The two Mormons were Russian; black haired, black eyed, wrapped in thick overcoats and wearing badges with their names on them. The one nearest to me was Elder Nebenissi - smiling and astonishingly pretty. His friend was nerdier, clutching his Bible, looking unsure of himself as his comrade helped the guard move a suitcase to allow a pushchair room to breathe.
Nebenissi smiled a wide toothy grin at the guard. "I am really interested in the trains. You are the driver?"
"Nah," he replied, in flat Northern vowels. "He's at t'front."
"But this - " the Mormon gestured at the little cabin behind - "it's for driving the train?"
"Oh, aye," said the guard. "We change ends at t'station. Saves turning train round."
Elder Nebenissi smiled and nodded. "I see. We do not have trains like this in Russia. We have much longer trains though!"
"Not as long as the Americans," said the guard, and I felt a Russian winter enter the cabin. The Nebenissi smile cracked a little, just a bit, at the edges.
"Really?" he said, almost as warm as before, but not quite. "We have the longest railway in the world in Russia. I think." The last is added as a courtesy, but he really means, I know.
"Yeah," said the guard, blithely unaware of the cold. "But the Americans have got one that goes from coast to coast. West to East. Have since the 1890s or something."
"And it is the longest in the world?" Even I knew this was rubbish. Traveling on the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Beijing has long been a dream of mine, ever since I read about it as a child. I wrote a thrilling story that climaxed on it - I'll just say "death by samovar" and let you fill in the gaps. Part of me is disappointed that I can no longer make that journey in a frosty Communist nation, being constantly frisked by KGB agents and possibly being shot on the frontier. It's still the longest railway line in the world; everyone knows that. Part of me wondered if the guard was deliberately trolling the Russians.
"It's definitely the longest," said the guard again. "Well, it was when it was built." Ah, I thought. That's not the same thing.
Fortunately we'd arrived in Chorley by now, and so the brewing Cold War was allowed to dissipate out onto the platform. The two smiling Mormons disembarked, Elder Nebenissi thanking the guard profusely for his "very interesting talk". I wondered what he said to his friend in Russian on the platform.
I was getting off here too. I took a couple of photos while behind me, Elder Nebenissi carried an old lady's suitcase up the steps for her. Their niceness was appealing; I could see how people could be persuaded by a couple of pleasant foreign gentlemen in clean suits. I then remembered that their faith is based on the ramblings of a man who claimed to have found evidence of Jesus visiting America, printed on golden tablets that only he had ever seen, and politely kept my distance.
I headed down into the station underpass. It had been handed over to local schoolchildren, who'd decorated it in their typical style; bright colours, bouncy letters, overripe figures. They'd included an homage to Peter Kay's famous Chorley FM, though I noticed the slogan had been cleaned up for public consumption; the word "coming" is notably absent.
Elder Nebinissi was also intrigued by the pictures, taking photos on a surprisingly professional looking camera. I imagined him returning to his temple in Novosibirsk, running a little slide show on his attempts to convert the populace of East Lancashire, and flashing up a series of snaps of a piss-scented underpass in November.
I darted past them on the Preston bound platform - he was taking more photos; perhaps he really was a train nerd after all - and out of the pleasingly modern and clean station building onto a dual carriageway. Once again, the town planners had seen fit to slice the railway station off from the rest of the town. I hate this kind of behaviour, worshiping the car and forgetting that hundreds of people will pile out of that station every day and be constrained by traffic, metal fences and slow pedestrian crossings.
I positioned myself in the car park for the sign shot and battled a hurricane to take the usual shot.
Fair warning: there's going to be a fair few pictures of me in this blog entry, and my hair is disastrous in all of them. Just awful. It needs cutting and it was wet and windy; the net result is that I look like a TFI Friday era Danny Baker.
I nipped over the road to the bus station for a quick pee; it was a nice little interchange, if you ignored the sign on the toilet door advising that UV lights had been fitted to discourage anti-social behaviour. Then it was back out on the ring road and out of town.
