Saturday 22 March 2014

Make or Break

It pains me to say this, but Lego Lady has become kind of a bitch.

The tiny piece of internet fame she has achieved has gone straight to her little plastic head.  At first it was manageable.  After we returned from our trip to the Cumbrian Coast together, she insisted on moving into the biggest, best Lego house available:

After that she wanted a better car:

I should have stopped it there, but we've been friends for thirty years; it's hard to say no.  She complained she was lonely in her big house, so a buff manservant in a loincloth was acquired to bring her breakfast:

Now it's getting ridiculous.  She wanted the other minifigs moved out of her eyeline - they were distracting her.  She suggested that perhaps I should start knocking before I ripped off the roof of her home to see what she was up to.  Even a visit from the star of The Lego Movie resulted in embarrassment, as she actually used the phrase "don't you know who I am?", before claiming she had to have her mouth paint touched up and beating a hasty retreat.  Those were an uncomfortable few moments, I tell you.

This has become a particularly pressing matter because I'm off on another Epic Journey With Little Purpose.  Next week I'm making my way along the world-famous Settle and Carlisle Line, collecting all its stations.  I'm even staying in a station.  It's basically the most Epic of all the Epic Journeys With Little Purpose.

The right thing to do would have been to leave Lego Lady at home for this trip; that would teach her a lesson.  She didn't even wait to be asked, just began packing her tiny plastic suitcases with spare hair and legs the minute she heard me plotting.  In fact, I almost took my other favourite minifig, Ambiguously Gay Sailor, instead:

However, I relented at the last minute.  Perhaps a week in the wilds of Yorkshire will bring us together again.  Perhaps Lego Lady and I can bond amidst the scenic beauty of the rugged moors.  Perhaps we can overcome our differences against the stunning backdrop of the Ribblehead Viaduct.  Perhaps she will be humbled when presented by the awe-inspiring natural landscape and the miraculous engineering feats of Victorian railway builders.  It's a make or break trip for our relationship.

If it doesn't work, well, all I can say is it's very easy to lose a four centimetre high woman out there in the hills...

Friday 21 March 2014

The Stub

It was a little protusion.  Three stations, sticking out the side of South Yorkshire.  A purple stub.

It's not a stub on the First Transpennine Express map, because trains pass straight through Scunthorpe on their way to Cleethorpes.  All the Northern Rail services turn back at Scunthorpe though, so it forms a dead end (and incidentally leaves the Grimsby line stranded on the edge of the map, untouched by all Northern trains except the odd Gainsborough service on a Saturday).  I got Thorne North and Thorne South back in 2012, so I thought a little trip out to Lincolnshire would just tidy the three of them away.

In many ways Scunthorpe station is a miniature version of the town itself.  It feels like it should be a little rural halt, with only two platforms and pleasing glass canopies.  It's silent between trains, like all the best isolated stations are.

Look closer and you start to spot the ugly edges.  The old sidings which have just been gravelled over.  The factories and refineries and power stations on the horizon.  What should be a small town station is, at heart, a dead end.

Good to know it's being refurbished, though.  I stepped past the line of minicabs, their drivers leaning on the bonnets and eyeballing the departing passengers, and headed for the edge of the car park.  I positioned myself beside the Scunny Car Wash and took my sign pic.

I was heading outwards, leaving the delights of the town centre for later, and instead making for the Doncaster Road.  I crossed by the North Lincolnshire Museum, a starkly modern building that looked a bit like a municipal library, and passed a pretty Royal Mail sorting office.  It had Ministry of Works signage and a pleasing curve on the corner.  In close up, I saw that the doors were boarded up and the windows were held together with parcel tape, but it was great from a distance.

Then there was a long, straight, unchanging avenue out of town.  Big semis lined the way, behind generous grass verges and trees.  At one point a slight undulation - in the flat Lincolnshire landscape it was practically a hill - saw me walking above the road, with a distant view of wind turbines.

