The railway doesn't so much pass through Congleton as skim its outer reaches. It's a testament to the arrogance of Victorian railway builders: stick a station a mile out of town in pre-car days and it doesn't matter - people will still use it. No point in building expensive viaducts and buying up property for demolition if you don't have to. They were right, of course, but it means that Congleton station is in the wrong place. Instead of being at the heart of the market town it's flung out amongst 1980s houses and a bypass.
It was pleasant enough, even if it had received an unwanted 1960s rebuild. There was a volunteer refilling the flower beds while I was there. The goods shed had been turned into a bathroom showroom. I trekked up to the main road for the sign pic.
I was now left with a quandry about what to do. The next station along the line was Macclesfield, but that was ten miles away; there wasn't much point in trudging all that way (there used to be a station inbetween, North Rode, but it closed in 1962, robbing me of the opportunity to visit Big Dogbottom Wood). There was an hour until the next train, which would just about give me enough time to walk into Congleton town centre, have a brief look around, then turn back. Not much point really.
If you don't know what I actually did, you must be a new reader.
Well, the Queen's Head was right there. It would have been rude not to. I sat in a corner with my pint of bitter while the manageress distributed Cheshire magazines around the bar. I got the feeling she was trying to drive the pub upmarket, but was fighting a losing battle. It was hard to take her aspirations at elegance seriously when the pub jukebox was playing some kind of England supporter's song and Chuck Berry's My Ding-a-Ling.
The man at the next table leaned over to me. "When was this released?" he asked.
"Seventies sometime, wasn't it?"
"Must've been. It was really popular." He gazed off into the distance, remembering. "Absolute shit."
Pint inside me, I crossed back over the road to the station. Perhaps it was the alcohol, but I had to take a moment to appreciate Congleton's station manager, Julie, and in particular, her fierce scarf. Looking at her photograph I could imagine exactly what her front room looked like.
It's ironic because if there's one thing you can't call Macclesfield, it's cheap. This is the glittering heart of Cheshire, its rhinestone encrusted soul. It's ridiculously rich, even if its station is ridiculously cheap. I guess most Macclesfieldians (Macclesfieldites?) don't use public transport.
Heading down to the main road for the sign pic, I got a sudden flashback to the last time I'd come to Macclesfield. It was to perform my last act as an employee of Cheshire East Council; I came here to sign my redundancy papers. I'd sat alone in a little office, waiting for my turn, anxious and tired. But when I signed that bit of paper I felt the happiest I'd been in months. It means Macclesfield will always have a fond spot in my heart.
I crossed the road and clambered up the ridiculously steep hill towards the town centre - seriously, it's about 1 in 2. Plus it's cobbled. Cobbles belong in two places only: (a) Coronation Street and (b) Catherine Cookson novels. Everywhere else they're a pain to walk on, especially when they've had a light splattering of rainwater and they're on a near-vertical slope.
Still, it afforded me a valuable glimpse into the town's retail offering. Estate agents, hair salons, a Scandinavian food and drink bar, "Bathery - a Natural Handmade Bath and Body Boutique". Even the Games Workshop looked classy. There wasn't so much as a sniff of Poundland.
By taking this route into the pedestrianised heart, I was missing out on the real jewel in Macclesfield's retail crown, the legendary Arrighi Bianchi. It's a converted mill that houses a huge collection of furniture and homeware, and is quite the destination for the North West's WAGs. The BF and I visited it about a decade ago, when we were looking for a new sofa; we thought we'd try it out as surely somewhere that expensive would mean good quality. It turns out that really rich people have terrible taste in sofas. We couldn't find anything that wasn't gaudy, overpriced or over-decorated. Everything was over the top and horrific, proving that no matter how much money you have, class is not for hire. We ended up going to Marks and Spencer's.
It occurred to me that Macclesfield is what Chester thinks it is. Chester's built a reputation as this historic, elegant city, but look a bit closer and you'll spot the holes in its facade. Yes, it has the walls and the Cathedral and the Roman ruins, but as a place to live, it's a bit down at heel. Its reputation turns to dust the minute you wander into the charity and pound shops of Frodsham Street, or you spot the horrific bus exchange, or the mess of down at heel, collapsing buildings along Brook Street. Macclesfield is rich and elegant and pretty without even trying.
I left the town centre, past the moneyed playing fields of the King's School, and into a small estate of old people's flats. There was a side path, muddy from the rain, that took me down to the River Bollin and the Riverside Park.
It was another park carved out beneath the railway line, but this had a much more organic, much more loose feel than Bathpool Park. It should have been worse - electricity pylons crackled overhead, and the paths were less tidy - but it all felt like a more pleasant place to be. The river helped, wide but not deep, trickling over the stones beside me and providing a tinkling soundtrack. Now and then I'd hear the shimmer of the electric cables on the railway line, a gentle hiss that rose upwards, followed by the bang! of a fast train powering by. The whoosh of ten carriages slicing through the afternoon, and then the power lines shook themselves still again.
