Longport is on the Northern Rail map, but it's not of the Northern Rail map. It gets only a very token pair of morning rush hour trains from Northern; for the rest of the day it's East Midlands services only. You suspect that they'd quite like to withdraw the purple trains altogether but those damned Rail Regulators won't let them.
I arrived on an East Midlands train, of course; there was no way I was schlepping all the way to Stoke-on-Trent at 6 am for a Northern train. I'm not completely mad. Instead I turned up in a dinky single carriage train, which is somehow deemed suitable for a Crewe-Derby service. I can't believe that isn't oppressively rammed by Uttoxeter.
The station looked abandoned anyway. The charming Victorian station building, with its pretty curved gable ends, was fenced off and blocked up. There was a "For Sale" sign, but I couldn't see anyone breaking their neck to purchase it. A bypass road meant the station was stranded at the end a back street, by a noisy engineering firm and a series of small terraced houses. It wasn't suitable for conversion into a tea room or restaurant, and the area was too downmarket for a residential development, so it simply rotted away.
Plus, there wasn't a station sign. I had to make do with one on the platform, and you know that really grinds my gears.
All in all, Longport wasn't coming over very well. Emerging onto a screamingly busy main road, with juggernauts pounding above me and the wail of industrial equipment, just added to the dystopian atmosphere. I choked on fumes and sought an escape: a small side path that took me below a bridge and down to a canal.
Suddenly I could breathe again. The angry traffic was still above me, on the bridge, but with the streak of water and trees ahead of me it seemed to be another world. It helped that the factory over the road featured a large brick kiln; visiting the Potteries and finding actual pottery manufacturing equipment was deeply pleasing.
Following the path produced more hints of industrial decay - rusting metal, collapsed walls, sharp spiky fences guarding silent machinery. A digger ground at the hulks of a plant, pulling it apart without precision or mercy. There was an occasional barge on the canal, but they were all tied up.
Then, beyond another bridge, it changed. It was as though the city just hit the "off" switch. I'd reached Westport Lake, a former clay pit turned into a nature reserve. There was no sign of its old life. Instead trees reached into the distance, and swans and geese floated on the surface. A classy-looking visitor centre stood on stilts at the water's edge.
It was a popular site. Cars turned up to disgorge athletic looking pensioners ready for their morning constitutional, and there was a stream of lively dogs being herded along the towpath. I stayed away from the lake itself, following the canal back into industrial land. The factories were newer now, with more metal and chrome. Mysterious pipes crossed from one bank to the other: they wore a necklace of spikes to stop overenthusiastic youths from clambering across.
Under one bridge, half a dozen men were huddled from the lazy rain. It was half-hearted, the kind of weather that was neither wet or dry and that would make my mum exclaim "pee or pass the pot!". Two of the men wore neon vests, and as I got closer, I saw that the others were all a certain type: thick-set, middle aged, sullen, sucking on cigarettes. I sensed a cadre of community service.
By now I had the towpath to myself; I'd moved far enough out of Stoke for it to be a bit of a trek for the casual stroller. The banks were covered with stinging nettles. Now and then, I'd cross a pipe taking away overflowing water from the canal, or pouring a cascade back into it. In the distance, I finally spotted a canal barge, grinding its diesel engine in the distance. It was moving very slowly, and I almost caught up with it.
It was coming in to rest in what looked like a small marina, but was actually a tunnel mouth. The Trent and Mersey canal was diverted into two underground passages at this point, collectively known as the Harecastle Tunnel.
The entrance I could see was the fan house for the newer Telford Tunnel, built in the 1950s. The actual tunnel predates that but the fan building had to be constructed so that diesel barges could pass through without killing their occupiers. The boat that I'd followed along the canal seemed disconcerted by the No Admittance sign; they clearly hadn't planned on loitering in what was literally a backwater.
I took a few pictures then headed out, passing the older Brindley Tunnel on the way. This was the original route through the hill, opened in 1777. It was constructed without a towpath; the bargemen had to lay on their backs on top of the boats and walk their feet along the roof to carry their goods through, an exhausting task carried out in pitch black conditions. It continued to be used for over 120 years, until parts of it began to collapse; for a while attempts were made to keep it in a state of good repair but they finally gave up in the 1960s. Now it's been allowed to quietly fall back into the water.