Back at ground level I found myself behind an old lady with a guide dog.  I wasn't sure how to proceed.  She was walking very slowly, as befits a woman of her age, so I needed to overtake, but I didn't want to startle her or the dog.  I ended up walking all over the grass verge, carrying on way past the woman so that she didn't get the idea that I was avoiding her, just that I fancied walking on some grass.  For some reason.  I don't know what I was thinking.  I was putting way too much consideration into it just because I saw the words GUIDE DOG on the lead.

There were parks and recreation grounds, a set of football pitches with one of those teenager shelters in the corner.  The idea behind these open but roofed structures is that bored kids will use them to loiter instead of outside people's front yards; I noted the bins either side for them to chuck their empty cider bottles into.  A nice idea, I suppose, though the hedge by the road was still littered with cans and crisp packets, and really all you've done is give the teenagers somewhere to go, not something to do that will distract them from graffiti and mugging pensioners.

I liked the uncompromising height of Berkeley Court.  It formed a landmark amongst all the flatness, that and a ridiculously huge pub over the road that flew a union jack and advertised live bands.  The M181, a spur motorway that has only one junction and seems to have been built just because the Department of Transport had some money left over after their Christmas do, dumped all its traffic on a roundabout here.  Like a game of SimCity (the good SimCity, not the abomination currently masquerading under the name), there were long straight roads forming grids, and then the grid squares had been filled with commercial development.  There was a Tesco Extra, and a Next, and a Toys R Us, and what I like to call the Avenue of Gluttony: a KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut neatly lined up in a row, while a pub with a Wacky Warehouse was just on the corner.

Almost unnoticed behind all this was the home of Scunthorpe United, hemmed in by a Boots and the drive-thrus.  I dashed across the busy road and onto a quieter route, still walking away from the town.

It's here I have to register a complaint.  The most interesting thing about Scunthorpe, that I could see anyway, was that its name contains a very rude word indeed.  The word that we can all see, and silently giggle about, even though we pretend we're adults and are above that sort of thing.  I was looking forward to the many, many abused signs around town.  A row of you-know-whats, as far as the eye could see.

What did I get?  Nothing.  Not one.

I'd hoped for a huge sign as I left town, a Thank you for visiting Scunthorpe, only with the "S" and the "horpe" painted over.  Nope.  There wasn't a defaced You are now entering Scunthorpe, either, which was probably hoping for too much, but which appealed deeply to the Kenneth Williams in me (matron!).  I was deeply disappointed.  I'd come all this way hoping for one piece of smutty vandalism, and there was nothing.  Buck your ideas up, Scunny.

I pushed on, trotting down a path beneath acres of sky.  More wind turbines rotated languorously on the horizon.  Soon I was entering Gunness, a hamlet beside the River Trent.  The Jolly Sailor pub was closed and boarded up; the car park had been annexed by the auto traders next door.  There's a wharf at Gunness, as far inland as coastal vessels can make it on the river, and as I passed there was a Dutch ship moored up behind the Tata Steel works.

Large vessels are held up here because of the George V bridge, a twin road and rail crossing that goes across the river here.  It was built as a bascule bridge but as the decades wore on it was used less and less, until it was finally welded closed in the Sixties.  

The result is a lot of engineering that doesn't serve any purpose any more.  I passed the giant rollers that once hoisted the mechanism vertical, and which hadn't been used for fifty years.  They were still impressive.  I wished there had been a way to keep all this effort in good use.

Crossing the river took me onto the Isle of Axholme, the romantic name for an area of drained marshes.  Before the intervention of the Dutch this was miles of marshland, with small settlements on the few bits of raised land.  Sir Cornelius Vermuyden came to England and worked at the behest of the Crown to drain our low-lying land and create fertile farming areas.  Honestly, bloody foreigners, coming over here and making our marshlands into something useful.  Where's Nigel Farage when you need him?

Althorpe station is just across the river.  I have to admit, when I was looking into where I was headed, I got momentarily excited; I thought this was the place Diana Spencer was from, and there'd be a nice big stately home for me to while away the hours in.  Turns out that's Althorp (no 'e') in Northamptonshire.  Althorpe railway station isn't anywhere interesting at all, and actually should probably be called Keadby, as Keadby is right next door.

I felt a little bit ill taking that picture.  I was stood on top of the footbridge and as such I was quite the highest thing in the area.

