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.