That distinctive brown colour of the water, incidentally, has been blamed on iron ore leaking through the Brindley Tunnel. There's a school of thought which has suggested planting reed beds to clear it up; there's another one which says it should be left as a relic of our industrial heritage. Needless to say, neither side is currently winning the argument.
I had to walk up onto the road for a while, so I braced myself for the usual trudge through along a grass verge at the side of a country lane. However, the road was surprisingly well appointed. It glistened with new tarmac, and there was a footpath and a bus shelter. It seemed strangely urban for such a remote spot.
I found the reason for all this investment round the next corner. A giant green alien spaceship, squatting in the middle of the countryside.
JCB are a Staffordshire firm, and I'd stumbled on their new distribution centre. It was a great building. It's hard to design this kind of facility without it looking like a big square box: we've all seen ugly crates by the side of motorways and railway lines. JCB had gone with something more elegant, with white curves rising up out of the ground and spreading to form the roof. The wooden offices, the small ponds and pathways, even the shades of green spoke of a company that was sliding into the landscape as a partner instead of an invader. It would have been easy for them to have plastered it in JCB yellow for corporate consistency, but instead they'd been sympathetic.
I crossed the road and entered Bathpool Park, just as the Council workers were emptying the bins in the car park. I was following a path that danced around the railway line; indeed, I'd seen the route from the train and thought "I hope that's not the way I'm going". It was just a bit dull. The path was plain black tarmac, handy for cyclists, boring as hell to walk on, and the desire to create a "wild" environment meant that for a long time I was trapped between trees and a fence.
Still, it was quiet and traffic free, so I shouldn't complain. At one point the route was blocked by a British Gas van. The men were having a tea break - obviously - and the youngest one was telling a story with hand gestures and tongue rolling. I'm not sure what he was talking about but, judging by the lewd hip thrusting, I'm guessing it wasn't his night at the opera.
The park opened up after that, with a wide lake that had already attracted anglers. Another sport I don't understand; if you want to sit by the lake, feel free. You don't need to rip open a fish's gullet as well.
Walkers were strolling by. One woman scared the heck out of me by suddenly plunging out of the undergrowth on her jog, her headphones leaving her blithely unaware that she wasn't alone. I walked past sports pitches, and scenic bridges, and those cast iron workout machines that give you a little training regime without the gym fees. Much to my humiliation, there was a doughy lady in her fifties working up a sweat on one of them, while her husband watched. I kept my head down and feigned a limp.
Further on, a ruddy faced country type was sat on a bench, taking in the picturesque view. "G'morning," he called to me as I passed. "Hiya!" I replied, because apparently I'm Antony Cotton.
The park ended, and I emerged into leafy Kidsgrove. I'd thought this trip would take a while, but it looked like I'd powered my way through and I'd be able to get the earlier train. It meant I missed out on a wander round the town, which was a shame, because it was about as different from Longport as it was possible to get. It was as though I'd passed through a Stargate and emerged in another universe.
The houses were large, the trees were plentiful, the cars were exclusive. Kidsgrove might be in Staffordshire but its heart belongs to Cheshire. I passed a Job Centre - which was empty - and a couple of pleasant looking tea rooms. I had a bit of a stare at a hairdressing salon, trying to work out what letters were missing from its sign, before I realised it said "Cut To A T". I may have been a bit tired after all that walking.
The station was tucked behind the main road, past a teenage couple canoodling in a doorway. There was a bridge over the canal; it turns out this is where the Harecastle Tunnel emerges. If it had a towpath along its length I could have saved myself a fair amount of time. Of course, I probably would have plunged into the water and drowned because there aren't any lights, or I'd been gassed by a diesel engine, but that's beside the point. I was pleased to see that there was rust coloured water here too. I hope they don't install those reed beds.
The station sign was also on the bridge, though at least it was a proper totem one this time. Another sign that Kidsgrove is a bit classier than Longport.
Its station building is a lot less lovely though. The line was electrified as part of the West Coast Main Line and an unlovely concrete and brick building was put up to symbolise the brave new world. It was promptly ignored for forty years, and now it's a peeling edifice with little charm or beauty. Practical but uninspiring. It gets a sole point for those BR symbols embedded into the front.
I'd already passed through here once before: Kidsgrove is a junction, where the Stoke-Manchester line deviates from the Stoke-Crewe line. It spreads across four platforms, a wide open space that's far bigger than it needs to be.
It was now about four hours since I'd left home, and I'd managed to collect two stations. Over the course of the next five hours, I'd collect another eight. That's just odd.