Monday 25 November 2013

Don't Embrace Your Curves

One day, someone will write a history of British New Towns, and under the chapter on Skelmersdale they'll put The name was probably a mistake.  It's a hard, guttural name; filled with Celtic and Norse overtones, yes, but still ugly on the tongue.  My mum used to find it hilarious; whenever we drove past the sign on the M58 she'd giggle to herself, and sometimes murmur, "Skelmersdale. It's so Northern."  Building a New Town means you can start again - the planners could have called it "Lovelytown" or "Happyfields" or "Absolutely Gorgeous City" if they'd wanted, but no, they stuck with Skelmersdale.

And the shortened version is Skem, which is even worse.

Mind you, they made so many mistakes with Skelmersdale, it's hard to know where to start.  It was built as an overflow town for Liverpool in the Sixties.  The idea was that Scousers would be taken out of their substandard homes and put in new houses in a town filled with jobs and parks.  It was designed to be self-sustaining, with factories to work in, schools for the children, and shops and leisure facilities to keep them entertained.  The M58 was built along its southern edge so that all the goods could be swept out to the Port of Liverpool or the M6.

It turned out to be more of a hole in the centre of Lancashire, sadly.  The businesses didn't come, driven away by the economic recessions of the Seventies and the general collapse in manufacturing in the North.  People felt disjointed, abandoned, with nothing to do and nowhere to go.  A town built for 80,000 residents today houses barely half that.  It means that there are wide, unused boulevards all over town, gigantic roundabouts constructed to carry commuters swiftly to work, underpasses to segregate pedestrians from the fast-flowing traffic that never came.  And there's no railway station.

There used to be a railway station.  Skelmersdale station was on the western edge of what is now the Old Town, built to service the small hamlet of the same name and on a branch line that ran from Ormskirk to Rainford (then Rainford Junction).  There were a couple of other stops on the route, notably at Westhead, but it wasn't a principal route and British Railways closed the station in 1956, with the tracks getting lifted in 1968 and turned into a road.

At no point does it seem to have occurred to anyone that a railway route to Liverpool - even a roundabout one via Ormskirk - might be a good idea for the residents.  The car was the future: everyone would have their own, and if they didn't, motor buses would be an admirable alternative.  Skelmersdale was a New Town, remember; the planners didn't want everyone rushing back to the old city at the drop of a hat.  It's notable that the M58 doesn't go anywhere near Liverpool, instead slicing across the top of the city like it's afraid it might catch something if it gets too close.

Problem was, a lot of people in Skelmersdale didn't have cars.  These were Liverpool's poor, remember, and though they had new three bedroom semis, they weren't given an Austin Montego as well.  They needed public transport.  Even today, the bus journey from Liverpool to Skelmersdale takes an hour.  That's a long journey.  It's difficult not to note that while Skelmersdale has problems with crime and deprivation, its neighbours in West Lancashire with their own train stations - Ormskirk, Burscough, Parbold - are relatively affluent and successful.  Skem needs a station.

The need for a Skelmersdale station has gathered pace over the last five or six years or so.  Merseyrail's plans for a station at Headbolt Lane has brought the idea of an extension back onto the table.  The Kirkby line is very under capacity; with only three stations of its own, a train every fifteen minutes and an extensive dwell time at the terminal, it'd be a great opportunity to send trains  Skelmersdale's way.

With that in mind, Lancashire County Council have launched a new West Lancashire Highways and Transport Masterplan, with the Skelmersdale rail link its top priority.  The idea is to create a triangular junction south of the town, then send the trains from Liverpool and Wigan along what is currently Whiteledge Road to a new combined bus/train terminal in the town centre.  Interestingly, the masterplan seems to completely void out the road, raising the possibility that the road will be sacrificed for the railway - a pleasing reversal of history. 

There had been two other schemes, to create park and rides at the edge of town: one by upgrading the currently underused Upholland station, the other by restoring the Ormskirk-Skem branch.  This is the bravest and most gratifying option though, and I'm glad to see it's the one that the County Council want to pursue.  There are a few issues, mainly to do with funding: while Network Rail, the County and District councils are all on board with the idea, none of them really want to pay the millions of pounds required to make it happen.