There are two shelters at Althorpe; the one on the westbound platform is like a little half timbered cottage, which seems lovely until you get inside and it smells of stale urine.  Someone had burnt Jack loves Ian cock in the roof of the shelter with their cigarettes; while I disapprove of their objective I have to admire the many hours of dedicated vandalism they'd put into it.  I decided I'd eat my sandwiches on the other platform and cross back in time for my train.  

Freight trains rolled by, carrying fuel for the power stations or headed for the factories at Doncaster and Sheffield.  A Transpennine train would occasionally burn through on its way to the coast.  I ate my Philadelphia cheese sandwich and stretched out my legs from the bench.

From the train I could see more of Vermuyden's handiwork.  Deep drains ran in parallel to one another, unbroken lengths, a repeating landscape of lines and horizontals.  Normally this much water would be an asset, but it was all so practical, so clinical.  They weren't even canals, they were just holes for soggy earth to discharge into.  The land between them, too, was relentless, uninspiring, unending.

At Crowle the sudden burst of yellow railings gave a much sunnier look to the station.  It helped that there was a proper canal here, and a high road bridge flying over the rails and the water, giving a bit of scale to the area.

I let the train depart then made my way across the Barrow crossing and into the little village of Ealand.  The village seemed to be down on its luck, no doubt thanks to that bridge taking all the road traffic off to one side.  The pub behind the war memorial was long abandoned; the trees in the garden obscured most of the front, and an old woman was letting her dog poo in the remains of the car park behind.  

I'd got all the stations I needed to get.  I'd got a cheap ticket home from Scunthorpe, though, one that I couldn't use for another four hours, so I decided to kill some time by heading into Crowle itself.  I'd seen on Google Maps that there was a market square, so I imagined that would be a pretty place to while away some time.  As I left Ealand the sun sparkled off the artificial lake, formed in an old clay pit and now surrounded by dozens of static caravans.

There were daffodils everywhere.  Daffodils are basically a very pretty weed, aren't they?  You plant one and a couple of years you've got a garden full of bright yellow Triffids.  A single flower has appeared in one of my flowerbeds, despite me not actually planting anything (we have very industrious squirrels round our way).  I fully expect them to perform a bloody coup on the rest of the flowers sometime around 2016.

The homes were in a better state than in Ealand, well taken care of and dotted with those unfriendly signs that are the preserve of homeowners with too much time on their hands.  No turning!  Private Drive - NO school parking!  No callers!  One bungalow was sealed off from the road by an entrance that was less a gate, more a complex piece of machinery; it looked like you'd something from the Crystal Maze.  As I tried to work out how you'd get in, a woman passed on a bike; she was wearing tight black leggings and a crop top and had purple hair, and she looked so much like Julia Davies in Nighty Night I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from shouting "Hiya Cath!" across the road at her.

Georgian bays and a narrowing of streets meant I was reaching the centre of the village itself.  I could see a pub sign for the White Hart, another for the Cross Keys, and a bend which surely indicated the Market Square.

Regeneration projects are usually a very good thing.  Their sole aim is to make life better for people, and as such we should generally support them.

I can't support what has happened to the centre of Crowle in the name of regeneration.

What could have been a centrepiece for the whole village has been turned into a greystone plaza.  It's a piece of urbanism in a rural setting, and it doesn't work at all.  Two hundred year old houses stare down at granite flats and block seating and seem to frown on it.

Scattered planters of flowers can't bring any charm to the place.  If this was a space in a city centre, tucked in the middle of Ropewalks in Liverpool for example, it would be a welcome breather from the crowd of the metropolis.  Here it was stark and bare.  There should have been greenery, trees, cobbles, something to reflect the heritage of Crowle.  Instead it looked like something the council had ordered out of a catalogue.

As for that water feature - what's the point?

You may have spotted that the Cross Keys pub turned out to be Cross Keys Training, but there was still an old fashioned butchers' on the square, and a chippy, and Chafors hardware store round the corner with a window display of weedkiller, hoses, and a selection of hand tools.  There was also a hairdresser called Scissor Sisters, which suggests that someone didn't check before they called the signwriter.  I did a lap of the centre in a few minutes and, still disappointed by the lack of a throbbing village centre, I did the only logical thing.