Passing a Morrison's that had turned a mill chimney into a giant advertising board for its superstore, a move that struck me as horribly crass, I turned onto the Bolton Road southwards. It was a boringly ordinary road, the same scene you could find in any Northern town. Red terraced houses pushed up against each other and against the pavement, dotted with odd little business premises - Tony's General Store, Global African Travel, Purple Pig IT.
Towards the edge of town the houses became bigger, but not grander. They rose up above the pavement at the head of steep driveways, forcing their owners to perform elaborate three point turns and reverses up the hill that would have impressed the Stig. A sunflower in one garden was very, very dead, but the cane kept the stem upright, its big brown head lolling forward as though it was begging to be put out of its misery.
The town finally gave up at Hoggs Lane, a name straight out of The Archers. A hand stenciled sign had been nailed onto a tree, advertising Pullets and other poultry/Honey, and then a fluorescent arrow pointing down the road. It was wet and cold. Occasionally there would be a burst of rain, a sudden fall of water as though someone had emptied a drainpipe out on the earth, then it would stop as quickly as it began. The trees were naked, the skies were white and grey, the ground was orange from the fallen leaves.
I passed Frederick's Famous Ice Cream Parlour, bravely advertising its flavours of the week, even though it wasn't exactly the time of year for a Ninety Nine. Then the A6 split off to one side beneath a pre-Warboys road sign, and I got that weird moment of nostalgia I always get when I see the A6. I can immediately visualise the start of the trunk road, back at the bottom of the Park Viaduct in Luton, that huge roundabout with a river running through it and a footbridge; a little island in the centre of town. It's strange the things you become affectionate for when you move away.
I hit Heath Charnock behind schedule. There's one train an hour from Adlington station, running at eight minutes past, and I really didn't think I was going to make it. I'd dawdled a bit en-route - I'd like to say it was because I was so enraptured by the beauty of the passing scene, but I suspect I was just a bit bored. It was all so miserably grey.
I reached Adlington town centre at five past, resigned to an hour's wait in the rain. I decided to check the National Rail app on my phone, just on the off chance, and discovered that the train was actually eight minutes late. I could just about make it, if I hurried.
In retrospect, I might have been happier if I'd not known about the late train, and if I'd just installed myself in a little cafe with a cup of hot tea. Instead I found myself trotting along Railway Road, not running properly because the pavement was slick with wet leaves, not walking either. I nearly killed a workman who blithely came round the corner with his chips in hand, only to throw himself flat against the wall to avoid the Merseytart-shaped cannonball coming his way. I reached the station with only a minute left, and hastily took a record of what a disaster I look when I try to run:
I tried to look casual as I wandered down the ramp to the station, but the passengers already there weren't fooled. They looked at me and rightly summed up I was a mess and probably best to avoid, leaving me plenty of space to get on the train ahead of them and sitting nowhere near.
I'd already collected Blackrod and Horwich Parkway stations, back in the spring, so I skipped them and alighted at Lostock station. This was, oddly, the third Lostock station I've visited on this quest: Lostock Gralam is near Nantwich, while Lostock Hall is on the Blackburn line. It's strange to have three stations with such similar names so far apart from one another; I wonder if there's many people who get them mixed up. There's another Adlington too, out on the as-yet uncollected line to Stoke on Trent.
There was a junction here, before there was a station; it's the point where the lines from Bolton to Preston and Wigan diverge. Almost as an afterthought, the railway companies constructed a halt here, and then a small community grew up around it. The new settlement called itself Lostock Junction, after the station, and it's still known as that by the locals.
British Rail had no sentiment for the station, though, and closed it in 1966. This decision to deprive a Greater Manchester suburb of fast trains to important destinations was recognised as short sighted, and twenty years later a new station was built.
The new stop came with a large car park, and a new name: Lostock Parkway. The suffix was quietly dropped after a few years, though, allowing TfGM to bagsie it for a proposed stop on a new Metrolink line (seriously, Manchester, try to be more original with your names!).