Another, pleasing side effect of this scheme would be poor old Rainford station being brought into the Merseyrail fold.  It's always been an orphan: the electric lines stop at Kirkby, even though Rainford is also in Merseyside, leaving it with a substandard service compared to its neighbours in the Merseytravel area.

That's not it for railways in West Lancashire.  The report also notes that Burscough and Ormskirk, while having a lot in common, don't actually connect together in a very meaningful way.  There's a train service between the two towns but it's erratic and slow, and if you want to continue on to Liverpool you have to change trains.

The consultation proposes electrification of the line at least as far as Burcough Junction, the single platform station at the south of the town, and possibly further towards the centre.  In the process, they've finally laid the "Burscough Curves" plan to rest.  This would have restored the connections between the Preston/Ormskirk line and the Southport/Wigan line:

I've never been keen on the restoration of the Burscough Curves.  There's already an electric line to Southport - this would have been indirect and slower.  It seems that Lancashire County Council agree with me, and have now decided to push for electrification beyond Ormskirk.  Their idea is that one train an hour from Liverpool will continue on to Burscough Junction/a new Burscough Central station, giving them a good regular service south and helping to alleviate some of the traffic on the A59 and in Ormskirk town centre in the process.  This will also have a positive knock on effect for the Preston services, because the trains will have less distance to travel so they might be able to have an every hour service as well.

The eventual aim is for the whole route to Preston to be electrified of course, but that's just an ideal.  I mean, where's the benefit in connecting two major north west cities with a fast, direct rail route?  That would be MADNESS.

The whole consultation exercise opens on the 2nd December.  In the meantime you can read the document here

That was all a bit boring and worthy, wasn't it?  Sorry.  I'll get back to wandering the countryside making innuendos soon, I promise.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Big Mo


Just the name annoys me.  A whole month of people wandering around with ratty caterpillars crawling across their top lip.  Unless you're Beast Man from Masters of the Universe, a moustache rarely looks good until about three weeks of growth.  Up until the 21st of November, it's just a load of idiots on the Tube who look like their mum forgot to wipe their face properly after a chocolate ice cream.

It also has that air of "I'M MAD I AM!", show off, aren't I great? wankerdom that makes me want to punch most of the participants.  There are some lovely people taking part in Movember, and bless them, it's for a very good cause, but I wouldn't want to be trapped in a lift with 98% of those tossers.

Not everyone's a miserable bastard like me though.  Northern Rail have hurled themselves into the whole event with a passion.  (I strongly suspect this started out with Tim and Andy on the Twitter team; it seems like their kind of bag).  There's a dedicated website which includes the FAQ "Is Movember just for men?" (oh Sylvia, your handlebar moustache looks lovely!) and a video, with plinky plonky sad piano music and everything:

Yes, your train driver or ticket seller may soon look like Big John Holmes in the name of men's health.  Either that or he's off to a leather night in Canal Street after work.

Northern Rail have even taken it beyond the staff and onto the trains themselves, with moustache decals stuck on the front of many of them.  Sadly, when I was out and about the other day I forgot to check whether any of my rides were bushy on the front; I must find a 'tache train before the month is out (though if they're anything like Merseyrail and their Liverpool '08 stickers, we'll be seeing them for years to come).  They launched the scheme with a press event at Manchester Piccadilly:

I have to admit I was distracted from the Poirot whiskers by the saucy looking guard alongside it; that's a very roguish smirk he has there.

Anyway, it's all for CHARIDEE so give early and give often.  The donation page is here.  You're probably a lot less grumpy than me.  I promise I'm grumpy for perfectly legitimate reasons, not  because I'm jealous because facial hair makes me look like a paedophile:

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Sound and Pictures

I'm not a train geek.

Before you all roll your eyes and giggle into your hands, it's true.  I don't know anything about classes, signals or tracks.  I'm not interested in train numbers, and the only trains I recognise are wretched Pacers (spit) and the Desiros I used to take to work every day.  I like train stations; I like train lines.  I like their connectivity and their community.