This is the point where I should talk about Scunthorpe, because I headed back there on the train and spent an hour wandering around.  It was a long promised visit too, as I'd been to the bus station back in August 2012, but as I'd written then:  
This is going to sound odd, but I didn't want to explore Scunthorpe.  Its station is on my to-do list, and so I wanted to save the town for when I collected it.  Using up all its delights on a bus journey just seemed wrong.  I wanted to keep it for when I arrived by rail.
It turns out, there aren't any delights.  Scunthorpe possesses one of the most boring town centres I have ever wandered through.  Admittedly it was five o'clock, so everything was closing, but it was still a pedestrian stream of tedious chain stores and uninspired window displays.  The library was surrounded by youths smoking cigarettes, there were skateboarders plying their wares up and down the precinct, and the most interesting building I could find was the HSBC.  I walked around for a bit, looking for something interesting to visit, something attractive to photograph, something nice to say, until I spotted the Post Office building I'd seen earlier coming up in the distance.  I'd managed to walk a complete loop of the town centre.  I took it as a sign, and spent half an hour sat on the station platform listening to That Mitchell and Webb Sound.  

If you'd had one dirty sign Scunthorpe, I might have given you a passing grade.  As it was I was glad to cross this little stub off the map, and to know I'd never have to come back.

Saturday 8 March 2014

New! Improved!

There's been a few quiet improvement projects happening at stations across Merseyside.  I say "quiet" because not much fuss seems to be made out of them; the workmen just seem to be toiling away and no-one's noticed.  I devoted a quiet Sunday to having a look at how a couple of them were getting on.

My first stop was Birkenhead North.  It's recently gained a new park and ride facility, with a secure car park on the opposite side of the tracks to the station building.  Now things are going up a notch.

The wrought iron footbridge has sadly been dismantled and taken away so that the station can become accessible to all.  Now concrete and steel are slowly forming into a brand new over bridge.

These will be the new lift shafts, in a new structure similar to the one at Hooton.  The bridge is going to go right across to the car park, making the platforms directly accessible from there and avoiding the need for a long walk round on Wallasey Bridge Road.  The new bridge will connect everything together into one complex.

Of course, you can't just demolish a bridge without giving passengers an alternative route; that would be annoying and lead to a lot of people being electrocuted on the third rail as they try to get to Liverpool.  They've jerry-rigged a new bridge at the opposite end of the platform which looks like one of those structures the Army have built in Somerset.

There was a reminder of how important the new bridge will be while I was there.  A young mum with a toddler and a pushchair struggled up and down the steps, taking five times as long to get to the middle platform.

(That makes me sound like a right bastard, but she did have another lady with her; she wasn't on her own.  I didn't just watch her and hope she'd fall over like some kind of sociopath).

The sad part of this is that Birkenhead North still has some of its original ironwork on its platform canopies, which the bridge will no longer match.  That's the price of progress I suppose.

One train journey later I was at Bidston.  It's always been an odd, desolate little halt; because of the marshy soil around the junction it was constructed from wood, as they were afraid something heavier would sink into the ground.  There's a single island connected to the road and the footpath by a pebble dashed bridge.  As the terminus of the Borderlands Line it's possible to wait here for quite some time - especially if there are problems with the trains - but the passenger facilities have mainly been a couple of benches on the platform.  Not so great when the cold winds sweep in from the Irish Sea and gather pace across the acres of bare fields and swamp that surround it.

Something needed to be done.  Now if it was up to me, I'd have moved the whole shebang to alongside Tesco across the way; that would be before the service to New Brighton branches off, so you'd have increased the number of trains to the station, and there would have been a better connection to the superstore and the retail park which are the main attractions round here.  You might even have got Tesco and the retail park to help pay for it.  That would be quite an astronomical ask though, and there are higher priorities elsewhere, so instead the architects at Merseyrail and Merseytravel came up with an alternative.

Their solution was to box in the open area between the ticket office and the toilets to create a new waiting room.  Glass walls and electric doors have been put in to create a warm, cosy space.  The roof's also been replaced with glass to leave it bright and airy.

