For reasons far too dull to go into here, I found myself in Manchester with a few hours to kill. As always, my thoughts immediately turned to railway stations. Mind you, my thoughts are often with railway stations. I start to hyperventilate if I'm more than ten miles from one.
The question was, where should I go?
Greater Manchester's rail network is a spaghetti run of services and stations. There are high frequency lines mixed in with isolated country stations; it stretches out into other counties and cities. It's a bit of a mess, to be honest, and it's underlined by the ticketing situation: there are System One Tickets, Manchester Day Rangers and Wayfarer tickets, and they all cover different transport methods, different stations and different routes.
I went to the TfGM Travel Centre in Piccadilly Gardens to get myself a Wayfarer ticket. This is probably the best one to go for if you've no idea where you're going; it covers rail, bus and train, and extends outside the PTE boundaries to the end of the line. The woman behind the counter graciously interrupted her conversation with her colleague long enough to take my eleven quid and issued me with my ticket.
I'm not the kind of person who collects their rail tickets, not least because I'd have to build a new wing on my house to accommodate them. I used to. I used to stick rail and bus tickets in my diary whenever I went somewhere but, as with my diary taking skills and my youthful optimism, I lost the habit as the years passed. If I were the kind of person who liked to keep mementos of their trips, I'd be really bloody disappointed with that pathetic scrap of paper. I took that picture about ten minutes after I bought it, and it was already creased and folded.
I got the tram to Piccadilly - someone was already sat on the hinge seat, so I stared at them sulkily for the entire trip - and had a look at the departure board. There was a train for Buxton leaving in a few minutes, so I took it as a sign and jumped on board.
I collected Buxton itself on a previous time-wasting trip, so this time I got off at Chapel-en-le-Frith. It was still the best part of an hour's journey to get out there. Because it's in Manchester's orbit, I sort of imagined it to be "just down the road", but actually I had left the city far behind and was firmly in the middle of the Peak District National Park by the time I disembarked. In fact, large black name boards on the platform advertise Chapel-en-le-Frith as "Capital of the Peak."
It's also the home of Ferodo, as you can see. I had no idea what Ferodo was: I only knew it from its appearance in The Mary Whitehouse Experience Encyclopedia as "a company that spent its entire advertising budget painting its name on railway bridges. Not to be confused with Freddo."* A bit of research reveals they're a company who makes friction related products, and who were the first to realise you could use asbestos for brakes. It seems like a weird combination for tourist signs; on the one hand, "we're a really pretty centre for exploring the National Park", on the other hand, "we are the international home of brake pad manufacturing."
It is a pretty little station. Sited on the side of a hill, with the railway line on an embankment, thick woods rise up above the Manchester platform. Hanging baskets swayed in the breeze. There's a blue plaque on the buildings, commemorating driver John Axon and guard John Creamer, who died in a collision at the station in 1957. Axon was driving a train whose brakes failed, but rather than abandon the vehicle to plunge down the line, he stayed on board to try and slow it down; it crashed into the rear of another train and killed him and Creamer. Axon was awarded the George Cross posthumously for his bravery and his dedication.
I exited the station at the end, where a footpath crosses the tracks and disappears into the woods, and followed the road down the hill. The station's a fair way from the town - it's a fair way from anything, in fact.
A hailstorm suddenly whirled up from nowhere, battering me to pieces and forcing me to shelter by a hedge so I could pull up the zip on my coat. The road from the station curved lazily, taking its time to get down the slope, and running parallel to a second railway line on the way. It's a freight line that branches off from the Sheffield line, and between here and Buxton it intertwines with the passenger line, threading over and under like a knotted rope.
About halfway down the hill - at roughly the point where I wondered if the road would ever end - I realised I hadn't taken a picture of the platform sign. I'd assumed there would be a proper, British Rail sign on the main road, but that was before I knew there was an endless march from the station to humanity. It could be like many of the stations I'd found on the Settle & Carlisle, and been unmarked. I weighed it up: the tedious trudge back up the way I'd come to take a photo I might not need, or a gamble that I'd find what I wanted at the bottom. I gambled, mainly through laziness, but partly because I'm never happy with a platform sign anyway.
I passed the Chapel Camp Site - a field with a single solitary caravan in it - then under a stone railway bridge and down towards the main road. Huzzah! A station sign! Which in retrospect was absolutely necessary, because otherwise, you'd have no idea it was there.