I'm not completely immune to the charms of a nice train though, and as I waited at Wilmslow station I couldn't help myself.  The trains on the line from Manchester Piccadilly to Crewe are Class 323 trains (I looked it up, alright?) and all day I'd been seduced by their silky electric whirrs.  The noise was similar to the gentle purr of Jubilee line trains, something that Ian beautifully covered in his 150 Great Things About the Underground blog (only eight more to go, folks!).  It hisses and clicks, then it rolls, then it sighs into a soft hum.  It was a wonderful sound, and I did something I've only done once before: I recorded the noise.

And then a Pendolino rushed through the station at 0:20 and fucked it all up, but still: it was great up until that point.  I totally accept that recording the noise of a train is a very odd thing to do, but please, play that a high volume and appreciate its magnificence.

(The only other time I've recorded the noise of a train was on the Jubilee Line.  Obviously).

I finally boarded one of these electric seductresses and headed down the line to Handforth.  I had absolutely no expectations; I only knew it as a place on the map.  So I was delighted to find that it had a devoted Friends of Handforth Station group who'd gussied it up quite considerably.

On the Manchester-bound platform, there was a garden, with carved railway sleeper artwork:

which is nice.  On the Crewe-bound platform, there was something far more special, especially for a train sign collector like myself.  The Friends group had contacted other railway companies and got copies of the Handforth sign made in their livery.  They were scattered along the platform, giving me a little sequence to collect:

So that's (from top left): the French SNCF, the old Manchester Metrolink livery, Iarnrod Eireann of Ireland, Northern Ireland Railways, good old British Railways, the Docklands Light Railway,  what I think is the Dublin DART (though I'm happy to be corrected), Merseyrail (yay!) and NedRail from the Netherlands.  A nifty little idea, and nice to see.  It also let me collect the Merseyrail sign, just for old time's sake:

There was a fly in Handforth's ointment though, a big, dirty, offensive one.  There was also, allegedly, a "London Underground" sign on the platform.

First of all the Underground doesn't use signs like that.  Secondly, they don't use a font like that, and I can't believe they're trying to get away with it.  Designed by Edward Johnston, the London Underground font is so distinctive that even recently discovered Brazilian tribespeople would recognise where it was from.  Johnston Sans (and its various modernised versions) is easily one of the most beautiful fonts ever created; if I could, this entire blog would be written in it.  My whole life would be written in it.  This abomination disgusts me, and for the sake of human decency I should have ripped it down and burnt it there and then.

Was that a bit of an overreaction?  Possibly.

With that nasty taste in my mouth, I took in the station itself, which is a perfectly acceptable pre-fab type building - functional, clean, not going to win any awards but it does the job.

By this point I was starting to get a bit tired of Handforth station.  It's very nice that they have a loyal, enthusiastic band of volunteers, but the train weather vane and the medieval sign and the conifers all pushed me over the edge.  It was just too much; the difference between having a gnome in your back garden and having an entire family of miniature people arranged around a fairy mushroom.  The Millennium screen and the Golden Jubilee artwork provided by local schoolchildren and another heritage sign and... JUST STOP.  

Incidentally, the ticket office is only open Monday to Saturday mornings (not Sunday), and there's no way to get down to the platforms if you're in a wheelchair.  I'd prefer a proper working station to one that's got its own flag.

I finally dragged myself away and headed off for my final station of the day, Styal.  Passing another kitchen and bespoke furniture shop - I was officially out of the Golden Triangle now, but its influence was still felt - I headed into a quiet residential road.  As I walked, I slipped down the social scale with dizzying speed.

At the Handforth end, there were detached homes with gardens.  Swiftly these changed to semi-detached houses, some of whom had concreted over the grass for more parking, then the gates vanished to reveal open driveways.  The road seemed to end at a row of trees, but a footpath took you round the corner and into a council estate.  A nice council estate, with cul-de-sacs and sheltered housing for the elderly, but it was still a bit like stepping over the border from West to East Berlin.  