In some ways, it's too welcoming.  While I waited for my train a gang of tween girls arrived and set up shop in the waiting room, breaking up the tedium of "playing out".  They grouped in a corner and played Let It Go from Frozen on a loop via their mobile phones.  While it's nice to have your ears assaulted by something that isn't misogynistic gangster rap or banging techno - I appreciate Idina Menzel as much as the next gay man - it's still incredibly annoying, particularly as the open space and slate floor made it echo into something unrecognisable.  (Also, Pharrell Williams' Happy should have TOTALLY won the Oscar.  So there's that too).

Ironically, a song about how "the cold never bothered me anyway" ended up driving me out into the biting wind and spotty rain, and I went onto the platform.  There's another, slightly bittersweet, technological improvement out here; despite the sign, there's no longer a pay phone at Bidston station, because when did you last see someone use a pay phone?  Someone who wasn't a drug dealer, anyway?  Instead a purpose built Help Point has been installed, which is sad, but it is the 21st century after all.

The work's not finished at Bidston, thankfully, because there are some distinctly slapdash features around - pipes held in by insulation foam, puddles on the concrete.  A poster apologises but the "inclement weather" (i.e. apocalyptic end of days storms straight out of the Hellmouth) has meant the work has had to be delayed.

My final stop on my tour of the new look Merseyrail was Aigburth.  Readers with long memories may remember a moment of hysteria when news reached me that the historic canopy at the station was being removed.  It turned out to be the kind of panic that erupts when people are left uninformed.  Network Rail were working on the canopy, and they planned on getting rid of some of it, but they'd not really publicised the plans; rumours erupted, petitions flew around, and the work had to be halted while everything was smoothed over.

Now Aigburth has a much smaller, more square canopy over just one part of the platform.  This is to help with maintenance and also to stop the roof from chucking its waste water all over the tracks.  I'm still not happy - surely there should be more covered space in a country as rainy as Britain? - but it's certainly not the holocaust we had believed it to be.  The ironwork has also been retained, which is good to see, and also offers a glimmer of hope that it might one day be used to support a decent canopy again.

These are tiny, piecemeal projects, not grand schemes that revolutionise stations and the way we travel.  They're not Crossrail or Liverpool South Parkway.  Still, in their own small way, they improve the experience of riding the rails, and help to increase traffic and satisfaction across Merseyrail.  Always a good thing.

Thursday 6 March 2014

Plastic Fantastic

Exciting news in the Merseytart household: I got my TwoTogether railcard through the post.  It was only launched on Monday but I was straight in there with my £30 and my passport-sized photos. 

(Obviously I'm not going to put a picture of my real railcard up there, leaving myself open to all sorts of fraud.  What do you take me for?)

In case you missed it, the Two Together Railcard was launched after a trial in the West Midlands as a way of giving pairs of people a cheaper way to travel.  You and another named person are on the card, and if you get the train together, you'll get a third off your travel.  It's really that simple, and is well worth getting with a mate and shoving in a drawer on the off chance.

I got it with the BF, but don't hold your breath for a sudden upswing in the quality on the blog because I've got a pet photographer with me at all times.  For starters, it's not able to be used on most Rangers and Rovers, my ticket of choice for a day romping around the provinces.  Secondly, the BF isn't particularly enthused by the idea of walking between stations.  He's not big on walking.  He's not big on stations either.  In fact, probably the only thing that would persuade him to come out with me on a tarting trip is if we went to just one station, and there was a tea room right outside, and then we went home again.  So the 1/3 off would be pretty much wasted.

It's there in my wallet if we need it though, like my Oyster card and the Bite card that gives me 20% off at station food outlets and I always forget to use.  One card that might be added to it in the not-awfully distant future is the Walrus card.  You might have forgotten about the Walrus.  Launched in 2011, this was going to be the smart ticket for all of Merseytravel, our version of the Oyster card.  All the season tickets would be on the smartcard by 2012, with pay as you go use in place by 2013.

This didn't happen.  In fact, a comprehensive review last year called a halt to the whole project and a re-think of what the Walrus was going to deliver.  They concluded that the timeline was way too ambitious.  Meanwhile, TfGM has announced its "my get me there" card, Nexus have got their "Pop", the Glasgow Subway has a Smartcard - basically Merseytravel has been left behind.