I decided not to explore the town itself, and instead turned east along Meadow Lane for the walk to my next station. I crossed a bridge over a raging hill stream, angrily bashing at the riverbed and careening over rocks, and then began the steady climb upwards. The town receded into the distance as I got further into the national park.
I don't know if you were aware, but the Peak District is actually quite hilly. I was walking up an incredibly steep gradient, one that forced me to gasp for air and made my forehead burst out in rivulets of perspiration. I had to keep pausing for breath, clambering into a hedge so that I wasn't just stood on the tarmac where a passing HGV could swat me like an insect.
As I got higher, the skies turned blue, the hailstorm of earlier forgotten and a new wave of warmer weather slipping in across the peaks. It was a different world to the greyness of Manchester I'd endured an hour before, getting rained on in back streets and dodging minicabs. It is another of the reasons why I love living in the north - the way you can go from urban sprawl to natural wilderness in a single short journey.
A farmer on a quad bike appeared over the horizon. There was a yellow plastic trailer attached to its rear, and he drove into a field of sheep. Excitedly, obediently, the livestock all ran towards him, and then performed a little conga, following the trail of his quad bike as he dropped feed onto the grass. He hadn't closed the gate behind him, but the sheep were uninterested in escape. They had their eyes on their dinner.
I was heading downhill again now. In the distance I saw the epic scarring of the Cemex quarry, huge white tears in the green landscape. It was on a scale almost unimaginable, great huge terraces torn out of the rock by machines, bluntly fascinating.
The village came up to meet me: the village of Dove Holes. It's not just me, is it, who finds that a singularly unattractive name? I expect it means "a place where doves live, like a dovecot." What it actually sounds like is "bird anuses." Not nice at all. I passed a cul-de-sac of sheltered accommodation and a faded sign for "Dwarf baby bunnies" and found the station at a curve in the road.
I had a choice now. There was a train to Buxton in a few minutes, but I'd been to Buxton before. Alternatively, I could wait a couple of hours on the platform for the train back towards Manchester, and that way I could collect some new stations.
Really, the choice was obvious.
Fitzgerald's Bakery in Buxton was a very odd little cafe for me to while away my lunch in. It had been decorated in a vaguely 21st century style - lots of leather seating and chalk pictures of coffee cups - but at heart it didn't want to be Starbucks; it wanted to be a caff. It was a bit down at heel and scruffy, with a bakery counter that didn't have savoury muffins, but did offer corned beef pasties.
The strangest thing about Fitzgerald's was how silent it was. There was no music in the background, no chatter of Radio One or Two to provide an underscore. There wasn't the noise of industry or the hiss of a cappuccino machine. There wasn't even conversation. My fellow patrons sat in utter silence, occasionally trying to eat their toasties quietly. The staff - two formidable looking middle aged ladies who you sensed had been here since the Falklands War - stood behind the counter, staring out, not working or chatting or doing anything. Just waiting. It was a very strange little place, but the tea was good, and cheap, and the seats were comfortable.
As I walked back to the station a mineral train clattered over the viaduct at the far end of Buxton town centre.
Whaley Bridge has been pleasingly restored. Its station buildings are cleaned up and well-painted, its footbridge is short on rust. There are even railway company crests etched into the glass on the platform buildings, though it's slightly spoiled by the bars over the windows.
Meanwhile, the village itself was a little gem. A busy high street twisted between shops and cafes, with houses looking down on it all. I paused in the car park to take the station picture then went for a bit of a wander.
Of course there's an old red phone box. And of course there was a couple of tempting pubs, and a chip shop that belched delicious fatty smells into the street, and a community noticeboard that was brimming with exciting local events. It was a proper village.
I was heading for the canal. As its name implies, Whaley Bridge was an important crossing point on the River Goyt, and in the late 18th century the Peak Forest Canal was built alongside it to help transport goods from Derbyshire to Cheshire and Lancashire. At Whaley Bridge there's a basin, and a warehouse for storage; this was once accompanied by its own railway, the Cromford and High Peak. This wasn't what we'd recognise as a railway today, more of an iron way to help stock get to the canal more easily, but the wagons were carried by a combination of steam engines and horses. It was a pioneering effort, but nothing remains.
The ducks barrelled across to me hopefully as I circled the canal basin and crossed the bridge to the towpath. A weir fed the water down into the river. For the rest of my walk I was accompanied by the river, a canal, a road and a railway, all squeezed into this narrow gap and taking turns at precedence.