Beyond that the road turn to mush.  Rain and mud were churned up on a back road through fields of horses.  There was a smell of manure and no noise.  It's always surprising how quickly you can find yourself in the countryside in England.  Nature is only temporarily held back - turn a corner or find a spot of derelict land and it comes rushing back.  We're living with a benevolent dictator, allowing us to temporarily occupy some of its space, but the earth could take it back any time.

I skipped across brown puddles and found myself behind Styal Golf Course.  The greens were busy as sportsmen tried to fit in as many games as possible before winter struck and condemned them to the clubhouse.  Styal station appeared on my right, but I was early for the afternoon service so I carried on to the village beyond in the hope that there was a pub or a cafe.

Sadly the Crown was undergoing refurbishment, though I did like the builder's little gag on the scaffolding:

Imagine the collective pearl clutching that went on when that sign went up!

There wasn't much else to keep my interest so I headed back to the station to wait.  Styal used to get a pretty good service, but the construction of the Manchester Airport spur stole its thunder.  That station was much more convenient, and got better services, so Styal was quietly allowed to run down to its current three trains a day.  The 15:59 was the only service in the afternoon.

The sky was darkening; a reminder that I'd have to be pretty swift if I wanted to collect stations after lunch from now on.  I'd thought about continuing onto Cheadle Hulme, but the encroaching night put me off.  Plus, collecting Styal meant that I now had the whole of the line from Crewe to Maudleth Road under my belt; quite a significant chunk of the bottom corner of the map.

I huddled myself against the cold and turned up my iPod.  Another line gone.  Another reason to smile.  I suppose I am a train geek after all.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Among The Beautiful People

Eagle-eyed readers may have noted that I ended my last ramble in a deli.  "That's a bit odd," you may have thought.  "A small village with its own delicatessen?"

Thing is, Chelford is slap bang in the middle of the "Golden Triangle".  Bounded by Macclesfield, Winsford and Knutsford, this is the premier region of the North West for the idle rich.  This is footballer territory, self-made millionaire land, home to Coronation Street actors and entrepreneurs.  It's a place where money is the most important topical conversation - who's got it, who hasn't, and what it's being spent on.

The deli was a fine example of a place for people to spend money on stuff they didn't really need, like their wallet was too heavy and they needed to empty out a couple of twenties somehow.  Jars of mysterious oils.  Boxes of delicate chocolates.  Foreign breads "baked to order".  Bags of "kindling" for £3.50, artfully tied up and designed to be displayed rather than burnt.  The proprietress - who I thought had sneered at me as I took my seat, until I realised she was French and therefore couldn't help it - was showing a WAG her new Christmas stock.  The husband looked perfectly normal, ordinary in fact, tapping on his iPhone, but the wife's hair was too white-blonde, her heels were too high, her tits were too big.

I paid up for my sandwich and tea.  It was chicken and pesto, so I wanted something a little minty to take the taste away; there were tins at the checkout but they were £2.50 for a tiny box so I veered away sharpish.  I ended up buying a packet of Softmints on the way back to the station.

Alderley Edge is the glistening jewel of the Golden Triangle, its Fort Knox.  Alderley Edge is full of nouveau riche, tans and necklaces and short skirts and tight trousers.  Alderley Edge is restaurants and estate agents and nightclubs; Alderley Edge got a reality show on MTV about its glowing residents; Alderley Edge was the home of the Beckhams when they were only semi-legendary.

Given all this, I expected its station to be beautiful and scenic.  I forgot that people from Alderley Edge don't take public transport.

The pre-formed concrete awnings that were unloved.  The blocky footbridge.  The closed ticket office.  It was scruffy and uncared for.  The land around it had been sold off for redevelopment, leaving it hemmed in by flats and shops.

The presence of a station probably adds 5% to the house prices, but no-one uses it.  There's nowhere to park your Jag for starters, and everyone knows that cabbing it is infinitely preferable.

I trekked up to the road, the only person to alight, and got my sign picture.