Through a gate, and the park opened itself up into a wide meadow, dotted with buttercups. I'd had a few fellow walkers before, all of them headed towards town, but now I was on my own. There was a church spire in the distance, acting as a triangulation point. I followed the path away from the stream, striding across the grass, listening to my annoyingly squeaky boots.
A herd of cows made me pause. I love cows, as I've said many times; their big eyes, their slow trudge, their docile nature. These cows were accompanied by a couple of bulls, however, with long lethal looking horns curling out of their foreheads. I approached tentatively. I wasn't sure what the procedure was with bulls: are you meant to run if they charge you, or stand your ground? There were a few trees that I suppose I could shimmy up, if I were, say, Tarzan and not a porky 37 year old who couldn't even climb the ropes in PE at school.
A few of the cows looked up as I got closer, but the bulls didn't pay me any attention. I don't know what was so special about the grass they were eating but damn, they seemed to be enjoying it, and a passing walker wasn't going to interrupt their meal. Even if he was wearing a red t-shirt.
One kissing gate later and I was in a small copse of trees, pushing wayward branches out of my way and skipping over puddles. I checked Google Maps as I walked. I really should have been at Prestbury by now; it was starting to look touch and go whether I'd make it in time for the train, leaving me with another hour to kill. I'd got that spare hour thanks to getting to Kidsgrove early, but I liked having it in reserve.
After a minor encounter with a greyhound, who stared at me as I approached ("She's looking for your dog," explained the owner, with the understated question of "why are you in these woods WITHOUT a dog?") I stepped out into a cul-de-sac on the edge of Prestbury village. 1970s houses built for commuters, they were all sharp angles and windows in strange places, grouped around greens with No Ball Games signs. Why give the kids a green and then tell them they can't play football on it? That's just cruel.
The village centre was far more pleasing, whitewashed restaurants and pubs and shops threaded along a quiet lane. I reflected that, yes, this might be quite a nice place to live, all told. I suddenly saw why Wayne Rooney moved out into Cheshire rather than staying in Croxteth. I passed a couple of small hotels, discreetly tucked behind tall hedges and built for illicit weekends, and finally stumbled on Prestbury station.
Red faced and sweaty. Not a great look.
I'd actually made it with a couple of minutes to spare, so there was time to snap a picture of the Prestbury owl. Owls are a bit creepy, aren't they? Or is that just because I watched too much Twin Peaks?
The platforms were in a hollow beneath the road, with black and white painted waiting shelters and two giggling teenage girls waiting for an afternoon trip to Manchester. The mouth of the Prestbury Tunnel yawned at us as the electric Northern train slid into place.
There are two Adlington stations. Adlington (Lancashire), out near Chorley, I collected last December. I could cross Adlington (Cheshire) off my list as well.
I was now faced with an uninspiring stroll along a busy A-road for the next half an hour or so. I missed my iPod. I've mislaid my headphones, and it's hard just walking along accompanied by your own thoughts. Sometimes I need the distraction.
The rain started up again; I experimented with the hood on my new coat and found it was ridiculously huge. It hung right down over my eyes, making me look like the universe's tallest Jawa. When the wind got caught up in it again, I gave up, and just let the top of my head get drenched. A series of signs, jammed in the grass verge, advertised the upcoming Adlington Summer Festival; one had MICHAEL JACKSON in big letters then underneath, in a much smaller font, tribute. I think the last word was pretty unnecessary, what with the King of Pop being dead and all. Even if he had been resurrected I doubt he'd pick an English village fete for his comeback gig.
There was a brief moment of excitement as I passed the Swizzles-Matlow distribution centre; Swizzles are one of the few sweets I love unreservedly. Every Hallowe'en I buy one of those tubs full of Drumstick lollies, Love Hearts, and Refreshers, and gorge myself. I know they're meant for trick or treaters, but I object to that horrible American import on principle, so the local children can whistle. (Obviously I throw the Parma Violets away - I'm not a fool).
I was entering Poynton now. There was an antiques centre, and one of the ugliest Wetherspoons I have ever seen - it was like a shed made out of tin. A local estate agent had changed its For Sale boards so they looked like the cross of St George and had Come on England! across the top; I can safely say this is the worst thing to happen in this country since the Black Death. In the village centre the roadway had been raised to the same level as the pavement and a sign said This is a shared space village - please give way to all. I applaud the principle of shared spaces, but you'd have to be a particularly bloody minded pedestrian to go wandering across a double roundabout.
I turned left. There was a long, tree-lined road out to the railway station. I got a small giggle out of the sign for the Chester Road Dental Surgery: the two partners were listed differently on either side, with each of them getting top billing. It's a dentists, ladies, not the poster for The Towering Inferno.
I found Poynton station down a side road. It's another Victorian delight, and in rather better condition than some of its cousins. I loved the tile work, and the stained glass windows, even if they were covered with mesh to stop vandalism.
The station's clearly been adopted by some very keen volunteers, who've restored a lot of the features. There's a pretty garden on one of the platforms, and the doors are marked with heritage signs - "Booking Hall", "Lamp Room", "Station Master".
It was an appropriate way to end my passage through Cheshire, with a loved station in a wealthy village. For the remainder of the day I'd be in Greater Manchester, and I doubted things would be quite so charming.