Over the last few weeks the BF and I have been entranced by Great Canal Journeys, the tv programme where Timothy West and Prunella Scales travel over the nation's waterways. They're great company, and it's a quiet, dignified travelogue, not rushing anywhere, as slow as the flow of water. As I walked along the towpath I fully expected the two of them to appear on a barge, guzzling wine and calling each other "skipper" and "mate". If they had turned up, I would probably have been quite embarrassingly fan boy about it. Especially if Sam West was also there in a tight black t-shirt.
Under a new bridge, concrete, metal and stone were illuminated by reflected light to create a magical atmosphere. Even the hammering of traffic over my head couldn't distract me from the flickering flecks of white. It was with great sadness that I came out from under it and realised it was the access road for a hideous white plastic Tesco superstore. They've given up all pretence of being a good neighbour, haven't they? At one point, they'd have built a faux-country barn in this spot, brick walls and a little clock tower, and I'd have hated it for its tweeness but at least it was trying to fit in. This was a box, constructed in a factory and assembled on site, an oblong whose only purpose was to chew you up and swallow your money.
One of the canal boats was for sale - £19,950 o.n.o, with a new bottom plate and a safety certificate until 2016. The BF loves boating - he adores the Norfolk Broads, and we've holidayed there a few times - but I'm not so keen on canals. They're too much like roads for me, always busy, always occupied. I never feel like you can lose yourself and drift on because there's always another person coming up ahead, or walkers on the towpath, or a lock to negotiate (or if you're Timothy West, a lock to send your possibly dementia-suffering wife out to negotiate. Honestly, man, can't you do it yourself? Poor Pru was struggling to push some of those gates open, and all you're doing is standing behind the wheel giving instructions. I love you both, but if Prunella Scales had told him where to stick his skipper hat, I might have cheered).
The houses that backed onto the canal all fell down to the water's edge. They'd built terraces, staircases, rickety docks to carry their gardens down to the canal and to provide little seating areas for hot summer days. Two men passed me, one wearing a map bib, and I decided that I definitely wasn't going to invest in one as they both looked quite the twit and a half. I didn't want to be part of a club that would have people like that as members. In the distance, a Sheffield-bound train tore across the other side of the valley. It's bright colours were alien.
A series of little allotments signalled another village, this time Furness Vale. Some of them had little tin kettles dangling from sticks, ready for emergency cups of tea. I trekked up onto the main road again at a whitewashed bridge, as a man in tight lycra and with an iPod strapped to his arm began his jog along the towpath. He chuffed over and over, like a puffing billy.
The railway station was almost next to the canal, but I carried on into the village. It wasn't as pretty as Whaley Bridge, with a far more business like feel to it. There were industrial units, and an Indian takeaway, and a lot more traffic passing through. On the other hand, it had one of the best named pubs I've ever seen:
Who doesn't love Soldier Dick?
It was getting to late afternoon, so I thought I'd best head back into town. Four stations was a nice little haul anyway. I wandered back down to the station, which straddles a level crossing, with a neat wooden signal box alongside. I'd seen the signalmen changing shifts earlier, one striding out whistling with an empty lunchbox tucked under his arm.
A Buxton-bound train arrived, depositing a few commuters who'd got an early dart, and a few shoppers who'd finished their day, laden with bags from Primark and Marks and Spencer. I sat on the platform and jabbed my hands in my pockets; the weather had changed again, and a wind was whistling along the valley.
The journey back was only slightly marred by a guard on the train who told me, quite firmly, that my Wayfarer ticket wasn't valid outside Manchester. "Yes it is," I replied, feeling myself turning pink. "It's valid out to Buxton."
"Nope," he said, and swung his ticket machine round to the front, ready to flog me a pass I didn't need.
"It is," I hissed. "I've been using it all day." Now, I don't deal well with confrontation at all, and I don't like to argue with authority figures. But if I know I'm right I will defend my position up to and including physical violence. In this case, I knew that dodgy little bit of paper was valid for this entire railway line. I would not be buying another ticket.
I think the cold acid in my voice, the absolute certainty and refusal to compromise, took him by surprise. He decided it wasn't worth arguing. He did a little pantomime with the slip and said, "oh, it's a Wayfarer ticket. I didn't see that. Fair enough."
(Please refer to the pic of the ticket at the top of this blog, the one with the word Wayfarer printed in inch high letters on it. Either he needs a test for cataracts, or he was talking bollocks).
Now that's a good way to end a trip. Not with a bang, not with a spark, but with a feeling of smug self-righteousness.
*I'm paraphrasing, because frustratingly I can't lay my hands on my copy of perhaps the best piece of 1990s comedy series tie in merchandising there is.