It was laid out in front of me: the village hub.  Like Hollyoaks, but not as common; you wouldn't get far with a Scouse accent here.

I turned away.  I didn't want to wander round the glitzy village centre with my sweaty, in need of a cut hair, and my grey anorak, and my cheap fifteen quid backpack.  I'd lower the tone.

Instead I headed for the Wilmslow Road.  I found a gem out there - Aldeli; another delicatessen, yes, but housed in a giant 1950s glass building.  It looked like it had once been a car showroom - there was a Texaco garage right next door - but it looked like an alien spacecraft, landing on the Cheshire Plain to deliver Klaatu on his peace mission.  It was brilliant, and if I hadn't stuffed myself already in Chelford, I'd have gone straight in.

There were more dining places as I carried on out of town; a shuttered up pub next to a restaurant/hotel next to a luxury dinner experience.  I'm always baffled by these out of town nightclubs that footballers seem to frequent; if you're earning £30,000 a week, I suppose you don't mind paying for a taxi to get you there and back, but what about everyone else?  And they always look awful; terrible music and overzealous bouncers and expensive drinks.  I suppose that you're going there to try and hook up, or to be seen with the beautiful people.  You're not there for a good night out.

A bypass took away most of the traffic between Wilmslow and Alderley Edge a few years ago, so there's now an underused dual carriageway connecting the towns.  Lining the road are the kind of expensive villas bought by people who want the postcode but can't afford the really good houses.

I passed Phillip Alexander, bespoke tailor (two branches: one in Wilmslow and one in Saville Row, which tells you all you need to know about the area) and arrived in the town properly.  I'd prepared for the visit by reading Miranda Sawyer's wonderful Park and Ride: Adventures in Suburbia.  She grew up in the area in the Seventies and Eighties, and paints a vivid picture of the town and its pretensions.  At one point, it even had its own credit card, the Wilmslow Card.

Sawyer's book was published in 1999, and even then she was shocked by its relentless upscale climb, with a bistro in the sports shop and an empty store by the old cinema turned into a gastropub.  I'd love to know what she thinks of it now, because as far as I could see, there was nothing but eateries, night clubs and pubs.  I don't know what the residents of Wilmslow do when they run out of Cif.  There was a department store, Hoopers, which has only four branches nationwide: Torquay, Harrogate, Tunbridge Wells and Wilmslow, and so I didn't dare go in because I was afraid they'd smell my working class origins and have me gutted for the pate in the restaurant.

The only other kind of business in Wilmslow was home interiors.  There were furniture shops and lighting shops and designer tile stores and so, so many kitchen shops.  How many kitchens do people need?  Even the most luxurious mansion usually has only one kitchen.  You don't have en-suite ovens, or loft conversions so you have more room for a walk-in larder.  There must be people who change their kitchen on a semi-annual basis, because I can't work out how all these firms can survive otherwise.  I guess if they get one person to pay £300,000 for new taps then that pays their mortgage for a year and they don't need any other clients.

I will concede that Wilmslow seemed like a very nice town, and it was certainly pleasing to find one corner of the country where there weren't boarded up shop fronts and Cash Converters.  It should be noted that the local MP is George Osborne; these two facts may be related.  I wouldn't want to live here - I couldn't afford to live here - because even though it was busy and thriving there was a certain death behind the eyes.  People spending money without joy.  Wilmslow felt like a weirdly upscale ghost town, where the same figures shuffled from one store to a restaurant to a pub and then on again, repeating the cycle, doomed to go round and round without ever really enjoying themselves.  I felt that Wilmslow would be best as I'd experienced it, as a day visitor, passing through and thinking it was decent enough before going home; it seemed like a very small world to live in.

The influx of day trippers probably explained why Wilmslow station was in a much better state than Alderley Edge.  It was neat and well kept - Northern Rail had clearly thrown some money at it quite recently.  I headed up to the platform to wait for the Manchester-bound train, passing a woman who dripped fabulous en route, conducting a heated conversation on her smartphone beneath a mighty hairstyle.

