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.