There was a key difference between the new and the old stations, though: only two platforms were built, on the Preston line, even though the Wigan line is right there. Network Rail have finally acknowledged that perhaps two more platforms here, allowing interchange between the lines and stopping people from having to travel all the way into Bolton, might be a good idea. It means that sometime in the 21st century, Lostock station might finally be as good an interchange as it was in 1852. I believe that's called progress.
I was walking away from the town once again, past the dam at the head of the Rumworth Lodge Reservoir. Signs warned me that there was Danger! Deep water! No swimming!, and that the fishing rights were private. How frustrating it must be to have this oasis of cool water close by on a summer's day, and yet you can't do anything with it.
It was early afternoon now, and so the light was only going to get worse; hard to believe when you looked up at a tapioca sky. I hurried on, pressing cold hands deep into the pockets and bowing my head against another heavy rainstorm. (On the train home I found a woolly hat in one of my anorak's many concealed pockets; too late, of course).
I know, I know; with those pink shutters and curly ironwork, you thought it was a picturesque country cottage too. But no! It's just a shitty worker's house that they've made as tasteless as possible!
It wasn't exactly countryside here, but it wasn't town either. There were riding schools and converted village halls, but there was never that clear bracing period where it was all nature around you. There was always an inconvenient driveway or a passing HGV to remind you that you were close to Manchester. As I passed under the M61, the sign welcoming me to "Historic Westhoughton" seemed sarcastic. All I could see was an estate of brand new houses and apartment blocks, freshly built and still looking a little like something from SimCity.
It carried on with the new builds for a mile or so. Acres of townhouses and cul de sacs. I wondered what used to be here - had it all been fields, a tempting gap between the motorway and the town? Or had there once been a big factory here that had fallen derelict and got snapped up by Taylor Wimpey and Barratt?
There was a shift as I closed in on Westhoughton proper. Now the houses became smaller, closer together, tighter; the gardens vanished. A Pentecostal church with over bright stained glass had a banner on its fence: Revolution youth group every Friday, written in a fake graffiti font. Little corner chip shops had queues to the door, churning out tight white packages of warmth to the builders and the plumbers. A ruined mill was tucked behind one row of houses. The Mill Shop sign hinted at a last, doomed roll of the dice before the receivers came in.
I cut the town centre out, instead nipping down Central Drive as a short cut. It was all so drab and ordinary. It reminded me why I've collected barely half of Greater Manchester's 90 railway stations; so much of it seems to be like this. Two bare platforms in a miserable, downtrodden flash of suburb. Wet straight roads and brick walls and low views. It was uninspiring.
Westhoughton station is an anomaly, a little blip on a branch all to itself. If it was somewhere quieter, it probably would have closed at the same time as Lostock Junction, but being wedged between Wigan and Bolton means it's always had a good service so it's stayed open and busy.
It's another station that's been adopted by a local school. They've introduced bird tables, butterfly houses, and a bee hotel; they've also decorated the platform edge with their colourful handprints.
The urge to give all the children something to do has, unfortunately, left it looking a bit tacky. I'm no minimalist, as anyone who's seen the state of my desk will attest, but I do believe that there is such a thing as too much. The kids have strewn the embankment with little plastic toys, gnomes and other ornaments, roughly 80% of which only make the place look worse. Some are cute:
Some are nightmare fuel from Satan's armpit:
I sat in the shelter to eat my sandwich, watching the Manchester platform slowly fill with shoppers. Only a few of them bought tickets from the machine before boarding, allowing me to get riled up without even needing to get out of my seat.
There were still loads more stations to collect round here, Ince and Hindley and the brilliantly named Hag Fold. It was getting too dark now, though; I'd already taken a few murky pictures that I knew I wouldn't even be able to rescue on my computer. I just wanted to get home and have a hot chocolate.
There was a bright finale to the trip though. Even though I'm not keen on Movember itself, Northern Rail's commitment was admirable. I was pleased to see a moustachioed train edging towards me, the only one I'd encountered all day. A smile hit my face as the train came to a halt beside me. Sometimes all you need to cheer you on a dark day is a foot of sticky backed plastic shaped like Hercule Poirot's top lip.