Up top, there were four well appointed platforms, one of which was surprisingly busy.  There was what looked like a group of outdoor-bound students, some well-to-do couples.  They were waiting for the Virgin train to London, which pauses here on the way from Manchester.  Most importantly, as far as I was concerned, there was TV's Les Dennis.

I actually have a sneaking fondness for Les Dennis.  He's the kind of old style trouper we don't seem to have any more - king of the Saturday night variety show, and easily the best host Family Fortunes has ever had (yes, even better than Bob).  His breakdown on Celebrity Big Brother and his self-parodic appearance on Extras just added to the appeal.  Plus it's hard not to like someone who emerged alive from the wreckage of Amanda Holden.  He was keeping his distance from a man who was - let's just say "merry", shall we? - and who was shouting what a great guy Les was.  Which he is, but I'm sure he'd have preferred to be anonymous.  I certainly didn't attract his attention, taking a photo from the opposite track while looking the other way.  Which sounds creepy, now that I think about it.

And that's why I will never be comfortable in the world of the rich and famous.  I couldn't wait for the train to arrive and take me back to where people were normal and ordinary and dull.  Just like me.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Adventures in Space and Time

It's a curiously satisfying word, Sandbach.  Try saying it out loud.  Sandbach.  The short "a" in sand, the soft "ch" at the end.  There's something almost Welsh about it.

While the town of Sandbach is a pretty medieval market town, complete with a Saxon cross and tiny squares, the station is flung out on the A533, almost out of town.  If it was being built today, this would be a park and ride station, but back in Victorian times it was simply a case of sticking a station wherever the line happened to pass by.

It's an ugly 1960s building that's been built mainly for the convenience of the staff than the passengers.  Half of the building is devoted to Network Rail accommodation, with misted out windows, while the ticket office has the kind of opening hours that can only be divined through consultation of the runes.  Indeed, I skipped passing through it altogether, getting into the station through a side gate.

There must have been problems on the line during the rush hour that were only now settling down.  The fast train to Manchester had been delayed by ten minutes, and a GBRf freight train was being held at the side platform to let the passenger services by.  It clicked and grunted impatiently, dying to plough onwards, like a bull in its pen.

Fortunately the fast train just skipped the smallest stations; it still called at my next stop, Holmes Chapel.

The buildings here were even shabbier than at Sandbach, barely more than prefabs.  The blue and white Northern Rail branding gave them a mock-Tudor appearance, even more pointless stuck on a box by the side of a train track.

I walked up and over the railway bridge behind a woman with a pink rolly suitcase.  She wasn't walking very fast, and because I kept stopping to take pictures, I never actually overtook her.  I think it started to make her nervous, because finally she stopped on the street corner and fiddled with her case until I passed.

I like the clarification on that sign that it's Furniture FOR HOMES, just in case you was trying to buy an oak four poster for your hamster.

I decided to take the more direct route to my next station, Goostrey, which meant leaving Holmes Chapel and walking down an industrial road.  Ordnance Survey had this area marked as Works, but it was clearly in need of updating.  One set of factories on the map was now being turned into a housing estate, with a new roundabout for access and scaffolding poking over the top of advertising boards.  The others had been joined by small red office buildings for tiny businesses.  Where the factories had ceased to be useful they'd been obliterated, ready for redevelopment into more houses.

That little expanse of bare concrete was still signposted as Royal Mail.  [NOTE TO SELF: insert News Quiz-esque witty satirical comment about the destruction of the postal service here].

After a while the industry stopped as well, and past a couple of houses that were very keen to tell you they were on a Private Road, I was out on a pavement-free country route.  It was a national speed limit area so there was a constant burr of fast moving traffic, but the grass verge was generous and not too overgrown so I didn't have to risk walking in the road.  There were a couple of hairy moments as I swung round chevron signs just as a truck appeared round the corner but beyond that the only danger was soggy socks from the dewy grass.

