affect you and infect you, converting you, until you can't be happy unless someone says "'eck" now and then.
However, for all our fondness for t'North, we're still outsiders. When the guard barked something at us in an accent so thick it practically wore clogs, we were mystified. We found a seat and spent the rest of our journey to Mossley debating exactly what he'd said. Was he happy? Annoyed? Did we do something wrong? Social anxiety about whether we'd given the wrong response to his garbled consonants bounced around us until we got off the train.
Mossley station clings to a ridge above the Tame valley. Above it, houses are perched amongst green walls; below, roads plunge down at vertigo inducing angles to the river below. It's less a town, more a strip of existence.
The station building's very nice and all, but it hasn't got a proper totem sign. As a result, my customary pic had to be taken in front of a wrought iron fence: a blog first.
Ian, with his nose for the scent of tannin that had Robert in awe when they traveled across Scotland together, had detected the presence of a cafe nearby. It was now at least three hours since he'd had a cup of tea, and I think he was getting twitchy. His personal admiration for Tony Benn isn't really based on his political career but on the fact that he drinks tea in pints. We crossed to the Station Cafe, but it was empty, and though the door was open, it had an air of being about to shut; it didn't feel like a welcoming place.
In fact, the whole of Mossley seemed to be closing. While it had everything you could want from a small town - post office, grocer, pharmacist, dentist, chippie - nothing seemed to be open. We concluded that it must be early closing day. Either that or the recession had hit the town very hard indeed.
The butchers was open, and not only did it have a giant fibreglass man outside, he had a little Mini-Me beside him. Ian had to stop me from popping him under my arm and running away; he'd have looked great in my back garden.
We gave up on finding a cup of tea, and the pubs looked less than salubrious (plus the grammar and spelling on their advertising was shocking) so we pressed on. We were heading back to the Huddersfield Narrow Canal for the walk to Greenfield, but it was busier now. The schools were chucking their pupils out. A gang of lairy looking lads scrambled over the bricks of a piece of wasteland, off to hang out there with no purpose for a while.
We dodged round a couple of dog walkers and went onto the towpath. This stretch of canal was far more peaceful than the Ashton end. There were trees and bushes, and the path beneath our feet was edged with grass instead of gravel.
Wandering lazily, with no great rush, we chatted and gossiped. Our conversation flowed from topic to topic, never seeming to hang around too long, a river with a far healthier flow than the little canal beside us. Lock after lock raised the water into the Pennines, heading for the summit.
The view from the canal became more and more bleak as Saddleworth Moor rose up beside us. As if that wasn't eerie enough, a schoolboy passed us with a Michael Myers mask perched on the top of his head. Feel free to debate about the psychological damage he may have suffered.
At Greenfield, we finally saw an actual canal barge. The driver was having problems negotiating the tight turn and was having to poke at the bank with a large metal stick to stop from grinding into the stones. Frankly it all looked like far too much effort; not the relaxing drift through the countryside you expected from a boating holiday. We left the canal and clambered up the hill to find Greenfield station.
We'd just missed the train, by about five minutes. Ian started palpitating; he was going to have to go even longer without a cup of tea. The only place we could find to take a break was the Railway Inn, dead opposite the station, but sadly serving only Coke and not tea. I was happy though.
We left the pub with a group of men who seemed to be doing the Transpennine Real Ale Trail. This sounds like a classy, dignified way to spend your afternoon, but all it is really is a pub crawl. They staggered across the road, giggling, having problems negotiating the steps up to the platform; since it was only about four in the afternoon, they're either early starters or hopeless lightweights.
We still got our station photo, though, and headed onto the platform for the train back to Manchester. Greenfield's a pleasingly new building, refurbished in 2009, and it holds the distinction of being the only railway station in Oldham; all the others were converted to tram stops in the Rochdale extension to the Metrolink.
We moved along the platform, well away from the drunk real ale twats, and hopped on board the Sprinter back into town. There are two more uncollected stations on the line to Huddersfield, Marsden and Slaithwaite, but they were out of range for our Manchester day rangers. Besides, I don't think Ian could have lasted much longer without a decent cuppa. We rushed into town, to the Richmond Tea Rooms, so that he could top up his levels with a pot of green tea.
If he'd gone a couple more hours I don't know what might have happened. It really doesn't bear thinking about.