A report to the Merseytravel committee today will suggest a new path forward: the Walrus card is going to replace the Saveaway.  Sort of.  Merseyside's One-Day Travelcard will be available electronically to Wirral passengers from the Autumn, and the rest of Merseyside by next year. 

Expert travel analysts and, well, pretty much anyone will notice that this is a bit rubbish.  The Walrus has been demoted from an all-encompassing smartcard scheme to an update of a 1980s scratchcard.  The report notes that the Saveaway has the advantage of anonymity, so there will be none of those pesky customer details to slow things down.  Of course, the pesky customer details are exactly the point.  A weekly Trio customer, or a monthly Solo passenger, wants to be able to renew their card at home, on the internet, in front of The Cube.  It frees up ticket office time.  It frees up personal time.  It frees up the space in your purse that was taken by a big flappy bit of plastic, four times the size of rest of your cards and getting more creased and illegible every time you used it.

Meanwhile, more irregular customers - people like me - want the freedom to chuck £20 on a card as a backup.  I could have that in my wallet for my trips to Liverpool and back, and also have it there in case I fancy getting a bus somewhere, or I change my mind and decide to head to Southport instead of Ormskirk.  A smart card gives you freedom, opens up new journeys, and lets computers do all the hard work of topping up and checking.  Plus - and I realise this will displease Julian Assange - all that customer detail is a fantastic resource for the transport executive and passenger alike.  I can't be the only one who's logged into his Oyster card just to get a weird thrill out of seeing I've been tracked all over the capital.  (It'll also help to discourage extra-marital affairs for exactly the same reason).

I can buy a Saveaway and go out for the day right now.  I did it last week.  It was easy.  It makes no difference to me if it's paper or electronic; I still have to go up to a ticket office on the day and hand over some cash.  And remember, you can't buy Saveaways on buses, so even though I'll have a Walrus card in my wallet, unless I've been to a shop or railway station first to put money on it, it may as well be my membership of the Dennis the Menace Fan Club for all the use it will be.

It's a sop.  It's a "will this do?".  It's a fig leaf, to cover up the fact that it's been two and a half years and nothing's really happened.  If Merseytravel couldn't - can't - handle it on their own, then they should just go over to Manchester and ask to borrow the get me there card for Liverpool.  In fact, if they did that, joining the two cities with one card, it'd be a lot more convenient for everyone.  It'd certainly be less pressure on my wallet's stitching.

Tuesday 4 March 2014


Hag Fold.  Whose idea was that then?

It's a horrible name.  Just awful.  Imagine saying, "oh, I'm from Hag Fold."  Imagine the look on people's faces.  It could be a veritable eden but with that name, you're onto a loser.

And the station doesn't even have to be called Hag Fold.  They could call it North Atherton, or Daisy Hill South, or The Fragrant Oasis Of Beatitude.  Anything but Hag Fold.

Still, it's got a nice modern ticket office.  It wasn't actually staffed.  The stationmaster had wandered up to the platform to meet our train; I assumed he'd head straight back down, but he loitered, perhaps for a cigarette.  TfGM's lazy attitude to its station signs can be seen there; the old GMPTE logo on a generic railway sign that can be sited anywhere.  There's a new one on the other side of the viaduct; taking down the old one, or replacing it, was obviously too much effort.

There's only a mile between Hag Fold and the next station on the line, Atherton, with an hour's gap between services, so I took a languorous route through the streets to get there.  On the pavement was a lenticular poster of Rocky, for some reason; as you moved around it, the background seemed to shift, in a very low budget 3-D effect.

Beyond were straight roads, houses, a patch of green with a playground.  I'd not been looking forward to this stretch of line for the simple reason that it's nothing I haven't seen before.  There aren't any fields bursting with nature or dramatic coastlines with crashing waves or attractive buildings.  It's not even so awful I recoil in horror.  It's just Anywhere; worse, Anywhere, Greater Manchester, because Greater Manchester is perhaps the most Anywhere city in Britain.  