On my left the Twemlow Viaduct suddenly appeared, 30 metre high brick arches that carried the railway over the river Dane.  Down on the ground this epic piece of engineering seemed completely unnecessary - I could probably have jumped the river myself with a decent running start - but it underlined the Victorian attitude to railway building.  They could have had the railway come down into the valley, then a little bridge, but it was better for the trains if a huge viaduct was simply built across the whole thing, so they did that.  Always ambitious.

I bet Her Majesty was deeply touched by that beautiful, heartfelt tribute to her Jubilee year.

I skirted the edge of the village, passing sodden fields churned up by tractors and trees stripped bare of leaves and fruit.  Occasionally the road would be shaded completely, and out of the morning sun, I felt the sudden chill of November sneaking through.

I turned left by a rusting red telephone box for the last half mile to Goostrey station.  For a while it was just more late Autumn English countryside, then a vision of the future rose up out of the trees.

The Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank is still the third largest movable radio telescope in the world; it was number one when it was built.  I loved space exploration as a child and so just the name Jodrell Bank carries with it an air of mystique, of probing the unknown and the unknowable (it's also a comedy euphemism for masturbation - another reason to cherish it).  Its position out here in the Cheshire countryside, right by the railway line, speaks of a very practical, unglamorous attitude to space and exploration.  Jodrell Bank exists in the same canon as Doctor Who and Quatermass and 2000 AD; fantastical stories of science fiction that exist in the mundane.  Only the British would create a tv show about a cantankerous pacifist in a time traveling call box that didn't work properly; only the British would take its window to the stars and stick it in the parish of Lower Withington.  We always keep one foot on the ground, even as we look up at the heavens.

The telescope remained a companion to me as I progressed.  A couple of healthy looking women in lycra jogged past, carrying in a conversation even as they burned up the calories, and then Goostrey station was there, crouched under a mound of a railway bridge.

Goostrey looked like it hadn't been touched in years, which surprised me.  No starry murals?  No glow in the dark moon transfers?  Not even an ALF saying Alight here for Jodrell Bank?  There was a bit of a car park, but nothing advertising its proximity to the telescopes.  In fact, there was still a British Rail sign, right above a British Telecom phone box, which made me wonder if I was experiencing a time slip back to the 1980s and a Tripod was going to come crashing over the treetops.

Still, it was prettier than the previous stations, with the air of a country halt about it.  The building was firmly locked and padlocked: a neat sign on the door said If you require access to this room, please contact any of the following numbers for the combination, and then a list of people from the Friends of Goostrey Station.  I was tempted to call up and say "I just fancy having a nose - what's the combination?" but I didn't.  In fact, I struggled to think of what you would want access to the room for - there was a shelter on the platform, so if it was raining, you was safe.  Perhaps you can hire it for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

It was just a brief little skip to my next station, Chelford.  It's a bit in the middle of nowhere, Chelford, so I'd pencilled it in as a rest stop, rather than walking on to the next stop.  Plus it was lunchtime, and my stomach was starting to rumble.

I left the 1980s brick building and went in search of somewhere to eat.  There was a butchers, and a branch of the NatWest; a man had fallen down outside the greengrocers and a small crowd was gathered to attend to him.  I'm afraid I didn't stop to help.  I could hear someone was already on the phone to the ambulance, and there was a woman on her knees attending to him, and a couple of people who were just watching.  I didn't have anything to contribute; I got a First Aid badge in the Cubs, but that was twenty odd years ago - I'd probably break his hip as I tried to manhandle him into the recovery position ("yes, I'm positive you're meant to have your left foot behind your ear").  It didn't stop me from feeling guilty for the rest of the afternoon.

I passed Chelford Farm Supplies, which seemed to cater more for horse riders looking for tackle and Barbour jackets than pig feed, and then wandered out towards the Egerton Arms, on the edge of the village.  I just fancied a pint and a sandwich, but it was a gastropub, with the emphasis more heavily on the "gastro" part.  Every table had a long menu and knives and forks, and it was buzzing with customers and waitresses.

Instead I slipped next door, to Jones Deli, where I found a whitewashed table by the window and ordered a chicken and pesto sandwich and tea for one.  Yes, that's right; I passed up alcohol in favour of tea.  I must be losing my touch.