Long streets of three bedroom semis curled off into the distance.  Bits of grass and tree.  Gardens paved over for extra parking.  A couple of mums with buggies.  Nothing new.  Nothing special.

Lunchtime at the chippy, and the road outside was lined with vans as workmen filled themselves up for the afternoon.  A girl walked past me with the cheapest, nastiest looking extensions I have ever seen.  Imagine having a perfectly normal head of hair, then bleaching it white blonde and attaching some string to the ends, but only on the sides; leave the back clear.  It was quite something, I can tell you.

I turned left at a patch of scrubland, with a single empty industrial building sat in the centre behind loosely erected fencing.  There was a shop here, with a Daily Mirror sign board and a Sun Sold Here poster on the door; next to that was a sign saying, Time Lock: Please Wait For Door To Open.  Somewhere Hag Fold became Atherton, and industrial units rubbed shoulders with houses.  The Atherton Bathroom & Tile Superstore turned its back on the street, presenting a brick face to the passing traffic: unattractive, unwelcoming, but undeniably secure.

Now came the mills.  On the left was Ena Mill, which sort of sounds like "enamel", enough to make you wonder if it's a very bad pun; it's not.  It's "Ena" like "Ena Sharples".  Ena Mill is now a huge factory outlet store, which I only just discovered on doing a Google search.  I assumed it was some kind of industrial centre, but apparently not.  Perhaps they should work on their signage.

Opposite was a kind of alternate universe version of the same building, a decrepit hulk waiting for refurbishment and redevelopment.  Too big to accommodate a single company, too expensive to carve up into smaller units, too undesirable to make into flats - but also too historic and attractive to demolish.  So it just rots, falls in on itself, breaks into pieces and dies while everyone drives by.

A happier development was further on; a series of pretty town houses, squeezed into a corner site.  They varied in height and width but they were all cute little two bedroom places, houses you could imagine being occupied by a single mum and her baby, a hairdresser and her husband, a newly independent twenty something trying to start his career.  Then there was a block of flats; a scally came out the front door, walked across the grass and vaulted the wooden fence.  I'm not sure he saved himself any time taking that route instead of simply walking down the path like a normal person, but I guess it wasn't about time, it was about attitude.

I always think they could save themselves a few quid by not putting up signs every time they start a regeneration project.  It's so self-serving, anyway, like writing "Happy birthday FROM THE MOST GENEROUS PERSON YOU KNOW" on a gift tag.  It's not enough that they did something nice for you, it's important that everyone knows about it.

Another run of shops and industrial units, including a window company with a black and yellow sign saying, You buy one... you get one!.  I couldn't decide if they were trying to be funny, in the same way my local chemist had a sign behind the counter saying Do you want to speak to the man in charge or the woman who knows what's going on?, or if they'd misunderstood how "buy one, get one free" works.  Further along was the UK Sofa Hypermarket, an ambitious title for what was just an  overstocked shop.  Outside on the pavement was a lime green chair, apparently crafted to cause the maximum amount of long-term spinal damage; it undulated, and seemed to be made out of tightly stretched human flesh.  It was gloriously awful.  I'd have taken a picture, but the shopkeeper was having a ciggie break on the doorstep of the shop, and watching me suspiciously.

TfGM showed their inability to signpost a railway station once again, sticking the board at the traffic lights nearby, not outside the station itself, and not bothering to put the name on there.  I wandered through the car park and up to the dinky Atherton station building.

A car pulled up just as I was taking the sign photo, which is why it has this dramatic Dutch angle.  I wasn't being artsy; I was just trying not to look like a twat.

Again there was a ticket hall, actually staffed, and complete with a little Miss Marple trying to fathom out the train times with the man behind the counter.  She was completely uncomprehending, no matter what he said; I'm not sure where she was going, but judging by the complexity of her plans, it was Ulan Bator via Bratislava and Norwich.

At the foot of the stairs was a little waiting area - which seemed like a health and safety nightmare if you asked me, all those people with suitcases right around some steps - and then there was a wide platform with a canopy.  It was all thoroughly lovely.  I'm used to Manchester's stations being a couple of windswept platforms with chipped paint and nowhere to sit; this was like a proper railway station.  I wondered if it was a coincidence that this well-maintained, pleasant to use station was also one of the busiest outside the city centre?

The same could be said for Walkden, the next station along.  Again, there was a fine canopy, places to sit, and an attractive Victorian ticket hall with staff.

The steps down to the street were beneath a glass roof, with none of the sense of dank and misery that old brick tunnels can generate.  Only when I got out into the street, and found myself beneath two railway bridges, did it feel less than lovely.  This may be because there's a team of enthusiastic volunteers who've formed the Friends of Walkden Station.  Wouldn't it be nice if the railway company took some of the money we give it for tickets and used that to look after the station, instead of unpaid members of the public?  Just a thought.

I've been taking pictures of myself in front of station signs for more than six years now; so long, in fact, that the word "selfie" hadn't even been invented when I started.  I can pretty much do it without thinking now.  Hand there, head there, bish bosh, face and sign in one shot, onto the next one.  Sometimes it does take me a little time, particularly if there are people around.  I get performance anxiety, and I'm fully aware that I look like a fool.

Outside Walkden station was a minicab, letting a passenger out, but he was taking an age to pay the man and gather his bags, so I wandered away from the main sign.  I'll take one a bit further on, I thought.  I didn't realise I'd caught the taxi passenger's attention until I got home.

Welcome to the blog, random bespectacled man.

Once he'd gone inside I went back to the far more impressive sign over the door for a better shot, one that didn't have a middle aged interloper in it.

I headed up to the busy Manchester Road to walk towards my last station of the day.  This is another stretch of the mighty A6, linking up suburbs with motorways and shops.  It was a better class of store to the ones I'd seen in Atherton - sort of; Brians Carpets (no apostrophe) had a pole dancing studio above it.  The signs promised that pole fitness would help you "Get fit!  Tone up!  Become empowered!", because as we all know Camille Paglia was just a mousy housewife until she started writhing round a stainless steel rod in a pair of fishnets.  My knowledge of pole dancing comes mainly from Showgirls, and what Nomi was doing didn't seem very empowering to me.  Fabulous, yes, but not exactly "feminist role model".  Perhaps it's me; perhaps my inability to lick a pole with my buttocks three feet above my head is what's held me back in life.

There was a stream and a promise of a country walk, and then the concrete arches of motorway bridges over the road.  There's a particularly complex junction here, where the M60, the M61 and an A road all intersect, and the result was four separate bridges, one after the other.

I found them weirdly pretty.  Their regular shapes, the gaps of sunlight in between them.  They formed a rhythmic pattern of movement and form.  Simple and perfunctory, but also strangely appealing.

Beyond that was a huge new Catholic school, all white paneling and young landscaping, and then another shopping centre.  I queued at the cash machine behind a podgy woman with two kids, one toddler and one in a pushchair; the older boy whinged vaguely at her side until she snapped "just shut up Kai!".

I was early for my train, so I did what I usually did in these circumstances.

It was the Red Lion, a carvery that offered almost disturbingly cheap food.  An all you can eat breakfast for £3.99?  Pub classics for £3.79, with "as many chips, vegetables, mushy peas, baked beans and sauces as you like... it's all unlimited"?  And with the option to "Go Kingsize" for an extra £1.50, with the addition of "carvery meat, a pork sausage and two Yorkshires" to any meal?  It was unsurprisingly doing a roaring trade, with a battalion of frugal pensioners filling their boots.  I felt ludicrous for paying £2.40 for just a pint of beer, when for not much more than a fiver I could have had the beer and stuffed myself with carbs.

Instead I supped up and headed for Moorside station.  The ticket office here closed at one, and the member of staff was giving the steps one last sweep before he left.  He brushed firmly, rooting into corners, and I was pleased to see the care and pride he took in his job.  I imagined that if you worked at the same station, opening it and closing it every day, you would come to regard it as your own little kingdom.

There's still Swinton to get on this stretch of line, the last stop before Salford, but it's one of those irregularly served stations; I didn't fancy hanging around for four hours to collect it.  Instead I headed back to Wigan on a Pacer, seven stations done, already looking forward to putting a line through their name on the map at home.  This is what I do for thrills.